“Peace is the killer of empire, for when strength is not spent outwards it is instead spent within.”
– Ghislaine of Creusens, twelfth First Princess of Procer
I couldn’t ever remember being afraid of the dark, even as a child. Of what might be lurking in it, sure, but the dark itself? No. Long before I’d acquired patrons whose dominion was night, I’d liked a little shade. The fights at the Pit had often taken place late – even after lining the pockets of the city guard, Booker had been warned to keep her business out of sight – and summer after sundown was where the coin had been best at the Rat’s Nest. Legionary leave did not change no matter the season, but come summer a lot of dockworkers earned a little more coin by fishing in the Silver Lake and a lot of that coin ended up spent on cheap ale. Which was, to my remembrance, the only kind the Rat’s Nest ever stocked. I wondered what Harrion now… I frowned at the drift of thoughts, unsure how it’d started or where it was headed. Did it even matter? Oh, I was standing surrounded by thick and cloying darkness. And it was soothing, serene. It would have been so pleasant to just… float away, leaning into dreamlike thought. Snow, tears and barren laughter, I suddenly remembered. I’d laid down to die, once and the world had refused to take me.
There would be no takebacks.
“More fruitful than a direct assault would have been,” I acknowledged out loud.
I struck at the ground with my staff, and the dark rippled out. Like a stone tossed into a pond, my will wrinkled the fabric of this half-world outwards in a wave. The span of what surrounded me was endless, I thought, and my act had been little more than a shout echoing in a gargantuan cavern.
“Is that to be your trick?” I asked the dark. “Obscuring the path? It won’t work.”
I cocked my head to the side and pricked my ear. The utter silence of this place was broken only by my own breath, which in this strange stillness seemed almost crassly loud. I was afraid, for a moment, that it would drown out what I was waiting for – but it was an empty worry, more born out of nerves at the calibre of my opponent than grounded thinking. My deliverance came in call harsh and hoarse, a distant cawing. I followed Komena’s echoing caw, and limped forward into the dark. The Youngest Night left as swiftly as she’d appeared, for we’d agreed that she should avoid the Dead King as much as we could afford to. Neshamah would not be as dangerous working through Masego as he would be in person, but Hierophant was plenty dangerous enough on his own – and not without experience in the matter of disciplining lesser gods. My hobbling steps forward felt purposeless, without a destination to behold, but I forced myself to keep moving. If I could not trust the Sisters to guide me in the dark, then who could I trust? And, after what could have been either half an hour or an agonizingly long day, the trust bore fruit. The darkness rippled, and not through my will: I’d made enough progress, it seemed, to warrant refinement of the trap.
I almost stumbled when I my good foot came across a step, but I caught myself on my staff. I felt around cautiously and found out it was the first of what seemed like sprawling stairs going up. If this realm had been the Tyrant’s to shape I would have taken this turn as a petty slight to make my life more difficult on account of my bad leg, but somehow I suspected the Dead King believed himself above that. I made my way up the stairs, observing from careful groping by foot and staff that at least they were broad and lightly sloped, and only halted after a long flight up when I felt this place grow… shallower. Frowning, I slowly raked my fingers through the air and let the fabric of this half-world thinner on my fingers. I exerted a pinprick of will and the small ripples than ensued had less to rippled through – and, more interestingly, they revealed some sort of veil in front of me. The way, as always, had to be forward. I stretched up my arm and tore down the veil, flinching at the wave of sound and light and colour that washed over me. I had, it seemed, exposed a doorway. I took a moment to compose myself, to let my eyes grow accustomed to the change in light, and only then tread through the threshold. Immediately, looking down I felt shaky for the height. I had come to tread over what looked like a gargantuan pane of glass, like a skylight put up through the sky.
Above me the sky was darkened by eclipse, a blinding ring of light with a hollow of night at the heart of it, and the clouds around us were a hazy penumbra of light and shadow. Below, though, thousands of feet below, three great armies were warily observing a truce. The League of Free Cities was milling uncertainly without a camp of its own, its large baggage train spread over the plans and guarded by knots of soldiers from half a dozen different city-states. The Army of Callow and the Legions-in-Exile had retreated back into their camp, though leaning down with a wince – Gods, the ground beneath me felt too slippery for this height – I noted that Juniper hard ordered the siege engines to be turned on the League and the drow to be recalled behind the palisades. It was the armies of the Grand Alliance, though, that found their situation most uncomfortable. Split in two by my own host and the forces of the Free Cities, even after the night’s losses they remained the largest of the armies on the field but also the worst-positioned. The calibre of officers on either side had told, I thought. Many of my commanders were young and fresh to their ranks, but they’d also been trained to lead a professional army. The Dominion’s war leaders were clever and brave, but also clearly outmatched.
“This has been most entertaining.”
My eyes flicked up, and I found I was no longer alone on this expanse of glass. I had expected to be looking upon the King of Death, but what I found instead was Neshamah. In the flesh, as he had been in the long ago days of the Kingdom of Sephirah he’d ruled and ruined. His appearance was from late in his reign, I thought, perhaps as late as that dark day where Keter’s Due had gotten its name. Scholar pale and thin, he was closely-shaved but his dark hair was messy. Full red lips quirked as I met his gaze. Just like I remembered this eyes were a shade of light brown that the glow of the eclipse made into molten amber. On his brow, the copper circlet that was the crown of a kingdom long dead sat high over one of those strange Sephiran tunics: one sleeve long and broad but the other short and tight, the patterned bronze and red cloth sweeping down to his ankles with a broad sash belting it around the waist. He had, I suddenly realized, spoken in Ashkaran – that dead tongue Masego and I had stolen learning of from Arcadian echoes, along with most of what I knew of the Hidden Horror.
“You know I don’t speak that,” I said. “Dead King, we meet again.”
“My apologies,” Neshamah replied in Lower Miezan, lips twitching. “We meet again, Black Queen.”
Staff rapping against the glass-like ground as I moved, I limped in a half-circle around him. I would not be allowed, I suspected, to leave this place before conversation was had. But that hardly meant I had to remain his captive audience, rapt and unmoving.
“Your manoeuvres below were worth the watching,” the Hidden Horror idly told me. “It was an inspired skein of treachery, and a victory deserved.”
“Night’s not over yet,” I said. “Though I have to say, you’re being a great deal more civil than I expected.”
Neshamah idly traipsed across the glass sky, the clouds above him making his eyes shift from gold to bronze like passing seasons set in an ageless face.
“I am a mannerly man, Catherine,” he lightly said. “And you have given me no reason to act otherwise.”
It almost felt like I was back in the Pit, for a moment, an opponent and I slowly circling as we took each other’s measure. Waiting for an opening, for a weakness. I remained painfully aware that I had a lot more of either than the Hidden Horror.
“No?” I mused. “Yet you called an immortal, when we first met, and well…”
I shrugged, raising an arm in a nonchalant display.
“I’m hardly that, these days,” I said.
The old monster’s face was like a mirror, I thought as I watched him for a reaction. There would be nothing there to see I had not placed there myself.
“Are you not?” he smiled. “High priestess and herald of an apotheosis you ushered into this world by your own hand – would something as base as age or disease take you, Catherine Foundling?”
“The years will kill me, one of these days,” I said. “If nothing else gets around to it first.”
“Ah,” the Dead King smiled. “But how many years would it take?”
I didn’t answer that, for the truth was that I wasn’t sure. My body now was no stronger than it’d been before I came into my Name, not without Night being woven into it anyway. Pain and exhaustion and so many things that’d felt… distant while I was Sovereign of Moonless Nights had been returned to me in full, but I had not taken sick since being proclaimed First Under the Night. As for age, though? It hadn’t been long enough for me to be sure of whether or not my aging had resumed in earnest. It didn’t feel the same way as it had under my Name, when I’d still grown but there had been something contrived about it – like I was matching a vision, not following nature’s writ. And it was absolutely nothing like it’d been after Second Liesse, where I had been frozen and fixed unto myself. My blood was still red, and had not become gray nor dark, so it might be that I did not share the stretched lifespan of the Mighty who partook in Night. On the other hand, I had come into the priesthood of the Sisters after the devouring of Winter: it was unprecedented grounds we were treading.
“Priesthood is not godhood,” I said. “That path you claimed I would walk, I set aside. You are not all-knowing, Dead King.”
“Do you believe the Intercessor’s strength lies in martial might?” he amusedly asked. “Or mine? You traded a power that shackled you for one whose burden and perils others will bear in your stead, while binding them to you in purpose. Winter’s theft earned you regard, however accidental its execution, but it is your work in the Everdark that suggests you could in time be a peer.”
“Making peace with the dwarves and wheedling an army out of those unruly sisters in the bargain,” he said, tone approving. “You traded that ill-fitting mantle for more than fair price. One of these days we will have to trade secrets, Black Queen. I rather wonder what you traded the Kingdom Under for a stay of invasion.”
My heart skipped a beat. Was he implying I’d made actual peace between the dwarves and the drow? Or rather, was he implying that the Firstborn still held the old Everdark? I hadn’t, though, the overwhelming majority of the drow was marching in exodus towards his own northern borders. Did he not know? It could be a trick, I thought. I only have the smallest slivers of Sve Noc with me, I thought. The rest is with their people. That would allow them to move unseen to most sorcerous means, and it was true that with his armies investing the Principate the Hidden Horror’s attentions might currently be elsewhere. Unless he was lying to me, I thought. But if he wasn’t…
“Agree to disagree,” I warily said.
Anything more elaborate than trite vagueness might get me seen through, given who I was dealing with. I’d rather seem a little slow than tip my hand if he truly didn’t know about the exodus.
“In at least one instance we do agree,” the Hidden Horror said, “The night isn’t over yet, Black Queen.”
Looking into those patient golden eyes I almost shivered. He was speaking of more than the dawn Akua had held back for a few hours. Night was coming for Calernia, the kind that would be followed by no morning if it ever fell.
“Patience has never been my strong suit,” I spoke with false calm. “Even less so when it pertains to my Woe – one of which you’ve gotten your skeletal hands on.”
“It was not I who sought him,” Neshamah demurred. “And what could do I but answer, when my presence was so earnestly petitioned?”
“You’ve had your laugh,” I said. “And while you came close to breaking the armies below, the scheme was outed. There is no point in you lingering, Dead King. Leave him. Leave here. This is not the field where you want this contest to take place.”
“You demand of me what was willingly given,” the Dead King chided. “And offer nothing in return. What reason do I have to grant your wish, save that you wish it?”
“I have forged,” I said, “a band of five.”
“You have botched a band of five,” he replied, amused. “How many do you believe will still serve your purpose, when choices are to be made?”
“Enough,” I said. “I chose them knowingly. I demand nothing from you, and if it was a threat I’d offered I am not known for my subtlety in their speaking. I am stating that you have nothing left to find in this place save defeat, and not even the useful kind.”
“I suppose,” Neshamah mused, “that I should simply snap the Hierophant’s neck and retire, then.”
My fingers tightened around the ebony staff. I’d known going in that he would try that angle. Whether or not he could actually do that was in doubt, but I had a parry anyway. So long as the Grey Pilgrim lived to the end of this, so would Masego. I’d not forgotten the sight of the Peregrine wielding resurrection with but a word at the Battle of the Camps, unmaking the death I’d snatched from my clash against the other heroes. I almost forced a smile, but that would have been a mistake. No, let him see how the prospect of my friend being snuffed out like a candle grieved me. Let him believe I was willing to fight him anyway.
“If that is what it takes,” I roughly said. “Gods forgive me, if that’s what it takes. Too many lives are on the line.”
“Ah,” he smiled. “There we are. One more mooring, snapping for the tide. How many would be needed, before you truly took the plunge?”
Nonchalantly, he waved a hand.
“A conversation for another day,” he said. “We have nothing but time. Let us speak, instead, of lives.”
“Your plan has been outed,” I said.
“One plan,” he said. “One winter. One year. And how many deaths will it have cost you, even should prove the victor here?”
“You speak as if you were the invaded and not the invader,” I said.
“You speak as one who sought to bargain with me,” he mildly said. “For one such invasion.”
I’d fully intended to betray him when offering that pact, though he’d known that from the start. Still, I almost winced. It was an incomplete truth, but still a damning one. I wish I could say that I’d not understood the scope of what I threatened to unleash then, and I supposed I hadn’t. But I’d suspected, even back then, that it would be a horror unlike any other. I’d been willing to bargain with the King of Death to keep the Grand Alliance at bay, and that I’d been outmanoeuvered by Malicia in the attempt was the sole reason I wasn’t my signature on the treaty that let’s the monster out of its lair. And the truth was, looking down at the fragile truce below me, that I still felt I’d been right. Now that there was a greater threat for all to behold, all the petty games of power and story that’d condemned my home to be either a ruin or pack of tributaries had gone by the wayside. Oh, there were still other considerations but it was telling that while I was just as much the Arch-heretic of the East as last year suddenly everyone was willing to cut compromises and deals with me. It was the breathing room I’d needed, an opportunity I would never have had otherwise. If I’d known before leaving Keter that it would all work, even with these horrid costs, would I still have done it?
It was more damning than anything I’d done that I wasn’t sure what the answer was.
“No such bargain was made,” I said. “I understood what would come of it, if too late, and slew the one who made it. At least one time too few, but how many people can claim to have killed Dread Empress Malicia twice?”
I was not a fool, so I would not admit to such an ugly truth when the Dead King might be displaying this conversation for anyone to see and hear. With the way a grin flickered across his face, gone in the heartbeat it took for his eyes to pass from gold to bronze, I suspected I’d just neatly sidestepped exactly such a trap.
“We were speaking of lives, I believe,” Neshamah said, circling me as I circled him.
His footsteps were a whisper on glass, a contrast to my trudging boots and sharply tapping staff.
“So we were,” I agreed.
“Rhenia has fallen, did you know?” he asked. “Hannoven months ago, but the Lycaonese hold nothing but the last fortress of Twilight’s Pass. After it the heartlands of Bremen will fall, and with them the armies that would defend Neustria. It will be the end of them.”
“They’ve held you back in Cleves and Hainaut,” I said.
“For now,” the Dead King said. “How long can that last? No, the simple truth is that the Principate was not prepared. And then that delightful Theodosian child struck at its allies and its back. Even if you bring Callow to their aid, you but delay the inevitable.”
“Would you say,” I cheerfully replied, “that you are invincible, and your victory is assured?”
“A bold attempt,” the Hidden Horror commented. “Though it makes a poor evasion. Do you disagree with my words, Black Queen?”
“That the Grand Alliance spent a horrendous amount of soldiers etching a bitter stalemate in Callow?” I said. “No. That its loss is written in the stars? Hardly.”
“Imagine what you might do with ten years,” Neshamah idly said. “If my armies withdrew, and truce was observed unfailingly. If you were allowed to truly muster this continent for war, instead of piecing together foes and friends in a broken coalition of mistrust.”
And there it was, I thought. The bargain to be made. And it was quite the prize, wasn’t it? Gods, what I could do with ten years and the promise of a war with Keter at the end. The League could be brought to heel and then into the fold, the Tower brought down on Malicia’s head and the Liesse Accords made to bind even her successor. A decade of recovery for my bruised kingdom who’d known constant war for years now, and once the recalcitrant to the east and the south of the continent were brought into line we’d have a solid, lasting peace – the First Prince would not countenance war where a single soldier might be lost that could instead be sent to hold back the Kingdom of the Dead when it returned. It got me everything I wanted and saved what had to be hundreds of thousands of lives. I’d warned the others that the Hidden Horror would approach us with tantalizing bargains, all the while thinking myself beyond that temptation. And I couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t make a pact with him. But Gods, what a prize it would be.
“Ten years,” he mused. “No, perhaps a decade is too little to move you. Would you like, Catherine Foundling, to purchase a century of truce?”
I flinched. That was a different prize, and perhaps even more tempting.
“If you are truly as a mortal as you insist, then the dead will not trouble Calernia in your lifetime,” Neshamah idly continued.
“And what would you want in exchange, Dead King?” I asked.
“A paltry concession,” he smiled. “I would require the keeping of what lands I have already seized.”
Which would be what? Rhenia, Hannoven, parts of Bremen and Hainaut. The Principate would be losing more than half the Lycaonese principalities, which was a chunk of territory, but to be blunt it was mostly mountains and fortresses assaulted by the ratling warband every spring. Hainaut was more of an issue, since it was a foothold for Keter on the southern shore of the Tomb, but what little word I’d had of that front implied the principality was on the verge of collapse anyway. I’d offered him rights to more than that when I first sought to make a bargain, though admittedly it’d been under false pretences. If the Dead King kept his word, though, the Principate would have a hundred years of peaceful northern border to prepare. If the First Prince agreed, and if it spared her own people annihilation in addition to all the rest I genuinely thought she might accept. And I’d back her, in the aftermath, to the fucking hilt. To expand the Grand Alliance, and then every step of the way.
The two of us, and the Pilgrim if he could be talked into it, we could get Calernia on proper war footing. With ten decades instead of one, the situation with Praes and the Free Cities could be properly seen to instead of hurried. The drow would need a home, but Masego had helpfully ripped a chunk out of Arcadia that could be put to use. This could work, I thought. Of course, it was possible Neshamah would just let the ratlings pass straight through the northern principalities he’d occupy and disrupt the peace without breaking his word. And there’d be benefits for him as well, I thought, or he would never have made the offer in the first place. I was about to bring up the Chain of Hunger when I realized what I was doing and closed my mouth. I’d been considering the practicalities, working out the details. About to try finding his angle. I had, in essence, already accepted the deal he’d offered.
Gods. I’d known what he was doing from the start, and still here we were.
“We will speak of it again, Black Queen,” the King of Death said. “At this peace conference you hve schemed.”
There was a deafening crack, and the glass floor beneath our feet began to splinter.
“You did not test me,” I said.
The Hidden Horror met my eyes, and for the first time there a flash of irritation in the golden gaze.
“Am I chattel, Black Queen, to be led to the altar with blinders on my eyes?” he said. “Am I to willingly embrace the ways of defeat simply because we are at odds? I think not.”
He leaned forward, face cast harshly.
“This game, as all games, I will play on my terms and only that,” the Dead King said. “I have learned what I wanted from this communion, and when I have taken what I wish from this ruin I will forsake it as well. Not a moment before, Catherine, and petty tricks will not force my hand.”
Neshamah flicked a wrist dismissively.
“Remember that, when we speak again. Youth only earns so many allowances.”
In rain of glass I fell through the floor and passed through air and darkness until I landed in another place. Light was peeking through cracks in a door before me, and I opened it. Above me dark clouds pulsed with rings of sorcery, but beneath my boots were the still-paved streets of the ruins of Liesse. My hands were trembling, I saw. I grit my teeth, and put the inarticulate dread that’d sunk in my guts aside. I still needed to find the others wherever they’d come out in the city.
The night was not yet over, even the monster of monsters agreed.