“Fool me once and it’d best be fatal, for my reply certainly will be.”
– Dread Emperor Vindictive II
“What the fuck was that?” Archer hissed.
They hadn’t fled the marketplace, of course, because big important bird-goddesses like Andronike couldn’t possibly flee – I yelped and slapped her away. If the damned Sisters kept pecking at my head like this I was going to go bald at some point. Fine, they had redeployed away from the mob and the madman feeding it. I looked down at the fist bunching up my cloak in the front, which was Indrani’s.
“You’ll have to be a little more specific,” I said.
She scrutinized my face for a moment, before grimacing and releasing me.
“Well, if you can be a heel you probably still own your mind,” she said. “That was stupid, Catherine. We weren’t even near the crowd and we could still feel it when he got pissed.”
“It was necessary,” I said, brushing down the folds of my cloak.
“Don’t you start with that speech,” Archer growled. “If I got a copper for every time you talked about necessity-”
“You still wouldn’t be able to afford your drinking habits,” I drily interrupted.
The look on her face was thunderous, so I smoothed away the humour from my expression.
“I’m serious,” I said. “I needed to take the measure of him. When someone lets a lion loose in the pen, you don’t pretend it’s not happening – not unless you’re ready to lose the whole flock.”
“That’s what we have Vivi for,” Indrani insisted. “The Jacks-”
“Would have been in that crowd, hollering for blood,” I flatly replied. “You know that. It was a calculated risk, Archer. Since when do –”
I bit down on my tongue. I knew exactly since when she’d started taking issued with those. I was in no danger of ever forgetting the sight of Indrani half-devoured by frost, only hanging on to life by a thread – and, I had recently learned, the preservative properties of ice according to the classical table of elements.
“Finish,” Indrani quietly said.
“Not a conversation we should be having in the middle of an alley in a city under occupation,” I evaded.
“Finish,” Indrani repeated, coldly.
“Even Akua is worried, Archer,” I said. “I know you like to handle things on your own, but it’s not getting better.”
“I’m fine,” she told me forcefully. “Or is disagreeing with you a sign of cowardice now?”
“I didn’t say that,” I replied.
A year ago we wouldn’t have been having this conversation, I thought. But then a year ago there’d been fewer defeats to our name, fewer close calls and wounds that would never quite heal. An emotion I couldn’t quite recognize twisted her face, until she winced.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re in an alley, Catherine,” Archer finally said, taking a step back. “Because there’s nothing to talk about.”
I wondered if she even noticed how her fingers were twitching towards the strap at her side where she usually kept a flask. Probably not, I decided. I knew from personal experience that we tended to be blind to the methods we used to bury our fears until they were pointed out to us. Her way, at least, I was familiar with. Some nights I wondered if I might have disappeared all the way at the bottom of the bottle after Second Liesse, if Hakram hadn’t dragged me back. I hesitated under moonlight, a reply on the tip of my tongue. I’d had a talk with Diabolist once, about her mother. About the difference between a person and their title, the way Praesi considered them entirely different entities. I still disagreed with what she’d said, the painful contortion of personhood her people had to put themselves through just to live with what they did to each other, but sometimes I could also see a grain of truth to it. The woman in me wanted to find a quiet place, a safe one, and try to soothe what was eating at one of my closest friends in the world. Even if it meant leaving Rochelant. But the queen knew there was still work to be done tonight, that this business was only half-done, and that what lay within Indrani would keep until morning. The queen won, in the end.
Didn’t she always?
“This isn’t done,” I told Indrani.
“It is for tonight,” she replied.
Getting back atop Zombie’s saddle had the taste of defeat to it. Wouldn’t be the last of those, before this was all done and over with. We pressed on deeper into the city, Named and priestess and a crow-that-wasn’t surrounded by a pack of silent killers.
A kinsman of sorts awaited us.
The place the Tyrant of Helike chose for his lair served as my first glimpse into the man’s mind. There would have been a few places in Rochelant royalty could claim to maintain a semblance of comfort: the official quarters of the appointed ruler of the city, the mansions of the influential and the wealthy, a House of Light to empty and desecrate. Instead, Kairos Theodosian had settled in the shop of a middling money changer. Someone whose very trade was the exchange of one currency for another. The entire city block was crawling with soldiers and much more discreet gargoyles, what must have once been a largely unimportant street turned into the heart of the League’s occupation of Rochelant. There was no military sense to the location, I thought. It was poorly placed to deploy troops or send messengers, not to mention surrounded by very flammable shops. No prestige to such a choice, either, as money changing was not a profession of particularly good repute. This was a villain making a jest that quite possibly no one would ever get, in defiance of more practical choices, simply because he could. My teacher’s lessons, I decided, would not be of great use here. The Tyrant was one face of the coin he’d spent a lifetime melting down so the metal could be put to better use.
Black did not make deals with people like this, did not negotiate. He killed them as quickly as he could to limit the collateral damage, then ripped out what had spawned them root and stem so he wouldn’t have to come back and do it again a decade down the line. That wasn’t an option for me, so I’d have to handle the madman a different way. I led Zombie in a canter down the street, rows of men-at-arms armed to the teeth watching me carefully. Idly pretending to brush back my hair, I gestured for the drow following from the rooftops to stay back. I didn’t know what kind of the defences the Tyrant would have prepared, to know I was coming with the likes of Andronike perched on my shoulder and still feel comfortable allowing me into Rochelant, but it was best not to test them. Archer and the crow-goddess I kept at my side, until a mounted officer approached us at the very edge of the defensive perimeter. She kept her sword sheathed at her side, though by the look on her face she would have preferred otherwise. I halted my horse without needing to be told, my companions following suit.
“Queen Catherine,” she called out in crisp Lower Miezan.
“That would be me,” I said. “And you are?”
“General Basilia,” she said. “You were expected. Safe passage is granted to you by the writ of the Tyrant of Helike.”
Her gaze flicked to Indrani and Andronike.
“To you alone,” she meaningfully said.
“Catherine,” Archer said under her breath. “This is-”
“He needs me alive and on the field,” I mildly replied. “It’s not that kind of trap.”
“You don’t know that for sure,” she insisted.
“Certainty is a luxury I can rarely afford,” I said. “If it goes south, gloat all you’d like. Andronike?”
“Not beyond my reach,” the crow stated, eyeing the changing house.
“Good enough,” I grunted.
Zombie resumed his advance and I entered the dragon’s lair. General Basilia cast me a dark glance as I passed her. Someone wasn’t happy I was being allowed in, evidently. Wasn’t sure why she was being so ornery – I’d had the man her Tyrant had usurped the throne from shot back when I was still the Squire. Surely that should earn me some measure of fondness? Apparently not, I drily thought, feeling her gaze remaining on my back as I rode forward. The heavy and layered wards I could feel washing over my skin with a distinct tingle made it clear that distrust truly was the order of the night. The soldiers parted with silent discipline until I reached the steps of the changing house, leaning on my staff to dismount with a muted curse. A man-at-arms came up to take Zombie’s reins, but I clicked my tongue in disapproval.
“I wouldn’t recommend that,” I said. “He bites.”
A twist of will had my dead horse baring his teeth. The soldier stepped back, a glimmer of fear in her eyes. I’d spent long enough idling, though, so up I went the worn steps and through the already-open door. The inside was lit up with torches and magelights, which almost surprised me. I’d half-expected some innocent soul to be serving as fuel instead. A sweeping glance was enough to give me an idea of the inside: a large common room for trade to be held, with a counter at the back in front of twin doors leading to backrooms. A few tapestries in the manner of the Free Cities had been hung on the walls – most of them about Theodosius the Unconquered – but the room had been largely stripped bare. It only made the fresh additions more glaring: two rows of twisted little gargoyles, some bearing trumpets, were wiggling around and chattering like vermin. Between them a red carpet had been set, leading up to a throne literally resting on the back of a foursome of pitiful-looking gargoyles.
On it was the Tyrant of Helike, Kairos Theodosian.
So frail, I thought. Curly dark brown hair and olive skin made his ancestry clear, but these were by far the least striking parts of the villain. One of his eyes was deep red, as if blood had seeped into it, and his sickly frame looked like it could be blown over by a stiff breeze. Opulent robes in rich purple, covered in part by a long strip of cloth of gold draped over the front, boasted broad sleeves but not quite broad enough to hide that the arm he kept covered was trembling. No crown was set on his brow, but he was casually toying with an ivory scepter ending in a golden roaring lion’s head. I could feel the enchantments wafting off of it even from the other side of the room. The Tyrant took one look at me, good eye widening, and convulsed. For a heartbeat I was worried that the Night had somehow hurt him, but the convulsion erupted into raucous, heartfelt laughter. I blinked, taken aback. I flicked a glance at the nearest gargoyle but it just put out its tongue at me. I discretely kicked it while the Tyrant kept laughing his guts out. Eventually the villain got himself under control, wiping tears out of his eyes with trembling hands.
“Oh, that is a fine jest indeed,” he said, then peeked at the floor. “You never disappoint.”
I cleared my throat.
“I don’t suppose you’d care to share,” I said.
The Tyrant smiled at me in the way of man for whom smiles came easy and meant little.
“You are so short,” Kairos Theodosian said. “It is quite delightful.”
He was a good liar, I decided, but I’d known better. Just by looking at me he’d learned something, and I had no idea what. I set that aside for later consideration.
“Bet I could beat you in a footrace, though,” I said.
The smile broadened into a grin and he sprawled unceremoniously across his throne. Which was, I was only now noticing, outrageously gaudy. And I’d been in the Tower, I damn well knew what gaudy looked like.
“A pair of crowned cripples running through the streets,” he cheerfully mused. “If we charged for seats we could make a killing.”
Suddenly he twitched.
“Ah,” he said. “But where are my manners? Courtiers, announce our guest.”
To my horrified fascination, the trumpet-bearing gargoyles raised their instrument and began blowing into it. Which had mixed results, since assuming they even had lungs they would be made of stone. And that most didn’t have lips. After the musical atrocity ended in a whimper, the Tyrant raised his hand regally.
“Black Queen, I welcome you to my humble court,” he announced.
“The honour is mine, Lord Tyrant,” I deadpanned.
“Please, take a seat,” the villain waved away airily.
A waddling gargoyle carrying a plush cushioned seat above its head made its way across the carpet, setting it at my back and bowing with a chittering sound before running away.
“Much appreciated,” I said.
I eyed the seat skeptically. No obvious sorcery to be found. I prodded the cushion with my seat, but it did not seem to be filled with rusty razorblades or poisonous snakes. I glanced back at the Tyrant and found him looking at my staff quite intently. Well, only one way to find out for sure. I settled down and found it a little worn, but otherwise not prone to treacherously turning on me. It was a relief for my bad leg to be seated after this long riding, and I let out a little sigh of comfort.
“I wonder,” the Tyrant of Helike nonchalantly said, “if you’d consider telling me who that’s meant to kill.”
I met his gaze, and wondered if it was just my imagination or the red eye had gotten a little redder.
“No idea what you’re talking about,” I lied.
“A staff is a sword is a prayer,” the Tyrant grinned. “It’s clever little bit of work. More patient than your reputation would imply.”
I shrugged, keeping away from my face how wary his too-perceptive eyes were making me.
“Well, I did find religion recently,” I said. “I’m told it can be a calming influence.”
“You seem well on your way to beating people to death with it,” he praised.
“You’re one to talk,” I smiled. “Your man down the road’s a lot more dangerous that Night on a stick. I don’t suppose you’d tell me who that’s meant to kill?”
The Tyrant pouted.
“That’d take all the fun out of this,” he said. “And why even bother, if we’re not having a good time?”
“Huh,” I said. “Black must have really wanted to kill you.”
“There’s no need to be so oblique about it,” the Tyrant amusedly said. “He’s alive and in the hands of the Grey Pilgrim. Somewhere in Iserre, last I heard. The man is of little interest to me.”
I had been aiming to wheedle information out of him after broaching the subject, true enough. My eyes narrowed. So why was he offering it to me so freely? Even as I forced myself to remain focused, my pulse quickened. He was alive. Gods, he was alive. I’d known he would be, but it was still a weight off my shoulders. Unless this is cruelty, I thought. Unless he’s lying. I kept my voice steady.
“It’s a little disquieting, being on the other side of the chaos for once,” I said.
“I am but a humble servant of my Lord Hierarch,” the Tyrant piously assured me. “And you need not worry, I would not lie to such a close and beloved friend.”
“I would never doubt you,” I lied. “I think of you as a brother, really.”
Did he know I was an orphan? By the way his lips quirked, yes, he most definitely did.
“As your friend,” I said. “I wondered if you would answer a question for me.”
“Always,” the Tyrant swore, hand over heart.
I raised an eyebrow.
“Are we at war?” I asked. “I’ve been hearing troubling rumours about League soldiers and legionaries.”
“Alas, there have been some slight misunderstandings,” the Tyrant sighed. “Your Marshal of Callow seems to have mistaken our curiosity for a fully armed battalion trying to assassinate her.”
“Mistakes happen,” I said, keeping my voice calm.
It took an effort of will not to clutch my staff so hard it creaked. He’d tried to kill Juniper, the smug little monster. Or he’s trying to put me off-balance, I thought. The Theodosian had a lazy smile on his face, but his eyes had never left me. I had no control here, no real leverage to use against him. That was the misstep, I decided. Trying to remain in control. There would be no winning that sort of game against the likes of the Tyrant of Helike.
“I see only one solution,” I said.
“Do you?” he said, smile expectant.
I smiled back, broad and friendly and just a little bit guileless.
“Would you like to secretly be allies?” I offered.
The smallest flicker of surprise on his face, gone before it could even be fully seen, was the herald of scoring my first blood of the night. His answering grin was gleefully malicious. See? I might have been with only women for the last few years, but I still knew what men liked – you know, shady military alliances that would be discarded at the earliest convenience in favour of wanton betrayal. He twirled his scepter thoughtfully, though that did little to hide the eagerness on his face.
“As your friend,” Kairos Theodosian said. “I feel like I should warn you that rumours have long existed – patently untrue, I assure you – that I am a treacherous blackguard, if you’ll forgive my language.”
I painted surprise over my face.
“You?” I faintly said. “That seems rather unjust. I mean, I had your nephew shot and he seemed like the real villain to me.”
“I did hear about that,” the Tyrant mused. “Wasn’t it under truce banner?”
It hadn’t been, strictly speaking, not that the rumours ever bothered about that.
“In my defence,” I said, “he did call me a witch.”
He seemed amused.
“Oh, Dorian,” the villain fondly said. “You always did have more lungs than wits.”
“I can see why that would make you hesitate, though,” I mused. “So let me reassure you, I have absolutely no intention of sharing our secret treaty with the First Prince to try to force her hand into allying with me and crushing you utterly.”
He let out a loud cackle, arm shaking uncontrollably under his robes.
“Are you lying?” the Tyrant of Helike grinned, revealing a curved stretch of pearly teeth.
I leaned forward.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Am I?”
A heartbeat passed.
“I can’t tell,” he said, sounding deeply pleased.
“A sound foundation for military alliance,” I said.
“The only kind worth making,” the villain cheerfully agreed. “A bargain made, then, Black Queen.”
He gently tapped his scepter against his chin.
“I suppose,” the Tyrant said, “that I should ask you who we’ve allied against.”
I leaned back.
“Intercession, you might say,” I said.
His brow rose.
“Well now,” he murmured. “Someone’s been digging up secrets.”
“Calernia’s full of graves a little more shallow than they should be,” I replied. “And I’ve heard the two of you have scores to settle.”
“She has quite the game afoot,” the Tyrant told me. “Even I know only part of it.”
“I’ve quite a few glimpses of things she’s been up to,” I said, “but no bird’s eye view, so to speak.”
“That sounds,” the villain said, “like a trade worth making.”
I smiled. Dangerous as it might be to tell this man anything he didn’t know, I needed the semblance of a handle on what the Wandering Bard was up to more than words could properly express. Everyone else on the board I could make out at least vague objectives for, but the Intercessor? She was still in many ways an unknown, and one with too many irons in the fire to be left to her own devices. I might not trust the Tyrant of Helike a single drop, but as far as I knew he was the only man alive who’d ever pulled one over the Bard. If anyone could be of use to me, it was him.
“Ah, but before we begin horse-trading,” he said. “As my most trusted ally, I have a suggestion to offer you. If I may, Black Queen?”
“Call me Catherine,” I said. “And by all means.”
“You must call me Kairos, then,” the Tyrant said. “Before you leap into the loving embrace of our dear Cordelia Hasenbach, I would have a look at her little scheme down south. You are not the only one robbing graves, in a manner of speaking.”
“Curious,” I evenly said.
“Something’s being dredged out of Lake Artoise,” Kairos confided, “that might of interest to you.”
“And why would that be?” I asked.
“One does not make war on the same enemy for decades without learning some of their bad habits, Catherine,” the Tyrant said.
That was unfortunate, as I could only think of one person the First Prince had crossed blades with for that long. More worryingly, the most recent mistake I could put to Dread Empress Malicia’s name was the Doom of Liesse. If Cordelia Hasenbach was intent on going down the same road this war was about to get much, much worse. Not that I’d take Kairos’ word for this. Like the fate of my teacher, it was another truth I needed to get my hands on. I fished out my pipe and stuffed it under the Tyrant’s disapproving stare, black flame licking at my fingers just long enough to light it. I shook my hand to get rid of the lingering heat, then inhaled deep. The wakeleaf warmed my throat, and I made myself comfortable. I spewed out a stream of acrid smoke as Kairos wrinkled his nose in distaste.
“Now,” I smiled. “I believe there was some talk of horse-trading.”
When the eye went deeper red, this time, there was no question of whether or not it was my imagination.