“You who would be mighty, seek excellence in all things, for the conquest of eternity must be earned with every breath.”
– Extract from the ‘Tenets Under Night’, Firstborn religious text
Well, shit. I guessed you could always count on good ol’ Larat to make a bad situation incredibly worse. And I wasn’t the only one to realized that with a pithy gesture and a few words he’d dropped us all in the deep end, because the moment the fae who’d abdicated the Twilight Crown took a step away from the throne I had to speak up.
“Hold,” I got out, and there was an echo.
Archer’s longknife slowed a hair’s breadth away from the hollow of Larat’s throat, as did the Saint’s longsword – though it’d not been me that Laurence was listening but the Pilgrim. Who had, thanks the Gods, enough of a finger on the pulse of this to recognize that killing the fae now would be a Very Bad Idea. High above us, Sve Noc lazily circled the sky. Yet another fire I was going to have to put out the moment I’d assessed the nature of this turnabout. I inclined my head in thanks at Tariq and shot Indrani a steady glance. Shrugging, she withdrew her blade and with an unnecessarily eye-catching spin she put it away. The Saint I left to the Pilgrim, eyes on the fae who’d been the Twilight King for the span of two sentences. Was he still, though? I wondered with a frown. Not king – the abdication might have been a trick, but not of that particular kind – but fae. There was a flush to his skin now, and while his long hair remained unearthly in its perfection it was no longer… unnatural.
“Larat,” I said. “Look me in the eye.”
Baring a smile of pearly white teeth, the one-eye creature met my gaze and my lips thinned in dismay. When I’d first met the Prince of Nightfall, a simple look in his eyes had sent me tumbling down into fear and darkness. A glimpse into his nature, forced by the matching of gaze. I’d learned to resist that pull, in later years, or at times simply been the greater monster of the two of us. I was not currently using any of those tricks, for there was no need to. Larat held not a speck of power within him. And fae, Masego had once told me, were little more than power made flesh and shaped by stories. The inevitable conclusion of that sent a shiver up my spine.
“Do you even know,” I softly asked, “what you’ve become?”
“Something… unprecedented,” he said, smile broadening.
“And the rest of the Hunt?” I said.
One after another they leapt down, graceful and lithe. None of them bore titles that I could catch the scent of, be it the newborn regalia of Twilight or older and more vicious accoutrements.
“We claim nothing,” Larat languidly replied, “save that we are.”
“Fascinating,” the Saint of Swords said. “You gonna feed them to your drow, or should I just go ahead and finish this? I’ve yet to hear a reason that smirking head should stay atop his shoulders.”
“Because someone’s going to have to put on that damned crown, now,” I said, never looking away from Larat. “And while I can’t say for sure what murdering the creature that first forged it would do exactly, I doubt it’ll be particularly pleasant.”
The former fae’s lips twitched. Seed of madness in the crown was my guess, putting an original sin at the heart of what this realm would become. The clever fox had picked a path that meant we couldn’t kill him without dropping a vial of poison in our own cup.
“There no longer are any oaths between us,” I acknowledged. “All debts have been paid.”
“So they have,” Larat admitted. “Would you believe me if I said, my queen, that my service under your banner was a pleasure?”
“Not even an hour free,” I said, “and already lying? You always were a quick learner.”
He laughed, deep-throated and wild. I swallowed a sigh.
“You fulfilled your oaths to the letter,” I conceded, and raised my voice to the others. “All of you. If we are to part tonight, it is not in anger.”
Larat, viper-swift, raised the sword hanging from his hip. I did not reach for the Night, though Archer was halfway through a killing stroke before she turned it aside – my former servant, after a salute, had dropped the blade at my feet.
“May we meet again, my queen, before the end,” Larat said. “For every gift you gave you took fair measure, and I can pay no higher compliment.”
Much as they had years ago when riding horses, the creatures that had once been the Wild Hunt paid me the mirrored farewell to the allegiance they’d sworn. Lance and blade and bow fell at my feet, and with every last a bow. Some paid respects to Archer as well, though to her they offered only words. They gathered around Larat: slender, beautiful and even without so much as a speck of power still terrible to behold.
“And what will you do?” I asked.
“Whatever we wish, my queen,” the one-eyed fox said. “For be it wicked or righteous, it will be entirely ours.”
I let them go without another word, ignoring the Pilgrim’s weighty look and the Tyrant’s fleeting yet fascinated glances at the former fae. There was another issue about to take hold, after all. For all that I’d chosen to part with the Wild Hunt on a cordial note, Larat had repaid my planned deicide in the same manner. The Twilight Crown was not up for grabs, and he’d known exactly what he was doing when he’d offered it to the worthiest. It was respect that’d stayed the hands of the drow so far, for through the Night I could feel hundreds of them hungrily gazing down. If I ordered them to refrain, I’d strain the limited of my authority as the First Under the Night. Oh, some would listen. At first anyway, until they saw foes and rivals close to getting their fingers on great power and the balance swung the other way. They only way they’d obey such an edict was if Sve Noc put their weight to my words. Yet I had the Sisters in the back of my mind, and so I knew they were eying that crown as hungrily as the rest of them.
“Black Queen,” the Grey Pilgrim began, “given the-”
“Pilgrim,” I calmly said. “I don’t think you appreciate how delicate the situation is right now. I need to… confer with my patrons.”
“Evil clawing at itself,” the Saint bitingly said. “There’s a surprise.”
I ignored her.
“It’d be a mistake,” I said in Crepuscular, addressing the sky.
The first crow that landed on the floor did so smoothly, and just as smoothly rose into the silhouette of a drow. Silver-blue eyes shone, and I saw she was wearing the ancient armour of soldiers of the Empire Ever Dark with at her hip a sheathed blade of obsidian. Komena. Her sister, fully formed a drow before her crow talons could touch the stone, made ground with serenity. It was the robes of the long-broken Twilight Sages she wore, in flowing shimmering silk, and her hands she hid within long sleeves. Andronike. My patrons, at least, had taken me seriously enough to make act of presence. And a little more than that, even. I caught flecks of dust gone still in the air around me, made visible by the glinting light, and all others in this seat of power stood as if frozen. Save for the Pilgrim, whose knowing eyes followed me still – whatever power was at work here, bending perception, the Choir of Mercy had not suffered that he would be touched by it.
“Would it be?” Komena said. “Twilight is not so far removed from our domain. And mastery over ways… oh, let the offering of travellers be not blood but instead prayer. There would be opportunity in that, and yet more. We have lost the Everdark and the kingdom you bargained for still has to be reclaimed from death. A home for our people would be fair in every way, Herald.”
“You can’t eat two courts of the fae, Komena,” I said. “That would be grave overreach.”
The two of them, long-legged and fluid, began circling around me on foot the same way they had as crows.
“You have warned us of such perils before, of the foes they would bring,” she replied, and glanced at the Grey Pilgrim. “Having seen them, I am less than cowed.”
“The way I see it, there’s two ways that could go,” I said. “Both end up with every single gain you’ve made so far pissed away.”
That had them both looking at me with their full attention.
“You could become ‘the monster that eats courts’,” I said. “And just like that you’re the greatest threat kicking around Calernia, both taking the weight off the Dead King and beginning a death match with every powerful entity in the service of Above up here and gathered to deal with him.”
I paused, letting that sink in.
“Or, perhaps even worse, you’ve just begun a pattern,” I said. “I made a Court of Winter and you ate it. I made a Court of Twilight and you’d eat it. There’s only one court of the fae left, Sve Noc, and I also had a hand in its inception. Where do you think that story leads?”
“We would be mistresses of the greater part of the Garden,” Komena said.
“Would you?” I said. “I wonder. When I stole Winter, it didn’t do anything to the ruling court of Arcadia as far as I could tell. See, what I think is that it’s the neverborn courts they get their blood from: Autumn and Spring, never to be again. Because Summer and Winter had to die so the unification of Arcadia could happen, so they couldn’t be foundation of an entirely new realm could they? So my theft of Winter? Fine, I was robbing a corpse. The crown just to our side might just be what used to be Summer. So at best, o goddesses of mine, you’ll be even. And you know that one viciously clever little bastard that just walked out of here?”
I jutted a thumb towards the open gates of bronze.
“The ruling King of Arcadia considers him to be a little dim,” I said. “Think on that, before you start believing you’ll be the winners in that scrap even if the weight is even. You’re too young to the godhead, your power is too fragile and your foundations too unsteady. You’re not ready for the kind of attention eating Twilight would bring.”
Komena did not reply. She was not pleased, I could feel it, but she did not dismiss what I’d said.
“I do not disagree,” Andronike said.
And now for the other one, I grimly thought.
“Let us allow the Mighty to find who is worthiest among them, and so establish influence without… overstepping,” the oldest of the sisters said.
“Short-sighted,” I assessed.
I saw Komena hide a smile.
“Pardon?” Andronike said, voice too calm to truly be.
“You’re thinking in terms of gains without also weighing the drawbacks,” I said. “Do you intend to make whoever takes the crown the leader of your people, fold them under their rule and effectively have them stuck in this ruin of a realm forever? Because that’s what you’re headed towards if you make a play here.”
“They have no choice but to make bargains with us if the ways are under our stewardship,” Andronike said. “This war is lost otherwise.”
“You’re robbing them while the Dead King holds them at knifepoint,” I said. “That’s a mistake. What happens when the war is over, Sve Noc? Do you think they won’t go back on treaties you crammed down their throat when they were in duress?”
“And will they come to love us, if we treat them lovingly?” Andronike mockingly replied. “That is surprisingly naïve of you, Herald. If they turn on us for this, they were always going to turn on us. All the more reason to claim what we can before the knives are bared.”
“You’re missing the point,” I patiently said. “There’s nuances to this, Andronike. Sure, the Procerans are never going to put a crown of flowers in your hair, but there’s a difference between ‘the enemy we leave alone because it contains a worse enemy’ and ‘those bastards that extorted us while we were facing annihilation’. You know what’s going to be a lot more useful to your people than one of the Mighty on that fancy chair behind you? An undeniable and weighty precedent for the Firstborn being reasonable, restrained actors. You’re going to have to live up here, after the war ends.”
“You would have us pin our hopes on amity and mercy,” Andronike said.
“I’d have you fight this war in a manner that doesn’t guarantee having to fight another one in twenty years with your current allies,” I frankly said. “You named me First Under the Night because you needed feet on the ground. Someone to steer you away from the mistakes you’re blind to because of your position.”
“This is one,” I said. “This might be the mistake. The choice that decides whether you’re a decade-long catastrophe that ends up drowned in heroes or the latest nation to claim a seat at the table up here in the Burning Lands.”
They circled around me still, silent. Thinking.
“This is not our way,” Komena said.
“Your way is a snake eating its own tail,” I said. “Be better.”
“They might turn on us regardless,” Andronike said.
“They might,” I admitted. “Fear or faith, that’s your choice. You can’t cross a chasm without taking a leap.”
The Sisters looked at each other, eyes sliding away from me, and whatever it was they spoke it was not meant for my ears. Pounding heartbeats drummed against my ears, they began circling anew. With every step they further faded into the shadow, until there was nothing left but crows once more circling above. As if they’d never left at all. I breathed out, slowly.
“You are First Under the Night,” Andronike confirmed.
“The Firstborn listen,” Komena said. “Speak.”
My fingers clenched. Above us the Mighty stood, a ring of painted sigils and silver-blue yes. Watching, waiting. And my goddesses had asked me to teach restraint to a people they had taught to esteem gluttonous theft above all. I was not, I thought, clever enough a liar to trick them all into obedience. And that’d be rather defeating the purpose of this, wasn’t it? I was the high priestess of Night: if I found offence with the faith I’d been named the steward of, who but me could be charged with the change of it?
“Are you worthy?” I asked, and my voice rang out.
Not a soul replied. I let out a harsh bark of laughter.
“Your silence says it all,” I told them. “You believe you are, or that the shedding of blood will make you so.”
And why wouldn’t they? The worthy took, the worthy rose. Did the act of taking not make them worthy? That was the sickness inside them, Below’s ever-red altar made into an entire people. It was the old enemy wearing another face: Callow and Praes, forever intertwined and bleeding. Procer as much burden as bearing, sowing its own demise with every conquest. It was bucket holding the crabs, and I was going to break it.
“I see you,” I harshly said. “Scavengers, carrion things crawling in the dark. You make faith of what you’ve taken and call that worth. I see you, who call yourselves Mighty. I have been you, and heard the sweet anthems of might, so hear me when I tell you this truth: a hundred rats clawing at each other does not make a single king.”
Oh, they did not love me for that. I saw it in their eyes, in the way fury and malice filled the Night. But it was a lesson long overdue and love was not what I wanted from them, much less what I needed.
“Did you believe a single moment of excellence would earn you an eternity of power?” I said. “The one-eye fox that left this place head held high forged this crown through ruses that fooled gods and ruined realms. What bring any of you that matches those deeds?”
I bared my teeth.
“The murder of your own kind? I ask you, what manner of creature under sun or moon is not capable of this? Where lies that which would make you worthy?”
I struck my staff against the ground, let the clap that sounded out jostle them.
“You have grovelled in the ruins of your own empire, bleeding behind the Gloom,” I said. “And through that you survived. Yet is that all you seek, you who call yourselves Mighty? Survival? I thought you seekers of deeds. I thought you reclaimed of an empire ever dark. I thought you Firstborn, not grey ghosts haunting a ruin.”
Fury still, but now their pride had been pricked. And there were some who were listening. Hearing what had been spoken but also what had not been.
“It is not enough to take,” I said. “For you must be worthy to take. It is not enough to rise, for you must be worthy to rise.”
Blasphemy, some would have called that, but how could it be when I spoke with the voice of their gods?
“Did you think eternity would so easily be conquered?” I laughed. “Seek excellence in all things, Firstborn. Seek to stand nighty not by lowering others but by rising above them, lest you make your own victory worthless. They who cannot master themselves will never be anything but servants.”
I breathed out, let what I’d said sink in.
“And so I ask you again, you who call yourselves Mighty – are you worthy?”
Sa Vrede. The whisper spread, bloomed until it was on every pair of lips. No, the answer came, and with it the beat of spears against stone. Slow and oppressive, like a dirge.
“Then seek excellence, Firstborn,” I said. “Ever seek it until the night comes where your answer has changed.”
Chno Sve Noc, they went. All will be Night. And they bowed, for I has spoken with the authority of high priestess of Night and for all their fury they had found worth in the path I laid before them. As the deity-crows circled slowly above us all they withdrew into the darkness, dismissed without my needing to speak another word. I let out a shaky breath and turned to find the eyes of most everyone else resting on me. I doubted anyone other than Archer had understood any of that – Indrani had learned a bit of Crepuscular back in the day, though it was a fiendishly complex language so not all that much – but I supposed even without the learning it’d been something of a spectacle.
“Dawn will come before the hour’s turn,” the Grey Pilgrim quietly said. “And with it the end of this journey, for good or ill.”
“Then there is only one agreeable solution,” the Tyrant of Helike said.
He let a moment pass.
“We should crown Catherine,” he said, and winked at me.
“I’ve ridden that horse before,” I said. “Never again.”
“A shame,” he mused. “I’d volunteer, yet I suspect my dear friends might…”
“Murder you like we were planning to do to Larat?” I finished. “Of course not. Go ahead, Kairos. Put on the crown.”
“Breaking the crown itself might suffice,” the Rogue Sorcerer said.
“How sure are you of that, Roland?” the Saint asked.
“Half and half,” the Sorcerer said. “As you might guess, there’s not exactly a precedent for this.”
And considering that the hero wasn’t able to understand High Arcana, there was only so much weight I was willing to put on his word. Gods, I wished Masego was in a fit state to speak right now. Hells, I’d even settle for Akua right about now.
“So either we roll the dice over the life of around two hundred thousand people,” I grimly said. “Or someone puts on that crown and then we kill them.”