“Trust given is a gift, costing only the giver. Trust earned is in balance, worth as much to earner as granter.”
– King Edward Alban of Callow, best known for annexing the Kingdom of Liesse
The urge was there to laugh in disbelief, though I didn’t. Aisha was deadly serious in her question, and she was one the better-informed officers at the highest rung of the Army of Callow. She had Juniper’s ear, working relationships or personal connections with most the Woe and the rest of my closest collaborators. She was, as it happened, one of the few people who knew of the Liesse Accords even if that knowledge was modest. If she could believe that, then others would.
“I do not,” I said.
The Staff Tribune nodded in graceful acknowledgement, lovely heart-shaped face touched by the firelight.
“Then this is a mistake,” she murmured, discretely glancing at Akua without turning.
I kept any hint of displeasure from showing on my face. Of all my old College companions I’d always had one of the more complex relationships with Aisha Bishara. Her high birth in an old Wasteland line had made it difficult to trust her, at first, and back in the days where Juniper and I had been more frequently at odds her open siding with her friend as made her one of the Hellhounds and not one of ‘mine’, so to speak. We’d gotten past that, over the months and years, but I’d never hidden my belief that quite a few Wasteland highborn belonged dangling from a rope and that’d always lain between us. Aisha was more careful not to offend, ever stepping lightly around matters she thought our very different origins would make contentious. Frowning now or thinning my lips would have her shuttering immediately, and that was the opposite of what I wanted. I gazed where the Taghreb had flicked the glance, finding Akua effortlessly drawing Masego into what had become a debate over the poetries of the east by mentioning the ‘riddling-sorcerers of the Nameless City’. The blind mage let out an amused huff and a began declaiming something in a dialect of Mtethwa I could barely make out a few words from.
“There are lines in Praes that are older than the Sahelians,” Aisha Bishara murmured. “Others who have more often climbed the Tower, or through whose veins greater gifts flow. Yet one of that shade’s kin ruled Wolof, when the Empire was first founded, and where every other great line of that days has withered and died the Sahelians still thrive.”
I rolled my cup against the flat of my palm, eyes hooded as I listened to Aisha in pensive silence.
“That woman right there is of the blood of the original murder, Catherine Foundling,” she whispered. “The first iron-sharp treachery. All under the sun have known this since the Tower was first raised, and yet again and again the Sahelians have betrayed through surprise. Because they are charming, my queen. They are beautiful and fascinating and so very useful that certainly it couldn’t hurt to bring them into the fold just the once.”
Aisha bared the fainted hint of teeth at me, almost like an orc would have.
“They are like ink, that lot,” she said. “It only takes one drop in a cup water, and no matter how much you pour from that day on it will never be entirely pure again. And now you have let one of the finest makings of that line into your hearth, Catherine.”
Her fingers clenched, her gloves crinkling.
“She’ll have half of them charmed by the end of the night,” the Staff Tribune clinically said. “The rest uncertain. I expect she could ever turn Juniper’s opinion of her around, given long enough.”
“You maker her sound like a force of nature,” I said.
We watched the laughter and warmth unfolding before us, separate from it as if a transparent wall of dread had been slammed down between us.
“She was Named,” Aisha simply said. “And she rose high during years were the iron was sharp like rarely before.”
An elegantly backhanded compliment sent my way, that. There was a reason I’d more than once mulled stealing the Staff Tribune away from the army and making her my foremost diplomat.
“She remains impressive, even as a shade,” I admitted. “And you’re not without reason to worry.”
“And yet,” Aisha said.
“And yet,” I agreed.
A heartbeat passed.
“This is indiscreet, and perhaps insolent to ask,” Aisha delicately said, “but are you-”
I waved the notion away before she could even finish.
“I am,” I said, “Callowan.”
I’d come to learn that just as the Wasteland’s worst excesses needed to be excised from its flesh, so did Callow’s own spiteful inclinations. But in the end, I was more than mind and principle, more than thought. I was flesh, too, and like so many of my people my bones were made of grudge. There were some trespasses that could not be forgiven or forgot. One hundred thousand souls. Some follies were beyond forgiveness even were it wished. Sometimes, tough, forgiveness was not the heart of a story.
“I will have long a price as I can conceive, in due time,” I murmured. “Worry not of that.”
“You have lingering eyes,” Aisha hesitantly said.
“They’ve lingered on you as well,” I amusedly replied. “Shall I make you empress instead, Lady Bishara?”
Her cheeks reddened the slightest bit, which was unexpectedly charming. Ah, if it didn’t have terrible idea written all over it… The embarrassment passed, swiftly mastered.
“Rarely has there ever been more poisoned a chalice than the Tower,” the dark-eyed woman somberly said. “I would not dare drink of that cup. Yet someone must hold it, and that person cannot be Malicia.”
Something hard and cold passed in the cast of her face, at that, whisked away by the noblewoman’s mask but not quite quickly enough.
“Agreed,” I replied. “And Aisha, about Ratface-”
She curtly shook her head.
“I thank you, Catherine, but I will grieve Hasan in my own way,” she said.
Aisha was the only person I’d ever known to call him Hasan instead or Ratface regularly. They’d been lovers, back at the College. A strange pairing, given Ratface’s deep hatred of the nobility and Aisha’s open pride in her own heritage, but they’d both been incredibly lovely and the intensity of a passion could make up for a lot of differences. They’d parted ways before I met either of them, though Ratface had remained… inclined in the years after. I’d thought Aisha less attached, but now I wondered. Faded affections could find fresh life in other forms, and remain sweet at heart for the good times once shared. I nodded in deference to her grief, for it was greater than mine and it had older claim on the shade of the man who’d died in my service at Malicia’s order. Damn her for that, and so many other things.
“It’ll be Black, if I have my way,” I said.
A moment passed as Aisha mulled over what I’d just said.
“You usually do,” she finally said, tone faintly rueful. “It will be a bloodletting that makes the War of Thirteen Tyrants and One pale, if he rises.”
“Change will come,” I said. “If fought, it will not come gently.”
“They’ll fight,” Aisha tiredly said. “That is our nature, for good or ill.”
“It can’t be like it was before,” I told her. “You know that. Nor should it. We’ve come too far for that.”
“And her?” the lovely tribune said, glancing at Akua. “Where does she stand, in this new world of yours?”
“Nowhere gentle,” I said. “Though that will be a choice of her own making.”
“Will it?” Aisha said. “I imagine many have thought themselves her captain, in days past. I see none still drawing breath.”
“If I were trying to conquer her, I’d fail,” I softly said. “I’ve known that from the start. She has ever been my better at those games.”
“And yet,” Aisha repeated, the echo almost chiding.
“Always she’s had a knack for masks,” I said. “More than wearing them she became them, you know. It was why she wielded her Name so well.”
“Masks are shed, eventually,” Aisha warned.
“What if you didn’t want to shed it?” I said. “What if wearing that mask you got all these things that some part of you, deep down, had been craving? Because Sahelians are still humans, Aisha. There are some things you can’t train yourself out of no matter how hard you try.”
“There are things she will crave deeper still,” she said. “For that too was taught. And when the opportunity comes, the same choice that has always been made will be made.”
I smiled, and remembered a winding talk had some time ago under morning sun. You have seen the worst of us, she’d said. And through that knowing taken our measure. But there is more, Catherine. She’d seemingly been speaking of her own kind, of the High Lords and Ladies. But there’d been the slightest chink in the mask when she’d spoken of her great-uncle who’d fled to Nicae. If even a Sahelian can have the taste for peace, there is yet something left to be kindled. A little too sharp, a little too brittle. The first hint of the bile she’d vented on Kairos Theodosian the same dawn that’s seen the birth of the Ways. And I knew, of course, that she was not beyond such exquisite deception. That she might have been weaving that intricate web around me since the moment she saved my life in the Everdark. But it wouldn’t matter, I thought, watching Akua Sahelian letting out a snort of laughter at some pointed comment Indrani had made. It wouldn’t matter because she’d want it to be true.
“Be watchful, Aisha,” I said. “I will be as well. But that arrow has already been loosed, and I will not gainsay it now.”
“May the Gods avert their eyes from it all,” she murmured. “You’ve always had an uncanny way for seeing what others do not, Catherine. I will trust in it once more.”
“With open eyes,” I smiled.
“Is that not the finest manner of trust?” Aisha smiled back.
She drifted away just as easily as she’d come when there was a lull in the conversation for her to slide into, adding her thread to the weave of it with practiced grace. Sometimes I envied how easily it seemed to come to the highborn around me, the social graces I still struggled with even when I genuinely meant to use them. There was something to be said for training from one’s youth, even if the other aspects of nobility held little worth in my eyes. The hours passed smoothly, after that, eased by the wine and food and warmth. Twice more Robber tried to needle Akua into anger and struck only at smoke, until even Pickler looked discomfited on his behalf. He did not try a third time. With the greenskins swiftly moving for second portions of meat and the cask of ale being opened conversation bloomed in every direction, sometimes coming together for virulent debates but just as often staying a chaotic multitude. A warmth had seeped in me that had little to do with the fire or the drink, though I’d partaken of both generously. Still I sensed it immediately when two people passed through the outer wards surrounding the tumulus maybe half a bell before midnight. I wove Night to have a look, and to my surprise found two familiar faces walking up the hill.
Marshal Grem One-Eye, the grizzled old orc who was still thought by many the finest general alive, was carrying two bottles of aragh and from the sounds of it complaining that my father hadn’t even offered to carry one – to which Black piously informed him that as a recovering hostage he could not trust himself to carry out such strenuous labour. A few of my people heard the steps before the two came in sight, but there was a beat of surprise when they were fully seen in the firelight.
“Black, Marshal Grem,” I greeted them. “Have a seat, it’s not like we’re lacking room.”
The orc Marshal – Black’s, not mine – sniffed the air with a bemused look on his craggy face.
“Is that horse I’m smelling?” Grem One-Eye said. “Haven’t had a skewer of that in decades. Last time was…”
“Fleeing after that raid on the Wall,” Black said, lips twitching. “When those Iarsmai riders went after us.”
“Wait, I think I had a Name dream about that back in the day,” I said. “When you lot went after the Commander of the Watch?”
“Oh man, I heard about that,” Archer enthused. “I mean, no lie, the Lady is terrible at telling stories-”
“No lie indeed,” Black said, lips quirking outright.
“- but this one she actually made pretty entertaining,” Indrani finished.
“Did she mention the part where the Commander beat Black like a rented mule?” I said. “It was almost embarrassing to see.”
“That detail certainly never made it to Court,” Akua slyly added.
“A grave exaggeration,” Black said, eyeing me from the side. “I was maneuvering her into a killing blow.”
“While she was manoeuvring you down a set of stairs, head first,” I drily replied.
He slid into a seat not far from me while Grem passed the bottles to a – oh Gods, that was just wrong – blushing Juniper. I’d forgotten she had this uh, intense sort of admiration for Black. She half-glared at me for having the gall to mention that the legendary Carrion Lord had once been thrown down a set of stairs. Gods, I should find a way to pass along that one dream I had where he and Ranger were getting all… bright-eyed at each other. That ought to cure her from this right quick.
“We must have been fleeing on foot for half a day before they caught up,” the Marshal of Praes said. “Flat grounds, maybe a bell from the marches proper. Twenty of them, with this big man in mail the ranking officer.”
“The cousin to Duchess Kegan’s husband, we later learned,” Black said.
The old orc grinned.
“The Watch is coming, he said,” Marshal Grem recounted. “Soon you will be in longbow range. You cannot escape our sight. Surrender now, or-”
Indrani made a whistling sound, like an arrow loosed, then a fleshy hit.
“So Hye shot him, naturally,” Black said. “Right in the throat.”
“And Wekesa, still drenched in sweat from the running and looking like a rumpled cat, he leans forward and he says all cool as ice,” Grem One-Eye began.
“Guess he didn’t see that coming,” the two old killers guffawed together.
They chuckled with the ease of two old friends sharing a worn and beloved joke, now thrown around as much for the fondness of the tale as for whatever waning humour it might have once held. I shared a look of secondhand embarrassment with Masego and Indrani. Calamities, huh. They were a great deal less dignified once you’d had a close look at them. Those left, anyway, I thought with a grimace. Sabah I’d mourn for she was worth mourning, but the Warlock I grieved more for how his death had pained and would pain Masego more than anything else. Little about the man had endeared him to me.
“Here, Marshal,” Juniper said, passing him a skewer of juicy horse meat.
“Thank you, Marshal,” Grem replied, openly amused.
“Sisters take me, let’s be done with the titles for the night,” I grunted.
“Your Majestic Highreachingness, I must protest,” Indrani gravely said. “It would be most improper of your loyal subjects to behave in such a manner. And also us.”
“Reaching high shelves is her only weakness, as it happens,” Robber drawled.
“Really,” I flatly said. “The goblin is going to make height jokes.”
“I am a veritable titan, by my people’s standards,” the Special Tribune shamelessly lied.
“I’ve seen piles of apples taller than you,” I scathingly replied.
“Ah,” Robber replied without missing a beat, “but did you see over them?”
That cut a little too close to home so I replied with a gesture more than mildly obscene and a few curses in Taghrebi that had Aisha tittering in amusement before her face suddenly went blank. Ah, I sadly thought, my own memory prompted by the sight. It’d been the same man who’d taught them to the both of us, then.
“I have a question, Marshal Grem, about your assault on the Wall during the Conquest,” Pickler said. “If you don’t mind.”
“Grem will do, around a fire,” the old orc gravelled. “You’re Old Wither’s daughter, I hear?”
Pickler’s face tightened with discomfort as the mention of her mother, the Matron of the High Ridge tribe.
“I am,” she said.
“She tried to have my liver ripped out, once,” Grem said. “Not even because she disliked me, mind you, she was just trying to insult Ranker by eating an ally’s flesh.”
“I am,” Pickler slowly said, “sorry?”
The grizzled orc quietly laughed.
“Not much like that old horror, are you?” he said, baring teeth. “Ask your question, girl.”
Even as Pickler began a long question about the order of battle for siege when attacking the fortresses of the Wall I tuned out the taking and leaned closer to Black.
“You actually here for the company, or the other thing?” I quietly asked.
“I expect the Pilgrim will arrive come midnight,” he replied just as quietly. “And if you are to speak of the Wandering Bard, as I expect you will, one whose veracity might be ascertained might be of some use to you.”
I felt a sliver of gratefulness at that, though I knew he would bring as many complications as he did uses by being there. Tariq could no longer see through me unless Sve Noc let him, these days, and even if they did let him it would be considered suspect. Black, on the other hands, was no longer even Named. The Peregrine should be able to use his trick without any complications, though I doubted someone like the Grey Pilgrim would find much to approve of in my father. My brow raised, when I caught a detail. I’d never actually told him that the Sisters could ward of the attentions of the Choir of Mercy – and likely an aspect, as I doubted angels would so frequently lend a helping hand even to their apparent favourite.
“Come now,” Black smiled, before I could say anything. “Pacts with lesser gods are not so rare as to be unheard of. Wekesa spent many a year trying to mimic through ritual the benefits one gains through such patronage without the drawbacks, though to only middling success.”
“It’s not quite as clear-cut as that,” I said. “We have give and take.”
“No doubt,” the green-eyed man said. “Besides, considering the trials you’ve put your soul through over the last few years I doubt there are many takers left.”
“Are you making fun of the state of my immortal soul, you perfidious heretic?” I said.
“I suppose I must be a heretic indeed, if the Arch-heretic of the East deems me so,” he mused.
Gods but I’d missed insulting the man. There were still so many things left unsaid between us, recriminations still simmering and hard arguments yet to be had, but what had been so deeply wounded in the aftermath of Akua’s Folly felt… lighter tonight. Not healed, and perhaps it never would be, but not quite so raw. It helped, I thought, that I had been allowed to feel for my own path so far from him that it was impossible for any part of it to have been his notion. Whatever the reasons the two older men had come, they certainly kept the conversation going. Black eventually went to sit by Masego’s side, the two of them conversing quietly, and that I did not approach. The grief they shared went back to long before I’d entered either’s life, and I would be an unwelcome interloper if I attempted to be part of it. Vivienne had yet to come, which had me frowning. She would not snub an evening like this out of anger at Akua being here, so it likely meant the Jacks were finding something of us. I’d like for her to be there, regardless, but I couldn’t deny that finally getting even a bare bones report about whatever it was the First Prince was dredging out of Lake Artoise would be a relief. As it turned out, though, like so often Black was right.
Mere heartbeats before midnight, the wards shivered as the Grey Pilgrim passed through.