“A pleasant lie finds more ears than a sharp truth.”
– Proceran saying
“Seriously?” I said. “I mean, I know you’re with the old guard about this stuff but this is pretty on the nose.”
“The classics became such for a reason,” Kairos stiffly replied.
He sounded a little miffed, I noted.
“I bet you even have a speech, don’t you?” I mused. “Some tortured extended metaphor about the nature of Creation and our role in it.”
The Tyrant of Helike glared at me woefully.
“This rook represents the inherent emptiness of moral philosophy,” I suggested. “Maybe mention something about how Good is prone to stagnation and therefore fundamentally inferior.”
“Do you even know how to play?” he challenged.
I glanced downwards at the shatranj board a pair of his little twisted gargoyles had brought. I picked up a footman and wiggled it a bit.
“This moves diagonally, right?” I beamed.
His eyes closed, even the red one.
“You pain me, Catherine Foundling,” Kairos said. “You pain me deeply.”
I hummed thoughtfully, then took advantage of his distraction to turn the board around. The poor gargoyles it was resting atop squeaked in dismay, though they didn’t flinch.
“I’ll take black,” I said.
I discreetly pocketed the footman from the white side of the board I’d not for a moment intended to give back. His eyes opened just a moment too late to catch me red-handed.
“This is most improper,” the villain protested.
“They don’t call me the White Queen,” I pointed out.
“Are you so bound by what others think of you?” Kairos gallantly tried.
“Point for effort,” I said. “But I’ve had better.”
I opened the game most illegally by pushing forward a footman.
“I had something for this,” the Tyrant muttered. “Give me a moment.”
He didn’t even bother to comment on my open cheating before moving up a knight. Well, it wasn’t like I was going to stop anyway. I was passable at shatranj, but years of being punitively demolished at the game by Vivienne and Hakram had made me aware of my limitations. Vivienne in particular liked to allow me to think I could win before methodically flogging the conceit out of me.
“Weren’t we horse-trading?” I reminded him.
I pulled at my pipe and breathed out, letting the cloud of scented smoke waft up. Another footman went up, propping up my centre. The Tyrant let out a little noise of agreement, then snapped his fingers.
“Exactly,” he agreed. “Imagine, if you would, that you were a deity.”
“Not my cup of tea,” I drily replied.
“Evidently,” Kairos mused, too-sharp eyes flicking across me. “Yet humour me.”
“Done,” I said.
He was being a little too slow to move, so I moved again. The Tyrant of Helike raised an eyebrow, and I painted embarrassed surprise over my face. Like I’d thought he’d already taken his turn, which was clearly the only reason I would keep going on. I withdrew the footman with a contrite smile, but only one square of the two it had moved.
“As a deity,” the Tyrant said, moving up a footman to contest the centre, “though of unfathomable power you find yourself limited. Unlike the likes of us, who can command – Catherine, why is one of my footmen missing?”
“Desertion is an inevitable part of war,” I sagely replied. “So, we can move every piece but the Gods can’t. That the gist of it?”
“You’re taking all the enjoyment out of this,” Kairos complained.
“That is my favourite part,” I revealed.
One of my knights went up, my opponent staring with suspicion at the legal movement. That was fine, I wasn’t going to nudge it up until he was distracted anyway.
“Consider that perhaps one piece in ten can be moved,” the Tyrant said. “Exceptional pieces, to be sure, or at least made to be so. Yet they must be sufficient to both carry out your godly intent and influence the other pieces, which sadly move largely according to their own petty desires.”
A few moves in quick succession as we traded footmen in the centre and I moved up my priest under cover of pretending to put away the pieces I’d taken.
“That sounds like you don’t believe the House of Light is a faithful servant of the Heavens in this earthly world,” I chided. “Which would be heresy, Kairos. For shame.”
“Ah, and so you touch upon the second limitation,” the Tyrant said. “That these disobedient pieces not only have the gall to not directly answer your desires, but they also dare to influence the pieces that do.”
“As a goddess, I am most displeased by this,” I blandly said.
“As well you should be,” Kairos agreed. “Bloody chaos, not at all the orderly matter you had envisioned. Sadly, direct intervention would be costly in more ways than can be easily understood. A more… elegant solution is required.”
“Someone who can dole out the nudges I cannot,” I said.
“The proverbial finger on the scales,” the Tyrant of Helike smiled. “Of course, such an entity would need to be constrained. It is a tool, after all. It would not do for it to get ideas.”
“Bindings,” I said.
The left side of the board was turning into something of a debacle for me, I saw. My dear friend was a fair hand at the game, and I was now down a priest. That was fine, since as the defender of all things Evil I could boast of a certain talent at necromancy – a reasonable explanation for why said priest had mysteriously reappeared on the right side of the board. And all it’d taken was kicking a gargoyle so it would yelp and my opponent would look.
“Three things she always keeps,” Kairos Theodosian lightly said. “She speaks, she sees and she knows stories.”
He eyed my returned priest with a degree of skepticism, forcing me to withdraw it from the board. Time for contingencies, then. My fingers closed around the stolen white footman under my cloak, allowing Night to seep inside drip by drip.
“There’s two sides to a coin,” I said.
The Tyrant conceded to that with a slight inclination of the head.
“Three things she always flees,” he said. “Promised death, direct touch and her heart’s desire.”
Truth, I decided, though cloaked in vagueness. Some things I’d already known – Black had put her in the face of certain death thrice, during the Liesse Rebellion, and she’d been forced to withdraw for a time – other’s I’d only suspected. If ‘direct touch’ really stood for an inability to directly intervene, anyway. It might go a little further than that, though. Vivienne had once mentioned to me she’d never seen the Bard take a wound she was not directly responsible for receiving. As interesting as the Tyrant’s words were was the fact he could speak them at all. Where had he learned all this? Back when I’d still had him on the list of possible invaders of Callow I’d gone through what records the Eyes of the Empire had on him, and Helike as a whole. There’d been persistent rumours that something was kept under that city-state’s palace with oracular abilities, but with the rumour came the restriction of only one question possible. I could think of half a dozen ways to get around that, sure, but if Helike had unrestrained access to that potent a tool they wouldn’t be one of the powers in the League. They would be the League, their banner flying above every rampart in the region.
“Fleeing her heart’s desire,” I casually repeated. “You almost make the role sound like a punishment.”
The Tyrant smiled.
“I have a theory,” he said. “You see, for someone to truly make a mess on this board, they would need certain qualities. Perception, affinity, knowledge. A combination thereof. You understand my meaning, yes?”
“An awareness of patterns,” I said.
“Exactly so,” Kairos replied. “And, plague as I am by a suspicious nature, it occurred to me that these qualities are as rare as they are useful. That neither Above nor Below are prone to waste in such regards.”
My fingers stilled over the rook I’d been about to take in hand. Eyes flicking back up, I studied his face.
“An elegant solution, you called it,” I softly said.
Poison made into remedy. A trap inherent to the lay of Creation. It made, I thought, a horrifying amount of sense.
“Were someone qualified to be trouble,” he echoed. “They would be most qualified to quell it.”
I moved up the rook, took a knight I’d been careful to strip of protection.
“And interesting theory,” I said. “Though we strayed from our purpose. Should such an entity exist, what would it want?”
Kairos’ eyes came to rest on me, unblinking.
“Horse-trading, Catherine,” he said. “Not horse-giving.”
My pipe held nothing but ashes, by now, so I leaned back to empty it on the head of one of the gargoyles. I could have garbed what I had to say in vagueness and a touch of the cryptic, but he’d win out if we played that game. No, best to cough up my part in a way that benefitted me as well. There was as much to learn from questions asked as secrets offered.
“She knew the Dead King while he was still mortal,” I said, after stowing away my pipe. “And watched his rise with great interest, from as close as she could.”
The Tyrant’s lips quirked.
“And what was she looking for?” he asked.
Interesting, I thought. Kairos had understood my meaning earlier when I’d mentioned intercession, and the only individual I’d ever heard call the Bard the ‘Intercessor’ was Neshamah. Considering the Dead King had mentioned the Tyrant had reached out to him when we’d spoken in Keter last year, I’d assumed the information came from there. But it seemed he wasn’t fully aware of the history between those two, if that question was any indication. Not that I could reasonably assume I was, but odds were I knew more about than that most. Including even this damnably well-informed man, looked like.
“How villains are made,” I said.
He was good, I thought, but that red eye gave it away. The triumph he was feeling, like something he’d suspected for years had just been confirmed. So, my eternal friend had encountered an application of that knowledge at some point. I’d heard that entire conversation, including the parts I hadn’t mentioned, so I had a suspicion as to what was important here. I won’t solve the riddle with the tools they gave me, so it seems I must learn craftsmanship of my own, the Bard had said. Her methods were her own, no gift from the Gods. Which meant she was capable of making mistakes. I thought of the madman down in the city, silently recording trials, and wondered if I had not just discovered a very important piece. Kairos had arranged the election of the Hierarch. Kairos had dealt a defeat to the Wandering Bard.
That did not feel like a coincidence.
“Your turn,” I said.
I was talking about more than the game, as we both knew.
“War is a messy business,” the Tyrant of Helike casually said. “Not at all a precise tool. Of course, it is not without its uses. Sometimes when you need something dead, where a dagger will not do a landslide will serve.”
Which begged the question, of course, of what exactly the Wandering Bard had failed to see stabbed. This couldn’t be about the Calamities, it wouldn’t make sense. They might have been a successful outlier in sustained victory for Evil, insofar as my father really cared about waving the banner, but getting rid of them couldn’t be the point of this. I didn’t doubt for a moment that she’d branded Black in the Free Cities just as harshly as I had branded the Lone Swordsman that fateful night in Summerholm, but there would have been no need for a crusade to hammer that nail fully in. The Doom of Liesse had killed the trust between Black and Malicia, which made it just a matter of time until the partnership keeping Praes together collapsed. She didn’t need to start a war, or a Grand Alliance, to send the Dread Empire scuttling back to the old ways.
“A lot of people get killed in landslides,” I noted.
“Losses are losses,” Kairos waved away. “I suppose it would be more apt to compare it to a fire being lit. One can do quite a bit with a fire, if one can guide where it burns.”
My brow furrowed, and I barely paid attention to the move I made on the board. If he was implying the Bard had either started – or, more likely, fed and sped up – a continental war to clean up loose ends, then she’d have a finger on both sides. An argument could be made that by screwing with Black she’d given the East a push, since through him she could get at both Malicia and myself. That sounded horribly risky and requiring an amount of insight and foresight that should be fucking impossible, but we were dealing with an entity that even the Dead King claimed to have never won against. I had to at least consider the possibility. It was where she was guiding the Tenth Crusade through that I was having trouble to understand. The Grey Pilgrim had influence in Levant, sure. But the foremost Ashuran hero was the White Knight, who as far as I knew had no real ties to the ruling class of the Thalassocracy. And arguably the most powerful Proceran hero was the Saint of Swords, someone I very much doubted Cordelia fucking Hasenbach would take political advice from. Which made the whole theory fall apart, since the First Prince was the mortar of the Grand Alliance and by far, even now, the most powerful member. And since we were operating under the assumption the Bard couldn’t just walk up to someone not Named and pull the strings, this put all the rest into question.
“Incomplete,” I said. “At the very heart.”
Kairos smiled, and it twisted his face into something barely human.
“She has a cousin, Catherine,” he reminded me.
My fingers clenched. The Augur. Shit, I can’t believe I forgot about the Augur. That was a very dangerous angle. It should be hard to manipulate an oracle, but then what we knew about the Augur’s power – and the Bard’s, for that matter – was limited. Even information about Agnes Hasenbach herself was thin on the ground. It was known, however, that her crowned cousin trusted her a great deal. Why wouldn’t she? The Augur had helped her win the civil war that put her on the throne in the first place. Still, it didn’t mean that the First Prince was in the Wandering Bard’s pocket. Not even close. But it did mean that the Intercessor could get the right words at the right time to end up in Cordelia Hasenbach’s ears. I met the Tyrant’s eyes and found open amusement in them. He was well aware that even if I went to the First Prince with this she’d just see it as me poisoning the well on one of her most effective advisers. A kinswoman, to boot. And you’re pleased, you little shit, because you know that means actually allying with Hasenbach just got a whole lot more risky, I thought.
“Assuming you’re right,” I said, refraining from voicing ‘and not feeding me a well-crafted lie to make this war even more bloody than it already is’, “then a lot of effort has been expended. She has been visible in way she can’t often have been before.”
If she meddled this heavily every few decades, there would be damned records of it. That implied something was forcing her hand here and now, or she was after something worth the risks. The moment word that something like the Wandering Bard was out there pulling strings, a lot of her influence waned. And these weren’t the days of the Kingdom of Sephirah anymore: cleaning up all mentions of her wouldn’t be as easy as it would have been back then. Not unless she had some divinely-gifted aspect for that specific purpose, but I very much doubted that. Sparse as they were, there were records of her existence. Black had found some, and myself others.
“Indeed,” Kairos said. “What makes this age different, I wonder?”
There was no answer following, just me losing my last priest to an unwise trade.
“Yeah yeah, trading and not gifting,” I sighed.
I paused, drumming my fingers on the side of the board. What could I get out of him, by telling him this one?
“On at least one instance, she struck a bargain on the behalf of Below,” I finally said.
His brow rose, and I got the impression he was distinctly unimpressed.
“The bargain was not struck with Named,” I added quietly.
My eyes were on his red one, awaiting a reaction, but I found none. His lips quirked into a smile and I got the distinct impression I’d been played. Had the glint of triumph earlier been a fake out? To hide a lie when I caught it, or to take away my attention this very moment – when something he actually minded me knowing was on the table? Tricky bastard, I thought. Getting a read on him was like trying to paint on smoke. That’d been a risk from the start, though, I conceded. It was the questions that were telling the tale here.
“How was she summoned?” the Tyrant pleasantly asked.
Gotcha, I thought. He hadn’t know that was possible, then. Because this wasn’t about specifics – we both knew that even if I’d learn the specifics of the ritual the Sisters had used to reach out to Below I wouldn’t share them with him – it was about fresh risk introduced to already existing plans. He needed to know if some pious, desperate soul out there could call out to Above and get the Intercessor a foothold instead. Which meant whatever he was up to, the Wandering Bard could still fuck it up if she got an in. So is that why you’ve been sticking to the Hierarch like a leech? I thought. He’s not just your sword, he’s your shield as well?
“She was not sent for,” I said. “She was sent. Audience was bought and paid: desperation, blood and need.”
His good eye narrowed.
“And?” he pressed.
“There was a lot to lose,” I said. “You could call it weight.”
Somehow I doubted everyone who slaughtered a priesthood in their own seat of power and prayed got a personal visit from the Bard with terms to offer. Below, the Intercessor had as good as admitted, didn’t want to lose the entire Everdark to a catastrophic blunder by the Twilight Sages. I tossed him that last part as a bone, a reassurance of sorts. It’d take more than a Proceran prince losing his holdings to get the Bard an angle. Of course, with our good friend Neshamah on the march the stakes for our little scuffle had been raised rather high. The Tyrant wasn’t out of the woods yet, and so I smiled pleasantly at him.
“You dropped this, by the way,” I suddenly said.
I tossed him back the footman I’d stolen before the game even began. To my surprise he failed to catch it, and it bounced off his chin and down on the floor. He eyed me with displeasure, and while he bent to pick it up I casually switched the places of my last rook and my queen. That ought to stave off kingtip for a few more turns.
“This has been invested with power to explode,” Kairos amusedly accused when he straightened again.
Ah, so he could sense that. Good to know. The Night wasn’t exactly subtle stuff, but that he could discern the intent I put to it wasn’t something I’d been entirely certain of.
“I’m offended you would even say that,” I said, hand over heart. “I gave this back to you because of my deep and abiding belief in fair play.”
“You really are terrible at this game,” the Tyrant of Helike noted. “I can’t believe even after so much cheating you’re losing this badly.”
“It’s part of the metaphor,” I lied. “Like the whole horse thing.”
“Elegantly done,” Kairos praised. “I believe we were speculating as to the bounty worth the risks being taken.”
I did not reply, half-debating reaching for my pipe again as I watched him.
“There is one element singular to our little war,” the Tyrant idly continued. “A common friend, I believe.”
The Dead King, was it? Wasn’t sure I bought that. Oh, an argument could be made. After the series of disasters that had been the crusades headed into the Kingdom of the Dead, it might have been easier to assemble a coalition of that sort if it was initially headed for Praes instead. But it didn’t fit with Neshamah’s methods. It wasn’t like there’d never before been chaos south of the lakes for him to take advantage of. The Hidden Horror was still kicking around through careful application of the epithet’s first part.
“And?” I said, echoing his earlier rejoinder.
“Quite the stage, isn’t it?” Kairos said. “A crusade turned to the Tower. The might of the west spent, but not broken. The east eating itself alive, to various degrees. Our friend comes rather late to the banquet.”
So that was his story, then. Neshamah had come out to play because he’d been invited, as he had been in the days of Dread Empress Triumphant. The invitation meant he wasn’t the Enemy but instead an enemy. This little continental waltz of death was the Intercessor finally tying up her oldest loose end, having set out her finest bait to draw him out. It was neat and tidy notion, so naturally I distrusted it. It wasn’t that I would but it beyond the Wandering Bard to have engineered this butchery over several decades – if not more – just to put down the King in Keter. I had no doubts she’d be capable of it, whether morally or in actual capacity. But the story felt wrong to me. The Intercessor striking out after the arguably most prominent champion of Below, Kairos beginning his scheme with the Hierarch to kill or cripple her before she could. Sure, that would end up counted as a win for the old crowd. Procer devoured, the arbiter of the godly pissing contest losing an eye in the grand old tradition of Evil and what Good nations managed to survive the wreck would be eclipsed by the Below-aligned powers remaining on Calernia. That was the thing, though.
This was too simple a game.
Which meant the Tyrant of Helike had fed me secrets, armed me with just enough to interfere, and now intended to loose me into the middle of all these delicate plans being laid down. It also meant he was lying to me, or close enough, but I couldn’t find it in me to be offended by that. Might as well blame a fish for swimming.
“Interesting,” I said.
Then I shrugged and tipped my king. It was, after all, just a game. And I’d already gotten what I came from. The Tyrant watched me with a smile as I rose to my feet, leaning on my staff.
“I expect I’ll be seeing you soon,” I said.
“How could I disappoint my closest ally?” Kairos replied.
I only took a few steps before turning, mostly on a whim.
“What would actually happen,” I asked, “if you won?”
The Tyrant laughed, the sound of it strangely honest.
“Ah, Catherine, that’s the entire point,” Kairos Theodosian smiled. “Finding out.”
I waited until I’d left the changing house to snap my fingers. Enough Night had been fed to the piece for the entire set to be shattered in the explosion. I supposed that, in a way, it could be considered my rebuttal.
If the game got out of hand, I wasn’t above breaking the board.