“My son, I offer you the greatest gift a ruler can give another: a widely reviled predecessor.”
– Extract from the infamous ‘Sensible Testament’ of Basilea Chrysanthe of Nicae
I’d used to love winter in Laure, as a child.
Sure, once in a while charcoal and firewood prices went up so the matron had to cut corners but as a rule I’d gotten to enjoy the snow in the streets while having a warm house awaiting me after. It took mere hours for the blanket of pale to turn to mush or soiled mess, but before time ran out there’d been a lot of fun to be had. We’d made a fort in the steps of the broken old hatcher’s house, once, and pitched snowballs at everyone passing for the better part of an afternoon. It’d ended when we’d accidentally caught some Taghreb legion mage instead of a Liessen merchant. Luckily enough the man had been more amused than angered, and instead of chewing us out he’d used sorcery to lift half the damned fort and dump it back on our heads. We’d all fled shrieking into the streets, soaked in snow and red-faced, while he laughed loudly. Gods, how old had I been? Seven, eight? I barely remembered anything from back then, nowadays, but that one memory of the sunny winter afternoon might as well have been seared into my eyes. The matron had remonstrated us pretty roughly for coming back to the orphanage drenched, but I was pretty sure she’d been hiding a smile.
It’d taken me a long time to realized how lucky I’d been, getting a childhood like that. Sure we had lessons and curfews and the occasional lean week, but Callowan orphanages had been funded by the Tower. The coin had kept coming, and we’d been protected in some abstract away. Everyone had known that the orphanages were the Black Knight’s own notion, and the shadow cast by my teacher’s displeasure had been as a giant’s back then. It’d been easier, hadn’t it? When it all seemed so large and simple, and all you had to do to change things was climb to the top. Foe and friend, victory and defeat. I’d picked up the knife that night believing myself clever enough to see through the pretence of black and white, but that’d just been scratching the surface. Sometimes thing happened that were too complicated, too far-reaching, to be called something as clear-cut as a victory or a defeat. Sometimes you could hate the people you most needed to clasp hands with and love those that would be most dangerous to your heart’s desire. My eyes flicked to a tall silhouette in the distance, treading the snow without a trace. She had her back to me, so there would be no glimpse of golden eyes, but there was no mistaking her for anyone else.
Sometimes you could grow fond of someone even if you couldn’t forgive them and never would.
I let out a steamy breath, watching the vapour rise up. That had me itching for my pipe, though I was equally reluctant to take off my gloves and reach under my cloak to indulge in my little vice. It was a cold night out, and it would be hours yet before dawn rose. I could have drawn on the Night to warm my bones, or more accurately chase away the cold, but some part of me twistedly enjoyed feeling the bite. Not so long ago it would have been nothing to be but another faded colour, another not-sensation washing up against the thing passing for my body. The moon above us was shrouded by the clouds, but light filtered through. Enough that I saw the crows streak across the darkness, feathered frames of Night batting their wings in utter silence. I dipped a finger into the power the Sisters had opened to me, sharpening my eyesight for a heartbeat, and caught a glimpse of crimson on the talons the pair. They’d killed tonight, then. If all they require for their altar is the occasional rabbit, I can make my peace with that. Their descent was almost a dive, but they failed to make me stumble when they landed on my shoulders. They’d kept back their talons, and made of Night as they were they weighed near nothing unless they particularly wished to. I tightened my cloak around my shoulders and cast a meaningful glance at the bevy of drow escorting me. The warriors bowed low and scattered across the snowy landscape.
“Rochelant,” Komena said, a strangely human voice leaving her crow’s throat.
“There will be blood,” Andronike said.
Wasn’t there always? Stainless victories were not in my nature.
“As little as possible,” I said. “We come for knowledge, not conquest.”
Crow-Komena’s laughter sounded like cawing, which we both knew she was doing on purpose.
“So speaks the roving catastrophe,” Andronike said.
I could have gone pithy in reply to that, but my mood had gone sour after the conversation in the tavern and the march in the cold had done nothing to improve it. I simply grunted back wordlessly.
“Fickle thing,” Komena chided. “Is this tossing of insults not what you told us to practice? Why do you now shy away?”
“I stand by what I said,” I replied. “You want to stay grounded? Talk with people in a way that isn’t prayer or orders. My friends were my anchor when I was deep in Winter.”
“Friendship,” Andronike said, sounding somewhat skeptical. “A human concept, not of the Firstborn. Kinship in interests is ever passing.”
“Yeah, I’m not exactly holding my breath you two starting to feel all warm and fuzzy inside,” I sighed. “This isn’t about that.”
“Imprecise,” Komena noted. “Elaborate.”
“Banter’s informal,” I said. “It puts you on equal footing with the other person, if only for the duration of that exchange. And for you two it’s even more important, because to be hallway decent at it there’s a lot of things you have to pick up on: the situation, the timing, what lines you can and can’t cross. It forces you to think like a person while you do it.”
“It will not change what we are,” Andronike said.
“None of us can do that,” I replied. “What we can do is make sure you still understand what a mortal is. That you don’t become so utterly removed from reality you march yourself off the cliff.”
There was a long moment of silence broken only by my boots creasing the snow.
“You are being sexually promiscuous with your subordinate, which is humorous for unclear reasons,” Komena tried.
I closed my eyes and counted to five. At least she’s trying, I told myself.
“We’ll, uh, keep working on that,” I muttered.
I flicked a glance at crow-Andronike, but she did not have another drow attempt at humour to throw my way. Well, either that my reaction to her sister had scared her off. The crow-shaped sliver of goddess turned towards me in indignation, much to my amusement. Yes, clearly she was beyond such petty feelings. No, I wasn’t thinking that just to appease her. I muffled my chuckle with my gloves. The slight ebb upwards in my mood disappeared the moment the distraction ended. I was in the dark, in more ways than one. And some of the things hidden from my view mattered more to me than others. I hesitated, fingers clenching and unclenching.
“Ask,” Andronike said.
“Since you ate Winter,” I said. “Your… abilities have grown.”
“Beyond your understanding,” Komena said. “Though that is not a high wall to clear.”
That’d actually been pretty decent, I noted. Insults came much easier to her than humour, which really wasn’t much of a surprise. I cleared my throat.
“Could you find out if someone is dead or not?” I quietly asked.
“Yes,” crow-Andronike said.
Ah, but would they?
“No,” crow-Komena said.
“I know there’d be risks,” I said.
“Of which you warned us yourself,” Andronike said.
“If you start swinging your apotheosis around on the surface, something a lot older and meaner is bound to start swinging back. That story doesn’t end well for you,” Komena said, pitching her voice in an eerily perfect mimicry of mine.
The leather gloves crinkled as I closed them into a fist.
“There are strategic reasons why the information would be important,” I said.
“Not enough to warrant the possibility of provoking an entity our match,” crow-Andronike said. “You know this.”
“Sentiment is unseemly,” crow-Komena said.
“Don’t do that,” I sharply said.
They stilled for a moment. They were not used, I thought, to being spoken to in this way. And we all knew that the part of their power they had sent with me was enough that they could kill me if they so wished – my best defence against it, after all, had been granted to me by their favour. But I would not hold my tongue. That was the whole point of my being named their herald, the First Under the Night: having someone that hadn’t been raised to worship them to argue with them, force them to reconsider what they believed. They might not always agree with me, and frequently did not. But entirely separate from our military alliance and the diplomatic authority they had granted me was the real foundation of our accord. A cat may look at a king, the old Callowan saying went. Though the unfortunate pun had me gritting my teeth, it was a decent way of putting it. It was my damned purpose to disagree with them without sweetening my words.
“There’s nothing wrong with feeling things,” I said. “You take that out and all you view is skewed. They’re not the only thing to take into consideration, often not even the most important, but they do matter. Logic alone leads you to ugly ends because you’re dealing with people, not statues. If you remove that element just to feel clear-sighted and superior, you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot repeatedly.”
“Your tone,” Andronike said.
“Is exactly what it should be,” I replied, unflinching. “If you are right and correct in your own view, make your argument. If all you can quibble about is my phrasing, maybe you should be thinking instead of trying to chide me.”
That didn’t please them, but then it wasn’t supposed to.
“You provided what you promised,” crow-Komena conceded. “Yet the refusal remains. Employ other means.”
I would, the moment I could. There was a storm taking shape in Iserre and I suspected Black would have a better idea than most of what it was really about. He was the only person I trusted who’d ever spoken with both the Hierarch and the Tyrant of Helike, strange as the nature of that trust could be. I trust people to act according to their nature, Malicia had once said. A Wasteland way of thinking, but there was truth to it. I remained alone with the crows-that-were-not-crows on the long march, buried in silence until dawn came.
“It is a dangerous weakness,” Akua said. “Though I suppose inevitable in some ways. Power never comes without a cost.”
The sun had begun passing the horizon, and with the light of morning something like a shiver had passed through fifty thousand drow. Tents had been hastily raised and my host hid away under them before dawn even finished. The sentinels forced to remain out in the sun did so after boiling water to make herbal concoctions that would keep the awake through the sudden wave of tiredness. Dawn, I had learned, was when Sve Noc’s power ebbed lowest. I would have assumed noon to be it, but Akua had offered a complicated explanation as to why that was not the case I’d failed to understand twice before I got her to simplify it into something comprehensible: dawn was the death of the night. As a metaphysical concept, that had more weight than the rest. For some reason that apparently required me to have read a lot of books I definitely had not before it became sound and evident logic. The tent she was keeping me company under was open at the font, but the thick linen walls did cut away at the worst of the wind nicely. It made the wait tolerable, though I was actually debating taking a nap.
“This is an inconvenient one,” I said.
“Surprisingly light,” Diabolist retorted. “They are still physically able, after all. Simple temporarily bereft of their access to the Night.”
“They’ll also be out like a light for a few hours,” I grunted. “That’s a recipe for a morning attack and you know it.”
The transition from night to dawn was taxing on drow bodies in a way that led to exhaustion, and effectively prevented the expeditionary force from being truly fighting fit for at least three to four hours. And they’d be tired for the rest of the day as well as being fragile little mortals if I didn’t leave them sleeping a little longer than that, though at least that I could push later in the day. It wasn’t like other armies didn’t have to sleep, of course. But having a fixed time for that was a liability, and there would be no keeping that under wraps forever. The moment we began operating near other armies, there’d be outriders and scouts on us at all times and much as I liked to insult Proceran royalty they were not above basic pattern recognition.
“Hence why joining forces with the Legions of Terror remains a priority,” Akua said. “Fifty thousand warriors led by Mighty able to operate flawless in the dark are nothing to scoff at, and a fortified camp held by legionaries would allow us to exploit that advantage relentlessly.”
“Until we have allies, it makes occupation of anything concrete difficult,” I reminded her. “Taking something at night will be easy enough. Holding it through the day another story.”
“Fortunate, then, that occupation is not our intent,” Akua serenely replied.
That and I still had a few cards to play if things got bad, though heroic presence would make the whole matter chancy. They tended to do that, as a rule. At least the Dead King should keeping a good chunk of them out of my hair for the foreseeable future. I cast a look back at my bed, which was essentially a pile of covers and inexplicably flat cushions, and finally gave up the notion of a lie-in. Maybe after I worked out some of the tension in my body. I rose with a grunt, curtly refusing Akua offered helping hand, and buckled my sheath back onto my belt.
“Who has the watch again?” I asked the shade.
“Lord Ivah,” she replied.
Ivah, huh. It’d been a while since we’d had a proper chat. Unlike some of the Peerage, who seemed discomforted by how easily they still obeyed me and so made themselves scarce, my old guide had remained at hand. Unfortunately it was also a pathfinder of some talent, and so often sent out ahead of the expeditionary army. Might as well take the occasion today, I didn’t know how long it would be until the next. Though was I was higher than General Rumena in the pecking order of the Empire Ever Dark, it was in charge of leading the expedition. While I could give orders and dismiss its own, the details of the duty rosters remained at its discretion. I could have intervened, but was reluctant to do as much without a better reason than liking having Ivah around. Akua followed me out of the tent and onto the camp wordlessly. After years of commanding legionaries, the sight of the mess around us had me wincing on the inside. The layout of this place was a bloody maze, all haphazard tents with no real thought given to quick deployment and no chance of a bloody palisade being raised. Rumena wasn’t a fool, so it’d been pretty thorough about putting sentinels in place during our vulnerable ours, but it’d admitted to me in private that it could not turn a gaggle of tribal sigils into the kind of army the Empire Ever Dark had once fielded with less than a month before the campaign began.
Assembling a functioning chain of command had been miracle enough, in my opinion, which should count for quite a bit considering I was now the foremost priestess of an entire race.
“Have you considered using a staff?” Akua suddenly asked.
She’d pulled slightly ahead of me, I only then noticed. I could go quicker, in all honesty, but I was in no real hurry and this pace was most comfortable.
“My limp’s not that bad,” I shrugged.
“It pains you,” the shade frowned.
“When it loses its novelty I’ll get herbs for that,” I replied. “That’s what my pipe was for in the first place.”
We turned around a cluster of tents, the smallness of the gap rather irritating to my eyes. She resumed the line of conversation afterwards.
“Unnecessary suffering is exactly that,” Akua said.
“I’m still fighting fit,” I said with irritation. “And if I need a little nimbleness, I’ll call on the Night to make it withdraw for a bit. I got the juice directly from Sve Noc, daylight won’t stop me.”
“It does significantly weaken you,” Diabolist retorted.
I rolled my eyes. So the kind of power I could call on went from terrifying to merely appalling after dawn. It was still more than I’d ever had to work with as the Squire by an almost absurd margin.
“Yet that was not my meaning,” Akua mildly continued. “I worry more about what embracing this implies of your mindset.”
I watched her from the corner of my eye, and she did not meet my gaze. Worry, huh. The words she chose were never an accident.
“Sometimes it’s a good thing,” I said. “To remember what it feels like for the people who don’t make pacts with gods.”
“I had thought you estranged with contrition, dearest,” she said, tone prickly.
“I won’t wallow,” I flatly replied. “But I won’t lose sight of it twice either. A lot of people are going to bleed before this is over, Akua.”
I brought up my fingers to block the sun from my eyes, feeling the shade studying me.
“Now and then it’s worth the sting to feel a part of what you’re going to dole out,” I finished quietly. “It’s be a kinder world, if we were all made to remember that.”
“Kindness,” Diabolist mused.
“Not a Praesi favourite, I know,” I drily said.
Not much grounds left to cover before we reached the edge of the camp. Already we were passing drow so wrapped up in cloth the only seen could be seen was their eyes, though those were sharp and peering at the horizon. Ivah should be somewhere within the small thicket of bare trees I could see ahead, by the feel of the presences in the Night. Even when bereft of the power, they still left an impression. I slowed when I realized Akua had stopped. She was looking at me with narrowed eyes. Ah. Irritated her, had I?
“Is that what you think?” she said.
Not irritation, I thought. Disappointment. Fancy that.
“Are you sure, Akua Sahelian,” I said softly, “that you want to get in an argument with me about the moral fabric of the Wasteland?”
“I had a great-uncle,” she said. “By the name of Thandiwe.”
My eyebrow rose.
“Fascinating,” I said.
“I found him to be, as a child,” Akua casually admitted. “He was, after all, stricken from family records.”
“Maybe he used the wrong fork during the cannibalism ritual,” I suggested.
Much as I disliked to admit, though, she had my attention.
“My mother would not speak of,” she said, “and so naturally I pursued the matter secretly.”
A half-smile quirked her lips.
“He was a sorcerer of great promise,” she said. “As is custom among our line, as a boy he was brought to the deepest part of the Maze of Kilns. There he was made to sacrifice one dear to him, and for months after remained silent.”
So it wasn’t just you, I thought. Had Tasia Sahelian been made to do the same by her own mother, I wondered? How far back did the wounding of their own children go, for it to have earned the name of tradition?
“The lesson was believed to have been taught,” Akua said. “And it was. One the eve of his sixteenth year, Thandiwe Sahelian stole several tomes and artefacts from the family vaults and fled to Mercantis, where he pawned them for a small fortune he used to make a home further south in Nicae.”
“I imagine that went over less than pleasantly in Wolof,” I said.
“Rage is an apt description,” she mused. “Which only worsened when he began to thrive after entering some sort of merchant consortium and became comfortably wealthy even by Praesi standards. Enough to seek the protection of the Basileus, which the Empire sought favourable trade terms with in those days.”
“Clever, then,” I said. “Though I’m wondering as to your point. The man sounds decent enough, but he left Praes.”
Akua inclined her head.
“And yet he was also a Sahelian,” she said, and even now there was an undertone of pride when she spoke the name. “The blood of the original murder, unhallowed from the cradle. I am told that he kept to the Gods Below even on that foreign shore.”
“He grew past his roots,” I said.
And I’m not so sure you have, I thought. She looked up at the morning sun, her silhouette wreathed in light for a heartbeat, and there was something about her smile that unsettled me.
“You have seen the worst of us,” the shade said. “And through that knowing taken our measure. But there is more, Catherine. We are not beyond kindness, not even the highborn. If even a Sahelian can have the taste for peace, there is yet something left to be kindled.”
“If you want to be known by more than the ugliest parts of you,” I said, “perhaps you should show them to the rest of the world. Maybe the capacity is there, Akua, but we don’t judge by capacity. It’s the choices you make that matter.”
“Ah,” she murmured. “And how many of those do we really have, in the end?”
One hundred thousand souls, I thought. That was a choice. It’s the weight on the balance by which you will be judged, and what could possibly even the scales? I cleared my throat, uncomfortable the lingering silence.
“Your great-uncle,” I said. “What happened to him, after?”
Golden eyes met mine.
“The old Basileus died. His successor refused the Empire’s terms outright,” she said. “And so my grandfather, a noted alchemist, took to his workshop. If he is so ashamed of his blood, I am told he said, let us relieve him of it.”
Neither of us blinked.
“Thandiwe Sahelian sweated out every drop of blood in his body within the year,” Akua said.
We finished the rest of the walk in silence.