“Habitually treacherous enemies are accomplices to their own destruction.”
– King Henry Fairfax, the Landless
I breathed in.
Fear drifted into my lungs along with the rotten scent in the air, the poisonous odour of thousands of hellspawn and one of the oldest beasts of the Chain of Hunger. Death, decay and a fight that would have been hard business even with an army at my back. Gods, but it’d been a long night and the dawn of it was not yet in sight. It’d been one thing to stare down armies when I’d been Named, when I’d been in the deepest throes of Winter, but now I was painfully aware this could all end as simply as my throat being opened by some lucky devil. The knowing of that almost numbed my limbs, when it sunk it so suddenly: I could die, in these few coming heartbeats. I could have died at any time on the way here, and even if we survived the closing jaws of this trap I might still die before the night was over. It was an arresting though, one that had my palms prickling.
I breathed out.
Fear is an old friend, I thought. Fear was the pain in my leg, the whispering tune of mistake and mortality and needing to always do better lest if all fall apart. How could it cow me, when I leant on it like a pilgrim’s staff? I let that tenet straighten my back and took a look at my opposition. Devils, alas, in the thousands. Walin-falme and akalibsa, as we had fought before, but this was a disparate horde and there seemed no end to the assortment. It made gauging numbers difficult, given the wild variation of shape and size in the swarming throng, but it could be no less than two thousand. We moved, from there, to threats in the singular. The undead Horned Lord known as the Skein was nesting among the ruins of the courtyard and attending hall, its darkly furred strangely humanoid body folded inwards as if it were a beast at rest. Great antlers of bone jutted from the top of its head, set above golden eyes made even more vivid by the deep red gouges beneath them. It was a creature gifted with foresight, near impossible to damage and wielding at least one aspect I knew to be capable of unmaking its mistakes – Spool, it had called it in Keter. At its feet stood two silhouettes, veiled to me until a sliver of Night saw to that mundane frailty.
I breathed in.
Yet more trouble, and my fingers harshly coiled. My predictions had come up short in two different ways and quite visibly so, for I now looked upon two men: one whose frayed tabard bore the twin bells of House Fairfax, the other whose pale green eyes watched all unfolding with open interest. The man who had once been the Good King Edward Fairfax, Seventh of His Name, bore old and intricate plate over which a tabard in the gold and blue of the royal line of Callow hung. He wore no helm, laying bare the face of a man in his late forties with sparse white hair and the eternal beginnings of a beard, and in his hand he held a longsword for which there seemed to be no sheath. To his side, the soul of Amadeus of the Green Stretch had been put in slender silvery stocks, his hands too far kept to reach the gag that had been put over his mouth. My teacher looked much like his physical body did, though there were dark rings around his eyes and a sort of haggard look to him I found deeply unsettling. Black had always been near obsessively neat in his grooming, but his soul laid bare was in disarray. That boded ill, though at least the sharpness in his gaze had not been dulled. A bag had been absent-mindedly tossed between the two of them, one I had with my own hand filled with crowns. That left only…
I breathed out.
Kairos Theodosian, Tyrant of Helike, sat draped over the gaudy throne his gargoyles were keeping aloft unevenly. Though he’d quite brazenly betrayed us, the odd-eyed villain had yet to bother with foibles such as armour or a blade. No that he needed them, with a flock of enchanted gargoyles obeying his every whim and a treasure trove of lethal artefacts at his disposal – to which, he’d added the casting rod of the Rogue Sorcerer, which he was currently toying with as he grinned a pearly white grin. This was all of it, I thought. Our enemy, against which stood three: the Rogue Sorcerer, roughed up and stripped of tools, the now twice-winded Saint of Swords and myself. This was not a fight we would win with swords, I thought, given the disparity in strength there. The best that could be hoped for was delay. We did, however, have one advantage over our foes. The foundations of their side were unsteady, while as long as there such a common enemy before us my own triumvirate would stand united. How can I take your strengths and turn them against you? Four heartbeats had passed, and as the fifth reached us Laurence de Montfort sighed. Not out of disappointment, I decided, or sadness. It was the same sigh I’d heard dockworkers in Laure make when some merchant had filled the hold with no eye to taking out the goods out and an hour-long job was going to end up taking twice as long. The Saint spat to the side, then rested her blade against her shoulder.
“That’s going to take a while,” she said, sounding irked.
“That’s mine, you loathsome turncoat,” the Rogue Sorcerer yelled at Kairos.
“I prefer to think of it as ours,” the Tyrant jauntily replied. “Although, if you truly want me to return it…”
So, the sharper was about to blow and the moment the three of us were separated by the horde then there would be no more planning. This was it, all I had to scheme.
“Saint, how long can you buy me?” I asked.
“You got a way to win?” the old woman casually asked.
“Then however long you need, Foundling,” the Saint of Swords told me with a hard smile.
I supposed she could be counted on to be a reliable whirlwind of destruction to anything she faced even when she was on my side, which was somewhat comforting.
“Keep them off me,” I said. “I’ll handle the Tyrant.”
“Figures you’d go for the cripple,” Laurence de Montfort said.
A helpful reminder that ‘on my side’ didn’t mean friendly or any less generally horrid, I noted. A heartbeat later Kairos got the casting rod he’d stolen working and streaks of flame that looked fluid as water shot out towards the Rogue Sorcerer, who took off running towards them. Godsdamnit, Roland. It didn’t matter if he could handle the sorcery being thrown at him, Kairos had hundreds of bloody gargoyles to throw at him and however good the hero’s set of mail it didn’t cover his face or throat or neck. I let the Night course through me and flicked my wrist, spinning a hooked chain that caught the wayward hero by the back of the coat and dragged him back forcefully. The Sorcerer had been about to reach the edge of demolished second story room we were still standing on, but the force I used in pulling him back had him half-tripping backwards. And also narrowly avoiding the knife-wielding gargoyles that popped right up from where they’d been hanging off the edge awaiting to scythe through Roland’s ankles, because because Kairos being a chatty jackass didn’t mean he wasn’t clever. The streaks of flame I left him to deal with as I advanced – he snarled something in a language I didn’t recognize, still tripping backwards, and some sort of swirling eddy of air caught them in a spin until the fires gutted out – and dismissed the chains. The gargoyles that’d come over the top milled uncertainly, knives extended into nothing, and did not even manage to chatter before I’d sent twin needles of Night through their torsos. They blew a moment later, and I met Kairos Theodosian’s uneven eyes as I came to stand by the edge of the drop.
“So,” I said, beginning to reach for my pipe, “how firmly rooted would you say your current allegiances are?”
It was theatrics, not directly asking what it was the Dead King had offered, just like reaching for a smoke in the middle of battlefield. I could not show weakness in the face of the Tyrant of Helike, lest he decide we were spent and that the Dead King’s victory was assured. Calm, control and even a smidgen of nonchalance. Anything less and I would not have gotten that keen glint in his good eye, the one that delighted in there still being a game afoot. For though Kairos Theodosian enjoyed a good bout of treachery, he would not commit to it without purpose and would never climb into a sinking ship. In that sense, I understood him in a way that few people could: like me, he had reached his current heights climbing over a tottering pile of victories. Like me, he knew it only took one hard defeat for it to all come tumbling down on his head.
“We are close as kin, our trust boundless and fondness without peer,” Kairos soulfully said.
“Kill them,” the Skein snarled, head suddenly rising up. “Kill them all.”
I passed my palm over the head of my pipe, allowing a flicker of black flame to light it before pulling at the wakeleaf unhurriedly. I sighed in pleasure, feeling the Tyrant’s gaze unwavering on me.
“Shouldn’t you see to that?” Kairos amusedly asked, moving his head towards the courtyard.
Devils, Revenant, the closest thing I’d ever have to a father. A fight I could not win. Calm, control, never miss a beat.
“That’s what heroes are for,” I said.
I glimpsed, from the corner of my eye, the Saint of Swords landing in the midst of a sea of devils with her sword raised high. Screaming followed, none of it hers. So, Kairos hadn’t taken the unspoken invitation I’d given to imply he was open to further treachery. Which meant Neshamah had bought him with a prize that was significant enough the Tyrant didn’t believe I’d be able to match it. He wasn’t refusing the prospect of turning on the Hidden Horror, that wasn’t his way, but he was making it known the bidding had started high and would only get higher. So what did he offer you? I wondered. Given that Kairos’ ambitions were still bound, as far as I knew, to the peace conference he’d forced then it had to involve the survival of the armies below. Or at least his, I corrected, for Iserre was made into a tremendous butcher’s yard by the Tyrant’s hand then the only the threat of utter annihilation could possibly bring either Hasenbach or myself to negotiate with him ever again. Couldn’t be just being spared, though, because the Grand Alliance would be crippled by losing the armies below and so far Kairos had gone out of his way to avoid accomplishing that. I was missing something, because I could see no way in which the Dead King taking this realm benefitted the Tyrant. My fingers tightened, beneath cover of my sleeves. Was it that simple? When I’d irritated the Hidden Horror, he’d said something that now sounded anew in my mind: when I have taken what I wish from this ruin I will forsake it as well. If after he got what he’d come after Neshamah had no use for this place, what would he lose by promising it to the Tyrant of Helike?
I inhaled smoke and blew it outwards towards Kairos, whose nose wrinkled at the acrid smell. I couldn’t beat that offer. It was a way for the Tyrant to get everything he wanted, so long as the Hidden Horror got it too. Which was, I realized, my angle. Kairos Theodosian could not, as I’d thought earlier, afford a single hard defeat. And he had to be achingly aware here that he’d made a bargain with an entity his superior in every way, including perhaps even treachery, and that if he was crossed then he had no real way to strike back. Not alone, anyway, and when it came to opposing the Dead King then there was only one game in town.
“Well, he’s lying to at least one of us,” I pensively said. “Did you offer something worth more than a hundred-year truce?”
“You jest,” the Tyrant grinned.
A little too quickly, I thought.
“I’m deadly serious,” I said. “Kairos, I’ll be blunt here because if he’s actually sold this place to you instead of me I’ll need to cut my losses and break it. Which is going to be damned hard to do a messy besides, so I haven’t the time to dawdle. I got my win here in exchange for backing his envoy at the conference when the truce offer comes. One of us got peddled goods already sold, obviously, so which of us is it?”
“A truce,” the Tyrant skeptically said.
“Don’t be daft,” I frowned. “You know what it’s meant for. I’m willing to take the bet, because I’ll get this continent ready for war on Keter even if I have to kill and raise every ruler myself, but I’m hardly blind to the risks.”
A hundred years was a long time. Time to prepare, yes, but also for the continent to come apart. A truce meant no armies, not absence of schemes, and the most brutal blow the Hidden Horror might yet deal was to let that century come to pass and then do nothing. To let every willing sacrifice turn into bitter recrimination, to let his opponents devour themselves from the inside without sending a single soldier across the border. If I’d tried to weave a lie out of thin air, I thought, the Tyrant might just have sniffed me out. But this? If I were Kairos Theodosian, I’d believe it. Because I would afraid I’d been double-crossed, yes, but also because of who it was I was looking at. A woman who’d bargained with the King of Winter and Sve Noc, when the cliff’s edge was reached, and Hells hadn’t I headed to Keter to make another deal not so long ago? The Tyrant of Helike watched me with an inscrutable expression his face, and the simple fact that he was no longer grinning like a lunatic told me I’d drawn blood. I thought, for a moment, of feigning impatience and trying to hurry him along – an announcement it was time to cut my losses, cryptic action begun – but I stilled my tongue. On real stakes I would not gamble this way. And the more I actually lied, the more I risked this exceedingly more skilled liar catching me out.
“Speak to me, then, Black Queen,” the Tyrant coolly said.
Not victory, this, but it was an opening.
“I’m not going to bribe you,” I snorted. “You just knifed us, Kairos. You want back on this side? Make it worth my while to keep the heroes from putting your head on a pike. I’m willing to deal because I’d rather you sell me this place than the Dead King, but don’t mistake that for actual need.”
For a terrible moment, I thought I’d overplayed my hand. That the bluster had been too much, that I’d been seen through because I’d refused to bend my neck even if in that situation it would have been my words exact. Instead I was interrupted by a flock of steel-clad devils, whose leathery wings beat loud as they descended towards me with raised spears. My muscles began to tense and it was all I could do not to reach for the Night. But I had appearances to maintain, and Gods I was so close to flipping the Tyrant I could almost taste it. The walin-falme hit a hastily slapped down ward like birds hitting a window, as the Rogue Sorcerer came through for me. I did not even grin, instead pulling at my pipe as I continued matching gazes with Kairos. Look at how in control I am, I thought. Wouldn’t I have to be a lunatic, to stick to a bluff so stubbornly when the situation is this dire? Airily tossing aside the Sorcerer’s casting rod – Roland distantly screamed in a furious voice about it being irreplaceable and worth a fortune – and extending an open palm, Kairos was handed his jeweled sceptre by a chitter gargoyle and used it to thoughtfully scratch his chin.
“Are you lying?” the Tyrant of Helike asked, cocking his head to the side.
I grinned, all teeth and malice.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Am I?”
A heartbeat passed, both stares unflinching.
“I think, Catherine,” Kairos Theodosian fondly said, “that you are lying through your teeth. But I still can’t tell, and so it seems were are still allies.”
Calmly I inhaled a mouthful of wakeleaf, and waited for the – there it is, I thought as the Skein’s hulking shape obscured the sky, rising behind the Tyrant and myself. The stench of it was horrid, though spitting out the smoke in front of my face took the edge off of it.
“Spool,” the Skein snarled.
And just like that/
/the Tyrant of Helike sneered.
“Fate is a tug of war, you raggedy old thing,” Kairos Theodosian said, and there was something sharp in his tone I’d never heard there before. “Do you think the wishes of the conquered matter more than those of contenders?”
“You die laughing,” the Skein hissed. “Or. You flee. Or. I am broken. Or. Everything burns. Or. Or. Why does it keep changing?”
“There’s more than one reason I picked him out for this band,” I amusedly said.
Was Kairos Theodosian a treacherous, unpredictable and murderous madman? Yes. Obviously. But against a particular kind of foe – say, an oracle who’d spin our of new thread of prediction from his every whim as the lunatic committed to them with ironclad will unhesitatingly – that had its uses.
“Spool,” the Skein snarled again and/
/“Do you think yourself above even the Gods, you presumptuous relic?” the Tyrant of Helike snarled back. “Do you think you can erase me like chalk on a slate? Learn your place.”
“Shouldn’t have done that,” I told the Revenant, pulling at my pipe.
“It will kill you,” the Skein cackled, its laughter like rumbling thunder. “Wish, wish into the grave. How many years can you spend?”
I winced. I’d fought enough Named to recognize when one’s bottom line was being crossed, and the continued attempts of the Revenant to use its aspect were definitely whipping Kairos into a proper frenzy. I could only guess at what was the cause of it, but the rage in that crimson bloodshot eye and the wildly shaking hands struck me as too raw to be a lie.
“I will confess,” the Tyrant of Helike said, tone eerily calm, “that you have rather offended me. You may attend to other matters, Black Queen. This one will be settled by my hand.”
“And now,” I said, “for my next trick.”
Because if I were an undead sorcerer with my personal Hell and forever ahead of me, if I’d taken to snatching Named and making them into my vanguard in Creation – which would mean, most of the time, that they’d be far from me and exposed to all sorts of aspects and sorceries – then there was one thing I’d make sure of. The Skein went still as the corpse it was, and pale gold eyes shone with something eldritch.
“You have been fooled, Tyrant,” the Dead King spoke through his puppet. “I struck no bargain with the Black Queen.”
And there it was, I thought. The gap between the man the Hidden Horror had once been and the man the Tyrant was. Neshamah had been a brilliant, sharp-sighted sorcerer whose apotheosis had been achieved over decades of careful planning with nary an opening left open. Even in undeath the heart of that man remained, made stiffer perhaps but undiminished. And the thing was, he had that same flaw that my father sometimes did. Gods, clever as they were they forgot anyone else could see the world in a different way they did. Forgot to see, I supposed, or simply didn’t care. Why would they? Victors that they were, they’d gotten their way so often. But Kairos Theodosian, now that was a man of a different breed. He was Tyrant of Helike not because he wanted to change the world, to shift borders on a map or leave behind a name that would ring through the ages. Kairos, he was villain. He was a partisan of Below, not a warlord or a theft of godhead, and his faith was the same ruinous red thing that had rent the Wasteland asunder for more than a millennium. And so the Dead King, brilliant monster that he was, had just made his first blunder of the night. Because the moment he’d made an effort to not be at odds with the Tyrant of Helike, he’d made every lie I’d spoken irrelevant. Because, in the eyes of the Tyrant, he would only be worth appeasing if he was a threat. And given the choice between successfully crossing me or the Dead King? Well, one of them was worthier prayer than the other.
I met the Dead King’s eyes.
“Mistake,” I said in Ashkaran.
“Rend,” Kairos Theodosian laughed, and all Hells broke loose.