“Thus the Gods granted us the second boon: beyond the veil of death lies a land of always plenty, which will only be open to the just.”
– The Book of All Things, fifth verse of the second hymn
Why was a trial taking place at all?
I kept my face expressionless even as the question consumed me. I knew why Akua would want one: given long enough, she could probably convince a circle it was actually a square. I also knew why Komena wanted one, or rather didn’t. She simply didn’t have the power to do anything about it at the moment. What was tripping me up, though, was why Andronike had boarded this ship. She’d already implied Diabolist might be troublesome if allowed to continue whatever folly she’d been up to out there, but that couldn’t possibly be enough of a reason to indulge this farce. I gave it better than even odds that Akua had come in here with an exit strategy, a way to flee if this turned sour on her, but why not simply hang me on a crook and temporarily devote their energies to taking care of the Diabolist issue before resuming? There was, I decided, a deeper game afoot. True to form, I was the only player involved unaware of the stakes and the rules. Could I feel out the shape of it by figuring out what the older sister was after? No, I decided after a short beat. Even now she was too hard to figure out. On the other hand, I knew Akua like few others. Her I might be able to use for the purpose. So, Diabolist, I thought. What are you actually up to?
“You claimed the role of defender,” Andronike said, silver eyes unblinking. “Proceed, shade.”
“As a titled noble of the Dread Empire of Praes, Catherine Foundling is owed trial before a jury of her peers,” Akua mused. “Yet I suppose you will have to do.”
The insult I immediately discarded as unimportant. She’d never been quite as above trash talk as she liked to pretend, a tendency that exposure to the Woe had only worsened. She was establishing my stature as a Praesi noblewoman – which technically was true, since Malicia had years ago titled me Lady of Marchford even though greater titles had since eclipsed that grant – but also recognizing that the older half of Sve Noc had right of judgement over me. One or both parts of that were useful to her purposes, I decided.
“There is no empire here save ours,” Komena denied bluntly. “Your laws and dues are of no worth.”
Thrust and parry, I frowned. Had it simply been an attempt to make Praesi laws apply to whatever the Hells this was turning into? She’d certainly be more familiar with them than anyone else here, and that opened the door to a multitude of exploitable technicalities. But it should have been fairly predictable that wouldn’t work, we had nowhere near enough leverage in this to make that hold. My eyes flicked to Andronike’s calm face. Arguably no leverage at all, I thought. And yet here we were. She was getting something out of this, something separate from the offer I’d extended. What? The answer to that question was the key to surviving this.
“Then you stand here in your role as shared rulers of the Everdark,” Diabolist said. “With all attendant duties and privileges.”
I knew that faintly indifferent tone of voice all too well. It was the same she’d used every time she was making sport of me before an audience of fellow Wasteland vultures. She’d laid a trap and Komena had fallen for it. Establishing stakes? If the sisters were here as rulers of their kind, the outcome of this might apply to all drow. Which meant that the outcome of this bad play mattered somehow, there’d be no point in pushing for this if it didn’t. I bit my lip. Why would it? We had no way of enforcing anything, the power disparity was to the point of the absurd. It would take something-
“Oh fuck me,” I murmured.
-something even stronger to do that. Like a story. Akua was trying to screw them the exact same way I’d screwed her at First Liesse. Except this time I was theoretically on her side and essentially blind as to the specifics of what she was trying to accomplish. The moment I opened my mouth to say anything I might very well be striking a match in a munitions warehouse.
“That is so,” Andronike replied without hesitation. “I stand in judgement over an invader.”
Think, Catherine. What does ‘Nike get out of this? Why does she play along? This ended either in my acquittal, which I suspected was what Akua might be going for, or in my conviction. Somehow I doubted Diabolist and Andronike were after the same outcome, which meant ‘Ol Silver was aiming for the noose. What would she get from it that choking me out earlier wouldn’t have accomplished?
“Good,” Diabolist smiled. “Now, I believe that assertion was made pride has been her sole master all these years. I would bring evidence to the contrary. Catherine, if I may?”
“Try not to make a mess,” I sighed.
“But that’s not why I’m making this decision. There are eight thousand innocents in Marchford, Juniper. I refuse to abandon them.”
Her grip was lighter, I’d give her that much. Maybe as a consequence the memory didn’t feel nearly as vivid, and it took me a moment to place it. War council of the Fifteenth, after the demon had slipped the leash in the hills south of Marchford. When my officers had been arguing for retreat west and abandonment of the city. I had not forgot, though, exactly who it was that’d loosed the demon in question. Hard to, when she was the same woman currently speaking in my defence.
“The Battle of Marchford,” Akua said. “A choice between pragmatic retreat and principled stand. This too, Sve Noc, is a pattern that must be recognized: holding to loyalties in the face of danger, even when inconvenient.”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek. Yeah, she was definitely going for acquittal here. Which I supposed might mean being worthy of allying with? At least half of Sve Noc seemed aware there was a story in the works here, and so she might step carefully if Diabolist pulled this off, but even then I didn’t see the ‘wrong’ verdict holding up afterwards. Which might be what Akua is actually after, I frowned. Putting at our back a story of the sisters breaking their word, even if it was only implicitly given. It’d been a mistake in thinking to assume that the shade would be after the same thing I was, namely making allies with the pair. Akua Sahelian was a creature who only ever sought absolute endings, be they victories or defeats. And that meant, unfortunately, that putting all my coin on the madwoman trying to fool living gods wasn’t an option. I couldn’t just lie there like a dead fish and await salvation. Even if she managed to win, it would be the wrong damned sort of victory. Shit. That meant I’d have to handle her, Andronike and Komena at the same time. Each of them after something different and in at least one case what exactly remaining unclear to me. This was going to get trickier than I was equipped to handle.
“Laughable,” Komena said. “Is there a single teacher or benefactor she has not turned on?”
I gasped as she riffled through my memories none too gently. The images flickered in quick succession: putting a knife in Black, after the dust had settled on Second Liesse. Coronation in Laure, as good as open rebellion against Malicia. Standing before the Queen of Summer and the King of Winter, unmaking them both by giving them exactly what they wanted.
“All of which betrayed her first, in one manner or another,” Diabolist shrugged. “Can you show me a single instance where she was first to wield the knife?”
“And so she is indecisive as well as untrustworthy,” Komena mocked. “You dig ever deeper.”
“Now now,” Akua chided. “Personal attacks are the mark of failed argument. If you’ve no counterpoint to offer, such flailing only serves to shed further light on your incompetence.”
“A single instance taking place prior to the acquisition of her mantle,” Andronike said. “Your argument stands, shade, yet not as tall as you would wish. I require more recent decisions. You were yourself instrumental in the enslavement of many of my kind. The matter must be addressed.”
I drummed my fingers against my leg. There it was, the hint as to what she was after. Like I’d thought it, was conviction she wanted. So she was on her sister’s side. Whatever hesitation I’d sown was gone, they were back to riding the same horse. No, I suddenly thought. They aren’t. Komena might be serving as the attack hound, at the moment, but that wasn’t what she actually wanted. If given the power she’d strike us both down in an instant. Andronike’s road still ended in my death, presumably, but she wanted to carry out the full farce first. Make it about my being judged and then annihilated. The semblance of justice had some use to her. The whole thing still had the smell of sacrifice to it, but there was a difference between simple victory by strength and the hanging of a villain. The latter had a narrative behind it, and I could only see one use for that: she wanted to ride it against Winter. That was the only reason she’d humoured Diabolist, she wanted Fate to back her claim on my former mantle. And so finally I knew what everyone was after: Akua wanted to trick the sisters to their death, Komena wanted heads for her spikes and Andronike wanted me to walk to the altar willingly.
And I needed to outmanoeuver the three of them simultaneously, while prone and having my mind ransacked.
“Oaths were taken, this is true,” Diabolist said. “Yet willingly, in fair bargain.”
“Death or kneeling is no bargain,” Komena said. “It is conquest by another name. Most damningly of all, it is failed conquest. There is no victory to redeem the outrage.”
“Can one be made a slave twice over?” Akua denied. “Were the Firstborn not already owned?”
“Then the offence of theft is to be added to insult,” the younger sister replied.
“You concede, then, that the drow were and remain slaves,” Diabolist pressed.
Komena hesitated, smelling the trap. I could have taken the moment to try to unfold Akua’s latest trick, but there was no point to that. I wouldn’t get through this by following her lead. Two outcomes to a trial, conviction or acquittal. That it was rigged from the start mattered little, I thought, it was only playacting to strengthen a story. Could I break this, then? Refuse to recognize the authority of my judge? No, that’d only give Komena what she wanted. Heads, spikes, the usual. It irked me that the proceedings themselves were largely meaningless: it was all just squabbling for the right position in the eyes of the story. Diabolist and Andronike were fighting over the knife they both wanted to wield, the ‘being in the right’, but I suspected the moment it was clear Sve Noc would not get what she was after she’d discard the pretence and turn to violence. You’re still trying to win according to the rules, I remembered, when you should be trying to win despite them. Gods, it would be so much easier to be rid of him if his lessons were not so useful. Even now, years later and hundreds of miles away from anything he’d ever seen. As in so many things, Black had the right of it.
Nowhere this ‘trial’ would lead to suited me, and so there was no need for me to play along with it.
I closed my eyes and the talk washed over me. Komena walked back her first claim, terming her people as servants instead, and Akua argued that servants finding other employment was no crime. They went around in a circle, Sve Noc claiming the service was to Below and so meddling in the matter was blasphemy, Akua arguing that as a villain I was equally in Below’s service and so no blasphemy was had. The shade was better at this: they’d put up their soldier against my schemer. And while we were fresh off our wars with Above, they’d been stewing in a hole of their own making for millennia. We had the edge, by the slightest of margins. That edge just wasn’t being used for what I wanted. I croaked out a laugh, opening my eyes.
“Do you hear the sound, Andronike?” I said.
There was a pause in the argument.
“Catherine-” Akua began, but I shook my head.
I met her gaze. Trust me, I silently asked. I have taken us from one mess to another, and twice you’ve had to save my life tonight. Trust me anyway. Slowly the shade nodded. She had been my nemesis, once. There had been understanding in that as well as hatred.
“I hear a trial,” Andronike replied.
“Not me,” I mused. “It’s just this awful patter I can make out. Click click click. Claws and feet. Four crabs in a bucket.”
She eyed me in confusion.
“Ah, not familiar with those I take it,” I said. “They’re these-”
“I know what a crab is, Catherine Foundling,” Sve Noc flatly replied.
“They trap those, in the city I was born,” I said. “In cages, then they take them out and put them in buckets. Went swimming a few times when I was a kid, and once I came across this crabber. He’d taken them out of his cage and put them in one of those very buckets. I was surprised when I saw it was just a regular old one – no trick to it, not even a lid. So I went up to the man and asked why they didn’t just escape. You know what he said?”
The drow did not reply.
“A single crab would escape,” I smiled. “But when you have more than one? The moment it’s about to get out, the others will drag it back down.”
“This again,” Komena sneered. “Is there-”
“Now, all that’s left of this one is hunger and hubris,” I casually interrupted, jamming a thumb towards the younger drow. “I forgive her for it. And Akua, well, she was raised in a bucket even more vicious than this one. She’s still learning to let go of those blinders. You, though? I’m disappointed that at no point you figured out you could simply ask.”
“Would you like to confess?” Andronike calmly said.
“Click click click,” I replied. “You’re still acting like the only way you can win is if I lose. We both know that’s not true.”
“Apotheosis,” she said, “cannot be partitioned.”
“So that’s the pebble in your boot,” I snorted. “Gods, you think I want to be Queen Bitch of Night? There’s not a lot things I’m afraid of, but going back to the mantle is one. It was like having a sieve between me and Creation with only the ugly stuff going through.”
“It’s a trap, sister,” Komena said. “The shade will have its jaws unhinged, lurking behind us.”
“Akua Sahelian,” I said. “I order you to discard whatever you have wrought.”
“We can still triumph,” Diabolist quietly said, facing me in full.
“And that’s the kind of victory we all prefer, isn’t it?” I pensively said. “Complete. Mistress of the field, every opponent ground to dust.”
I flicked a glanced at where I’d ripped out her hear, then at the halves of Sve Noc.
“Look where it’s gotten us, thinking of compromise as weakness,” I said. “A shade and half a corpse. The two cannibal goddesses of an endless butcher’s yard.”
“We are nothing like you,” Komena hissed.
“Look at us, you fucking fool,” I hissed back. “Actually look at us. Is there a single one of us that isn’t a monumental failure? I carved open like a pig the only thing I’ve ever tried to save, again and again. Akua watched every single belief she held to burn to the ground around her before I ripped out her beating heart. And you two, Komena, Merciless Gods – even a monstrous thing like Wandering Bard pitied you for this.”
“And who are you to lecture us?” Andronike said. “Who are you, that your advice should be heeded? By your own lips an admitted derelict.”
“I’m not better than you,” I said. “That’s not what this is about. We could all debate body counts and ruins until the Last Dusk but what would that accomplish? One of us being the worst of the lot doesn’t change what’s on all our shoulders. Nothing does.”
“Desperate,” Komena scathingly said. “Running scared. This is no offer, it is terror gilded with false sentiment.”
“This is absurd,” I laughed. “We’re holding a trial over what, my worthiness? I am a funeral procession of mistakes and horrors. We all are. Plunder my memories all you like for justifications or blemishes, it doesn’t make this any less of a sham. Sure, I’m a monster. What do you care?”
“And you would have us clasp hands in alliance with a monster,” Andronike said. “A strange argument you make.”
“Like you give a shit about humans dying,” I snorted. “Or even about my character, such as it is. I’m not asking you on a moonlit walk for a spot of kissing, Sve Noc, I’m offering you a power stolen through murder to help you cheat the death of your entire race. Again. Why are we still pretending my regrets or principles have any weight on these scales?”
“We would have no guarantees on their end,” Akua said, voice blanked of emotion. “No means to ensure they hold up their part.”
“It’s always the need for control that fucks us, isn’t it?” I mused. “It killed the very partnership that dug Praes out of the pit. You and me too, Diabolist. How much could we have avoided if instead of clawing at each other we’d sat down and talked? How many tragedies would have never come to pass if we’d just bent our proud necks the slightest bit?”
I looked at the sisters.
“You think I’m a fool,” I said. “Fine. My record holds to it. But ask yourselves this: a century from now, while you watch the essence of Winter turn your people into animals despite your best efforts, will you not regret this even a little? That one moment where you could have done it differently?”
“Different is not better,” Komena said.
“It could be worse,” I agreed. “I won’t deny that. Devouring Winter is an agony assured, but this could turn out worse. It’s still a chance, though.”
I clenched my fingers then unclenched them.
“It’s an unknown,” I said. “It’s terrifying and dark and it could be the single worst thing any of us has ever done – but it’s not impossible to get out of a bucket. You need to own that, deep down. That if we’re the crabs we’re that because of fear and not because there was no other way.”
The silence that followed hung heavy over all of us. There was a song in it, I thought. Four monsters assembled in a room that wasn’t. Night twofold, harsh and serene. The Doom of Liesse and the Black Queen who slew her. The silver-eyed sisters were mirroring statues of stillness, not a hint as to their thoughts revealed. Andronike eventually let out a breath.
“It burns, doesn’t it?” she told her sister. “Sincerity. I’d forgotten the taste of it.”
“Once more we come to the crossroads, heart of my heart,” Komena murmured. “I believed in you then. I believe in you now. But this?”
She shook her head.
“Beautiful words, Catherine Foundling,” she said. “Yet still only words. It was no kindness to any of us, letting you speak.”
My hands shook. Gambled and lost. All of it. Akua stirred but I leant back against the pillar. Fighting was pointless. I’d asked for a leap of faith from the faithless and received the inevitable from that arrogant roll of the dice.
“Asked,” I repeated in a murmur.
Hypocrite to end, was I? Demanding what I would not offer. Was compromise on my own terms even compromise at all, or just victory by another name? For all I’d said tonight, one thing had not changed: I had not learned to lose. I dragged myself up, biting my lip not to scream at the flare of pain.
“Hear me, Sve Noc,” I said. “Whatever claim I yet hold to Winter, I pass to you. My crown of Moonless Night, I lay at your feet. I stand before you without power or right to my name, mortal at your mercy.”
Two pairs of silver eyes widened. I could feel the crushing weight of them swelling, breaking the memory apart at the seams.
“Help me,” I asked, begged, prayed. “Please.”
Night fell over me and I breathed my last desperate breath, clawing at the dark.