“And so Triumphant laughed, saying: ‘You spellsingers, wisdom of stars and weavers of fate, know now despair. I will break you so utterly even the remembrance of your wholeness will suffocate, and where rose your tall spires there be only the barren sea I made of your defiance.'”
– Extract from the Scroll of Dominion, twenty-fourth of the Secret Histories of Praes
Gods, but it’d been close.
More than once we’d tread the edge of the cliff, and every time it’d been all I could do not to pull the trigger on all of my most horrifying contingencies. If the Pilgrim had refused the surrender, proved himself someone it was hopeless to work with under any circumstances. If the Tyrant had refused to send forward his armies, proved willing to sacrifice even his own plans to prevent truce being made in the west. If Vivienne had fallen even slightly short of the kind of woman I believed she could be, and chosen the early gain over the slow triumph. Every time I’d sat with Komena on my shoulder, watching them face the crossroads and knowing if the wrong choice was made all that was left would be the hardest of measures. And yet, even as I pulled at my pipe and let trails of wakeleaf escape my nostrils, I saw them all turn towards me like sunflowers to the sun and understood bone-deep why someone like Dread Emperor Traitorous could exist.
I’d tasted heights in my life, more than most ever got to experience. Nights of pleasure with men or women who knew their way around a good time, and subtler pleasures of luxury too: a cup good wine and a crisp pipe, meals exotic and exquisitely prepared. Different sorts of satisfactions as well. Evenings by the fire with people I would love until death took me, but also sharper edges – victory in battle, death and terror inflicted on enemies I despised. Enjoyments that soothed the soul but others that had your teeth clenching in harsh, spiteful vindication. And while I knew it was passing, that like a spasm of pleasure or the ephemeral bliss of a drug it would die out and leave the body strained for it, there was a moment where I saw it in their eyes. The knowledge that to get here, in this moment, I had played them for fools and done it remaining one step ahead of them the entire time. The blend of hatred and fear and respect, but most of all of something that was kin to awe, it was like nothing else I’d ever felt.
If someone had distilled and bottled victory, I thought, it would taste something like this.
What a dangerous thing this sensation was, and how careful I must be to avoid falling in love with it. Else I would become another Traitorous, another Irritant, another mad murderer who cared more for victory as an end instead of a methods. For the triumph of cleverness at the expense of all else, like it was enough to simply beat the others.
“Black Queen,” the Peregrine greeted me tiredly. “That is a considerable claim you have made.”
I pulled at my pipe once more and discretely glanced at Hakram. Prince among men that he was, he understood what I needed from him without a word.
“Atalante,” he whispered. “Hierarch. Knows about Zeze.”
The forces at the Tyrant’s fingertips that were still missing, along with something he should have no way of knowing: the final pieces to the sharp-edged jigsaw puzzle that we’d all made of this night. My instincts had been right, then. Kairos was making a play for the shard of Arcadia, using another madman and the most powerful priests in his armies. He still thought he was playing me, I thought, smiling at the villain on question. But he’d actually given me the last puzzle pieces I needed to be able to run a spit through his guts and hold him over the fire like a wildly treacherous goose.
“Kairos can vouch for me on that,” I drawled, pushing myself off Hakram. “After all, he’s been talking with the Dead King throughout this entire campaign.”
The Tyrant gasped theatrically as everyone’s eyes turned towards him. Leaning on my staff, I limped forward and left behind the hanging royals as well as Adjutant. It’d not escaped my notice that Kairos had seven crowns and my closest friend in the world hanging from that wooden beam. I might have been amused by that, if not for the implicit threat to the gesture: that he’d kill Hakram the moment I made a play for the shard, that I could only snatch that prize from him if I was willing to make Adjutant my one. A heartbeat passed and the odd-eyed villain started tittering, putting his trembling hand over his heart in an expression of repentance.
“You got me,” the Tyrant of Helike snickered. “I tried to sell you all out to the Dead King… and for that, I sincerely apologize.”
The sincerity, I thought, was cast somewhat into doubt by his broad shit-eating grin.
“Though, in my defence,” Kairos continued, “it’s the Black Queen’s own court warlock who decided to read the entire Kabbalis Book of Darkness and got himself… inconvenienced.”
Huh. I wondered if he genuinely didn’t know that Masego had actually gotten his hands on much, much worse than that – Neshamah’s actual memories, harvested from an echo in Arcadia – or if he was simply keeping that under wraps for later use.
“By inconvenienced,” the Tyrant added in stage whisper, “I mean he went crazy and ate a city’s worth of souls and now the Dead King is riding him like a mule, if you’ll forgive my language.”
I could have tried to cut him off before he got all of that out, but I didn’t bother. For one, the longer he kept talking the least likely he was to notice I’d ordered my Lord of Silent Steps to take care of a few loose ends. And, most importantly, I wanted him to out the facts that it was Masego who was, uh, getting slightly rough with the fabric of Creation. Nobody here trusted the Tyrant the slightest fucking bit, and this would be taken as an attack on his part – which meant that might my reply, which admittedly stretched the truth a little, would be granted a lot more good faith than anything coming out of my mouth usually would get.
“The Hierophant attempted to find a way to kill the Dead King, at great personal risk to himself,” I said, carefully avoiding mentioning that Masego would have taken a bite out of his own liver for that knowledge regardless of all other considerations, “but whatever it was the Ashurans used at Thalassina, it wounded him. The Hidden Horror seems to have taken advantage of that.”
But it wouldn’t have happened if the lot of you hadn’t gone a’crusading and started a battle that wiped a major city off the face of Creation, I left unsaid.
“That is unfortunate,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “yet-”
“If the next sentence that comes out of your mouth is we might have to kill him,” I mildly said, “we’re going to have a problem.”
That didn’t win me any favour with the heroes, from the way their backs straightened. I wasn’t feeling all that threatened by that, to be honest. The Saint had tussled with Rumena, so she was far from fresh, and like the Tyrant for all his fronting the Pilgrim was dead tired. The only hero that was in fighting fit was the Rogue Sorcerer, and if it came to that I could bury him in a swarm of Mighty. I didn’t intend on outright dictating terms here, but I had no qualms with disabusing them from the illusion that they were in a position to dictate a single fucking thing to me. Including the death of one of my friends, no matter his current state.
“Shut your mouth, child,” the Saint of Swords said. “You-”
I glanced at the Peregrine.
“Tariq,” I calmly said. “Do muzzle your hound, before I decide to take offence.”
The old man’s face tightened, but he laid a hand on his attack dog’s shoulder and spoke to her in a whisper. I turned to the Tyrant, who was watching all of this happen with a kind of pure malicious glee I’d only ever seen in goblins before.
“Now would be a good time to order your armies to retreat,” I told him.
“I’m no general,” the odd-eyed boy said, “but we do appear to be winning.”
I could have pointed out that the drow had been strengthened by the eclipse Akua had brought at precisely the right time, and that now that bargain had been struck my armies would back those of the Grand Alliance against his. But that’d be missing the point, because none of this really mattered to him.
“Kairos,” I patiently said, “I understand you think that by standing here and mouthing off you’re serving as a distraction for the Hierarch claiming the shard unhindered, but you’ve been had. So call off your damn armies, and let’s have all of us a civilized conversation.”
The Tyrant of Helike gazed at me in disappointment, one eye shining red and the other teary from tiredness.
“Now, if I did have such a scheme,” Kairos Theodosian said, “and I do not, for I assure you I am most defeated and at your common mercy, but if I did… then the most elementary of steps would have been ensuring that the Dead King could not in fact see such a blow coming. That, in this most theoretical of worlds, though I am such a villain’s inferior in many ways distance and the nature of our bargain would blind him to the knife until the very last moment.”
His leg twitched restlessly.
“Now, Catherine, in this abstract, are you still suggesting that I was seen through?” the Tyrant asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m not clear on what exact measures you took, honestly, but I’m fairly sure they worked. Which is why I’m telling you that, while you launched your attacks here, I pre-emptively sold you out to Hidden Horror.”
His face went blank at my words, and I enjoyed the sight a lot more than I’d thought I would. It hadn’t even been all that complicated, to be honest. Not once I’d figured out that Neshamah had his finger in this pie anyway. Masego was the only angle he could feasibly have used other than myself, and that meant all it’d taken to pass a warning about what I suspected the Hierarch of being capable of was putting it to parchment and having one of the Wild Hunt carry it as far into the Arcadian wasteland as she could without getting killed or captured. Something like a shiver went through the Tyrant of Helike’s sickly frame at my words, though I could not be certain whether it was fear or excitement. Or, for that matter, something as mundane as exhaustion.
“Well,” Kairos Theodosian mused, “it seems we truly do have about an hour to live.”
He spared a look for some of the throng of gargoyles ever surrounding him, some of which flew away with urgent chittering.
“Queen Catherine,” the Pilgrim said, tone sharp.
“I’ll give you the broad strokes,” I said. “Kairos can fill in the parts I’m uncertain about. Won’t you, Kairos?”
Most of the time it was a damned pain to deal with intelligent opponents, but once in a while it had its uses. The Tyrant looked at the heroes, face twisting into a thoughtful frown as he asked himself what use I had for the heroes. It could not be to kill him, since he had to know just the same as I did that he’d slip away like an eel if we tried. He had symbolic hostages, had just finished making a broad splash in the story pond with a plan and so he was very much due a beating at heroic hands – followed by him scampering away to fight another day. So no, I wasn’t trying to use the heroes as a borrowed knife. I was even, tacitly, inviting him to be part of this as something other than an enemy. Which meant…
“There are six of us,” Kairos noted, eyeing me as he wagged a finger chidingly.
“Adjutant will stay behind,” I replied.
“Not even one of them,” he laughed. “Ever bold, Catherine. Put this way, how can I refuse?”
My gaze returned to the Pilgrim, whose face had grown cold as the back and forth continued. The light tone of the exchange must have grated on him, considering people were dying as we spoke. You can’t act like that with the Tyrant, Tariq, I thought. He’ll pounce on that kind of weakness every time.
“The block on scrying is what gave it away,” I told the Pilgrim. “I’d been given details before that allowed me to catch on, troubles at the Observatory and my mages theorizing that the sky was already in use and that was why the rituals didn’t work. I thought it was a side-effect, at first, of whatever Hierophant is being tricked into doing, but it was just too convenient.”
The Rogue Sorcerer stirred.
“The scrying troubles are a consequence of the Keter’s Due of some great working,” he said. “That much I have confirmed.”
“Figured it might be that,” I said, “because Hierophant picked up the ruins of Liesse on the way here, and I’m no scholar of sorcery but I do know there’s one thing about that weapon that makes Akua Sahelian a legend: it made use of the Due.”
Instead of the turning Liesse and its surroundings into a blighted wasteland, Diabolist had used the wild release of wasted energy that accompanied every spell to power the city’s flight. That did not mean, however, that the artefact could not be shaped anew until the release served other purpose.
“You’re implying the Dead King, through the Hierophant, intervened to prevent scrying from being possible in Iserre,” the Pilgrim said.
He flicked a glance at the Rogue Sorcerer, who nodded a concession it was possible for that to have been the case. I didn’t need to tell the Peregrine much more than that: he might not have been in the middle of anything like this before, but given how long he’d been kicking around he would have been in the middle of a lot of things that were a little like this.
“We were meant to bloody each other,” the old man quietly said. “The Grand Alliance, the Legions of Terror, your Army of Callow. By cutting off the rituals, negotiation was made difficult and you-”
A coldly burning gaze turned to the Tyrant of Helike. I sympathized with the sentiment. The Pilgrim and I had both known we were doing the Dead King’s work for him, by fighting here in Iserre, but neither of us had grasped quite how literally that was the case until tonight.
“Me,” Kairos grinned. “I’ve had eyes in the sky this entire time, in a manner of speaking. And on occasion, I spoke with a dear friend of mine about… common interests.”
Which explained why the armies of the League and of Helike in particular had been able to dance around Iserre flawlessly, never encountering any true setback until I’d arrived on the surface with Sve Noc at my back: perhaps the only entity in the principality that could veil itself from the ritual Neshamah was using. And to make it even worse, with that knowledge Kairos had undertaken the collection of even more. Since he’d known where every army was, he’d been able to make deals with them for even more secrets until he was the only person in all of Iserre who truly knew what was going on. Which had made him, in turn, even more useful to the Dead King who needed an agent in the region to keep stirring the chaos and escalate the mess. I suspected he’d used that need a chip to learn quite a few things he shouldn’t. Likely the information about the Bard he’d traded me initially came from Neshamah, and for him to know of the specific price to my bargain with Larat – as he quite obviously did – meant the chances were good most of what Masego knew had been spilled and passed on. It did smack of the Dead King’s ironic touch, to be selling my secrets instead of his.
“Of course, they are villains,” I said. “Which means the Dead King always intended to kill him, and Kairos always intended on stealing the Dead King’s victory at the very last moment.”
I cast a curious glance at the Tyrant, since I was still unaware of the full details of what Neshamah was up to. I’d figured out that if no one ended up claiming the shard it would have no anchor and so just keep falling – you know, until it crashed on us – but I doubted the Dead King was just going to let that lying around afterwards. Though after making corpses out of the core armies of the Grand Alliance, the East and the League he should definitely have some further means to meddle.
“He planned on turning this lovely little ruin-realm into a fresh Hell, I do believe,” Kairos mused. “After binding our souls, raising us from the grave and unleashing us against all he opposed anyway. He’s got classic tastes, our friend up north.”
“Neat,” I flatly said. “So, Kairos here wanted to snatch the shard from the Dead King using the Hierarch and Atalante’s priesthood.”
“It was going to be beautiful,” the Tyrant sighed. “Terrible for all of you, of course, but absolutely glorious for everyone that matters. I’d even been looking into the practicalities of crashing it into the Serenity.”
He’d what? No, now was not the time to let him distract me.
“Won’t work now,” I said. “The Dead King’s been warned. But, as it happens, there’s still a way to prevent this from killing us all.”
The Tyrant leaned back into his throne with a vicious grin.
“Now, this is the part I’ve been looking forward to,” Kairos Theodosian cheerfully said. “Go on, Catherine, I want to see how you’ll be selling the birth of a fae court sworn to Below to the Peregrine.”
The Pilgrim’s hackles went right back up, not that they’d ever gone down all that much. Might be more accurate to say the crux of his indignation had been pointed at another villain, for once. He didn’t accuse me, at least, though at his side Laurence looked both triumphant and remarkably eager to run me through. I rolled my shoulder to loosen it, the same way I’d used to do before fights – in a way, this was one. Without blades having been bared, but it counted all the same. All my plans meant nothing, if I couldn’t convince the Peregrine that backing me was the right choice. The Saint was a lost cause, and I knew next to nothing about the Sorcerer, but they’d both fall in line if Tariq gave his word. Leaning against my staff, I gestured upwards at the darkened firmament.
“Now, a realm has been carved out of Arcadia and sent careening down into Creation,” I said. “There’s no changing that, there’s not sending it back and destroying it would be worse: it’s close enough to us by now that if we broke it the aftershocks would likely kill everyone in Iserre. Which means that realm needs to be seen to, anchored, and there’s only three stories for us to craft that fate from.”
I raised a single finger, then jammed it towards the north.
“The Dead King’s story is a kingdom of death, made for the reigning king of the same,” I said. “Its herald was the folly and blindness of mortals, who willingly sacrificed themselves at an unseen altar to allow the blooming of calamity.”
“It also involves everyone here dying and returning as a Revenant in his service, leading his armies in the conquest of Calernia,” I added. “Not, I feel same in assuming, anyone’s first choice.”
“Now, there was a second story,” I said. “Woven by the hand of our very own Tyrant.”
Kairos nonchalantly waved, which had the Saint’s lips thinning in anger and her hand visibly reaching for her sword. It was almost unsettling to see that directed at someone else.
“His was the madness-”
“-visionary wisdom,” the Tyrant corrected.
“- of the Hierarch woven into the very fabric of a realm,” I continued. “A vessel of revolt, an instrument for the sowing of strife uncivil. That story, however, was broken.”
“She sold me out to the Dead King,” Kairos complained to the heroes. “You really can’t trust anyone these days.”
“The last story is mine,” I said. “It is made of crowns and debts, the desperate trick of a fox chewing through its own foot for fear of the night.”
“Then it is true,” the Grey Pilgrim grimly said. “You want to make a Court of Night.”
“Oh no, this is where you have me wrong,” I smiled. “What I want, Peregrine, is for us to make a god.”
My smile turned sharp, almost blade-like.
“Then to murder that god and make of his bones a highway for our armies.”