“A man could sift through all of Creation and never find so much as a speck of this elusive thing called the greater good. Like all the most dangerous altars, it is entirely of our own raising.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand
“It looks like you shoved the stump in a fire,” Fadila Mbafeno sighed.
That was, in fact, exactly what Hakram had done. Blood loss could kill even Named, and while pushing a fresh stump into a hearth fire until the flesh cauterized had been excruciatingly painful it’d still been better than dying in a ratty Laure tavern. Masego’s assistant – and nominal head of the Observatory in his absence – had promptly answered the summons after he returned to the palace, and begun to work on healing his wound without quibbling. There were other mages in the capital, of course, and many priests. But Fadila was Praesi, and that had decided his choice of healer. The Soninke had been raised to understand the value of discretion and not inquiring in the affairs of one’s social superiors. The dark-skinned woman leaned closer with a silvery scalpel in hand, cutting slightly into the burned flesh at the end of his stump. No pain, he noted, though that might simply be because he’d grown light-headed enough he no longer felt it. The blade came away red and the sorceress washed it in a bowl of clear water before wiping with a cloth.
“I’ll need to cut away the burnt flesh before healing the damage beneath,” she informed him. “Healing is not my specialty and burns are trickier than most wounds. Pouring magic into scorched flesh tends to have… unpredictable results.”
“Do as you see fit,” Adjutant gravelled. “I will defer to your judgement.”
She nodded in appreciation.
“You’ve lost a large amount of blood,” Fadila added. “I’d recommend poultry, fish and red meat – which are staples of your people’s diets, regardless. Orcs lack the most the issues involved in human blood transfusions, so it’s certainly possible if you want to accelerate recovery, but my understanding is that local mores frown upon those kinds of rituals.”
“It won’t be necessary,” Hakram simply said.
The full consequences of his actions must be played out, lest the gesture be robbed of some of its weight. She did not question his answer, as she had not lingered on the subject of reattaching the hand after he’d declined. The Soninke passed her knife under open flame to cleanse it, and then set to the methodical business of prying away the burnt flesh on his stump before healing it. The spell she used for that purpose, he did not recognize. The sorceress used no incantation, and the shape and colour of the magic were different than that used by the Legions of Terror. The pain returned quick enough, a deep ugly throb, and Hakram only then realized she’d discretely numbed his nerves before her early examination. Kind of the Lady Mbafeno, he thought. The title occasionally tossed in the foreigner’s direction by servants and court officials was a source of mild amusement to him, he could privately admit. It was a Callowan courtesy title, one that would likely have gotten her killed if she’d claimed it while still in the employ of a Wasteland patron – it would have denoted the kind of ambitions Praesi aristocrats disliked finding in their subordinates.
Fadila Mbafeno had, after all, once been mfuasa to the Sahelians. Servant blood, it meant, a distinction between commoners and those retainers directly in the service of the nobility. Hakram had studied her background in some detail, as it happened. After Masego had snatched her from the gallows and placed her in his service, Catherine had rather bluntly told the orc that if Fadila was a risk she would be getting into an ‘accident’ as soon as feasible. The investigation had led to an interesting look at Praesi customs, particularly pertaining mages. Sorcery and political power had been intertwined in the Wasteland since long before the Miezans ever made shore on Calernia, in Praes more than any other region. The lords high and low had bred sorcery into their lines with methodical precision, bringing talented mages into the fold whenever it seemed like the blood thinned, but those were ultimately limited arrangements. Both Soninke and Taghreb saw more mages born than any other human ethnicity on the continent, which meant it was effectively impossible for the nobles to keep the practice of sorcery entirely within their own ranks.
Adjutant had read the appropriate treatises, back in the College, and so he was aware that most people born with the Gift either never realized they had it or died young after an uncontrolled or untrained use of sorcery. Another significant portion had too little talent to be able to practice sorcery beyond a few tricks without extensive tutoring, though when born to wealthy families such types made up the backbone of alchemists and academics in the Empire. It was the smaller portion that had a Gift strong enough for ritual or combat sorcery that had the High Lords and their vassals regularly sifting through their subjects. The treatment those ‘lucky’ few received varied from region to region. Taghreb, as a rule, treated them like a sort of lesser nobility and created mage lines within their territories that could be called on when there was need for war or marriage. Soninke, as in most things, proved too complex to easily generalize. The policies of Okoro and Nok tended towards bringing agreeable mages into the fold as mfuasa and those judged unreliable forced into service with the local noble’s household troops. The stubborn and the runners disappeared.
Aksum was the most traditionally hard-line, with any mages not leashed or wedded unceremoniously slain before they could become an issue. Akua Sahelian’s own father, famously, had been born with enough talent he could be a threat even as a servant and no spare relative to wed him to. He’d had to flee the region with killers after him, finding refuge in Wolof. The line to which Fadila had once been sworn to, and the last of the great Soninke cities. Wolof was a centre of sorcery rival to Ater itself, and had remained so for millennia by investing heavily in raising and training mages. It was well known to ‘acquire’ mages from other regions in difficult situations, but Fadila had been born in the city and so fallen under the aegis of its internal policies. Like all children with promising magical talent, she’d been taken from her family while young, the parents being offered a lump sum as redress for the loss of a child, and trained at the High Lady’s expense until she reached the age of twelve. Young mages who made it that far – not a given, the mortality rate was one in three – were assigned permanent service to either the Sahelians or one of their vassal families, a highly politicked process that the ruling family of Wolof used to both reward and slight their subordinates.
The loyal got rising talents, the troublesome only the dregs.
Fadila herself had been judged of sufficient prowess to enter the service of the Sahelians themselves, and cultivated as mfuasa to the family. She’d known Diabolist socially but never been in her personal circle, and been considered a likely fit for a teaching or research position after she spent a decade or two fighting as a combat mage for her masters. Her talent as both a ritualist and a theoretician had been noted in Praesi circles – she’d made some waves after proving it was possible to forge a weak artificial sympathetic link in scrying tools – and that reputation was likely the reason Diabolist had picked her as a retainer when she set out to engineer the Doom of Liesse. The amount of work required in turning an entire city into a runic array would have been massive, and she was a natural fit for Akua Sahelian to delegate the lesser tasks to. It was fortunate, Hakram often thought, that she’d been snatched from Diabolist’s service before she could serve that purpose. How much faster would the Doom of Liesse have come, with such a helper?
“There,” Fadila said, placing her silver knife back into the water. “That is as much as I can do. Should you change your mind about reattaching the hand, it will be necessary to cut off a sliver of the stump and a degree of functionality will be lost. In case you were unaware, limb reattachment attempted more than ten hours after the loss has at most a one in four chance of success. I can’t speak for what Lord Hierophant would be capable of, naturally, or even Callowan priests. Their methods are largely beyond my understanding.”
“Duly noted,” Hakram replied, gaze turning to the stump.
His dead flesh had been carved off, piece by piece, and instead thin green skin now covered his wrist. Almost thin as a human’s, he thought, though it would thicken in time.
“Be careful with it, it’s fragile even by human standards,” the sorceress said. “As it happens, the flesh reached full saturation during the process. I won’t be able to touch it again for at least two days, and after that only minor touch-ups. It would be ideal if you could avoid puncturing the skin for a full month.”
“I’ll be careful with it,” Adjutant said, and blinked.
He’d been trying to move fingers that no longer existed, he realized. That would be an adjustment.
“Thank you, Lady Mbafeno,” he finally said. “That will be all.”
“It was my pleasure, Lord Adjutant,” she respectfully replied.
She gathered her affairs and bowed before leaving. She might not have seen the Wasteland in years now, but the manners remained with her. The angle of the bow had been the one court etiquette dictated as required for a High Lord of Praes. Though he found himself in a thoughtful mood, Hakram did not linger in the private room he’d requisitioned for the treatment. This business, after all, was not quite done. His conversation with Thief had been interrupted by the woman’s obvious horror at his actions, worsened when he addressed the bleeding with cauterization through the tavern’s hearth fire. That was not entirely unexpected. He’d given it better than half odds they would have to take recess while the wound was properly seen to, when deciding his course of action. Hakram usually slept in his office, whenever he could spare time for slumber, but he did have personal rooms of his own in the palace. Amusingly enough, they had once been those of the queen consorts of Callow – he was not certain whether Catherine was unaware of the fact or simply indifferent, though an alternative might be that she knew and it was actually her sardonic sense of humour at work. Regardless, they were the rooms closest to her own. He’d been rather touched by the implications of that, though he still used them only rarely.
Thief would not come to him in his office, he knew. It was, in her eyes, the seat of his power. It was also where he kept his axe, and Vivienne preferred him unarmed when she could stomach to see him at all. A place where he could be expected to go but where his presence was lightly felt would be the most appropriate setting for the last part of their exchange, and so the orc did not waste time dawdling before heading for his quarters. He’d felt eyes on him the moment he passed the threshold of the healing room and twice more while on his way, and so it was no surprise that Thief awaited him inside when he opened the door. Her informants must have been tracking him all the way to here. The personal quarters of the queen consorts of Callow had been luxurious even before Laure and its royal palace fell under the rule of Wastelanders whose own nobility was known to be ostentatious to almost absurd extents. The orc had stripped away most of the decorations, though the furniture itself had been of very good make and so remained intact. The only luxury he’d occasionally partaken in was the large balcony outside overlooking a garden, the closest to a spot of green he’d been able to find in this city. It was there that Thief was awaiting.
She looked small and thin, sitting on an open windowsill and bathed in moonlight. Even for a human. Catherine was shorter, but like her teacher she had enough presence it was barely noticeable when looking at her. Vivienne Dartwick’s hair had grown longer, he noticed once more. Hakram did not allow his eyes to linger – his attention would only have worsened whatever issue lay behind that fact – but he’d noticed when it first began. Before the departure for Keter, and for it to have been noticeable even back then it must have started slightly earlier. Namelore was a muddle of imprecisions and exceptions, he knew, but where there was an effect there would be a cause. If, as Catherine insisted, the appearance of a Named was a reflection of how they saw themselves then such changes in Thief were a warning sign as to her mental state. Worrying, considering her influence and formal charge over the only spy network Callow possessed. Vivienne would not need to rebel to damage the kingdom, only withhold key information at a crucial moment. Or, more likely in his eyes, simply leave. The hole that would make would be a crippling blow to a kingdom that’d effectively begun being raised from the ground up a mere two years ago.
“Adjutant,” she said, flicking a glance at him. “At least you had enough sense to see a mage.”
“I would have survived it,” he simply said.
Moving slowly, he came at her side. Large as the open window was, there would be no accommodating the both of them if he wished to sit with her. Instead he simply rested his elbows on the windowsill, leaning forward. Though he did not turn to watch, he felt her eyes looking down at the stump. Good. There had been, he’d realized early, no real chance any words from his lips could sway her. She distrusted him too much. Catherine could have a fireside chat with a stranger for half an hour and have the come out willing to murder in her name, but that had never been one of his talents. He could ease and turn currents, but not birth them. It was important for a Named to recognize their limitations, he believed. The costs of arrogance were so much higher for them than anyone else. Knowing that, Hakram had been forced to make a decision. Simply allowing things to unfold as they were was not to be seriously considered. The longer Thief was allowed to consolidate her power – and she already was, by bringing the informants who’d once answered to Ratface under her banner – the costlier her defection or betrayal would become. It might have been possible to draw the matter out until Catherine returned, if he’d had a precise notion of when she would, but he did not. That left killing her before she became an issue or finding a way to stem her doubts.
“The very devise of the Woe,” Thief murmured, eyes leaving his absent hand. “We will survive. It smacks more of desperation than valour.”
“Valour is the game of the winning side,” Hakram replied. “If you can afford to worry about appearances, it’s not a war to the death. We’ve known precious little else.”
“There comes a time when those excuses grow thin, Adjutant,” she said. “I was taught as a child that dark circumstances are a test of character. That the righteous rise above, that the wicked sink.”
“I was taught as a child that killing a man for a goat was glorious affair, if done on an open field,” he said. “We are more than our first lessons. We have to, or we’ll only ever be what our ancestors were before us.”
“There is worth in old lessons,” Thief said. “In old wisdom.”
“If they were so wise,” Hakram mildly said, “why did we inherit such a debacle of a world from them?”
She went still.
“Those ways kept Callow free for millennia,” she said.
“They failed, in the end,” the orc said, not unkindly.
“To the Carrion Lord,” Thief replied. “How often does Praes spawn a man like that? Calamity was the right name for his band. The kind of catastrophe born once a few centuries.”
“Even before him, this kingdom was the battlefield of the continent,” Hakram said. “Praes invaded every other decade, Procer whenever the stars were right. How often has this land truly known peace?”
“We have brought many things to Callow, Hakram Deadhand,” the Thief soberly said. “Peace was not one of them.”
“I am told,” he said, “that births are rarely gentle affairs.”
“And what are we birthing?” she said. “There has been more martial law than actual law, over the last two years. We’ve assassinated and hanged, sacrificed thousands to make deals and still we tremble in the Tower’s shadow. At what point, Adjutant, does a justification become an excuse?”
“We have also fed the starving,” Hakram said. “Sheltered the lost. We’ve built a kingdom and reclaimed its border. The good may not erase the bad, but the bad does not erase the good.”
“And yet I wonder,” Thief said. “Could others have done what we did, without the costs? Without compromising who they were?”
“If there were such people out there, they have not come,” Hakram said. “You compare yourself to ghosts of your own making.”
“We’re not the best, but we’re what there is,” she bitterly said. “I’ve said that myself. To others, and while facing the mirror. That too grows thin with the repeating. Gods, if those people had come I have to ask – would we have killed them? Did we, before they ever came into themselves?”
“If they could not face us-”
“They couldn’t face Malicia,” Thief sharply said. “Or Cordelia Hasenbach, or her heroes, or the Carrion Lord. I know, Gods damn you. I know. And I know, too, that I might as well be shouting into the void when I say this but it needs to be said anyway: we are not the lesser evil. Not anymore, when we seek to make pacts with the fucking Dead King and move armies like pieces on a board for diplomatic gains. The only difference between us and the old evils is that we’re newer at this game and nowhere as good. That isn’t a distinction to be proud of.”
And there was the rub, for Hakram had known this kind of talk before and never put much stock in it. He’d spoken with Juniper, once, and I her own blunt way she’d laid bare the heart of it. Callowans looked at knights and saw chivalry, honour and all those other virtues. Orcs looked at knights and saw killers on horses. Vivienne had championed causes, one after the other, that had been put aside in the name of necessity. Yet they were not unworthy, none of them. She felt discarded and ignored because, frankly, she had been. Her only victories had come by the planning of others, used as a cog in a greater machinery. Hakram rather enjoyed such a role. It was what he’d been taught, what he was good at. But he stood certain of his worth outside that boundary, and Vivienne Dartwick did not.
They had to start listening to her.
Not because they would lose her if they did not, but because she was right – or at least not entirely wrong. They’d all flocked to Catherine’s banner because they liked the world she wanted to make, that she made just by being who she was. And Thief, in her own way, was perhaps the most ardent partisan of that. Because she would stick by that vision even when Catherine did not, even if it made her the only objector in a council. An obstacle instead of a speaker, as she’d put it herself. How many of those councils had been true debates, instead of a confirmation of a decision already made? Too few, Adjutant thought. Too few for what we want to be. He could feel her eyes returned to his stump, and knew the bargain had been worth it. The lessons had been learned well. Are we not all your students, Catherine? In our own winding ways. You taught us that there is always a way through, if we’re willing to bleed. Words would not convince Thief, but now every time doubt came she could look at the stump and know, know beyond doubt, that she had been judged worthy.
More useful a thing than a handful of fingers.
“So tell me,” Adjutant said. “How we can be different.”
Her gaze met his, hesitant. Fearing. Assessing. Hope was always a most tempting cup to drink from, even when you knew the chalice might be poisoned.
Vivienne Dartwick spoke, under pale moonlight, and Hakram Deadhand listened.