“Oh no, please stop wrecking everything! Like that urn in the corner, with the djinn bound inside. No, the other one, with golden – oh, woeful day, this wanton destruction of priceless artefacts is so inconvenient to me personally and absolutely no one else.”
– Dread Emperor Irritant I, ‘defending’ the palace of the High Lord of Aksum from heroes
Tariq did not reply. He knew hesitation was herald of defeat, in contests such as this, yet he could not hasten to answer. Not with the stakes at play here – he, this army, this entire continent, none of them could afford a misstep here and now. A surrender had been offered, but could still be either accepted or refused.
The Pilgrim’s first and deeper instinct was to accept. If it was a lie she’d offered, a trick being played, then accepting would allow him to turn this spin of the yarn on her. A false surrender, when he still had the forces in motion that he’d sent out? The backlash of such a ploy would be bloody for the villain who’d played it. But that was the wrong way to think about this, he decided, because it assumed that Catherine Foundling was a fool. And she wasn’t, unfortunately. She was reckless often and at times arrogant, but also frightfully prone to learning from her mistakes – those, at least, that were not born from the flaws at the very heart of her. It was possible, he considered, that she’d pit providence against the weight of his broken oath. Wagered that events would not tumble forward in a way that allowed him to uncover the conspiracy, should there be one. Yet it was not a good wager, for her, since taking it at all meant she’d fallen into the role of the Grand Alliance’s villainous adversary. No it was nearly certain that the offer of surrender was genuine, which only made it all the more dangerous.
It would break the pattern of three, if he accepted. A victory for her, in claiming back her teacher’s body through ploy, and then a much greater victory for him this night, in scaring her into surrender – that would be the end of it. It was a draw that would take Tariq where he needed to go, arm him with the only blade left that might still be capable of killing Catherine Foundling should it prove necessary. If she’d opposed him more directly in this battle, even made act of presence, the Pilgrim would have come forward as well and leaned on the weight of their pattern to nudge events towards the certainty of a draw. But she’d remained veiled, hidden and plotting. And she saw right through me, Tariq thought, abashed. For all that he had told himself he had the measure of the Black Queen, evidently he’d been wrong. If he was to avoid compounding his mistakes, he must discard that belief and approach the situation with fresh eyes. Catherine Foundling had caught sight of the pattern of three he’d spent so long arranging, and most likely suspected the importance of it to him. Should this, then, be seen as an olive branch?
She would not allow a foe the power over her Tariq had sought to obtain, yet she understood why he found the need for it. And so a concession was made, surrender unconditional on the field, offering to his old hands the thread that might just untangle the thorny knot that was the confluence in Iserre. A knife bared, his purpose denied but then a lesser prize offered. It fit, as it would not be the first time that the Black Queen dealt with others using that blunt but potent approach.
Like an old mule he’d been approached, and this was the apple dangled: an end to Iserre that would be to the benefit of the Grand Alliance, in matters earthly. With refusal, then, would come the stick that would be used to thrash him. A more provisional offer might have allowed the Pilgrim grounds with which to refuse, but unconditional surrender meant that the burden of consequence had been passed entirely to him. There could, to be put it bluntly, be no better offer. If it were a trick that would not matter, for to be Good was not to be the kind of fool that fell into every trap: even devils could cite the Book for their purposes. But if it was not a trick, as he believed, then by refusing Tariq would be tossing to the side every sacrifice made tonight. Every death that had pressed down on his shoulders so he could bring morning’s light to the sky. Would the miracle wane and die? The Ophanim murmured uncertainly in his ear, even they unknowing. He suspected not, but it would at least be made fragile. Judged hollow by Creation, and so become exactly that. The Black Queen’s answer, the coiling darkness that lay at the heart of her camp and had been carefully woven into a theurgic ritual, would rip through it. Perhaps reverse the situation entire, unleashing her drow anew in the fullness of the might.
The Grey Pilgrim was no leader of warbands but he had known wars and felt the power of the Everdark’s children fill the night. If they struck out again with their strength restored, the battle would resume with her forces at a distinct advantage. A second victory for Catherine Foundling would end the pattern of three just as surely, which meant his choice was now effectively between two different unmakings of a plan that had taken more than a year to carry out. Exasperation welled up at the thought. All that toil, broken within months of her return to the surface as if on a whim. Tariq leaned into the emotion, let it course through his veins and then pass out of him. There was no use to growing angry at being outplayed: on the contrary, that kind of fragility tended to lead Bestowed into a spiral of decline. He’d seen too many times to count. Mind clear again, the Grey Pilgrim considered what the Black Queen wanted him to believe was his choice. Victory for him, on her terms. Likely victory for her, still on her terms. The old man’s brow creased as he considered it. There was something about this… theatricality that rubbed him wrong. For a villain, he thought, Catherine Foundling had always been admirably reluctant to sacrifice soldiers on false pretences.
What she considered those to be was where the villainy began, but that was another story. Ah, Tariq hummed. So there it is. The Black Queen had spent lives in her service, those of the drow, by sending them into the fight suspecting a miracle would snatch away their powers and leave them exposed. Unusual for her, and she would not do it without a reason. So why had the drow been sent, he mused? To force his hand with the bringing of dawn, certainly, but there’d been no need for such a brutal display as what had taken place. Thousands dead, so quickly, was not war: it was a point being made. They had been sent to make an impression. To swat down multitudes like flies and add weight to the choice the Pilgrim must now make. To create, in a word, urgency. Such a thing would only be necessary, he decided, if there was a deception afoot.
“Where is your liege, Hunstman?” the Grey Pilgrim asked.
“Another question was not the answer sought, Peregrine,” the fae languidly replied. “Your verdict?”
She wasn’t in Creation, Tariq grasped then. Admittedly the surrender offered had only been for those under her command and not the Queen of Callow herself so her presence was not strictly required. But if she wasn’t here, how did she expect to bring down dawn should he refuse her surrender? There might be other drow with power enough, but none with the requisite weight to carry it out. If the Hierophant had still been at her side then Tariq would not have considered the matter further, but the boy currently was in the depths of Arcadia making a ruinous altar of his grief. The Wild Hunt could not wield miracles of darkness, and who did that leave? No one but Bestowed or the most powerful of warlocks should be able to weave a working rival to his, leaving the confines of story, and the only place where the Black Queen would have been able to encounter such a helper since her disappearance should be the Everdark. It was, he reflected, deeply unlikely anyone but Catherine Foundling on her side could bring an end to his dawn – her patron murderesses notwithstanding, for should they intervene directly so would the Choir of Mercy. Old mule that he was, he’d been offered the apple and the stick. But it appeared that the stick might be little more than glamour, a shadow on the wall. If he refused, and dawn held, then…
That would be contingent on her failing to return, but her absence was telling: whatever her scheme, it required her to see to something else. Instead of an olive branch extended, he thought, this might instead be the affected nonchalance of a villain raising the stakes on a bad hand. Trying to scare the opposition into retreating by displaying unflinching certainty. The pieces were there, Tariq thought, for this to be the answer. Yet it was not certain, and in assuming that the Black Queen was gambling he would be doing the very same thing. If the only consideration was whether it was possible to obtain a promised victory on Catherine Foundling, then this was the choice to be made. Refusal, and pushing through. That was not, however, the only consideration. He could it be, when Keter was on the march? Could he truly justify, the Grey Pilgrim asked himself countenance refusing such an offer of peace? Refuse it when it delivered all he asked save for a knife at the throat of the very woman offering it – a knife, it must be said, that he now stood little chance of obtaining no matter his decision. The scope of the scales, Tariq thought, were close to beyond his ability to grasp.
The Black Queen that could be would be the end of Calernia. Between the Kingdom of the Dead and the Kingdom of the East, the continent would be made a ruin of endless war. Yet in combating the Black Queen that could be, was he blinding himself to the truth of the Black Queen that was?
Could there be any justification for the tossing away of the only pattern of three he would ever have with Catherine Foundling? There might not be another way to kill her if she further grew beyond Tariq’s means. By staying his hand he might be letting slip an entity he could no longer put down.
In refusing an offer of peace from Callow when the Dead King was on the march, was he not aiding the Hidden Horror regardless of all other concerns?
Innocents were going to die.
Innocents had died, some by his own design.
The Ophanim were at his side, helping his tired old bones stand straight, and though in their whispers there was sorrow there was also something other. Trust. They trusted him, the murmurs said, to make the choice. They had seen as he saw, tread in his wake for the seemingly endless days and night he had been the Peregrine. They’d been at his shoulder for his every mistake, his every bitter triumph, and still they trusted. Sometimes that was the only reason he woke with dawn, the knowledge that hand in hand they could still do more. Sometimes that was the weight that pressed down on his chest and choked his lungs, the strain of that unearthly trust. Tariq had tread with angels in his wake for so long he’d forgot how it had felt before.
“Should you not have answers?” he asked, voice choked. “Are you not the Watchers Kindly, the burning wisdom of many eyes?”
Old friends, he thought, help me. Help me see, for once more I am lost. But they had no answers for him, would not take the burden from his shoulders. But they stood at his side, holding up his tired from, for in the end they were the Choir of Mercy and though they could not save him they would at least share in his suffering. Tariq thought of the city of his birth, suddenly, of that summer so long ago when the plague had choked it with death. In those days where it had all been so simple, when healing could be the sum of him. When he’d not been charged with clawing Creation back out of the darkness’ hands, just to bring a little light into it. Tariq, who had last felt true warmth before the final breath of the woman who’d used to smile as she called him of no import, looked up at the sky and watched the star that shone there. Somewhere along the way, he thought, he had gone from bringing small lights into this world to bringing great ones.
Sometimes he wondered if Creation was truly better for it.
“Do you really,” he murmured, “trust me to make that choice?”
The Ophanim thrummed. Agreement, absolute in that way only angels could be. The Grey Pilgrim turned to the Black Queen’s messenger.
“Tell the Queen of Callow I accept her surrender,” he said.
“This,” the Kairos Theodosian mused, “appears to be a goat.”
Hakram kept a calm look on his face, remaining as dignified as an orc could be while hanging upside down tied by the feet. The Tyrant’s outriders had clapped him in chains and dragged him back to the League’s army in them regardless of his claim to be an envoy from the Queen of Callow, though it wasn’t until the Tyrant himself arrived that Adjutant was forced to watch a procession of gargoyles drag in a tall tripod and trip over each other assembling it for what had to be at least half an hour. He’d then been hung upside down from the centrepiece, and only now had his gag been removed.
“Greetings, Lord Tyrant,” he serenely said. “I am the Adjutant, here as envoy from your ally the Queen of Callow.”
“She wrote some very unkind things about me, Hakram,” the Tyrant accusingly said.
He tapped at the parchment his soldiers had taken from the orc’s affairs along with the goat, the same missive he’d both penned in Catherine’s name and been charged with bringing to the League when given the signal. The process had been more tedious than difficult: the barren plain this corner of Arcadia had been turned into meant he’d been able to see their columns arriving from miles off, though that hadn’t quickened his journey in the slightest.
“I am sure,” Hakram lied, “that they were meant in a spirit of friendship.”
The goat he’d had confiscated looked at him and bleated, which the orc had to admit was fair. It’d been a hard sell. No one seemed to have thought to leash the creature, so it was ambling around this formal war council of the League of Free Cities at will and tracking cheap white paint over the furniture.
“What kind of things?” a tanned woman in dark robes asked, leaning forward with interest.
“Magister Zoe,” the Tyrant gasped. “That is most inappropriate to ask. That man is a known spy, he could be peddling all sorts of calumnies.”
The formal war council of the League of Free Cities, Hakram thought, was about as much as flaming wreck as he’d expected given the fractious nature of that alliance and the general reputation of the Tyrant heading it. The orcs jaw tightened when his suspicion was confirmed and the woman who’d spoken was revealed as a magister of Stygia – what a dignified word for a slaver – thought at least it made placing the others easier. The gangly old man at the very right of the long table who was putting the proceedings to ink was likely to be the representative from Delos, a member of its Secretariat. The young ruler of Nicae, Basileus Leo Trakas, was recognizable as much from the formal apparel as the drawings the Jacks had obtained. The two richly-dressed men glaring daggers at each other should be the rival Exarchs of Penthes, the last two survivors of the shambles the Carrion Lord had made of that city’s ruling class. A middle-aged man in ill-fitting armour was looking rather confused and kept looking over his shoulder like he expected someone to be standing there. The representative from Bellerophon, Hakram suspected. That left only one city without a seat at the table, though someone had nailed what looked like a tome of the Book of All Things to the back of a chair just to the left of the Delosi scribe. Interestingly, the Hierarch himself did not seem to be in attendance.
“Lord Deadhand, it is most uncouth of you to be staring so at the honourable delegate from Atalante,” the Tyrant suddenly chided him.
He was, Hakram realized with horrified fascination, talking about the book.
“I apologize,” Adjutant said. “I have never seen anyone from Atalante before.”
Kairos Theodosian grinned, like he was mischievous boy, and leaned forward before lowering his voice to a conspiratorial pitch.
“It’s actually the Book of All Things nailed to a chair,” the Tyrant of Helike confessed. “I just have a gargoyle read a verse once in a while, I don’t think anyone’s noticed the difference.”
Before a heartbeat had passed, Hakram had decided how to tailor his approach. Like dealing with a drunk Catherine, if the jokes about hanging people who irritated her were actually deadly serious.
“Have you considered having a puppet made?” Adjutant replied in the same tone.
The Tyrant snorted out a giggle, his bad arm trembling under his robes. Hakram kept his distaste off his face: the villain smelled like sickness and crazy, both of the dangerous kind.
“I like you,” Kairos Theodosian smilingly said, but then the smile vanished like mist in morning sun. “Is what I imagine she thought I’d say, anyway.”
Hakram remained calm. The boy was unstable, but not without cunning, and Catherine had already taken the measure of him. She would not have sent him here, at the Tyrant’s mercy, if she thought it would get him killed.
“She does seem to enjoy taking up broken toys, your mistress,” the Tyrant of Helike mused. “A filthy habit that, if you’ll forgive my language.”
The villain cocked his head to the side, his sanguine red eye unblinking.
“But by the looks of you, Hakram, you were debris long before she got her hands on you,” he idly continued. “Magister Zoe, what do you call it again when they just look like a person but lack every other meaningful characteristic of one?”
“Foreigners,” the Stygian drily replied.
The Tyrant of Helike shot Adjutant a friendly, complicit look with a grin that good as whispered see what I have to deal with, like moments earlier the villain hadn’t been feeling for a weakness with his words like water poured on glass in search of fault. This was, Hakram thought, a man as dangerous as he was mad. He smiled back, keeping his fangs hidden by his lips.
“You really are a piece of work,” the Tyrant of Helike admiringly said.
“Pieces, by now,” Hakram replied without missing a beat.
The madman cackled loudly, and even a few of the others smiled.
“So tell me about this goat,” Kairos Theodosian said, “and why it looks like it was half-heartedly painted just before it was brought here.”
“And in wickedness does Evil sow the seeds of its own defeat,” a gargoyle mewled, staring up at a page of the Book of All Things.
Everyone ignored it.
“Your ignorance is understandable, my lord Tyrant, given the recent isolation of Callow,” Hakram said. “This is not a goat: he is, in fact, a purebred Liessen charger.”
Stares moved to the goat, which bleated fearfully at the sudden spurt of attention and ran under the table – she smeared white paint all over the robes of the Stygian magister before being chased away with a kick, which Adjutant silently approved of.
“She has udders,” Basileus Leo patiently said. “Goat udders. Because she is a goat.”
“Leo, you’ll cause a diplomatic incident at this rate,” the Tyrant replied, sounding appalled. “Besides, my dear ally the Queen of Callow has personally sent me a mount. How could it not be a splendid destrier of Callowan stock?”
Interesting, Hakram thought once more. It had been one thing for him to call the Tyrant of Helike an ally, another for the king to admit it. The orc had been under the impression that while there was an elected Hierarch, foreign diplomacy was their strict prerogative and to go against that would be treason. Yet none of the others seemed bothered by the implicit admission in the slightest – which meant either the Tyrant’s plot were known and permitted, or the Hierarch’s authority was a sham and Kairos Theodosian was the true ruler of the League. Something many had suspected, including Hakram himself, but did not align with Catherine’s own impression of their relationship.
“I wash my hands of this,” the Basileus sighed. “Do as you will, Tyrant.”
“So, Catherine wants us to take a crack at the Grand Alliance,” Lord Kairos said, completely ignoring the other ruler in favour of Hakram. “Interesting offer.”
There was a pause.
“I refuse,” he added nonchalantly. “So, now that that’s done with, tell me true: if you had to be drowned, would you prefer it was in wine or in oil?”
“We were afraid you would hesitate to act, given the circumstances,” Hakram amicably said. “No grudge will be held, I assure you.”
“Circumstances,” Lord Kairos mildly repeated. “Such as?”
“The battle ought to be over by now,” Adjutant said. “The Grey Pilgrim will have woven a miraculous star and broken the strength of the Firstborn, forcing my queen’s unconditional surrender.”
A pregnant pause.
“She doesn’t have that much give in her,” the Tyrant said, red eye narrowing.
“My lord,” Hakram grinned, baring his teeth, “I penned the letter for her.”
The villain peered at him closely, as if looking into his soul, and the orc had to refrain from flinching. There was something… discomforting about the intensity of that mismatched gaze.
“It appears someone will have to saddle my goat,” Kairos Theodosian mused, “for we now must ride out in glorious battle.”