“The words of one sage are wisdom, the words of a hundred a riot.”
– Atalantian saying
What was it with Proceran cities and looking kind of shoddy?
Rochelant at least had bothered to put up walls at some point in its history, which the Callowan in me could not help but approve of, but those miserable piles of mud and stone looked like they hadn’t seen a day’s maintenance in the last century. I wouldn’t need sorcery to knock those over, just a sapper with a few tools and a pile of firewood. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but stare at the size of the place – come winter, and we were definitely there, there must have been at least twenty something thousand people living in there. Rochelant was a goblin’s dream playground, all wooden thatched houses and narrow alleys, but by Proceran standards this was considered a small city. There would be a handful of those in Iserre alone, with the eponymous capital being significantly larger. Sometimes it boggled the mind how many people actually lived within the borders of the Principate. Sure, these were the heartlands and by far the most densely populated part of the realm, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the total population of Procer beat that of Callow and Praes put together. But the behemoth is quarrelsome, and slow to wake, I thought. That’d been the sole saving grace of the Principate’s bordering nations since the crowning of the founding First Prince. Yet both those flaws would have to be fixed, if the war up north was to be won.
There was a reason I would have peace as set by the Liesse Accords or no peace at all. Procer resurgent, purged of all its weaknesses, might be almost as dangerous to Calernia as the Dead King himself. Cordelia Hasenbach did not strike me as particularly ambitious when it came to acquiring new territories directly – her game had always been a diplomatic in outcome, when she was the one leading the dance – but there was no guarantee her successor would be so inclined. I wasn’t going to bloody Callow and its allies just to enable the latest imperial expansion of the ‘Wardens of the West’, as the rulers of this realm so arrogantly titled themselves.
“Ivah wasn’t making it up,” Archer mused. “They really haven’t bothered to put up sentries. Bold, I’ve gotta say.”
The walls were only about a dozen feet high and I had doubts they were thick enough to resist even a single good hit from a trebuchet, but the part Indrani had focused on was perhaps the most important: there was not a soul patrolling atop them. Or guarding the city gates, which were as wide open as such a narrow gap allowed. The snowy dirt road leading to them had been use recently, though. There were hoof marks leading into the countryside, so whoever held command in there was fielding at least some patrols. I pulled at the reins of Zombie the Fourth, though the dead horse I’d spared form ending up in a drow cookpot to serve as my undead mount instead showed no reaction to the gesture. Necromancy, insofar as I was truly doing that – and Akua had expressed her doubts on the subject many a time – had gotten a little rougher since I’d traded in Winter for Night. Whatever strange spark of intelligence my good little abomination Zombie the Third still held wherever she was – unnecessarily – grazing at grass was absent from my new mount. The Sisters insisted this was a consequence of my raw handling of Night, but I disagreed. There’d been something to Winter that was missing in the Night, even after the latter had devoured the former. Crow-Andronike stirred on my shoulder, displeased, but did not take up the argument. It was probably for the best that her sister had remained with the southern expedition, because she most definitely would have.
“The smoke means chimneys and fires are still being used,” Akua noted from my other side. “In large enough amount it cannot be solely the soldiers of the League doing so. That implies some degree of coherent thought remains to the inhabitants.”
“Not a demon, probably, unless it is,” Indrani summed up.
Diabolist looked deeply pained at the phrasing, but did not disagree. I smothered a smile and urged Zombie forward with a twist of will. The company of drow around us was heavy on Lords, at General Rumena’s insistence, though to be fair I hadn’t bothered to argue. Ivah, Soln, Sagas and Vadymir: the majority of my surviving Peerage was trailing the three of us, with around four dozen rylleh of mixed sigils following behind them in turn. As long as the moon was out, the power at my back was the equivalent of fielding a small army. In power, anyway, and that was always tricky business. All that was necessary for them to turn into a mere fifty drow was the right ward or miracle. They’d been predators among predators, down in the Everdark, but where the Firstborn had been shedding their own blood for millennia up here the war had two sides. For all their centuries of fighting and deep wells of Night, I often wondered how well my Peerage would truly stack up against a well-trained hero. We’ll have to find out, eventually, I grimly thought. I shook off the thought and turned by attention back to the present.
The closer we got to the city, the more I became convinced there were eyes on us. There was not a soul immediately through the gates, which made that rather interesting. Andronike’s sliver of godhood on my shoulder should be quite enough to make a wreck of any attempt to scry us, implying something was actually watching us directly.
“Archer?” I murmured.
Even under the hood and cloth I saw her brow creasing.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Indrani said. “But I’m guessing if these people can’t even put together the coin for decent walls they shouldn’t have enough to put up gargoyles on them.”
“Helikeans are fond of animating stone,” the shade said. “Though admittedly they’ve rarely succeeded at anything larger than a dog.”
Now that I knew what to look for, I could make out the small silhouettes that’d wedged themselves into holes and fissures. Imp-like sculptures of rough stone, some with the heads of dogs and others more lizardlike. Many had wings, though not all. I’d missed them at first look, I thought, because none of them were moving even the slightest bit. Not even the eyes.
“No sentries, huh,” I said. “Looks like our good friend the Tyrant is a little more careful than he lets on.”
Ivah slid up to me, head already bowed, but I waved away the apology before it could be spoken. It’d been the kind of detail someone unused to having to consider what people could and could not afford – in essence, not a drow – might have missed. Living in massive ornate ruins could be a blind spot of sorts, and both Ivah and its scouts had spent their whole lives living in the remnants of their old empire. Interesting, though, that the mistake would fit so well. Had the Tyrant gotten lucky, or was there more to it? Regardless, it seemed that my army’s last visit to Rochelant might not have been as discreet as we’d previously thought. The Tyrant of Helike, I suspected, would be waiting for us.
“You’ll know next time,” I simply told Ivah. “Mistakes are to be expected. It doesn’t matter, so long as you learn from them.”
“As you say, Losara Queen,” the Lord of Silent Steps murmured back.
With a bow it retreated, just in time for us to enter Rochelant in lockstep. The gate above us was arched, and I felt petty satisfaction at noting that my earlier prediction of poor wall depth proved entirely accurate. The muddy road into the city ahead of us was probably the closest thing to an avenue there was to be found in here. Broad enough for a cart to go through, anyway, which had probably been the measure it was built on.
“Akua,” I simply said.
Diabolist met my eyes, inclined her head and as we passed in the shade cast by a house she vanished into thin air. She had her instructions already. My arguably finest expert in sorcery would be taking a look at the influence taking hold of Rochelant, though she was to retreat and return to me the moment she started feeling it herself.
“It is here,” Andronike spoke from my shoulder. “Like waves lapping at the shore. There is a source further in.”
“Not feeling anything,” Indrani noted.
“For which we give thanks to the Night,” I mildly replied.
I had no intention of walking into a place like this without one of my crow-goddesses serving as a shield.
“My thoughts exactly. Hail the Sisters, all that good stuff,” Archer snorted.
She’d never been one to meet a deity and not debate whether to try to stab it, I recognized with a sigh.
“We head for the source,” I told the drow. “Andronike?”
“None may hide from me after dusk,” the crow claimed.
That might even be true, as I immediately felt a pull in the Night guiding me forward through the streets. Given how narrow they were, the drow had to spread out over rooftops to keep even a semblance of formation. They did so in utter silence, ethereal silhouettes in the moonlight that left no mark and bore no weight. We’d left the main road behind, and with that any semblance of this city not being a nightmarish mess of cramped alleys. Tough sometimes it was so tight that Archer couldn’t even stay at my side, our journey through was informative in some ways. There were still people inside the houses, though not nearly as many as there should be this late out. The sounds in the distance told me that Ivah’s report of ‘tribunals’ had not been idle chatter: I could hear shouting in Chantant, the bay of a mob out for a good hanging. The first trial we came across was on the steps of a House of Light, and the sight of a roiling mob of nearly a hundred had me ordering my horse to a halt. The Procerans did not pay us the slightest attention, though the other foreigners did. Watching on passively from a distance, a dozen soldiers in scale armour were standing apart from the crowd. Sword and board men, the lot of them, though the mail beneath the scales going down to their knees was a style of armour known to me. Helikean, though these men-at-arms were missing the javelins their lot was reputed to bear.
The Tyrant’s soldiers looked at us, but before long returned their attention to the citizens. So you knew we were coming, I thought. Or your orders are not to care about outsiders coming in. Gaze returning to the Procerans, I tried to parse out the mixed shouts of Chantant and Tolesian they were using interchangeably and found only mixed success. The man they were attempting to hold a tribunal over was obvious, a brother from the House of Light wearing what had once been very nice robes now ripped and dirtied. Accusations bribery and withheld healing were tossed at him, but my interest lay in the fact that there were other priests among the crowd. Shouting with the others, red-faced and thirsty for blood. Whatever was animating these people, even priesthood was no opponent for it.
“They’re not resorting to violence yet,” I noted out loud.
“That robe didn’t rip itself,” Archer replied.
Yes, but she was missing the point. For all the anger and fervour stirring up the crowd, they were not simply tearing the accused apart. The process was rough and loud, but accusations were being laid and witnesses called. Some law, I suspected, was being obeyed. But whose? It was certainly not the laws of Iserre, or even those few that held for the entire Principate. We stayed long enough to see the crowd begin voting on the seven among them that would make up the tribunal and pass the sentence, though I did not remain to witness what would be the inevitable conclusion. There were already headless corpses staining the front of the House that told me the nature of it. The Helikean soldiers parted wordlessly for us when I rode past them, Archer at my side. None of them caught sight of the shadows following me by way of the rooftops. Three more of these trials we encountered as I let the Night guide me further into Rochelant, each headed for grim ending.
“There’s something in the air here,” Indrani grunted as we passed the third.
“Blood,” I flatly replied.
I glanced to the side as she pulled back her hood a fraction, revealing troubled hazelnut eyes.
“This almost feels like a domain, Cat,” she said. “Only wrong. Winter was cruel, but it was… clear. This has a fever to it, a sickness. Whatever’s at the centre of this, it is mad.”
I shivered, fingers closing tightly around my ebony staff. I’d heard what she did not say. It was mad, and so it was dangerous – and we were head towards it.
“And still we advance,” I said.
Stillness held for a moment.
“Well,” Archer said, pulling down her hood. “Not like we ever let good sense get in the way before.”
I sent Zombie forward, knowing there was a grain of truth to that. Andronike’s talons dug into my shoulder as we made our way out of the alley not long after, a sign we’d reached the source of this bloody dream. The clamour could be heard long before I saw anything with my own eyes, the wave of sound that was hundreds of people talking and screaming and moving. Before us stood what was likely a marketplace, though packed full with citizens as it was that could only remain a guess. Men and women were standing in line in the back, up against a tavern, and I watched as the one in front was dragged to the side and beheaded before the parted corpse was dragged away out of sight. Immediately the tribunal that’d passed the sentence returned to the mob, and voting began on who would make up the next as the second in line in the back was brought to the front. This was it, I thought. Even with the crow goddess on my shoulder shielding me from the worst of this, I could feel something rippling in the air. A steady pulse like a heartbeat. Leaning on the height temporarily granted to me by my horse, I followed the sensation to its source.
There was a table to the side of the proceedings, more a pile of crates than anything else, and at is sat a single man. Tanned in the way of the Free Cities, he was dressed like a beggar in worn robes too loose on his frame. Which was thin, though not the thinness of the heathy. He looked like he’d had too many lean meals, or perhaps like the fire in those grey eyes had eaten away at his body from the inside. The Hierarch of the League of Free Cities, for this could not be anyone else, was middle-aged and balding. His eyebrows were thick and bushy, both they and his sparse beard warring between white streaks and dark brown. One of his boots, I could not help but notice, had been so poorly sown back on the sole was coming off at the front. I looked at him, saw him scribbling on a clay tablet while intently following the proceedings, and felt the slightest bit of fear. He looked like no one, I thought. But coming from his body like an invisible current was some deep and terrible power the touch of which could be felt over all of Rochelant. It was not reaching into my mind, not yet, but it felt as if raising my hand would allow me to feel the unseen ripples.
“That’s an aspect,” Indrani said, voice hushed. “Gods, how can that be an aspect?”
“Andronike?” I asked.
The crow-goddess did not reply for a long moment, until I turned my head to look at her. If a bird could look uncomfortable, I saw, it would be something like this.
“This is… difficult,” Andronike said, voice tight. “The pull is strong.”
My fingers clenched.
“You’re having a hard time fighting him,” I croaked. “What the Hells is this, Andronike? He’s Named, not…”
“Faith,” the crow got out. “This is faith, Catherine Foundling. Pure unadulterated belief, untainted by doubt or hesitation. It sings, and the world sings back.”
“Faith in what?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Andronike hissed. “A snake eating its own tail. It is bleak madness screamed by endless throats, and it would stand tribunal over the Gods themselves.”
I swallowed. And the Tyrant of Helike was using this man as a pawn?
“We need to leave,” Archer said. “We’re not ready for this. Not without Masego.”
I breathed in, breathed out. Fear was the death of reason. None of the reasons I had come here had changed. If anything, the depths of the man I was still looking at made it more important to get a handle on what the League was after. I allowed my staff to slip my fingers and hit the frozen ground. Calling on a breath’s worth of Night, I used to support to get off my horse. Indrani sucked in a breath.
“Cat, this is a trap,” she said.
“And still I advance,” I ruefully smiled. “Andronike, safeguard them.”
The crow left my shoulder, a few flaps of her wings landing her atop the head of the eerily-still Zombie.
“It will sing to you, First Under the Night,” the goddess warned.
“Ah, but that’s the trick,” I told her, baring my teeth. “You can’t go mad twice, o goddess of Night.”
Limping against my staff, I slipped into the crowd. The sound and power beat at my eardrums like a ram, in some way intertwined, and it took me by surprise hard enough some man almost elbowed me off my feet. I grit my teeth and shoved back with my staff. It should have stung, but the man was too busy screaming his vote in Chantant to notice. Going straight through would see me trampled, I decided, so I made my way to the edge instead and began circling around. The pounding in my ears was relentless. Again and again it came as I stumbled around half-blind, until I could almost make out words. Almost. I caught my breath against a half-fallen stall, and only then gathered enough attention to notice the woman staring at me. She was, it was almost too absurd to think, aggressively nondescript. There was a muted look to her face, as if her thoughts were halfway elsewhere, though as she narrowed her eyes I felt something brush against my mind.
Somewhere very far away, Sve Noc bared their teeth in displeasure.
The stranger paled, eyes turning bloodshot, and clutched her forehead as scarlet began dripping out of her nostrils. Shouldn’t have done that, I thought. In there be monsters, my friend. I immediately felt dozens of stares settle on me, but I ignored them and began the journey again. Not far, now, and where the Hierarch was seated a gap had formed in the crowd. I pushed the last woman out of the way, though I froze just after. I could have sworn I’d hear someone whisper in my ear, though the words had been indistinct. My fingers clutched the staff and I drew comfort from the sensation of the Night within, letting out a deep breath and putting myself together. The Named, I saw, had not so much as glanced at me. Neither did he bother when I stepped around the makeshift table until I stood behind him. I glanced down at the words being scribbled on the clay tablet with a stone stylet. That wasn’t Chantant, I noted. I didn’t recognize the language, although at one of the words was very close to the Mtethwa for ‘protest’ so it might be tradertalk. The second Maleficent had held the region under her grasp for long enough there’d been some bleed into the local tongue, I’d read.
“Will anyone but you actually be able to read those?” I said in Chantant.
I’d meant to speak lightly, but my voice came out rough instead. The Hierarch finally paused in his writing, turning to look at me. There was something calm, almost resigned, to the stare. As if nothing of Creation could truly ruffle his feathers.
“Irrelevant,” the Hierarch replied in the same, tone chiding. “Transcripts must be kept of trials held.”
I blinked. Huh. Not the answer I’d expected. The power battering at my mind was weakening, I felt, slowly but surely. Did the aspect require concentration?
“You have the look of a foreign tyrant,” the Hierarch accused.
“Back home it’s called regular tyranny, though,” I replied, and immediately bit my tongue.
I’d really thought I was done with the whole taunting dangerous, powerful madmen thing but apparently old habits died hard. The Hierarch’s brow furrowed as he seemed to seriously mull over that. The battering ram slowed even further.
“That seems logical,” he muttered. “It should be passed on to the Republic for consideration.”
Then he turned those dark eyes back on me.
“You do not deny the charge of tyranny?” he pressed.
“You already laid out your stance in our correspondence,” I said.
He seemed vaguely surprised, then thoughtful.
“You are Cordelia Hasenbach,” the man stated, half-questioningly.
A moment passed, while I was genuinely at a loss for words. Ah, I thought. So this is why the Tyrant thinks he can make a pawn of you. For a heartbeat I debated actually pretending I was the First Prince just to see if I could make some trouble for her, but discarded the notion just as quick. Best not to roll dice when they had teeth and a noted fondness for biting.
“Catherine Foundling,” I replied. “Queen of Callow.”
If he felt embarrassed about the mistake, he didn’t show it in the slightest.
“There’s no such thing,” he told me sternly.
“Queens or Catherine Foundling?” I said. “Because one of those debates is a lot more philosophical than I’m equipped to handle.”
Behind us the clamour of the crowd had quieted some, but by the sounds of it the trials hadn’t stopped. Neither had the aspect, I thought, at least not entirely. But what had been a trumpet earlier was a murmur now, and that I could handle while keeping most of my wits about me.
“Aristocracy Is A Festering Wound Upon The People,” Anaxares of Bellerophon gravely informed me. “May Hail Strike It Repeatedly For A Thousand Years.”
That seemed a little excessive. There shouldn’t be much left to hail on after the first century.
“Preaching to the Choir there,” I said. “I’ve never fought a war against someone who didn’t have some sort of title.”
“Yet you are a queen,” he said, blithely ignoring his previous assertion there was no such thing.
“For the moment,” I shrugged. “I intend to abdicate when it’s feasible.”
“So your kind always claims,” the Hierarch said, eyes turning flinty. “Give me the right, they say, give me the laws and the swords. I will keep you safe until the storm has passed. And service becomes rule, rule becomes tyranny until lovingly the yoke is fastened around our necks.”
Like the hammer on the anvil, the ram against the gate, the dull pounding of his power began to sound in the distance. Slow. Swelling. Implacable. But I would not be cowed that easily.
“Is this why the League has gone to war?” I asked. “To end crowns?”
There wasn’t a single thing that changed about him, I thought. He was still a skeleton of a man in ill-fitting robes, a scarecrow with a scowl. Not a single thing had changed, and yet… If I strained the ear, I could hear the chorus. The howls of the mob. Chains ripped apart, palaces toppled and bones being crushed. Torches starting a fire that would spread across the world. A song of revolt, of rebellion. I could feel it, like warm wine running through my veins. It was harsh and unforgiving, but oh how glorious it was. How easy it would have been to partake of it and let that warmth swallow me whole.
“We are all of us free or we are none of us free,” the Hierarch of the League of Free Cities said, voice like steel. “There is no middle ground. And for the lashes struck at our back, all will be called to account – if gallows must be raised for devils and angels alike, so be it.”
I almost, out of sheer contrariness, pointed out that devils did not die but only disperse. But would they really, if it was this man passing the sentence? Suddenly I was not so certain. My mistake, I thought, had been trying to think of him as either a terror or a fool. Fear had dogged me, wading through his aspect, but it had retreated as we spoke. As the man proved to be so uninterested in his surrounding as to be lost. I’d allowed the cadenced little phrases, the obvious mistakes and ignorance, to lull me into believing him… adrift. Living in his own world. But Black had warned me about people like this, hadn’t he? About Named who did not see Creation as it was but how it should be. Men and women who embraced their vision so deeply they bent the world around them to match it. My mistake, I thought once more, had been to believe he must be only one of the two. He was not.
The Tyrant of Helike had not sharpened this blade so carefully to cut a mortal empire, I decided. There was a broader game unfolding.
“It’s a pretty dream,” I said. “A pretty speech. But you ended it before you got to the end – the part where you declare war on the rest of the continent for those same pretty things, and it eats you alive. It’s not a fight you’re going to win, Hierarch.”
The man’s lips quirked, his face serene save for the scorn.
“War against Calernia,” he said amusedly. “As if tearing down masters was the same thing as warring on their slaves. You betray yourself, tyrant. You think I wage war on them?”
The stylus flicked at the crowd of Procerans. The axe went up, the axe went down. Another dead man, dragged into the alley.
“The old faceless thing bade me to choose a side,” the Hierarch said. “And at long last, I have.”
My eyes narrowed. The old faceless thing. There weren’t a lot of entities out there that would fit that epithet. Anaxares of Bellerophon smiled, crooked teeth bared.
“You think us outnumbered?” he said. “How many of us are there, tyrant, and how many of you?”
I could have wounded him, then. Not with a blade – here and now, even if he did not lift a finger, I did not think that would end well for me – but with words. A reminder that he marched with slavers and monsters, that his own League would turn on him in due time. That he should get his own fucking house in order before tossing stones at mine. Or maybe that power would fail him, in the end, and that like the city-state that spawned him his road would end in blood and whimpering. But there would be a place and a time for that, and it was not tonight.
I had seen the sword, and must now see its wielder.
“It’s a lovely song,” I said instead. “But it’s always easier to break than to make.”
The Hierarch’s gaze returned to the trial, where the accused was being dragged to the fore.
“There will be one for you as well, one day,” he said.
“But not tonight,” I said.
“Not tonight,” he softly agreed.
I left as the man bent back over his tablet, hand moving anew to write words only he could read.
It was past time I had a chat with the other madman in this city.