“It is the nature of gambling that the scope of one’s victory is proportionate to the scope of all others’ defeat. So is it with empire, and near as subordinate to chance.”
– Dread Emperor Venal
I studied the Rogue Sorcerer closely as he hobbled forward, not out of any great affection for the man but because the state of him was a piece of information that’d allow me to discern the nature of Kairos Theodosian’s game. When the Tyrant had turned on us, had he gone for the kill or for a more amicable form of betrayal? The Sorcerer’s face was a canvas of bruises and scratches and he looked like he’d been sent tumbling down through a thicket of brambles, but aside from that and a wounded knee I could see no great damage inflicted. While the Pilgrim saw to the other hero’s pain, I considered the private conversation that Kairos Theodosian and myself were having through the particulars of the Rogue Sorcerer’s escape and return. If he’d wanted to break with me permanently the Tyrant would have killed the man – or at least made a serious attempt to do so, which did not seem to have been the case – to lure out the Pilgrim’s lone aspect-resurrection. He’d taken the crowns, that much was obvious, and likely whatever artefacts the Sorcerer had been carrying on him. That appeared to include the casting rod, and likely Black’s soul as well. Kairos had deigned to use the opening I’d left for him and done it without burning bridges with myself or with the heroes in a way that could not be overcome down the line. Which meant he was still open to turning on the Dead King in our favour, if we seemed the horse to back at the latest hour. Assuming he didn’t turn on both us and the Hidden Horror in favour of some still-inscrutable aim, which given who we were dealing with was very much possible.
“- he had me thrown off a balcony by gargoyles after declaring that was the last we’d see of me,” the Rogue Sorcerer said, snatching back my attention.
Really, Kairos? That’s a little on the nose even for you, I thought. If the Tyrant was going around throwing heroes off of cliffs then he definitely wasn’t trying to kill anyone. I paused for half a beat and looked the absurdity of what I’d just thought in the eye, though being absurd made it no less true. I tapped the bottom of my staff against a broken pavement, claiming the attention of the returning hero.
“He took the crowns,” I said.
“He did,” the Sorcerer agreed. “And-”
The man flicked a hesitant glance at the Pilgrim, who nodded in allowance.
“- my teacher’s soul,” I finished instead. “That cat’s been out of the bag for some time, wizardling.”
He watched me warily at that, as if the revelation that he’d been going around with my father in a bottle would be enough to have me strike at him out of nowhere. While even these days I relied on being underestimated to get away with gambits, on occasion it was irritating to be taken as this kind of second-stringer. I wasn’t some cackling Dread Emperor from the Age of Wonders, Sisters bless, and even if I’d actually intended on betraying these people I wouldn’t have been an amateur about it.
“He intends to coerce you with it, I suspect,” the Grey Pilgrim solemnly said.
There was sympathy in his gaze I did not particularly deserve or want. Not from the man who’d ordered Black’s soul cut out and bottled for his own manner of coercion. I might hold Tariq in higher esteem than Kairos, but I’d say this for the Tyrant of Helike: when he slid the knife, he did not pretend it was anything but that.
“He’ll try,” I simply said. “Sorcerer, did he speak anything else before throwing you off the cliff?”
“Balcony,” the man corrected.
“She’s right,” the Saint grunted, almost amusedly. “If a villain tossed you down, it’s a cliff in every way that matters.”
I suspected the old killer had been thrown off, or leapt down, more than a few in her time. The dark-haired man cocked a brow but did not argue.
“He loudly lamented your lack of foresight,” he told me. “In some detail.”
So, Kairos had left a message for me. Kind of him.
“In what way specifically?” I asked.
The Grey Pilgrim grimly smiled.
“You think he revealed his plan by monologue,” the old man said.
I think that if he took the bait I offered, it was for a reason, I thought. He just gave me a way to get everything I want the way I want it. He won’t have done that without a reason, and if we’re to continue negotiating through you then he needs to have his counterstroke made known. If the Pilgrim wanted to take that as Kairos making a Name-induced mistake instead of moving through something that had the shape of one, then that was his miscalculation to make. I dipped my head the slightest bit, then silently invited the Sorcerer to keep talking.
“He castigated your ignorance of precedent, Black Queen,” the hero almost apologetically said. “And insisted there are reasons people don’t ‘go around pulling swords from stones, if you’ll forgive my language’.”
It took me an embarrassing four heartbeats before I put the pieces together. Shit. Shit, that heinous little bastard. There was no way he should be able to know about – no, Hells, he’d been talking with Neshamah for months now hadn’t he? And Neshamah could pick Masego’s brains whenever he wanted. It was quite possible that the Tyrant knew when I’d pulled the sword from the stone at First Liesse I’d done so while presenting myself as the heiress to the tacit king of Callow of two decades: Amadeus of the Green Stretch. That was a crown, one I’d not considered until now and one I could not afford to lose. If my teacher was inflicted the curse that was losing that ‘right to rule’, who was going to unfuck Praes into a halfway reasonable nation for me? I’d come to trust Akua to an extent I would have thought inconceivable a few years ago, but I couldn’t trust her anywhere near the Tower: it’d be like locking a drunk who’d just begun weaning into a wine cellar. And Malicia, well, regardless of the political considerations that prevented allowing her to remain in that seat if the Empress had wanted this to end in any way but one of our heads on a pike then she shouldn’t have started assassinating my friends. I needed Black as, if not Dread Emperor, then someone in a position to resolve the mess in the Wasteland before the cauldron tipped over and fucked us all over while we were stuck looking north.
“He’s threatening to have Black as the one, to cut the grass under our feet and give Larat his due,” I said. “Possibly in my name, possibly on his own – hard to tell at this point. I shouldn’t need to tell you that’ll be a disaster.”
“You mean the most desirable way for this to end, save you chucking down your own crown,” the Saint of Swords bluntly countered.
“Laurence,” the Pilgrim chided.
He did not, I noted, disagree. Of course he wouldn’t. Tariq had considered Black enough of a threat that he’d been willing to unleash a plague to corner him, even if I was right and he’d gone after my teacher with the deeper intent of baiting a pattern of three between us. The Pilgrim wasn’t the kind of man to resort to those means unless he thought the enemy dangerous enough to require it. The heroes knew my teacher as the Dread Empire’s red right hand, the monster who’d torched the heartlands of Procer to starve an empire into collapse when he’d judged he could not defeat its armies on the field. And he was that, it must be said. But he was also a great deal more: the architect of the Reforms, the lid that’d been put on the worst impulses of the Wasteland for nigh forty years and a stubborn madman who’d fought a bitter, thankless struggle to end the cycle of death that’d bound Callow and Praes for millennia.
If I was to have peace in the east in my lifetime, and the kind of peace that would last beyond my lifetime, then Black was one of the keystones for it. As Warlock had once told me, for all that the man saw himself as a replaceable cog in a great machinery he was in truth the beating heart of the dream for a different Empire. If I lost him, there simply wasn’t anyone else who’d do his work anywhere a well, as comprehensively or as reliably – more than just personal ability, there were his personal relationships to consider. Who else had his pull on the Legions, on the Clans and the Tribes? Had Kairos glimpsed that, I wondered? If so, he was even more dangerous than I’d suspected for he was perhaps the first of my foes to truly understand the world I wanted to make. Or it might be simpler, I thought, a scheme as plain as it was effective: I would want to preserve my father, the heroes would want to cripple him. Conflict would ensue, sure as dawn rising.
“Theodosian can’t be allowed to get his way,” the Rogue Sorcerer spoke up. “Especially if what the Black Queen suggests is true.”
“You walked through the same empty towns as us, boy,” the Saint harshly said. “The further the man who wrought that is from a crown-“
“We do not want the man who schemed that to shape this realm,” the Sorcerer hissed back. “That is the last crown’s purpose, Gods be merciful, and we’d trade what – a petty blow at a woman trying to be our ally for what could be bloody disaster?”
Huh. I’d genuinely not seen that coming.
“Roland,” the Pilgrim intervened, tone calming. “No such decision was made. There is no need for backbiting among us.”
“There is, Peregrine,” the hero furiously said. “I’ve kept my tongue through low ebbs – and there have been a great many of those, since this wretched crusade began – but what sort of black madness is it that the only one here who has attempted to save lives over the last months is the damned Black Queen?”
I wondered what it said about me, that instead of being touched by that I was immediately suspicious. If you sat in a high seat long enough, I thought, trust sickened and died until all that was left was the strange kin to it that Malicia has famously coined: trusting people to act according to their nature. And I did not know enough of the nature of the Rogue Sorcerer – Roland, to hear Tariq put a name to him– to trust anything coming from his lips. Gods, though, even if he might be playing me it was nice to hear someone say it.
“She’s playing you, Sorcerer,” the Saint told him.
The echo, I thought, was ironic in all the worst ways. My father would have laughed of it until tears came and muscles ached.
“I don’t care, Saint,” the hero said. “This is… this is beneath us. All of us. That even in the face of doom we take each other as foes instead of a having a single forthright conversation to protect the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who put their lives in our hands.”
“There is a conversation to be had,” the Pilgrim tiredly conceded. “Yet now is not the time for it.”
“Respectfully, Peregrine, I disagree,” the Rogue Sorcerer said.
Though his knee had been healed by the Pilgrim along his bruises, it must still have been tender by the way he was careful when turning towards me.
“You have a plan,” the dark-haired man said. “This has been evident since you cowed two armies into truce and stripped rule from a third of the Highest Assembly. What is it that you need done, Queen Catherine, and how can I help?”
And it might be, I thought, that he was honest. That the was speaking from a place of genuine disgust for the way cloak and dagger struggles were still being had even when, as he had said, hundreds of thousands of lives hung in the balance. If that was true, if the Rogue Sorcerer really was as appalled by it as the glimmer in his eyes said he was, then this was the first breath of the newborn Liesse Accords. An agreement, however implicit, that there were some monstrosities that even foes should and would band against. That a form of restraint could be enforced, by the fear of utter opposition from all others if nothing else. It was something I longed to hear, more than any praised or recognition of my bitter efforts to avoid bloodshed, and so damned as I was I distrusted it immediately. Because I’d seen him hobble back to us, leaning against the Saint in quit conversation. Because I knew near nothing of the man under that sweep of dark curls, and if I was trying to trick Catherine Foundling I would have done it just like this. Splitting with the others on root of principle, not for sympathy of the villain but contempt at the actions of my own side. That he’d been a little too castigating, a little too bitter, only made it all the more believable: I’d learned from High Lords that anything too smooth was likely to be false. It might be, I thought, that this was all play by the heroes to get a better glimpse the lay of my intentions.
Does it matter? I thought, taking a cold-eyed look at the practicalities of it. I was, in the end, surrendering little I would not have to reveal down the line. And if I was wrong, if this was an earnest tirade, then that early surrender was well worth the price of encouragement. I breathed out, slowly, and then slipped two fingers to my lip to whistle. The shrill cry sounded loud and far, followed by silence and veiled gazes.
“I need a company to tear through the Ducal Palace’s front door, loud and hard and drawing attention from the dagger,” I said. “Which will slip in through a hidden path, to get at the Hierophant directly and pry him awake from the Dead King’s influence.”
“I tread close to the palace,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “It’s a fortress of wards and enchantments. Brute force will flounder, but I have ways to finesse the locks.”
“Good,” I said, inclining my head. “I’ll be there, as the moment we’re in we’ll need to move on the Tyrant and I’ve some notion of how to deal with him.”
“This dagger you speak of,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “if you do not guide it through the hidden path, how will it know of it?”
“Who do you think told her about that to begin with?”
Saint’s blade had cleared the scabbard before the end of the first word and even the Peregrine shifted his footing to have an easier time slinging Light if it came to a fight – which seemed, if anything, to amuse Indrani all the more. To have come so soon after I whistled, she must have been shadowing us from even closer than I’d thought. Archer’s long leather coat whispered against the ground as she moved to lean against a half-broken pillar, hazelnut eyes bright in the gloom of this city she’d seen both breaking and broken. The way her fingers rested on the handle of her long knives was too casual to be a threat, but there was not a hint of fear in her bearing at the thought of tangling with any of the heroes.
“Archer,” the Pilgrim said, inclining his head in greeting. “How long have you been trailing us, I wonder?”
Indrani grinned, sharp and unpleasant.
“I’m just here to guide you poor lost souls through this nightmare of a city,” she said. “Nothing to read into.”
“Should I be appalled that even after all this you had yet another card up your sleeve?” the old man said, glancing at me. “How many more are left, Your Majesty?”
“One more, Tariq,” I said, lips quirking. “That’s the trick: always one more.”
“Spare me,” the Saint of Swords said. “Fine, if you need warm bodies for a dagger crew then I’ll bite.”
“You’ll be a lot more useful in the assault crew,” I politely replied. “The Pilgrim would be a better fit.”
“We don’t trust you not to cut our boy’s throat at first occasion, ‘cause you’re vicious old bat,” Indrani cheerfully translated. “You’re not going anywhere near him without Cat to keep an eye on you, get me?”
I glanced at the Pilgrim. We had, after all, struck a bargain. The reason for which he might hesitate to leave the Saint alone with me – she’d try to end me and run headlong into grounds I’d prepared to kill her – should be seen to now.
“I am sure young Archer will prove sufficient muscle for the pair of us,” Tariq agreeably said. “We both know, Laurence, that your talents are best suited to less subtle tasks.”
“Getting your way in all of it, are you?” the Saint darkly said, matching gaze.
“Wouldn’t have to, if your way wasn’t so godsawful,” I replied.
“You might be the single worst ally we’ve ever had,” Indrani told her, sounding kind of impressed. “And I’m counting secret Malicia in there, since at least she had panache when batting us around.”
“Secret Malicia doesn’t count, she was just impersonating an ally,” I said without missing a beat.
“So that’s the Woe,” the Saint said, eyes flicking between us and her lips quirked into a hard and unimpressed smile. “Murderers and sowers of ruin, but that’s all right because you’re clever and you’re droll. Like that’s not just a fig leaf on the obscenity of what you are.”
“Gods Above, Regicide,” the Sorcerer said, “how much time must we lose to incivility in the face of cataclysm?”
“You want civil tongue, boy?” she snorted. “Fine. Foundling, what has you so convinced that the dusty vagrant you just revealed can do a single damned thing to ‘wake’ the Hierophant? What is she going to do, put an arrow in him in a friendly way?”
Hardly that. There was a story between the two of them that was old and worn and could be put to purpose, but it would have been stripping bare something of Indrani in front of strangers that were still half foes. I saw no need to sate the curiosity of Laurence de Montfort at the expense of one of mine.
“There’s a method,” I flatly said. “You don’t need to-“
“There’s two people close enough to Masego to pull him back from the brink,” Archer interrupted me without hesitation, “and of the two I’m the one in love with him.”
Ah. Well. I kept a wary eye on the Saint, for if she laughed now I thought that Indrani might very well try to kill her. She was proud, my friend, and to have something so fragile mocked would sting all the more. Instead the old woman silently nodded, face shuttering closed.
“For the dagger to have chance at making it into the deeps without running into entrenched resistance, the assault crew will have to wreak the kind of havoc that simply can’t be ignored,” I said, passing over the discomfort with forced composure. “Sorcerer, you said you have a method to pass through wards?”
“I can bring them down,” the hero agreed.
“Then, given who it is that’s going to be making up this crew, I’d say the time for subtle has passed,” I frankly said. “Let’s smash through the front door and pick every fight there is to be picked.”
It would, as an additional boon, attract the Tyrant the way honey would flies. He’d never be able to let pass an opportunity to meddle in that kind of a brawl, not even if it was to his advantage, and he and I still had a conversation to conclude. I’d put out the crowns and the soul though the Sorcerer, and he’d claimed that. That was the seed of a story, Kairos betraying us and my recovering crown and father from his grasp when we fought. He’d offered the mordant rejoinder of taking them but making it clear he was ready to spend them all before I could reclaim anything. If he’d genuinely meant to go through with that, though, I wouldn’t have received a warning. Which meant he was, in his own way, inviting me to make a counteroffer when we next met. Which gave me until then to figure out what it was that the Dead King had offered him – besides the pleasure of betraying us – and beating that with an offer of my own.
“Now you’re talking my language, Black Queen,” the Saint of Swords said, crooked teeth bared. “Into the breach we go, blade high and let the dark cower at the coming it.”