“It is a small-minded man who needs a reason to create a ritual that would crash the moon into Creation.”
– Dread Emperor Malignant III, before his death and second reign as Dread Emperor Revenant
The Urulan Sigil broke within an hour of its chief dying at my hands.
It was a valuable lessons as to how I should handle drow in the future. Decapitating a Proceran or Praesi army, for example, wouldn’t necessarily take them out of the fight. The Legions, after the Reforms anyway, had been built with the notion in mind that the highest-ranking officers were natural targets for heroes or resistance fighters. Redundancies and a clear order of succession for the chain of command had been set into their framework. Princes of Procer, on the other hand, might be the undisputed rulers of their hosts but they also tended to delegate the practicalities of campaigning to trained career officers. In both cases, putting the head of the army’s leader on a pike would be damaging in many ways but not outright scatter that same army. Sigils weren’t armies, though, they were tribes kept together only by the strength of the sigil-holder. When I’d tossed Urulan’s severed head into the middle of the battle, the glue keeping the sigil together had crumbled. Their kind, when it came down to it, let their actions be dictated by the invisible balance of martial strength. If the attacker was capable of killing the sigil-holder, odds were that the individual who’d done it was capable of wiping out the rest of the sigil on their own. Best to bargain, if possible, or flee if it was not.
Unsurprisingly it was the Mighty that kept fighting the longest. Dzulu could afford surrender more easily, knowing that they weren’t worth harvesting to the enemy’s upper ranks and that whoever was in charge there would always be a need for warriors to send into the meat grinder. What did they care under which sigil it happened? Drow did not fight for plunder in the way that most tribes and clans would, not exactly. To amount to anything they needed Night, and war was certainly the easiest way to accumulate that – but when there was a clear winner, doubling down on a losing fight was not to their advantage. Mighty, on the other hand, knew they’d be hunted and harvested after a defeat. Used as spoils instead of coin or food. Surrender might be feasible if assurances were made, but that was not custom. Drow, for obvious reasons, preferred to raise the strength of their own Mighty rather than bring into the fold those defeated. I was part of a broader trend in their ways, one I was only now beginning to really grasp: as far as the drow were concerned, maybe nine tenths of their own kind were essentially irrelevant. Matters of life and death were settled by a handful of Mighty on both sides, with dzulu and nisi serving as tools and ornaments to whoever came out on top.
What that meant, practically speaking, was that the moment Mighty Urulan died this stopped being a battle and started being clean-up. It could still have turned south on us, if we hadn’t been careful. The Urulan had outnumbered us three to one in Mighty and if they managed to cull my own numbers the idea of continued resistance might have taken hold. Corpses would have been harvested, fresh demigods raised and sent after our ‘champions’. Our saving grace, in this case, was Ivah. My Lord of Silent Steps had no real interest in fighting minions, and had gone after the enemy’s Mighty relentlessly. It would have been one thing if those had been allowed to gather together, but instead they’d found themselves ambushed and taken out one by one by a titled drow who was no stranger to these kinds of fights. Archer’s sweep on the other side had met with only cursory resistance before she stopped as ordered. When it became clear neither she nor her escorts were inclined to advance any further, the forces sent out to meet her had doubled back to meet my own assault. Too late, however, to turn the tides. Their sigil-holder was already dead.
A few had tried her flank anyway, but after the second time she shot a jawor in the throat the moment it left cover their enthusiasm had mysteriously waned.
I spent the rest of the battle watching over my forces like a hen watching her chicks, not exactly holding their hand but ensuring that if they got in over their heads I could swiftly step on the opposition. To my surprise, even when we began taking sections of the Crossroads holding mostly nisi I never found the need to call my warband to order. My Mighty were oath-bound to decency, but the dzulu were not. Still, it had been made clear to them that wanton slaughter would not be allowed, or rape – though apparently that latter crime was near unheard of among drow, who treated sex as more a chore than a pleasure and rarely bothered unless they were nisi – and in the end they did not test my laws. I wondered if they would have pulled at the leash, had I not personally slain Urulan and its strongest rylleh. My general distaste for what passed as drow nature whispered yes, but I might be doing them injustice. I held no illusions about the moral fibre of a people whose main occupation was murder, but there was something about them that brought old words from Black to mind. If you have the ability to accomplish something, it is your right to do so. I hadn’t understood back then how deep a look into him that little sentence offered, or how close to the same Praesi philosophy he disdained it was in practice.
But there was a ring to it, an underlying sense that I saw mirrored in the way drow thought. The pragmatic monsters who’d shaped the woman I was today – and the plural was not a mistake for Malicia had been a teacher too, if not a willing or gentle one – kept to a faith worshipping only ability, the capacity to carry out one’s will. That was a face given to their beliefs by the complicated games of the surface, though, where every little act was part of a broader war of growing sophistication. Down here the varnish of civilization had been stripped off, and the face given to that god was rawer: power. Just power. If you were strong enough, your rules were the only rules there were and they would not be questioned or disobeyed unless someone stronger than you contradicted them. I might be ordering them to act in ways that broke their customs, but as long as I remained the larger monster those orders would be observed for that, too, was custom. And perhaps deeper one than the rest.
“So is it me or do you always get all silent and philosophical after a big fight?” Indrani mused.
She swaggered in, her coat flecked with blood and a satisfied smile on her face. For someone who disdained the trappings of civilization, Archer had taken well to battles. Grown to enjoy them more than I’d thought, her sense of what victory being so personal it should not lend itself well to a clash of armies. A reminder, I mused, that people could continue to surprise even when you believed you had the measure of them.
“I never liked this part,” I admitted as she came to stand beside me. “The clean-up. When the blades are out and shields collide I can almost feel what the songs sing of, but the aftermath spoils it. The return to the bare realities of what took place.”
It’d barely qualified as a skirmish, by the numbers. More soldiers had been involved in the war game that’d won me command of the Fifteenth, and arguably much more complex tactics. How many people had actually fought today? Five hundred, maybe. And of those less than a hundred had actually had an impact on the outcome. There were not even two hundred dead in the aking of the Crossroads, though the way their corpses had been dragged and laid down in rows along the largest avenue made it seem more than it should. Most those bodies were already bereft of Night, their killers have wasted no time claiming their due, but enough remained that the auction to come would be the largest yet. Indrani sighed.
“It does get on my nerves, that the best parts of you are also the most irritating,” she said.
I snorted and left it at that, the two of us sharing a rare moment of comfortable silence. She tended to fill those religiously, almost as if she were afraid of the absence of noise, and so I savoured the rare respite.
“Should I ask why you’re wearing clothes too large for you?” she finally asked.
“No,” I grunted.
“Well, the pants are tight enough they make your arse look amazing,” Indrani said. “But the whole long sleeves thing makes you look like a Mercantis trader.”
“You know what, I’ll take it,” I said. “Still going to need to change before speaking with whoever comes up, though.”
“Talk with Diabolist first, maybe,” she said. “It’s not like she’s wearing real clothes, but she is disappointingly not naked all the time.”
Thank the Gods for that. Indrani would never get anything done if Akua’s admittedly impressive assets were permanently on display.
“I will,” I replied. “Not right now, though. She’s still taking count of our acquisitions.”
“Of course she is,” Indrani drawled. “It’s almost like she’s maneuvering herself into being the obvious pick for who ends up stuck watching over the drow when we get back upstairs.”
It was easy to forget, sometimes, that Archer’s lack of manners was more choice than inability. In some ways she was as sharp as Hakram when it came to reading social currents.
“She can manoeuvre all she wants, she’s not getting the job,” I said. “I’m still debating who’ll oversee when I’m not around, but she’s not in the running.”
“Vivienne?” Indrani suggested.
“She doesn’t have the right edges,” I reluctantly admitted. “They’ll challenge her. I’m considering Larat.”
“Now there’s a real philosophical question,” Indrani drawled. “How many treacherous lieutenants it too many treacherous lieutenants?”
“One, but we make do with what we have,” I sighed.
“We make do with what we have,” Indrani repeated grimly, squinting forward in a poor imitation of a frown.
“I don’t sound like that,” I protested.
She hunched her shoulders and raised her chin, trying for noble sorrow but mostly looking like she had stomach cramps.
“I beat up empires but I’m real conflicted about it,” Indrani declared. “A fairy queen named my crew the Woe because I’m so tragic and misunderstood.”
“Screw you,” I grinned. “You’re part of it too.”
“I once finished the last of the stew even if I don’t really need to eat, because I’m just the worst,” Indrani solemnly added.
It surprised a splash of laughter out of me, and once it started it didn’t stop. The two of us ended up standing there like fools, sniggering at nothing much at all. It was a released I hadn’t known I needed, and I could not help but be grateful for it. I’d thought before that Indrani was most beautiful in fleeting moments, when the part of her that was more glorious alive than anyone I’d ever known came to the surface and it was all you could see. I’d not been wrong, I decided. Strange as it was, she more attractive to me now – laughter glinting in hazelnut eyes, slightly breathless and making sport of all the world – than she would have been half-naked on my bed wearing little but lace.
“I did make a promise, while fighting Urulan,” I teased.
“Oh?” she said. “What-”
My hand slipped around her waist, beneath the coat, and she allowed herself to be dipped down. Her eyes wide, I watched her lips part and leaned down to kiss her. She tasted, I thought, like spices – but soon enough all I could think of was the hungry heat of her lips against mine, the way our teeth clicked together awkwardly before she teased me with her tongue. She threaded her fingers into my hair, forcing me closer, and when we finally parted she was flushed and out of breath.
“Gods,” she said, “you are so short.”
Naturally, I dropped her. She fell into a sprawl with a loud yelp, perfectly capable of landing on her feet but never one to allow practicalities to get in the way of theatrics. I wiped my lips, then shrugged.
“There, promise fulfilled,” I mused. “Back to work.”
“Really?” she whined. “You’re going to get me all worked up and then just leave?”
“I’m sure you’ll get over it,” I grinned, and turned my back to her.
She cursed me loudly as I sauntered away, feeling more human than I had in a very long time.
I found Diabolist seated like the queen of an industrious grey-skinned hive, drow gravitating to her and Centon for translated instructions before darting away to carry out her bidding. They were getting in the habit of obeying her, I saw. Not the Mighty – they saw her, I suspected, more as an obstacle to climb than a superior – but the nascent pack of dzulu officers and supervisors had grown used to taking her orders. They saw little of me, on a daily basisl. Primly perched on a flat stone, Akua was a vision in her long dress of silver and blue. While high-necked and seemingly conservative, her clothes were cut to be rather flattering to her frame: they suggested rather than revealed, but the suggestion was not mild. Scarlet eyes remained on me as I strolled at her side, plopping myself down next to her. I glanced at Centon.
“Dismissed,” I said in Lower Miezan. “All of you.”
The nisi, though that status might just be remedied to today, bowed low and repeated the order in Crepuscular. Within five heartbeats we were entirely alone in the avenue.
“Catherine,” Diabolist greeted me. “Another victory for your tally.”
“It was the opening measure,” I replied. “The real pivot comes when the deeper sigils decide on their response.”
“There have been scouts,” she noted. “No Mighty yet.”
“It’s coming,” I said. “They can’t afford an unknown her for long, not when we control the top floor of the Column.”
“As you say,” Akua murmured, inclining her head. “I had the privilege of witnessing your duel with Mighty Urulan, from a distance.”
“And you have thoughts,” I said.
So did I, and I was curious to see if they aligned.
“If I may speak frankly?” Diabolist said.
“Never too late to start,” I drawled.
“Yes, yes, very clever,” she sighed. “I have begun to worry, Catherine. Urulan was perhaps in the twenty strongest drow of Great Lotow, and likely close to the bottom of that division. It fought… better than I expected. You came close to death more than once.”
“It was a wakeup call,” I softly agreed. “We haven’t been taking them seriously enough, have we? Lotow’s not one of the big cities when it comes down to it. There’s leviathans lurking ahead.”
“You have grown used to being able to walk away from wounds that would kill even Named,” Akua said. “And so developed what I can only call sloppy habits. I’ve heard descriptions of your encounters with heroes at the Battle of the Camps, the Saint in particular, and cannot help but think this is a trend and not an instance.”
“In that, we are in agreement,” I said.
Some of the fights I’d been in, lately… Black would weep to see them. I’d always been more inclined towards brawling than finesse, but I was starting to realize there was a reason my teacher had never seen his relative lack of power compared to his predecessors as a weakness. When you had a good enough hammer, everything started looking like a nail. That was a lot more likely to get you killed than lack of juice. I’d begun to rely on abilities that I should only ever use as a last result, and at some point I was going to run into someone who’d kill me for it.
“You use only the thinnest slice of what Winter is capable of,” Diabolist said. “Perhaps exploration in depth is in order.”
“You want me to fight like you,” I smiled. “Distance, control, never committing.”
“Not your usual fare, I know,” she said. “But you are no longer the Squire in any significant sense. Your repertoire has expanded.”
“Tricks are useful,” I admitted. “And I do need to learn how to use the kind of great workings you threw around when riding my mantle. But you’re wrong about the rest.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“You intend to take the opposite path,” Akua said.
“The basics,” I mused. “I’ve been neglecting those, since I took my mantle. Thinking it was all right to get into fights because I’m hard enough to win them. But many of those should never have been fights at all.”
“Fight no battle save that which you must, for war is best won away from the field,” Diabolist quoted thoughtfully.
“Theodosius?” I asked.
“Terribilis the First,” she replied. “You intend… contingencies for the coming meeting with the drow, then.”
“They’re useful things, contingencies,” I muttered, looking up at the bare stone of the cavern ceiling.
It was about time, I decided. The opening was there.
“Marker,” I said. “It’s time for us to have one of our regular little chats, Akua.”
“Is it?” Diabolist said. “I cannot recall-”
She paused. Her face went blank and I smiled ruefully.
“I compel you to answer my questions and do so truthfully and completely,” I Spoke.
The shade shivered, the order sinking into her.
“We have done this before,” Diabolist said.
“We have,” I murmured. “Have you walled off any memories or knowledge, or considered doing so?”
“I have not,” Akua replied.
“Do you have any hole or holes in your memories?”
“I do not,” she said, then cocked her head to the side. “I do not. Oh my, you have been thorough.”
I had. I’d known from the start that I wouldn’t outplay her with words, she’d always been better at that. But I had other ways to even the scales.
“Have you plotted or acted against my interests?” I asked.
“I have not,” she replied, sounding amused.
“What are your current short-term and long-term objectives?”
“I seek to prove myself as necessary to the running of your sigil,” she said. “And in doing so, remain undeniably useful so long as you have use for the drow. My only long-term objective is survival.”
“How do you intend to secure your survival?”
Her lips thinned. She never enjoyed that one.
“I must first learn the exact wording of the oath I believe you gave Thief, to see if it can be escaped through a technicality,” Akua said. “I must then prove myself invaluable to your own objectives so that you will allow me to do so. I must be reconciled to Vivienne Dartwick, or she must be removed from the situation. If the wording if without flaw, I will seek to obtain a manner of resurrection that preserves most of what I am.”
Nothing new, then. Good.
“Have you manipulated the greater or lesser oaths, or both, so that you can exploit them in any way?” I asked.
“I have not,” she said.
The same answer as every time I’d asked the question, but it was worth checking to be sure.
“Do you know why I insisted the oaths be sworn to the Sovereign of Moonless Nights?”
“I do not,” she said.
Ah, too broad.
“Do you have theories as to why I did?” I asked.
“I do,” Diabolist drawled. “Shall save us the time and elaborate?”
I ignored her. If not prompted, she could lie.
“What are these theories?”
“I believe you intend to divert yourself or your mantle in the future, and so dissociated oath-keeping from your personal identity,” she said. “I am not certain if the beneficiary would be an object or an individual, but suspect it will be the former Prince of Nightfall.”
Wrong, but she didn’t have to know that.
“Is there any other part of my soul you would like me to bare?” Akua asked. “You must have other questions.”
I had to keep it short – too long and the risks increased she might notice – and I usually used my last question to make sure she hadn’t picked up on anything. I could do that tomorrow, though, at no great loss. And there were some things I’d gown curious about.
“Why do you flirt with me?”
She laughed, full-throated.
“I know you have difficulty remaining emotionally uninvolved when in a sexual relationship, and you have a known weakness for powerful women,” she said. “I also believe that contact between us would temporarily allow me to regain full physical senses, which is promising as I find you attractive enough sex would not be unpleasant.”
I waited for a moment.
“It also infuriates Thief when she overhears,” Akua added reluctantly, forced by the order. “Which I deeply enjoy.”
“That might be the most human I’ve ever seen you act,” I said.
She languidly shrugged.
“From and including the word ‘marker’ I spoke earlier today, you will remember this conversation as idle chatter from the moment this sentence ends,” I Spoke.
Her form rippled and a heartbeat passed.
“Amusing as this was, I believe there might be more pressing matters at hand,” Diabolist said.
“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s talk contingencies, then.”
Still under control for now.
I’d ask again tomorrow.