“Despise not the treacherous but instead the weak, for while both serve the same purpose where treachery requires skill and daring weakness requires only mediocrity.”
– Dread Emperor Vile the First
It didn’t look like he was sleeping.
That disturbed me almost more than the rest. Amadeus of the Green Stretch was still alive, by the measure of most people. The signs of life were certainly there: breath, heartbeat, warmth. So it should have looked like he was sleeping, but it didn’t. It looked like someone had just… torn out his consciousness and a body had been left behind. Its physical functions went on but having known the man – loved him, in our own misshapen way – I couldn’t call this breathing corpse anything but the remains of him. His soul could be anywhere, by now, and combing through Procer for it brought to mind that old metaphor about the needle and the haystack.
In this case, though, the needle was a top-notch Named mage and the haystack was both hostile and on fire. I’d tell Vivienne to have the Jacks watching, and I was considering passing on what I’d learned to Malicia. She was my enemy, true, and he’d both defied and disobeyed her. Yet I suspected she’d sacrifice quite a bit to bring back to Ater and might even be willing to cooperate with me to see his soul snatched back from the heroes. I only barely grasped the nature of the ties that bound Black and Malicia, but I did not doubt the depth of them. Neither would have been quite so intensely furious at the other after Akua’s Folly if there’d not been trust to break.
Was it not an irony of sorts that I was now relying on the architect of that same folly for answers? The shade of the Diabolist had only bothered with a cursory examination of Black’s physical state before turning her attention to more eldritch matters. She was a healer of some talent, I knew, but it was more a result of Akua being skilled at branches of sorcery that required knowledge of anatomy and biology than out of any true affinity for the healing arts. Like Masego, she was more chirurgeon than physician. It was typical of Praesi to be more interested in the cutting of things than the mending of them. Fingers resting on my teacher’s forehead, Akua was frowning with her eyes closed.
I could feel the quiet lapping of Night at his body, and perhaps I should have been studying her methods to learn from them what I could. Instead, though, my gaze remain on his face. He was bearded, now. It was uncomfortable to look at, though more for the sloppiness of the growth than the threads of grey within. Black had always been cleanly to a fault, austere in all his affairs but always well put-together. His hair was still dark, for the most part, but it’d grown longer and like the beard grey was now touching it. It was… distressing to see. Like a chip on a blade you’d believed forever smooth.
“Barbaric,” Akua suddenly said, both hand and Night withdrawing.
Golden eyes had fluttered open, and she was looking down at Black’s body with patrician disdain.
“Elaborate,” I said.
“This was not even sorcery, dearest,” Akua said, wrinkling her nose. “The work of that ignorant little savage the Saint of Swords, I would wager. It was the metaphysical equivalent of attempting field surgery while eyeballing the affair with a two-handed sword that was most definitely not cleaned beforehand.”
“Elaborate usefully,” I specified, hiding my dismay.
The body was alive, for all the lack of driving intellect within, but had it been damaged irreparably? I was intending to snatch the soul back when opportunity arose, to put it back in this very shell of flesh, but if that wasn’t possible we’d have to get… inventive.
“The severing between body and soul itself was clean and sharply made,” Akua said. “But near every other aspect was botched. It was done too abruptly, for one, and so in a damaging manner. Which means there will be some disconnect between the soul and body even should they be reunited, possibly permanent. Memory loss is likely as well, though proper rituals can mitigate that aspect and it is likely to be minor in nature.”
“Shit,” I muttered. “Masego cut up my soul a bunch of times and it was never this bad. Why is this so different?”
The look she sent me was offended on Masego’s behalf, I thought, but also on hers and possibly even mine for having asked what she evidently considered to be a highly plebeian question.
“Laurence the Montfort is a murderous vagrant swinging a butcher’s knife at matters she only dimly understands,” Akua said. “The Hierophant was taught by the Lord Warlock himself from the cradle, and even in those days likely could be counted as one of the ten most learned Trismegistan practitioners on Calernia. You are comparing a mangy attack hound to one of the finest mages alive.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “But what I want to know is if the Saint purposefully made this sloppy or if it was just the only way she knew how to do it?”
Diabolist mulled over that for a moment.
“Though I hate to dismiss the possibility of incompetent wickedness in our opposition,” she finally said, “I believe this might genuinely have been the most clear-cut separation she could accomplish given the means at her disposal.”
So, the Saint had been a bad chirurgeon but not necessarily a malicious one. I supposed the distinction had been academic, anyway. I would have remembered malice directed at my father when he was helpless and prisoner, but in and of itself it would not have moved me to either kill or spare her. That decision, in a way, would be making itself. If the Saint acted against me or mine even one more time, I’d get her head on a pike. If she was reined in by her allies, then I’d swallow my spite and let her be pointed at the Dead King instead.
“Noted,” I said. “Which brings us to our next trick – can you track the soul using his body?”
“I cannot,” Akua immediately replied.
My eyebrow rose.
“The reasons why are twofold,” she told me. “The first is that, as I’ve already told you, the severing itself was keenly made. The… sympathy between body and soul that would remain in most circumstances is near entirely absent here.”
“Near,” I said.
She inclined her head, conceding the point.
“Which brings me to the second reason, namely that I’ve already attempted to do this and found my workings frustrated,” Akua said. “Someone is occluding the soul from sight and search, and doing so with surprising skill.”
“The Pilgrim mentioned he passed on the soul to the Rogue Sorcerer,” I said. “Who I sadly know little about, save that he often uses fire sorcery when fighting.”
“Given that the workings on his end were surprisingly apt at gainsaying Night and its miraculous nature, I would wager her him Proceran or Proceran-taught,” she told me. “Jaquinite sorcery would be uniquely suited to the thwarting of the miraculous, being inspired of miracles itself.”
My lips quirked into a mirthless smile. What a helpful coincidence that a Named mage from the theory of magic most suited at hiding from my means of pursuit would be sent off with what I was looking before I even returned to the surface. Fucking Heavens. It might genuinely have been a coincidence, for all I knew, but given the opposition I was inclined to gesture obscenely at the sky just on principle.
“So what can you do?” I asked.
“Establish a ritual array for resonance,” Akua said. “It will be imprecise and require a great deal of power, but when employed the ritual should reveal if the soul is close.”
“Define close,” I said.
“A radius of seven leagues,” she said. “Though that broad it will simply reveal if the soul is within that area. For more precise results, the radius would have to be significantly lowered.”
Seven leagues, I thought, forcing myself to visualize it. It wasn’t nothing, though I would have preferred larger if there was to be an investment of Night in every attempt. The haystack had been made into smaller bundles, I supposed, but it’d not gotten smaller in any real sense.
“Prepare the ritual array and make me an estimate of the kind of power it’d require,” I finally said. “When you have the time, Akua. This is not as high a priority as our immediate threats.”
It surprised me that even looking at Black the words were not difficult to speak. I’d thought, I supposed, that looking at him in the flesh there would be a sudden sprout of sentimentality that’d have me hesitating between taking risks to pursue this and taking a more pragmatic approach. I cocked my head to the side, gazing at the pale skin of my teacher, and found that aside from a faint tinge of guilt the decision hadn’t brought anything out of me. And the guilt, truth be told, came more from how the decision had barely needed to me made than from the making of it. But then you’d understand, wouldn’t you? I thought, looking at the not-sleeping man. That there are larger things at stake than you and I.
“You seem wistful,” Akua softly said.
“I don’t know what that means,” I lied, “you don’t need to impress me with your fancy Wasteland words, Akua, I-”
“Playing the fool did not work even when I considered you to be one,” the shade said. “Why would it now?”
I shrugged my shoulders, as if to say it’d been worth a try. I could have simply left the tent, I thought, but that would have felt too much like a retreat and I’d had enough of that for the evening. After my private talks with Princess Rozala had made it clear there was no real chance of an accord being reached, I’d simply waited until Black’s body was delivered to my people before taking my leave. My warning to her had been blunt, but then we were rather past subtle intrigues weren’t we? The day and night had been exhausting in a way that had nothing to do with the physical, and seeing Black with a gaping hole where everything that made him who he was should be hadn’t helped my mood in the slightest.
“You must hate him like poison,” I eventually said. “Are you remaining civil as a courtesy to me?”
I didn’t like to think of Second Liesse – or the Doom of the same, as some called it, though my own people most often named it Akua’s Folly – but on that dark day I’d been allowed a glimpse into the nature of Akua Sahelian. Not through the madness she’d wielded like a blade, or the the victories she claimed over me, but when I had seen her flinched. She had bound me, title and Name both, and the binding could not lie: when Akua saw her father die before her eyes, it had wounded her. The body of the architect of that death now laid on a cot before us, yet not so much as a flicker of hatred had touched her face in all the time she’d been in the tent.
“Hate,” Akua repeated, tone pensive. “I can see why you would believe so.”
I glanced at her and found golden eyes watching the Carrion Lord’s chest rise and drop at its own steady pace.
“Are you claiming you don’t?” I asked.
“I suppose I might kill him, given reason,” the shade said. “Though that would differ from duty only by the tinge of satisfaction that it would bring, like an old mistake finally blotted out.”
“I was there, Akua,” I said. “I know what it did to you, when-”
She turned to me with burning eyes, and my tongue halted.
“My father’s death was the writ of many hands,” she said. “His, it is true, but others as well. The goblins who fired the crossbows. Your own, for serving as distraction while he was taken. But most of all, the fault is mine.”
She looked way.
“I waged war on villains, and did not sufficiently safeguard that which was precious to me,” Akua said. “I am the mother of that murder in every way that matters.”
“There’s sense to that,” I replied. “Logic, even.”
My eyes stayed on her.
“And not a trace of the grief I saw then,” I finished.
She turned to meet my gaze, and for once there was anger not mastered or leashed in the cast of her face.
“What is it you want from me, Catherine?” the shade asked bitingly. “Tears? Lamentations? Or is it pain that you demand?”
“Yes,” I said. “I want you to be in pain.”
She flinched back at that like I’d slapped her. Before a heartbeat had even passed, she was smiling and amused and her body beginning to angle so it would display her curves more prominently. I admired how well she’d been trained almost half as much as I utterly despised it.
“While I’ve certainly heard you prefer the rougher forms, I-”
Her tone was light, suggestive, there was a slight emphasis on heard that implied she might actually have heard Archer and I spending a night together – which was possible, tents weren’t exactly the finest way to keep something quiet – and she’d changed tack blindingly quick. I ignored it.
“If you’re in pain,” I continued, “if you can feel pain, I means you value things. People. That you begin to understand things other than yourself have value.”
“I have always known that,” Akua said. “Your take on Praesi values, my heart, remains simplistic for all that we have spoken of the subject.”
“Intellectually you assign value to other people,” I corrected. “For their usefulness, potential, the pleasure or amusement they can bring you. But that’s still thinking of them as assets. As objects. But if their loss pains you, Akua, they were more than an object to you.”
“Should I weep, then?” the shade harshly replied. “Should I wail and beat my chest, swear revenge on all those who can be revenged upon? Should I burn half the world to assuage my grief, make Creation pay the long price?”
The Callowan term she spoke derisively, but I could hear it was forced. It had screwed my countrymen, over the years, the need to see grudges settled. But it also appealed to that vicious, childish part of us that wanted to answer pain with pain. Hurt those who’d hurt you. And anyone who’d ever grieved had heard that song, sung to one beat or another.
“Would you like to?” I asked her softly. “Weep. Wail. Bury him with no honours of mine, but what you can offer from daughter to father.”
“And what would you know of that, Catherine?” Akua said, sounding tired.
My eyes flicked back to the body laid out in front of us.
“I know,” I said, “that sometimes you grieve more what could have happened than what did.”
Akua did not answer. The silence hung heavy in the air, broken by only two people breathing. The shade among us had no such need.
“He shouldn’t have been born in Praes,” Akua said. “He’d be angry with me for saying that, but anywhere else on the continent they would have let him read in peace and deep down that was all he ever wanted. But in the Wasteland, when the Gift flowers so strongly there are expectations.”
“He was powerful, I’m told,” I said. “Like few others.”
“Like many others,” Akua softly denied. “But he was clever and found angles others did not even consider. But he was not of the old blood, so his fate was death or patronage. He could have been husband to my mother, you know. He had the talent for it and if he’d tried to establish a presence at her court he would at least have been made a formal consort. But it wasn’t in his nature, Catherine, to see magic as a tool for power. To him it wasn’t just the Gift, it was a gift.”
“He’s the one who taught you,” I said.
“I suppose he did,” Diabolist murmured. “Though it was never a lesson in the way my tutors would have made it. He was… sharing something he loved with me. Helping me understand it so we could wonder at it together. It made a difference. I could not help but love it as well, when it was something that was ours.”
I envied her that. The memories she must be peering at with that faraway gaze, the hours she’d gotten to spend with her father that hadn’t been just lessons. Getting to know him as more than a teacher and a guiding hand.
“I loved him,” Akua suddenly admitted. “But, in the end, not as much as I loved what my mother taught me to reach for.”
She chuckled barrenly.
“So how could I dare weep, dearest one, when I chose that ambition over him?” she said.
“Because you miss him,” I softly replied. “Even so, you miss him.”
I heard her move and found her leaning forward. Chin against her raised palms, long hair cascading down her back. I couldn’t see her eyes or her face, but the tension in her shoulders was open.
“I do not think this is a kindness you offer me, Catherine,” she said, tone ambiguous.
“It’s not about kindness or cruelty,” I said. “It’s about being whole, more than just the parts that’re useful.”
Silence, as she mulled over my words.
A dangerous question, that, for it was being asked by a dangerous woman. Akua Sahelian was bound to me still, and had been shorn from Winter by virtue of there no longer being such a thing. But my leashes on her had frayed as well. The Night was not mine, and though I could stripped her of her power that would have left her nothing but a shade. Powerless. It should have been a matter carefully weighed, the absence of many safeguards Winter had allowed against Akua being divested of her claws. It hadn’t been, though, not after Great Strycht. Because she’d said some things about doing good that night that I didn’t believe she truly understood the implications of. Because once you embraced a principle, you didn’t get to pick and choose where it worked and did not.
“Because, now and then, I forget who you are,” I said.
What matters more, Akua Sahelian had asked of me once, the conviction or the act? I still had no answer to that, no iron-bound truth to offer. But she had made her choice, and it betrayed her own belief.
“It won’t matter,” Diabolist said, “for you are, my darling, Callowan to the bone. It will kill me or it will kill you, but in the end all debts will be paid.”
“So it will,” I agreed quietly. “Did I not swear to you, once, that no place in Creation would safeguard you from me?”
“That,” Akua fondly said, “and a fate that would have men trembling in a thousand years.”
Praesi, I thought and did so less than affectionately. Would else would take a ruinous oath as a tender remembrance?
“And you’ll have that,” I mused. “It’s owed. But I’ll make you into a person first. Because there’s no meaning to passing judgement on the Diabolist – she’s just a villain. That’s the sum whole of her.”
“Yet you still do not believe there is difference between the Diabolist and Akua Sahelian,” the shade said, cocking her head to the side. “I am bemused, dear heart.”
“I’m going to claw back a person from what they made of you, Akua,” I calmly said. “And then, at the end of our road, we will have justice.”
“And I will submit myself to this decree,” she said, sounding amused. “You seem implacably certain of that.”
“It is borrowed certainty,” I said. “But certainty still.”
“I am all ears, Catherine Foundling,” she drawled.
“What matters more,” I asked, “between the conviction and the act?”
“The act,” Akua Sahelian said.
She had not hesitated a moment and so I smiled.
“How long have you been acting like one of us, Akua?” I simply asked.
No answer followed, not after and not when I left the tent.