“Of all Praesi I trust least those who come bearing gifts.”
– Queen Yolanda of Callow, the Wicked (known as ‘the Stern’ in contemporary histories)
There was a part of me still, after all these years, that expected the momentous to be flagrant. That the closing of an era or the birth of a realm should be an affair of thunder and lightning, a crashing and crackling storm of power. But that was so rarely the way, wasn’t it? The pivots of history that we all got to see, the speeches and battles and coronations, they so often flowed from unseen turns taken months before. Quiet bargains and private councils, decisions made in the dark. Yet I had learned that the truth of Creation was that while at times power in exercise was deafening, more often it was hushed. Subtle. And as the ending that was breathed into the Twilight Court came from the Grey Pilgrim – Mercy’s patient, farsighted and indirect hand – why would its coming be a raucous thing?
Tariq Fleet-foot, the sword of his oldest friend through the heart, let out a soft gasp and slumped onto the throne. Blue eyes fluttered to a close as trails of scarlet tainted the dusty grey of his robes: death blooming in three hues, painted by the Peregrine’s own hand. The Pilgrim’s face loosened slowly from a clench decades in the making, and as he sagged down against the throne he let out one last shuddering breath. That shudder rippled out, the last will of a man whose life had been a thankless struggle to lessen suffering in a world so very intent on wounding itself time and time again. It was a death that would ring out across Calernia, I thought. One not easily forgotten. Yet, looking at the white-haired healer who’d stumbled back with a sword through his chest, I could not help but believe it had been a lesser ending than he’d deserved. I’d had my quarrels with the Grey Pilgrim, but never once had I thought him malevolent or deliberately vicious. The shudder I’d felt slowly faded, and in deference to the death of a man who had tried so very hard to be a good I closed my eyes. I had no prayers to offer, for the goddesses I kept to were not the kind whose attentions would have been welcomed by the Pilgrim, and so I remained silent instead.
The roof that would have been above our heads had been ripped away by my own wroth, when I’d hunted down Kairos Theodosian meaning to kill him, and so the lazy summer breeze reached us unhindered. It shook me out of my daze, enough that I opened my eyes and looked up. What had been darkness above us, Masego’s grief and madness given shape, had became something softer. Almost wistful. It was closer to night than day, to my eye, but the shade of the twilight writ across the firmament of this realm was a pale and starry blue. Speaking not a word, I limped out of this cursed room. The summit of the tall stone stairs beyond the bronze gates allowed me to stand and take in the breathtaking sight splayed below: what had once been a ruin of dust and flame was now a realm in truth. The Hierophant’s devastating use of this broken realm had been turned into something beautiful: a sprawling kingdom of tall grasses and rolling hills, of shadowy rivers and secret paths. It was a warm evening, like a southern summer’s, yet the breeze was soft and its caress almost playful. It was the kind of night, I thought, that would be a pleasure to journey through.
I wondered if a young man called Tariq had once roamed a twilight much like this one, a very long time ago in a land far from here. If the echo of that memory had been enough to leave its mark on this place. For that this was the inheritance of the Peregrine there could be no denial: just as it had been set on the Twilight Crown, the pilgrim’s star shone above in the starry sky.
“It’s beautiful,” the Rogue Sorcerer quietly said.
I’d not even heard him approach, too deeply lost in my thoughts. Long leather coat trailing at his back, the last of the three heroes to have heeded my call came to stand at my right. He was looking not only at this starlit realm below but also had what had been made of thrice-broken Liesse. The City of Swans had partaken of life breathed into this place, and though it was not the same city that’d once been the jewel of southern Callow I could still see the traces of that place in its fresh face. The ruins had not been raised anew but the sight of them had been… eased by the growth of greenery. Tall shaded trees had become the pillars of slender basilicas, gutted churches turned into ethereal gardens of flowers in shades of dusk. Vines with umbral flowers bound together streets like strange arches and soft grass had grown through both pavestones and graveyards. Liesse, I thought, had become the City of Twilight. A resting place for pilgrims and the lost, bell towers and softs beds of moss awaiting all who’d wander to this cradle of tragedy. I found my throat choking at the sight. How could it not, when Tariq’s last gesture had been to make beauty out of the broken shards of my bitterest failure?
“The star’s always watching,” Archer softly said, having come to stand at my left. “You old rascal. Keeping an eye on it all, are you?”
How strange, that I found the thought comforting when the man had tried to kill me more than once.
“He always did,” Roland said, tone quietly fierce. “Gods, he was not a perfect man. And there are things he did, that he asked us to do… But he looked out for us. Even when it cost him. Especially when it cost him.”
It was not a grand eulogy, for a man who for good and ill had done so much for so many years, but I couldn’t truly mind. What kind of words could any of us say that would be more than a pittance to the living, breathing tribute to the Grey Pilgrim that was around us?
“I wished I’d never had to fight him,” I simply said, the honesty of it feeling a little too raw. “I wish it’d never come to this. But we so rarely get to choose, don’t we?”
“Then win, Black Queen,” the Rogue Sorcerer said, eyes burning as they met mine. “Because this was not nothing. Two great stars fell to forge this realm you promised, two servants of Above like few before and few will ever come again. It has to matter. Or else…”
He trailed off, though it was not a threat. It was almost a petition and more than a little desperate. Or else what did their lives mean? Their tears and blood and decades of bitter struggle to bring just a little light to Calernia? If the fall of such old and honoured stars meant not a thing, what could any of us ever hope to amount to?
“This war has only just begun,” I softly said. “It will take us to Salia, to forge a peace. It will take us to Keter, to visit upon the Dead King what he has so often visited upon us. But there’s another enemy, Sorcerer. She breaks kings with sentences and topples kingdoms with but the lightest of touches. None of this can end before she’d been killed. For good.”
Roland dipped his head, not in acceptance but at least in acknowledgement.
“It seems,” he said, “that we have much to speak about.”
That we did, I silently agreed, dipping my own head in a return of courtesy. But not here, not now. Not looking at what could either be taken as a last breath of life freely gifted or an entire realm made into the mausoleum of good intentions.
“Not dawn yet, I think,” Archer said. “But close. It might be time to go back, Catherine.”
She was right, I knew. The Pilgrim had promised that the manner of his death would assure there was no war between the Grand Alliance and my own armies, but his death would still be catastrophic to relations between my people and the opposition. The Tyrant of Helike, by now, would not doubt have crawled back to his armies and begun his hasty retreat. There would be fears to quell, explanations to give, and more duties to see to than there were hours to either night or day. I should go back, for though the triumvirate of Vivienne, Juniper and Hakram could see to much of the situation there were parts that could only be settled by my own intervention. Fearsome as those three could be, my reputation loomed taller still.
“Go,” I said. “I’ll follow.”
Indrani cast a look at me, half worried and half hesitant.
“Are you sure that-”
“Go,” I repeated, a tad more sharply.
Her jaw tightened with displeasure, but she did not test me further. I did not have it in me to be furious at Indrani for getting in my way tonight, not right now – it was like the Pilgrim’s death had replaced sentiment in me with some manner of exhaustion – but her actions there would not go unanswered. It would be a thorny knot to untangle, this mess we’d made together, for she had died and we’d both need knives sheathed if we were to help Masego out of the worst of his grief. But she’d not trusted me, in the end, even if her intentions had been guided by love of me. That would need to be addressed, lest the wound fester between us.
“Archer can guide you out,” I told Roland. “She has a knack for paths like these.”
He nodded, though his face was unsure.
“Come along, Rogue,” Archer said, tone thick with forced cheer. “We’re all in a need of a stiff drink after a night like this, and there’s none to be had here.”
No elaborate farewells followed, as they simply disappeared into the city below. Indrani would find a way out, as she had first found a way in when seeking Masego. The Lady of the Lake had shared knowledge with her I’d not asked the lay of, long aware that the keeping of her teacher’s secrets was one of the few things Indrani considered sacred. I sat, after they’d gone, resting my bad leg against the rough granite steps. But for all that I was tired, it was a restless of weariness that’d settled over me. Before long I was hobbling down into Liesse, through the broken palace of the proud and ancient House of Caen – gone from Callow, like the city they’d once ruled. Above me, shadows among the shade, crows flew beneath the starry sky. I had no destination in mind to guide my steps, little more than a wandered in a realm of wanderers. Feeling the breeze stirring my hair, cooling my sweat in the crook of my neck, I passed through the garden that’d been made of Liesse. I trailed my fingers through luminous bushes bearing wine red flowers, limped through fields of soft grass made silver by starlight. It was a surreal city, and one where it would be easy to become lost. Yet I came upon a place, in time, where the scent of old deaths lingered. It’d been a basilica, once, before the walls were shattered.
Now all that remained of whatever beauty there’d been were tall panes of stained glass whose colour had faded, whatever scene they’d once depicted now instead a mere game of blue shades. There had been pillars, within, and though half-crumbled they’d become intertwined with thick and twisty trees bearing small red fruits. Yews, I thought, and what had once been a temple of worship to the Gods Above had instead become a manner of shaded grove, leading to a yew elder and larger than any of the others. It towered tall and broad, its branches spreading out far in a great crown of leaves. The wind set something akin to chimes tinkling when it passed through the branches, and it was when I saw the face of those chimes I understood the source of the taste of death. The ragged remains of a tabard that’d once depicted the golden bells of House Fairfax trailed like streamers, tangled among them the broken shards of the armour last borne by the Good King Edward. Halfway sunken into the earth at the foot of the great tree the last Fairfax’s sword shone from an errant ray of light, the blade still pristine and sharp. I slowly approached, in almost reverent silence: the King of Callow had cowed the Hells themselves, for a time, and done it with little more than will and spite.
The crows threaded through the branches and took perch with only the slightest murmur of a sound heralding them, their shadowy feathers melding into the penumbra of the great yew. They looked, I thought, as if they belonged here. My fingers softly lid across the grip of the sword once wielded by Edward Fairfax, and I smiled mirthlessly.
“In northern Callow,” I said, “the yew is known as the tree of death. In the south and the heartlands it’s the elder trees they claim to be that omen, but even in Laure the story was told different.”
I flicked a glance upwards and found my patron goddesses silent yet watchful.
“It’s because of the Deoraithe,” I told them. “Their longbows, they’re made from yew. And for a very long time, there was no sight half as dreaded in Callow or Praes as a company of Daoine longbowmen. There were older superstitions, too, but in my eyes it was the centuries of reaping lives that hung death on the branches of yews.”
And still my only answer was silence.
“So this is how it goes,” I softly said. “I take up again the sword I lost in the Everdark, and bring war to the Crown of the Dead. It’s an old story. Well-worn, and strong for it.”
King Edward had been taller than me, I thought, with broader shoulders as well. And yet, I suspected that if ripped that sword free from the earth it would fit my hand perfectly. Better than any other blade ever hand.
“The world spins on,” I said. “No matter who lies buried. And so that is the sum of us: we fight and we die and if we’re lucky we’re remembered for a while still.”
All we’d schemed and struggled and bled, and still this night hadn’t belonged to any of us. How could it? When the crabs dragged each other down the only victor to be had was the bucket.
“No,” I murmured. “I think not.”
My fingers left the sword I would not claim.
“Am I not your high priestess, Sve Noc?” I said. “First Under the Night?”
“So you are,” Andronike said.
“In this, we are satisfied,” Komena said.
“Then as your priestess I make this claim – we can do better than this,” I called out to the twin shadows among the branches. “Than a ruin of a victory, handed to us by kindly hand. I don’t care if we’ve been tricked and tripped by the Intercessor or the Dead King or even fate itself. We can do better than this, and so this story has not come to an end.”
I laid my palm against the rough bark of the yew, looking up through the branches.
“I heard you, Good King,” I whispered. “Your warning. I hear and heed, so lend me your aid when I yet stumble.”
Under the twilight sky the great yew groaned and twisted, the scent of death in the air thickening until I could taste it on the tip of my tongue. From the crown of the tree a branch dropped, slender desiccated deadwood still echoing of defiance in the face of the end. I knelt to take it, and found it was of excellent height and yield for me to lean on as I walked.
“We will not go gently,” I promised to the tree-grave of the last Fairfax. “And we are not yet done.”
Turning my back to the grove abruptly, I limped away leaning on the yew branch-staff. The grounds I had tread I tread once more, returning to the summit of the City of Twilight. Through grass and grove, through thorns and flowers and streets of worn stone. Behind me, as if trailing, Sve Noc followed on inky wings. I climbed the great steps of granite, and as I forced open the great gates of bronze I had never closed two great crows claimed my shoulders as their perch. Within awaited silence and something else, for though the Grey Pilgrim still sat dead on his throne with the Saint sprawled at his feet they were not alone.
Like a solemn tribunal, or some aerie of angels, the Choir of Mercy stood vigil over its fallen champion.
Under the stars a multitude of tall and thin silhouettes stood, the only marks of their presence silhouettes like a heat shimmer and ever-spinning eyes like wheels of flame. There were dozens and dozens of them, all bent as if in grief. None turned as I entered the throne room and my own back was coated in starlight, but the weight of their attention was felt nonetheless. I could almost hear a song being sung, as if the wind was carrying to my ear parts of a faraway refrain, and what little I could make out was… heartbroken. Melancholy in a way I was not sure I – or any mortal – could truly understand. The barest fraction of that feeling was enough to put a stutter to my step.
“You actually loved him, didn’t you?” I said, voice wondering. “Or as close to that as you can.”
They answered not. Whatever manner of mourning the angels bore, they would not share it with me. It took a single step forward, and as if a sword had been unsheathed a myriad of burning, spinning eyes turned to me. I swallowed dryly, for though Sve Noc were at my side and I knew well their power the Choir of Mercy was older and colder both, when it deemed it necessary.
“You can’t bring him back,” I said. “I understand. There’s rules, and it’s not in your nature to make exceptions.”
The attention never wavered nor lessened in intensity.
“But I’m not you,” I said. “Your rules don’t bind me. And if you let me, I will.”
I suspected, that if not for the Sisters sinking their talons deep enough into my flesh I bled I would have passed out. The blinding light and heat I felt, for just a moment, would have seen me fall to my knees if not for the staff in my hand. And yet it’d not been strike, for within that heat and light I’d heard whispers and while the words I’d not understood their meaning I’d somehow grasped anyway.
“Why?” I repeated.
It was a fair question, I supposed.
“Because I can, so I should,” I said. “Because even when he was my enemy I did not believe him to be a bad man. Because…”
I struggled to find the words to express it, but perhaps the simplest truth was best.
“Because I don’t want to be at war with you or him,” I quietly said. “And the moment you choose to believe that, the war’s over.”
And I supposed I was a fool, thinking I could make peace with a Choir even if its virtue was that of mercy, but I owed it to all of us at leas to try.
“We kill you,” I said, “you kill us. The wheel keeps spinning, the world keeps bleeding. And maybe that can’t be mended, maybe there’s just something about mortals that’s all teeth and hunger and it’ll never go away no matter what we make of ourselves – but we can do better than this!”
I gestured at the room around us, the realm around us, but I meant more. I meant the armies below, at each other’s throats even in the face of annihilation. I meant the Named scraping each other raw until even the noblest beginnings and the finest intentions became knives to hack at each other with. I meant Praes, hungry and wealthy, and Callow, sated and poor, each capable of helping the other but forever clawing at themselves instead.
“Please,” I said. “I know you don’t make exceptions, and I won’t ask you to. All you need to do is to stand aside.”
We stood there, the Choir of Mercy and the Arch-heretic of the East, and a long moment passed.
They stood aside.
Heart beating wildly I limped forward, until I stood by Tariq’s corpse. He would have looked to be sleeping, if not for the sword through his heart. Night flickered through my veins, strengthening my limbs, and the Sisters flew up cawing like grim omens. I eased out the Saint’s blade, spilling blood all over myself, and dropped it to the side. And then, without warning, I stuck my arm into the Grey Pilgrim as the thief of Bestowal that I was. Three aspects awaited: a star, an eye and a prayer. It was the last I ripped out, a whisper of Forgive touching my mind. My fingers withdrew a small receptacle of wood, which I slid open with shaking fingers. There was a fine red powder within, and a power that would have blinded me if I’d tried to gaze upon it.
“Time to rise, pilgrim of grey,” I murmured. “There’s still work to be done.”
I blew out a breath, and the powder scattered across the dead man’s face. A long moment massed, once more, and my stomach tightened.
Then, above us in the sky, the pilgrim’s star winked out.
Tariq’s mouth opened to a ragged gasp, and within the depths of Liesse death was cheated for the third time at my hand.