“No man is an island, Chancellor. We’ve tried the ritual, the result is mostly screams.”
– Dread Emperor Malignant III
We were an hour out of Rochelant when Akua returned to my side. The night was still young – I knew that better than most – so we’d not wasted moonlight by lingering on the outskirts of the city until she finished. The sooner we caught up to my drow army the better, as far as I was concerned. Still, after she returned in a whisper of power on frost I called a halt. My Peerage took the following dismissal gracefully, and why wouldn’t it? They’d not stood in my deeper councils even when I was still their sole mistress, not even Ivah. It would have been convenient if there’d been a log or rock to sit on as we spoke, but Creation did not seem in an indulging mood tonight. At least getting off the damned horse for a moment was a relief to my calves and arse. I’d forgotten how irksome the cramps coming with long rides could be, when you weren’t used to horsemanship. Winter had seen to those, before, and my Name taken off the edge before that. Gods, at least it wasn’t as bad as the return of my monthlies. The surprise had been more than slightly unpleasant, when I’d had my first moon blood in years down in the Everdark. That Archer evidently found my discomfort hilarious had been no help at all.
I stretched my legs out carefully, leaning on my staff, and my ‘war council’ assembled around me. A bird, an archer and the shade of a dead woman. There’d probably been Dread Emperors in the old days that had more reliable-seeming councils than mine, and wasn’t that a troubling thought? The shade bowed with exquisite precision, but neither crow-Andronike nor Archer took it upon themselves to add even a semblance of ceremony to the affair. A sad day indeed, when the Doom of Liesse was the best behaved of my companions.
“Lay it on me,” I said.
Usually that would have prompted a dirty joke from Indrani – whose occasional evening in my bed had done absolutely nothing to curb the racy comments of, to my mixed amusement and despair – but tonight she kept her mouth shut. I had to force myself not to look at her. This was not the place, now was not the time. The thought felt like a betrayal of sorts, true as it was. The people in the stories threw aside little details like this in the name of friendship all the time, didn’t they? It’d been a long time since my story had been that clean or pretty, though, and sometimes I doubted it ever had been.
“There are at least eight thousand Helikean soldiers in Rochelant, though no more than twelve thousand,” Diabolist reported. “No soldiery from any other of the Free Cities could be found.”
I chewed on that for a moment. Old reports from the civil war in the League had the total muster of Helike at twenty thousand, but that army had sieged three cities since and stormed two of those three. The Tyrant might have recruited since, of course, but green troops wouldn’t have the discipline I’d noticed in the soldiers holding Rochelant. And they’d marched through the Waning Woods a few months back, anyway, so further losses were to be expected. Assuming the Tyrant hadn’t stripped Helike itself bare, inside that little Proceran city was the majority of the army his city-state could field. Considering Kairos Theodosian was the presumed general of the League’s united armies, that held interesting implications. Who was giving out orders, if not him? Whatever reports I’d read about the League’s military commanders were likely out of date by now, but unless someone had been hiding a very skilled general under a rock there should be no one of staggering competence. The other reputable professional army in their region was the Stygian slave phalanx, but while the Spears of Stygia had officers their orders ultimately came down from the ruling Magisterium of that city. Powerful warlocks, but not necessarily the most able of generals.
“The League’s going to be a fucking mess if it gives battle unless the Tyrant returns,” I bluntly said. “Which he shows absolutely no sign of doing right now.”
“Good news, then,” Archer shrugged. “Either they’ll be thrashed or they’ll stand back and let us settle the mess.”
I frowned, not so sure about that. Kairos wouldn’t be crippling his own army this early in the dance, it was his most valuable avenue of pressure on everyone else. If anything, he’d want to preserve its strength while the Grand Alliance and my own hodgepodge coalition bloodied each other for a bit. If he held command of the only mostly intact host on the field, everyone else would have to step carefully around him. On the other hand, if I was reading him right, he couldn’t just stay out of the melee either. He had to prove to be some sort of threat, if his way to victory involved both himself and the First Prince at the same negotiation table. The Hierarch was a forest fire in the making, sure, but the man alone wouldn’t be enough to have the likes of Cordelia Hasenbach flinching. Unless he stops haunting small cities and stirs up larger pots, I mused. Which would be difficult to implement, since the Hierarch should need to be in whatever city he stirred and the Helikeans didn’t have fairy gates to quicken their advance. As far as I knew, anyway.
“We’ll see,” I finally said. “Akua, you studied the Hierarch’s… pull?”
Diabolist nodded, face calm but gaze visibly unsettled.
“I am nearly certain this was an aspect,” she said. “And absolutely certain this was not the result of using some entity bound and bargained with.”
Archer spat into the snow, and I shared the sentiment.
“No one gets that strong a boon from their Name without a cost,” I said. “It’s not a city-killer he’s wielding, not exactly, but it’s almost as bad. William had to put his life on the scales and call down a bloody Choir to attempt something in the same league.”
“Contrition’s touch was stronger than this, practically speaking,” Akua dispassionately noted. “Closer to absolute in its effect, a result of the Choir’s own nature. The Hierarch’s influence seems to be closer to a nudge than a decree – I would wager it relied on grievances already existing.”
“Useful, but not what I’m asking you about,” I said.
Diabolist inclined her head in concession, then hesitated.
“This is not fact, only supposition,” she warned.
I simply cocked an eyebrow. Her suppositions were usually rather solid, as they should be. Even before I’d ripped out her soul and bound it to Winter, broadening her horizons, she’d had an education in matters eldritch that likely less than a dozen people on Calernia could boast of surpassing. And even then, not in every subject.
“The nature of the aspect might be extremely situational,” Akua said. “That is usually the case with more powerful aspects – either that or they are outright uncontrolled.”
My lips thinned. Uncontrolled did seem possible, since I doubted Anaxares of Bellerophon had done much experimenting with his abilities. But when I’d spoken with him, the pull had lessened while he engaged with me. Until I’d irked him, anyway. Reaction to emotions, maybe? That was hardly unusual with Named.
“Situational,” I repeated, implicitly inviting her to elaborate.
“I saw more of the city than either of you, I believe,” Akua said. “It struck me that, aside from the tribunals, there seemed to be no unnaturally-driven actions taking place.”
Archer snorted out a laugh.
“So his trick is only good at making trials?” she said. “Takes all sorts, I suppose.”
I was a lot less amused. Considering Kairos was the hand behind the Hierarch, I didn’t believe for a moment that even an aspect so narrow couldn’t be used to birth a hellish mess. There were a lot of important people – important entities, even – that would leave a disaster in their wake if they ended up getting behead by an alleyway tribunal. By now I was nearly certain the First Prince’s neck wasn’t what the Tyrant was after, but if I entertained the notion that it was for a moment? Using the right pivot, civil war could be sown in the Principate just as the Dead King started making gains up north. There was no need to expand on what kind of a disaster that would be for the rest of the continent.
“Judgement,” I said, honing in on what I considered the important kernel. “You think his aspect is bound to the concept. Stronger when he’s standing in judgement, or inciting others to do the same.”
“I am not certain how much you know of Bellerophon,” she delicately said.
Unlike Masego, she was usually more diplomatic than to outright call me ignorant to my face.
“They rule by popular vote and appoint officials by drawing lots,” I replied. “Terrible at war, though their city-state is too much trouble for anyone to want to seriously attempt annexation. They hate Penthes to the bone and they’ve got some sort of mage order that suppresses internal rebellions. Like to execute each other a lot, so I can see where the Hierarch gets it from.”
I knew more than that, but little relevant to our conversation. It was mostly anecdotes from histories which as a rule tended to take an amused, tolerant and slightly condescending view of the city. Good for a laugh, but not people to take too seriously. The rest of the League seemed content to leave them to their own devices in their dirt-poor holdings, only intervening for a cursory slap on the wrist when they agitated at the borders.
“It was not a city my education covered in great detail,” Akua admitted.
Which was pretty damning, since the Sahelians would have gone out of their way to thoroughly brief her on any nation of importance.
“That said, there is one detail to their democracy that my tutors found of interest,” Diabolist continued. “While it well-known that all citizens of Bellerophon have the right to cast a vote in the city’s popular assembly, not so that the Gods Below have one as well.”
I cocked an eyebrow, reluctantly amused.
“One vote,” I said. “For the whole lot of them?”
“Indeed,” Akua replied, without a speck of humour to her voice. “A droll detail, in most situations, though the Hierarch’s abilities change matters. You see, this makes the Gods Below honorary citizens of Bellerophon according to their own laws.”
A heartbeat passed.
“You can’t be serious,” I said. “They think their laws apply to the Gods?”
“Half of them, anyway,” Indrani snickered. “Wonder if they ever took the bastards to court?”
“Archer,” I hissed. “Think about this. The Hierarch’s mad as can be, but he believes in that tripe. Believes it hard enough it ripples across a whole city – and he’s under the impression he has a right to put even Gods on trial.”
I bit my lip, glancing at Akua.
“If he made an attempt,” I said. “What would happen?”
The shade looked dismayed.
“I have no idea,” she admitted. “There has never been a precedent as far as I know.”
Ah, Catherine, that’s the entire point, Kairos Theodosian told me. Finding out. Would he turn on Below like that? He might, I grimly admitted to myself. Akua herself had told me that when the Hellgods had taught the Wasteland about ‘sacred betrayal’ they hadn’t excluded themselves from the chain of treachery. I had no reason to believe their teachings in Helike ran along different lines. And if the man truly bought into Evil, he might not even see it as a betrayal. Or rather, he’d think about betrayal very differently: a holy thing, an act of worship. Which didn’t mean in the slightest that the Gods Below wouldn’t answer it by making a crater wherever the offence was given. The size of that possible crater, though, was the part worrying me most. A city, a province, a realm? A continent? It was one thing to make a play of the alleged purpose of Creation, as the Liesse Accords were meant to but quite, another to take a swing at the Gods who’d actually created the world. I wasn’t opposed to the act in principle, to be honest, but if all it took to end Above and Below was a pair of bold madmen we’d be long rid of them.
“Well, there’s a new name on the list,” I finally said.
“Which one?” Archer drily asked.
“The one with the people we need a solid plan to kill,” I said. “Akua, I want a record of everything you observed of the Hierarch and his abilities. We’ll start from there. He might be like Malicia, a Named with little combat weight. That hardly means he’ll be easy to kill, but at least he’s away from his seat of power. That ought to make it possible, at least.”
Unless, I suddenly thought, he’s carrying his damned seat of power with him. Did he just need to be near a mob, any mob? Was his aspect really that versatile, for all its apparent narrowness? I set that consideration aside for the moment. We wouldn’t get a proper assault plan done standing out here in the cold anyway, and preferably I’d want more than just us contributing to it. It’d be best if the full Woe could be involved, it’d rather broaden the toolbox we could call on to get it done. This was still speculation anyway, I reminded myself. It might be the Tyrant and the Hierarch would settle for some lesser madness behind the headsman’s axe they’d be swinging. But expecting the worst was only good sense, at this point, and you could never have too many plans to kill dangerous madmen. Oh Gods, I was starting to sound like Black. Which reminded me…
“I’ll see it done,” Diabolist replied with a nod.
“Speaking of dangerous madmen,” I said. “Black’s still alive according to the Tyrant.”
My two companions held their tongue, but I caught them sharing a look.
“Yes, he could be lying,” I sharply said. “But Kairos also mentioned him to be a prisoner of the Grey Pilgrim, which strikes me more as an attempt to send me after the man than dangled false hope.”
“It could be both,” Indrani bluntly said.
“We know there’s no heroes with the Levantine armies,” I pointed out. “Which, if the Pilgrim was in Iserre to intervene in this fight, is where he would attach himself. If he’s actually in the principality – and the Tyrant wouldn’t send me on wild goose chase when he could send me into actual danger instead – then there’s a reason for it. Escorting a dangerous prisoner to Salia would fit. Unless either of you has a better explanation?”
“Speculating with this little information is rather pointless,” Akua said. “The Pilgrim’s schemes run deep.”
I was a little impressed that she, of all people, had the gall to say that about someone else.
“Still not sure why the old man wouldn’t just slit the Carrion Lord’s throat, to be honest,” Indrani said. “Not like he’s been shy about that sort of thing until now.”
“Bait,” Diabolist suggested.
“We’re already here,” Archer snorted. “We have to be, to get anything done. I guess he could be after the other Calamities, but why borrow a torch when the house is on fire?”
I couldn’t disagree, though I really wished it were otherwise. Especially if the Pilgrim was actually headed for Salia, which was the only destination making sense if they were traipsing through Iserre. Sure the Principate’s capital was massive and well-defended, but it was also the most populated city on Calernia bar none. Somehow I doubted Warlock would care all that much if he had to incinerate a few hundred thousand people to get my teacher out of a cell, but in principle the Grey Pilgrim was supposed to care. I supposed a funeral pyre of dead innocents by the thousands might set in stone the story of those who’d committed such a massacre being righteously slain by heroes, but that was a damned dark way of going after an end that could be reached through other methods.
“Indrani,” I hesitantly asked. “If he was killed, how would the Lady of the Lake react?”
She grimaced under her hood.
“Can’t be sure,” she said. “Odds are she’d cut whoever wielded the knife, at least, but she’s not his keeper. If he sailed his ship into the reefs on his own, and it sounds like he did, she might not see reason to take revenge. She’s not a Calamity anymore, Cat. She didn’t go after the heroine that killed Captain either.”
That might have been because she considered the remaining Calamities to have a better claim to that death, I had privately thought, but if anyone would know the truth of this it was Archer. It irritated me a little that the Ranger could band with people for years and then leave those bonds behind when it suited her, but then she’d not struck me as a woman dripping with tender sentiments.
“Which leaves diplomatic leverage,” Akua said. “The Empress’ deep fondness for her right hand is no secret. Neither, to be frank, is your own attachment. Hostage-taking to secure the left flank of the Principate while war is waged against the Kingdom of the Dead would be a gamble, but if successful then well worth the costs. And if a single individual could be used for that purpose, it would be the Black Knight.”
“He burned through quite a chunk of the Proceran heartlands not a year ago,” Indrani whistled, sounding impressed. “If Hasenbach thought up that scheme, she’s got ice in the veins and no lack of nerve. Her people are going to be howling for his head.”
The First Prince did have both, I silently conceded. And this was the best explanation I’d heard so far, assuming this wasn’t actually Black’s plan and we were all swinging at mist – which I wasn’t quite ready to discard as a possibility yet.
“We’ll find out sooner or later,” I said. “Regardless, if the Pilgrim is in the region you should know what that means.”
Akua’s face was the picture of serenity, but she did not speak and that was telling. Indrani had been with me for longer, though, so she followed the thought to the conclusion.
“We’ll run into the old man at some point,” she mused. “And with blades out, most likely.”
“Vivienne figured out one of the quirks to his Name,” I said. “We confirmed it at the Battle of the Camps – to put up his stronger stuff, likely to avoid getting killed, he needs to intervene on someone’s behalf. Assuming we manage to assemble all our forces in the field before we run into him, the weak link is obvious.”
Andronike, still on my shoulders and interested enough in the proceedings not to interrupt so far, stirred with displeasure at the thought yet unexpressed. That made it, I told her silently, no less true.
“The drow,” Akua said. “The consequences of dawn are a dangerously exploitable weakness.”
“If he knocks out the southern expedition we lose a lot of fighting power,” I said. “The Legions have held ground against him before – at a cost, but we held. If he wants to cripple us, he’ll be going after the drow.”
“That means he’ll take the offensive,” Archer mused. “Or at least, his soldiers will. That way he has people to save.”
And it might just be that the more people in peril there were, the greater the power granted to save them would be. He’d been no pushover at the Battle of the Camps, when he got going. Considering the amount of troops running around Iserre that was not a pleasant notion to entertain.
“He’s a tricky sort,” I said. “But his arsenal isn’t endless and we’re not without backing of our own. If he strays too far from his Name we can slap that down. I’ll pit Night against Light any day, when we’ve got our lovely goddesses along on the field.”
“Aspects, then,” Indrani frowned.
“He’s not going to blast an entire drow army into oblivion in a storm of Light,” I agreed. “I don’t care how much miracle wine the Gods make him drink, no one can stomach that kind of power without burning out. So he’ll hit us where it hurts, with something he’s personally strong in. And back at the Battle of the Camps, when he got all miraculous on us he was using a very specific kind of light.”
“We cannot kill him without ending chances of any diplomatic agreement with Levant,” Diabolist reminded me.
“No,” I agreed. “So that’s not what we’ll go after. The opposition isn’t the only side with miracles, these days, even though ours need to be bought and paid for.”
I met the shade’s golden eyes.
“Make me a well, Akua Sahelian,” I ordered. “I don’t care how many Mighty you have to rope in, get it done and quick.”
Diabolist flicked a glance at the silver of godhood on my shoulder, but found nothing there to fear. She wouldn’t, I thought. After all, Andronike’s crowing laughter was echoing in the back of my head with no sign of ceasing. She would be amused by that, I supposed. There was a degree of irony to my plan being, in essence, the first teaching of the Sisters. I rolled my other shoulder, limbering the muscles in an attempt to distract from the dull of throb of my bad leg. The staff could only help so much.
“All right, that’s enough for now,” I said. “Let’s get moving, I want to cover as much ground as possible before dawn catches us. If I’m not wrong, we’ll be joining General Rumena just in time to kick the hornet’s nest.”
“That’s why good boots are important,” Indrani laughed.
I was gladdened her mood had shifted, though I had to wonder how long that’d last.
“Also crushing one’s enemies,” Akua seriously said, then paused. “For justice, of course.”
I rolled my eyes and left them to it, heading back to my horse. I slipped onto the saddle, then waited for the sounds of their bickering to fade as they pulled ahead.
“Andronike,” I said. “If I needed you to look south for something…”
“Not until my sister is at my side,” the crow said. “Something clouds my sight.”
Yet another reason to reunite with the southern expedition as fast as possible, I thought, spurring on Zombie to catch up with the others.
If Cordelia Hasenbach had gone grave-digging, I needed to know what she was digging for.