“Now, luck it always turns. Nothing you can do about that. But that’s the trick, you see – wait long enough, and it turns all the way around.”
– Dread Emperor Irritant I, the Oddly Successful
The matron would be asleep by now, she’d hit the brandy pretty hard at dinner: this was as good an opportunity I’d get. I closed the book and snuffed out the stolen candle, ignoring Lydia’s theatrical sigh of vindication. I wasn’t sure whether she really had so delicate a constitution she couldn’t handle a bit of light when she was trying to sleep or whether it was just our shared dislike coming to the fore, but I could hardly care less. She’d leaned not to rat me out after I smeared her sheets with fish guts, if all I had to deal with was a little attitude I’d cope. I passed an affectionate hand over the worn cover of Serapin’s ‘The Licerian Wars’ and shoved it under my pillow, brushing away the few wax droppings on my sheets from the candle before stowing it away under my bed. One of my predecessors at the Laure House for Tragically Orphaned Girls had pried open room between the straw mattress and the wooden frame that was just large enough for it to fit. I slipped on my shoes and snuck out of the room, careful to close the door slowly enough the hinge wouldn’t squeak.
The orphanage was dark – every lantern and candle snuffed out the moment the matron went to sleep, to cut on costs – but I knew my way well. It wasn’t the first time I snuck out after curfew, though technically speaking I wouldn’t even been leaving the House for long. The front door was locked, but only the youngest girls in here didn’t know you could force the lock if you pushed at the right angle. I slipped into the street quiet as a mouse, closing the door behind me. I’d taken me a while to figure out how to get up to the roof, though it’d been made much easier after some stall merchant began putting up her folded stall next to the wall. She paid the matron coppers for it, which was a good deal as far as everyone was concerned. I suspected she might be less sanguine about the whole thing if she knew I regularly used her stall as a makeshift ladder. The tricky part was the leap to the left, where I had to catch the jutting masonry or hit the pavement after a hard fall. I turned out lucky tonight, catching it on first try even if my sweaty palms threatened to have me slip loose.
I hoisted myself over the edge of the roof with desperate haste, moist fingers scrabbling over the rough tiles as I rolled like a sack of cabbage until I was no longer at risk of falling. I remained there a moment, heart beating all too quickly, until I wiped my palms on my trousers and rose into a crouch. No point in standing tall – well, relatively speaking – until it was time. I headed towards the back of the orphanage, since that street wasn’t as busy. Not that Laure was after dark, these days. The city guard in this part of the city had started grabbing people out after sunset and putting them in a cell overnight for their own ‘safety’. It was an open secret a few silvers would get you out of the situation, which made the whole affair yet another tax in everything but name. Angry as the thought made me, Mazus and his cronies were far beyond my reach. And not why I was out tonight, regardless. I made it to the edge and stood up, clenching my fists. Gods, I was already shaking. I felt sick in my stomach and my legs were jelly. It wasn’t even that tall a drop, I knew, and still somehow it felt like a knife at my throat.
“Your hands are trembling.”
I yelped and jumped, would have fallen if the woman who’d spoken hadn’t caught my wrist at the last moment. Whoever she was she was tall and slender, though in the dark I couldn’t make out much of her face. Nothing, really, save for the eyes. A pale blue, almost silvery.
“I’m not a thief,” I hastily told the stranger. “I live here!”
“So I assumed,” the woman replied, and dragged me out of danger before withdrawing a few steps.
Shit, if this got out to the matron I was going to get it. Already I’d been caught trading essays with Julie, two strikes the same week would have my buttocks tanned for an hour.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to be up here either,” I said. “So let’s just call this a wash for the both us, right? I’ll go, you’ll go. Ships in the night.”
“More ironic an offer than you know,” the stranger replied. “Sate my curiosity first. You are obviously terrified of heights. Why do you seek out the edge?”
“Look, it’s not exactly illegal to do this,” I defensively replied.
Maybe. I wasn’t sure, and asking would have raised suspicions.
“I care little for such things,” the woman said. “You were asked a question, Catherine Foundling.”
Oh, this was bad. She knew my fucking name. It wasn’t like there were a lot of Deoraithe bastards in the House if she’d been intending on tattling, but that she actually knew my name was a bad sign all around. My teeth clenched and I reluctantly gave ground.
“It’s not about standing,” I said. “It’s about how long I can make myself stay.”
“Yet your fear has not ended, has it?”
I shook my head.
“Maybe I’ll always be afraid of it,” I said. “But that’s not what matters. Every time I come, I stay a little longer.”
“It gets easier?” the woman curiously asked.
“No,” I murmured. “But I get better at handling it. And one day I’ll get good enough it won’t matter if I’m afraid.”
There was a long moment of silence between us.
“Nature is not so easily overcome,” the stranger finally said.
“We’re people, aren’t we?” I said. “Not beasts. We can learn. It’s just hard and unpleasant and never as clear-cut as we’d like.”
“But will you?” the stranger asked.
Kilian was asleep. The public celebration after the Battle of Liesse had been subdued: there were too many dead people in the city for it to be otherwise. Heiress’ devils had slain hundreds before a shouted technicality had turned them irrelevant. Still, in the camps outside the city the Fifteenth had raucously feasted its latest victory. My evening with my lover had been a different sort of celebration, though. I’d died today, and that had lent an urgency to our bedplay that was harsher than our usual fare. She’d understood, though, that it was as much about being alive as it was about pleasure. Kilian knew me better than most, and in ways not even my closest friends did. Still, after she fell asleep I’d remained restless. I padded barefoot away from our bed and poured myself a cup of Vale summer wine, the sweet taste filling my mouth. I nursed the same glass for the better part of an hour, seated by the window. The night was warm, for this time of the year, and in the distance I could see the campfires of my legion. The candles lit suddenly, and that was my only warning Kilian had awakened. She sat up in the bed, face shrouded by shadows and her body only half-covered by the sheets.
“Still awake?” she asked.
“Can’t seem to close my eyes,” I admitted. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“These things happen,” she languidly shrugged.
For a moment, in the penumbra of the room, I thought her eyes were pale blue. It must have been a trick of the light.
“You died today,” Kilian continued quietly. “A little restlessness is to be expected.”
“All part of the plan,” I ruefully said. “Try as I might, I couldn’t find another way through.”
“There were risks,” she said. “If you had not succeeded as taking your resurrection from the Choir, there would have been no salvation.”
“But I did,” I replied, uneasily.
It had occurred to me that I’d not so much gamble with my life as thrown it away and then gambled on a resurrection. Recklessness ran in my veins, and in the heat of the moment it had all felt right, but in the cold light of the aftermath I was beginning to grasp how close I’d come to disaster.
“If you hadn’t,” Kilian softly asked, “would it have been worth it?”
I looked at her, blinking in surprise.
“If I’d failed?” I mused. “William would have turned us into Hashmallim puppets or Heiress would have killed everyone in the city. There was no room for mistakes.”
“I misspoke,” my lover said. “If it had all worked save for the resurrection, would that have been a fair price?”
It was, I thought, a sharp question but not an unworthy one. I’d schemed this with the notion in mind that I should be breathing by the end of it, but there would be fights ahead where I might not have that luxury. If the price for this had been that I’d disappear or return as some undead abomination, would I still have taken the bargain?
“There’s about a hundred thousand people in Liesse,” I eventually said. “More, with the soldiers that came to defend it. They’d be dead or worse, if I didn’t take the bargain anyway.”
“Cities can be rebuilt,” Kilian said. “Fresh children are born with every heartbeat.”
“But I only live once, is that it?” I smiled, looking out the window. “I appreciate the sentiment, I really do, but if all I wanted was to live I’d be a tradeswoman in Laure. Not the Squire.”
“There is a middle ground,” my lover chided, “between sacrifice and obscurity.”
“By taking up the knife, I signed away that kind of thinking,” I honestly replied. “The power’s not the point, Kilian, it’s just a way to handle the responsibilities. To take it but ignore why I did in the first place would make all of this meaningless.”
“A fair price, then,” Kilian mused, eyes hooded.
“Oh, the opposite of fair,” I softly disagreed. “One life against a hundred thousand? That’s a steal, by any account.”
“I do wonder,” she said, and I caught the glimmer of silver in her eyes, “how many times a blade can go through the crucible before breaking.”
“Victory should taste better than this,” I said.
Akua’s Folly lay before us in all its raging horror. Masego had warded the surroundings, but there was no hiding the mass of wights still haunting the ruins of Liesse. The bottle of aragh in my hand was no comfort, but at least it was something. Anything was better than stillness of the cold I’d used to forge myself anew. I held it up for Hakram to take, but he shook his head. He was impossibly hard to make it out in the dark of night, shrouded in a way my fae sight should have ignored. I was still new to this, though. There might be a trick to it. That I sometimes thought his eyes to be blue was evidence enough either the liquor had struck deep or I was using my not-eyes wrong.
“Two bottles are enough, I think,” the orc mildly said.
“A hundred wouldn’t be,” I shrugged. “But two will have to do. Ratface only has so many on hand, and it will be weeks before we reach a city.”
“We lingered here longer than I expected,” Hakram agreed. “I would have thought the morning after your conversation with the Carrion Lord would see us march.”
“There are still so many things to do,” I said. “And it’s only the start, isn’t it?”
“You have the power to make changes now,” the orc said. “Real changes. Necessary ones.”
“Do I?” I said. “I could drown bastion in ice with a snap of my fingers, but what does that accomplish? So few of our problems can be solved with strength.”
“Yet without it, we would have no right to change anything at all,” Adjutant said.
“It’s a pretty song,” I said. “But it rings false. Having a mantle isn’t power, Hakram. It’s just a bigger hammer. Gods, I was taught by a man claiming only a speck of what I hold and he terrorized half the continent for decades.”
“You are not him,” the orc shrugged.
“No,” I agreed in a murmur. “No I am not. He would have been appalled by the amount of shortcuts we’re going to take.”
“Will have diminishing returns,” I interrupted. “We don’t have the foundation. That’s the part that will fuck us. And it’s too late to raise it, so we’ll have to rely on strength to keep it all together. That makes us fragile in a way I can do nothing about.”
“I do not understand your meaning,” the orc admitted.
I passed a hand through my hair, except Masego had told me it wasn’t really hair anymore.
“The east and the west,” I said. “Procer and Praes. The people at the top, they’re not there just because they can swing a sword real hard, are they? Malicia and Black won their civil war, but they haven’t been knifed since because they have support. That’s where their power springs from. Cordelia Hasenbach has troubles with her princes, sure, but she’s also got a coalition behind her. The weight of customs and laws. Legitimacy, in a word. They all rose up the hard way.”
“So did we,” Adjutant replied, cocking his head to the side with eerie grace.
“Who’s behind us, Hakram?” I said “A handful of Callowan nobles, half-heartedly and for lack of better options. Our army. Malicia will turn on us son enough, and Black’s in the wind. We took too many shortcuts.”
“Your reputation has weight with the people,” the orc said.
“That’s not stable,” I said. “Because if a Fairfax makes an unpopular decision, they’re still a Fairfax. There’s unrest, but it holds together. I’m a godsdamned warlord. I mean, Hasenbach outright told me didn’t she? No one wants to deal with me because I’m essentially a Callowan Dread Empress in their eyes. This is the very thing that’ll come around to bite us after the Battle of the Camps: if fear and force and reputation are the pillars of my reign, the moment one of them comes tumbling down it all follows. And instead of recognizing that, admitting my limitations, I’ll double down and head for Keter of all places.”
“Tyrants are rulers as well, Catherine,” Hakram reminded me.
“And tyranny is the best I can manage, isn’t it?” I said. “Well-meaning, but still that. The thing is, by now I know I’m not good at this. I could barely handle the Ruling Council when it was stacked in my favour with Black standing behind me. And still a month from now I’m going to put on a crown.”
Hakram looked surprised at my words, for some reason.
“You would surrender authority entirely, then?” he asked.
“I should never have been queen,” I said. “At most a temporary regent while looking for a better candidate. There are things I’m good at, but ruling isn’t one of them. I should have put my effort to those instead and left the crown to someone suited for it.”
“And what it is that you’re good at, if not this?” Hakram pressed.
“Breaking things,” I said. “Facing the monsters so that the real work can take place behind me. I should have talked with Cordelia, I-”
My fingers clenched around the bottle.
“- I haven’t talked with Cordelia at all,” I said. “Not yet.”
“No,” Hakram said in someone else’s voice, “you had not.”
There were some who might have called this a triumph.
It’d been a victory beyond my rights to expect, anyway. Legions of enemy drow, some of the finest Mighty in the Everdark and even the two-faced goddess herself: they had come, and they had died. Great Strycht had died with them, along with too many drow to count. How many of the corpses down below belonged to nisi, I wondered? There were too many dead for most of them to be Mighty, or even dzulu. The way I’d killed Sve Noc… I frowned, unable to remember the details. I must still be digesting the Night, it would take some time before my mind was in order again. Still, the aftermath was clear enough. Streaks of Winter still running wild through a city older than the kingdom of my birth, warbands of roving blue-eyed dead led by my expanded Peerage stamping down the last of the resistance. I had exactly what I’d come for, didn’t I? An entire race made into an army, or close enough. All it had taken was massacre upon massacre upon massacre. If there was any justice in the world my hands would dyed scarlet red, but when had justice last made itself heard? No, down here there was only us – and justice was whatever we said it was.
Archer’s steps were light, but not so light that I did not hear or recognize them. Her gait was well-known to me. She stood at the edge by my side, not deigning to sit with her legs dangling in the void like I did. To think I’d been afraid of heights, once. Now I could grow wings with the slightest exertion of will – and there would be more tricks, when the whole of the Night was known to me. Millennia of slaughter in the dark, every ugly parcel made my own. I’d gained more than mere troops by coming to the Everdark.
“Still brooding, I see,” Indrani said.
I did not turn to meet her gaze.
“Contemplating consequences,” I said. “This was no small thing we did today.”
“That’s always the way,” Indrani dismissed. “There’s only one question that matters – now what?”
“Now they take the oaths,” I said. “The Mighty, anyway. I’m still debating how many of the dzulu should.”
“And we go home,” she wistfully said.
“No,” I replied, shaking my head. “I made them my responsibility, ‘Drani. All of them. I can’t just take my army and leave the rest to die by dwarf.”
“They can’t go to Callow, Catherine,” Indrani said. “It would end the kingdom to have that many foreign settlers.”
“That was never the plan,” I snorted. “Gods, Callow? It can barely even tolerate Praesi and greenskins that fought three campaigns to defend it. No, they need a home of their own.”
“Where?” Archer asked, and I raised an eyebrow at her voice.
It had echoed strangely. There were old magics in this place I had barely begun to understand – and perhaps never would.
“If we leave them in the mountains above this, they’ll starve,” I said. “You saw how they feed themselves – they need lakes, they need fields.”
“The Principate of Pracer,” Indrani said. “That’ll be difficult. How much of it could you even take, reasonably?”
“Are you drunk already?” I frowned. “Procer, you tart. And that’s a recipe for disaster, anyway. They’d be in constant war with the surviving princes, assuming the additional chaos doesn’t just collapse the place and allow the Dead King to roll through it. No, there’s only one place that can really work. If we play it right, we can even get most the continent to back us in the war.”
“Praes,” Archer guessed.
“Keter,” I contradicted. “The Kingdom of the Dead.”
There was a heartbeat of silence.
“That was in poor taste,” Indrani said.
“Think for a moment,” I said. “Neshamah just declared war on every Good nation on this continent. Even if the Grand Alliance could beat him – which, to be honest, I have my doubts about – Procer pretty much ends as a nation from the beating it’ll take in the process. And even if they do drive him back, as long as he’s not permanently dead what was accomplished? He’ll have lost a few dead heroes, a few undead armies. Nothing he can’t grow back given long enough. But this? It offers Cordelia another way. A long-term solution.”
I breathed out slowly.
“If the drow settle in the Kingdom of the Dead, they can be the lid on the bottle of awful that is the Dead King,” I said. “With the oaths, Procer doesn’t have to worry about invasion from the fresh Evil nation at its northern border. And if the drow thrive? All the better. A stronger cork means Neshamah will never be able to get out. Sold like this, if we come to the Grand Alliance when they’ve grown desperate? They’ll sign. Or they’ll split, because I don’t see the First Prince throwing away half her country no matter what her allies say.”
“It is a blighted, poisonous wasteland,” Indrani said.
“We have Hierophant,” I flatly said. “And the same mages that burned a fucking pass through the Whitecaps. The whole priesthood of the west, too. Hells, we do this the right way we might even get most the heroes on board. There have to be a few of them that aren’t useless at everything but killing. We can make the place livable, there’s no doubt. Besides, we camped up north and the land there was fine. It’s mostly the south and centre that are poisonous. ”
“But first we go to war,” Archer said.
“As little as we can,” I said. “We gate in, bring Black home no matter what he’s up to or wants – this is too delicate a situation to let him meddle. Then I go to Hasenbach with the Accords and the settlement plan. I’d rather not twist her arm if I can avoid, but I’ll sack cities if I have to. And after that, we make war on the King of Death. All the continent, if we can manage it, against Neshamah.”
“Ambitious,” Indrani mused.
I paused and turned.
“You’re not Archer,” I said. “She would have gotten bored halfway through that.”
“No,” Andronike said. “We are not.”
The two of them were standing at the edge, looking down at my… dream? Was I dreaming? I couldn’t remember going to sleep. The last thing I could remember, actually, was – Ibreathedmydesperatelastbreathclawingatthedark. I shivered. Night had fallen.
“Am I dead?” I softly asked.
“At the threshold,” Komena said. “Not quite through.”
“Then this was my last conversation,” I said. “Would have mouthed off more if I’d known.”
“Are you not going to beg?” Andronike said.
“Again?” I said. “The first time didn’t work, why would the second?”
“The nerezim are on the march,” Komena said. “You struck bargain with them.”
“I did,” I agreed. “Not that the oath would hold me anymore. We saw to that.”
“They cannot be defeated in battle,” the younger Sve Noc said. “We have seen this. They have… grown in the years since our last wars. Beyond even our ability.”
“Scary talk, coming from a goddess,” I murmured.
“And how would you meet this threat, Catherine Foundling?” Andronike asked.
“Me?” I said. “Who would you care what I think? You two rapscallions eviscerate me and took my stuff without too much trouble, give or take a few pleas.”
“You have proved to possess a form of low cunning,” Komena said.
“I’m dying, you know,” I chided. “You could at least be nice about it.”
“You evade,” Andronike said. “Cease.”
I waved a careless hand.
“Send an envoy to them,” I said. “My read on their whole invasion thing is that they’re not really interested in your holdings so much as they are in you not being there to trouble their backs. It’s the Dead King they want bottled up.”
Two pairs of silvery blue eyes remained fixed on me.
“Make a pact,” I said. “They give you long enough to evacuate, supplies to survive upstairs for a few months, and in exchange you go after the Kingdom of the Dead. Given that kind of an opportunity, they might even make a grab for the underground of Keter.”
“They have not proved amenable to peace offerings before,” Andronike said. “Attempts were made, I assure you.”
“Because they can’t settle the entire rim around the Kingdom of the Dead if there’s a chance their lines will collapse because you hit their back,” I pointed out. “If you go upstairs and southwest, not only is that threat gone but you’ve become their first line of defence against the Serenity. I don’t care how much they hate you, they’ll want to take that deal.”
They kept staring at me in silence.
“Dangerous,” Andronike said.
“Bold,” Komena disagreed. “Unorthodox. She was right, heart of my heart. We have grown stiff.”
“And it will get worse,” her sister murmured.
I rose to my feet.
“I take it this the end, then,” I said, looking up at the darkness above us. “Will you make it painless?”
“You should know better by now,” Komena idly said, circling around me.
“We have a use for you, Catherine Foundling,” Andronike continued, from the other side.
“If we are to return to the Burning Lands, we will need a guide.”
“You offered an act of faith, Losara,” Sve Noc smiled. “It did not go unheard.”
Their eyes burned pale blue, almost silver.
“Rise, first among the priesthood of Night, and wake up.”
I opened my eyes, shivering with pain and gloriously mortal.