“Everything happens for a reason, and this time the reason is that I godsdamned said so.”
– Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow
I let Akua trail behind me as we walked through the half-frozen mud.
Archer hadn’t been wrong, I thought, to call this place a shithole. But where she likely saw it as sloppiness on their part, a refusal to pull up their sleeves and improve their own lot, to me Trousseau reeked of desperation. Too many hard years, too many taxmen more interested in their tallies than what those cost to the people who made up the numbers. I didn’t like it, that she thought that way. I could admit that to myself. There were times where her indifference to the lot of others galled me deeply, because it ran against what I’d been raised to – that when it got dark outside, everyone was in it together. I’d learned, though, to follow that somewhat callous belief to its source. The Ranger. I’d loved the stories about Indrani’s mentor as a child, certainly more than those about the Calamities. After all she’d been absent for most the Conquest, and unlike the others she wasn’t Praesi. The last specks of that childhood fondness had waned when she’d answered an offer a help by nearly murdering me on a whim. What Black saw in her I didn’t know and doubted I would ever understand, but I could make my peace with that. What she’d done to Indrani, though? That was another story.
She’d taught Archer that her fate would only ever be defined by her own hands, and that I could only approve of, but she’d left the lesson half-finished. She’d never told my friend that she was exceptional, that not everybody could be like her. That sometimes people failed and gave up, and that didn’t make them unworthy in some way. Just tired and hurt and without an answer as to why they should keep trying. It was an easier way to live, I supposed. Looking a misery and believing it was the miserable solely responsible for it. Never aching at the sight. But I don’t think it’s a better one, I thought. Maybe it was unfair to blame the Lady of the Lake for passing down beliefs she seemed to genuinely hold to, but I wasn’t inclined to fairness when it came to the Ranger. She had her claws too deep in too many people I loved, and I could only think of the marks she’d left behind as wounds.
“I don’t suppose we have a destination in mind?” Akua mildly said.
She’d caught up to me while I was deep in thought. I could not help but notice from the corner of my eye that her dress of pale and gold was untouched by the mire we were passing through, or that she left no footprints. Not quite alive, not quite dead. As in so many things, Akua Sahelian was straddling the line.
“There’s a knot of drow further down the street,” I replied. “And I could only think of one reason so many would gather in one place.”
The shade kept to silence for a moment.
“She has been getting more rowdy, not less,” Akua finally said.
Even with the wind that had me wishing I’d wheedled a scarf out of the drow before leaving, her voice was perfectly heard. Couldn’t be sure whether that was just an oratory skill she’d picked up in Wolof or some kind of sorcerous trick, not that I cared all that much. Convenient was the word that came to mind more than anything else.
“We all cope in our own ways,” I replied. “It’ll run its course in due time.”
Indrani had come very close to dying, in the battle for Great Strycht. Not because of a Mighty, some glorious duel she would now be laughing about. When the Sisters had eviscerated my hold on Winter they’d flooded their city with frost. Archer had been out on the edges, when it happened, picking her targets and stirring up the pot. But she’d still been caught in the mess, and Winter unleashed was not something you just walked off. I suspected that in way the brush with death wasn’t what had unsettled her. She’d been riding that horse for years now, and enjoyed every moment of it. It had been that when death came knocking, the bow in her hand and the blades at her side couldn’t have done anything to stop it. The realization that sometimes a steady sword-arm wasn’t enough, even if you were clever and brave and burning with the need to leave a mark on the world.
“And if it doesn’t?” Akua said.
“Then we’ll deal with it,” I calmly replied. “All of us, together.”
The shade sighed.
“I don’t suppose that a reminder you’ve not spoken with our informant would be of any use before we get entangled in yet another drinking binge?” she asked.
I glanced at her amusedly.
“Are we pretending you can’t recite every answer they gave you verbatim?” I said.
“I can do the intonations as well,” Akua casually boasted.
“Of course you can,” I said, rolling my eyes.
I didn’t bother to knock when we got to the tavern, or at least what I assumed to be that. It was ratty enough it didn’t have a sign hung outside, though I did remember reading somewhere some parts of Procer had put a tax on that. I’d be in a better position to cast judgement on that if some Fairfax who’d seen drinking liquor as sinful and debasing behaviour hadn’t put up a bewildering array of punitive taxes on everything alcoholic not even a century ago. Still, I thought, eyeing the bare and windowless wall outside. At least the next king dismissed the measures. For all I knew, some prince out there was still lining his pockets with this sheer stupidity. The door was unlatched and the mangled carpet in front of it suffered the attentions of my boots for a moment before I entered. Calling what lay at the centre of the dirt floor a fire pit would have been overly generous, I thought, considering it wasn’t even lined with stone. The place was cramped in some fundamental way, from the narrow walls to the twisty tables. There was a room in the back which I deduced to be the owner’s sleeping place as well as the kitchen, insofar as this place could be said to have one of those.
Akua closed the door behind me, and already Indrani was waving us over. She’d shrugged off her coat and somehow divested herself of her mail, leaving her in dark green tunic and trousers whose tightness were quite flattering to her frame. I glanced back up and saw a smirk touching her lips, so she’d definitely caught that. Well, I admitted to myself, it wouldn’t be the first time. Or likely the last, honesty compelled me to admit. The return to mortality had left me with all sorts of hungers in need of sating, and I probably would have sought her out if she hadn’t done it first. I was only human after all, and even now that thought had a pleasurable ring to it. I shot a look around and found no trace of the tavern-keeper, turning to raise an eyebrow at Indrani.
“It got a little too much for the old man,” Archer languidly shrugged. “Got some of our minions to bring him somewhere for a lie-down.”
“You didn’t do anything, did you?” I asked, frowning even as I took off my gloves.
“Aside from empty a bottle in the short span of time since you’ve found this place,” Akua drily added.
My eyes found the cheap bottle of red she was referring to, along with her four still-full sisters lined up neatly to the side. One was already open. The shade passed me without a sound, sliding herself in a stool across the table Archer had claimed. I unclasped my cloak and followed suit, hesitating for the barest fraction of a moment before sitting on Akua’s side. The stool there struck me as marginally less likely to break if I moved around a bit.
“Just a bit too much agitation for him, I think,” Indrani told me. “What with the drow walking the surface again and the wicked minions of the Black Queen patronizing his humble establishment.”
Akua’s own comment got as a response a gesture that would have seen me spanked by the orphanage matron if I’d ever been caught doing it in public.
“Temporary eviction would have been necessary regardless,” the shade said. “If we are to discuss business on the premises, that is.”
“Aw, shit,” Archer complained, eyeing me balefully. “Really, Cat?”
“I’d rather do it in here with a fire and an open bottle than out there in the cold,” I shrugged.
“Fine,” she waved away. “But I’d like to lodge a formal protest.”
“Pass it along to my secretary,” I drily said. “Triplicate, standard form.”
Indrani turned her gaze to Akua.
“Sadly, as a mere spirit I cannot be handed such forms,” the shade blatantly lied. “They’d go right through me.”
“I liked you better before we taught you to be an ass,” Archer complained.
“No you didn’t,” Akua said, full lips quirking.
Indrani did not contradict her, and neither did I. After what had taken place in Great Strycht it was… difficult to distrust the Diabolist as much as I once had. I wouldn’t be taking my eye off her anytime soon, sure, but it was hard to forget that when we’d all reached the end Akua could have chosen to cut and run, and hadn’t. That meant something. Given that she was perhaps the most skilled liar I’d ever met, figuring out exactly what it meant was the trouble.
“So, someone folded,” I said, steering us towards safer waters. “How out of date is what they had to tell?”
“She has a relative in the monastery to the north she sees regularly,” Akua said. “And the sisters there are part of the general correspondence of the House of Light, regardless of their relative insignificance. The last direct letter is a month old, one could generously assume the news themselves two weeks older than that.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“That quick?” I said. “I thought we were in the middle of nowhere.”
“Two day’s ride away from the minor city of Rochelant, as it happens,” Diabolist corrected. “To the west. In a broader sense, we are skirting the eastern edge of the principality of Iserre.”
I drummed my fingers around the table, idly noting it kinda looked like someone had digested it for a bit before it’d ended up here.
“Closer to Callow than I thought we’d end up,” I said. “That brings up unpleasant questions, in retrospective.”
“Could just be that you traded Winter for crows, Cat,” Indrani said. “You and Zeze were screwing about with the stuff for everything, back when the Observatory was raised.”
“I was not given the opportunity to observe the arrangements in great detail,” Akua conceded pre-emptively. “However, I am intimately familiar with the artefact used at the centre of the array. It should not have been affected by our latest alliance and its…”
She paused, golden eyes taking me in.
“Metaphysical repercussions,” she settled on.
I snorted. How delicately put of her. I wasn’t truly beholden to the Sisters in any way that could be considered vassalage – that would have rather defeated the point of what I was supposed to be to them – but it remained a fact I’d thrown Winter under the horse and been handed a direct tap to what had become of the Night afterwards. The power was a lot more volatile, true, and tended to exhaust me physically in a way my mantle never had. On the other hand I’d stopped going raving mad whenever I reached a little too deep and I could enjoy hot soup again. In a lot of ways, I still believed I’d ended up on the better side of that evening.
“So why aren’t we able to reach Juniper, then?” I said.
“She’s finally succumbed to Hakram’s charms and the bedroom door is locked under pain of death,” Indrani suggested.
“Sabotage is a possibility,” Akua said, more practically. “The Empress will still have agents in Callow, and might prefer your communications crippled. As for why Sve Noc could not reach out directly-”
“I know, you’ve already said,” I waved away. “Masego warded that thing so ridiculously viciously not even they want to risk putting their fingers in it.”
I felt a well of pride at the fact that Hierophant had somehow put up defences around the Observatory so harsh even a pair of living goddesses were wary of attempting to force them, inconvenient as it was at the moment. And he’d done it while remaining within allocated funds, too, which was just another feather in his cap as far as I was concerned.
“Doesn’t seem like Malicia’s style,” I finally said. “If you’d said she was listening in I’d buy it, but breaking it entirely? She prefers appropriation to outright denial when she can swing it.”
“There are other possible culprits,” Akua said. “More with motive than means, but a few with both. The Dead King. The heroic segment of the Tenth Crusade. The royal court of Arcadia. Perhaps even the Wandering Bard.”
“That doesn’t really narrow it down, does it?” I grunted. “Still, I’d tend to scratch off the Bard from the list. Black’s pretty sure she can only meddle through Named, and those we sent back to Laure would know better than to get involved with her.”
“Ugh, you two are yammering on about who could,” Indrani said, pouring herself another cup. “But that’s just means, and we got a lot of nasty surprises assuming we knew all about those. Maybe wonder about who would, instead? Whose kind of play is this?”
I eyed her cup with a raised eyebrow, and with a put-upon sigh she finally bothered to fill mine. And Akua’s, though I was still less than certain if drinking would actually do anything for the shade. I sipped at what turned out to be truly horrid concoction distantly related to wine while actually mulling over what Archer had said. Who would strike like this? The Grey Pilgrim came to mind. He had the brains for it, and the benefits would be obvious. With the Augur still telling Cordelia Hasenbach how the pieces were moving, we’d have lost our eye in the sky while the Tenth Crusade remained largely unaffected. Neshamah had the know-how, but it seemed a little light-handed for him. At the moment he’d have other cats to skin anyway: he should be hip-deep in angry Lycaonese right about now, and that lot didn’t know how to die easy. Assuming the Bard wasn’t involved, though assumptions were particularly dangerous when it came to that thing, that left the fae. And unless someone had fucked up real bad back home, they shouldn’t have a foothold in Creation that’d allow them to pull that kind of thing.
“The main benefit is confusion,” I finally said. “We’ll be moving blind out here, and unable to organize with Juniper.”
“Someone’s putting their bet on riding the chaos better than the rest,” Akua murmured.
A disquieting thought, considering for once it wasn’t me.
“The room’s pretty crowded this time,” Indrani said. “All it takes is a few punches thrown, and…”
She dropped her palm against the table, the clap ringing loudly in the empty tavern.
“In the spirit of that perspective,” Diabolist said, “perhaps one of the rumours I collected needs to be reassessed.”
I cocked an eyebrow invitingly while continuing to subject myself to the disaster Archer had obtained as table wine.
“We appear to be entering an all-out brawl between half the continent,” Akua said. “The legions Lord Black took into the Principate are currently in this very principality, and being pursued.”
My heartbeat quickened. No, I told myself. He’ll have a plan. He always does.
“By who?” Indrani asked, sounding surprised. “These are Conquest officers, you’re telling me Proceran scraps actually think they could win against them?”
“The armies of the Dominion of Levant,” the shade replied. “Though there’s been word of conscription in Salia, so they might not be alone.”
“That’s not half the continent,” I pointed out with a frown.
“The League of Free Cities appears to have joined the fray,” Diabolist said. “With a significant army, though the numbers put to it vary.”
I let out a low whistle.
“Are you telling me Tenerife has fallen?” I asked. “Because that’s not good news for us.”
The First Prince had sent twenty thousand soldiers to hold that border, and if the army had been slaughtered then that was twenty thousand men gone that’d have been rather useful up north. The drow exodus would strike like a hammer at the Dead King’s back when it arrived, but I knew better than to believe the Sisters had any chance of winning that war if the rest of Calernia didn’t get its shit together and move against him too.
“I cannot speak as to what happened to the army garrisoned there,” Akua said. “But I can tell you, however, that the League’s host is said to have emerged out of the Waning Woods without having given battle prior.”
I blinked in disbelief. Indrani, on the other hand, fell into a deep belly laugh. Gods, Vivienne had told me last year that the Tyrant of Helike had been sending agents into the region. Still, I’d assumed it was as way to infiltrate the heartlands of the Principate. Not march an army through the place.
“You’re actually serious, Shadehelian?” Archer got out, chin still quivering. “Someone was mad enough to take a bunch of soldiers through that?”
“Reportedly,” Akua said, unmoved by the hilarity. “One can only wonder at the losses taken. Regardless, the point of interest is that they emerged in Iserre specifically. And they seem intent on giving battle now.”
“That’s going to get messy,” I said, rapping my knuckles against the wood. “Unless Hakram and Vivienne birthed a diplomatic miracle while we were in the Everdark, which I’m not counting on. I really don’t want to start a war with the League.”
“And it ties in to Indrani’s earlier words,” Diabolist said. “There is another who prizes chaos as you do.”
My lips thinned.
“The Tyrant of Helike,” I said.
She nodded slowly.
“While aside from mounting confusion I can ascribe no direct benefit to such a measure being taken-”
“- for an old school madman like him, making everything messier might be benefit enough,” I grimly finished. “Shit. I don’t like having an army on the field without knowing where we stand with them.”
“Kind of the point, isn’t it?” Indrani shrugged.
I glanced at her, noticing we were now on the third bottle even though neither I nor Akua had finished our cups.
“The uncertainty, I mean,” Archer said. “It’s kind of like having a stranger pointing a crossbow at you while you’re in a swordfight. Every time they twitch your hackles go up, and the tension will grow until someone does something real stupid to get out of the situation.”
Akua’s position in her seat shifted by the barest amount. She was, I suspected, actually impressed. Now and then it was good to have a reminder that Indrani was a lot sharper than she liked to let on.
“So whoever’s leading that host is fucking with every other commander on the field just by being there,” I mused. “That does sound like the Tyrant from the reports. We sure the Hierarch is still alive? He seemed a lot more interested in telling me to hold elections than invading anyone.”
“Our informant is simply a relative, and the monastery rather minor,” Akua said. “There was only so much to be learned. I suspect the appointed ruler of Rochelant will be better informed.”
That still meant at least three days – drow moved fast, but not as fast as horses – of walking around Iserre with no godsdamned idea of what was going on around us. I didn’t enjoy the notion, but then I didn’t really have a better path to offer. Asking the Sisters to force the wards on the Observatory, assuming I could even talk them into it, was a lot more likely to result in that place collapsing or someone losing a finger than it was in an elightening conversation.
“Then that’s where we’re headed,” I said. “I’ll hash out the details with General Rumena. Indrani, you good to walk?”
“Am I ever not?” she drawled.
“You’d better be,” I warned. “Because I’m not staying in this town a moment longer than necessary. We all know what happens to the drow at dawn, I’m not losing moonlight I don’t have to.”
“Would you like to race me just in case, Cat?” she said.
“Please,” I said. “You’re pretty fast, but you can’t outrun a gate.”
I pushed back the chair and rose to my feet.
“Catherine,” Akua said quietly.
I glanced at her.
“You can come, I suppose,” I said. “Though why you’d want to talk with the crabby old bastard is beyond me.”
“Catherine,” Akua Sahelian gently said. “Sit down.”
My eyes narrowed, and I brushed back a lock of hair that somehow fallen free.
“There’s more,” I said.
“Cat, sit down,” Indrani said. “She wouldn’t ask without a reason.”
I felt a flicker of surprise at Archer’s comment, though maybe I shouldn’t have. I’d told her everything that had happened in Great Strycht, and the barbs she still traded with Akua had a lot less bite to them than they used to. Gingerly I sat back down, keeping the weight off my bad leg.
“Marshal Grem One-Eye is in command of the retreating Legions,” the shade said. “The Black Knight is believed to be dead.”
I picked up my gloves, fingers closing around the leather.
“So?” I said. “All that means is that some part of whatever the Hells he’s after involves people thinking that.”
“Not unless he was willing to sacrifice a full Legion detachment for that purpose,” Akua said.
The leather stared creaking and I looked back at my hands, finding them squeezing the gloves tight.
“Was a body shown?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“Then he’s not dead,” I flatly said. “And someone is about to have a very bad day.”
“Catherine, the possibility has to be entertained,” she slowly said. “It would change the situation significantly.”
“It changes nothing. Because he’s not fucking dead,” I snarled. “I’ll take his damned head off for not warning me he’d pull this, but he’s not going to get killed by some pissant hero in the middle of nowhere.”
The shade opened her mouth again, but Indrani raised a hand.
“Akua,” she said. “Best let that one go.”
She was humouring me, I realized. It stung that Archer of all people, who besides myself and Masego likely knew the most about my teacher, would so casually write him off. Angrily I pulled on my gloves.
“Finish your drinks,” I coldly said. “We’ll begin the march for Rochelant within the hour.”