“A house can be destroyed by a fortune spent and twenty years of exquisite scheming; or in less than an hour with a single well-thrown torch.”
– Dread Empress Massacre
I didn’t even step foot into my army’s camp, knowing that if I rested for even a moment I’d drop like a sack of flour. Truth be told, I was I no state to deal with the Tyrant of Helike if he decided to get clever with me. I was very nearly out of tricks, dawn had come and exhausted was the demure word for how bone-tired weary I was. But Archer and the Rogue were likely prisoners, and that meant sleep would have to wait a little longer. I had, though, absolutely no intention of getting clever back at Kairos. If he wanted to have a neat little rapier duel, all wits and triple meanings, then I was going to stroll into his fucking camp with a flying fortress full of sappers. I would have specified the sappers to be bloodthirsty but Hells, when had I ever met any that weren’t? Even Pickler got that unholy spring to her step when told her latest devices would be unleashed on enemy soldiers. So no, I’d not gone to camp to pick up an escort or a detachment of soldiers that’d look as impressive as they were useless under the dawning sun. Instead I’d gone to pick up my personal diabolical possibly-undead tame thing, and also Zombie.
“You are smirking most fetchingly, dearest,” Akua Sahelian noted. “As you only ever do when pondering unkindness at my expense.”
“Not a single part of it was untrue, though,” I mused.
“Then all hail Catherine Foundling, fae queen of our souls still,” the shade prettily smiled.
I could only resent the way the way sarcasm was actually an attractive look for her, instead of aggressively spiteful as it tended to for on myself. There was probably some dark magic at work, I told myself. Zombie’s saddlebags had been filled with the bare necessities, such as wine and munitions and a set of knives. And a pouch of wakeleaf, though it was the redleaf variant I felt tasted a little too strongly against the roof of the mouth. Still, considering Iserre was half a ruin and the closest town was several days of travel to the north it was a miracle my people had even managed to get their hands on that much.
“Which reminds me, actually,” I said. “Either of you catch sight of Larat and his posse after they made their exit?”
“No,” Hakram said. “And we did look, now that scrying has been restored. No one has a clue of where they’ve disappeared to.”
I let out a reluctantly impressed whistle.
“Larat, you magnificent bastard,” I murmured. “Good on you.”
I raised the flask of tonic-flavoured Dormer pale towards the sky in a toast.
“May you forever be someone else’s problem,” I said.
The last of the wine slunk down my throat, gone cold. The toast and respect that went with it I’d offered without rancour, even though his slipping the noose had meant trouble for my plans. As those plans had involved carving him open inside like a fish at market, though, I found that to be fairly done. That one-eyed fox had wanted to stroll into a strange new daw unfettered and unbound, no matter the costs, and had gotten exactly that. For all that the once-Prince of Nightfall was a monstrous old bastard, in the end he’d beaten both Fate and his own nature to claim his prize.
So very few of us could say the same.
“I think he might have been my favourite treacherous lieutenant,” I mused.
Akua, without ever moving from her textbook perfect horse-riding stance on one of the confiscated Helikean horses, conveyed her deep and genuine offence at my words.
“You can’t be my treacherous anything, dearest,” I drily said. “Aren’t you on the side of angels these days?”
“I’m sure some sort of arrangement can be reached with them,” she serenely replied, after gracing me with a pleased smile. “Perhaps a pact of some sort.”
“Are you suggesting diabolism be used on Choirs?” the orc got out.
“Finding the ‘morally righteous’ equivalent of blood sacrifice has been something of a riddle,” Akua candidly admitted. “Priests have been… less than supportive of my inquiries, when pressed.”
“Try helping people,” I suggested.
“That sounds positively horrid,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
I was at least two thirds certain she was joking, though. I took another look at her face, then amended to half. It was a work in progress, though maybe one of these days I’d have to sit her down along with Archer for a friendly talk about Why Other People, Who Are Not Us, Matter. Gods, I wondered if Black had ever been forced to have that with the Calamities. Not Sabah, I thought, as for all that she’d carried a ravenous man-eating monster within her she’d always been a decent woman. But Warlock or Ranger? Sisters, I’d pay good coin to have transcripts of that conversation. If Robber’s band of marauders were still putting on plays, we could even make an evening out of a theatrical reading. Mean thou, Black Knight, that Creation be more than the navel at which I gaze so pridefully? Prithee, these be lies. Godsdamned Ranger. The rising sun had begun to cast down unpleasant glare before we reached the edge of the League’s maze of camps, no doubt making for a strange sight. There were only three of us, after all, and Hakram was on foot. His longs limbs and the tirelessness of his Name allowed him to keep pace, so long as riders shied from anything faster than a trot. We’d certainly not gone unnoticed, at least, for now seven detachment of troops were hurrying out of the sea of League tents to greet us.
“Is that a bedsheet?” Hakram asked, cocking his head to the side.
The Helikean foot carrying what was quite likely a bedsheet stolen from some Proceran clotheslines, and therefore also the Hierarch’s personal banner, moved faster than the rest. It seemed like every city in the League had sent some people to meet us, including a thick pack of what I assumed to be Bellerophan infantry significantly outnumbering everyone else put together. Gods, but the armour they wore looked like it belonged in some war two centuries ago. So did the thickly-packed formations they advanced in, formations that would be reaped by wheat if they encountered a few lines of Praesi mages or even some swift-footed sappers.
“We are received in honour,” Akua said. “Queen of my heart, shall we proceed?”
I breathed out. Could be a trap. Wasn’t likely, considering Kairos had to know that breaking truce in any way at this point would see everyone else turning on him like rabid wolverines, but you never knew with the Tyrant. Just because he’d antagonized nearly everyone he could didn’t mean he wasn’t going to keep pushing his luck. If he were a reasonable sort of madman, he’d be a great deal less dangerous.
“Let’s,” I said. “As for courtesies to offer, I have only one thing to say.”
Hakram’s eyes found me, and Akua’s brow arched in invitation.
“Remember the first time I attended court in the Tower?” I said.
“Vividly,” the shade replied, lips quirking.
“Feel free to make that look polite,” I coldly instructed.
We resumed our advance towards the Leaguers, bearing no banner and offering no announcements. They clustered uneasily around each other, a band of mercenaries and militias and career soldiers whose allegiances were only loosely bound together by Named madness and happenstance, and awaited our arrival. It would have been customary to rein in the horses before them and speak, I knew. Diplomatic. I kept riding.
“Black Queen, we greet you,” one of the Helikean officers called out.
Hurriedly, I noted, as we’d not slowed in our advanced.
“You’re one of Kairos’,” I noted. “Run back to your master, soldier. Tell him if Archer and the Rogue Sorcerer are not freed and in full health by the time I reach him, I’ll rip out his fucking heart and feed it to Adjutant right here.”
I jutted a thumb at Hakram, who gallantly displayed every inch of fang there was to display. I’d been told he had impressive pearly whites, by orc standards. It was a lot of teeth, and none of it friendly.
“You cannot threaten-” the officer indignantly began.
“She just did,” Akua daintily sighed, as if put-upon by the man’s poor breeding. “Best start running now, for we’ll not slow in deference to the likes of you.”
“Treachery,” the call came from further down the field.
The Atalante contingent, by the looks of the banner.
“You knifed the rest of Calernia in the back at the Dead King’s behest,” I coldly replied. “And are now breaking the same truce you begged for last night. You have exactly once chance to make reparations before every army on this field marches against you.”
“Seeking extermination, this time, not surrender,” Akua casually added. “One does not twice allow a rabid dog to run free.”
Ah, and there was that Wasteland highborn breed of nastiness. I’d not missed in the slightest, though having it turned on my opposition was a refreshing novelty. We could have lingered further, reasoned with them, but that would imply that we were in less than complete control of this situation. That we needed to speak with them, rather than having granted them the privilege of being spoken to. So we resumed our advance as if we were untouchable, and so went untouched. No one, I realized with amusement, wanted to be the first to step forward. As much for fear of death as for the calamitous consequences that laying a hand on any of us would bring, I thought. However rude we were, they must be painfully aware they were a long way from home facing better and hostile armies more than twice their number – and that there would be no swift retreat from Arcadia, now that the shard had been settled into a newborn and broken realm.
So they moved aside, and two Helikean riders peeled off in haste to bring warning.
I was too tired to properly assess the enemy’s camp and so left that to Adjutant’s watchful gaze, contenting myself with noting that just like the getting parties their tents remained highly divided. This was not a great army, it was a coalition of smaller ones. On the field, even if they had significantly greater numbers than either my eastern coalition or the Grand Alliance individually I would bet on those over this mess. Helike and Stygia fielded fine hosts, but none of the others were of that quality. Arguably, now that Ashur had been broken the League of Free Cities was now the preeminent sea power of Calernia – but down here, on the ground and in Iserre? Juniper would eat these poor bastards for breakfast, and she’d actually lost battles to the Grand Alliance in this campaign. It was only the prospect of casualties that kept everyone’s sword in the sheath, and these days Kairos Theodosian was proving too much of a nuisance for that to keep being enough. Under our unfriendly gazes some attendants in servant robes came for us when we entered the edge of the camp, guides meant to bring us to the Tyrant of Helike and his ‘guests’. We followed, and so tasted the Tyrant’s warning pulsing blindly and dimly in the distance. The same invisible current I’d felt in Rochelant, and again made as a sword in Kairos’ hand. The Hierarch had returned, and though his ruinous leviathan of an aspect was still slumbering its presence could still be tasted in the air.
Waiting until it could wake again, and feed.
Neither of my companions had been exposed to it before, and I glanced at them in worry. Distant as the pounding was, faint like a sleeping dragon’s breath, it still trembled in the air. Adjutant, though remained as calm as ever in the face of it. And as for Akua, she simply cocked an eyebrow.
“Quaint,” she murmured.
“Quaint,” I repeated, disbelieving.
She smiled at me, golden eyes almost visible through the veil.
“Whatever else I am,” Akua said, “I am a Sahelian still. What a shallow chalice this would be to drink from, compared to the many heady madnesses of my forbears. My blood has known great sweeps of lunacy, heart of my heart, and this kind is not so great I would fear it.”
Well, who was I to deny that hard-headed arrogance couldn’t let you fight the run of the world? I’d never truly understand – could never – that hard Wasteland pride rooted in old blood and deeds always terrible and sometimes great, for it was a highborn pride. I was the daughter of orphanages, raised to Wasteland lessons on Callowan lips, and the only blood I trusted was that which my hand had spilled. But I would not fully deny the bones of Akua Sahelian’s vanity, for it was not fully unearned. We rode on, until a great pavilion awaited us and the guide-servants bowed, and only then did I dismount. The shade followed suit, and without waiting to be announced we strode within. To my utter lack of surprise Kairos Theodosian awaited within, not the Hierarch whose slumbering aspect I could still feel further in or even any of the greats from the other cities of the League. It was grimly satisfying to see that even a jackal’s grin could not hide the black eye I’d given him or his exhaustion. There were but a few gargoyles left to attend him, for near all those he’d brought with him in the seeking of Twilight had been broken by my own miracles. He was, I thought, slowly but surely running out of artefacts to spend.
“Catherine,” he affably greeted me. “In a fine temper, I see.”
We were deep in the Helikean camp now, surrounded by thousands soldiers whose loyalty to the Tyrant would be absolute. Unless we slew him with the first strike – unlikely, given the faint whisper of sorcery lingering within the tent – attacking him would start a fight I could not win. Yet my hand still itched with the desire to make a matching set of blackened eyes.
“Archer,” I said. “The Rogue Sorcerer. They’re in your hands.”
“Honoured guests,” he assured me. “Kept safe until you came to fetch them.”
“I have,” I bluntly told him. “Where are they?”
“They’ve been sent for,” Kairos said, “though there has been something of a complication.”
He could not lie, I knew. The Grey Pilgrim had seen to that. Yet he was not cripple in wits as he was in flesh and could easily deceive without outright speaking an untruth. Tariq, I thought, might have actually made him more dangerous. Knowing he couldn’t lie I’d been inclined to believe him, until I’d realized he’d never specified exactly who it was he’d sent for.
“Complication?” Adjutant asked in my stead.
“Archer, while having peacefully enjoyed her pick of our bottles earlier, now appears to have killed her way through the company of soldiers sent to fetch her,” the Tyrant sighed. “She’s now retrieved her armaments and is suspected to be coming to kill me.”
“And you would know this how?” Hakram asked.
“There was talk of beating me to death with one of my own gargoyles,” Kairos informed us. “Well, shouts to be more accurate.”
That did sound like Indrani, I’d admit to that.
“Your presence has since been known to her,” the odd-eyed king said. “One hopes it will be enough to stay her hand.”
I inclined my head.
“The Rogue Sorcerer?” I asked.
“Last I heard he was hesitating over which of the ancient tomes I’ve provided for his perusal he will keep. I’ve offered such a boon as a parting gift,” the Tyrant said.
Tiredness had slowed my wits, but not slowed them so much that I would not understand the implication here. The two Named that’d stumbled into his grasp had been treated very well, and there would be no trouble in retrieving them. They’d not been hostages, then, but instead a pointed invitation.
“You wanted me here, obviously,” I said. “Here I am.”
“Would you like a drink?” he offered.
“I’d like two days of sleep and to see you eat your own hand before a jeering crowd,” I casually replied. “Get on with it, Kairos. My patience wears thin.”
“There is no need for us to be uncivil,” the Tyrant of Helike chided me.
Akua’s head inclined towards me the slightest bit, a question asked. I replied with the ghost of a nod. If she wanted to speak, then by all means.
“A surfeit of treachery is the mark of an insecure hand,” the shade casually said.
“Did one of your most infamous emperors not style himself Traitorous?” Kairos said.
She laughed, rather cuttingly.
“Traitorous?” she smiled. “Oh, youth. You are barely even a Malignant.”
Hadn’t one of those started the War of Thirteen Tyrants and One? No, I decided, it’d been the First War of the Dead. Gods, the Praesi had had so many damned civil wars. Procer could try as it might – and most definitely had – it had a few centuries of catching up to do before it could even begin to rival the Wasteland in this regard.
“Third?” Hakram asked.
“Second, of course,” Akua daintily replied.
“Harsh,” he commented, undertone appreciative.
“You are tamer a beast than I believed you would be, Akua Sahelian,” the Tyrant of Helike said, tone friendly. “Learned to love the hand that cowed us, have we?”
So he’d been able to see through that, had he? I was too tired to be afraid, and not certain I would have been even if I’d been well-rested and sober. Kairos could shout this on every rooftop across Calernia, if he wanted to: he’d burned too many bridges to still be believed.
“I see now, why you so easily strike a chord with so many of them,” the woman who’d been Diabolist said, offering almost fond amusement. “You are, in essence, a poor man’s Carrion Lord.”
Gods, but I’d forgotten how genuinely vicious she could be with a turn of phrase. How easy it was, now that the sharpness had been dulled and turned to teasing and bantering insult, to forget that while I was playing in the streets of Laure and skipping my lessons Akua had spent her days learning to flay the pride of others with mere sentences. To play all the deadly games of the Wasteland highborn, those beautiful and elegant monsters with eyes of gold and poisonous tongues. Kairos’ face tightened, imperceptibly. Were less tired, less raw, I suspected it would not have. But it did, and the woman who’d once been the Heiress saw the weakness bared.
“So eager to offer insult,” Kairos said, tone friendly. “Shall we play that game, then? I know of the rules.”
“Then you have played poorly,” Akua said, scathing. “Look at you now, Tyrant of Very Far Away. You pretend it power that you can greet us without the greats of your League but we both know different, don’t we? It is an admission that if they see you bleed, they will turn on you like hungry wolves.”
“Am I to take lesson from you?” Kairos grinned, red-eyed and mutedly furious. “Oh, that strikes me as folly.”
“I have seen boys like you played to death by the dozen,” Akua said, almost gently. “Minds like pretty baubles of glass, thinking themselves untouchable for their sharp edges. It does not take brilliance or treachery to end the likes of you, did you know? All it takes is a thick enough boot.”
A flicker of power, but not in here. Outside, and familiar. Discretely I gestured at Hakram. If it was Roland, I would prefer for them to await without entering. For looking at Akua now I saw cruelty like frost, yes, but not only that: I also saw a woman lancing an old and festering wound, and of that I would not brook interruption. Adjutant quietly left the pavilion, the gargoyles following him with their eyes but neither the Tyrant not the once-Diabolist even noticing.
“And yet you pair me to the man who called your kind to heel,” Kairos idly said. “Who took the proud High Lords of the Wasteland for mere horses to be broken in, and then proved the truth of that contempt.”
“A pale imitation, in truth,” Akua mused. “Armies and cleverness and parlour tricks, only without everything laudable in our man. Even made a shivering ghost, still he commanded enough loyalty for armies and pupils and companions to seek him. You? Victor and surrounded by armies, you’ve ruined yourself and call it brilliance. You are alone.”
“So are we all,” Kairos Theodosian said, and it was too harshly said for it to be pretence. “They beat you and fed you, Akua Sahelian, with pain and scraps of affections – until like a loyal hound you licked the cruel hand. The apprentice did to you as the teacher did to your entire people. And now you put on their masks and speak their empty creed, but that is a hollow thing isn’t it? Compared to the truths you can still feel slithering through your blood, those that whisper of greatness instead of submission.”
“I am more than blood,” Akua Sahelian hissed. “I am more than what I was made from. But you, Kairos Theodosian? You are the apostle of the cage, the congregant of scrapped iron. And what has that made of you, Tyrant of Least and Less? You bargain with every change of the wind, and every time find return diminished. You have run out of coin to sell yourself with. You have made an enemy of all the world, and so you no longer have place in it.”
“I am a droplet in the tide that will drown Creation,” the Tyrant of Helike smiled, eye red like fresh blood.
“You are yesterday,” Akua said. “That is the sum whole of you. And scream and wail as you will, that is all you’ll ever be.”
And, chin high and back straight, she turned. She walked out without another word and left behind her oppressive silence. I watched Kairos, and in turn he watched me. Like a furnace lit and closed, the rage could be seen glowing at the edges of him. The tent was opened a fraction, even as he continued trying to master himself.
“Archer found the Rogue and followed him here,” Hakram told me in Kharsum. “Both are fine.”
I inclined my head in acknowledgement without turning and the tent closed.
“You made a deal with the Bard, while we were out there,” I said, tone even.
“A greater game is in the works than you suspect,” the Tyrant of Helike said. “She is no ally of mine.”
“The rest I could stomach,” I mildly said. “But the Bard? You burned a bridge with that. Still. There’ll be a conference of the great powers and you’ll have your seat.”
“As was promised,” he said.
“As was promised,” I agreed.
I turned and began to limp out.
“We have more to discuss, Black Queen,” Kairos called out.
I glanced at him.
“No,” I said. “We don’t. You want an audience? Crawl to my camp. You ought to know how, after last night.”
To the sounds of his anger and the chittering of gargoyles I walked out of the tent and did not look back until I’d brought my people safe to camp.