“I speak today not for humble man-eating tapirs but instead for the most ambitious specimens their kind has ever known. Is it not the sacred duty of all Creation to seek to claim the Tower? How, then, could it have been a crime for these tapirs to follow this same dictate by devouring our late Emperor?”
– From official transcript from the Trial of Unexpected Teeth, opening speech of the defence
“What a silver tongue you have,” Andronike said. “But not quite silver enough. Your ignorance shows once more, Catherine Foundling.”
I tried to respond ‘when does it not?’, but I was currently being choked so it came out as more of a plaintive gurgle. So, this was how it ended: literally choking on my own words. Had to give her points for the irony, if nothing else.
“Allow me to educate you,” Sve Noc said, and threw me like a bloody rag doll.
Well, I thought, there’s a bright side to this. I’m currently not dead. Or at least not more than I was when this delightful interlude began. The slightly less bright side was that I was flying through flickering scenes, memories I could only glimpse the barest pieces of, and soon enough I would… Ah, there it is, I mused, managing to keep a semblance of mental calm as my leg snapped and my throat busied itself screaming. That utter asshole, I bet she’d aimed just so my bad leg would be the one getting the worst of the landing. I tumbled listlessly against the floor, my magical journey ending in the close acquaintance of my forehead and a stone wall. Still not dead, admittedly. I wouldn’t be in such an excruciating amount of pain if I was. My forehead was going to bruise, if I still had a body by the end of it. I moaned and flopped around until I was looking upwards, feeling out my knee and finding it only mostly broken. Could I still move on that? Maybe. There’d be a lot of howling involved, but it shouldn’t be impossible. I still stayed down for a while, lying uncomfortably on the floor.
In the distance people were dying.
“Educate me about that, would you?” I sighed. “Like I haven’t strolled through a dozen butcher’s yards.”
Might as well find out what had her tossing me around, I eventually decided. At this point I’d taken my swing and missed, I might as well die slightly less ignorant than usual. My good leg supported me as I forced myself up using the wall, taking a proper look around at my surroundings. Yet another drow city I’d never seen before, though I had a decent guess as to where we were: I was standing among a city-sized temple carved out of massive stalactites. The streets here were not interrupted by ‘canals’ that were effectively sheer drops, and hobbling to the edge of one told me there was an actual city below. If this wasn’t Holy Tvarigu, I’d eat my fingers… again? No, first time. I’d made other people – insofar as fae were people, anyway, – do it, but that hardly counted. I flinched at the vivid memory of it. Gods, I’d made people eat their hands. It’d seemed reasonable at the time, and damn me but I could still see the sense in it, but I couldn’t remember even hesitating for a moment. Not that hesitation would have made it better, I silently conceded. Cordelia Hasenbach’s passing comment had cut deeper than she knew.
What did regret matter, if it changed nothing?
The temple-city was strewn with corpses as far as I could see. Whatever battle had taken place here had ended, or at least near to it, and now this place was little more than a freshly-bloodied mausoleum. By Andronike’s passing mercy or a stroke of luck, I’d landed near the heart of the temple. I could only be thankful for that, I thought, as I eyed the mind-bogglingly complex web of stairways and bridges connecting everything. Some ways in front of me a wide staircase progressively narrowed in rising to meet a passage lightly sloped. On both sides it was flanked by a very short wall of painted stone topped by striking sculptures. It was a chain, I thought, as I began the painful climb. At the head of the stairs two androgynous drow of marble painted red and yellow roared out with curved blades in hand. From their back sprouted more drow in different colours, wielding whips and daggers, and facing those drow in hooded robes offered a supplicant’s kneel. The whirlwind of colours and faces and poses continued all the way to the end of the passage, where the heart of the temple-city awaited.
It took me far too long and far too many bouts of yelling to make it up the stairway, but the view when I did was almost worth it. Wouldn’t keep me alive, but that was probably asking too much. The riot of vivid pigments should have turned it ugly, but there was something almost hypnotic about the sight before me. More ziggurat than pyramid, though that failed to truly catch the essence of it: it was almost a stairway of giant steps, but a triangular mouth going all the way to the summit struck out from the rest of the structure – which was roofed, at that narrowest point, by some sort of cylindrical tiled pavilion. At the four cardinal directions pale or red stone made up the life and death of celestial orbs: sun on the rise and fall, moon ascendant and passing. It was like looking at a hundred rainbows made into stone and woven into a single tapestry. There was hardly a trace of such wonder left in what I’d seen of the Everdark. The thought shook me out of the trance and I resumed my advance. Halfway through the passage I finally noticed I’d not been alone for some time: hidden among the statues were drow, armed and armoured. They’d been so utterly still I’d never noticed. I continued limping until I entered the heart-temple, and there I found what Andronike had meant for me to find.
Inside were burned made of what must have been all precious materials in existence, from ivory to a massive hollowed out emerald, and every single one of them was wafting thick trails of scented smoke. At the centre of the shivering columns the two sisters were kneeling in front of simple carved piece of obsidian. A star map, by the looks of it. Andronike finished unfurling a large scroll filled with equations and incantations I’d already seen before, then passed her fingers over to smooth it out.
“Ready?” Komena asked.
“How could anyone be?” her sister replied. “Yet here we are.”
She breathed in loudly.
“We request audience,” Andronike said.
“We request bargain,” her sister said.
I hobbled forward with an expectant gaze, strangely eager to see the moment where they’d sold out their race with the best of intentions, but nothing happened at all. Stillness held the room.
“Damn me,” Andronike said with quiet horror. “I have killed us all.”
Her sister opened her mouth to answer, but was interrupted by an unholy ruckus. A dozen burners had been tipped over, by the sounds of it, and for a moment I thought it’d been me. But no – I turned, and there was someone in the middle of a set of spilled burners who’d quite evidently tripped on them. A drow, I saw. It rose hastily, pretending nothing had happened, and retched a little before slapping away the thick smoke.
“Gods,” the drow retched again. “That stuff is foul.”
Both sisters went still.
“O Shrouded God,” Komena said hesitantly, but the newcomer’s hand rose.
“Give me a moment, girls,” it rasped out.
It patted at its dirty robes and produced a flash of polished copper. My heart skipped a beat. The Wandering Bard uncorked her flask and took a deep drink, before gargling it and spitting out the liquor. The sisters traded an appalled look. A little less godly than they’d been aiming for, I supposed. The Bard took another swallow of liquor, wiped her mouth and went looking through the tipped burner before triumphantly snatching out a broken lute. Apparently she’d mistakenly spat some liquor on it, because with a shoddy attempt at discretion she began wiping at the wood with her sleeve.
“Good enough,” the Bard announced. “Right, so onto business.”
“You are no deity,” Komena flatly said.
“Well spotted,” Bard cheerfully replied. “And to think they told me you were the stupid one. For the purposes of this conversation, you might consider me an envoy of sorts.”
“You claim to speak for the Gods,” Andronike frowned.
“Oh, I wouldn’t go as far as that,” she said. “I’ve never been quite that much of a fool. But you called and here I am.”
“Are you a devil?” Komena pressed.
“Would it matter if I were?” the Bard shrugged. “Regardless, I hear the two of you are looking for a loan.”
The sisters stirred, Andronike picking up the scroll she’d unfurled.
“A miracle is what we would bargain for,” she said. “The specifics-”
“Are known to me,” Bard replied, waving the words away and accidentally sloshing some booze onto the floor.
One of the burners caught fire, and everyone delicately pretended it was not actually happening.
“Even the parts you got ambitious with,” she continued, lifting a finger off her flask to wag it chidingly. “Making it reusable? Now now, that’s trying to inflate the value. Just because you shove old skills and power into new heads doesn’t mean the following deaths are worth as much as the first.”
“We sought only to offer the finest possible tribute,” Komena baldly lied.
“I can’t believe I’m rooting for you right now,” I muttered.
Still, if the opposition was the Wandering Bard then ‘All is Night’ was most definitely the banner of the moment.
“More need than brains, huh,” Bard drawled. “No wonder you’re in good odour with the old crowd. Still, you two are a little late. They’ve been a lot more careful about where they put their money since Nessie ate the hand that fed him.”
“We offered all we have,” Andronike gravely said.
“Yeah, but you don’t have enough,” the old thing said. “I’ll level with you two, since you seem slightly less awful than your average drow. This? This whole thing? It’s not anybody’s plan. No one thought you’d actually fuck up so badly you’d obliterate yourselves. The folks upstairs are watching like hawks, and the other side’s wondering if it’s worth it to intervene given the… costs of such direct action.”
“We offer fair bargain,” Komena insisted.
“Fair is for children,” the Bard said. “They’re not interested in it.”
“Yet here you are,” Andronike said, amber eyes narrowing.
“Killing the Sages and calling Below in the middle of their seat of power was a nice touch,” she replied. “Got you the audience and a consideration. But the terms are going to need to change a bit.”
“This is an exceedingly delicate arrangement,” Komena said. “We can’t simply-”
“You will,” the Wandering Bard gently said. “Or you’ll die, every last one of you.”
“Speak your terms,” Andronike replied.
It sounded like a surrender, because it was.
“‘Nike-” her younger sister began.
“We are in no position to negotiate,” the older drow tiredly said.
“Debt isn’t wiped,” the Bard spoke softly into the silence that followed. “The Night will keep you all alive, but you two will need to keep it going. And if you stop…”
The ancient entity grimaced.
“Well, they’re not above cutting their losses,” Bard said. “Let’s leave it at that.”
“Should we even bother to accept?” Komena harshly replied. “Or is even that formality unnecessary?”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” the Wandering Bard murmured. “There are some things worse than death, and what this will make of you is one.”
She drank once more, then offered a sharp grin.
“But we all know better, don’t we?” she said.
I’d known how it would end from the start. I’d seen what had become of the Everdark and the two sisters, after all. And still, watching the light dim in the eyes of the two true drow in the room, I felt my stomach drop. Was there a single horror in this continent’s history the Wandering Bard did not have a hand in? The thing was, I understood why they’d made this choice. It was uncomfortable to even think it, but if offered the same terms with my own people on the line I would very likely make the same choice. Passing a hand through my hair, I gingerly lowered myself down to the floor while leaning against a pillar. So which part of this had it been that Andronike wanted me to see? Even odds it was either the Bard’s very presence or that threatening little bit at the end. They’re not above cutting their losses, the Intercessor had said. Was a gentle way to speak of genocide. Was that what Andronike was afraid of? That the moment she and I made common cause, a snap of the fingers Below would destroy her entire race? But it shouldn’t work out like that, I thought with a frown. The Gods were, well, exactly that. All-powerful. They could probably end the Night and likely Winter itself. But there was a story unfolding, and if they did anything of the sort they’d be directly meddling.
They couldn’t do that without opening the door for Above to do the same, and the Heavens should be taking a brutal beating right about now. The Dead King was on the march, the last thing Below would want was Above getting a free swing at him.
“So it’s the Bard you wanted me to see,” I said, raising my voice.
“The Bard,” Sve Noc repeated, walking out from behind the pillar. “What a quaint name. We knew her as the Envoy.”
“Neshamah called her the Intercessor,” I said. “And I suppose if anyone’s got her number it’s him.”
“The King in Keter wears a crown of lies,” the silver-eyed drow replied. “No creature born of this land has ever been half as skilled at the art.”
She moved to lean against the pillar I was sitting back against, standing above in both the physical and metaphysical sense. Well, at least one of those was new.
“He’s her enemy,” I said. “Trusting him would be foolish, but he wants her to bleed. That much can be believed in.”
“Trust is always foolish,” Sve Noc smiled. “It is faith writ small, and almost as dangerous.”
“So did you throw me here for a game of riddles?” I drily replied. “Because I can roll with it. The more you make, the more you leave behind. What-”
“Footsteps,” the goddess said.
“I might not win this,” I reluctantly conceded. “I only know, like, five riddles and that one was the best.”
If we made this about bawdy jokes instead my years at the Rat’s Nest would finally pay off, though. Worth a try.
“A riddle of my own, then,” Sve Noc said. “Why share what can be taken in full?”
I frowned, twisting to look up at her.
“You’re not Andronike,” I said.
“I never said I was,” Komena calmly replied.
“I’ve been over this with your sister,” I said. “But what the Hells, maybe the second time’s the charm. Just give me a moment to think of an insult to get you angry before this gets going.”
“Your offer has been made known to me,” Sve Noc contemptuously said. “There is no need to reiterate. I was partial to the notion of immediately crushing you underfoot, but request has been made that you be allowed to speak your piece first.”
Well, wasn’t that promising. I gazed ahead, honestly at a loss as to where to begin, and only now noticed the memory had stopped. Frozen. Maybe it really was only Komena’s memories, I thought. She certainly seemed to have greater control of our surroundings than her sister had. My eyes lingered on the Wandering Bard, the flask halfway to her mouth as she opened her mouth.
“She can be beaten, you know,” I said.
“You have not,” Sve Noc said. “And yet would demand that we throw in our lot with you.”
“I haven’t, it’s true, but there’s a villain down south called the Tyrant,” I said. “I have it from two rather reliable sources that he screwed with her plans in a major way last year. It can be done.”
“I lacked fear, once,” Komena said. “As you so foolishly do. I have since been taught better.”
“I just heard a woman try to lie to what she knew to be envoy from the Gods,” I said. “Brazenly so. She had a chance at getting her people out of this mess, I think.”
I smiled thinly.
“Now though?” I said. “You won’t even try. My opinion might be dross in your eyes, but I wonder what she’d think of you now.”
“Petty sentimentality,” she mused. “Is that truly the sum of what she brings, Andronike? This is what shook you?”
The other sister walked out from behind another pillar, this one in front of me. For terrifyingly ancient creatures, they did enjoy their petty theatrics.
“When have we last been called to account for our many sins, sister?” Andronike said. “There is worth in such a thing, even coming from her.”
“That last part was unnecessary,” I noted. “I mean, not wrong, but definitely unnecessary.”
“If you felt the need for a pet there are better choices,” Komena said, eyeing me darkly. “This one has been beaten too harshly to still be amusing.”
“I’m not even going to grace that with a response,” I indignantly said.
“A goddess has no interlocutors,” her sister said. “Only supplicants.”
“Judgement only has meaning coming from one worthy of casting it,” Komena said. “This one hardly qualifies.”
“I’m not going to claim I’m a saint,” I said. “And I’ve definitely crossed some lines, but-”
“Is this where you claim influence by your mantle once more?” the younger sister asked. “You could, at least, attempt a believable lie. ‘Nike, she’s not even held her half of the Garden for a decade. The drift would be negligible. It was still her. The only difference was that she had power enough to cow her foes.”
My fingers clenched. I didn’t want to believe that, and I wasn’t sure I did. But this was the Pilgrim all over again, wasn’t it? If there was anyone learned on the subject of mantles in Calernia, it would be the two of them. On the other hand, she’d already confessed she intended to kill me. Believable lies from enemies were a deadly thing.
“Humans are notoriously weak-minded,” Andronike replied. “Arguably the ease of their swaying is their defining characteristic as a species.”
I grit my teeth. Insulting as this was, I wasn’t exactly in a position to contradict her. I only had the one crossbow to wield and it was currently pointed straight at my foot.
“This didn’t have to get racist,” I still protested.
“Then let us see,” Komena said, ignoring my perfectly valid complaint, “the stuff Catherine Foundling is made of. Grant me the power, sister. I will not destroy her yet.”
Andronike considered me for a long moment, then inclined her head. My mind was racing at the implications. Angry Sve couldn’t kill me without Calm Sve’s say-so, then. Andronike owned the floodgate even in here.
“Done,” she said.
Komena pushed herself up and came to stand over me. Well, it wasn’t like I was capable of stopping her. Might as well do what I did best: mouth off to entities beyond my comprehension.
“Please be gentle,” I shyly said. “It’s my first-”
“No,” Sve Noc cut in.
What followed lived up to the word. Before the Battle of the Camps, I remembered, I had gone looking through a Deoraithe soldier’s mind for bits of useful information. If it had felt anything like this I owed the man apology and restitution. The sensation of cold fingers prying through my memories had me regretting the jest I’d just made. It was an intrusion, on some fundamental level, and there was no hiding anything from Sve Noc’s piercing gaze.
“There,” she said. “We begin with blood.”
For what he said and what he’d done, I’d decided he deserved to die – my hand had done the rest without any need for prompting. Edge parallel to the ground, slicing across the major arteries just like the butcher did it to pigs in the marketplace.
I gasped out weakly. She’d brought that to the fore, but her grasp had not slackened. I could still smell the blood in the air, the taste of the first life I’d ever taken. I could almost feel Black looking on, face unreadable.
“Humans killing humans,” Andronike commented. “Nothing of import.”
“A child arrogating powers beyond her due,” Komena contradicted her. “The birth of a recurring pattern. And see how quickly it comes again-”
I let what I’d just done sink in, closing my eyes. With a life spared, I’d just killed thousands. I’d just promised cities to fire and ruin, sown the seeds of a rebellion that would rip the land of my birth – the very same land I wanted to save – apart. But I’d also bought the war I needed. Damn me, but I’d bought the war I needed.
The Lone Swordsman, granted his life so that I may rise through the deaths it would bring. My throat clogged with old disgust. I’d never gotten over that quite as well as I liked to pretend. I’d just had darker things to my name, usurping the place of that early sin when it came to the litany of my regrets.
“Her own kind, thrown into the flames,” Komena said. “There are no similarities, Andronike, only lies she made herself swallow.”
“Not done without purpose,” I croaked. “Not for the sport of it. Because I thought it had to be done.”
“You were wrong,” the silver-eyed drow said.
“I was,” I got out. “And I will be again. But it still matters. If I stand judgement then judge me for all of it. Not just the parts that suit you.”
“Not desperation, sister,” Komena said, turning to address our audience. “It was ambition that held the knife. Best not forget that.”
“Not always,” Andronike said.
I couldn’t beat the monsters by being better than them. I’d never had that in me. Too much impatience, too much recklessness. That was all right, though. There was another way: be the bigger monster.
Akua on the Blessed Isle, a false victory. The two of us under moonlight, the beginnings of a dance that would see us both spinning for years. The moment I’d first admitted to myself I could live with being a monster if I still won.
“Pride,” Komena objected, shaking her head. “Refusal to lose even at the cost of principle. Must I bring out every example of this?”
The duel against the Duke of Violent Squalls, the Arcadian Campaign, Second Liesse. More recent, after that. The Battle of the Camps, Keter. The moment I bestowed a title on Ivah and bound it by oaths.
“Always another sliver shaven off,” Komena said. “Another compromise. How long would it take before we became the sacrifice?”
Andronike did not answer. She was, I thought, being convinced.
“This is most irregular.”
Both halves of Sve Noc jolted in surprise, and the younger sister’s grasp slackened for a moment before tightening twice as hard. I craned my neck to look at the source of the sound and winced.
“Finally you crawl out of your hole, shade,” Komena smiled. “I will enjoy this a great deal.”
Akua Sahelian stood among us, her scarlet dress flowing down to her feet, and managed to convey utter disdain without ever significantly moving her face.
“There are proper forms to observe, you grasping savages,” Diabolist scoffed. “This is not at all how a rigged trial is held. I see an accuser yet no defence – you can, and indeed should, bribe the defender, but you cannot dispense with the office entirely. It is simply not done.”
“Sister,” Komena began, but the other raised her hand.
“She is less dangerous here than out there, stirring trouble,” Andronike said.
“I find the shallowness of your understanding deeply offensive,” the shade retorted, wrinkling her nose. “This is the finest your misbegotten race has to offer? Even the least of Tyrants would have made matching cutlery sets of you.”
“I know you think this is helping,” I began, then paused. “Wait, do you? Are you trying to help?”
“You test my patience, shade,” Andronike warned.
“You test mine, chattel,” Akua replied. “Even a devil is owed an advocate.”
Komena laughed mockingly.
“And you would be hers?” she said.
“Why,” Diabolist smiled, extending her arms, “I only want to see justice done. Shall we begin?”
There should be a rule, I decided, about last moment rescues not being allowed to make a situation worse.