“We fight not only our own wars but those of our forebears and our children, for we inherit the wounds of those before us and pass our own to those that follow. And so, fools that we are, we keep trying to fill one grave by digging another.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand
The damned rat had made a mess on the way out, though that’d turned out of some use: whatever blighted eastern sorcery kept the last stretch of the palace protected it’d been no match for a Horned Lord fleeing without much thought given to its surroundings. Its swinging tail and massive limbs had torn through walls and halls, baring what looked like a set of large private chambers – maybe the lodgings of whatever jackals had settled into this place after the Dukes of Liesse were chased out. Even eviscerated in such a way the palace was not defenceless: the first wave of wraiths to try charging through the opening had dispersed like smoke in the wind. So much, Laurence had thought, for the dead Callowans opening the way. Odds were it’d have to be the boy serving as the key to the locks again, and best he got to that sooner rather than later. It was pretty piece of theatrics the Black Queen had put together, snatching a dead king and appointing to the head of the host meant to meet the Hidden Horror’s last guard. Clever, and not without worth. But if the Saint of Swords knew anything it was that pretty stories came to swift ends, and when this one collapsed she had no intention of being caught out on the open where the devils could swarm them. Foundling must have shared at least some of her opinions, as she’d sent for the other members of this band of theirs.
Roland dragged himself up the mound of ruins looking half-dead, though without wounds. The Rogue was a better hand at avoiding blows than dealing them out, as far as Laurence was concerned, though it took all sorts to reach a journey’s end. Storming a villain’s fortress like this wasn’t really what a boy like the Rogue Sorcerer was meant for, anyway. That they’d yet to run into practitioners while pushing further in just dragged him further out of his depths, though the Saint suspected his particular talents would find sharp use at least once before dawn rose. He spoke a few words with Foundling in a quiet tone – her own was kind, Laurence noted, maybe asking about the state he was in – before coming to a discreet collapse against an upraised stone that could from a distance be taken for him simply leaning against it. Having pushed herself to the edge of what her body could take more often than the boy had seen winter pass, the Saint was not fooled in the slightest. He was on the edge of collapse and his pride must have the lion’s share of the toil of keeping him standing. Laurence approached, as they all waited for the Tyrant to join them.
“Saint,” Roland greeted her without opening his eyes. “Not too worn out?”
“Unlike you,” Laurence bluntly replied.
If Tariq had been there he might have been able to smooth away the rougher edges of that exhaustion with use of the Light, but Foundling had sent him to traipse around secret ways with her foremost assassin. It wasn’t the Adjutant, at least: word was when the Black Queen really wanted something dead it was the orc she sent out. But Laurence knew better than most the kind of lessons the Archer would have learned at the knee of the Lady of the Lake. It’d be a surprise if any of them didn’t involve a corpse in some way. That Tariq had simply accepted being split from the rest of them, where ambush from other forces sworn to Foundling might see him turned into a hostage, had riled her up more than a little. If they were dealing with some raving madman with more minions and powers than sense it’d be one thing to surrender one of their own into their custody – it was a reliable trick to get close enough to a Damned to ‘surrender’ yourself into stabbing distance. Foundling wouldn’t make mistakes that elementary, though, and she’d played them all for fools more than once tonight. It was one thing to bargain with one of Below’s servants, though Laurence still believed that dire mistake, but pretending arrangement was alliance could only be furthering that mistake.
“I have tonics,” the Sorcerer said. “I will not topple, if that is your worry.”
“Relying on potions is a good way to get killed,” Laurence said. “Trust your Choosing, not anything that can fit in a bottle.”
The boy’s eyes fluttered open, the orange rings around his pupils still slowly fading. Whose sorcery had it been, that he’d been spending in the fights? Hard to say. The Saint was no student of the arcane and Tariq had told her that Roland de Beaumarais’ wanderings had taken the boy far and wide: it could have been anyone’s, from anywhere. There were places on Calernia where even she had not found the road taking her.
“We have different approaches, Regicide,” he replied, almost defiantly.
Laurence’s jaw tightened. Even now, she was not sure of this was a long game of Tariq’s or if the boy had genuinely blundered into halfway trusting someone that’d spend him without a second thought. The Peregrine had an eye for detail and for the long view Laurence had never seen the likes of in all her days, so she would not put this past him. But she was uncertain of the boy was this skilled a liar. The truth might lay somewhere in the valley, she considered. A lie but spoken with real anger. There’d been too many defeats of late for a proud young Chosen like Roland not to feel their wisdom had failed. He was not, Laurence would admit, entirely wrong. It was never enough to be right: you also had to be victorious, or it didn’t mean a damned thing.
“Don’t be a mule,” she said. “Stay in the back save when your talents are needed. Foundling and the Tyrant can take the hits until we get to the pivot.”
Spreading around the hurt a bit ought to even things out, when the villains started considering sticking the knife and taking the while prize instead of keeping to the arrangement. Laurence wouldn’t draw first, not when Tariq had given his word. She trusted him too much for that, inconveniently sentimental as he could be. But neither would she stumble blind into the inevitable. And if he proved to be right? Her fingers clenched.
“Do we not have enough foes, that we must ever make more?” Roland tiredly asked her in Chantant.
“Just because she’s not fighting us,” Laurence gently said, “doesn’t mean she’s not our foe.”
Could be the bargain would hold for a few months, a few years. A decade, Gods forbid, though she would not put coin on that. But it would break. Foundling wanted to wiggle her way into Cordelia Hasenbach’s dreams of a Grand Alliance, that much had come clear, and given the way the ventures was on fire the Saint did not mind so much. If the Black Queen wanted to do them all a service and be taken by the blaze, fighting for the last scraps of decency she still clung to, then Laurence would keep her mouth shut. But Catherine Foundling could not have a hand in shaping the world that would come after the ashes settled, lest the old sicknesses carry through to the foundation that would be laid in the ruins of the old order.
“An alliance of victors, is it?” the Rogue quietly said.
He was speaking half of a saying old and dear to their people, though some claimed it was some ancient Merovins who’d first spoken it. An alliance of victors is like a hearth in summer. Useless, it meant, doomed to fail. For when the covenant of need passed, the nature of men ran its course instead.
“You’re young,” the Saint tiredly said. “So this seems like the sum of it to you. But there’s always an after, Roland.”
“Is it not this very manner of thinking, Saint, that saw us end up here in the first place?” he replied.
“I hope you can still believe that, in a decade,” Laurence de Montfort honestly said. “That we will live in a world kind enough to tolerate that belief.”
But I won’t count on it, she thought. If she did not keep a watch, who would?
“My beloved comrades, I have returned!”
The Tyrant of Helike landed atop the mound with a sick crunch, the ugly enchanted sculptures carrying his throne everywhere being ground into the stone by the abrupt landing. They chittered loudly in protest, though another gargoyle wearing the tailored robes of a Stygian magister went around swatting them into silence with a stick. Gods, that nasty little cripple was just sick in the head.
“Good,” the Black Queen said, turning to address them. “We’ll be breaching the last holdout, now. Sorcerer, you and I will take the tip of the spear. I have a feel for the weakness in things, and you’ve…”
“… that thing that you do,” the dark-eyed woman said, sounding amused.
“Understood,” Roland said, discretely wiping the corner of his mouth.
Not quite thoroughly enough for Laurence not to notice the hint of green broth on his lip. So he’d drunk something, then, and ignored her advice. She’d have to keep an eye on the fool, lest he get himself killed overreaching his grasp.
“Is no one going to address the delicious ironic army of the dead currently warring on the Dead King’s host of devils?” Kairos Theodosian said.
“You’ve summed it up,” Foundling drily replied. “Consider it addressed.”
The boy’s red eye was shining wet, like it’d been dipped in blood, and his smile came too easy. Laurence knew that to be the sight of a sharpened knife being bared, and from the way the Black Queen’s own eyes sharpened so did she.
“I was referring to the way that the Good King seems to be falling apart at a quickening rate,” the Tyrant said. “Presumably, his army would follow him into slumber.”
She’d been right then, Laurence grimly thought. Like an arrow sent flying, that ploy of Foundling’s would hit the mark but then turn into little more than dead wood.
“He’ll hold long enough,” the Black Queen said. “Yet we should not linger. Sorcerer, with me. The two of you should keep an eye out for the Skein – somehow I doubt its leaping down a cliff has rid us of it for good.”
The Saint did not reply, for it would have been too much like taking an order, but she did not disagree. It was decent enough sense, for Roland had his tricks but it was Foundling’s priesthood of the wicked that had wraiths parting for them as they advanced on the last bastion. The two took the lead when the arrived at the feet of the walls the Skein’s retreat had ripped open, climbing up and beginning to paw at the wards. Laurence remained below, as much to keep an eye on the Tyrant as to keep watch for the Horned Lord’s return.
“Did you notice,” Kairos Theodosian said, “that she now seems to have no issue spiriting away the sack of crowns where it cannot be gotten at. Strange, that earlier it had to be carried.”
Of course she had. And the way that the Tyrant’s passing defection – one without consequence, as well – had led to sole change that now both the crowns and the Carrion Lord were in the hands of the Black Queen. How long had she been scheming that, the Saint wondered? Still, the Tyrant was being condescendingly obvious about sowing seeds of enmity. He must think her simple, the little prick.
“Has anyone ever hit you in the mouth hard enough to break teeth?” Laurence asked.
“Alas, my friend, I am but a slave to my nature,” the Tyrant grinned. “So are you, of course. It is why we are being played so masterfully by our delightful leader.”
No leader of mine, the Saint thought, though she knew better than to give the villain what he wanted and voice any of her thoughts.
“I expect I’ll get to kill you before spring arrives,” the Saint casually said. “I’ll admit, you wretched little shit, that I’ll enjoy cutting you down a great deal.”
“Interesting,” the boy mused. “So what is it that the Dead King offered you, to make you so angry?”
“Your head on a pike,” Laurence said, leaning forward to look the boy in the eye. “Insulting, that he’d try to rob me of the pleasure of chopping it off myself.”
“You’re taking all the fun out of this,” the villain complained.
The Saint’s fingers clenched. Too easy. That’d been too easy. She’d made a misstep somewhere, and he was now letting himself ‘lose’ this conversation because he’d already gotten what he wanted. Laurence studied the Tyrant, who studied her in turn with a lazy smile. Should she kill him immediately, just in case? That was where her instincts lay. Scheming villains were like termites, the longer they were left to dig the greater the damages. If she turned on a member of their band of five, loosely as that band was aligned, then there might be consequences greater than physical hostilities. On the other hand, were the consequences greater threat than whatever the boy had planned? Could be feint, she noted, him baiting her so she’d strike and he could finagle the others cutting her loose. She couldn’t be sure Foundling wouldn’t put keeping a close eye on Theodosian above whatever use she might get out of Laurence’s sword arm this close to the finish. On the other hand, the Saint thought, it was too late for the Tyrant to sell them out to the Dead King. Which meant if he was going to screw someone, it was likely to be the one getting closest to their chosen victory. That, reluctant as Laurence was to admit it, was Catherine Foundling.
No, it was not worth making herself the truce-breaker of this story for such an ugly prize. The Saint of Swords would wait, hand on her pommel, and judge when the time came. Above them the first ward broke and the Black Queen yelled for them to catch up.
The Saint and the Tyrant had not moved from their matching stares, but it was Laurence who looked away first.
“I had been,” the Grey Pilgrim slowly said, “under the impression your queen disapproved of necromancy.”
Indrani glanced at the old man, putting away the bit that he’d apparently been able to sniff out the nature of the trouble above them through several layers of stones and wards without any difficulty. Might have been the angels, though, she corrected herself. Vivienne had been right, when she’d first said more than a year back that putting a finger on what the Pilgrim could and couldn’t do was complicated even for a Named. His patron Choir made it hard to tell where his own sensory abilities began and the secrets they no doubt shared ended.
“She’d not going to put a few corpse-raisers at the back of a battlefield, no,” Archer snorted. “But she doesn’t ride live horses, Pilgrim. Callowan she might be, but don’t forget who taught her.”
The Praesi fondness for the art was as well-known as their Callowan foes’ strong distaste for it, and both likely sprung form the same source. Indrani had thought for a while that Cat wouldn’t mind an undead legion at all, if having one wouldn’t make half her living soldiers desert without batting an eye. Mind you, Duchess Kegan’s people had been stacking up dead souls for a long time before Akua got around to snatching the whole pile so when it came down to it even Callowans weren’t above getting a little corpse on their hands.
“It is unlikely that I shall,” the Pilgrim replied.
In the light of his, well, Light they’d been making good time through the tunnels. The bloody thing had been built to be swum, unfortunately, not walked. Meaning it was broken ground all around, with shapr ups and downs, and while the Peregrine was spry for a relic he wasn’t going to be leaping around anytime soon. That meant every once in a while the rope came out again and Indrani dragged him up an incline, or slid him down one, though at least he was so light she barely noticed the weight of him. Seriously, he might as well have been made of feathers. Archer glanced at the old man’s pensive expression and snorted. Still anguishing about the way it was the Carrion Lord who’d taught her, was he? He should have been more worried it was Akua she’d first cut her villain teeth on, as far as she was concerned. The Black Knight was sensible kind of savage, most the time. Getting into scraps with Akua Sahelian, though, taught lessons about grinding people into dust so they could never swing at you again. Akua had always been too good at squeaking out of trouble for her own good. Or anyone else’s, for that matter.
“My worries amuse you,” the old man said.
His tone was a tad disappointed, like she’d been unkind to someone’s puppy.
“Sure,” Indrani shrugged. “You’re going about this all wrong, Grey. Digging for stories with me, trying to get a read on where she came from and what she’s after now. Bet you put out little test for her since the lot of you entered this place, too, just to see where she fell on things.”
The old man’s silence sounded, Archer thought, just a little contrite. Caught him out, had she? In all fairness, he wasn’t a bad hand at that game. It was deftly done, just enough give someone not looking for it wouldn’t have noticed the take. But Indrani was pretty sure he was used to coming from the other side: already the darling grandfather, the trusted figure. In a word, the old man was used to being a mentor. That wasn’t a void that’d ever needed much filling with the Woe, though, so any such attempt would only ever feel like trespassing and be all the more glaring for it.
“And you say such an approach would be a mistake,” the Pilgrim carefully said. “It would be considered hostile?”
“More like a waste of time, and probably her a trial on her patience,” Archer absent-mindedly said. “If she notices, which she will, because you’ve tried to kill her a few times so she’s paying attention.”
She recognized this particular stretch of tunnel, as it happened. They were nearly at the end: one last climb up and they’d end up in the tragically empty wine cellar where the trap door had been hidden.
“And what would you suggest instead?” the old man asked, voice sounding a little strangled.
She flicked an impatient glance at him.
“Look, you’re trying to deal with us like we’re skittish fucking horses in need of your reins,” Indrani said. “Throw that to the side, ‘cause that ride ends with your throat cut open. Probably by me, ‘cause let’s face it I’m quicker on the draw than Hakram. You want to know what she wants? Sit across a table with her with a decent bottle and politely ask.”
Archer frowned at him, just to make it clear for once she was being serious.
“And she’ll tell you, Peregrine, because the moment you stop being someone trying to handle us you’re back to being someone she wants to work with,” she said. “Hells, Pilgrim, as far as I can tell mostly she wants things to be slightly less on fire everywhere. That really so devilish a scheme you can’t stomach it?”
“There are other considerations to making a bargain with your queen, Indrani,” the Pilgrim quietly said.
“If your Grand Alliance can’t get its shit together long enough to accept help when the Dead King’s about to eat the whole pie,” Indrani frankly said, “then I don’t get why you’re so keen on it in the first place. Kind of a shipwreck, isn’t it?”
The old hero’s face was unreadable in the dim light of his own making, but this wasn’t really her problem was it? Indrani was called in when there was trouble to be had, not to play the diplomat. Besides, but a few moments later they arrived at the end of the tunnel and what awaited them disturbed the Grey Pilgrim enough the other conversation died on its own.
“Souls,” the Peregrine quietly said, blue peering up as if they could see through the trapdoor. “What awaits there, Archer?”
“A wine cellar, for the first few steps,” Indrani said. “After that, well, you had it right. About a city’s worth of souls, and the man who bound them as his instrument.”