“In boldness find salvation, for stillness is the herald of death.”
– Princess Beatriz of Salamans, most famous for turning her trial for high treason by the Highest Assembly into election to the office of First Princess
“I need you to write three letters for me,” I told Hakram.
Three letters: one was a knife, one was a bet and one was a lie. Wielding those like the sword and board that had once been my favoured armaments, I would win or lose before the week was out. Comfortably settled in my perch atop the barrow of a people long scattered to the winds, I poured myself a cup of wine and kept a steady eye on Hakram. The writing desk I’d had hoisted up here had not been built with orcs in mind, that much was evident. My second was broader than the wooden frame, and could not lean his armoured elbows against it without the whole thing starting to groan like a dying calf. It was a rather amusing sight, the tall orc bent over the desk with a long quill in one hand and looking for all the world like he could be lifting the whole thing with the other. The oil lamp atop the frame was an island of tangible flickering warmth in the surrounding glow of the magelights that had been brought here and hung from the raised stones. The sight of the Mavian prayer wreathed in that pale halo was an eerie one, a reminder that once upon a time fae had tread these grounds and made bargains with those who had raised this strange work. It felt fitting, in a way, for like my old friends of Summer and Winter tonight I intended treachery.
“Which first?” Adjutant asked.
I sipped at my cup, let the warmth of the wine pool in my belly.
“To the Tyrant,” I said. “As follows: Kairos, you misshapen treacherous weasel, you should have been drowned at birth. I expect whatever spawned you tried but already the Gods had grown gills on your neck, foul monster. Sadly this must have allowed you to crawl out of the refuse pile they tossed you in to come trouble me today.”
The sound of the quill dipping into the inkpot followed by the scratch of it against parchment filled the silence that followed. Hakram’s admittedly superb calligraphy should lend a touch of elegance to the whole tirade, I decided.
“Therefore,” I continued, “in the spirit of our close and cordial alliance, I offer my support for the demand that will be made by the League of Free Cities in exchange for its acquiescence to a peace conference. That support will have the full weight of my force and influence behind it.”
I drummed my fingers against the arm of my chair as I waited for Hakram’s hand to catch up to my words, only resuming when his scrawl stilled.
“Naturally, this is contingent on your own support in extricating the Army of Callow and its allies from their current difficulties,” I said. “Should you refuse, I will be forced to withdraw from Procer entirely and begin preparing the east for the wars that will come in the wake of the Principate’s destruction.”
Adjutant finished writing before raising a hairless brow at me.
“You think he’ll believe that?” the orc asked.
“He will,” I simply said.
After glancing at the certainty on my face Hakram did not argue the point any further, simply conceding with a small dip of the head.
“And add one last thing,” I mused. “Lower down, like we’re trying to be discreet. ‘I have heard that recently you lost a great many horses, which is a tragic happenstance. As I would not have such a dear and noble friend without a mount, I offer you this purebred Liessen charger to ride into battle instead. May he serve you well.'”
Adjutant looked at me oddly.
“We don’t have any purebreds,” he told me. “They’re too costly to field. The Order uses mostly halfbloods and Vale breeds.”
“I’m aware,” I said. “I need you to find the shoddiest, sickliest goat we have and paint it white. Not well, though, just kind of half-heartedly. Try to make it a female one if you can. Send it along with my letter, when the time comes.”
The orc cleared his throat a little too quickly for me to buy him looking at me this disapprovingly.
“This is how you deal with Kairos, Hakram,” I told him nonetheless. “He’s not like Malicia or the Dead King, he doesn’t give a damn about respect or rules or making deals that’ll last longer than a moon’s turn. I offered him steel and honey and an elaborate insult – it should do the trick.”
“We’re not made of goats, Catherine,” Adjutant reproached.
“Fine,” I sighed, disgruntled. “If you can’t find a suitable one just find a stray dog and glue horns on. Diplomacy isn’t cheap, Hakram, you should know this by now.”
“As you say, my queen,” the orc serenely replied.
I gestured obscenely at him before watching him blow the last lines of my letter dry, fake my signature without missing a beat and finally roll the parchment when it was all done. It went into a small leather sheath, ad a red wax candle was lit from the lantern’s flame before he dripped it atop the scroll. The royal seal was pressed until it made its mark, my sword and crown on a balance, and it was put away. His eyes returned to me and I put down the cup I’d finally managed to empty.
“To the Pilgrim,” I said.
“Full honorifics?” Hakram asked.
I mulled over that a moment.
“No,” I finally said. “Grey Pilgrim will do, it’s in that function I’ll be addressing him.”
The tall orc nodded, and began writing anew.
“I, Catherine Foundling, first anointed Queen of Callow of my name,” I said, “formally offer the unconditional surrender of all forces under my command to the Grey Pilgrim, Tariq of Levant, also known as the Peregrine. Let there be no further bloodshed between your armies and mine, and through that surrender peace be obtained for us all.”
It was with a low whistle that Adjutant finished writing the last sentence, with a practiced hand adding signature and seal when I shook my head to make it clear there would be no other addition.
“The third?” he asked, afterwards.
“Addressed to the full war council of the Army of Callow, including summons for Vivienne Dartwick,” I said.
Hakram went still, for a moment, and when he moved it was to eye me warily.
“In your formal capacity as queen?” he asked.
“That’s the one,” I casually agreed. “Put up the formalities, make this an official decree with my seal, and take one of the larger sheaths. I want to write to them about Theodosius’ Dilemma, the whole story.”
Adjutant cleared his throat.
“Those of us who went through the officer track at the War College have already heard it,” he said. “There was a tactics class on the subject.”
“Some of them won’t know it,” I said. “So we’ll be thorough, yes?”
“Yes,” he gravelled in agreement.
For the longest time there was only my voice cast over the scratch of quill against parchment, as I told the story mostly the same as I had read it. There was, however, to be an addition afterward. Hakram’s hand stilled, and when he looked to me for instructions I have him one last sentence.
“I grant to Vivienne Dartwick the title of Lady Dartwick, with all assorted honours and privileges;” I said, “in addition I name Lady Dartwick the heiress-designate to the crown of Callow.”
I hadn’t gone as far as naming her a princess of the royal house as that would mean, legally speaking, that she was either my adopted sister or daughter. Both thoughts were rather unsettling for all sorts of reasons. But by first granting her noble title, even if that title was landless, I could make her my successor without breaking Callowan law. Didn’t much like the thought of expanding the aristocracy, even for Vivienne, but the only two ways to make her heiress-designate without making a bloody mess of feudal law had been that or bringing her into the royal house. The two ways of doing that were adoption and marriage, neither of which I believed to be palatable to us, so Lady Dartwick it was.
“It’s a dangerous game, Cat,” Hakram warned me.
“It’s the only kind we ever play, Adjutant,” I said. “And the letters are only to be sent when I say, so don’t worry.”
“That would be a first,” the orc drily replied, but his hand moved nonetheless.
Three sheaths of leather were hidden away after he finished, bearing my seal, letters awaiting within. A knife, a bet, a lie. Instead of crawling into bed afterwards I spent half the night gazing at the stones where Robber had hung parchment for me. All the while silently feeding Night to the staff in my lap that was not a staff but a sword, a sword that was not a sword but a prayer.
When I finally fell into slumber I slept only fitfully, dreaming of laughing crows.
Years ago I would have been in the thick of it. Tripping over every discovery, blood going warm and cold with the twists and turns of Fate as I struggled to bend it to my will. I was older now, though, and though perhaps not all that much wiser I was at least more patient. I’d learned the value of not tipping your hand too early when playing these sorts of games. And so it was sitting in my stolen chair, pulling at a mug of steaming tea, that the news found me. It was Vivienne who carried them up the barrow, steps quick and alarmed.
“A breach had opened to the southeast,” she told me. “An army is going through, its banners from Levant and Procer.”
I inhaled the fragrance of the tea and did not reply, letting her pace back and forth. So it was finally starting.
“Who was the first out?” I asked out loud.
“Our outriders weren’t close enough to-” she began.
I raised a hand.
“I wasn’t asking you,” I gently said.
Larat stepped out of the circle of stones with the languid grace of a hunting cat. The huntsman who’d once been the Prince of Nightfall walked against what I instinctively felt to be the cast of this circle, the way its power had once been leaning. It was like watching a man stroke a cat the wrong way, only I could almost feel it in my bones. Truly, my treacherous lieutenant had taken to petty vexations the way fish took to water. His long cape streamed behind him lazily, dark as night and sewn with jewels. The furs and leather he wore were fastened at his waist by a sash of scarlet cloth, from which hung that sheathless sword he favoured.
“A hero, most tenebrous of queens,” Larat smiled. “Named and finder of paths, strutting for the rest of the cacophony to follow.”
“His actual Name, Larat,” I said, unimpressed.
“A sorcerer of roguish inclinations, my liege,” the fae replied, raising hands to appease me. “Fleeing, then finding and now all aflutter from the sight of us.”
“The Rogue Sorcerer,” I grunted. “Yeah, that sounds about right. They’ll need a mage for this, and last I heard the Witch was up north.”
“That’s all you have to say?” Vivienne said. “Catherine, the situations is getting grim. It’s an army of nearly sixty thousand that crossed, and already Malanza’s own host is sending riders to make contact.”
I sipped at my tea.
“How long before the pursuers come out, do you think?” I asked Larat.
“Within the hour there will be a break,” the huntsman grinned, a slice of pale malice between red lips. “And the parade of fools will merrily stumble out.”
“Cat?” Vivienne slowly said.
Her eyes were moving back and forth between us, like she couldn’t quite decide who to look at.
“Kairos is crazy enough to take a shortcut through a crumbling half-realm likely run by Masego having a breakdown just to get here earlier,” I said. “On the other hand, are the crusaders? Would they take that risk just to go quicker? No, they wouldn’t. But Kairos wants them here as well, and he dictates the military strategies of the League. Which means…”
“He cornered them,” Vivienne said, eyes alight with sudden understanding. “To give them the choice of a battle where they’d likely be annihilated or taking a chance on a path through Arcadia.”
He’d been able to do this not because he was a peerless military genius, I knew, or because he had some oracle at his side. It was simply that the Tyrant of Helike had most likely been trading information with near every other army out in Iserre, and so alone of all the commanding generals he’d had the bird’s eye view of what was happening in the region. Given that, and the cadre of skilled warlocks that the Stygian Magisterium was made up of, it was far from impossible to both corner the other Grand Alliance army and ensure there was a breach nearby when he did. Desperation would do the rest.
“And the crusaders got a guide for the journey, perhaps the only wizard that could truly help them in all of Iserre,” I said. “That is Above’s due, the cast of providence. But that wizard also carries something I want, because Below always gets its due. It all comes to a head here, Vivienne.”
My friend rested her hand on the back of her neck, pressing back a few curls of hair that’d not been brought into her crown-like braid. I’d caught the twitch in her fingers with muted amusement, recognizing it as Vivienne wanting to pass a hand through her hair before remembering it’d been styled.
“What are you actually up to, Cat?” she finally asked. “Juniper’s been on edge.”
“Because I’ve left her to decide how an engagement should be fought, if it happens,” I said.
“Because you haven’t been part of the planning,” Vivienne frankly said. “Until now, you’ve been at the table for every campaign. That you’d take a step back after chewing us out has us a little perplexed.”
Larat’s lone eye was on us, the huntsman nonchalantly leaning against a stone as he listened to our conversation. I debated dismissing him, but I’d been the one to send for him in the first place and I still had a conversation due with the unofficial captain of the Wild Hunt.
“If I didn’t believe the two of you capable of discharging your responsibilities, I would have demoted you,” I replied. “It’s that simple.”
Blue-grey eyes narrowed as I gave answer to only the least important part of what she’d asked. I sighed and raised a calming hand.
“You can’t be in the know for it,” I said. “It wouldn’t work if you were.”
“We don’t have a great history with complicated plans,” Vivienne reminded me.
“It’s not complicated,” I said.
She looked skeptical, which only served to irritate me.
“It isn’t,” I sharply said. “It’s not a series of events building on each other, it doesn’t fail if there’s a part that doesn’t happen. It’s a set of counterweights that only move if there’s a push.”
“I don’t mean to question you,” she delicately said.
Larat snorted, too loudly for him not have meant for the both of us to hear it.
“That’s exactly what you’re doing,” I flatly said. “And in principle I don’t mind, but in this instance your having incomplete information is part of the design. Which makes it all the more pointless when you press for answers that I can’t give you without making the plan irrelevant.”
“That is mildly polite way,” Vivienne said after a moment, “to tell me to shut up and move along, isn’t it?”
“I understand you’re worried,” I said. “But I’m telling you this has been accounted for.”
A mirthless smiled quirked her lips.
“So either I trust you or I don’t,” she said.
Part of me wanted to sharply point out that Hakram was almost as much in the dark and he’d not needed this kind of coddling, but I held my tongue. I did not mean Adjutant for the same kind of purposes that I meant for Vivienne, and so it was unfair to both to try to expect the same behaviours of them. I could not put the dark-haired woman in front of me in positions of command and authority repeatedly and expect her not to act like someone in them. She, and Callow itself, couldn’t remain under my shield forever. One day I would have to abdicate, and when that day came I would not brook chaos and disorder in my wake. That meant there had to be a worthy brow for the crown to be settled on, and that brow would not belong to someone who feared to ask questions when it was inconvenient. So I held my tongue, and let my irritation bleed out in the silence that followed.
“The Everdark changed you, didn’t?” Vivienne finally said.
My brow rose, but she did not elaborate.
“I’ll talk to Juniper, make sure she understands there’s nothing to worry about,” she continued. “Good hunting, Black Queen.”
“You’ll know what to do, when the time comes,” I said. “I trust in that.”
She sketched a bow before retiring, and it had my fingers clenching. How was it, I wondered, that losing her Name had made her harder to read? Larat’s lone eye had been watching us eagerly that entire time, drinking in the complexities of the relationship hungrily. It was the kind of thing Winter fae had delighted in, and my huntsman might no longer claim any allegiance to that dead court but roots were not so easily discarded. That vicious coldness would always be at the heart of him.
“Larat,” I said. “Approach.”
“My queen,” the fae replied, bowing after a flicker of a smirk.
The raven-haired huntsman stepped forward, light-footed and sure, and smoothly knelt before me. I drummed my fingers against the staff in my hand, idly wondering whether I’d gotten to the point where I should kill him. Did he suspect my thoughts? I couldn’t be sure, but it was with interest he looked at my ebony staff.
“Curious?” I asked.
“No threat to me, that softest of deaths,” Larat said.
I leaned forward and smiled.
“Are you sure?”
The urge to deny me flickered across the fae’s pale face, but a moment pass and that denial never left his lips.
“You make sport of me, my queen,” he said.
“Clever little fox, you are,” I said. “But not as clever as you think. We made a bargain, and it’s your way out, but we are bound by more than that.”
“To my oaths I will remain true,” Larat said.
“Of course you will,” I said. “You don’t really have a choice, do you? It took me a while to understand, but the details put it all into place.”
“We gave our word willingly and without qualms, my queen,” the one-eyed fae reproached me. “Why do you now remonstrate?”
“Remonstrate,” I laughed. “How offended you are, now that I know I own you body and soul. Winter – my Winter – died and suddenly your gates are a spinning wheel of destinations. Come now, did you think I wouldn’t learn of it? I am more than you liege, Larat, this entire time I’ve been your patron. The source of your power. You took a chance when you left Arcadia reforged, made yourself into a Wild Hunt that was not matched to a Spring and Autumn. So to stay here in Creation, you needed a little more than just calling yourself that. You needed an anchor.”
“Have we not served you faithfully, O Queen of Night?” Larat said.
“It must have been terrifying,” I mused, “to realize one day that your oaths bound you to more than the Winter in my veins. That there was an ocean of darkness, now, and that within it swam creatures in every way your superior.”
“Superior?” Larat hissed, and the anger was bare and terrible. “These-”
I smiled, inviting him to continue, but the former Prince of Nightfall curbed his tongue. Too late to avoid confirming what I’d suspected yet not known for certain. Ah, pride. Of all the weakness of the Fair Folk it had always been my favourite.
“Seven crowns and one, laid at your feet,” I said. “That is what I promised you, and that is what you will receive. Rise, Larat.”
I rose, and let a sliver of Night pulse through my veins. The Wild Hunt was summoned, and my own mount with it.
“Don’t worry, old friend,” I told the fae with a warm smile. “I’ll see to it that you get everything that you deserve.”
I wondered if it was a trick of the light, or if I was truly glimpsing fear in that sole eye. No matter. When night fell I would ride with the Hunt, and the three of us – Pilgrim, Tyrant, myself – would find out whose cunning would cut deepest.