“Ambition without principle is greed, principle without ambition is mediocrity.”
– Clodomir Merovins, ninth First Prince of Procer
“An empty throne, raised over a land of crossroads,” the Grey Pilgrim said, voice wary.
As it should be, I thought. It was not trouble for the faint-hearted that I was proposing to seek. Larat, now huntsman but once a prince of the Winter Court, had in those days schemed to slip the leash holding the fae to Arcadia by binding himself to Creation instead. Seven and one, a pattern that’d echoed around Calernia long enough for it to have the proper form of binding, and behind it the weight of earthly crowns laid at his feet. It’d been a clever enough scheme but also a risky one, not that he’d had much of a choice. As the King of Winter and the Queen of Summer wed and their war abruptly ended, with it changed the landscape of Arcadia: a single court, and with it different stories that meant Larat was running out of time if he ever wanted to wiggle his way out. Desperate measures had seen him lead a ramshackle Wild Hunt – born of nothing, for Spring and Autumn had not come and might never again – to swear itself to my service, and so avoid entanglements in Arcadia. Doubly clever he had been, the once-prince, for it was to a court contained within my frame he had sworn himself and his fellows. Like fish in the sea, the fae had been content to keep swimming in that familiar power until I gathered the crowns I owed and completed Larat’s scheme for him.
Then the Everdark happened and the power running through the veins of the fae had been ripped out, the reborn Night injected instead, and it had all begun to go awry.
At the moment, my Wild Hunt was not fundamentally all that different from Mighty. Oh their tricks and bodies were different – though I suspected that with time and the full settling of Winter within the Night, the Firstborn would begin taking one fae-like traits – but that was just the shape of their mould, so to speak. The material in those moulds was the same for Hunt and Mighty both, namely Night, which meant that Sve Noc could snuff them out at will. As the Sovereign of Moonless Night, I’d leaned on the oaths to get obedience from the fae because I did not have the know-how to use their connection to Winter as a leash. Given a few decades or a century I might have learned, but Larat would have been long rid of my service by then and so of this trouble as well. Sve Noc, though? They had built their apotheosis from scratch, and though the manner and nature of it had been nothing less than horror they had built it nonetheless. They could end the Hunt with a thought, and the fae had suspected that much from the moment they’d felt my surrender to the Sisters. And so they’d kept their oaths to myself and my subjects, even though they were no longer bound by them, for if they became an enemy I might be troubled to look into the practicalities of ending them. A shame for them, and for Larat, that I’d found out anyway.
“Gates, for the proper toll,” I agreed. “Paths through a realm without the… risks of Arcadia, but similar peculiarities. The armies on this field could turn a march of months into weeks instead, and intervene north before the fronts collapse.”
“And you would beget this through the murder of one in your service,” Tariq said, not bothering to hide his distaste. “Could accord not be reached instead?”
There was a sound like someone choking down laughter, which served to inform me Kairos apparently knew a thing or two about the fae.
“That is not in his nature,” I said. “And fae do not change. It is inevitable. Larat who was once the Prince of Nightfall will rise once more, ruler of a court of dusk, and turn on those that raised him. And when that happens-”
“- inevitability,” the Grey Pilgrim echoed. “A band of five, like few this world had seen, to smother that infant god in the cradle.”
The last words had his face going ashen, for some reason. I supposed the scope of what I’d suggested was beginning to sink in. In the interests of diplomacy, I refrained from mentioning I figured if any Choir was going to be in favour of infant-smothering it’d be Mercy. You didn’t get to make a greater good without laying a foundation of lesser evils, and the greater the scale of that good so with the evils that were its bedrock.
“Tariq,” the Saint hoarsely said. “You can’t seriously be considering this.”
She looked, I thought, like someone had upended her world.
“It sees to our every need,” the Peregrine said, and turned rueful eye on me. “How neatly you have tied us with the strings of necessity.”
I met his gaze unblinking.
“Should I apologize,” I said, “for making this a victory for others than myself?”
He turned away at that. Both at what I’d said, and at what was implied: that’d he been so set on being my enemy I’d had to work against him to help him. Silence stretched for a tense moment.
“Black Queen,” the Rogue Sorcerer said, politely inclining his head. “I have questions, if I may?”
Funny how they got all polite when they no longer had the upper hand. No, that was unfair of me. I was in no position to cast stones on the subject of civility. Beneath the swaying leather coat and the practical chain mail beneath, I could not help but notice that the Sorcerer was rather short. Still taller than me, I was forced to admit, but not by much. I’d had a glimpse of what he could do with the intricate casting rod he kept, and it’d been a notch in power and skill above what I’d seen out of any but the most powerful of Praesi warlocks. Fire-based, I’d vaguely remembered, but there must have been more to it than that: his unremarkable brown pupils were discreetly rimmed with colour, one scarlet red and the other verdant green. Akua had fought him while wearing me the once, but like me she’d failed to tease much out of him. Which meant most his tricks were still unknown, and all his aspects. Both Tariq and Kairos would shoot up as threats the moment they became members of our band of five instead of my spent opponents, Creation itself conspiring to make sure they were fit to participate in what followed, but like the Saint they were mostly known quantities.
I knew nothing of the Rogue Sorcerer, save that he’d repeatedly scrapped with adversaries seemingly his superior without ever taking a wound or revealing any of the dangerous tricks mages tended to hoard like magpies. That alone was enough to make him dangerous.
“Ask,” I replied.
“You will need seven crowns, as the price,” the hero said, his Lower Miezan smooth and accentless. “This I understand the logistics of.”
The gaze he flicked at the seven Proceran royals and Adjutant visibly hanging behind us made his point clear.
“It is the one, however that interests me,” he said. “Seven for weight, but the last to shape. It will be, in a sense, the most important aspect of what you propose.”
“The one we’ll bring with us into the deeps,” I said. “To be bestowed only at the heart of it.”
The Rogue Sorcerer’s lips thinned, obviously not considering that to be much of an answer, but in a sense it’d not been him I was speaking to. Tariq and Kairos both cast glances at me: one wary, the other gleeful. Yeah, there were three of us who could still qualify for the ‘one’. Kairos Theodosian was Tyrant of Helike by Name, but king of the same by title. Tariq was, in the eyes of many of his countrymen, the rightful ruler of Levant. And I had more than a few titles to throw around, these days, but the one that mattered most was Queen of Callow.
“As you say,” the hero murmured. “On the subject of roads and tolls-”
“It won’t be like Arcadia,” I admitted. “That is beyond my remit. It’ll take more than a powerful caster with the right tools to access it. We’ll have to raise gates in Creation, and bind them to the realm. After that, though, journey, should be seamless when the tolls are paid.”
“And the nature of said tolls?” the Sorcerer pressed.
“Blood,” the Pilgrim quietly said. “Isn’t it?”
It was Akua’s best guess, yes, and the Sisters were being ambiguous in their answers but implying that might be the case.
“Freely given,” I clarified. “One cut to enter, the other to leave. A sliver of life to sustain the crossroads realm.”
“And anybody could pass the gate,” the Rogue Sorcerer. “But very few would know how to build one.”
I smiled, and did not answer. The Sorcerer might be able to figure it out, I knew, especially if he was at hand when the realm was born. But aside from him? Maybe five people would have the know-how in all of Calernia, and most of them answered to me to some degree.
“We should kill her now,” the Saint of Swords calmly said.
My fingers tightened around my staff, but beyond that I gave no visible reaction. I glanced at Tariq and raised an eyebrow, silently letting him know that Laurence of Montfort was his fucking problem at the moment but that if she became mine he wouldn’t like what followed.
“I understand your worries, Saint-” the Rogue Sorcerer began.
“No, you don’t,” she bluntly said. “Because you’re barely even thirty, and you still think because she compromises once or twice it changes what she is. It doesn’t.”
“I would not swear truce with her beyond the Dead King’s end,” the Rogue Sorcerer replied, tone touched with strained patience, “but to refuse an arrangement right now would be worse than a sin, it would be a mistake.”
“Do you know who the most dangerous villain I’ve ever faces was, boy?” Laurence de Montfort casually said. “There’s a few people would consider the obvious contenders. I fought the first Horned Lord to wake in five centuries to a draw. I crawled in my own blood after a bout with the Lady of the Lake and put down the Drake Knight after his mind went. All of those would have butchered their way through half a legion of soldiers without batting an eye, all were monsters at the peak of their mastery. But the most dangerous villain I ever faced was my first: an alchemist so sickly he could barely hold a sword.”
She was arguing for my death, I was well aware, but this was still rather interesting so she had my full attention for more than one reason. The Jacks hadn’t put together nearly as much as I would have liked on the Saint, which only made sense if she’d spent most of her years wandering around Calernia as a cantankerous armed vagrant.
“I caught him early,” the Saint idly said. “People were going missing, and I looked into it – bandits and criminals, as it turned out, but he was still keeping them in cells and using them for bloody research. Yet it was for antidotes, for ways to end plagues and heal the worst of injuries. He was just the Salutary Alchemist, I thought, and so young. Not some hard-eyed vulture, and his Damnation looked like it was half an accident. Bad methods, but good ends. So I slapped him around some, made him pass his prisoners to the closest city’s gaol and told him he could use animals but not people. Then I let him off with a warning.”
Slowly, the Saint of Swords unsheathed her blade. She tapped it against her shoulder, striding around the Sorcerer but her eyes remaining on the Pilgrim the whole time.
“Gods, but the boy was brilliant,” she said. “Five years later and keeping to the rules, he distilled an essence of life – a potion that kept people alive past their time. When the secant pox hit Valencis he moved there to cure it, and stayed after. I thought, maybe it didn’t have to be a war all the time. That in some places, sometimes, we could have peace. Make exceptions.”
“Salutary,” the Rogue Sorcerer slowly said. “The word can mean beneficial, but the older meaning is health-giving.”
“Aye,” Laurence de Montfort grinned, old yellow teeth bared. “And give them health he did. Let them live past their time. Except he was the only one with the recipe. And it only bought them a few months at a time.”
I almost let out an impressed whistle, seeing where she was headed with this.
“The prince was old, and so he was owned,” the Saint derisively said. “And with every passing year someone else was in his debt that was old but also rich and powerful. Or sick in a way priests can’t see to, or wanting to look young or a hundred other paltry fucking things that could be fixed with the right brew. I heard nothing about the people who’d started to go missing again, in Valencis, until I ran into one getting grabbed by the fucking city guard. And when I asked questions they all covered for him, all closed ranks, because he’d gotten his claws in them and what were a few dead nobodies for his research when that research was so useful?”
In Procer, I remembered, they knew the Saint of Swords as the Regicide. For her very public slaying of the Prince of Valencis, many years ago.
“He was a helpful lad, the Salutary Alchemist,” Laurence de Montfort softly said. “Helped with his tonics and philters, when the going got rough for Chosen, never swung at blade at anybody in his life. And if I’d left him to it another decade, he would have owned half of Procer without anyone being the wiser.”
The Saint of Swords pointed her blade at me.
“There can be,” she slowly enunciated, “no truce with the Enemy. Not even when they are reasonable, helpful – especially then, because if you let the rot take even a moment then you will always have to amputate the limb.”
The Tyrant of Helike, never one to let an occasion to be a shit pass him by, enthusiastically clapped at the end of her tirade and called for an encore. I glanced at the other heroes. The Rogue Sorcerer’s face had gone blank, which to me reeked of hesitation. It made sense, didn’t it? Because to me Laurence was a zealous old biddy who regularly tried to kill me and my friends, but to the heroes she was the prickly, unpleasant grandmother they didn’t want but always stepped in when they were in trouble. And sure, she thought with her sword, but most of the time that kind of simplicity paid off for heroes. It lent them strength, got them through the worst villains brought to bear against them and if the Light was anything like the Night then conviction had a lot to do with how well you could use it. The Grey Pilgrim was the one that mattered, though, because where the Saint was respected the Peregrine was trusted. And even when he wasn’t, well, if he made a decision then the rest of the Grand Alliance couldn’t really break it without breaking itself given his pull in the Dominion. And I wasn’t sure Laurence would give a damn about that, given who she was, but I suspected the Rogue Sorcerer was a different story entirely.
And the Pilgrim slowly shook his head.
“I will not break the world that is to spare the world that could be,” the Peregrine said.
“Tariq, how many of these ‘turnabouts’ have you seen over the years?” the Saint hissed. “How many Damned made their apologies, swore they’d never meant to hurt anyone, said that they would help you keep the peace instead.”
“Dozens,” the Pilgrim said.
“And how many kept their word?”
“None,” the old man tiredly said.
“And still you want to make bargain with her? The battle’s not done, Tariq. It’ll get ugly, true enough, and thousands will die. Likely one of us too. But we can still win, and though we’ll be a ruin after we’ll be a ruin that can recover,” the Saint harshly asked. “But if we compromise, here and now? There’ll never be any recovering from that. The taint will be in the cause until it runs its course. So why?”
“Because we are not animals,” Tariq softly replied. “Because we do not shy from compromise simply because it has burned us before. Because if we are willing to break armies for a point of theological purity, then that it is us that deserves the breaking. But most of all, Laurence?”
His eyes were bright as he turned to her, but there was no warmth to them. Only a cold, patient light like the distant radiance of a star.
“Because I will not brook unnecessary suffering,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
The two heroes stared each other down, tension mounting with the silence. The Saint had not sheathed her blade, and though the Peregrine bore no weapon to unsheathe in turn that hardly meant he was unarmed.
“Boo,” the Tyrant called out. “Booo. Just terrible. Bring back the other act.”
“If we bend, we will break,” Laurence de Montfort said.
I breathed out slowly, and though I did not begin to call on Night – that would have drawn attention to me, painted me as the aggressor – I shaped the working in my mind. It would have worked better in Arcadia, but if the Saint turned on me here there’d be no choice but to resort to it in Creation.
“If you still believe that, by morning light, then we will put it to judgement,” Tariq said.
The old woman’s jaw tightened in displeasure, but after a moment she gave a tight nod. She eyed me, spat down in the snow, but then sheathed her blade.
“Lovely,” I drawled. “What a treat you are, Laurence. Shall I take that as agreement on your end, Pilgrim?”
The Rogue Sorcerer glanced at Tariq, who nodded. The other man sighed but did not argue.
“Bargain is struck, Black Queen,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
“Bargain is struck,” I acknowledged, dipping my head.
“That’s nice,” Kairos said. “But here’s something none of you have considered.”
The Tyrant of Helike caught the scepter he’d idly been flipping all this time, and blindly pointed it over his shoulder. Gems incrusted in it began glowing, and an intense beam of fire shot out – before I could so much as move, it burned a hole straight through Rozala Malanza’s forehead.
“Should have sold the villain on the deicide first,” the Tyrant chided me.
I didn’t reply, simply raising an eyebrow, and only then did Kairos’s red eye narrow and he turned to look back over his throne. Where ‘Rozala Malanza’ had dissolved into shadows.
“Ah, the drow,” Kairos mused. “Is there even a single one of them left?”
“What kind of a second-rater do you take me for?” I asked.
Adjutant should be in the my army’s camp right about now, safely escorted there by the Losara Sigil after my Lord of Silent Steps spirited him away and left behind illusion. As for the royals, though, I had other intentions.
“I suppose we should discuss terms, then,” the Tyrant cheerfully said.
“Pilgrim?” I asked.
“I will listen,” the old man said, promising nothing.
“Best you’re going to get,” I told the odd-eyed king.
“It’s all I need,” Kairos Theodosian grinned. “Now, as you all know, I am an ardent proponent of peace.”
I was reluctantly impressed by how confidently he stated what everyone else here knew to be an outright lie.
“This entire little tiff has been nothing but a misunderstanding, I’m certain,” the Tyrant idly continued. “As such, a peace conference would be in all our best interests.”
That part I’d known he wanted for months now. But now he’d lay out what it was he wanted along with the rest of us at the same table, and that I remained deeply worried about.
“But,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Speak up, Theodosian.”
“It seems that an agent currently in the employ of the First Prince of Procer has committed heavy crimes while in the lands of the League of Free Cities,” Kairos smiled. “A complaint was lodged with the Hierarch, who now requires that criminal to stand trial before peace can be discussed.”
My eyes narrowed. No mention of whatever it was Cordelia was dredging out of Lake Artoise? Had that been a red herring, or was this?
“A name,” the Peregrine said.
“I believe he goes by Hanno of Arwad,” Kairos said.
“The White Knight,” the Rogue Sorcerer said in disbelief. “You want to put to trial the chosen of the-”
The Grey Pilgrim raised his hand.
“And if this request is granted, the League of Free Cities will observe a truce until both the trial and the peace conference are at an end?” he asked.
“Of course,” Kairos said. “I am, after all, a man of timid and tender disposition. If not for our beloved Hierarch’s indignation at such brazen offences, this war would never have-”
“For an objection to be lodged with the Hierarch himself, the ruler or representative of one of the member-cities of the League has to do it,” I interrupted. “In this case, who did it?”
“I believe it might have been the representative from Helike,” the Tyrant mused. “What an unlikely coincidence.”
So, Kairos’ play was centered around using the Hierarch against the White Knight then. That gave me something to work with when it came to thwarting him, though I couldn’t do it from here or tonight.
“I am willing to accept that condition,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “on behalf of the Grand Alliance.”
“Oh?” the Tyrant said. “Yet the head of this crusade is Her Most Serene Highness Cordelia Hasenbach. Can you truly speak on her behalf?”
“In this instance I will,” Tariq said. “He would come regardless, Theodosian.”
“That’s reassuring to hear,” Kairos affably replied. “Yet it has been brought to my attention you’ve this nasty habit of breaking oaths, Pilgrim. I will require a guarantor. Now, Catherine, I do remember you promising me in writing that-”
“I lied,” I told him without missing a beat. “You know, while positioning you to overextend in battle and selling you out to the Dead King.”
“That was most unkind of you,” he agreed. “Yet we are, I believe, allies.”
“Of course,” I lied.
“Then I will require you to be guarantor of our greying friend’s oath,” the Tyrant of Helike said, odd-eyed gaze grown cool. “And to kill him personally, should he break it.”
“That’s all?” I frowned.
I didn’t like making empty promises, but this little bastard had been puppeteering half the armies of Calernia into killing each other while the damned Dead King was invading up north for the better part of a year. When we had shared interests, as in against the Wandering Bard, I did not mind working together. Otherwise he was at best a potential threat and more likely an outright enemy. Hells, the Peregrine had tried to kill me a few time and I still considered him to be more of an ally.
“That oath, and yours as guarantor, will have to be taken before every one of importance in all three armies on this field,” the Tyrant casually added. “Proper ceremony and all that.”
Ah, and there we were. Like I’d turned the screws on Razin Tanja a while back, he wanted me to give my word in front of enough people it’d seriously damage my reputation if I broke it afterwards. Of course, killing the Grey Pilgrim regardless of circumstances would sunder the Grand Alliance and most likely sink the Liesse Accords. But if I made and broke an oath before the same people I’d then need to convince to sign those same Accords, I was taking a torch to the worth of my word for those I most needed to believe in it. He truly was a vicious little prick, wasn’t he? I glanced at Tariq, who met my gaze and slowly nodded. He’d realize the trouble inherent to breaking his own word, I thought, but would that stop him if he thought it was necessary to do it? Probably not. But this needs a foundation of trust to work, I thought. And he’d extended it first, even if I had to twist his arm to get there.
“Agreed,” I said.
“Then we are all friends once more,” the Tyrant of Helike said. “And I believe there was some talk of crowns. Shall you have them sent for, Catherine?”
“There’s no need,” I said. “Ivah?”
The illusory curtain of shadows went down, and seven princes and princesses of Procer were revealed to be standing wide-eyed a mere twenty feet to our side. They had, after all, heard the entire conversation from start to finish.