“Blood sacrifice is such an ugly term. I prefer to think of it a ‘blood redistribution’, a thriving new form of Imperial enterprise.”
– Dread Empress Sinistra II, the Coy
“One hundred and sixty years, subjected to the full breadth of lesser and greater oaths,” Akua said.
The nisi at her side, a one-eyed drow named Centon, repeated her words in Crepuscular loudly enough all those assembled below would hear them. Nearly seven hundred drow were seated respectfully on their knees, packed tightly on the cavern floor, but they were the most orderly crowd I’d ever seen. That many humans in a room would carry out hushed conversations among each other, even if there was a devil looking over them, and neither orcs nor goblins were very different. Goblins, in fact, might try to talk with the bloody devil. Not a single one of the drow had so much as let out a grunt except when bidding. The difference here, I thought, was cultural. Most surface people had an expectation they would not have their throat cut on a whim, while drow had lived their whole lives under a different set of unspoken rules. Life was the cheapest form of currency in the Everdark. Centon’s words were not followed by another bid, though in truth I’d not expected one. One hundred and sixty years was fairly high for a rylleh. A sigil-holder’s corpse could easily fetch as much as five centuries, but then it came with the understanding that a drow harvesting that much Night should easily be capable of living that long.
Diabolist and I both knew why the bidding for lesser corpses had risen. After it’d been made clear that titles like the one bestowed upon Ivah would only ever be considered for people who’d fought under me and sworn the full breadth of oaths, interest in even the lesser Mighty had significantly increased. The most ambitious among the dzulu wanted to be worth bringing along for the fight when we hit Great Lotow, judging the comprehensive oaths an acceptable shackle if it could lead to that greater ultimate payoff. The Lord of Silent Steps had made something of an impression when it’d gone through the upper ranks of the Trovod like a hot knife through butter, and the lingering tales of that had led to regular polite inquiries on the subject of titles from both dzulu and the occasional nisi.
“Then Sekoran may rise to take the oaths, and this auction has come to an end,” Akua said, after the silence continued for a full sixty heartbeats. “You may disperse.”
Centon translated her words, and without a sound the drow below us knelt forward until their foreheads touched the floor. Not one rose before the winner – named Sekoran, apparently – was climbing up. They left in orderly files after that, neither jostling nor hurrying. Even though I’d made it clear that as far as I was concerned all of their kind were equal under my rules, the nisi still allowed the dzulu to leave ahead of them while expressing deference through tilts of the head lowering their gaze to the floor and presenting their neck. It meant, Akua had told me, that the nisi in question were offering their life and Night for harvest should their social superior wish it. Mostly a courtesy, as nisi were communal property of the sigil and not to be touched unless allowed by the sigil-holder, but here in the outer rings those customs were more loosely kept to. When the difference in power between rylleh and sigil-holder was thin, order tended to break down and killing nisi was often used as statement of rising or descending influence. The drow, I’d learned, made the Praesi fondness intrigue and blood sport look positively mild in comparison. Sekoran climbed up the rocky outcropping that’d served as our seat for the auction with poorly-hidden eagerness.
It was young, though it was hard to tell with drow. Sekoran did lack the kind of agelessly young look most Mighty had, though, its features still soft and lacking the harsh angles of a mature drow. The lifespan of their species was a headache and a half to understand. It was known that those who held no Night save that which they were born to would live exactly sixty years, much too clear-cut a lifespan to be natural. They called it the Three Faces: drow reached maturity at twenty and began their decline at forty, their bodies breaking down over those last twenty years until death took them at the exact age of sixty. Dzulu, like Sekoran’s silver-touched eyes betrayed he was, could expect to live over a hundred years old. It was unheard of for even the lowest of the Mighty to die of old age, but some of the worst monsters in the inner ring were alleged to have lived over a millenium. The kid bowed after finishing the climb, first towards me then towards Akua. It allowed Centon to speak to it with contemptuous patience, though more than once I caught it glancing at the banner at my side while the nisi spoke. It’d made an impression, as it’d been meant to.
Drow did not take oaths, or make them, and so a few of the first dzulu to secure a corpse in the auction had treated their word a little too lightly. Three, to be precise. They’d tried to slay other drow under my banner, or hurt them. Their hideously twisted and frozen corpses had been hung from the long metal pole at my side, dangling softly back and forth. I’d not had to lift so much as a finger to see them die. The oaths had seen to that, the sliver of Winter I’d put inside them devouring their bodies from the inside the moment they acted in a manner breaking their word. The Night they’d taken was still there, stirring as they dangled.
They’d started taking the oaths seriously after that.
“It is ready for the ceremony,” Akua said, breaking me out of my thoughts.
I glanced at the shade and nodded. She’d helped me with both the ritual and the wording of the oaths, putting her extensive experience with diabolism to slightly more acceptable use. As a sorcerous discipline, diabolism was as much about wordcraft as it was rituals: a binding could be technically flawless and still turn out to be completely worthless if there was a loophole in the protections it carried. There was a reason Praesi preferred summoning lesser devils when they could get away with it: the risks rose sharply when the devil was capable of thought. I’d agreed that making the oaths in Lower Miezan would be to our advantage, since neither of us mastered Crespuscular well enough to be able to understand all the nuances – or, to be frank, trusted any of our translators enough to let them shape the oaths in our stead. Centon would translate the words as well as it could, but the oaths and answers would be in my own native tongue. The ritual tools involved were, to Akua’s open despair, rather crude and simple. A sharp obsidian knife, unadorned save for the leather grip, and a rough bowl of sandstone. More than once I’d caught her complaining under her breath that only a Callowan would ‘try to subvert an entire civilization with kitchen utilities’, but she’d get over it.
Or not, I didn’t care either way. Her continued genteel horror was always good for a laugh.
The ceremony, if it could even be called that, was rather simple. I sliced the knife across my palm – normally I’d consider that horribly inconvenient, but my unusual physiology allowed me such dramatic liberties – and let the blood flow into the bowl. I handed the knife to Akua, who then passed it on to Sekoran. It followed suit, cutting too deep in its eagerness. There was no need to slide a piece of Winter into the mixture. My blood itself, I’d been forced to admit, was the stuff of Winter manifest.
“Sekoran of the Everdark, under this name and any name you have ever borne or will ever bear I bind you by these oaths,” I said. “May they hold true for one hundred and sixty years, lest the power now bestowed devour you whole.”
“I so swear,” Sekoran spoke in heavily accented Lower Miezan after Centon translated for it.
“You will never slay nor harm nor hinder any in the service of the Sovereign of Moonless Nights, or dwelling within Callow, save in your own defence or the pursuit of its laws,” I said.
“I so swear.”
“For the duration of one hundred and sixty years, you will follow the orders of the Sovereign of Moonless Nights without intent to subvert or pervert the spirit in which they were given,” I said.
“I so swear.”
There were sixteen lesser oaths, all in all, and we moved through them briskly. Most of them were practical boundaries I needed to set before turning loose the murderous drow equivalent of the Watch on the surface for my campaigns. There would be no rape or wanton slaughter, protection of civilians would be enforced by magical oath and standards of decent behaviour thrust upon them. Akua had called it forging a facsimile of Callowan honour through threat of death. I called it refusing to create another batch of fae nobility if they weren’t bound to behave the way nobility supposedly did. The greater oaths were only three, and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call them my contingencies. Black had taught me that there was always a point of failure hidden away in even the most stringent of plans, something unseen and unexpected that would come back to bite you at the worst possible time. Given the scope of what I was undertaking here, the sting of that bite would be equivalently brutal. If – when – this turned south on me, I needed levers to either sideline or end them. Fortunately, this time I was not negotiating with the most powerful woman on the continent while she was arguably at the height of her power. I was dealing with eager, desperate drow who craved what I had to offer so badly they could taste it.
The kind of people willing to make dangerous bargains.
“Until death, you will obey and enforce any and all terms of the Liesse Accords,” I said.
“I so swear.”
“The Sovereign of Moonless Night will once name a foe you must fight until it and all it commands is utterly destroyed,” I said.
“I so swear.”
“The Sovereign of Moonless Night will have right to ask one boon of you, to be carried out at all costs, and that right if unused can be passed down to others at its discretion,” I said.
“I so swear.”
Help, long-term plan, insurance. It was not fool-proof, but it was the best the finest diabolist of my generation had been able to help me craft.
“Then Sekoran of the Everdark is granted right to the corpse bargained for, and all Night held therein,” I said. “By this compact we are now bound, and will remain bound.”
The young drow shivered, and it had nothing to do with the coolness of the cavern air. There’d been power in the air, power running through its veins. Through mine as well. I glanced at Centon and nodded. The nisi spoke in Crepuscular, and guided the other drow towards the rylleh’s corpse. Akua lingered, to my complete lack of surprise.
“Diabolist,” I evenly said. “Report.”
She sat at my side without need for an invitation.
“The food situation is out of control,” Akua said. “We can last two more days, three if we ration even the children.”
“We’ll be seizing the Berelun reserve today,” I said.
“And the Berelun themselves with it,” she pointed out. “The speed at which we accrue bellies to fill vastly outstrips the quantity of food we’re acquiring.”
I nodded slowly. She wasn’t wrong.
“I expect you’re leading to a suggestion,” I said.
“You were intent on hitting another two sigils before moving against Great Lotow,” Diabolist said. “We cannot afford that. Perhaps one, if what passes for their granaries is large enough.”
“We’re still weak,” I said.
“Our drow contingent will not be the cause of victory or defeat in Lotow, let us not pretend otherwise,” she said. “A few more Mighty sworn to you will not make a significant difference either way.”
Time and empty bellies. Along with coin, they were the enemies that most often imposed on my plans.
“Agreed,” I sighed. “I’ll send Archer to see if the Delen are more inclined to fighting than fleeing, we can decide from there.”
“Sensible,” she conceded with a nod. “As for the situation in the camp, it remains… fluid.”
“Rarely a good word, when passing Praesi lips,” I said.
She seemed amused by that, and did not deny it.
“The nisi remain cautiously grateful for the rules of behaviour you have imposed, though skeptical it will last,” Akua said. “The situation with the dzulu, however, is fast reaching boiling point. The auction has worked, to an extent, but I would expect betrayals in the camp from ambitious elements the moment we run into solid opposition.”
“You have names?” I asked.
“I am in the process of gathering them,” Diabolist said. “Which remains difficult, as I lack eyes to watch on my behalf. I must rely almost entirely on rumours and observation of social currents – observations, I will remind you, made without appropriate cultural context.”
“Still angling for your little death squad, I see,” I said.
“There is no nation or large-scale organization on Calernia that does not have individuals charged with internal surveillance,” Akua said. “Including Callow under your reign, Catherine. Drow being notably more fractious than humans, to establish such a measure is mere common sense. We both know the longer we wait the larger this will become and the harder it will be to track would-be traitors. It must be done, and done quickly.”
“Not to revisit our last argument, but I still don’t trust dzulu to keep an eye on their own kind,” I frankly replied. “And for them to have right of life and death inside the camp would carry obvious dangers.”
“I have come to understand and somewhat agree with your perspective in this,” Diabolist said. “Which is why I would amend my previous request. I would like ten ispe corpses from the next… acquisition to be set aside for raising nisi of my own picking. They can be charged with the duty, after being subjected to a strict set of oaths.”
“That’ll take the wind out of the next auction,” I said.
“It will also make it clear that there is more than one way to rise in your service,” Akua said. “A useful tool, if the notion is properly conveyed.”
I clenched my fingers, then slowly unclenched them. She was right about the risks of leading a pack of drow without anyone charged with keeping an eye on them. Knives pointed at our back weren’t just likely at this rate, they were inevitable.
“Agreed for the corpses,” I said. “We’ll discuss the hierarchy of that fresh batch of spies and assassins after the Berelun have been brought into the fold.”
I was disinclined to let Akua Sahelian head what would effectively be my equivalent of the Jacks down here, but I might not have another choice. Ivah was another possible candidate, but I might need it on the frontlines and my leash on Diabolist was arguably tighter. In the end I could dislike it all I wanted but who else was there?
“One last subject, if you would,” Akua said.
Evidently she’d noticed my attention was waning.
“I’m listening,” I said.
“I would ask for one more ispe to be set aside,” she said. “For Centon to harvest.”
“Your assistant,” I frowned. “It should have enough status from that position alone, and I can’t think of another reason why you’d want to empower it.”
“It is being treated as a nisi favoured by one of higher status, not an individual to be respected outside that very narrow boundary,” Akua noted. “The casual disrespect it is still offered grates me and hinders its work besides. Status as one of the lesser Mighty would neatly remedy that.”
And also allow her to sink deeper hooks into the rest of the drow through Centon, a notion I was much less pleased about. Keeping Diabolist useful without giving her too much power was ever a delicate balancing act.
“If you were serious about promoting for reasons other than martial talent, you will hardly find a better candidate,” Akua said. “It was careful enough to hide it held the Secret of Lower Miezan for more than twenty years.”
“No one’s born with a full Secret,” I grunted. “Not even literacy, and that’s the most common there is. It whet its blade a few times to complete that.”
“You might as well chide a Praesi for diabolism,” she replied amusedly.
My brow rose.
“How’s your heart, Akua?” I said.
“Ever in your hand, dearest, in more ways than one,” she smoothly replied.
I rolled my eyes.
“I’ll see if I can spare an ispe, but that’s unlikely until Lotow,” I said. “Make do until then.”
“By your will, my queen,” she said.
“Because that’s not getting old,” I muttered.
I rose to my feet. Time to finish cleaning up the Berelun, then. Archer would be getting restless by now.
“You’re angry,” Indrani said. “It told Ivah you’d be angry.”
“First off, I very much doubt that,” I replied.
“That’s fair,” she mused. “I mean, I was lying.”
“Yours is the laziest, sloppiest form of treachery I have ever countered,” I said. “I can’t believe that’s a mark in your favour, but Gods help me it is. Anyhow, I’m not angry. Surprised? No, surprised is too weak a word. Befuddled.”
“I mean, you left us alone without supervision so when you really think about it who’s really at fault?” Indrani said.
There was a pause.
“You. You are that fault. That was what I was implying,” she revealed.
“I left you two alone for two hours and a half tops, Archer,” I complained. “How the Hells did you end up ‘accidentally’ taking over another sigil?”
What the Berelun called their stronghold was, practically speaking, a plateau inside a tall cavern with a passage through drilled under it. To reach the part where the drow had actually lived – the top of the plateau, more specifically a knot of descending stalactites and stalagmites that’d fused into some sort of stone tree around which all the Berelun tents and structures were centered – would normally have required climbing a sheer cliff, but there were benefits to being made of smoke and mirrors. Like growing wings at will. When I’d first realized that Archer and Ivah had proceeded ahead of me I’d expected to find the stronghold cleared of the last Mighty and terrified drow awaiting instructions. The second part of that, at least, had come true. The first had not, since I was currently looking at around thirty Mighty of varying ranks kneeling on the stone with their hands behind their necks.
“There’s a very good explanation for that,” Indrani assured me.
My brow rose, and I gestured for her to speak. Silence persisted.
“I can’t think of a believable lie,” she admitted after a moment.
“Have you considered giving me an actual truthful accounting?” I suggested.
“What is this, a bloody House of Light?” she complained, then her eyes brightened. “Although, if you’re willing to wear ripped up sister robes I’m more than willing to give you my confessions.”
“Just give me your godsdamned report, Archer,” I said, rubbing the bridge of my nose.
“Fine,” she pouted. “So I was, like, making small talk with Ivah while surrounded by corpses.”
“As one does,” I said.
“Right? We never go anywhere without there being corpses around, we should work on that,” she said. “Anyways, it was all like ‘Archer, you peerless beauty whose charm has moved me, I’m going to brag so you become interested me’.”
“Classic Ivah,” I agreed.
“And so it mentioned that Bere-whatever tried to convince it to stab you,” Indrani said. “Offered it fourth place in the local pecking order.”
Probably the only accurate part of what she’d reported so far, though I would not hold out hope for that trend to continue.
“So then, I was like all ‘Ivah, please, don’t be so obvious it’s just embarrassing’. But then I figured – wait, fourth? That’s pretty high up. Burley-whatever brought two rylleh with a bunch of mooks and Ivah hadn’t done much to show power at that point. Unless it was real bare back on the home front, Shirley-whatever was full of it when it made that promise.”
The worst part, I thought, was that she was perfectly aware that the name of the sigil and sigil-holder had been Berelun. She was yanking my chain. I knew that. She knew I knew that. And I knew that she knew I knew that. Yet if I actually corrected her I would lose, and that was just unacceptable.
“So you went on a walk,” I prompted.
“Well, technically you said to keep an eye on the corpses and the corpses were gone by then,” Indrani said. “So really you have only yourself to blame.”
“Oh I wouldn’t worry about that,” I grunted. “There’s plenty of blame to go around.”
“Look, when we found the Troubadours they were already under attack by this other bunch of drow,” Indrani protested. “So you know, I defended the innocent. As is my custom.”
“I don’t suppose you bothered to learn the context for all this,” I tried.
“I knew you’d say that,” she crowed. “So I wrote it down.”
She pulled back her coat and mail sleeve, revealing red scribbles. I blinked.
“Archer, is that blood?”
“Which do we run into more often down here: dead bodies or inkwells?” she pointed out. “It’s like you don’t even think, sometimes. Anyways, here it is. The Dubious-”
Delen, I mentally corrected, which was the nearest sigil to this tone.
“- have been all warlike recently, and slapped the Henries in the face in a skirmish a while back, a defeat bad enough that it cleaned up most of their Mighty.”
Had we really gone from ‘Bere-whatever’ to ‘Henries’ in the span of thirty heartbeats? I was in dire need of a way to exact pretty revenge on Indrani, it was the only language she truly understood.
“When they heard the Henries were moving out to speak with us, they decided it was a good time to attack,” Indrani continued. “But they’re blind and their timing is shit-”
The stronghold of the Berelun was difficult to access and finding out precisely when they’d gone to ambush me was difficult, I mentally translated.
“- so they were only just getting started when me and Ivah showed up,” she said.
“Ivah and I,” I said. “You ignorant wench.”
She flipped me off. My gaze returned to the kneeling drow, who’d been watching us talk back and forth very carefully.
“And you what, killed enough of them that the rest gave up?” I asked.
“We protected the innocent until surrender ensued,” Indrani proudly replied, then spoiled the way she’d kept her face straight through that by badly winking.
“Fuck it,” I sighed. “We’ll offer them the usual ‘oath or sword’ bargain then loot everything before we get back on the road.”
“Yes sir, your queenliness ma’am,” Archer grinned. “We decided on where we’re headed, then?”
“Great Lotow,” I told her. “I hope you’re in a fighting mood, because we’re about to declare war on an entire civilization.”
The smile she gave me at that was terrifying in more ways than one, but at least she was on my side.
The drow wouldn’t be so lucky.