“Beware of deep passions, for great love may turn in hatred just as great.”
– Hesperos the Tepid, Atalantian preacher
Less then an hour was left before the sky fell down on Iserre, and three great armies were broken and buried. How many people were down there, right now? I’d off-handedly said two hundred thousand, but with the League’s armies it had to be more than that. Three hundred? It didn’t matter, I thought. Their deaths were simply not the kind of blow Calernia could recover from in less than fifty years, if even that. To anchor this realm and wrest it out of the precipitous fall, Twilight could have three outcomes” a crown-bearer, one’s corpse or a shattered crown. If there was to be a crowning it’d have to be one of us, I admitted to myself. None aside from the band of five I’d assembled and our guide in Archer, the fateful sixth, had the required weight to bring this to an end. We’d been the ones to storm the Dead King’s holdfast, to destroy the shard of him and to face against the clever fox who’d turned it all around on us. It had to be us, didn’t it? I could feel the current of the story and fighting against it too forcefully would only lead to failure. If I tried to bring out Akua, whose ties to this place and murderous legacy ran deeper than anyone else’s, I suspected she would simply not arrive in time. In a place like this, where the rules of Creation ran so thin they could be twisted and snapped, having the story going the other way was a stone around your neck. The flipping of an hourglass would tell me near nothing about how far dawn was, while the rising tension of the choice having to be made would be almost exact a measure.
Crescendo awaited, climax, and cheating it would be tricky business.
“There is no choice to be made at all,” the Rogue Sorcerer said with forced calm. “We must shatter the crown. Anything else would be odious.”
There’d been a time I knew, where I would have agreed with him. But it’d been a few years since I’d last had the luxury to think that way – right and wrong, untouched by practicalities such as risk and consequence. Which was the greater wickedness, I wondered: the killing of one at the altar, or to gamble hundreds of thousands of lives on odds unclear?
“I have heard it told in rumour,” the Tyrant of Helike said, “that our friend the Peregrine can offer solace through resurrection. One after each dawn, the rumour goes, forgiving the mistakes that came before it.”
And there went Kairos, pivoting from pest to useful because he was simply too clever to remain a distraction that all would agree on throwing out when it was all coming to a close. I suspected he would act the wise and sagacious ally, from now on, simply to ease everyone’s well-earned urge to toss him out on his ass and close the doors behind him. Exhausted as the rest of us, Kairos Theodosian had a worsening purple bruise where I’d very satisfyingly decked him in the face, but otherwise no real injuries. Still, from the way his limbs had taken to twitching under the robes you’d think he was the worst off among us. Whatever sickness it was he’d been born to, it was debilitating whenever the protection of his Name waned. I followed the villain’s gaze as it turned to Tariq, adding my weight to the unspoken question: if someone sat the throne and let themselves be slain, could the Pilgrim raise them anew after dawn? The white-haired man cocked his head to the side, as if listening to words only he could hear. He, too, had old monsters to ask answer of.
“It is uncertain,” the Peregrine admitted. “There are some deaths not even my prayers can forgive, and to die on the altar for the sake of others might be one such.”
The old man glanced meaningfully at Indrani, who in deference to the seriousness of the situation had been keeping her mouth shut.
“I cannot bring back those departed twice,” he warned. “No matter the circumstances.”
I’d had absolutely no intention of letting anyone so much as shake a knife in Archer’s direction, but that was good to know. My friend had already died one tonight so, as far as I was concerned, she’d more than the paid the dues she hadn’t even owed.
“Might be this is obvious to the rest of you,” Indrani slowly said, “yet why aren’t we simply having someone put on the fancy hat and stay alive? That ought to do the trick.”
I grimaced. The Saint spat to the side.
“There’ll be no founding of a court in service to Below on my watch, girl,” Laurence de Montfort bluntly said. “The terms of this truce were that there would be a breaking, not a coronation.”
“It would be preferable to the cold-blooded murder of an ally,” the Rogue Sorcerer flatly said.
“Think beyond keeping your pretty hands clean, boy,” the Saint harshly said. “Consider the centuries of blood and suffering that would come from the birth of this Court of Twilight.”
“Ah, but the courts of Arcadia was so troublesome for they had many stories, many titled among their number,” Kairos idly said. “It need not be so for Twilight. A single brow bearing a crown, and nothing else. Power held yet going without exercise.”
His tone had been idle, but there’d been something to it that had me clenching my fingers. He was half in love with the notion already, I could tell. And I could see how it’d appear to the Tyrant of Helike: then moment of temptation forever continued, principled restraint that might yet be broken by the right word or tragedy. And as for the rest of us, none would get what they truly wanted save a life spared. Or, as Kairos was likely to see it, yet another foe slighted and spared. To him, it’d be the loveliest of endings. And Gods forgive me, but I was more inclined to it than a killing. There was no one here that could have their throat carved open without a bloody mess following, greater good or not. If it was a hero and the Saint survived, she’d carry that grudge like a blade pointed at my back until one of us died. If it was the Saint herself, the lengths Tariq had gone to for the preservation of her life would find themselves tossed in the mud before so much as the first signature was put to the Liesse Accords. It was a thinning of foundation where I needed it to be firm. There’d be no talk of Indrani going through this, and while before the end I suspected I’d be put before a choice like this I would not walk the altar path when there was so much work left to be done. Martyrdom without groundwork was vanity, nothing less and nothing more.
It was a possibility, I thought, to force that crown onto Kairos’ head and slit his throat. One I’d seriously consider, but the Tyrant had bargained back his life from the Bard and the Pilgrim seemed set on respecting this. Would it be worth it, I asked myself, to cross him on this? It might be too much of a risk. The Rogue Sorcerer might come out either way, given his scraps with the Tyrant, and Archer would be at my side through Crown and Tower but the other two? The Saint was most likely to see the practicality in bleeding Kairos, but she often deferred to the Pilgrim over calls like these and she’d be just as eager to take a swing at me. The Tyrant’s reaction was arguably the most predictable and least worrisome, for though he’d attempt escape he wouldn’t take it personally in the slightest. No, I finally decided. The odds were too stiff and the cause too red. Even if I got away with it I’d leave scars, the kind that’d come back to bite me down the line, and our alliance was too young not to be mangled by something like this. Gods, sometimes working with Above’s people felt like shackles around my wrists. They just had so many rules. Even making a discreet inquiry as to the nature of the truce agreed on by Bard could feasibly do damage here, I reluctantly acknowledged, so it was best to set aside the notion entirely. Unless the Tyrant betrayed us once more, at which point the chops would be back on the damned plate.
He wouldn’t though, I thought as I he offered me a bright and knowing smile. Kairos had a finger on the pulse here, on the underlying currents, and he had no intention of giving me an excuse. I smiled back, and it did not reach my eyes.
“That’s a pot forever on the edge of tipping,” the Saint growled. “I’ll not have it.”
“If your issue is with a villain bearing the crown, then I will do so myself,” Roland said.
“That sounds lovely,” the Tyrant grinned. “Indeed, what is one more elaborate lie when one is at the very heart of who you are, Sorcerer? You’ve my seal of approval.”
The hero paled, to my surprise. What was it that Kairos had found out about him? Pilgrim and Saint shared a weighty look and Tariq cleared his throat.
“You are too young for such a burden,” the Peregrine delicately said.
Ouch, I thought. That had had to sting. Having the closest thing to your side of the Game’s communal wise grandfather essentially telling you he didn’t think you’d be able to take it if you stepped into the fire. The Rogue Sorcerer tried to hide his flinch, but he was among the least skilled of the liars here.
“If the Grey Pilgrim wants to take the crown, I’ll make my peace with it,” I conceded.
“You sound like you’re making a concession, Foundling,” the Saint harshly said. “When what you’re doing is giving Below a path to one of the most powerful heroes alive. Shut your damned-”
“Tariq tossed his own crown into the bag, dearest friend,” the Tyrant idly interrupted. “So if he takes one up now with the intent of ruling, who knows what manners of wickedness may come of it? We must think of the children, Catherine.”
Indrani choked at the last sentence, sending Kairos an admiring glance that had the villain overtly preening. Aside from the theatrics, he’d actually made sense. It might be that Tariq would be reclaiming the right to rule he’d discarded, by putting on that crown. Or it might be something else entirely, and a disaster in the making. We couldn’t take the risk.
“Even if I were willing to let that much power fall into the Saint’s hands, I doubt she would be willing to take it,” I said.
“You won’t be getting your hooks in any of us,” Laurence de Montfort bluntly said.
“It cannot be you, Queen Catherine,” Tariq apologetically said. “I yet remember your… brittle temperament as Queen of the Hunt. I cannot in good conscience make bargains with such a creature.”
I grimaced. Well, he wasn’t entirely wrong. I suspected I’d handle apotheosis a lot better if the crystallization of it didn’t come from one of the worst days of my life, but there was no real way to know. And it’d be a lie to pretend the notion of claiming that sort of mantle again was anything but repulsive to me. I’d put power over the rest before, and we’d none of us come out the better for it. Slow learner as I was, I would not claim to be that slow.
“I claim only one crown, and hardly forever,” I said.
“While I would be delighted to lend a hand -” the Tyrant of Helike began.
“No,” I said.
“No,” Tariq said.
“Hah,” Indrani snorted.
The Saint’s hand simply went down to her sword.
“- yes, that,” Kairos said, sounding a touch chagrined. “Which leaves only one among us.”
“Kairos,” I mildly said, “did we not once have a conversation on the subject of you taking a swing at my people and the consequences of such an act?”
“It is… possible,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
I nearly twitched in surprise, fixing the old man with a look.
“There would have to be oaths,” the Peregrine said, dipping his head in apology at Archer. “Safeguards.”
“Well, would you look at that,” Indrani mused. “You do listen, after all.”
“Abdication after ten years,” Tariq said, eyes moving to me. “Guaranteed of safe passage for those waging war on Keter. Abiding by earthly treaties.”
I was genuinely taken aback by the turn, enough that it took me a moment to get ahold of my thoughts.
“I won’t force her to do it,” I flatly said.
“Cat,” Archer said. “Look at me.”
I turned, eyes lingering on the traces of blood still on her forehead. The reminder that she’d already died once tonight.
“It’s just ten years,” she said. “And you didn’t age while Duchess or Queen, so I’m losing nothing there. I’m not enough of an asshole to insist we murder someone over a decade.”
Except that she was, unkind as that thought was. Because Indrani was lovely and generous to those few that she loved, but the rest? She was not the kind to bleed for strangers, and I doubted the few months we’d spent apart had changed that about her. Or maybe I just didn’t want to. What would it mean, if months away from the Woe was all it took to let her compassion bloom? Or it might just be away from me, I darkly thought. What had I ever really asked of her, save for slaughter? And though that thought remained, so did my gaze remain on the bloody marks streaking across her forehead. That, too, might be a reason for seeking crown. For all the other burdens of my time as Sovereign of Moonless Nights, I’d been absurdly difficult to kill.
“I won’t pretend it doesn’t make things easier,” I said, meeting her eyes. “Having that much power at your fingertips. But it blinds you to other ways to die, Indrani. It takes from you as much as you’ll gain – perhaps even more.”
“I know,” Archer said. “I was there, remember? But I want to know what the word looks like, from that vantage. That’s reason enough.”
“Is that really who you want to be?” I quietly asked.
“An entire world of secret paths, of unknown horizons,” Indrani smiled. “Wouldn’t be that something to tread?”
It’ll change you, I wanted to say. Even if you put down the crown after ten years, and that is never as simple as you’d think, it will still have changed you in ways you can scarce understand. Gods, I wanted to forbid her to go through with it. And the thing was, if I pushed hard enough she just might withdraw her agreement. I knew that sure as I knew my own breathing. Indrani trusted me enough for that. But it would never be the same, afterward: we would no longer be partners or friends – a line would be drawn, and she’d be on the side of it that meant servant. Merciless Gods. It was ugly and selfish of me, but I would rather let her try the crucible of Twilight than knowingly destroy what bound us to each other.
“We’ll have to agree on the wording of the oaths,” I finally croaked out.
I met her gaze, and an understanding passed between us. It was not love – neither of us had been afflicted with that particular delusion regarding the other, for all that we occasionally shared a bed – or at least not that kind of it. It was… a recognition, maybe. That I thought she was making a mistake, but that I respected her enough to stand in the way of decisions she freely made. Had this, too, been a pivot? A moment she’d look back to, in years to come, when wondering if the ties binding her to the Woe were a lifeline or a leash. Perhaps pivot was a conceited term to use, when matched to the unspoken understanding of two mortals of no real import in the greater scheme of things. Too grand for the two of us. But there was resonance to the meaning of it, I thought. Whether this had been a fault or something akin to wisdom I’d not know for years to come, but in time I would know. I was unnaturally certain of that, in the beat that followed her hazelnut eyes meeting my own. Indrani inclined her head towards me, not speaking a word.
“No,” the Saint of Swords said.
The Tyrant let out a pleased, breathless sigh.
“You told me if I still believed you wrong come morning light, we’d put this to judgement,” Laurence said, looking at Tariq. “Dawn’s around the corner, old friend, and now I tell you this: I will not brook this deal you would strike. It is an abomination in every way.”
Indrani casually took a half-step to the side, coming closer to me. In a better position to buy me time to weave miracles, if it came to blades bared. I wished I could say she was being unreasonably cynical by doing so. I almost spoke up, but there was a reason Kairos was keeping his mouth shut. He, too, suspected that anyone carrying Below’s banner in the Saint’s eyes intervening now would be met with immediate assault. Robber had told me a sapper’s saying, once: no one has hands clever enough to juggle munitions. Simply by speaking up here, I’d be cracking a match in a warehouse full of goblinfire.
“Only ten years,” Tariq told her. “It is breathing room so that we can arrange for a more agreeable ending, Laurence.”
“It’s condoning the birth of a court hatched by servants of the Hellgods,” the Saint barked. “There’s no going back from that once we unleash it, Tariq. And odds are we won’t live to see that garden of ruin come to bear fruit – by what right do you pass on that woe to those that come after us?”
“You would rather embrace murder than compromise?” the Rogue Sorcerer said.
“Shut your mouth, boy,” Laurence hissed. “You understand nothing. You shy away from taking a life now, from takin a risk, and you think that makes you virtuous? All it makes you is complicit. Your scruples will cost a hundred generations blood and fear simply because you flinched when time for the hard choices came.”
“How hard a choice is it really for you?” the Sorcerer replied, tone ice cold. “When did you last make another, Saint of Swords?”
Laurence’s face shuttered closed. Hells, I had to admit that Roland was starting to grow on me some.
“Peace, Roland,” the Pilgrim said.
“Would that she’d hear of it, if only the once,” the younger man scathingly replied.
“No, Tariq, let him speak,” the Saint said. “Let him sing the praises of compromising with the Enemy. You’’ survive this, Sorcerer, for you may yet bring some light into this world. But burn this moment into your memory, child. Keep it close. There will come day when it burns like a lash on your back.”
“What is made can be unmade, Laurence,” the Pilgrim told her. “Even if this bargain were a mistake, and I do not believe it to be, it remains impermanent.”
“Does it?” she asked. “You’re letting them in, Tariq. You are setting a precedent for us sitting across the table from the monstrous and the mad, pretending they can be reasoned with. And Gods be good, perhaps this once it might even be true.”
My brow rose.
“And yet it cannot be allowed to pass,” Laurence said. “Because once the exception is made, the precedent is set, the ink touched the water – it’s done. It’s over. The poison is in and there’s only sickness and death ahead. How many times will this bargain you’d strike lead those who come after us astray? How long will it take, before Twilight becomes a murderous madness that can reach everywhere across Calernia?”
“We must first ensure there is a Calernia left to safeguard, Laurence,” Tariq quietly said.
“Compromising the soul to preserve the flesh,” the Saint of Swords said, “is the first step into Below’s service. There are things worth facing ruin for, Tariq.”
“No compromise with the Enemy,” the Grey Pilgrim echoed. “That is your principle. Yet you know mine, Laurence.”
“So I do,” Laurence de Montfort softly agreed.
Light bloomed, but already the Saint of Swords was moving and she struck.