“My son, the Helikeans insist it is better to live a day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep but as in so many things they are missing the point. Lions commonly live a decade and a half, sheep slightly less. It is not them you must emulate but instead the common tortoise, a wise creature that achieves very little but will do so for a very long time. This is the ideal state of politics.”
– Extract from the infamous ‘Sensible Testament’ of Basilea Chrysanthe of Nicae
We got three days’ march before Creation turned on us.
It was always going to, I’d known that deep down – there’d been too many moving parts sent to spin within the bounds of Iserre for my armies to be allowed to escape the grounds so easily. But I’d expected, and planned for, the Heavens putting their fingers to the scale through the local crop of heroes. My contingencies had been built to kill or cripple enemy Named, killing as few actual soldiers as was possible. If there was to be a confrontation, my thought had been, best it be contained to Named and army strength on all sides be preserved. Given that we now outnumbered the western coalition army by a fair margin, that shouldn’t have been too difficult. The enemy fielded less than eighty thousand on their side, though they had us almost hilariously outnumbered in all matters cavalry. In comparison my own coalition had taken beatings but overall no dramatic losses, and that left us on rather healthy grounds: a little over twenty thousand veterans from the Legions of Terror, around thirty seven thousand legionaries of the Army of Callow and my largely intact fifty thousand drow. One hundred thousand and ten in total, more or less, so we had the enemy not only beaten in numbers but arguably in quality of soldiery as well.
It’d been the assessment of the Marshals that the enemy was unlikely to seek a pitched battle, and I’d concurred. It wasn’t that it’d be impossible for the enemy to win, should they attack. If they hit us during the hours after dawn we’d be down most the drow and they’d regain temporary superiority in numbers, which might allow them to swing this around if they bled us bad enough before the Firstborn were back on their feet. It was that the costs of such a victory would be horrific, to put it bluntly. Losses would be massive on both sides, and with Princess Rozala having a seat in those war councils there’d be at least one voice to remind them that if I felt my people were being forced into a corner the gloves would come off. Whether or not we were correct in guessing the enemy’s thoughts, their actions at least were correctly predicted: as the eastern coalition began a march to the northeast, out of Iserre and towards Cantal, the western coalition shadowed our advance but did not engage. Not even in skirmishes, to my mild surprise. I’d expected cavalry raids and Levantine light foot to try out screening forces, but the enemy made a point of never engaging in bloodshed.
Some of our soldiers considered this a good sign, and talk in the camps was that we might just walk back to Callow without drawing swords. Juniper had been scornful of the rumours, and passed down instructions to stamp them out, but myself I’d been rather impressed there were still any optimists left in my armies. You’d think they would have gotten themselves killed by now, just by dint of odds. Regardless, my own expectations remained dark and so when the first sign of trouble arrived I was validated instead of disappointing. It was on the fourth morning, about an hour before the Firstborn would be able to shake off dawn torpor, that a chunk of Creation half a mile wide shattered like glass in front of my armies.
“That,” Vivienne slowly said, “looks like a gate.”
It did, I thought, and that was not good news. The two of us had been riding to the Third Army’s camp, when Creations began creaking, so it was only a short ride to General Abigail’s command to order a runner being sent for ‘Advisor Kivule’. I half expected a comment from Vivienne at that, but found her face to be largely indifferent. She caught me looking, though, and raised an eyebrow.
“I’m not a fool, Catherine,” she said. “In Masego’s absence, she’s the finest magical expert we have. It would be wasteful not to make use of her.”
“Haven’t said a thing,” I replied, raising a hand in protest.
I declined the escort the Third Army offered, as well as the offer to accompany me that General Abigail offered while poorly hiding a cringe. She hid her relief at my refusal just as poorly, to Vivienne’s subtle amusement. We rode together towards the break and all the while she was suppressing a smile.
“That one’s in no danger of being tempted into reckless adventures, at least,” Vivienne finally drawled.
“I find the lack of ambition refreshing,” I admitted. “The boldest step she’s taken so far is discreetly inquiring if service months under a field promotion still count towards earning a general’s retirement pension.”
The other Callowan choked, swallowing her laughter.
“Well?” she asked, tone hoarse with suppressed hilarity. “Does it, Your Majesty?”
“Figured I’d throw her a bone,” I mused. “It’s not like she’s getting a general’s salary at the moment anyway.”
We might have continued quite a while in that vein if the approach of the breach hadn’t killed any semblance of amusement. We’d ridden close enough that I could make out what laid behind the filmy, gauze-like surface of the breach: a barren wasteland of howling dust storms I’d visited before. Frowning, I noted that the opening seemed to lead to a place different than the one I’d stood at. The great whirlwinds with streaks of lightning and the earth cracking open into geysers of flame were miles and miles away.
“Shit,” I feelingly said. “This is happening a lot quicker than I thought it would.”
Vivienne rode closer, as her sight was not as good as mine, and had grown pale by the time I caught up with her. I almost turned to acknowledge what I felt arriving behind me, but the breach itself was currently of greater interest,
“You told us it was slowly coming into alignment with Creation,” the dark-haired woman said. “That it might take months.”
“That’s what Sve Noc told me,” I told her. “And I had no reason to believe they were wrong.”
“They were not,” Advisor Kivule said.
Her presence in the Night meant her arrival was no surprise to me, but I was pleased to note that Vivienne either had grown better at hiding her surprise or she’d also somehow noticed. ‘Advisor Kivule’ was dressed entirely in black, her closely cut dress covering going from the hollow of her throat to her boots, and neither her face nor her hair were visible under the elaborate veils and half-hat she wore. That I had bound Akua Sahelian to my cloak after Second Liesse was rumoured, but there might be unrest if it came out I was not allowing her to walk about without chains. The false name and attire wouldn’t fool anyone already suspecting her identity, but given the kind of entities I’d bound to my service in the past Vivienne had assured me that the most popular rumours had nothing to do with Diabolist. Apparently she was either a drow sorceress I’d stolen from underground – never mind that they’d seen actual Firstborn and that as a species they distinctly lacked curves – or a fae I’d seduced into making oaths to me. The slightly uncomfortable way Vivienne had spoken the word ‘seduced’ made it clear what kind of seduction was being referred to, which was actually rather flattering – it did imply, after all, that I was skilled enough in bed to bedazzle one of the fae.
“Cryptic,” Vivienne commented. “If you’d care to elaborate?”
“The unpleasant vista that can be seen on the other side is not aligned with Creation,” Akua replied. “In this, Sve Noc were entirely correct in assessing the time. Though I cannot be certain as to what caused this phenomenon, I can hazard an informed guess.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“You described High Arcana runes and a detonation taking place while you visited, Catherine,” the shade said. “Repeated impacts of that nature might reverberate across the boundary between Arcadia and Creation, creating temporary breaches.”
“So whoever-” Masego, most likely “-is behind the mess on the other side, they’re swing hard enough at the wall between us and them that tiles are shattering,” I frowned.
“A more accurate metaphor would be a sword striking at a pond,” Akua suggested. “The initial strike will leave a mark, in this case being the breach you see before us, before creational laws make the water return where force chase it from – in this case, the boundary pressure eventually closing this breach.”
“At least there’s not a permanent gate into Arcadia in the middle of Procer,” Vivienne said. “Somehow I doubt Hasenbach would be too pleased about that.”
“Wasn’t us,” I replied out of reflex. “And if it was you can’t prove it, so in a philosophical sense it isn’t.”
There was a moment of embarrassed silence as the other two women looked at me. I grimaced.
“Well,” I spoke into the quiet, a tad defensive. “Given our history, I might as well start practicing the official response early.”
“Inadequate,” Akua said.
“Sloppy,” Vivienne said, almost simultaneously.
They didn’t turn to glare at each other, though given how much of a point they were making of not doing that they might as well have for all the difference it made. The irritation from Vivi was likely genuine, but rubies to piglets that Akua was just having fun yanking her chain. It would be a much greater challenge, I thought, to wean her off pettiness than it would be to wean her off of Evil. Who could say I’d not learned to pick my battles?
“Glad we’re all in agreement,” I drily said. “I need practical details here, o advisor. When’s this thing going to disappear? Can we expect others to appear, and if so how often?”
“Less than a bell,” the shade replied, which had me sighing.
Four hours, in the winter season, was no small portion of the daylight hours already shortened by the forced slumber of the Firstborn after dawn. We’d have to march around the damned thing.
“As for your second question, there are two possibilities,” Akua said. “The first is that we are looking at the initial breach, in which case we might have days before a second instance – though the occurrences will quicken as the process advances.”
“And the second?” I asked, bracing myself.
“This is not the first breach,” Akua said. “And they have simply been occurring in different parts of Iserre, for an unknown amount of time. We could be looking at hours instead of days for the apparition rate.”
“Diabolist,” Vivienne said. “What happens when the rate is so close as to be instantaneous?”
“In metaphysical terms, a repurposed chunk of Arcadia will made into a half-realm straddling the boundary between it and Creation,” the shade said.
“And in physical terms?” I asked.
“I don’t believe this has ever been accomplished before,” Akua Sahelian cheerfully admitted. “And so I’ve no authoritative answer to give, darling dearest. It ought to be interesting to find out whether we are simply to be obliterated by the initial bridging or the process will closer to the forging of a permanent domain with tendrils reaching in both realms.”
Certain death or probably death, then. There was a cheery thought. I closed my eyes, let all I’d learned sink in. I’d come across more than a dozen moving parts since I’d walked out the gate bringing me to Iserre, but this was it – the pivot, the fulcrum, the culmination of all this bloody mayhem. Had the Tyrant planned this far? No, I decided. No one was that good, not even the Neshamah, and for all his brilliance Kairos Theodosian was no King of Death. Now, in matters of war and politics I could grasp how we had come to this cliff’s edge. The Grand Alliance could not and would not yield, neither could I and all the while violent madmen rode the carriage that was the League of Free Cities down ever slope they could find. But what was the story here? There was one, of that there could be no doubt. There were too many Named in Iserre, too many crowns and too many secrets for there not to be a tale in the works. If it were merely the western and eastern coalitions clashing, we would have the heroic and the villainous and the usual tragedies in black and white.
The League’s presence muddled that, however. It was no longer so clear-cut, and after the unfolding calamity in Arcadia was brought into the mix the waters became even muddier. Kairos wants to play a trick, I thought. I want to forge a peace and wield it like a blade. I could only guess at Masego’s intent, but he could not be in his right mind. That would make him, I thought, a danger or an obstacle. The sword hanging above all our heads but not someone who would influence the shape beyond that. Now, I knew what Princess Rozala wanted but she wasn’t the champion for her side was she? It was the Grey Pilgrim that would bear that mantle and I wasn’t really sure what the old man wanted. He should have killed Black, I thought. It would have made more sense to do that if peace was what he was after. I would have been utterly furious, true enough, but if they’d killed him while he was in the middle of burning Procer I would have had to swallow my anger. Instead he’d given me reason to… To twist arms so that I could get him back, I thought, and my blood cooled. I’d heard rumours about Black being dead or captured even in hamlets, it was a given that the moment I came to Iserre I’d hear about it.
So when I’d first encountered the Pilgrim and the Saint, I’d baited her and tricked him to go after something he’d known for certain I would want. And I’d won a victory. Oh, it hadn’t been given to me, but narratively speaking I’d received a written invitation to take it. And I won from it the body without the soul, the part that actually makes Black dangerous to them. It’d been bait, and I’d taken it. A victory, I thought once more. Could it actually be that simple? I wasn’t Named, not anymore, but I was the high priestess of Night and the weight of the roles I still played might be enough. And there had been growing similarities, hadn’t there? I’d slipped into them without even noticing. I now bore a staff and no sword, I called on miracles to aid and protect rather than attack. I had godlings whispering in my ears, companions at my side. I was eldest in influence among the priesthood and Named of a coalition of nations, and an unequaled religious figure in one of them. I had made myself and been made into the patchwork-cloaked opposite of the pilgrim in grey, one step at a time. And now I’d claimed a win over one that might be called my rival. This, I thought, felt like a pattern of three. One I had initiated as a villain, and with a victory.
I knew well what followed: draw and then finally defeat.
Now, if I were the Grey Pilgrim, why would I go this far out of my way to kill Catherine Foundling? Because the Choir of Mercy told me to, I immediately thought but just as quickly dismissed. If Tariq were simply a murderous errand boy for the Ophanim he’d be a great deal less dangerous. No, if he was doing this and had invested so much time into doing it when the Dead King was devouring the north then it was for a reason – not necessarily one I’d considered good or decent, but one that would seem those to him. My eyes blinked open and I found my companions both staring at me in silence.
“I am the Grey Pilgrim,” I said. “Why, of all the threats currently on the board, do I need to have a story-forged knife either at or in the Black Queen’s throat?”
“The fairy gates,” Vivienne replied, cocking her head to the side. “They can either make or break the war to the north. The ability needs to be either solidly secured or removed so it can’t be a threat.”
Which made sense, I thought, if I grasped the timing of it correctly. Black had been captured while I was in the Everdark, which meant the Dead King had either been mustering his armies or already on the march. The Pilgrim ended a strategic offensive that had a real risk of starving half the Principate into collapse if left unchecked while simultaneously acquiring leverage on both Malicia and myself. Snip with the soul and not only did he keep that leverage but he prepared a pattern of three. The degree of foresight that’d require was frightening, to be honest, and I suspected beyond even a hero in bed with a Choir. On the other hand, I wouldn’t put it beyond the Grey Pilgrim to do all this as a contingency. Ending a threat while expanding the tools at his disposal? Yeah, that might fit. He’d know he was exposing himself to my tearing through a gate and appearing behind him at some point down the line – rescuing my teacher would have quite the weight behind it – but cutting out the soul would muddle up that story and I suspected he could do quite a bit with the ability to predict where I’d appear when coming for the soul. Was that really all it was, though? The gates had simply made me too potentially dangerous not to pull a knife on? Considering the man had looked into my soul a few times, he must have known that I’d rather avoid war if I could. I glanced at Diabolist, whose gaze remained hidden behind her veils.
“Because it is the only certain way of killing you,” the shade calmly said, “and Calernia cannot survive a second Dead King.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it. It seemed an absurd claim, for all the talk of apotheosis that had preceded my descent into the Everdark. Yet I trusted Akua’s intellect, if less so her judgement. She wouldn’t have said that without careful consideration. I thought back to my fights with the heroes, when the Tenth Crusade had come knocking. I’d dropped a lake on the enemy, to be sure, but it wasn’t worse than what the likes of the Warlock and possibly the Witch of the Wilds could have done with a little preparation. Although, arguably the lack of preparation needed on my part made it – no, this was all missing the point. Feasible way of killing me, Akua had said. That brought different perspective. Sure, I’d been repeatedly slapped around by the Saint of Swords and she’d shrugged off the worst of what Winter could bring to bear, but I’d usually accomplished what I came for while going around her before retreating. The Pilgrim himself had seen me tear through a band of heroes while fumbling with the barest fraction of my mantle had been able to do. If I’d known half the tricks at the Battle of the Camps that I’d known in the Everdark, I honestly doubted anyone but the Pilgrim or the Saint would have been able to put a scratch on me. And those two, I realized, were the oldest and perhaps most powerful heroes on the continent.
The thought that the man could have conceived of me as a nascent Dead King was ludicrous, he’d been able to see into my fucking soul. I wasn’t… Gods, I’d done some dark things and not always for reasons as good as I would have wished but there were lines I’d always refused to cross. That I would have kept to. This can’t be personal, I told myself, and put aside the horrifying thought that a truth teller might have genuinely believed I had the potential to become the likes of Neshamah. Stepping out of myself, I looked at the story of Catherine Foundling through the Grey Pilgrim’s eyes. The past was largely irrelevant, I decided, save perhaps for a note that I’d been taught by the Black Knight and would likely draw on his manners and methods. What mattered was that I’d come into a Name as the manifestation of what Tariq had called the sin of our indolence returned to haunt us, the first time we’d ever spoken. That was important, that informed what I considered the Black Queen to be. She was a form of retribution by Creation, by the story, for a failure on the side of Good. Catherine Foundling, as an entity, was inherently dangerous to the Heavens. Still, as the Pilgrim I didn’t like killing unless the situation required it and I did not yet know if it did. I should, at least, meet with this Black Queen.
What did I find when I did? Offers of truce, offers to reduce the dangers for everyone, but also a mutilated soul. And Winter encroaching on the remnants, essentially a standing temptation by a power older than Creation and by nature prone to contaminating mortal minds. I make the reasonable offer of this very dangerous person abdicating the crown and allowing others settle the kingdom she’s slowly turning to Evil by simple virtue of ruling it, but mortal considerations prevent her from accepting. This is a good sign, because it means she still has good intentions. This is a bad sign, because her attachment to Callow is the kind of narrative leverage Below will use in a heartbeat to make a full monster of her. So I make a bargain about keeping the damage under control with the Black Queen, hoping that after a clean military defeat she’ll be forced to reconsider the earlier offer. On the other hand, we have to be very careful not to push her so far she’ll sink into Winter and become the kind of mess that gobbles up armies before it’s put down. It’s a delicate dance, but I’ve been at this game for a very long time and I have the Saint of Swords as a contingency. Then the Battle of the Camps happens.
A full band of heroes fails to kill the Black Queen, then the Saint fails after them, and the gate trick kills a few thousand people in less time than it takes to drink a cup of tea. Then the backlash makes her fall into some sort of state – Diabolist taking the reins of the body, though I might not know that – and she faces down the entire heroic contingent simultaneously before snapping out of the fugue state and forcing a truce on the battlefield. Catherine Foundling has now proved dangerous, exceedingly hard to kill and mentally unstable. Given that she’s running around with an entire fairy court’s worth of power, good intentions or not she needs to be removed. The peace conference achieves that, more or less: the terms ensure I’ll be around her, able to find a weakness or guide her into a redemption story that’ll either kill her or turn her to good purpose in the service of the Heavens. The Tenth Crusade is repulsed in the Vales as well, but that’s all right because the Black Queen is the key to settling Callow and she hasn’t gone anywhere. But then the Iron Prince along my native Levant prepare for a second invasion through the Vales, and she comes seeking help. This is a very, very dangerous moment. If I do not help her, I’ve thrown away the story the deaths at the Battle of the Camps bought me. If I do help her, on the other hand, I might be destroying the same Grand Alliance that will be the same power bloc necessary to put her down if she gets out of control.
Cordelia Hasenbach’s dream ensures peace in the west, forced restoration of Callow to Good and a unified front against the long-term term Evil threats I’ve spent my entire life fighting. Catherine Foundling is a young villain-trained queen with expansionist neighbours and access to power that dehumanizes her the more she uses it – the story of that descent into atrocity practically writes itself. The choice is only hard to make in the sentimental sense, and I’ve been doing this too long to allow sentimentality much of a weight. Only, after that, instead of running back to Praes or making Callow into some kind of nation-fortress while I discretely look for an acceptable successor, she leaves. I don’t know where she’s going, but there’s nowhere that’s not a disaster. Keter, to the Dead King? Arcadia, where she can bargain with fae? To the Everdark, where not even the Ophanim can easily look? If she went to the Tyrant of Helike that might be a relief, but months pass and she doesn’t appear in the League. This is a problem, because a half-taught girl with that mantle is one thing but whatever the fae or the Dead King might make of her is a very different sort of trouble. Then Keter begins invading the north, and the game changes: no oath I took means a thing when the survival of Calernia might be at stake. So I leave, and set to shaping a story that allows me to put her down by any means necessary should she return as a true villainous Queen of Winter.
I breathed out, and it was almost jarring to think of me as myself again. The plunge had been deep and exhausting, but it’d also been necessary. Both Vivienne and Akua had been right, in their own way. Whether I came back as a monster or remained the same, the Pilgrim benefitted from having a story-wrought knife at my throat. If I was to be the Grand Alliance’s gate-maker, I could either be bargained with nicely or with the reminder that a promised victory might kill me. If I was the… Queen of Moonless Night, for lack of a better name, he needed to kill me and fast or it might mean the end of the western nations. The thing was, stepping out of myself, I could finally see why he’d consider me that much of a threat. Because I did have the means, didn’t I?
To tread the same path as Dread Empress Triumphant.
It wouldn’t even be all that hard because the pieces were all already there, waiting to be picked up. Already I had Callowans in legionary armour and the a knightly order under my banner. The Duchess of Daoine had sworn oaths to me, and service of her armies, and from the Empire I had already stolen three legions and come to Iserre claiming more. And I could do a great deal more than that: bringing Black into the ranks of the Mighty would forge me a monster of a general who finally had the power to match his wits. I lacked mages, so while Procer bled to hold back the dead I could force the submission of the already-fracturing Praes and bring the finest sorcerers and warlocks of the continent into my forces. Malicia could kneel or be buried with the Tower, and once the rest of the east was unified the goblins would make a deal and the orcs would fall into that nascent empire naturally – I’d have Hakram, Black, and Grem One-Eye in my service, how could they not? And then we could turn west and take the gloves off. I had Hierophant and the ruins of the fortress-artefact of Liesse. I had the Wild Hunt and ties with the ruling court of Arcadia, I had the high priesthood of Night and alliance with Sve Noc themselves. Oh, he was right to be afraid I thought.
If every other choice was taken from me, it might still come to that.
“I came back,” I mused as I looked up at the sky, “reeking of millennial ritual murder and fresh apotheosis, with slivers of living godhood perched on my shoulders and a sworn army of drow. I’ve effectively confirmed his every fear.”
“He will come for you,” Akua said. “I expect that to a man like him there is not a single act that would be immoral when taken in the prevention of a second Dead King’s rise.”
She was, I grimly thought, probably right.
“So we reach out,” Vivienne said. “Make it clear that you are no such thing and offer reassurances.”
“He’ll still want a draw for the pattern of three,” I grimaced. “Just in case.”
“So what do we do?” she asked. “Because this isn’t looking good, Catherine. If what I’ve heard about how he caught the Black Knight is true, he’s not a man we want to make desperate.”
I clenched my fingers and unclenched them, looking at the gate. Kairos wants to play a trick. I want to forge a peace and wield it like a blade. Tariq wants to make sure no one can end the world, or at least our little corner of it. They key would be beyond the gate, I decided. Where I already suspected the armies of the League would be marching through, and perhaps even the other Grand Alliance army as well.
“Now I know what everyone wants,” I said. “So I just need to figure out how to win without making everyone else lose.”