“Power is as wealth; that which is yours has always been snatched from another.”
– Dread Emperor Venal
General Rumena had sent for them and they had come.
The Firstborn, I’d understood since my first steps past the murk of Gloom, were the ruin of a people. Even the name of their realm was the remnant of olden nights: from Empire Ever Dark to a brutal tapestry of sigils haunting the last gasps known simply known as the Everdark. They had been, when I journeyed through their ancient broken cities and their endless tribal wars, little more than a desperate ritual masquerading as a people. Sve Noc had bargained for their salvation of their people, made a pact with Below, yet it was survival they had sought and there their ambitions had ended. Wise of them, perhaps, given how insistently the Twilight Sages had courted the doom of their kind until they were slaughtered in their own seat of power to earn audience with those the drow called the Shrouded Gods. Under the auspices of Komena and Andronike the Firstborn had carved out their old glories and made of them hovels and walls, forgotten how to read their own sacred writings and traded steel for obsidian. Cut after cut, they’d forgotten what they used to be until what they’d become was but distant kin to the people who’d raised the great works I’d seen but the barest fraction of.
I’d taken me some time to understand how much more they’d lost than things like knowing how to build sewers or make steel tools, or a hundred other small practical bits of knowledge that made life easier for people who knew them. No, the wound was deeper than that. There’d never been a day in my life where I did not know that if I sought the right books, or the right stories, I could not know the history of my people. Who we had been in ages past and through that how we’d become who we were. What it meant, when a well-dressed Proceran tread a street and my people began humming the tune of Red The Flowers. Why at every summer fair there was an evening where primroses were hung form the tallest tree or roof and comical plays were had under them until dawn – a last defiance in the name of the Albans, smothered in madness so long ago. Hells, I’d even been able to find out why early in the spring so many grizzled old men and women filled the taverns of Laure and that’d actually been fairly dangerous to openly acknowledge. That old soldiers still mourned the last defeat of the Conquest drink in hand had not been one of those things people talked about fit they didn’t want to draw the attention of the Eyes. Not too loudly, anyway.
Even during Black’s decades of occupation the old histories had not been burned. Oh, he was a cannier man than that. He’d restricted grimoires and weapons, eradicated every legacy of the paladins of the White Hand, but the histories he’d not even tried to torch. Viciously elegant as always, he’d simply made the histories he preferred cheaper and easier to obtain before letting human nature do the rest. Yet for someone designated enough to digging, Callow’s past was there to find. Even under the Praesi, I’d known more of the truth of my people than any drow born in the last thousand years could claim to know of theirs. I’d seen the truth of that laid bare between the Lord of Silent Steps and the Tomb-maker, Ivah and Rumena. The younger looked at the Firstborn and saw the only thing it had ever known, a history that was closed circle of murder under the Night, while the older drow held a rank in the host of an empire that no longer existed, commanding soldiers that were long dead. Rumena treated even other sigil-holders as children because that was what they were, in its eyes: children putting on the regalia of the empire that’d birthed them, thieving magpies making a nest of rubies and golden bracelets. It wasn’t wrong, I thought, to believe that. It was true, that the Firstborn born of this era wore old honours and spoke old words without knowing the truth of them, having made mystical of mundane through the passing of the years. And still, looking at this host of magpies before me, I could not deny that they were beautiful.
Fifty thousand strong, spread out before me as a sea that’d swept away tents and bedding and distractions until all that stood in the moonlight was flesh and bone. They were a riot of colour, these warriors sworn to a hundred sigils: red and silver, yellow gold and radiant green and deep azure blue. Few sigils shared the same colours, and none the same symbols. My own Losara, stayed mine through even Winter’s death, had taken to drawing the silver tree down the ridge of their nose and encircling their eyes to finish the pattern. The effect was striking, a mask of purple and silver whose roots were the lips and teeth of warriors. The golden sunflower on ochre that was Rumena’s own sigil-symbol was more often tattooed with needles on cheeks or necks, though every drow out there seemed to have their own manner of bearing their sigil. Their manifold banners traced the air lazily under the trailing fingers of the wind, each speaking a claim or story or boast, and even their armaments were as works of arts. Oh, the dzulu bore spears and shields and practical tools of killing, but the Mighty? Every one of them treated both their body and armaments as works of art. Artifacts shaped in Night likely older than some Callowan cities had been painted or polished or touched with strips of cloths and ribbons.
The warlord in me, the general, looked upon them and saw only chaos. An army of wild folk, without standardized equipment, the doctrine to use them and the discipline to do so well. But part of me I’d stolen back from eternity along with my death, the one that could savour a good smoke and a sunny day and the chill of cold against my cheeks, that part looked at them and saw that even though they were the bastard children of the Empire Ever Dark the Firstborn were nothing less than splendid. Like a precious vase shattered and made into mosaic, still imperfect and broken but no less lovely for it. I would not forget that, I told myself, looking upon the proud ranks of the Mighty and their dzulu warriors behind them. In some ways I knew less of their people than even the least of them, and if I was to have a hand in the shape their kind would take long after my death I would move that hand with aware of my own ignorance. Our ways are harsh, but they are not without graces. Malicia had told me that once, years ago, because even what she hated about the Wasteland was still part of Praes. And so it’d been part of her bones and her flesh and her breath, taken in with her mother’s milk. I could not mold the nature of the Firstborn like clay, uproot everything that was at the heart of them because it displeased me.
I was a cold-eyed stranger speaking hard truths, not any kind of saviour. And truth was, the closest the Firstborn would ever have to watchful angels was the pair ink-feathered crow slowly circling above us all, high under the stars. I breathed out, watching the mist and whishing it was smoke instead, but I could hardly nurse a pipe throughout this. Merciless Gods, I wish.
“Are you worthy?” I asked, and it rippled across the night.
Thousands of lips spoke the same question I had asked of the Mighty before the Twilight Crown: sa vrede. The tale of that moment had already spread through the throng last night, when it was still fresh. Not to all, but to enough. And though my question found echoes aplently, none dared to answer it.
“The Mighty Zoitsa was slain, and its Night awaits a worthy taker,” I said. “Yet it was decreed under Night that no Firstborn may slay another before the Southern Expedition has ended. And so now I am asked who is worthy of that Night, who is worthy to rise.”
“Did we not answer this question already, you who were born of blood?” I sang out. “Did you not learn that answer well?”
Fear and anger and uncertainty wafted up in the Night, a sea of emotion I could hardly touch lest I risk drowning in it. High priestess or not, I was only one woman and a mortal one at that.
“I wonder, you who claim might,” I said, “are you ashamed now to speak again before dzulu what you admitted in the shade of dusk? Is vanity the truest answer you have to give?”
That stung them, as it had been meant to. No, some said. I did not reply, and in the silence they were forced to confess the word again and again, louder and louder until none among the entire host of the Firstborn could claim they had not heard it. It was Mighty who had been questioned, but it was all who answered in the end – for if the great among them could not be said to be worthy, which of the lesser dared claimed themselves to be instead?
“There is no shame in this,” I said. “I am First Under the Night, and I do not claim to be worthy where you are not – else would it not be my right, my due, to rip the Night out of every single one of you?”
Fear strengthened, but also respect. The drow were not a people to resent threats, or for that matter to think well of weakness. A reminder that my power towered over that of even their greatest Mighty made everything else easier to swallow, for was it not the privilege of the strong to do as they would of the weak? That was the principle, anyway. As it always was with those, the reality was rather more nuanced.
“But there is shame,” I spoke, and there my voice sharpened, “in knowing yourself unworthy and remaining so. There is shame in sloth, in apathy, in seeing the flaws in what you are and not seeking to be more.”
A fine line I must walk here, for though the sentiment I spoke was old and beloved to their kind it also went hand in hand with the spilling of blood. At least, I wryly thought, I was by now an old hand at riding tigers and I’d yet to be eaten for it.
“I see before me hands hallowed in blood and little else,” I said. “What have you offered the Night, save for strife?”
I struck my staff against the snowy ground, the yew hitting it with a clapping sound and kicking off a gust of wind.
“When the Last Dusk comes to take you all and tally is taken of the deeds of the Firstborn,” I said, “what will any have you fill the pages with, save for death?”
There I sneered.
“Death,” I said. “Every creature’s given end. No great gift, to hurry what is certain.”
And there came the turbulence, for I had begun to speak of worthiness, of who was fit to hold a sigil, and now I was sneering down at the only measure the drow knew how to use: the long arm and blade it wielded. If not killing and claiming Night, what then was to be the path taken? And there, there I could not bestow upon them an answer like a saving grace made flesh. Because I could hardly see to my own soul, most days, and dared not speak to an entire people’s. Because I still knew so little of the Firstborn, of what they were and might yet be. Because I would not be my father, a well-meaning tyrant with a blade in hand intent on cutting out the ugliness of a culture until no imperfections remained. The drow were not children, to be led by the hand. I could speak to them of a horizon, but it they chose to chase it that decision would be of their own making.
“Those of you who hold sigils stand only below Sve Noc and those they have raised of their own hand,” I said. “You possess deep wells of Night, have bloody deeds of valour and cunning to your name. You have the weight of many years behind you, and an edge honed by as many victories. Yet the keen blade you have made of yourself goes unused. It was sent south in these lands to teach the Burning Lands the return of the Empire Ever Dark, yet what will follow our victory?”
I paused, my gaze swept the crowd.
“Rust,” I said. “Rust awaits you. Your sharpness will grow dull, your fire gut out. Lest you find higher purpose and seek it with those of like soul.”
I raised my voice, pitched it to resound.
“The Mighty Zoitsa was slain,” I said, “and its Night awaits a taker. None under this sky are worthy, yet it must not remain so. And so, Firstborn, I charge you to strive. To seek excellence in all things, and through this conquer eternity.”
I felt the feather-light touch of the Sisters against my thoughts, like a finger sliding down a page. My patron goddesses perceived the shape of my thoughts, the decree I would pass down to their people. I felt them brush up against me, those great looming presences, and taste of their judgement. Komena sat astride the wall, the remains of the woman who’d once commanded soldiers displeased but the idol of sacred strife pleased. It was Andronike whose attitude would settle the scale, and her judgement came more slowly than her sister’s. Beyond even my own thoughts she gazed upon the many ends such a decree might lead, the scattered strands, and where she went I could not follow. One who had touched the godhead, as the Sisters had, could follow the strands in ways beyond my comprehension. In silence, Sve Noc drifted down from the darkened sky on long wings. Down and down they went, until they dropped on my shoulders with sharp talons. I had their blessing, silent as it was, and the simple act of them perching on my shoulders had fifty thousand drow shivering. This was not an omen or an oracle, some religious text interpreted through the lens of years.
Sve Noc was true to them, true as snow or shadow or obsidian’s edge, and they had granted me their blessing beyond dispute. I raised my hand, palm up, and on it coalesced in Night what I had taken from the corpse of the Mighty Zoitsa. Power, given the shape of the sigil-symbol: a heavyset key, whose four teeth were as tortured antlers.
“This is the sigil of the Zoitsa,” I said. “It will be held before the pale light comes.”
A shiver, a ripple. Excitement like a crowd awaiting the first blood of a duel.
“All of you who are Zoitsa,” I said. “May lay claim to the sigil.”
I leaned forward.
“I took oaths from some of you, once, and though those nights are passed there was truth to our ways,” I said. “To hold this sigil is to make an oath, to strive to be worthy of the honour bestowed. And through this oath, power is gained, for the oath is the promise of a deed to come.”
I grinned, sharp and mean.
“Yet there can only be one oath, and many will be posed,” I continued. “And so there must be a beginning and an end, for no victor can ever be crowned…”
And in the end, all will be Night, the drow returned, finishing the verse from the Tenets of Night I had cited. I had thought of the terms, as Rumena assembled all the sigils, and found that the irony of them please me. It ran deeper than that, of course. A foundation set in song was set in something deeper than stone, more poignant than law. And if you knew the right song, the right stories? All you needed was to give the first push, and stone would tumble down the slope on its own.
“The oath will hold for nine years,” I said. “And upon the last dusk end, the sigil open to claiming once more. The keeping of oaths and bestowal of Night is a duty I bestow upon my own sigil, for the Losara are the children of the lost and found.”
I raised a hand.
“That burden will be the duty of the Losara, to discharge without friend nor enemy so long as there is empire,” I said, “and so in the keeping of oaths they will not rise or fall so long as they remain Losara.”
Balance, balance must be had. If I was going to make Ivah and my warriors the priesthood that harvested and bestowed the Night, then they could not partake of that bounty – otherwise I might as well simply name the Losara the founding nobility of the Empire Ever Dark, saving their kind a few centuries of intrigue and treachery before we reached that result anyway. My sigil would serve as a priesthood, taking no sides in the discharge of their duty, and that meant barring them from the greater games of power.
“Which oath will be worthiest,” I said. “You wonder this, do you not? If I will speak for the Night when every great one passes, choosing oath.”
I laughed harshly.
“Are you children, Firstborn, that you must be held by your hands?” I said. “Are you without eyes, without ears, without tongue? Can you not choose your own path?”
I struck down my staff once more.
“I give you nothing save for tenets under the Night,” I said. “To perish or flourish will outcome brought by your own hand, and the Shrouded Gods take any who speak otherwise.”
My grin returned, for it had been some time since fate had last allowed me to bask so deeply in well-tailored irony.
“Any who are Zoitsa may lay claim to the sigil,” I said. “And so any of the Zoitsa may offer oath that will be sought for nine years as they hold the sigil.”
I let that sink in, then struck again.
“And it will be the same hands as it has always been, that will tell between snake and izmej,” I said. “For when oaths are offered, it will be the Zoitsa who choose which will own their sigil with tokens.”
They would, in the end, vote on the oath that would bind their sigil together for nine years with the elected sigil-holder keeping the Night for that duration. It would, I believed, forced the strongest of ay sigil’s Mighty to care for the weakest – lest, when nine years had passed, they find the strength that had led them to the summit lent to another for another purpose. There would be more, beyond this. The sigil-holders that still lived would be charged make oaths as well, though they would keep their Night when the nine years had passed. It would only be the rulership that would be open to challenge on that night, though it would be decreed than any sigil-holder that died while in that role would see their Night turned into oath-Night. The trick to all of it, what they wouldn’t care about until it was too late, was that it would be sacred under Sve Noc for any drow to leave a sigil whenever they so wished without violence being visited upon them. Sigils would still make their own laws for those they allowed into their fold, but no longer would Mighty be able to keep other drow in their service by force. I meant to hang tyranny with the rope of expedience, for if sigil-holders treated their followers like animals what drow would willingly remain in their sigil? Still, the deeper workings could wait for a time still.
“You who are Zoitsa and would put an oath to the Zoitsa, step forward,” I said.
I smothered a madwoman’s grin, when this time instead of three candidates I got thirty-nine.
“Hear that?” I murmured, low enough only the Sisters could hear. “That’s the sound of your people taking an axe to the old order.”
I was hearing it too, and it warmed the cockles of my damned villainous heart.