“Even a devil can be merciful once.”
– Callowan saying
The night was full of shadows and every last one answered to me.
Fairy gates had never been quite as precise an art as I would have liked, particularly when the needle was threaded half-blind, but these days I had more than Masego or Akua adding up the numbers for me. The sisters understood these matters in a way no mortal ever could, and considering it was their – ours, I supposed – army I was taking through Arcadia they’d not balked at charting the path for me. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Komena had complained about being a goddess, not a cartographer. I’d wholeheartedly agreed: after all, a cartographer would have given me an answer instead of petty whining. You’d think finishing apotheosis would have done something for her sense of humor, but instead I’d been given an indignant silent treatment for a few days. Which was fine by me, really. There was only so much croaking I could take from the damned birds they’d sent with me. The night-feathered crow on my left shoulder stirred in displeasure and I snorted.
“Fine, fake birds,” I said. “That better for you?”
Indrani cleared her throat, less dainty scoff and more middle-aged dockworker about to spit.
“Catherine, you’re talking to the crows again,” she said.
“It’s fine as long as I don’t expect to hear them talk back, I think,” I noted.
“Caw,” the crow on my left shoulder drily said.
The word, not actual cawing, because Andronike had developed a taste for the sardonic since shaving off a sliver of her godhood and sending it if off with me.
“Wind’s real loud tonight,” I said, blithely pretending I hadn’t hear anything.
“Well,” Archer mused, “it is winter.”
And wasn’t it just? The heartlands of Procer were pretty as a painting, under moonlight. Open fields of driven snow, sparse trees trickling down icicles and the occasional game wandering through the frost. It said a lot about the drow, I thought, than an army of fifty thousand of them hadn’t scared off every beast for four miles around it. There’d been some childlike wonderment at first, when the grey-skinned host had first witnessed the world covered in white. Drow centuries old patting at the snow like they couldn’t quite believe their eyes, strangers as they were to a surface winter. I remembered that fondly, the innocence of it. There were some things that even millennia of constant bloodshed could not entirely erase. Tonight, though, there would be no wide-eyed fascination. The warriors I’d sent out had moved out across the snow like ghosts, melting back into the darkness they’d been born to.
Indrani had come to keep me company as I stood, watching the small town in the distance. My friend – we’d shared a bed more than once, by now, but lover ill fit what lay between us – was half a shadow herself, the hooded leather coat she wore over fine mail hiding her face away from the light of the moon. Now and then I could see her hand twitching slightly, the urge to reach for the large bow strapped to her back only barely repressed. Archer had never been one to shy away from a fight, which was the reason I hadn’t sent her out with the drow in the first place: corpses weren’t what I was after. Not tonight anyway. There were a few long years ahead of us, I knew, and there would be blood spilled before they came to a close. Whose, I thought, is the important question, isn’t it?
“What’s the place called again?” Indrani asked.
More out of need to fill the silence than true curiosity, I suspected.
“Trousseau,” I replied anyway.
Finding a hunter out in the plains had been a lucky stroke, and result in a vague notion of where we were in Procer. Somewhere in eastern Iserre, for one, which was what I’d been aiming for. Unfortunately said hunter had never gone all that far from her hometown, and had little news of what was currently taking place in the Principate. No map, either, but that much I’d expected. Those were damned expensive, and even halfway-accurate ones not usually in the hands of commoners.
“Bit of a shithole, to be honest,” Archer said.
Trousseau probably had no more than a thousand souls living in it, most of the time, but these were not that. War and conscription would have thinned the town. I’d decided to charitably attribute how run-down the place was to the removal of so many able hands, though odds were the place was poor enough it looked like this even on a good year. There were as many huts as houses, all huddled around a few streets that were more streaks of cold mud than anything, and what cattle could be seen held in pens around the town was thin and sickly. Though Indrani’s gaze had lingered on the ramshackle and no doubt bitingly cold huts, I’d been more interested in something that wasn’t there. Namely, walls. I honestly couldn’t think of a single town of a thousand in Callow that wouldn’t have at least a palisade up, or tall piles of stones without mortar. For my purpose of the night, however, that defencelessness was not unhelpful.
“If it were worth putting on a map, Black would probably have burnt it on his way south,” I said.
She hummed in agreement, and only spoke again a few heartbeats later.
“You think rumours about what’s happening to will have trickled into here?” Indrani asked, glancing at me.
“Worth a try,” I grimly said.
Archer’s footing shifted almost hesitantly, and I blinked in surprise when she put a comforting hand on my shoulder. I could almost feel the warmth of her through the cloak and doublet, and my heart beat a little faster. Not because of attraction, this time, though that was never far. That I could feel warmth at all was still a feeling I could only luxuriate in.
“We don’t know he’s in trouble,” she said.
“He should be back from Thalassina by now,” I replied. “And still we can’t make contact with the Observatory. Something happened.”
“He could be buried up the neck in some hidden library,” Indrani smiled. “Only to remember the rest of Creation still exists in a few months.”
The smile was slightly forced, I knew her well enough to tell. I wasn’t the only one worried about Masego and the resounding silence from Laure.
“Shouldn’t it be me comforting you, anyway?” I said.
“He can take care of himself,” Archer quietly said, though her eyes flicked east anyway.
I clasped her bare fingers with my gloved ones, squeezing tight, and she shot me an amused look before removing her hand. Where our conversation would have wandered after that would remain a mystery, for I felt a ripple in the Night headed our way. Mighty Rumena – crow-Komena pecked at my shoulder and I rolled my eyes – General Rumena, I mentally corrected, had not ceased in its attempts to sneak up on me even though not a single one had succeeded since I’d become First Under the Night. It was hard to pull a Night-trick on someone who had a finger on the pulse of that very power.
“So, the way you don’t leave footprints in the snow,” I called out. “Is that an illusion, or are you so feeble and delicate you’re light enough not to leave one?”
Grey fingertips appeared out thin air a few feet in front of me, coming down to tear away at a veil of Night and revealing the creased face of the ancient drow. Even stooped the bastard was taller than me, which unfair in so many ways, and ever since it’d been appointed to the command of the southern expedition it’d made a point of looming over me whenever it could.
“Many are the mysteries of the Night,” General Rumena vaguely replied.
I eyed him skeptically.
“So where’d we land on whether or not I have power of expulsion from the faith again?” I finally asked crow-Andronike.
“No,” she replied.
“Maybe,” crow-Komena said at the same time.
The two crow-shaped slivers of Sve Noc turned to glare at each other.
“There can be no-” crow-Andronike began.
“It is necessary that-” her sister interrupted.
I smothered a grin, though not quite well enough. Both turned their glares towards me. That was never going to get old, was it? A heartbeat later I was yelping as a pair of godly crows started flapping around my hair and pecking vengefully at my scalp, though I valiantly managed to shoo them away with only minimal loss of dignity. The two of them flew off, possibly off to torment some poor luckless rabbit. Made of Night as they were they hardly needed to eat, though that certainly hadn’t stopped them from toying with the animals they came across. Amusement bled out of me a moment later and I turned my eyes to Rumena.
“Report,” I ordered.
It did not bow, not that I’d expected it to.
“The town has been seized,” the old drow said.
“Casualties?” I asked.
“Seventeen wounded, no dead,” General Rumena mildly said. “Some stubborn souls insisted on resisting confinement.”
I chewed on my lip. Too much to hope for this to be entirely bloodless, I supposed. I’d tell Akua to have the wounds healed if she could. And if the people were willing to take healing from the likes of us which was less than certain.
“No priests?” I asked.
“None resided within. There is a moan-haste-ree to the north where servants of the Pale Gods hold court, but they only visit infrequently,” the old drow said.
“Monastery,” I corrected absent-mindedly. “Good, that would have complicated things.”
Priests tended to frown upon dark hordes beholden to eldritch horrors of the night strolling into their backyard, and I’d rather not cut one’s throat if I could avoid it.
“Send a sigil up to keep an eye on the monastery road,” I finally said. “No blunders tonight, Rumena.”
“Ah,” the general mildly said. “Will you be absenting yourself, then?”
To my side Indrani shook with a suppressed laugh, the filthy traitor.
“You just wait,” I grunted. “One of these days I’ll talk the damned crows into letting me write your holy book and there’ll be an entire hymn about how much of a prick you are.”
I began the trek towards Trousseau immediately, carefully refraining from hearing Rumena’s skepticism at my ability to rhyme on purpose even as Archer cheerfully waved him goodbye.
As usual, I was surrounded by insubordinate backtalk and wanton treachery.
There were a few houses near the centre of the town made of stone, but this wasn’t one of them. I approved, truth be told. From what I’d read, large towns and cities in the Alamans parts of Procer were usually governed by an official appointed by the ruling royal – quite often some toady or relative that could be counted on to keep the coin flowing towards the principality’s capital. On occasion, some wealthy landowner ended up in charge instead but given that those occasionally got ideas about who should be the local royalty that was rarer. In smaller towns and villages, though, a degree of freedom emerged. Someone needed to be in charge so the lawmen and the tax collectors would have an arm to twist, but the people were left to their own devices as to who should be picked. Trousseau should be small enough for that to apply, and that the town’s mayor was living in a wooden house instead of a stone one implied wealth hadn’t been why he was put in charge. Half a dozen drow bearing the mark of the Soln Sigil were keeping a sharp watch on the premise, and if the ripple I was feeling in the Night was any indication my old friend Lord Soln itself wasn’t far.
It had amused the Sisters to send what little remained of the army I’d once led against them on the southern expedition. I wasn’t complaining: the oaths binding us might have been broken, but they were quicker to obey my orders than most drow. The covenant under Winter had left marks that would not easily be erased. On another night I might have taken the time to flush out Soln from its hiding place and share a few words, but not this one. I had business to finish, and no inclination to delay it. As far as I was concerned, the quicker we moved on from here to undertake our campaign proper the better.
“Want me to come with?” Archer idly said.
I glanced at her, catching a glimpse of her hazelnut eyes under the hood. I read an expectation of boredom there, but still she had offered. I did not fight the flush of affection that brought out in me.
“No need,” I said. “Find something to entertain yourself, I’ll catch up.”
“Bound to be at least one tavern in this dump,” she mused.
“We pay for what we take,” I reminded her.
“Gods,” she muttered under her breath. “Between you and Akua I feel like I’ve joined the most ironic nunnery in Creation.”
I grinned and waved her off.
“Don’t get too drunk without me,” I said.
She grinned back, and promised not a thing. I watched her saunter away for a moment, coat swaying behind her, but before long my gaze had returned the door in front of me and the good mood drained. The two closest drow were looking at me from the corner of their eyes and I offered a nod.
“Restrict interruption to Peerage and my own people,” I spoke in Crepuscular.
“Losara Queen,” one murmured back, though both bowed.
I left it at that, and knocked at the door out of habit. There was a long beat of silence, before a male voice hesitantly bid me to enter. Ah, I thought. The last people to come in would not have been so polite. I pushed open the surprisingly well-oiled door and entered. A man was standing by a brazier, my eyes lingering only long enough to note he looked only in his mid-thirties before they pressed on to take in the rest of the house. One bed, shoddy as it was, but four cots. The table was old but well-maintained, and the roughly-hewn chairs struck me as of recent make. Not much else to see, aside from wooden shelves filled with foodstuffs. When my eyes returned to the man, his face had gone ashen. His hands were still above the flames, but now they were trembling. I wiped my snow-sodden boots on the straw by the door before offering a bland smile.
“I am told your name is Leon,” I said in Chantant. “And that you are mayor of Trousseau.”
The man drew back as if struck. It was almost comical, given that he stood at least two feet taller than me and was built like a sandy-haired ox. Almost.
“You’re the Black Queen,” Leon shakily said.
“And so introductions have been seen to,” I mildly said. “Take a seat.”
Something like anger flickered across the man’s face. Not someone used to be ordered around in his own home, was he? But even as his jaw squared, his eyes came to rest on the sword at my hip. Caution won out, and slowly he drew back a chair and sat down. Wiping my boots one last time, I limped across the floorboards and sat across from him. I could have drawn on the Night to chase away the pain for a time, but I disliked relying on that measure unless blades were out. I leaned back against the chair, the Mantle of Woe bunching up as I did, and calmly took off my leather gloves.
“I have questions to ask of you,” I said.
“I am the mayor of a half-empty town,” Leon replied. “What could I possibly know of import to a queen?”
His gaze was steady, I thought, and his back straight. But he’d not quite managed to hide his hands away from me, and I could see how tightly clenched his fingers were. Afraid, but trying not to show it. I wondered if he expected he’d be dead by the end of this conversation. My reputation in Procer had been less than gentle even before the entire fucking priesthood of the west had declared me Arch-heretic of the East.
“More than you think,” I said. “Peddlers come through, even in a deserted town. And peddlers carry rumours.”
“I put little stock in rumours,” the mayor replied. “And so know little of them.”
I glanced to the side, already knowing what I would find. The bed was large enough for two. Some of the cots were too small for adults. The man had a wife and children. All of which were currently under the guard of my drow in a previously house. When my gaze returned, Leon’s face had grown tight. The steady gaze was gone, replaced by desperate fear.
“No merchant has passed in months,” the Proceran said. “We are not a town with coin to spend. Those few of wealth have already left.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“For where?” I asked.
“Iserre,” he said. “Walls and safety.”
I leaned forward.
“Safety from what?” I pressed.
The man grit his teeth. I could see them war on his face, fear and principle. I was, to be honest, admiring his spine. How many of my countrymen would have it in them to even hesitate answering a question, if a villain of my repute was asking it? I’d not sat in conversation with a human other than Indrani in months, and in some ways this felt fresh to me. I could see the tremor in his arm, the beading sweat on his brow. This was not a drow, I thought. I understood the shape of this one’s thoughts, the milestones by which he saw the world.
“Heavens preserve me from the Enemy,” the mayor of Trousseau shakily said. “Still my tongue and ward my hand, that I may give it no succour nor relief.”
I slowly breathed out, studying him. I might have continued, if not for the knock on the door.
“Enter,” I said.
The door opened to reveal Akua Sahelian’s silhouette, and closed after she fluidly stepped in. I cocked an eyebrow, meeting her golden eyes, and she nodded. Good. She leaned back against the wall without a word and I turned to the mayor.
“Do you see the Heavens in this room, Leon?” I softly asked. “I don’t. There’s just us, and the consequences of our choices.”
“I will not sell out my home, Black Queen,” the large man said. “Not an inch, not a league.”
The fear had not left, I thought. And yet he’d said it anyway.
“I hold your family,” I said.
The tone was casual, as it discussing the weather. I had learned from Black that mildness could be much more disquieting than the most thunderous of wraths. Leon swallowed drily. I had not made threat, and would not need to. My name itself was a threat, these days.
“Even so,” he said, tone thick with grief. “Gods, even so.”
To do right, even if it cost you everything. That, at least, the Houses of Light on both sides of the border taught just the same. I thought of Amadis Milenan, then, and wondered what such a man had ever done to deserve a subject like this. Nothing. But then that was the whole point, wasn’t it? That the underserving so often ruled. That there could be more heroism found in a terrified man sitting across a monster and refusing to answer a question than in an empire’s worth of royal lines, or a legion of heroes.
“It’s a strange thing, fear, isn’t?” I said. “I have known those who rule by it. I have fought those who deny its very existence. And yet I have come no closer to understanding what splits the brave from the mad.”
I met his eyes with equanimity.
“But I do know one thing, Leon of Trousseau,” I said. “That knot in your stomach, right now? That part of you that keeps your back straight when death meets your gaze?”
I did not blink. Neither did he.
“That is the weight of the choice you made,” I said. “Remember it, in the years to come. Learn from it, grow from it. Because one of those days you might find someone else sitting on my side of the table – and unlike me, they might not admire what you chose.”
I pushed back the chair and rose to my feet, picking up my gloves and slipping them on. The mayor hesitated.
“That’s all?” he said.
I smiled, thin and mirthless.
“Do you know why we praise bravery, Leon?” I said.
He did not reply. Did not dare to, I supposed, when it seemed possible he might survive our little chat after all.
“Because it surpasses our baser nature,” Akua spoke from behind me, and I could feel the smile in her voice.
I could see the moment when the man understood, the anger and the sadness and the burning indignation.
“Someone talked,” I gently said. “Someone always talks.”
I limped back into the cold, and left him to sit in his silence.