“Some acts only have to be committed once to afterwards echo a threat in your every silence.”
– Dread Empress Massacre the First
The Tyrant’s soldiers were killing my people.
The cataphracts, when I’d caught sight of them from miles away, had been forming up for a night raid. This was war, I reminded myself. Besides, for all my talk of alliances and bargains with Kairos he remained as much a foe as a friend. No doubt some scheme was afoot, one that involved prodding the Fourth Army into moving some way or other for deeper purpose. Skirmishes against the Levantines, maybe, or to make certain the Fourth did not encounter one of the League’s forces. The cataphracts were harassing my legionaries, as they had the Third’s, not pulling knives and engaging in struggle to the death. This was no different than Malicia testing the eastern borders of Callow with refugees and warbands, like a villainous cat taking its claws to something to see how it reacted. It would be wisest to chide the Helikean cavalry, slap them on the wrist and send them off to trouble someone else. They’d cased their raid when I intervened, hadn’t they? Just the sight of a lone rider had put the charge of sundry four thousand kataphractoi to an end, and as I my valiant Zombie the Fourth cantered forward their ranks bent inwards. They were following orders, obeying one of those fearsome madmen Helikeans had idolized for centuries. I told myself all this, as I bid my mount to stop, and it was enough to stay my hand. Then my mind whispered: the Tyrant’s soldiers are killing your people.
My fingers clenched, leather gloves creaking. The Mantle of Woe trailing behind me, stirred by the night’s breeze, I watched as a pack of officers under Helike’s own banner rode to the fore of the host. Five of them, in weather-beaten armour, blades sheathed at their sides. Their conical, crested helms boasted red ceremonial feathers that jutted like a splash of blood, and beneath the rim of the steel cap two curved strips of steel demarcated their eyes. From those a shawl of mail descended to their chests, the lead officer among them unclasping hers to reveal a scarred mouth.
“Black Queen,” the Helikean said in accented Lower Miezan, “I-”
“Kneel,” I softly interrupted.
In the silence the followed the word rang like a thunderclap. There was a pause, the breeze raking its unseen fingers on the carpet of snow between us. The officers assembled behind her mouthpiece bridled at the order. Their leader raised a hand.
“We serve the Tyrant of Helike,” the woman replied. “And bend before none other.”
My staff rose, and with a thunderous snap I brought it down against the wintry ground. The order I had not spoken sounded across the Night like rippling decree, and under the crescent moon’s smile the veil we had approached under was ripped away. The banner-sigils jutted out like the masts of a ship in the utterly still sea of Firstborn, fluttering in low murmurs. Red and black and blue, crisscrossed by strokes of silver and gold. Among them two stood higher than all the rest. Ochre inlaid with gold, a rainflower in bloom. Rumena. Purple cut by silver, a tree bearing twin circles unfinished. Losara. Twenty thousand drow stood like statues around Helike’s riders, grey skin touched with the colours of their sigils. Fear ripped through the steel-clad killers sworn to the Tyrant, like a sudden and brutal shiver.
“Kneel,” I softly said, “or Gods be my witness, I’ll kill you all.”
Shapes slid across my face, two crows far above gliding far above passing between the moon’s cast and my silhouette. Casting razor-sharp shadows as the Sisters smiled against my neck, Andronike humming in approval. She had not forgot the nightmare made of Rochelant, and held no love for those what would serve its maniacal architect. I found their leader’s pale eyes, circled by steel, and saw fear spread through them like ink in water. The words that followed were hurried out, and beneath my notice, even as the soldiers began to dismount.
Under crescent moon four thousand kataphractoi knelt in the snow.
“You will stay knelt,” I said. “Until I tell you to rise.”
Zombie heeded my will and turned around, leaving at an unhurried trot. I left them with their knees to the ground, and went to bring my Fourth Army back into the fold.
The cheers began sounding from the palisade when I came within ninety yards. Behind the wooden fortifications the Fourth Army’s camp had lit up with fire and fervour both, like an anthill boiling over. Torches lit up, and the wall facing me was pulled open. Within seventy yards I could make out the twin rows of soldiers assembling to make an avenue of steel leading deeper into the Fourth’s camp. When I reached sixty yards, a winged shape descended from the sky and landed before me in a geyser of snow. And… wood? What was a post doing – Zombie the Third, bright blue eyes shining with glee, whinnied loudly and trotted up to my side. My lips quirked and I ran my gloved hand down her mane.
“Hello, girl,” I murmured. “Missed me, did you?”
The winged horse I had… acquired from the Summer Court through technically blasphemous means sauntered around my current mount, turning around the back and coming close to affectionately brush against my good leg.
“You are a good girl,” I praised, patting her neck. “Unless you’ve been eating corpses again, we had a talk about that.”
Zombie the Third neighed, I thought, perhaps a little guiltily. Godsdamnit, I’d told Hakram just because it was occasionally appropriate behaviour for orcs didn’t meant he could let my horse do it. The look she cast at Zombie the Fourth – who was a pure necromantic construct, and so about as sentient as his saddle – was less than friendly, too. I cocked an eyebrow.
“Come on,” I said, patting her one last time for the road. “We’re headed to camp. Just let me take care of that.”
There’d been a wooden post tied to her bridle, so I leaned forward to unmake the knot and let it drop. Flanked by my own mount, I resumed my advance. The Fourth Army wasn’t one of my old commands, not at its source. It had few officers from the original Fifteenth Legion, and while it’d picked up a few spare tribunes from General Afolabi’s now-disbanded Twelfth the general staff had actually been from General Istrid’s Sixth, the Ironsides – including the general himself, Bagram. But that was officers, I thought as I approached the open gates. The Fourth Army’s bones, not the meat. In the rows and rows of faces most I saw were young and Callowan. Recruits joined before the Tenth Crusade began, or in the months I’d spent in the Everdark. Those who’d never known my armies as part of the Empire even in name. Maybe that was why, when I crossed the gates, swords were bared and raised in salute. A steel avenue, that old honour granted to the kings and queens of Callow.
The word sounded defiantly into the night as my soldiers welcomed me home. Once upon a time, I thought as the sound washed over me, it would have been only knights allowed to stand among those rows. But the times are changing. Head high, cloak trialing behind me, I rode to the end of the alley under the eyes of thousands. At the end, two orcs awaited. One I knew from the few conversations we’d had during and after he brought the Sixth into the Army of Callow, General Bagram. The other had me smiling: Gods, it felt like a century since I’d last seen Hakram. He was still stupidly tall and large, like the Heavens had given an old oak leave to walk around. His hand of bone went without glove, in winter and summer both, but his other – wait, what? I wasn’t sure what baffled me more, that he’d somehow lost yet another hand or that he’d not bothered replacing it. I brought Zombie to a halt, his sister matching him, and met Adjutant’s dark eyes with mine before cocking an eyebrow.
“You know, one is understandable,” I said. “Happens to the best of us. But two? That’s just careless, Hakram. It’s not like you have any more spares.”
“I suppose my clapping days are over,” Adjutant thoughtfully replied. “And I never did take to the theatre.”
There was a pause.
“You made the same damned joke the last time you lost a hand, didn’t you?” I sighed.
“It’s funnier this time,” he told me. “You know, because I’m running out of hands to lose.”
Something like a sob of hysterical laughter almost ripped out of my throat, but aware of the eyes on us I kept it locked inside. I still burned with the need to actually hug the bastard, who was showing just enough fang from one side of the mouth to be implying either a taunt or mockery. A moment later I cleared my throat and inclined my head at Bagram.
“General,” I greeted him.
“Your Majesty,” he gravelled back, offering a legionary’s salute. “The Fourth Army is yours.”
I glanced back and saw the legionaries still standing with their swords raised. I supposed it was. Zombie moved under my will, turning to face them in full, and my staff rose almost of its own accord. Blades began beating against shield, a ruckus to wake even the dead, and cheers sounded with them. I glanced meaningfully at Hakram, and after dismounting I clapped General Bagram’s shoulder and leaned close to tell him I needed to confer with Adjutant. I was led not far from there, to what I recognized to be Hakram’s old campaign tent. I followed in the orc, limping at a pace. The inside was sparse, as usual, save for the inevitable piles of scrolls that followed Adjutant like a faithful pack of hounds. Still, it was warm and well-lit so it would do. I’d barely passed the folds when I was swept up in arms like tree trunks, hoisted up off my feet. I laughed and hugged the bastard back, though I slapped his shoulder for the indignity inherent to holding me up like I was some little lamb.
“It’s good to see you,” I admitted, when finally the brute put me down.
“You as well, Catherine,” he rumbled out. “It has been much, much too long.”
“I hear that,” I muttered.
“Unexpected that you would find us, but decidedly not unwelcome,” Hakram said. “The apparitions on the field outside, are they who I think they are?”
“Drow,” I confirmed. “Though they call themselves the Firstborn – no, don’t ask, it’s a lot more complex than I feel like getting into.”
The orc hacked out a pleased laugh.
“You brought the drow to the surface,” Hakram said, grinning. “First time they came up in force in centuries. Gods be sated, you actually did it – and so many. There must be at least fifteen thousand out there.”
“Twenty,” I corrected. “The entire expedition in Iserre is fifty thousand strong, though they have their issues. They’re headed your way, should be there before dawn. The Third Army got caught down in Sarcella by the Dominion, but they made it out after losing some skin. They’re with the rest of the drow.”
“The Priestess of Night is our ally, then?” Adjutant asked.
“They’re called Sve Noc,” I said. “And they’re, well, goddesses. More or less.”
“You made an alliance with goddesses,” Hakram said.
“In a manner of speaking,” I said. “You’re talking to the current high priestess of Night. Alliance was made, with some strings, but the fifty thousand are here to back us.”
Hakram’s brow rose.
“The high priestess,” he repeated. “Of drow religion. A religion of drow. Presumably for drow. Which, unless I am mistaken, you are not.”
“That’s the one,” I lightly replied.
“What happened to the last high priestess?” he asked.
“There wasn’t one.”
“And you talked goddesses into this how?”
“I asked real nice,” I smiled winningly. “The trick was doing it twice.”
“Cat, did you pull a knife on goddesses?” Adjutant sighed.
“Of course not,” I replied, offended and technically even saying the truth.
The orc stared at me, saying nothing.
“We have an understanding,” I said, a tad defensively. “You wouldn’t understand, you’re not religious.”
“I’m not going to touch that without a bottle on the table and half a day to waste,” Hakram muttered.
“You’re one to talk,” I said. “What happened to your hand? Tell me you weren’t just struck with a sharp and urgent need for symmetry.”
“Necessary sacrifice,” Adjutant said. “You’ll understand when you meet with Vivienne.”
My brow rose.
“Most likely, yes,” I said. “But you’re going to tell me anyway.”
Flash of teeth, which I identified as implying sheepishness.
“It’ll be a long conversation,” Hakram said.
I studied him closely. I could press further, but it wasn’t needed as far as I knew. And if it was, I trusted he would have told me.
“It’ll wait for that bottle with half a day, then,” I said. “Talk to me about Masego. I know everything Robber knows, but he said you’d have more.”
“He knows more than someone of his rank should, though that is nothing new,” Adjutant said. “If you’re looking for a location, we do not have it. He was seen in the fields west of the Blessed Isle, but we haven’t caught sight of him said.”
“Before we took the gate into Arcadia,” Hakram said. “There was a report through the Observatory – the last we ever got. Liesse is gone.”
“The ruins?” I said. “They were destroyed?”
“Gone,” the orc said. “As in moved. And we don’t know how, or where.”
My reflex was to reply that was impossible, especially given the ridiculously vicious wards I’d had put around the still very much dangerous ruins, but then I remembered who had put those up specifically.
“You think he took the city somehow,” I said.
“I think he’s not in his right mind, since Thalassina,” Hakram grimaced. “And that he got his hands on the broken shards of the single most dangerous magical weapon this continent has seen since Triumphant’s day. For what purpose, I can only guess.”
Well, fuck. This was still salvageable, I had Akua around and she’d know how that monstrosity worked better than anyone – she was, after all, its architect. But until we got a read on how Masego was moving around, this was a sword hanging above someone’s head. Whose there was no real way to know, if the disaster at Thalassina had affected Hierophant’s mind somehow.
“We need to find him,” I said. “Quickly. Do you have any idea what happened to the Observatory?”
“Nothing concrete, same as the gates going wild. We’ve got a dozen running theories, but the mages keep poking holes in each other’s,” Adjutant admitted. “About a third of them insist it’s to do with the way scrying is blocked in Iserre, the rest are in agreement they are entirely different problems with no relation.”
It was, I thought, grim irony that the person most likely to give us an answer about what was going on was the one we needed the Observatory to look for.
“I’ll see what Akua can figure out, but she’ll only have so much time to spare,” I said. “I have her working on something else.”
“Working through some things,” I said. “It got… bad down there, Hakram. She had a close call.”
I could see his chops move as he ran his tongue against his fangs, the cogs in his head turning as he weighed whether or not now was the right time to ask.
“Bottle and half a day,” Adjutant finally echoed.
I conceded with a nod.
“We need to talk with General Bagram,” I said. “Lay down some ground rules about the drow, prepare for the Third’s arrival. I’ll want to know about the state of the Fourth, too.”
“He’ll be waiting,” Hakram said.
“Then let’s go,” I sighed. “We’re wasting moonlight.”
“You have four thousand surrendered cataphracts outside, Catherine,” he reminded me. “The situation needs seeing to.”
“Not surrendered,” I said. “I neither offered nor asked. They’re considering their sins, that’s all.”
Adjutant’s dark eyes scrutinized my face.
“You’re thinking of killing them,” the orc said.
I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them.
“Some,” I admitted. “If I let them go today, they’re a blade back in the Tyrant’s armory tomorrow.”
“Are we to break entirely with the League, then?” he asked.
“No,” I admitted. “There are some interests in alignment.”
“Then you cannot commit slaughter,” Hakram said.
“Unless you have a lot more supplies than the Third, we can’t keep them prisoner either,” I flatly said. “Four thousand men and four thousand horses. I suppose we could butcher the horses for meat, but the soldiers? Given what’s out there, we don’t have the manpower for the guards or the food to spare. Not without shaving it much too close for comfort.”
“I fought those riders, Catherine,” Adjutant said. “So did the Fourth. And I can assure you, there is no love between us. Not even the fondness of respected foes. But we cannot butcher prisoners of war.”
“Butchery? Slight and price, Hakram. One for one,” I said. “You have lists of dead, lost to their attacks. So did the Third. I will not let this go unanswered.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to,” Hakram said.
The orc let out a long breath.
“I could tell you that this would set a dangerous precedent,” Adjutant said. “That we must be taken as law-abiding actors, if the Liesse Accords are to be signed and held. I could even say that a massacre tonight will be matched by the Tyrant when opportunity comes for him, and we both know it will.”
“But,” I said.
My closest friend in the world looked me in the eye.
“Weren’t we better than this, when we started?” Hakram softly asked.
I did not answer him on the way to General Bagram’s tent. I still had not, after those talks were done, when I headed back into the snows.
They’d stayed kneeling.
A few had tried to run, deciding to die gloriously with a blade in hand, and their pulped flesh had been splattered across the snow by the Mighty among my host. The rest had remained knelt in the cold and the dark, waiting for the judgement that was to fall upon their heads. They shivered and trembled, for the wind had not grown gentler in my absence, but even as their legs had begun to ache and their fingers had grown rigid for the chill the cataphracts of Helike had endured. Some portion admired them for it, but it was not so large that it was not drowned out by the anger still fuming in my bones. And even that admiration was tainted, for valour in the service of the likes of Kairos Theodosian could only be abused. The Firstborn parted for me without a word as I tread across the snows, come to meet the five officers who had meant to bargain with me. They had withstood their wait, I found, and softly five feathery streaks of red still rose and fell with the breath of the soldiers. My staff touched the ground with measured beat as I limped to them, and when I halted I felt their gazes turn to me. It was the leader among them I turned my own eye to, the woman who’d spoken.
“Your name?” I asked.
“Pallas,” she said. “I am a general of Helike.”
Letting the agony skitter across my leg, I leaned against my staff and knelt to match her height. I glimpsed vivid pale eyes that lingered between grey and blue, set on a tanned face that was younger than I had thought. Not so young she had not lived, I thought, and not so young that she should not have known better.
“Nine hundred and thirty two,” I said. “That is how many of my men yours have killed, between the tallies of the Third and the Fourth.”
“They fought well,” Pallas simply said. “And bravely.”
“They died bravely too,” I said, tone sharpening.
I saw in her face, then, the expectance of the blow. Of sudden and merciless death.
“I had thought to kill that many of you,” I pensively said. “And then another as well, for the remembrance.”
“You would take us all instead, then?” Pallas calmly asked. “If that is so, we will not die kneeling. Vainglorious be our pride, Black Queen, we are kataphractoi of Helike. We do not meet slaughter meekly.”
Cataphracts of Helike, I thought. Legionaries of Praes, knights of Callow, fantassins of Procer. The names changed, and the lands matched to them, but in the end it wasn’t it the same defiant promise? We are people, it said. You can kill us, but you cannot make us less than that. Funny, wasn’t it? How you could offer soldiers praise and a title and they’d make of it something to make the world quake. Not the kind of funny that made you smile, but funny nonetheless.
“No,” I said. “The man that serves as my better nature waits in camp, and though his kind knows little of mercy he asked it of me all the same.”
“Mercy,” General Pallas told me, “will not change our oaths.”
In that moment I was no longer looking at a woman kneeling in the snow: it was Helike’s own grim visage looking back at me, that ancient city-state that had fought Praes and Procer at their peaks and walked away unbowed. And it had done so on the back of men and women just like the one facing me. Iron-wrought souls gathered to a Tyrant’s banner, the victors of a hundred fields.
“We serve a Theodosian, Queen of Callow,” Pallas of Helike said, “We do not flinch from doom nor grave, under that banner – or anything else.”
I could take that certainty from you, I thought, easy as breathing. Of all my teachers the one who knew least of fear cowed all of Callow with it, and I have since witnessed sights that would have him pale. And part of me wanted to, because nine hundred and thirty two legionaries were dead at their hands. And perhaps these cataphracts were brave and skilled and loyal, but they were treating death as a game while dancing to the Tyrant’s tune – and even now remained proud of that truth. I wouldn’t even need to speak a word in Crepuscular, to see it all done: under the moon’s gaze, when it came to weaving power not even the Tomb-Maker was my match in raw strength. A mere four thousand, kneeling? It would be, as I had thought, easy as breathing. And that gave me pause, because my leg stung and I still remembered the sky opening at the Battle of the Camps and sending down death at impotent Procerans. Some nights I wondered if part of the reason my father had refrained from embracing the paths to power that were a villain’s due was because he was afraid of what he might do with it. The kind of person it made you, to look at four thousand soldiers and know that your own hand could slay them in the span of a breath. The kind of person it made you, to go through with it. Hadn’t it always been the tragedy of Creation that might ever went to the people least deserving of it? That I could not change, not truly. But I could, at least, act like I was not the Dead King incipient. Like I still remembered what it was like, to laugh and breathe and hurt – what it meant, to snuff out those same things.
“There was once a man, to the far east,” I quietly told Pallas. “He was a killer among killers, and among that red number there were none more loathsome. So when he claimed the Tower, Foul was the title he took. Third of his name, and last.”
“In the Wasteland they remember him a vainglorious failure, for when he led his armies west the Kingdom of Daoine crushed them all and sent his limbless body back to Ater, along with the head of ever highborn in his host,” I said. “Of his duel with the Commander of the Watch and the valour that saw the Deoraithe prevail I could tell you much, but what would it mean to you?”
I tapped my fingers against my staff, hearing the steady beat of do not forget along with the pulsing pain of my leg.
“It is the years after I’ll tell you a story about,” I said. “You see, Foul did not long survive his return. His successor cared nothing for the man, but there were rules to observe. Two bounties were offered. The first for the head of any Commander, only once claimed in the history of Praes. The second, though? It was for two fingers.”
I leaned closer, voice almost a whisper.
“The one that came after was titled Vile, and of that epiteth proved well-deserving, but for all that he was not without cleverness,” I said. “It was longbows on a wall, that broke his predecessor and so he put coin to unmaking the first of these two. For four centuries following, anyone bringing back the severed index and middle fingers of a Deoraithe was rewarded in gold.”
Pallas of Helike went very, very still.
“Yeah, I figured you’d understand,” I said. “You’re an archer yourself. But a snip of the knife and all that skill, all those years… up in smoke. Can’t pull back the string without those, can you?”
“And this,” General Pallas replied, “is the span of your mercy?”
“I never claimed my kind of tyranny to be deserving of capital letter,” I said. “So you’ll keep the fingers, Pallas. But they will be broken, by your own hands, and with them I take every fucking thing that allows you to call yourself kataphraktoi.”
The woman’s eyes widened in surprise and anger.
“You cannot-” she began.
“Be silent,” I hissed. “You ride around slaying my soldiers and abetting a madman’s madness when the King of Death is sinking his teeth in the world. You do not get to be indignant, Pallas of Helike. You’re a worm in the flesh, and if neither you nor your master can be trusted not to act as the ushers of the end times then you will have to be disciplined.”
I rose to my feet, leaning on ebony, and glared down.
“You came here as cataphracts,” I said. “And here will stay your horses and arms and armour. Not a single one of you will leave this place with as much as a butter knife.”
Breathing out, I met pale eyes and let the slightest part of the fury I still felt slip into my gaze.
“Walk back to your Theodosian, General Pallas,” I said. “And give him warning from the Black Queen – if he ever pulls anything like this on my people again, there’s room for another soul on my cloak.”
In the sky far above crows cawed, the sound of it eerily like laughter.