“It is said that when his Chancellor told him the scheme to release a culling plague would cause rebellion, Dread Emperor Vile thoughtfully replied that should this be the case he could always release a second one.”
– Introduction to ‘Thirteen and One’ by Hakim of Kahtan, the Haunted Scholar
I woke up knowing two things: were more than halfway to dusk and that my leg hurt.
Gods, the throbbing was atrocious. Like someone was taking a hammer to my knee with every breath. I was tempted to reach for the Night before I’d even opened my eyes, to weave it so that coolness would sink into fevered flesh and the pain would recede to a dull and distant beat. Instead I forced myself to unclench my teeth and breathed in and out slowly, soothingly. I’d already pushed my limits last night more than was wise, cheating my body’s due once more would only worsen the eventual settling of the debts. No, best to feel the harrowing pulse now when I had yet to see demands made of my time rather than putting it off until the cup tipped regardless of what I wanted. I let out a shuddering breath and opened my eyes, taking in the dim lighting within the tent. I’d settled onto a padded armchair to sleep instead of a bed, which no doubt would have made things even worse with my leg if someone hadn’t propped both of them up on footrest while I slept. As usual, I was left to wonder about who it was that’d struck a devil’s bargain in my name to arrange my meeting Hakram. In truth it was coincidence, I thought, though perhaps of that pointed kind that some might call fate. And it wasn’t like that relationship had been made of thin air, willed into existence – it had taken time and trust and understanding. But how many people in Creation went through their lives without ever encountering someone who understood them even half as well as he and I did? It might not be providence, but it would be a lie to say that villains did not get golden luck of their own sometimes.
I let a few breaths pass, two sensations warring over mastery of my body. The loud and strident call of pain in my leg and the sort of earthly satisfaction one got from much needed sleep. The pleasant lethargy that lingered until you stretched, telling you a need had been seen to. I embraced the former to drown out the latter and sought further distraction by taking in the tent. The reason I’d ended sprawled in an armchair instead of a bed was but a few feet away: Masego still lay still on his cot, hands folded over his chest as it slowly rose and lowered. Indrani had fallen asleep on him when seated on his bedside, forehead on his side as she lightly snored. And, by the looks of the sheet beneath her mouth, drooled. Well, we’d all had a long night. The folding chair she was still seated on was precariously balanced on its two front feet, anchored only by her weight and leaning against the cot. I resisted the urge to suddenly shout just to see her stumble on the ground, though it was a close-run thing. To my surprise, there was another within the admittedly cramped tent. In another armchair, curled up like sleeping cat, Vivienne was clutching at a blanket and sleeping so heavily she might as well be dead. I wasn’t the only one who was a fragile little mortal these days, it was true, and her hours of waking had been almost as troublesome as mine. While I would not hesitate a moment to ruin Archer’s sleep, Vivienne at least should get to keep her slumber for a while yet.
There were two layers over me, my cloak and a thicker blanket above it, so I softly dropped the latter on the ground and with a muted grunt pulled the former around me. Gods, even with the brazier in the corner the air was cool and I’d shrugged off quite a few of my clothes for comfort. Barefoot, I slid onto the footrest and back into my discarded boots, tightening the straps. Pain in leg spiked, which did not bode well for walking out of here. I reached out blindly and without fought, but my fingers closed around my staff. I almost started, eyes narrowing as I turned to look at the dead wood. Had I remembered where I’d propped it up last night, somewhere in the back of my mind? Or had it just been where it needed to be? Didn’t matter, I ultimately decided. It was meant only to help me walk, not to serve as a weapon or a tool of power. It could not fail me in an hour of need if I never relied on it for more than what any stick could provide. I pushed myself up, swallowing a moan of pain, and took a few hobbling steps. It got better after a bit, though never less than unpleasant. Finding myself close to Indrani and Masego’s sleeping forms I allowed myself to take them in for a moment, Masego most of the two. It’d been near a year now, hadn’t it? How strange, that someone who’d been nothing to be for most my life could come to be missed to sorely when we were now parted. It wasn’t even that Zeze was the one among my friends I saw the most. That’d always been Hakram. But there’d always been a manner of comfort in knowing that Masego was close by, even if he’d disappeared into a tome or an experiment for a few days. From the moment we’d met he’d so rarely been afar, even if not together. Until he’d left for Thalassina. I could sense a discreet working of Night on him, woven to keep another appraised of his health, and that served as fresh reminder of what our third time in Liesse had personally cost him.
When he woke, it would not be pretty. There’d be many among my fresh allies howling for punishment, and the loss of his sorcery would not necessarily be enough to appease. They weren’t even wrong, I thought, for though he’d done it in grief and while manipulated by the Dead King he had come within an hour of killing hundreds of thousands. More, even. If the realm that’d become the Twilight Ways had crashed into Iserre, it would have taken more than this battlefield with it. How many more thousands lived in the principality’s cities, its towns and countryside? No small number, and most of that civilians. Penance would have to be found, I thought, though delicately doled out. Already returning to lucidity would make him behold in full the truth that his fathers were gone, but that anguish would be paired with his sorcery being taken. That would… take time to accept, I suspected. I would not pretend to truly understand every part of the complex relationship Masego had with magic, but I suspected it would not be too different from losing a dear friend or a spouse for him. But we’re back, I thought, looking at the sleeping pair. Vivienne was not far, and though Hakram would already be busying himself with one of the thousand little hidden things that kept my world spinning he was close as well. After months in the dark and split across the face of Calernia to seek our own truths, we were finally together again. Grim as the days to come were, the Woe had found each other once more.
Whatever doom lay approaching behind the horizon, it would find us waiting and bearing sharp knives.
Swallowing a wince as I leaned down, I picked up my blanket and softly laid it on Archer’s shoulders. I brushed back a lock of hair that’d tumbled over her ear, fingers lingering as I acknowledged that there would be need to settle matters personal as well eventually. Though Indrani has spoken it nonchalantly enough as we chased victory in Liesse, the admission that she loved the sleeping man she was drooling on was no small thing. Out in the open it was no longer as a butterfly’s wingbeat, easily ignored or taken for illusion. Most of what would have to be settled in there would have to be seen to by the pair of them, and I had no place in it, but only most. I’d been sharing a bed with Indrani regularly since that first time in the Everdark, but it might be for the best for that to cease until boundaries had been clearly drawn for them both. Or disappointments had, if it was to be that. Masego was in no way mandated with returning that affection, after all. And someday I wondered if he even could. That he had no interest in bedplay was well-worn knowledge, but he’d displayed disinterest in more than that. There were many ways to love someone, and not all involved skin or pining sighs. They’d find their balance, I knew. Or make peace with the way they could not. We were all too tightly bound for such a small thing to wound.
Being a good friend when the mood struck me, I slid a few small firewood logs under the lifted feet of Archer’s chair so she’d not topple when she inevitably woke. I limped out quietly, feeling filthy with sweat and soot and blood. The thought of a warm bath or even a basin of hot water ferociously attractive, but I’d not eaten in too long and drunk quite a bit over the last day and night. Best get breakfast before that came back to haunt me. The thought was enough to work an appetite, and as it happened there was an open campfire not far. The two silhouettes by it I knew well, and was greeted by amused smiles when I leaned over the fire to smell at the iron pot being heated.
“Tea?” I said, surprised.
“One of Aisha’s blends,” Hakram replied. “It ought to help with the leg, if only a little.”
Adjutant knew well my reluctance to cheat the discomfort for too long, so it wouldn’t be an herb meant to kill the pain. Maybe one of those Wasteland herbs that helped with the flow of blood? Eh, I’d ask later. Instead I made Akua move further down the old stone and sat myself with a grunt, hands rising to accept the mug of tea the orc had just poured. I sniffed once more, but though the smell was vaguely familiar I couldn’t quite put the finger on what had gone in it. I blew out the mist that wafted up, ignoring the increasing number of eyes I could feel on me. This part of the camp would be restricted, I thought, but there’d still be soldiers. It wouldn’t be long before word spread I’d woken. The prominence of Lower Miezan in both Callow and Praes meant that gossip still flew with swift wings no matter who ended up joining the ranks of my armies.
“I’m guessing that clever little Night-weave on Masego is your work,” I said to Akua.
She inclined her head.
“His health remains within my expectations,” she said. “Though it may be some time still until he fully recovers.”
My brow rose.
“Losing the magic didn’t knock him out,” I pointed out. “I did.”
“You only pre-empted the natural course,” she told me. “You may think of it as Lord Hierophant having recently gone under a chirurgeon’s knife.”
“Like when I lost an aspect,” I murmured.
“That was a metaphysical wound,” Akua disagreed. “This is physical. The body must acclimate itself to the absence of magic.”
“And typically how does that go?” I frowned.
“It is not a phenomenon I am much familiar with, for in the Wasteland is it exceedingly rare for one to lose sorcery without death ensuing,” she admitted. “And I no longer have a storied library to expand my learning, much as I would like to.”
The Sisters might know, I thought. Or Roland, considering part of his Name apparently involved the ‘confiscation’ of magic.
“I see no reason to worry,” Akua assured me. “Though he should remain weakened for a span, he should wake much sooner. It is exhaustion, not forced torpor.”
I slowly nodded. Still, I’d not gamble with Masego’s health if I could help it. Behind me the sound of eggs on a pan caught my attention: Hakram had cracked three, as I usually took, and was frying them on the open fire.
“I’ll get you a conversation with the Rogue Sorcerer,” I told Akua. “You should be able to get use out of that.”
She inclined her head in agreement. I claimed a bowl myself, as Hakram’s sole hand was already occupied, and watched with mild bemusement as Akua Sahelian heeded his instructions and got out a small pot of salt before sprinkling a few touched of it on my eggs. He deftly turned them afterward, using only his wrist. There was still half a cookpot’s worth left of stew – horse, since we were starting to run low on other fresh meats, and I ended up digging hungrily into a bowl filled with both. The tea took me longer to get through, for it tasted bitterer than I preferred, but I was not drinking it purely for pleasure. It was a pleasant meal, my two companions keeping the conversation going on matters of no great import while I only occasionally interjected a grunt of agreement or the opposite. Apparently the heartlands of Procer used a great deal more salt in their meals than I was used to back home, since it could be brought in cheap from the great salt pans on the western coast of Neustria and Brus. I stretched a bit afterwards, pleasantly full in a way that I’d never truly known how badly I missed until I could be again.
“Right,” I finally sighed. “Lay it on me, then. What did I miss while I slept?”
“In truth, nothing particularly pressing,” Hakram said, to my surprise. “Arnaud Brogloise has sent messenger to request an audience when it is convenient for you. He’ll be approaching you in the name of the First Prince, since the powers she granted him have yet to expire. I’d consider what he has to say more representative of the situation in Salia than what Princess Rozala will speak to.”
“But it’s not pressing,” I said. “Why?”
“I expect he’s still going through the partial text of the Accords I passed to him,” Hakram said.
I didn’t reply immediately, though I almost chastised him. We’d discussed passing that along to the Procerans in advance of the conference that would most likely be held in Salia – I couldn’t see Hasenbach leaving the city at the moment, she’d be leaving the Highest Assembly to its own devices – but I’d been more inclined to Princess Rozala, or even the now-former Princess Sophie Louvroy. The latter was one of Hasenbach’s loyalists, the one sent to keep an eye on the army, which implied a degree of trust. On the other hand, Arnaud Brogloise had turned out to be her spy and empowered envoy. He was, objectively, the better pick: not only was it assured that whatever he saw would end up in Cordelia’s ear, he had the authority to speak on her behalf before we got to Salia. And though dear old Arnaud obviously had very few compunctions with killing, he’d been able to play some highly perceptive Proceran royals for fools. For years. Malanza was more general than steward, by my reckoning, and to my knowledge not a particularly skilled intriguer. No, Brogloise was the right choice. In some aspects, anyway. I’d rather have the Princess of Aequitan at my side than on the other one, when the time came to push for the Accords, and that couldn’t be done if she was kept in the dark about them.
“Have another one prepared,” I said, then thought more of it. “No, two.”
“Pilgrim,” he said. “And Princess Rozala, I’d assume. Is that wise?”
I cocked my head to the side. There couldn’t be many reasons he’d expected me to keep one of the two most powerful women in Procer in the dark until the last moment.
“You’re afraid they might use the Accords to draw lines in the Assembly,” I said. “For and against, every sitter to gather behind one or the other.”
“The First Prince remains unpopular,” Hakram pointed out. “These are times of war and she is not a general while her seat of power – the Lycaonese north and its support – has been uprooted. Of course, with the fighting up north toppling Procer’s ruler would attract a great deal of scorn. Unless it was reluctantly done to avoid some great mistake.”
“She’s fought the dead, Hakram,” I said. “And you saw her on the hill. She’s not going to make a grab for the throne halfway through the end of the world.”
“She might,” Akua disagreed. “If she believed Cordelia Hasenbach to be unable to fight this war the way it needs to be fought.”
“If we don’t tell her now,” I said, “she’ll take that as the insult it is.”
“Agreed,” Akua easily said. “Arlesites are notoriously prickly over such matters. I also rather disagree with Lord Adjutant’s notion that discussion of the Accords will be used in the Highest Assembly. Your support is much too precious a commodity at the moment for one of them to discard it offhand.”
“My support,” I skeptically said. “Wouldn’t my backing in any of their private squabbles be a kiss of death? It’s both a villain and foreigner intervening in Proceran affairs.”
“Ah,” Hakram suddenly breathed out.
An elaboration would have been more helpful, as far as I was concerned.
“You have a series of victories to hand out, my heart,” Akua smiled under the veil. “End of the dwarven ban on armament sales. Assurances of truce with the Firstborn and the support of their armies against Keter. Access to Callowan grain markets come next harvest. The secrets of the Twilight Ways for Proceran armies to use. And, of course, the great achievement of having turned the dreaded Black Queen into a tame tiger unleashed on the dead.”
My fingers clenched and unclenched as I considered that. I’d considered most of those a given the moment bargains were struck, but I could see their point. If all those things were presented as the victories of either Hasenbach or Malanza, they’d come out looking like the person getting things done. The kind you wanted in charge, when someone like the Dead King was at the gate. The First Prince already had the throne, true, but the Princess of Aequitan was fresh off what could be considered a success here in Iserre. And I knew better than most than when the days got dark people liked to have a soldier wearing the crown.
“If Malanza tries to seize the reins, then they’ll both try to use the Accords as meat to barter for anything I could provide them,” I said. “So if we don’t send her the text we’re essentially tipping the scales in Hasenbach’s favour. She’ll have had time to prepare, and she’s too skilled a hand not to turn that into a significantly better position.”
“The decision must be carefully considered, in my eyes,” Akua said. “For the twin truth of what you said is that, in apprising Princess Rozala of your intent, we tacitly allow her to present a challenge to the First Prince in Salia.”
Which I doubted Cordelia would take all that kindly to, all things considered.
“I would be surprised, in truth, if Cordelia Hasenbach’s unseating was the intent,” Akua continued. “By the procedures of the Assembly such a thing would be difficult to accomplish – and embitter the Lycaonese for generations if carried out. Assuming they did not outright rebel. More sensibly, with the right maneuvering it would not be impossible for Rozala Malanza to become the true power in Procer no matter who rules in name.”
If this was just about curtailing how much hostility I’d be earning by my decision, I suspected sending the simplified Accords to the Princess of Aequitan would make for much less personal a grudge than keeping the same woman in the dark until we reached Salia. On the other hand, approaching the matter that way was a fine way to make a mistake: wading into a melee before knowing who you wanted to thump was a good way to end up eating dirt.
“There’s no guarantee they’ll turn on each other,” I finally said.
“The Principate is on the precipice of change,” Akua disagreed. “And only one may hold the reins if their nation is survive the war, they both know this: divided, squabbling, Procer can only break. The lesser crowns cannot look to two mistresses for orders, and so one of them must submit to the other before the Highest Assembly for uncertainty to end. She who remains standing will rule the Procer that is to come, should she survive the war.”
“We lose little from allowing Princess Rozala a challenge,” Hakram noted. “If anything with two bidders concessions ought to be easier to secure. If the First Prince had been more willing to negotiate with us in the past I’d advise against it, but there’s hardly any good will there to spoil.”
“I believe that Cordelia Hasenbach remains the superior candidate to ensure lasting peace,” Akua told him. “And if decision is made to back her from the start, being owed a favour can be worth more than auctioned support – and would create good will. A knife hand stayed is worth more than promises.”
I shook my head.
“You’re selling both of them short,” I said. “And I don’t mean there won’t be tensions, because that ship rather left the dock when Hasenbach made Malanza’s mother drink poison after their civil war. But they’ll remain cordial while the Dead King is at the gate, because neither will be willing to roll the dice when snake eyes might mean the end of the Principate.”
I thought back to a conversation that felt so long ago, Hasenbach and I alone in the depths of my since-devoured domain. You miss the central tenet of the Principate, she’d chided me as we spoke of tyranny. It is, unlike Praes, a nation built on consensus. She’d sent Prince Amadis and his cabal into my hands to be savaged, I’d retorted back then, her opposition in that Assembly she so touted. Yet she’s believed in her words, back then, even as she struggled with realities that were flawed. Did she still, I wondered?
“No, if Procer is to decide its own fate then let it be in the open,” I said. “Cordelia Hasenbach cannot grudge me her own principles observed. Malanza gets the Accords, same as the Pilgrim.”
Although, in truth, this entire matter should have been debated with Vivienne awake. Which they would know, I thought. Yet they’d spoken of it anyway. I would not count that a coincidence.
“You’re not telling me something,” I said.
“I thought you’d come to the conclusion yourself without prompting,” Akua said, sounding fascinated. “It truly is a glaring blind spot.”
“We’ve named boons you can offer that would win princes to either cause,” Hakram gravelled. “Yet there’s prize that would win the people as well. In these parts for certain and others as well. It is a matter of pride, in the end.”
My heart clenched.
“Black,” I said. “They’ll want Black’s head on pike.”
The shade dipped her head in agreement.
“And you pushed this not because you want me to make a decision,” I said, “but because he’s awake.”
“Before seeing him you should know what may still lie ahead,” Hakram said. “Make no mistake, Catherine, they will hound you for him. Their people will riot otherwise, after what he’s done. The Legions themselves may be spared, but the Carrion Lord? They cannot afford to simply let him go.”
“They can’t afford to fuck with me either,” I sharply replied.
Akua looked at me, and for a moment under the veil I believed she might have looked sad.
“There will be a choice,” she said, “between what the woman wants and what the queen requires.”
I grit my teeth, rising to my feet.
“Catherine,” Hakram called out.
I turned a glare on him.
“I handed him the full Accords,” he said.
Why, I almost asked, but already knew the answer. Either my father would sign the damned thing, or he’d be sold so that everyone else did.
I stalked off, furious at no one in particular, to find Amadeus of the Green Stretch.