“It is a bitter truth that in trying to escape the flaws of our parents we inevitably inherit the worst of them.”
– King Pater of Callow, the Unheeding
After they entered the second month of hard labour and sleepless nights, Wekesa jested that if he were a god he’s snap his fingers and put them all out of their misery. Neither his husband nor his son graced him with even a perfunctory chuckle, which he found rather cold-blooded of them. Warlock had hoped that even disagreements, after being aired, would lance the wound festering in his family but it had been… overly optimistic of him. Tikoloshe was still furious that Masego had spurned his good intentions so fully, and their son had made it exceedingly clear that he’d be leaving Praes the moment the city was safeguarded and did not intend to return for many years. There’d been no talking him out of that, or even a way to broach the subject of the Black Queen again. His boy had learned to keep his own council, and while the way he’d grown stirred some embers of paternal pride in Wekesa it was also highly inconvenient. Message came from Ater within the first month, word of the war in the west.
It was not good news.
“He’s not dead,” Warlock told Alaya’s envoy. “I am certain. Beyond that I cannot tell. Wherever he is cannot be scried even through his blood.”
Which meant he was either underground or, more likely, in the presence of priests or heroes. It had slowed the work in Thalassina by a whole week to craft a ritual that would scry even through such distance and natural barriers, setting up relays and contingencies, but there’d been no question of doing otherwise. The silver of Amadeus’ soul in his possession was still called to the remainder of it somewhere in Creation, but aside from determining death that measure was essentially worthless. His old friend’s soul might not even still be inside his body, he knew, though that breed of meddling was rare among heroes. The Saint of Swords might be capable, though. Hye had told him, years ago, that Laurence de Montfort had grown skilled enough to rip a soul from its body with a swing of her sword. Was that what they’d wrought on Amadeus? Was he now a shivering shade in a bottle sealed by some priest’s power? Tikoloshe chided him for the thought.
“You are casting fear as fact,” his husband said.
“We’re not dealing with shepherd boys and rebels anymore,” Wekesa murmured. “I’ve heard things about the Pilgrim, ‘Loshe. The Saint might be the executioner for Above, but he’s something rather more dangerous than that. He… smooths away wrinkles. His is a thinking man’s Role.”
“Scribe will find out the truth of it, and the Empress will put her weight behind the retrieval,” Tikoloshe said. “Worrying any further is without purpose.”
“I could leave,” Wekesa said. “Head out right now.”
“And do what?” his husband gently asked. “Traipse around the Proceran countryside with target painted on your back?”
Warlock sighed. Tikoloshe was right, of course. Moving prematurely was just asking to get into a fight with whatever heroes had not gone north to prepare against the Dead King.
“Gods, why would he wander around the Principate like that?” Wekesa bit out. “We’re not twenty anymore, the wind’s no longer at our back. And there’s at least half a dozen Choirs embroiled in this mess, he was bound to run into someone he couldn’t cope with.”
“Making virtues of one’s flaws does not mean those flaws are gone,” his husband delicately replied.
Warlock sighed and left it at that. The two of them had never gotten along. Amadeus remained, even after over forty years, of the opinion that Tikoloshe was an unnecessary risk that should have long been dispensed with permanently. He was polite enough not to mention it anymore, but the years had not changed his position by an inch. ‘Loshe had frankly admitted that the sheer bleak intensity of Amadeus’ desires, coupled with utter disregard for the incubus’ existence, made him uncomfortable just to be in the presence of. Like putting fingers over a candle: tolerable for a pass, but painful if continued. Masego spent several hours conferring with his comrades in Laure when he was told the news, weaving some particularly vicious protections on his scrying spell. Woe unto whoever tested those, Wekesa had mused. There’d be a few more dead Eyes in the city by the time that conversation was over. Not his issue, regardless. While he recognized that Alaya had right to try eavesdropping on the conversation, his son also had right to privacy. The victor of that skirmish would be theirs to determine, and he saw no need to intervene so long as no harsh feelings were incurred on either side.
They returned to the work with renewed vigor afterwards, but as the weeks passed tensions never fully put to rest reared their ugly heads again. It was not unexpected, truthfully. Long hours of mentally exhausting work with little rest or company save each other – Masego had bluntly refused to attend court again – made small irritations seem large, and when the bottle was uncorked there was no preventing the spill. It was darkly amusing, Wekesa thought, that it was an attempted olive branch from Tikoloshe that’d been the spark to light the fire. His husband made an offer to discuss his time in the Kingdom of Sephirah, should Masego promise not to delve in that branch of research afterwards. Warlock had given it even odds that it would lead to either the beginning of reconciliation or a blowout, but his predictions proved inaccurate. In both cases, he’d believed the impetus would come from their son.
“That won’t be necessary,” Masego simply said.
The three of them had gone to the Maze with dawn, and it was now midmorning. Both mages hung from their spits of coral by leather harnesses, their engraving tools made to hover by their side by a quaint little Taghrebi spell. Tikoloshe was perched atop Wekesa’s own coral, comfortably seated and keeping an eye on their work for mistakes. All of them were under illusion, naturally. High Lord Idriss might have purged the city, but Warlock would not rely on the man’s work when his family’s safety was at stake. Their modifications to Shatha’s Maze would remain hidden until the very last moment.
“It is not the Book of Darkness,” Tikoloshe conceded. “Yet my remembrance is likely more than you’ll ever learn otherwise.”
“I would not be moved even if you offered the Tower’s own text,” Masego replied, placing back his carving knife into the floating set and picking up a chisel.
“Surely you don’t mean to bargain with the Dead King,” Tikoloshe frowned.
“Unnecessary,” their son said. “I’ve already harvested sufficient knowledge from his echoes.”
“Pardon me,” Wekesa said. “Did you say his echoes?”
“His apotheosis left a reflection in Arcadia, yes,” Masego replied absent-mindedly. “I took from him twice, at a pivot and later from his final moments as mortal. Vivienne was displeased about the delay on our trip back, admittedly, but the Hunt would not move without all of us.”
There was a soft sound as he angled the chisel against an accumulation rune, bringing down his hammer to connect it with the fresh additions. The only sound for a long moment was the waves around them.
“You stole memories from the Dead King’s reflection,” Tikoloshe quietly summarized. “Child, have you gone mad?”
“Debatable,” Masego mused. “I am not certain if operating on a different set of logic should truly be called that.”
“Don’t you give me lip like this is some trifle,” ‘Loshe snarled. “Get rid of them this instant. It’s an infection.”
It went downhill from there. Wekesa could not stay out of it, for he shared some of his husband’s worries in this, but he could not serve as a mediator if he was also arguing. That proved to be a mistake. Tikoloshe had become emotional. That never worked well with their son. It was bad enough they ceased working for the day, walking back to the shore in fuming silence. Warlock ran into a wall when he tried to tease out details during the afternoon, Masego stubbornly refusing to speak more of the matter. Against his better judgement, he offered his son a concession: he’d get to participate in the ritual from inside the Maze instead of the city, if the subject was opened again. It worked, or close enough. Masego remained vague on details, but it was clear his son could probably transcribe half the Kabbalis Book of Darkness from memory if he were so inclined – and that was the least of it. It was not the diluted knowledge put to ink he’d gotten his hands on but the thoughts of the Dead King himself. Secrets known only to one, until now.
“Take it out,” his husband said later that night, when they were alone in their room. “By force if need be.”
“I’m not going to fight him, ‘Loshe,” Wekesa replied with genuine surprise. “Obviously we need to reconsider our approach, but-”
“You don’t get it,” Tikoloshe said quietly. “It’s a trap. I don’t know for sure, but I’ve seen the lay of it over the years and…”
“You’ve never spoken of this before,” Warlock softly said.
“I don’t know for sure,” his husband repeated. “And it was never an issue, with the mere fragments of his work Praesi possess. But I think he’s been killed before, ‘Kesa. The Dead King. With that many heroes having fought him over the years? At least once, one will have slain him.”
Wekesa was not without cleverness, and he’d been married to the man for a very long time. The implication was not difficult to divine.
“You think the Book is a lure,” he said. “And anyone that follows its teachings deep enough…”
“He can inhabit different bodies, he could even as a mortal,” Tikoloshe said. “But how useful would it really be to wear some farmer’s skin? No, he’d need mages. Talented, ambitious, well-trained in the use of their powers. And to ensure they made their way to him, seeds were sown.”
“Never the complete book, because then they might realize the purpose of it,” Warlock murmured. “There’d be risks, ‘Loshe. If Amadeus is right about the Wandering Bard-”
“Black isn’t even a hundred years old,” his husband hissed. “And he thinks he can grasp the nature something like the Bard? Last time he followed that conceit Sabah was killed. Do we need to lose our son to his pride as well?”
“Peace,” Wekesa said. “You’ve said it yourself, this is only a theory.”
“I will not gamble with his safety, Wekesa, hear me well,” Tikoloshe said. “Not when the stakes are this high.”
“If I raise my hand against him, we lose him for good,” he replied. “Think about this clearly.”
“We lose him deeper still, if we do nothing,” his husband said.
Gods, what a mess this had become. Maybe if memories were modified… No, he’d find out eventually. Masego had been taught to assess the state of his own mind before he’d even reached puberty, he’d notice sooner or later. It was only pushing the issue back by a few months or years. Part of him insisted this was only a theory, but he could not refrain from considering it. ‘Loshe would not be this incensed if he did not genuinely believe in what he’d said, and he knew better than to dismiss the thoughts of his husband out of hand. It would be easier if he was wrong, but he could not put weight on something simply because it would be more convenient were it false.
“Tell me everything you know about this,” Wekesa said. “Every single detail, no matter how insignificant.”
Tikoloshe’s eyes met his.
“And if you agree I’m right?”
Warlock grimaced, but went on.
“Alaya has made inquiries about putting him under house arrest until this Callowan mess is over with,” Wekesa admitted. “I might have to take her up on them, until we’ve found a permanent solution.”
“After the Ashurans are dispersed, then,” Tikoloshe said.
Warlock reluctantly nodded. He’d need at least that long to prepare, if it was to be painless.
It’d been easier when Catherine had been there to provide ice. Winter-forged substance had a keen affinity to scrying spells, especially those involving the Observatory. Less than surprising, given that she’d provided quite a bit of the power involved in the raising of it. Without her around, Masego had been forced to rely on the more traditional methods of a water-filled bowl. The link was rather solid, given the distances and likely interferences involved, which warmed his heart. His work in Laure had proved fruitful. The waters shivered and a pair of silhouettes greeted him, both familiar. They must have been standing in front of one of the pools, he thought. Hakram looked exhausted, his face tight and the ridges around his eyes standing out – the orc equivalent of dark circles in a human. Vivienne, on the other hand, was flushed with good health. She’d grown out her hair, Masego noted. It suited her, made her seem almost regal.
“Hierophant,” Hakram said, showing just enough teeth to be respectful.
There was a pause as Masego’s eyes took in all of him.
“You seem to be missing a hand,” the mage observed.
“Literally the first thing,” she said. “I told you he’d skip right over greetings.”
“Already was when we last spoke, the bowl simply did not show it. And I still have the one,” Hakram told him, ignoring the Callowan. “It serves well enough.”
“Two would objectively serve better,” he pointed out.
“If we’re to have this conversation, it will be in person,” the orc said. “And over drinks.”
Ah, one of those complicated matters then. It should prove a learning experience.
“Youève made contact days before I next expected you,” Masego said. “I take it something happened?”
“You could say that,” Vivienne grimaced. “The Empress’ envoy sung us a pretty song, and we need to pick your brains over it.”
“I do not know much of singing,” he admitted.
“I mean-” she sighed. “Never mind. Look, we were made privy to the full content of Malicia’s pact with the Dead King.”
“Does it matter?” Masego asked, mildly surprised. “I was under the impression we would oppose both regardless of the technicalities involved.”
“I believed that as well,” Hakram gravelled. “Before he finished speaking. She effectively sold out most of Calernia.”
“Which seems ill-mannered, considering she does not own it,” Masego offered.
“The definition of ‘most’ is what matters, as it happens,” Vivienne said. “There’s a clause that exempts Praes and Callow from his attentions.”
“Which is good,” he tried.
“Somewhat,” she said. “Unfortunately, it only applies so long as she’s alive.”
Huh. Which was not good, because Catherine had admitted some months ago she would most likely have to kill the Empress before the war was over.
“We’ve asked some of our mages, but it’s not their specialty,” Hakram said. “We need to confirm – is it theoretically possible for a magical contract to have a clause like that?”
“It is exceedingly dangerous, but yes,” Masego replied.
“Shit,” Vivienne said, with feeling.
“I do not see the issue,” he admitted. “Considering we were planning war against the Dead King regardless we have lost nothing.”
“She’s kept it secret for now, but it’s likely she’ll make the terms openly known when she judges the situation ripe for it,” Hakram said. “That’s going to make a mess.”
Masego’s brows rose. Would it? He failed to see how.
“Public opinion, Zeze,” Vivienne said. “It’d be bad enough if we came out on Procer’s side after they took a swing at us, but if on top of that we have a guarantee Callow will stay safe? War will be highly unpopular. Even war against Praes, if the Empress stays quiet from now on, and she’s too clever not to.”
Ah, politics. Hardly his specialty.
“If you could provide me the exact terms, I’ll study them for weaknesses,” he offered.
“We will,” Hakram said. “But there might not be a point. There’s no guarantee she gave us the real phrasing. And if she has, she’ll have had every good diabolist in her employ look it over first.”
“I have time during the evenings,” Masego shrugged. “And without my library and my laboratory, only so much to spend it on.”
“There’s nothing to lose in trying, at least,” Hakram said.
“If I may ask, do you have news of Uncle Amadeus?”
Vivienne wiggled her hand in a manner that presumably had meaning, though he was not certain what it was.
“Getting word from the Jacks quickly has been harder since the Vales were shut,” she said. “The best I can give you is that Hasenbach’s agents from her internal spy network are out in force in Salia. Turning over every vaguely suspicious stone. I’ve had to recall quite a few of my people.”
“Still, if she’s cleaning up the capital that thoroughly it adds weight to the Empress’ take in my eyes,” she continued. “They might be bringing in the Carrion Lord for a good spot of jeering and rock-throwing. Gods know he’s been hated like poison there ever since he started setting fire to everything.”
It was a relief to hear it, and Masego felt a knot in his shoulders loosen. He’d lost enough family to wars already. If Uncle Amadeus had followed Aunt Sabah into the grave so quickly… No, it couldn’t be allowed to happen.
“Which is worrying,” Hakram said. “They have to know if he’s kept prisoner there will be rescue attempts. If he’s not dead it is for a reason.”
“It does not matter what they want,” Hierophant calmly said. “They will not keep him. Catherine will agree with me on this. So will Father and the Empress. We will lack no resources for the rescue.”
“My precise worry,” Hakram replied. “Procer cannot afford war on two fronts if one of those fronts is Keter. To execute Lord Black and break his legions makes sense, but to capture him? I can think of only one reason for that.”
It took a moment, but he came to the conclusion.
“Bait,” Masego slowly said.
“It neatly takes care of what they fear most about Cat, namely her ability to gate anywhere with an army,” Vivienne said.
“More than that,” Hakram said. “They’ll be dragging the Woe and the remaining Calamities onto their chosen grounds. The full villainy of the east where they want it, when they want it. They’re clearing house before turning their full efforts to the north.”
“It has the Peregrine’s fingers all over it,” Vivienne darkly said. “The man’s dangerous enough on the field, but if he has a few months to prepare? It’s going to get ugly, Masego.”
“She’ll have a plan,” he said. “She always does.”
“Well, we haven’t run out of lakes yet,” Vivienne half-smiled. “So there’s always that.”
Masego’s lips quirked in answer.
“Still no word from her?” he asked.
“None,” Hakram said. “But she’d have returned by now if she wasn’t making gains, it’s been near five months.”
Or she could be dead, Masego thought but did not say. Precious little was known of what would await their friend in the Everdark.
“And on your front?” Vivienne asked. “No sign of the Ashuran fleet?”
“They’ve either found countermeasures to scrying or they keep priests on their ships,” he said. “It makes finding their whereabouts difficult. The raids have not ceased, but Father says they’d have to be fools to give that obvious a sign they were about to strike. There’s no telling when they’ll attack until they’re visible from the coast.”
“I’ll spare no tears for that lot if you manage to bruise them,” she said. “But be careful, Zeze. Don’t risk yourself for a Praesi city.”
He decided, diplomatically, not to mention his agreed-on position when the Ashurans would come.
“And it’s going well with your fathers?” Hakram asked. “I know what you found in Arcadia shook you.”
“It has been… difficult,” Masego admitted. “There have been arguments.”
Vivienne’s eyes went sharp.
“Do you need a way out?”
He shook his head.
“I suppose you could call it a religious disagreement,” he said.
“Coming from the average Praesi, that would worry me,” Hakram mildly said. “Coming from you, I will confess to something sharper.”
“It will pass,” Masego said. “They simply need to accept I will not forever live on their terms.”
His friend shared a look, but did not comment. He licked his lips.
“Hakram,” he said. “Before Catherine left…”
He trailed off.
“Yes?” the orc encouraged.
The mage folded his arms together.
“No,” he finally said. “It doesn’t matter.”
Adjutant’s keen eyes appraised him.
“Are you certain?”
“Faith,” Masego mused. “It is had or it is not. There is no middle ground.”
“So I’ve heard,” Vivienne murmured, eyeing the orc at her side.
“Then let’s cut this short before the Empress succeeds at listening in,” Hakram said. “I’ll scry you again in an hour with the text we’ve received, Masego.”
“I will be here,” he honestly replied.
A round of farewells, and then he was looking down at simple water. A strange sadness lingered in the room, and he turned towards Indrani to comment on it before realizing she was not here. Masego frowned, brushing back a braid. It was not the first time he’d made the mistake, and he was growing increasingly uncomfortable over it. The sooner he was rid of this city and its trouble, the better.
In the end, however, it would be another month before the Ashurans attacked.