“Blood freely spilled always offers greater power, for it carries the worth of both the blood and the choice.”
– Extract from “The Most Noble Art of Magic”, by Dread Emperor Sorcerous
“Huh,” the Tyrant said. “That is not what I believed that would do.”
I wheeled on him with cold eyes. For all that he’d helped me land the killing stroke on the Saint, he was also the reason there’d been a need for one at all. We’d been close to subduing her, before he’d decided to taunt Fate and loudly dare it to meddle. There would still have been the issue of the wounded crown, but Gods I would have preferred ending this without Laurence de Montfort’s corpse on the ground. Not because of any deep affection for the heroine, though I’d had a few perturbing glimpses on this journey at the woman that lay under the zealotry, but because the Saint of Sword’s death would both have a messy aftermath and rob us of someone who might have been able to truly hurt the Dead King. I’d begun this winter itching to put her down, but now… A virtue was no less of one because it belonged to an enemy, and for all her horrid flaws Laurence de Montfort had hardly been without the opposite. My hand had been forced, in the end, when the choice had been between a woeful roll of the dice and slaying her where she stood. But for all that the choice I’d made would stay with me, I would not for a moment forget who’d forced me to make it.
“This was,” I said, “one betrayal too many, Kairos.”
“There’s no such thing, Catherine,” he confidently told me. “And if there was, yet one more betrayal would see to it.”
Shouldn’t be too difficult to kill him, I thought. I had no intention of allowing anywhere near the decision yet to be made over the crown, or of sparing him after that last knife in the back, so ending this here and now before the Twilight Crown finished crumbling seemed the way to go about it. Kairos Theodosian still had a handful of attending gargoyles and more artefacts than anyone should have at their fingertips, but aside from that he was spent. He’d burned his strength against the Skein and then against me, shaken his sleeves enough that all his worst tricks had already been revealed. And while I was hardly fresh, above us two crows still slowly circled. Omens of death, and death was what I intended on delivering: if I need seek the helping hand of my patronesses for that, so be it. On the other hand, I grimly thought, there was still one last use left for the Tyrant of Helike tonight.
“There’s one path that doesn’t lead to me snatching the life out of you tonight,” I coldly said. “And that’s you putting on that crown.”
“So it seems I am to die,” the Tyrant pensively said, “unless, instead, I am to die. Truly, my friend, you present me with a dilemma.”
“Burn enough bridges and you’ll find there’s no pretty path left,” I bluntly said. “You just tried to get half of us killed by flapping your mouth, Kairos. Fuck the amnesty you bargained for: the last courtesy I offer you is deciding the shape of your grave.”
The slightest flicker of power, but there were only so many times someone could use a trick around me before I caught on.
“Riddle me this, Catherine,” the Tyrant cheerfully said. “What makes you think that-”
Night flooded me, bringing strength to my hands, and I crushed the obsidian scabbard still in my grasp. The powder that fell I blew through and, shaping the Night I threaded within it, cast it outwards. The obsidian dust revealed Kairos’ glamoured silhouette as he tried to make for the door and the Night I’d sent out wove itself into a noose that delicately went around his neck. The end of that rope fell into my palm, and as the noose tightened my fingers closed around it.
“Well,” Kairos Theodosian slowly said, glamour dispelling. “This is embarrassing.”
“Don’t pay attention to him,” the glamour I’d been conversing with insisted. “He’s an impostor.”
I wound the Night rope around my fist and spread my stance to steady my footing.
“How’s your dilemma coming along?” I asked.
“Bracingly,” the Tyrant replied without missing a beat.
“Enough,” the Grey Pilgrim tiredly said.
The streak of Light cut halfway through the rope of my own making, severing it clean. I was, bluntly put, too surprised by the old man’s sudden turn to properly react.
“How many of us do you intend to slay tonight, Queen Catherine?” the Peregrine said. “Enough.”
“If it’s not him it’ll have to be one of us,” I pointed out. “There is no reason to spare him, Pilgrim. One might well argue he earned that end.”
“Shall we speak of endings earned then, Black Queen?” the Grey Pilgrim replied, tone remote and eyes considering. “It would be an exchange of some consequence, I think.”
“You can’t be serious,” I said. “You struck out too, Pilgrim. To contain her, as I wanted to. And the damned reason it had to go further than that was the Bard’s fucking amnesty, which you insisted on-”
“I am well aware of what took place here tonight,” the Peregrine harshly interrupted. “Are you? I’d just lent my hand to the killing of a woman I loved like kin and trusted just as deep. Those ties were already tried and tested when you were yet to be born, Catherine Foundling. I did this because the bargain you offer may yet save lives by the millions and lay the foundation of a long-lasting peace. But do not mistake that, not for a moment, as my having been suborned to your every whim.”
“None of that means he should be sent home with a slap on the wrist,” I hissed.
“A trusted and farsighted comrade has asked me to spare the Tyrant’s life,” he flatly said. “And so it will be spared, no matter the nasty tricks he may play.”
“You are the hero of my heart, Grey Pilgrim,” Kairos Theodosian said, picking out the Night noose still around his neck and dropping it to the floor. “In the spirit of my deep gratitude, I would offer-”
The weight that fell over the room was almost a familiar thing. Above us Sve Noc spared a glance, and so my knees were not made to buckle, but the Tyrant of Helike was offered no such protection. The odd-eyed villain collapsed, first on one knee and then outright to the ground for that leg’s shaking. Twitching on the stone floor, Kairos rasped out a pained breath as the Grey Pilgrim stared down at him. Sharing that gaze, the Choir of Mercy looked upon the Tyrant without the slightest speck of compassion.
“You are not forgiven, Kairos Theodosian,” the Peregrine said, voice ringing with power. “You will yet serve a greater purpose, and for that you will be allowed to crawl out of this place through filth and dust. But you are not forgiven, you creature of ruin and perfidy.”
The Tyrant twitched on the floor still and I realized with a start it was as much from his convulsing body as a shivering laughter ripping out of his throat.
“Coward,” he gasped. “Even now Mercy holds your hand. Coward.”
The old man strode forward, dusty grey robes trailing behind him, and he knelt before the cripple before laying a hand over his lips.
“Through lies and deception you have brought great suffering,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “And so from you I take that poisonous gift: never again will you speak untruth, lest it be the last words you speak at all.”
Radiant light blinded my eyes, for a heartbeat, and through the Pilgrim’s touch I felt the Ophanim reach out into Creation. This would be a curse, if a villain had been the one to place it. I wondered what it was to be called, when a heroic hand had done the placing. My brow furrowed. Would lying make Kairos make a mute or kill him? It’d not been clear, by the phrasing. Looking at the Peregrine’s shoulders, I wondered if that’d been on purpose. The Tyrant’s body shuddered one last time, like someone whose fever was going the way of the grave, and only then did his twitching end. He exhaled a ragged breath.
“This is not,” Kairos Theodosian guffawed, “the last you’ve seen of me.”
Mismatched eyes going wide, he looked up and waited. A moment passed and he did not die.
“Best get crawling then, I suppose,” the Tyrant of Helike mused. “Until next time, friends.”
Without a hint of shame he flipped onto his belly and began dragging his expensive robes through the filth, fleeing the throne room like a snake slithering on the ground. Three heartbeats later the last remaining gargoyles ran out after him, as quick as their little legs allowed. I debated, seriously, reaching for the Night and just vaporizing the back of his head. The temptation was there, made even heavier by the way the odds were good I’d manage it. But if I did, it wasn’t the story that’d punish me. I’d be, in essence, breaking off ties with the Grey Pilgrim. Which I couldn’t afford to, if the Accords were to be more than a waste of ink and parchment.
“That was a mistake,” I finally said.
“If it was,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “then it was mine to make. Not yours.”
I kept my face calm but winced beneath it. Already the cracks were beginning to run through what I’d wanted to be the foundations of the Liesse Accords. And it wasn’t fair, I thought, for there was plenty of fault to spare and divide. But in the end, the Peregrine had stuck to our arrangement and helped slay the same woman whose life he’d bargained for. I could not truly ask more of him or begrudge his bitterness over having been led to this pass.
“If you’re quite finished,” Archer spoke up, “then I could use a hand, Pilgrim. I’m usually concerned only with hitting heads, not what comes after. Does he need healing?”
She’d propped up the Rogue Sorcerer over her knee, supporting the back of his neck. The Saint had knocked Roland unconscious, but aside from a red boot mark on his forehead the spellcaster should have no lasting marks. A concussion seemed likely, though, Named or not. The Pilgrim hurried to the younger hero’s side, wielding Light with a delicate touch for but a few moments before the Sorcerer woke. The mark, I noted, had gone from bright red from light pink but it still remained highly visible.
“She’s dead then,” Roland croaked out, eyes going to the heroine’s corpse. “Gods, what a waste.”
“So it was,” I quietly agreed.
His eyes, for once without trace of a coloured ring around the pupil, met mine.
“Your work?” he asked.
I nodded. Behind us, as is mocking the quiet of the conversation now taking place, the crown continued lashing out around itself with tendrils of sorcery.
“Whoever bears that will die,” the Rogue Sorcerer frankly said. “I’d be like trying to grip a naked blade as tight as you can, only with your soul instead of your fingers.”
The Saint of Swords’ last kill, unerringly made from beyond the grave. Her aged figure still lay sprawled at the foot of the throne, still and silent. No one had dared to touch it.
“Look like the choice was made for us,” Archer said, seemingly amused. “We’re back at making a god and killing it, whether we like it or not.”
“There is no choice to make,” Tariq evenly said.
And already I could see the lay of that, how it’d unfold. A band of five assembled before the eyes of princes and princesses of Procer had gone into broken Arcadia at the urging of the Black Queen, among them perhaps the two most famous heroes alive. Neither the Regicide nor the Peregrine would return from that journey. The treacherous Tyrant of Helike would escape with but a curse, and from the heroes the only survivor would be the Rogue Sorcerer – a hero little known, and a mage to boot. Sorcery was not well-trusted, in Procer, and seemingly rare in Levant.
We’d be at war again before Morning Bell, bargain or not.
“Agreed,” I said. “It’ll have to be me.”
Three gazes turned to me, Archer’s the least surprised.
“You said it was possible resurrection would work,” I reminded the Pilgrim. “And dawn comes. If it doesn’t, well… Vivienne’s been designated as heiress to the throne. I wish she’d had longer to prepare, but we don’t always get to choose.”
“No,” Indrani said.
I blinked at her.
“You’ve cheated death too many times, Cat,” she bluntly said. “You’ve always squeaked out of it so far because you had a story at your back, but this time the wind’s going the other way. You’ve spent your luck thrice over, this is just going to get you killed.”
“It’ll get someone killed regardless,” I said. “I don’t relish the thought I might not come back from this, Indrani, but I knew the risk when I began going down this path.”
“That’s nice,” Archer casually said. “Very stirring. But if you take so much as a step in that crown’s direction, I’ll knock you the fuck out.”
She was, I realized as I looked at her stony expression, absolutely serious. It was a strange thing, to both love and be furious with someone in the same moment for the same reason.
“It cannot be you, Queen Catherine,” the Grey Pilgrim agreed. “You underestimate the depth of the loyalties you have earned, and not only here. The Army of Callow would carry your corpse to the gates of Salia to make a funeral pyre of it. And I shudder to think of what the drow would be, without their designated conscience.”
“It can’t be you either,” I hissed. “You think it’ll go bad if I die? Hells, Pilgrim, your death alone would have Levant on the warpath but the Saint and you? Even if the First Prince turned up just to order the Alliance armies down there not to fight we’d still have a battle on our hands.”
“Then it has to be me,” the Rogue Sorcerer tightly said. “Archer has already been resurrected once, there is not even a chance of her being spared lasting death.”
He shuddered out a breath.
“It will have to be me,” Roland repeated. “It makes sense. I am the only practitioner among you, who best to shape this realm in what is needed of it?”
“At a guess? The only person in this room to have ruled over a court of the fae before,” I said.
“Cat, you can’t be trusted to make a choice like that right now,” Indrani frankly said. “Whenever there’s a blunder – and I’m guessing you count the Saint’s death as one – you always get all… self-flagellating. Like you’re just looking for a sword to fall on. Pilgrim says it’s good politics to keep you alive? Even better. I don’t really give a shit, though. I’d rather cut the damn thing than let you put it on.”
“You can’t think like that, Archer,” I sharply said. “I’m one life. That’s the weight on the scale. You’d be putting at risk hundreds of thousands-”
“Then it’s a good thing I’m not one of Above’s footsoldiers, isn’t it?” Archer said. “I get to be selfish if I want to.”
I wasn’t going to make headway there, was I? Touched as I was, I was just as infuriated. Because I couldn’t be grateful for this, not when it might cost the world so much for her to follow through. Who was it, I’d wondered, who’d taught her to love people on her own terms – much as I wanted to blame the Lady of the Lake for it, the dark suspicion lingered it might just have been me.
“It will not be you,” the Pilgrim said. “Nor will it be Roland.”
Though he’d gone pale at the notion of perhaps embracing his own death, I felt a sliver of admiration for the way the Sorcerer didn’t simply take the first way out he was offered.
“The Black Queen was correct,” Roland said. “There may be war, if you are the one crowned and killed.”
“My death will echo,” the Grey Pilgrim said, cocking his head to the side. “I have been promised this. There will not be war.”
The Ophanim agreed with this? Godsdamned angels.
“You’re needed to keep the heroes together,” I said. “There’s no one else with the pull.”
Maybe, and I would not have put a lot of faith in that prospect, maybe the Saint could have succeeded at that. She’d had the strength, if not the charisma.
“The White Knight will return,” the Pilgrim serenely said. “He was already on his way.
“The Tyrant had plans about him,” I said.
“I expect he does,” the Peregrine said, undertone amused. “It will come to nothing, under the stern glare of the Seraphim.”
“It might be that you could forgive my death,” the Rogue Sorcerer hesitantly said. “None could do the same, for you.”
“Forgiveness was never meant to be a salve for every wound made on Creation,” the Pilgrim gently said. “It was a gift to be handed out in the face of grave injustice. And there is no injustice, Roland, in an old man being allowed to rest at last.”
“So you’re just going to lie down and die?” I said.
The was a heartbeat of silence.
“The Saint of Swords is dead,” I said. “We all had a hand in that, mine looming largest by far. But that’s it, Pilgrim? Your friend is dead and you feel tired, so you’re choosing death when Calernia is facing its harshest test since the reign of Triumphant?”
“Queen Catherine,” the Sorcerer hissed. “There is no need for-”
“You’ve done some real nasty things over the years, haven’t you Tariq?” I said. “We both know you have.”
The old man’s blue eyes, limpid as a cloudless summer sky, met mine.
“You don’t get to roll over for death, after crossing those lines,” I said. “After taking on that responsibility.”
“Which of us are you truly haranguing, Black Queen?” the Grey Pilgrim chided me, not unkindly.
“I think I’ll get away with it,” I pensively replied. “I really do.”
Because I’d been here before. Twice. At this crossroads, making this call. I’d chosen death to rid myself of a pattern of three with the Lone Swordsman and taken my due resurrection from the Hashmallim after refusing the crown they offered me. I’d chosen death once more to slip the bindings the Diabolist had entwined me in, making myself the beastly keystone to her demise, and refused the crown she offered me. Liesse had been the crucible of my existence in a way nowhere else in this world could claim to be. Which of my triumphs and ruins had not been born of this place, or taken place among it? Here in this city I’d forged my claim of power over Callow not once but twice – first through bargain, and then through simple might. I’d struck a pact here that allowed Akua Sahelian to govern this place, and when that governance led to folly it was on these grounds I’d torn through her heart. Indrani said I’d cheated my demise too often, and perhaps she was right. Twice, here, I had tricked life out of death. But there’d never been a third, for before I’d woken in the depths of the Everdark mortal once more I’d dreamt and within that dream asked Sve Noc a question: am I dead? And the reply had been: at the threshold. Not through. Not quite dead. And so, I thought, Archer might be wrong in this.
Maybe I did still have a story at my back: twice living through death after twice being offered a crown. There was power in reiteration, in repetition, and few numbers had heavier hand on a story than three. Or, I knew, this might be where the pattern came to a close. This once I’d be reaching for the crown, and so my death would remain. It could go either way, I felt. Yet even then, I had a better chance of living through this than any of the other three. Rolling the dice on poor odds had always been one of my worst habits, I thought, but why stop now? You only lived once – give or take a few times.
“Three times I’ve been offered a crown here, by someone neither fully friend nor foe,” I began. “Three times-“
Archer, sighing, slid behind me and to my indignation she covered my mouth with her palm and put me in a chokehold. I began struggling, but she was Named and I was not: the disparity in strength could not be breached my mundane means.
“Is that… necessary?” the Rogue Sorcerer delicately asked.
“If you feel like you’re winning,” Indrani said, “the single stupidest thing you can do is let Catherine Foundling talk. Go on, Tariq. Before she turns it around on us.”
I reached for the Night, preparing to force her back as gently as I could, but it slipped through my fingers. Fear rose up in me, and I looked up. The Sisters were perched on the edges of the gutted throne room, one to the east and one to the west. They watched, silent.
Are you worthy? Komena asked, a whisper in my ear.
Patrons, I thought. Not tools or companions but goddesses of which I was the high priestess. If I set a measure in their name, I would be measured by it. It was, I admitted, brutally fair of them.
I have brought us here, through scheme and steel, I told them. I’ve tricked mortals and Named, set the Dead King aflight and freed from his grasp the last of the Fairfaxes. I have slain and won victories, all to bring this journey to an end of my making. Who can be worthy, if not me?
Sve Noc watched me, judged me, and in inscrutable silence passed their judgement.
All will be Night, Andronike whispered in my ear, and it tasted like assent.
Indrani knew me best, and so when the goddess-crows above let out a cacophonous caw she immediately tried to knock me unconscious. Unfortunately I knew her as well, and so restored not to struggle but to the first trick I’d even seen one of the Firstborn use: sinking into a pool of Night at my feet, I dissolved into a tendril of shadow and followed forward. Even in that strange, unpleasant state I could feel the clash of Sve Noc and the Choir of Mercy – both attempting to hinder the others’ champion and prevent their foe from hindering their own. They were, at least in that moment, each other’s match. I could hardly see, when shadowed, for unlike drow this state of being did not come naturally to me. I had to leap back into mortal form to get my bearings, though fortunately I found myself not far from the throne. From the corner of my eye I found Indrani, having strung her bow, nocking an arrow and likely intending to wing me before I could claim the crown. The Sorcerer’s jaw was tightly clenched as he worked some manner of sorcery, but it’d be too late. Sidestepping the Saint’s corpse, I reached for the crown.
My fingers went through it
The illusion broke, now that I knew it was there, and so did the one the Rogue Sorcerer had woven around the Peregrine. The Grey Pilgrim took the wounded crown, set with his own star, and placed it upon his brow.
“No,” I shouted.
Like it was the most natural thing in the world, the Grey Pilgrim leaned down and gently pried the Saint of Swords’ blade from her cold hands.
And, just as gently, rammed it through his own heart.