“Zarei, of short stride
saw the long’s pride
and carved, laughing
found them wanting:
chased into shadow
by one mighty blow.”
– Extract from the ‘Zarei Veste’, a Firstborn traditional epic
Night had become my time, refreshing to my tired bones like a cool drink on a parching day. I enjoyed the quiet of it, the veil of stillness laid down by the dark under the stirrings of creatures nocturnal. Without so much spinning my thought came clearer, less cluttered, and these days what already lay within my own mind was quite enough clutter already. It felt, at times, like I was attempting to juggle half the continent – it felt that way because it was, essentially, what I was trying to do. Yet while there might have been quiet awaiting us at the heart of the drow’s tent-city, there was hardly any stillness to be found: with dusk passing the curse of the pale light had passed, and the Firstborn tread under the moon’s unblinking eye like shifting shadows. After my Lord of Silent Steps’ report I’d expected for there to be a tautness to the air, but that had perhaps been naïve of me. Drow didn’t complain or riot or indicate their displeasure, because every last one of them was born to the knowledge that all it took was irritating someone stronger than them once to end up killed. The only drow who were vocal about much of anything were the Mighty and even among those only sigil-holders could really be said to be outspoken, that cabal of the few who’d spent years slaying all comers until they rose to the summit of the pyramid of strife. No, instead of a boiling cauldron about to tip over the tent-city of the Firstborn looked like half a festival.
A drow one, anyway.
Grey-skinned dzulu wearing the colours and signs of their sigils, either painted on skin or woven into cloth, had come out under moonlight to play. I was used to a soldier’s vices of choice being drinking and gambling, but those were the favourites of the Legions. Here it was instead the old amusements of the Everdark that reigned, and they were less bloody in nature than I’d expected. Standing before a tall heap of piled stones drow would set on their brow a thin leathery chord set with a single small stone and claim in cadenced Crepuscular that their tongue was made of flame. Another drow would then step up to them, and call them an eight-year-snake, after which they would each sing a couplet with the challenger going second. It seemed to me that, more often than not, they were citing old and well-known texts with only just enough adjusted to brutally mock their opponent or boast of their own obvious superiority in all things. Hakram sent me a look that was disturbingly pleasing, coming from an orc that hefty, and I allowed our steps to slow so we’d catch some of it. One dzulu from the Sudone claimed that its opponent was –
“Cunning as cattle, fearsome as a trout,
Beloved of nerezim, quiet as a shout!”
– which had the watching dzulu laughing in approval. The other singer, one of the Jindrich, went the other way instead. Boasting shamelessly, it announced it would –
“Swallow pale light and make it night,
Harvest from death its very breath,
Weave with loom a second gloom!”
Which had a few of the Soln in the crowd and most the Jindrich ululating in approval, some even calling out a name: Zarei Stride-Carver. After both songs had been sung in full the dzulu cast small tokens – trinkets, pieces of cloth, even simple stones – at the feet of one or the other, deciding whose song had been the finest. The Sudone dzulu won, that time, and triumphantly called out that for the fourth time its tongue was flame.
“There are traditions much like this in the Lesser Steppes,” Adjutant murmured as we both watched another drow step up and challenge the victor.
The steppes beyond the Wasiliti, I knew that meant. Where the Clans had been able to hang on to more of their old ways, further from Miezan steel and the Tower’s schemes.
“Duels of singing?” I asked.
“And steel as well,” Hakram said. “Though there was a time, Catherine, when no great warrior would have wielded the axe without the verse.”
I eyed him amusedly.
“If you want to challenge one them, I could always translate into Crepuscular for you,” I offered.
He looked genuinely tempted but eventually shook his head, clicking his fangs in polite refusal.
“Too much would be lost in translation,” he said. “And though I was taught old and cherished words, there are few I can claim as my own.”
I thought of Nauk, in that moment, Nauk who’d written In Dread Crown and whose song was still sung even after the warpriests of the Dominion had taken him from me. I caught the exact moment Hakram thought of him too, and we watched the Firstborn trade singing barbs in silence as we shared in the same grief. I half-smiled at the defending champion’s verse – it’d just claimed it would make a tomb for the Tomb-maker – and we let it flow out of us, like a mouthful of wakeleaf smoke offered up to the wind.
“The formula they speak, at the start,” Hakram said.
“My tongue is made of flame,” I quoted, then my lips quirked. “You are but an eight-year-snake.”
He inclined his head.
“What does it mean?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “Rumena, care to share?”
I felt the general’s mild irritation through the Night at having once again failed to approach me unnoticed and savoured that for the very petty victory that it was. The general of the Southern Expedition strode to my side in silence, filling the empty space at my left.
“It an old story, Losara Queen,” Rumena said.
“Oh,” I said, sweetly similing. “So you were there?”
“I see,” General Rumena gravely said. “Now that you have servants to flatter you again, you have resumed your delusion of being amusing. I had thought your cured of this ailment, Queen of Lost and Found.”
“Careful, buddy,” I said, jutting a thumb at the singing drow. “One of those just promised to put you in a tomb, are you sure you want to spend your last moments failing to get the best of me?”
Rumena glanced at Hakram, pale silver-blue eyes lingering on the missing hand.
“The orc has only one hand and still a defter touch with words,” it told me.
“He hasn’t even said anything,” I protested.
I winced the moment I said it, feeling the sense of mocking satisfaction wafting off of it into the Night. The prick.
“One of these days,” I told it. “One of these days, Rumena.”
“It is true,” the Tomb-maker conceded, “you might truly have a chance, if I am asleep.”
Ouch. Well, it was probably a good thing I wasn’t going up there to sing with the old bastard anytime soon.
“It is from a legend of the ancient days, before the Twilight Sages,” the old drow told Hakram. “There was once a manner of snake that was said to be born with the favour of the Shrouded Gods, manifest as stone on its head. Should it live for nine years, and devour flesh every day, it would grow to become izmej. That is, flame-tongued and immortal, swimming through stone with on its brow the shine of pale light.”
Dragon, I thought, but it was not like the dragons I knew of – which were, anyway, all but disappeared these days.
“And so an eight-year-snake is one that could not become izmej,” Hakram thoughtfully said. “What happens, if a singer is the victor nine times?”
“None who cast token in the contest may kill the nine-year-snake for a span nine nights,” Rumena said. “Immortality, Deadhand. For a time.”
It murmured in Crepuscular, after that, citing the Tenets of Night. For glory fades and stone crumbles, no victor forever crowned. The words were sobering, for they brought to mind the reason I’d come to the tent-city in the first place. Under the currents of celebration here there was a lit sharper that’d blow unless I put out the fuse quick enough.
“The Zoitsa Sigil is still under control?” I asked.
“The children that were disciplined have recovered,” Rumena said, “yet word of your impending arrival has stayed hands for now. The Lutesuk and the Vachikna will require adjudication as well, if your intent is to prevent killing between all Mighty.”
“Between all Firstborn,” I sharply corrected. “Take me to them, then.”
The general’s pale eyes flicked to Hakram.
“The Adjutant’s presence will be commented upon,” the old drow said.
“Let them comment,” I grunted. “He can’t understand Crepuscular anyway, I’m bringing him as an advisor.”
“Ade Varul,” Rumena said, eyes narrowing. “Yes, this would be accepted.”
It’s sounded the same, to an extent, but the meaning had been different: truth-bearer, or truth-keeper maybe? It was from an older form of Crepuscular, the one drow tended to use for formal titles.
“Mais encore?” I said in Chantant, just to show it wasn’t the only one who could speak all fancy.
“When the Empire Ever Dark still stood, it was the title given to those who learned precedents of law and bore old scrolls of histories to provide these during adjudication,” General Rumena said. “A learned servant.”
“In service of who?” I asked.
“The Twilight Sages,” the Tomb-maker. “Or those they appointed to pass judgement in their stead.”
It was easy to forget, I thought, that there’d been a time where the Firstborn had known laws more elaborate than the rule of the hardest hand. I nodded my assent, though in truth even an oblique tie with the fools who’d nearly destroyed their entire race for fear of death had me uneasy. Very few would remain that had known those days, I reminded myself. And of those that did, only Rumena had come south instead of marching with the Sisters themselves. We moved as swiftly as my limp around, eyes lingering on the distractions that’d seized the camp. Small packs gathered around the small colourful tiles that were the centrepiece of a game of inic cin, carefully placing down their own to make or break patterns according to the labyrinthine rules of their game – hardly any two sigils allowed the same set of patterns, and drow from the outer rings would rather kiss a dwarf than begin the game with a lizard-fish prowling pattern already on the floor instead of empty space, the way Firstborn from deeper in the Everdark insisted the game was meant to be played. There were more earthy entertainments as well, ones I was more familiar with: javelin-throwing and wrestling, as well as the madman’s bargain that was the por neroc, the axe-fortune. I’d yet so see anyone play that game without bleeding, and not for lack of trying.
Firstborn were more prone to indulging in luxurious meals or elaborate concoctions than hard drinking, as a rule, since liquor was usually reserved for the very powerful or the very much powerless. For the former it was a statement of might – that even drunk they could take all comers – while for the latter it was a tacit admission that their lives could be reaped at any time and there was nothing they could do about it. That might change, in time, at least if the drow were guided towards ways that bled them less often and eagerly by their own hands. Still, I doubted they’d ever become great drinkers of the wines and liquors of Calernia, anymore than the nations of the surface were at risk of becoming enamoured of the drow’s own drinks. I suspected that the Firstborn tasted things rather differently than we did, because some of the things they ate and drank… Ugh. There was a reason that I’d sometimes used their mushroom-based liquor on Archer as a punishment. I set the ponderings aside as we found the heart of the tent-city, and the Firstborn that awaited us there. What must have been the entire Zoitsa Sigil – which would keep that name even after Mighty Zoitsa’s death until another Mighty claimed the sigil – was patiently standing and awaiting us. An open space had been cleared on the snowy grounds, fitting the thousand or so drow in what I could only call a hierarchy laid bare. Four rylleh were seated at the front, then jawor behind them, then ispe behind those, leading to what must have been nine hundred and change dzulu. The Zoitsa were not a large sigil, though given that they had twelve jawor among their number I could see why they wouldn’t be taken as easy meat either.
“You stand in the presence of the Queen of Lost and Found, the First Under the Night,” General Rumena called out. “Kneel.”
They did. And they stayed kneeling, as I considered the approach I wanted to take. Ivah’s report had mentioned Rumena savaging the two most prominent claimants, and through the Night I could easily tell who those would be – they were significantly stronger than the other two, though not so much that the weaker pair allying against one would not see that particular rylleh killed. Unless they had a particular lethal Secret, anyway, but that struck me as unlikely. Drow that lucked into one of those tended to rise quickly through the ranks until they either died or became sigil-holders. I limped forward, leaning on my staff of yew as I cast a cursory glance around us. This was no Legion camp, there was no such thing as restricted sections of it: anyone brave enough linger where they could either hear or see could, unless someone chase them away. And there were plenty of curious Firstborn, though I noted they were largely ispe. The lowest of the Mighty. Sigil-holders, I grasped, were sending people to keep an eye on the judgement I was meant to render. Whatever decision was handed out tonight, it would not be long before the greatest Mighty of my host knew of it. That was trouble, for already I’d once denied them the prize that had been the Twilight Crown. If I further chipped away at their ways I might begin to encounter resistance, which given the hold sigil-holders had on their followers would be… more than inconvenient.
“You who would claim the Zoitsa Sigil, rise,” I said. “And come before me.”
I’d fully expected all four rylleh to rise, but instead it was only three. One of the weaker pair, I thought, must have been convincing enough to earn the other’s backing. The drow came to stand before my scrutinizing gaze, calm-faced and straight-backed.
“Decree was given,” I said. “The Southern Expedition is as one great cabal, and until it has ended no Firstborn may slay another. Yet I am told you would have broken the edict, if not for General Rumena’s reminder. Explain yourself.”
The weakest of the three kneeled.
“Losara Queen,” it said, “I am-”
“Bereft of a name or my mercy, until you have given me an answer,” I mildly said.
It didn’t flinch at my words, though its face blanked and I felt the malicious pleasure of the other two rylleh through the Night. It’d earned the rebuke, I thought, the moment it tried to smooth-talk me out of anything.
“Night cannot be left to fade, O Great One,” the rylleh said. “Mighty Zoitsa must have successor, and when strife is had over who that Mighty should be there is only one manner of settling the claims known to us. I aim not to break the Night’s decree, only to obey the Tenets of Night.”
Meaning that none of the three were willing to back down and let one of the others harvest the Night from Zoitsa’s corpse, which meant duels to the death were the traditional solution as established by Sve Noc. Lovely. The leftmost rylleh knelt.
“Losara Queen, this one recognizes the truth of the great cabal binding us,” it said. “And so this one implores your holy judgement in deciding who is worthy of rising, in place of strife.”
And there it was, my opening. All I needed to do was accept the invitation and this could all be settled in moments without blood being spilled. That this particular rylleh had been clear-eyed enough to realize both that I wouldn’t allow blood being spilled and that easing my way to judgement would incline me well towards it made it a strong candidate for sigil-holder, I thought, though also someone to watch. And yet I stilled my tongue, because what I did here would echo. Through the ears and tongues of the ispe lingering at the edges of this clearing, yes, but also through the years to come. I was setting a precedent, and it was not something I should do lightly. I turned my eyes to the third rylleh, the last one still standing.
“And you?” I said. “What words would you speak?”
It knelt, smoothly.
“None, Losara Queen,” it rasped. “I do not presume to reach beyond my grasp.”
Tasting its words through the Night, I decided it was speaking the truth – or at least that it believed what it was saying. If I was to wade in an make an appointment through the awarding of Zoitsa’s corpse, then this one was the safe bet. Not too ambitious, steady. Likely more set in the old ways than either of the other two, but with enough deference for Sve Noc and through them myself that it would broadly balance out. This one, I decided, was the choice if I wanted to avoid making waves among sigil-holders. If I appointed the second speaker, it’d be seen as my raising ambitious lickspittles. Those not willing to become my creatures would feel threatened and react accordingly. The first speaker, the one I’d chastened, was trickier to parse in implications. It was the weakest of the three, which would ruffle some feathers but perhaps also raise the hopes of Firstborns who’d hit the limit of what they could claim with their own strength that in my service they might rise further still. I wasn’t one to particularly enjoy a smooth-talker, and this one reminded me a little of Praesi highborn, but vague dislike was not reason enough to exclude them as a candidate.
“If you had the pick of three highborn for a lordship,” I said in Kharsum, “what measure would you use to weigh the right choice?”
Adjutant was at my side, a towering presence of calm that passed on a portion of that serenity to me.
“The three,” he replied in his native tongue. “Are they the only people I can pick?”
“Without making a mess, yes,” I said. “And no matter which I choose, I’ll have intervened in the succession of a noble line – while using royal authority.”
Religious, in truth, but it would not be too inaccurate to compare the kind of influence I now commanded among the drow to what a Good Queen might have commanded in the Old Kingdom.
“Letting the succession pass without intervention isn’t in the cards,” he half-asked, half-stated.
“They’d go at each other like Wasteland nobles over it,” I said. “Only without the subtlety. It’d be setting an even worse precedent, as far as I’m concerned.”
If I exempted strife over the succession of sigil-holders from the ban on drow killing each other, then the gate would be cracked open. As far as I was concerned, any possible benefit to be obtained from a higher concentration of Night in some former rylleh’s hands was far below what I got by keeping the drow who knew how to use their own tricks in possession of those tricks. And that was in a military view, anyway. The moral aspects of it were… well, I couldn’t keep raising my nose a ritualized murder for power being a central tenet of drow culture if I simply allowed it to keep going on when I could do otherwise.
“If you are bound to rancor for any intervention at all,” Adjutant pragmatically said, “appoint the most apt candidate. At least you’ll be getting the most out of what it cost you.”
Sound advice. Following it, all that remained before passing down judgement was considering which of the three rylleh would be most valuable to my intentions. Gods, probably the first of the three. They’d – no, that was the wrong way to think about it. The most apt candidate was the one that’d best serve the interest of the sigil it led, not necessarily my own. Ah, I thought, but why appoint a lord at all? I thought of a thin man in ragged robes, keeping records no one would read for a revolution that pulsed out of him like a titan’s breath. How many of us are there, tyrant, he’d asked, and how many of you? I could not use old means save to reach old ends.
“General Rumena,” I said. “Send for the Firstborn.”
The old drow’s head bowed by a fraction.
“Which sigils?” it asked.
“All of them,” I said. “Every last one of you.”
If I was to hand down judgement, it would not be to seek the least of three evils.
I would try to do better.