“And after Okoro was taken its King Berengar Rohanon was dragged before the people in the place of Faded Jackals, where his hands were cut for having reached beyond his grasp and his head scalped for having dared to claim kingship over Praesi. His Dread Majesty ordered him driven into the Wasteland, bearing his hands around his neck and his scalp scribed with for all crusaders this warning: ‘There is only one crown east of the river Wasaliti, and once more will you be taught to dread it.’”
– Extract from ‘Commentaries on the Campaigns of Dread Emperor Terribilis the Second’
The Sisters were in the tent. Their presence was like a whisper on the edge of my mind, and though they’d not hidden their presence by Masego’s bedside neither had they drawn my attention to it. It had my fingers clenching, and my growing ill-temper was noticeable enough my legionary escort gave me a wider berth as I quickened my limping. I’d had a reputation for having a foul temper even before my anger began frosting over tables, and trading Winter for Night had not put away that repute. Sve Noc knew what lines they could and could not cross without our bargain fraying, and they would not be so foolish as to try to force the Night onto an unwilling Hierophant. But they were not above making that offer when he was freshly awake and grieving, still in shock from the loss of his magic.
Crows were carrion birds, and just like carrion the Sisters were preying on the vulnerable to attempt patronage of another powerful figure – for Masego was that still, even bedridden and stripped of sorcery. My anger was less from the crafty offer I suspected was being made and more from the way that I had no solid grounds for wroth or recourse if I wanted to denounce what they were doing. It was a sharp reminder that the Sisters were my patrons and allies, not my followers, and they had schemes of their own. And Masego, though one of the Woe, was not my sworn man or a subject of the crown of Callow: any claim I could make over his loyalties was one he’d given out by his own hand, and by the same could withdraw.
The crows were never far from my thoughts and often pointed address within those was enough to earn their attention, but they did not deign answer my insistence this time. The same tent where I’d slept was shaded in subtle ways when I found it, the shadows it cast and kept within its folds too deep and cool even with the falling dusk. There was power at work, the attention of sister-goddesses manifest. I dismissed my escort abruptly and strode past the folds, catching sight of Sve Noc perched atop the armchair I’d slumbered in while a half-naked and sitting Masego looked at them from his sickbed. Feathered in darkness and ink-eyed, the crows seemed almost too large for the chair and even the tent – not that it seemed to cow my friend.
The dark-skinned sorcerer, eye cloth fastened loosely over his glittering glass eyes, was still painfully thin from his time in the Dead King’s thrall but his face was calm and his hands steady. His long braids were still matted from their lack of washing, the silver trinkets woven in them shining dully in the lamplight, but even abed looking at him was like looking at an open flame. The burn was feverish, perhaps, but grief and tragedy had not seen its intensity wane. All this I took within a heartbeat, as I arrived to what must have been the tail-end of the offer tendered.
“Faith kept will be kept in kind,” Andronike said. “And in the end, all will be Night.”
Masego’s eyes pivoted under the cloth to glance at me, and the Sisters needed no sight to know of my presence, so when I cleared my throat there was no hint of surprise on any’s face.
“Faith can wait until another evening,” I said. “There will be-”
“That won’t be necessary, Catherine,” Hierophant quietly interrupted.
Wings spread and with a few lazy beats Komena was on my shoulder, as displeased by my meddling as I was by hers. Andronike, though, perched herself on the side of Masego’s bed. Peering at him curiously with dark eyes more god than bird no matter the shape of them.
“You have been hollowed,” Andronike cawed. “Miracle can yet mend this.”
The urge came, quicksilver and fleeting, to intervene once more. If the Sisters alone had requested the stilling of my tongue I would not have held it, but Masego had as well and so let the urge pass.
“There is only one side of apotheosis of interest to me,” Hierophant said, “and it is not the one that involves kneeling.”
“You are yet young,” Komena said from my shoulder. “We can wait, though the bargain will not twice be so sweet.”
“It will eat away at you,” Andronike told him. “From the inside, it will-”
Sudden as it was, it caught me by surprise like few things in my life before it: Masego’s nimble fingers, mage-deft and long, snapped up and seized the crow addressing him by the throat. They squeezed, and as Komena cawed in protest and beat her wings against my shoulder the Warlock’s son let out a scornful hiss.
“Do not ever attempt to peer into my mind, covetous vermin,” the Hierophant harshly rebuked.
Night flooded the room as the behest of livid lesser gods, thick and oppressive current like veils of shadow, but his Name burned like a clear and unyielding flame.
“I knew Winter well, before you fed on it,” Masego said, eyes burning with Summer flame, “shall I rip it out through the stitches of your belly? Ruin will run down the course of you into the heart of your entire people, little spiders. Did you believe you could make yourself the life of your kind without also being its death?”
He barked out a laugh.
“Lucky you, that it was Akua Sahelian and not I who accompanied her below,” he said. “Else I would have cut out your ravenous eyes long ago and made a banner of your butchered remains.”
“Masego,” I said. “Enough.”
Summer-bright eyes flicked to me, then returned to Komena on my shoulder. My fingers clenched.
“Masego,” I repeated sharply. “Enough.”
Scoffing, he released his grip on Andronike. She flew away in wroth, and I saw that the flesh of Hierophant’s hand looked as if it’d been frostbitten where it’d been touching the divine crow.
“And that’s why,” I calmly said, “you speak to me before trying to bargain with one of the Woe.”
“Offence was given,” Komena cried out, the sound cacophonous and somehow blinding.
“Your tried to look into the head of a man whose Name is practically made of the death of gods, you fucking fools,” I barked. “What did you think was going to happen?”
Before they could answer I pressed on.
“You didn’t think,” I said. “You got greedy, you got hasty, and then you got spanked. Take it as a reminder that there are things up here on the surface that are nastier than you. And be thankful all it cost you was a few moments of indignity.”
The fury pouring out of them and into the Night was like the burn of sudden ice, but I refused to be bowled over by it. They’d made a mistake, believing that dangling power in front of a grieving man was all it’d take to induce another Named to bargain. They’d taken him for one of the Firstborn and for that blindness very nearly ended up losing more than a few feathers.
“I carried your banner from victory to victory,” I said, “because I’ve been careful. Because I’ve been patient and cautious and I’ve picked my battles. If you begin to sidle up to every Named on a ragged edge and offer power for rites, you’re not goddesses: you’re cut-rate devils. And one of those days, sure as dusk, you’ll end up stepping blind into a story that’ll end you.”
The fury did not wane in the slightest, but I met it unbowed. I felt the slight touch of their thoughts against mine, a feather’s brush looking for the taste of honesty and finding it. Still, few gods were in the habit of apologizing. The Sisters flew out with malcontent cawing, blowing out of the tent and leaving it lighter for their absence. I breathed out in their wake, still feeling where Komena’s talons had dug into my shoulder even if no blood had been drawn and no mark would be left behind. Though Masego’s face and torso were facing me, I caught through the cloth that his eyes had followed the crows out before finally returning to me. The radiance of his Name, not visible but like a taste hanging in the air, finally dimmed into nothingness. It left him panting and visibly tired. Leaning against my staff, I limped up to his bed and swallowed a wince when he tensed up at my approach. Very slowly, I sat on the side near his legs.
“I see you still get cranky when woken up early,” I said.
He didn’t blink, for the lack of eyelid, but the way he angled his head good as implied it.
“I was expecting anger,” Masego admitted. “For this, and… the rest.”
“Stealing a city, cutting up Arcadia and nearly wiping an entire principality off the face of Creation,” I elaborated. “Including most of the people you care about in any significant manner.”
“Yes,” he said. “That.”
“I am angry,” I told him. “But for large parts of that you weren’t in your right mind. And now that you are, I expect all those things you were trying to deny – and the scope of what you nearly did – are about to start sinking in. We will, one day, have an unpleasant discussion about this. But it won’t be today, and when we have it you won’t be…”
I hesitated, looking for the right words, but Masego smiled bitterly.
“My fathers will be no less dead in a few days, Catherine,” he said. “Nor will…”
His lips thinned.
“Nor will my sorcery have returned,” he said, as if forcing himself. “The severing should have killed me. Would have, had it not been so improbably precise. I still wonder what stayed his hand, for it would have been child’s play to snuff me out at the end. Much easier than this.”
It was my turn to hesitate, though the moment I did I knew I’d have to speak. His glass eyes missed nothing and Masego had known me long enough he could discern the expressions of my face much more accurately than most people’s.
“I bargained for your life,” I said, “when I had a shard of his soul in my grasp.”
He tiredly leaned back against pillows that’d not been there when I left in the morning. Archer’s work, I thought. Which meant they were probably stolen, but I could ask her about that later.
“Thank you,” Masego solemnly said. “For that. For coming, too.”
“We all came, Zeze,” I quietly said. “And we will again, if we need to. Don’t doubt that.”
There was a long moment of silence, and finally he nodded. His breath rasped out along with words barely more than a murmur.
“He killed Indrani. Using me.”
I reached out a hand towards his own, and after the moment he accepted the implicit offer. We threaded fingers and I nodded.
“The Grey Pilgrim brought her back,” I said.
“As Trismegistus said he would,” Masego quietly replied. “And yet the last thing she will remember before dying is my hand raised and my lips speaking an incantation.”
I let silence pass, sensing there was more he wanted to say.
“That is unkind,” the braided man finally said. “Isn’t it? To her even more than I.”
He looked to me as if asking confirmation, unsure and tone hesitant.
“It would be unkind with any of us,” I told him. “But to her more than the rest of us.”
“I don’t know how to mend that,” Masego whispered. “Catherine, I don’t know how to mend any of it.”
This was, I thought, the first time he’d even obliquely acknowledged that Indrani might have feelings for him. I was not certain whether his careful handling of her came out of a gentle nature – which he had, somehow, not lost in our years of war and hatred – or because he considered himself to have a distinctive relationship with Archer, and it was not my place to ask. But the acknowledgement alone was more than I’d sometimes thought this entire affair would earn of him unless Indrani pressed the matter.
“She won’t blame you, Zeze,” I quietly said. “You have to know that. It might have been your hand but it was not your will, and that’s the part that matters.”
“Is it?” he asked. “Since I was a child, always I’ve been told these sweeping… truths. Eulogies of the perception of my fellows, the triumphant veracity of ties. And near always they proved false, for though my own fathers were as much reason as they were blood that is a rare thing. A memory, a pain, these are things that linger. Principles are beautiful – they are the bones of Creation and what we make of it – but they do not course in veins. They are… distant.”
Archer was a creature of blood and not reason, he did not say. Or needed to. It was true, I wouldn’t deny, that in some ways more than any of us Indrani followed her instincts. How much would principle matter, he was asking, when she still remembered the raised hand and the death that followed?
“You’re looking at it like the depth can only mean it’ll hurt more,” I gently said. “That’s only half the coin, Masego. It also means you want to see the best in them, to get past the roughness, because what you love about them weighs heavier than what hurt you.”
I had, in my attempt to soothe the fear, somehow worsened this I realized. The way his face clenched made that plain. He did not speak immediately, and I did not dare to further talk lest I once more stumble over something blindly.
“It didn’t,” Masego hoarsely said. “I was so angry with them, Cat. They said sorry, about hiding what they knew from me, but they weren’t. Not really. Not the way you showed me, where it stings that you did the wrong thing and its stays with you. They were just sorry I knew they’d hidden things from me, and that doesn’t count. And they tried, you know. After. To say things or give me things or act ways that would make me less angry, makes us good again. But I couldn’t trust it, because I knew they’d just make the same choice again if they had to, so I stayed angry. Even…”
“Even on the day they died,” he said. “I knew they were planning to bind me. I am not a fool, Catherine. They were going to put me in a cage so I’d be out of the way when the Empress went after you, when Callow was hurt until it knelt. And it rankled, that they would. It surprised me, though, when it rankled they just… didn’t care about the rest. I know you want me to care about the people, Cat, but it’s hard. They’re not very interesting, as a rule. And they’re so ignorant.”
“But I don’t want them to be hurt, either,” Masego said. “If things can be made better for everyone, shouldn’t they? It just seemed so obvious, but my fathers didn’t care. Or they couldn’t see it, and isn’t that worse? So I was even angrier with them. And I told them to be careful, when I left, but it was almost a lie because after the battle I was going to disappear. And the last thing I said to them was… tainted, Cat. I couldn’t be not angry, even if I loved them.”
“It’s all right to hate something they did,” I told him quietly, thinking of hungry deaths still being reaped. “It doesn’t mean you hated them.”
Gods, but how fragile he looked in that moment. How could this be the same man who’d seized a goddess by the throat not an hour ago, threatened the ruin of an entire people for their patrons having crossed him? Exposed like a raw nerve and heartfelt until he bled, yet even stripped of the sorcery he’d spent his entire life embracing he could still daunt a lesser god. I understood, now, why to someone like Indrani the mixture might be intoxicating. Strength and vulnerability all at once, someone she could respect without feeling threatened. Masego was, in her eyes, a peer without being a rival.
“I thought Papa I could bring back, at least,” the dark-skinned man admitted. “I cannot account for a soul, and Father had already passed beyond my reach. There was naught to be done there. But Papa was a devil. Sufficient precision should have been enough.”
“But it wasn’t,” I said.
I had seen only part of the string of failures that made a wasteland of the Arcadian shard, but they must have gone on for months before that and there’d be no indication that success had been looming.
“No,” Masego said. “Always something was missing. I’d believed it a question of accuracy, and perhaps if Trismegistus had not stolen the use of my aspect the gap could have been bridged. But the more I think of it, of what I had begun to glimpse, the more I doubt it. Papa was unique. He did not have a soul, Catherine, but he was unique.”
Of the incubus that’d been one of Masego’s father, the ancient devil known as Tikoloshe, I knew precious little and so I did not dare venture an opinion. What did I know of these matters, anyway, that I could disagree with my own Hierophant? If he believed his father had been singular, an exception that surpassed the stuff he’d been made of, I would believe him. And though I could not say I had been fond of the incubus I’d never met or Warlock who I had known and scorned, I could at least share in the grief of this man who was family to me.
“Some things stay lost,” I murmured. “You have to learn to make your peace with that.”
I winced, after, realizing it could easily be taken as my speaking of his magic instead of his fathers.
“How carefully you tread,” he gently mocked me. “As if speaking it out loud would break me: I have lost the Gift, in every meaningful way.”
Which, I silently noted, did not mean every way. Given Masego’s lasting obsession with being exact in all things, I did not take that as a coincidence – though it hardly seemed the time to pursue the matter. I thought of Vivienne, in that moment, of the way she’s seemed to terribly convinced that making a mistake or losing her Name meant she was no longer one of us. Like she’d be discarded the moment she faltered or changed. I would not, I decided, let Zeze fall into that same pit.
“Losing your sorcery doesn’t meant you’re not one of us anymore,” I told him. “Being one of the Woe – us loving you – it’s not conditional. It’s not the Hierophant I came for, and it wasn’t the Apprentice that became part of my family. It’s you, and that’s not something you can lose.”
He squeezed my fingers, though looking at his face I realized with a degree of strange amusement that in that moment he was the one trying to comfort me.
“I did not believe that,” he assured me. “I won’t leave you to stand alone like Uncle Amadeus did, so don’t worry about me leaving.”
I mastered myself just in time not to breathe in sharply. Sometimes, I thought, Masego saw things more clearly than any of us. I saw him hesitate once more, after, and made myself squeeze his fingers back in reassurance.
“I could have,” he said.
My brow rose.
“Could have what?”
“I could have begun apotheosis,” Masego whispered. “I had the souls. The weight. The bones. But I wanted to bring my father back, instead. But I still remember, Cat.”
My eyes narrowed.
“Remember what?” I asked.
“How gods are made,” he whispered. “And so how they are unmade.”
I matched his gaze, hidden as it was by the eye cloth.
“The Dead King?” I murmured.
“Oh yes,” Hierophant murmured. “Even him. And Catherine, I think I want to kill him.”
He leaned forward, as if confiding a great secret.
“I believe,” Masego solemnly told me, “I might have become nettled by this affair.”
“Well,” I smiled, thin and bladelike, “we’ve certainly started picked fights with lesser gods over less.”
And so we spoke, just the two of us, of the last king of Sephirah’s end.