“Negotiation with your ruler, my lord, is like treading the edge of a hidden pit filled with man-eating tapirs. Unrelated, but before we further discuss taxation would you take a single step to the left?”
– Dread Empress Atrocious
Dawn broke through the night sky, revealing bared steel.
That, I considered, was a lot of swords. Shame about the way the people wielding those seemed inclined to point them in my direction. Princess Rozala, who was here for some reason, immediately began shouting for the pack of Levantine warriors surrounding us to sheathe their blades, which went largely ignored. Almost like some Proceran princess screaming out orders at people her ancestors had invaded hadn’t gone over well with this particular crowd. Who’d have thought? Hakram, who was there because he was a prince among men, strode forward ignoring all the shouting and the foreign priests looking like someone had kicked over their anthill. After going through his cloak pockets he produced a nice little wooden pipe and stuffed it with wakeleaf, at my unspoken invitation putting it up against my lip and scratching out a match to light it. A few puffing breaths later I breathed in the smoke, breathed it out and let out a pleased moan before facing the angry shouting crowd.
“Right,” I got out around the pipe’s lip, “you all seem to be very concerned about something and I don’t want to, uh, diminish that. But I also don’t speak Lunara, so we’re at a bit of an impasse.”
“That was mostly Ceseo, in truth,” the Grey Pilgrim rasped out.
His speaking triggered another round of shouting while I pondered the complexities of smoking a pipe without having a free hand for it. I had one holding up Tariq’s doddering frame, slipped under his shoulder to let him stand, while the other was busy keeping me up by leaning on my staff. Our journey here through Twilight Throneless had been somewhat less than graceful, though I’d been rather amused by the fact that the first set of stairs we’d encountered on our way out of Liesse had probably come closer to killing either of us that night than Kairos.
“Figured they’d be a little happier to see you, Tariq, I’m not gonna lie,” I mused. “Would you care to translate?”
The old man cocked his head to the side.
“To put it delicately,” the Peregrine said, “questions are being raised as to the authenticity of my person.”
“Oh?” I mouthed back, grinning nastily around my pipe. “Did someone call you an undead abomination yet? That’s always been one my favourites.”
“You’re enjoying this a great deal more than you should,” the Grey Pilgrim muttered.
“Someone else being called that?” I murmured. “Never. That would be highly petty of me, after all.”
A heartbeat passed.
“Maybe they’ll name you Arch-heretic of the West,” I suggested. “Wouldn’t that be something?”
I wasn’t sure whether what shook him was a cough of a snort, but it ripped through his frame suddenly enough it very much did become a cough. My use of his resurrection trick was apparently a little rough around the edges compared to his personal touch, and he’d not been a young man to begin with. And if that hadn’t been enough, I still remembered what it’d felt like having an aspect cut out of me. Tariq had been dead when I’d ripped Forgive out of his corpse, so he’d been spared the inhuman pain I’d felt when Masego carved Seek out of my soul, but losing a third of your Name was nothing something to be shrugged off. Especially when you’d had your aspects as long as the Grey Pilgrim had. A quartet of Levantines seemed to be getting deferred to by even the Lanterns, who were visibly itching to have a go at Tariq and I, and one’s familiar face told me why: Razin Tanja was among them, which meant they were Blood. I waved at him from the Pilgrim’s side, wiggling my hand against the old man’s flank, but my treasured acquaintance seemed rather offended by the act. Fancy that, I drily thought. I’d always got on so well with Levantines.
“Queen Catherine, please,” Princess Rozala shouted in Lower Miezan. “At least answer the accusations-”
“My return was wrought,” the Grey Pilgrim said, weak voice firming, “under the auspices of the Ophanim.”
“Forgiveness, Peregrine,” a towering muscle slab of a man said, “yet if the corpse of the Grey Pilgrim were to be so defiled, it would speak as you do. Truth must be ascertained.”
I glanced at Hakram, who’d fallen it at my side and was nonchalantly ignoring the way the few hundred warriors surrounding us had yet to put down their swords or even lapse in their general glowering. I drew on the pipe, letting the wakeleaf sink down my throat and into by lungs before breathing it out through my nose. It burned a tad – I usually blew it out – but not unpleasantly.
“So,” I drawled. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a flask of Vale summer wine stashed away in that cloak?”
“I could only get my hands on Dormer pale,” Adjutant apologetically said.
My lips twitched.
“See, now I know that’s a lie,” I replied.
“This is going to be a hand joke, isn’t it,” he sighed, sounding resigned.
“If I say yes,” I murmured, “are you going to lose it?”
I shamelessly chortled at my own joke and regretted it not a bit. His jaw muscles twitched in what was either suppressed amusement or the sudden urge to bite off my face, and not metaphorically speaking.
“Your Majesty, would you start taking this seriously?” Princess Rozala hissed. “This could easily devolve into a battle. Already forces are gathering, all bloody chaos requires is a spark.”
I glanced at her, brow rising, then looked at Hakam.
“It’s looking like Hasenbach’s riding her hard to keep you alive and happy,” he told me in Kharsum.
“She must just love that,” I replied in the same.
Not even the harsh syllables of the main orc dialect entirely managed to hide my petty glee at the revelation, from the looks I got. I sighed and began helping Tariq off of me.
“Need my stick, old bones?” I asked. “I’ll let you borrow it if you promise to give it back.”
“I’ll stand, thank you,” the Grey Pilgrim sighed. “I will have to grow used to having broken mine.”
I cast a look at the middle-aged warrior who’d very politely just told Tariq they were going to have to check if he was my dead corpse-puppet, mentally going through what I knew of Levantine commanders in Iserre. That was Yannu Marave, probably, though I couldn’t be sure from his face-paint as I could not remember the colours of the Champion’s Blood at the moment.
“Lord Marave, is it?” I probed.
“It is so, Black Queen,” he calmly replied.
“Word of advice,” I said. “When you have your priestlings poke at the Peregrine, tell them to be gentle.”
“Truth must be ascertained,” he replied, eyes tightening.
“Sure,” I said. “But if they get too rough, after tonight I’m guessing the Ophanim might end up ascertaining them all over the ground. I mean, it’s not my hill so I’ve no horse in this race, but think of the poor Proceran peasant who’ll end up stuck cleaning that up.”
I bet Alamans princes didn’t even tip, too, they seemed like the type.
“We will see,” Lord Marave said.
I had a free hand, now that Tariq was standing on his own, so I used it for the very important task of having another pull of my pipe and spewing out the smoke into the crisp winter morning air. Then, resting my staff against my chest, I extended an open palm towards Hakram and saw it filled with a nice little silver flask. Had to unscrew the cap, but a sniff told me it really was Dormer pale inside. I’d be damned, hadn’t thought any Callowan drink would make it this far out. The surprise brought back sharp remembrance of Ratface, whose days as a quartermaster had seen him taken as some sort of contraband magician, and the ache of my dead friend’s absence was a lingering pang. I smoothed it away from my face, pulling at the wine. A pair of Lanterns were not helping the Pilgrim stand, gently but firmly inspecting him.
“I’m guessing, Lord Yannu,” I said, “that you want me to stick around until that little charade there is over with.”
“I accept your kind offer, Black Queen,” the Lord of Alava said.
Someone was letting the inch I’d given them go to their head, looked like.
“Put words in my mouth again, Marave, and that’ll be the last time you have a tongue,” I casually replied, with a nice friendly smile.
The warriors around us didn’t like that, or at least not my tone. I wasn’t clear on how many of them spoke Lower Miezan. The other three of the Blood – the older woman had to be the Lady of Vaccei, who I remembered had grown children, while by elimination the last was the Lady of Tartessos – didn’t either, though none spoke out to take me to task over the threat. Almost like they were realizing they were trying to keep the Queen of Callow prisoner, breaking truce in the process. I allowed myself a single appreciative glance at the Lady of Tartessos, whose bronze and green paint paired with a rather tight leather vest made for an attractively unusual look. Truthfully if Lord Yannu had been twenty years longer he might have been the one to draw a second look but as it was he was both at least twice my age and getting on my nerves.
“No offence was meant,” the Levantine lord said.
He didn’t sound all that apologetic, which made sense as I’d yet to hear an apology.
“Now, for the sake of diplomacy I’ll tolerate this,” I said. “But I’d like the lot of you to consider the amount of insults you’ve been laying at my feet this morn, after the trouble I went through to save your ungrateful hides.”
“You claim debt, Black Queen?” the Lady of Vaccei asked.
“I claim slights,” I idly replied. “Three now and your tab’s still open. Best start thinking now of how restitution will be offered for them.”
I was willing to make peace with these people, to make alliances and sign treaties and fight by their side. But I would not allow that willingness to be confused even a moment for fragility. If they offered insults, they’d pay up for them – or else. I had no intention to allow either myself or Callow to be made the rented mule of the Grand Alliance in the war to come. Grace would be answered with grace, but disrespect with the same thing as well. The talk of restitution went over about as well one would expect when spoken by a villain, but in those haughty faces I saw something like abashment as well. No one who spent as much time going around talking about honour as the Dominion’s highborn did could be unaware that they were pushing me far enough a less temperate woman might have chosen violence as answer. Oh Gods, I thought, pulling at my pipe. You knew a manner of thinking was awful skewed when I could be counted as temperate by it. One of the Lanterns, speaking rhythmic prayers in what might still have been Ceseo for all I knew, brought forth a long spike of Light. She touched it to the Pilgrim’s skin, near the wrist, and that was then the Choir of Mercy took offence.
Well, I’d warned them. The rest was on their heads.
There was a ripple of power by now familiar to me, a taste of flame and smoke and the beat of wings, and before it could draw blood the Light winked out. The Lantern fell to her knees, stunned, and began babbling in one of the Levantine tongues. I glanced at Hakram, pulling at my pipe, but the orc shrugged. He had no idea either then. I turned to Princess Rozala, realizing only then she’d been bearing a truce banner this entire time. Gods, I was more out of it than I’d thought. I almost asked why she’d been made flag-bearer, but to be honest the true reason might not be as amusing as what my imagination was providing so it’d be a shame to break the illusion so soon.
“I don’t suppose, Your Grace, that you speak… that,” I said, somewhat vaguely.
“Still Ceseo,” Princess Rozala said. “They use it for formal conversations even in northern Levant. I’m not fluent, but she seems to be saying she has lost the ‘grace’.”
I cocked my head to the side.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” I said.
“Again,” Hakram helpfully contributed.
I would have gestured obscenely at him, were my hands not full. Truly, my Adjutant’s wiles were without match.
“They stripped her of the right to use the Light, then,” I whistled. “That’s as clear a verdict as you’ll get.”
I was not, apparently, the only one to think so. It was only Yannu Marave, at first, but within moments a handful of warriors followed suit and from there on it was like levees breaking: before the bone-tired Grey Pilgrim the men and women of Levant knelt. I could feel the tiredness withdrawing from my wary bones, though it must be illusion. I’d been at the end of my rope hours ago, by now I was dangling in the void. I sniffed at the flask in my hand once more.
“Hakram, is there anything aside from wine in there?” I asked.
“A Praesi alchemical tonic,” he admitted.
My brow rose.
“Didn’t think to mention that before I drank it?” I said.
“You have been awake for nearly twenty hours, Catherine,” he said. “And few of them restful.”
“Potions are always hollow strength,” I grunted.
I didn’t further mention it, though, for cheat or not the tonic’s effect was pushing back the moment where I’d collapse in my bed for three days by a few hours yet. Might be I wouldn’t need that long before I crawled under a set of warm covers but I might as well be fully awake for the time it did end up taking. I took another sip from the flask. It might just be the lack of sleep talking, but the wine might actually taste better with the tonic in it. It took the edge of the sweetness of – oh Gods, I’d been spending too much time with Akua lately if I’d seriously been thinking about that. Next thing you knew I’d be talking about what poisons paired well with an Aksum sour, and what kind of a dress you should wear when crushing your enemies underfoot. Probably something red, I mused, depending on how literal the crushing was. The winding turns of my life had made me rather depressingly familiar with how difficult blood could be to get out of clothes. I forced myself to pay attention to what the Pilgrim and the Levantines were doing, which from the look on Malanza’s face must be rather impressive.
Well, they did make a pretty painting. I’d at least concede that much. Tariq, weary and bloodstained and victorious, surrounding by a ring of kneeling warriors in steel and paint as the sun rose above them all. Unfortunately, pretty as this all was I was beginning to lose patience with it. If the Dominion wanted to get all ceremonial about the Peregrine returning to them all the better, but they could go about it without my attendance. It was also rather ungainly that myself, Hakram and a Proceran princess were the only people on this hill not kneeling to the Pilgrim. Didn’t particularly make me want to take a knee to good ol’ Tariq, mind you, but we stood out a mite. Adjutant looked askance at me, but I shook my head. Hakram Deadhand had no need to kneel to me, so why should he kneel to anyone at all? The Grey Pilgrim addressed his countrymen in one of their languages, sounding as if he was admonishing them, but even then they all stubbornly remained kneeling save for the four of the Blood. I was occupied wondering whether it would be rude to, well, leave after I’d finished smoking my pipe when the four aristocrats were calmly addressed by the Pilgrim and turned to us.
“We are told this was wrought by your hand, Black Queen,” Lord Yannu Marave gravely said.
“Mercy allowed it, as the Peregrine said,” I honestly replied. “And it was not without price for all involved.”
Least costly to me, who’d merely tossed away the chance in the future that one dear to me could be stolen back from death, but it’d been a price still. Chances like that one came only once, when Creation’s writ conspired to deliver them into your hand, and spurning what had been offered would ensure there was no repetition.
“Honour was given,” the Lady of Tartessos said.
“Honour was given to all Levant,” the Lady of Vaccei said. “This we agree.”
“And so honour must be returned in kind,” Razin Tanja gravely said.
So, I idly wondered, what kind of a largely ceremonial gesture would be made. Would concession be made, a declaration that I was not truly Arch-heretic of the East? No, I decided, not that. It’d been a conclave of several priesthoods that named me that, even if they were influential enough to force the Lanterns to agree it wouldn’t be enough. Amusedly, I wondered if I was about to be made some manner of Blood. Not one of their own, of course, but recognized as some Callowan equivalent. I did remember that for all that their five great lines held the power and influence, other Named were granted some privileges as well. As far as Levant was concerned, being Named was being nobility. Catherine Foundling of the Squire’s Blood, I thought. Well, it’d been a long year. I could use the laugh, even if diplomacy dictated it must be had behind closed doors where these touchy nobles could not hear it.
“The Champion’s Blood endorses Callow’s petition to join the Grand Alliance,” Lord Yannu Marave said. “In my name, I speak this, as the Lord of Alava.”
“The Brigand’s Blood endorses Callow’s petition to join the Grand Alliance,” Lady Itima Ifriqui said. “In my name, I speak this, as the Lady of Vaccei.”
“The Slayer’s Blood endorses Callow’s petition to join the Grand Alliance,” Lady Aquiline Osena said. “In my name, I speak this, as the Lady of Tartessos.”
“The Binder’s Blood endorses Callow’s petition to join the Grand Alliance,” Razin Tanja said. “In the name of myself and my kin, I speak this, as the heir to Malaga.”
They were, I understood after a moment of silent disbelief, deadly serious. Because for them this wasn’t about treaties and interest and Calernia’s balance of power – it was, old-fashioned as the thought was, about honour. What had moved their tongues was the same thing that’d been the source of indignation that’d seen Captain Elvera chastise me even as my prisoner for daring to suggest she might go back on her word when released. What lay at the heart of Praesi and Procerans I could understand, for it was not so different for all the posturing and castigations that both so freely threw. This, though? I would call it some sentimental ardour coming through in a moment of weight, but I was coming to grasp that was a mistaken understanding. This was good as law to them, wasn’t it? Returning boon to even those they believed to be in Below’s grasp, when boon was given. Honour, the way they spoke of it, was not something I could understand. It might be one needed to be born in their lands, to grasp it as they did. But my own people knew of debts, of scores settled, and perhaps those were not tenets so estranged as I might once have believed.
“I will not speak for the Pilgrim’s Blood,” Tariq said. “Now or ever. Yet I will speak of this to the Holy Seljun, Queen Catherine. And I swear now that the Majilis will speak as one, endorsing the petition of the Kingdom of Callow.”