“Without enemy, without backbone.”
– Callowan saying
I didn’t even have to say anything.
Black had been watching me discreetly ever since midnight’s threshold, and a simple nod of acknowledgement did the trick. Unlike me the green-eyed man had no connection to the wards that surrounded the tumulus, but by using me as a tripwire he’d effectively learned of the Peregrine’s arrival mere heartbeats after I did. Just because the man had lost his name hardly meant he’d ceased being perceptive – or dangerous. I slowly rose to my feet, hand reach for my yew staff, and watched from the corner of my eye as the former Black Knight drew away from the circle that’d gathered to listen to an old campaign story of Grem One-Eye’s. Hakram’s eyes found me, silently questioning in the dark, but I shook my head. The fewer people there for those talks the better, for though I trusted Adjutant as I would trust my own hand the Grey Pilgrim had no reason to do the same. I’d not further muddle the waters of what might already be troublesome talks simply for the base comfort of having Hakram at my side. I slipped away, not unseen of my friends but at least unquestioned, and tread between the dark silhouettes of the stones raised by the ancient Mavii. Far above stars hung in the night sky, pale constellations set in ink. Leather boots creaking against the snow I advanced, the edges of the cloak on my back skimming against smooth stone.
Tariq Fleetfoot stood a few feet further down the slope, upright and steady for such an old man. Robes of faded grey fell loosely down his frame, so used as to be halfway to raggedness, and the last wisps of white hair on his head stood out starkly as he gazed up at the stars. He did not have a staff, the gnarled old thing he’d snapped over his knee as the finishing touch to the Twilight Crown. In the days since that he could have easily found another, I knew, yet he had not. It tasted to me of a loss, something surrendered that would never be had again. None who’d given away their crown would ever find a way to fill that void and the lack of a walking stick was the least of it. Black drifted out of the stones a heartbeat after I did, tread quietly as the long coat he wore trailed behind him. Tariq’s jaw shifted, as I looked, a tensing so slight I might have missed it were I not already studying him. Wariness, I thought. The Pilgrim recognized Black’s footsteps, near silent as they were, and he was wary of the man they belonged to. I knew not what had passed between those two when my teacher was held prisoner, before his soul was mutilated, but the cold spite in the Carrion Lord’s eyes and the strain in Tariq’s shoulders did not speak to anything pleasant. Still, they were both pragmatic men in their own way. Like it or not they were in the same boat, and neither would be inclined to behave in a way that might just tip it over for all of us.
“Your Majesty,” the Pilgrim calmly said. “A beautiful night, isn’t it?”
“Iserre has its beauties,” I acknowledged.
The old hero half-smiled, then turned to dip his head respectfully.
“I invited myself to an evening of comradery, and for that I apologize,” Tariq said.
“You should,” Black noted. “I brought liquor, at least. Is your presence meant to be the gift?”
There was a slight pause, then he muttered heroes in a scathing tone. I sent him a warning look, but he was visibly unmoved. A consequence, I grimly thought, of having me try on those when I’d been a great deal less dangerous than I now was.
“Apologies twofold then, Black Queen,” the Pilgrim lightly replied. “Yet I believed it wiser to have this conversation away from prying eyes, and before too long had passed.”
An opportunity he’d not have again soon, I understood even if he did not spell it out. I was not all that surprised that the Peregrine had somehow slipped past a dozen layers of wards, patrols and watchmen to arrive unseen in the very heart of my camp. He was, after all the, the Grey Pilgrim: appearing sudden and unexpected was his wont, as much a part of his Name as the ashen-coloured robes. But he’d pulled this off because I was apart from the rest of my army, and my watchful patrons. If he’d tried to pull this on the tent where I slept, the Sisters might just have taken offence and good luck trying to keep that quiet.
“You were not unforeseen,” I said. “I require no apology.”
“Your kindness is appreciated,” the old man said. “I received the papers sent by the Lord Adjutant, Queen Catherine. They were… an interesting read.”
Well, it wasn’t like I’d expected the man to gush, slap me on the back and ask where he had to sign. Had I hoped for that, just a little bit? O Night, yes. I was in no way above easy victories when I could have them, which was tragically infrequent. Fingers tight on the dead yew in my grip, I carefully stepped down the slope until I was standing at the hero’s left. Black, never one to allow subtle theatrics to pass him by when they cost nothing, nonchalantly cut through behind me and came to stand at my left. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, knowing it’d only further entertain him.
“I expect you have questions,” I said.
Objections, too, but best get the clarifications out of the way first.
“Those were not the full text,” the Pilgrim said.
“The simplified manuscript,” I said. “Though no tricks were plied, Peregrine. I did not hide anything I thought might be contentious, only removed the many inkwells’ worth of minutiae that the full treaty will need to properly function.”
“Function,” Tariq repeated, blue eyes crinkling. “Yes, that is the word I was seeking.”
He breathed out, mist rising up easily on such a windless night.
“I have issue, as you must have anticipated, with some of the laws you would set,” the old man said. “Yet that is not so great a thing, for even if your terms were accepted without amendment I would wager the Liesse Accords being harbinger of more good than not.”
The Pilgrim’s already-crease face, wrinkled by long years of saving lives and taking them, grew serious.
“And so I must ask, Your Majesty,” he said, “what it is you intend as the function of your Accords? Their purpose, for I have glimpsed the lay of your work and it is neither salvation nor abolition.”
Oh, that was an ornate way to put it but no less true for that. I’d known from the very moment the thought of the Accords had begun to haunt me that there was only so much I could accomplish through them. It’d be a pretty thing, a treaty that promised a hundred or a thousand years of peace between all who signed it, but that was a fool’s dream. Old Terribilis the Second, the canniest of the Old Tyrants in so many ways, had once said that armies were like water: they took the path of least resistance. The line had stuck with me, even more than the rest of the Commentaries, and I’d seen since that the wisdom of it ran deeper than Terribilis had claimed. People, more often than not, took the path of least resistance. Because it was easier, because it was encouraged, because no one liked to struggle or get hurt. If I raised a dam in the way of our own nature – and, like it or not, people had been waging war one each other since the First Dawn – then perhaps it might hold for a time but it would inevitably break. And perhaps wreak greater destruction than before for the containment attempted. I could not change what lay at the heart of mankind, or orcs, or goblins or even the drow for that matter. I was not even sure the Gods could, and even at my most arrogant I’d never claimed to reach those heights. What I could do, though, was create a set of rules. Not too limiting, lest they be bucked, but limiting enough that never again would a city be broken by the strife of Named.
“I told you the first time we ever spoke,” I said. “What I cannot break-”
“You will regulate,” Tariq softly finished. “I remember. You spoke of your teacher too, that day.”
Black looked mildly curious, eyeing us both.
“He cannot conceive of a word where he does not win, you said,” the Peregrine reminded me.
And this is not a victory, he left unspoken. I’d known that was going to be one of the harder parts to navigate, though, for some time. That the Accords required trust in more than just me on the side of Below’s champions, lest trust in them die when I did. Part of me wondered if my teacher would take as an insult a remark I’d never intended to make it to his ears, though I stood by it still, and I flicked a glance to the side. He did not seem aggrieved, though only a fool would take what could be seen on Amadeus of the Green Stretch’s face as the sum of his thoughts.
“Yet I have lost,” Black said. “Undeniably so.”
I stilled. I’d not expected for him to speak in answer, save perhaps to send the occasional measured barb towards the Peregrine. Indecision warred in my mind, for though the Accords were my creation and I was circumspect of letting my teacher speak to or for them I could not hold them in my arms like some babe in need of soothing. They would grow larger than me, I knew, from the moment they were signed. They must, for if they did not this was no more than some Old Tyrant’s madness: though I would have chosen law and treaties rather than an invisible army or fortresses aflight, the doom of it would be just as certain. And so, though if felt like control of this was slipping through my fingers, I kept my mouth shut.
“Have you?” Tariq mildly asked. “You stand free once more, a leader of armies. Aligned with one of the rising stars of our age, shielded from judgement and assured seat and voice when the lay of this war and what will follow is writ. Have you lost, Amadeus of the Green Stretch?”
Part of me was almost offended on my teacher’s behalf, for I had seen victories of his making and they had little in common with the stuff of these days. Yet there was another quieter voice in the back of my mind that, while not agreeing with the Pilgrim had said, found it was not senseless. For someone who’d been a severed soul mere days ago, Black had returned to a degree of prominence with almost blinding swiftness. The itch was there to speak up, to intervene, because there was too much riding on this talk and this night for me to feel content in silence. I mastered it with some difficulty, knowing stepping in now might end up disastrous. My teacher had turned to look at the Pilgrim, pale green eyes considering, until he suddenly let out a biting sting of laughter.
“A victory, Peregrine?” he scorned. “This night, this moon, this year? The span of my days I have spent in the service of that searing, fleeting thing that’d even the scales for the smallest of instants and you would claim this to be it?”
The dark-haired man, though those locks now knew white as well, laughed once more. It was a sound like a bag being peremptorily emptied, a cup drunk to the last drop. More will than instinct.
“Those few I love are dropping like flies,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch harshly said. “My kindred atop the Tower spirals ever deeper into old follies and the order I have worked my hand to the bone raising has burst like an overripe fruit. The manner of things that have been lost…”
He shook his head, then smiled. Thin and wide and much too sharp, the blade-smile I’d come to know so well.
“These have been calamitous years, Peregrine,” the Carrion Lord said. “What gains were had always came at too high a price, and while I will not partake of regret neither will I shy from the truth that not a single of those games proved worth the candle.”
“You bleed,” Tariq acknowledged. “You rage, frozen and bitter as that poison is. But you are not cowed. You have ruled, but what do you know of rules? Am I to believe you will now put a yoke around your neck out of sentiment?”
The old hero eyed the aging villain with disdain.
“There is only so much of that in you,” the Pilgrim said. “And it never bore more than a feather’s weight on the scales, Lord of Carrion. I have seen the laws that would be the fabric of the Accords, and I see good in them for even if the children of Above will find their hands bound in some ways it is but a pittance to what it will cost Below’s favoured monsters. You will be stripped of manners of terror and brutality in myriad, forced to measure your wickedness and moderate your cruelties. You will be bound by fetters and told at the edge of the blade that ambitions cannot be without restraint. I see nothing, have seen nothing, in you that would take any of this as more than wasted ink.”
“It must be a pleasant world to live in, where any that stand opposite of you must be either grasping or grasped,” Black smiled. “Either the creature of the Gods Below or their apostle in wickedness – either way, what sin can there be in breaking us?”
“Well, if I must be wicked to hold regard then wicked I shall be,” the Carrion Lord said, eyes coldly glinting. “I’ll speak for the crooked and cruel, pilgrim of grey, and give you the answer you deman.”
Under starlight the dark-haired man took a dramatic bow, and I could see in the cast if his face that he was relishing this. The chance to speak without measuring every word, considering the consequence on the balance of his Role and Name. To… cut loose, after a lifetime of ironclad control. Praesi, I thought, not entirely without fondness.
“The first conspiracy will bloom,” the Carrion Lord said, “before the ink is dry.”
My fingers tightened. That was not what I had expected of him. Or wanted. He grinned, a slice of pale bone cutting through the dark.
“We will twist around the spirit of every rule while obeying the letter,” the green-eyed man said. “We will lie and cheat and hide our sins, while dragging into light those of our foes and rivals. We will seek to twist the laws as a tool for our ambitions and a sword to slay our enemies. We will hide behind every protection afforded and make red art of the details that save or slay. We will defend our advantages and seek to unmake yours, never once faltering in our callous greed.”
The grin went wider still, a madman’s grin. A challenge.
“And yet we will uphold the Liesse Accords, you broken old thing, and wage war on any that would unmake them,” the Carrion Lord said. “Merciless Gods, you think they tip the scale in your favour? Your entire breed are servants of stillness, shaped from the clay of recoil. You came out victors of the Age of Wonders, but this… Age of Order will be ours body and soul.”
“You are mad,” the Grey Pilgrim said, tone hushed.
“That may well be,” the Carrion Lord laughed, “but am I lying?”
Tariq’s face tightened.
“Peace will smother your kind out of existence,” the old hero said. “This I know and have seen many a time. Under law you will reach too high and pay the price of vainglory.”
“Why now, Tariq Fleetfoot,” the Carrion Lord replied with languid amusement, “that rather sounds like a wager.”
The Levantine’s fingers clenched.
“This could have been a beautiful thing,” he said. “The principles of Good made into law, however slightly. You soil this by your very existence.”
“I have only ever recognized one sin and one grace,” the green-eyed villain replied. “Your whimpering sense of virtue is as dust to me, Peregrine. Choke on it and perish, as you should have decades ago.”
Well, this was just lovely. Still it rung close enough to an accord from both sides that I wouldn’t be interceding for everybody if I stepped in now. You know, before two of the most powerful people on the fucking face of Calernia started pulling each other’s pigtails and calling their Gods a lie. Charming stuff all around, though I’d give it to Black that while he might have been a vicious shit about this he’d at least more or less gotten results.
“Glad to see we’re all friends now,” I said, perfectly willing to keep repeating the sentence louder and louder until objections died out.
Neither of them contradicted me. Well, would you look at that. Maybe they were clever after all.
“I am in agreement with the principle of the Liesse Accords,” Tariq tightly said. “Though when talks are had in Salia, I will argue against the articles I believe to be unsound.”
“I expected no less,” I said.
It was an effort to keep my voice steady, to keep the sheer fucking triumph out of it. Because if Tariq was in agreement with even just the principles of the Accords, then I was pretty sure a majority of living heroes would fall in line. There were probably heroes out there more powerful, but there were none more respected or influential. Getting Below’s side of the fence in order would be trickier, but if Black held the Tower and the Tyrant’s head ended up on a spike? It could be done. The fucking shape was there, now. It could be done. My excitement ebbed, though, when I remembered this conversation was not yet over. And that what we had to speak about might shake the foundations of the rest, if it went poorly. I hesitated on how to bring it up at all, and to hide the indecision reached for my pipe once more. Black gave me a mildly disapproving look.
“Wakeleaf is an ungainly vice,” he said. “One of the few things I ever agreed with Tikoloshe about.”
“I’ve tried that wine you keep bottles of,” I replied, stuffing my pipe, “and I’m not getting a lecture on ungainly vices from a man who regularly drinks something that tastes like rat poison. Muddy rat poison.”
“The mud makes all the difference,” my teacher pleasantly agreed.
I passed my palm over the pipe, black flame bloom amongst the stuffing, and breathed in sharply. Well, indirect talk had never been my strong suit so it was doubtful trying my hand at it now would somehow yield success with the godsdamned Grey Pilgrim of all people. Direct it was, then. I breathed out, let the smoke rise up towards the night sky and took the plunge.
“Pilgrim,” I said, “we need to talk about the Wandering Bard.”
Except I didn’t.
I was, instead, standing to the side of the three people – the Grey Pilgrim, the Black Queen and the Carrion Lord – standing in the starlight and snow as they spoke. I could even see the smoke wafting up from both my mouth and pipe. Shit, I thought.
“Catherine, Catherine, Catherine,” a woman’s voice said, sounding almost pained. “You were so close but now you’re fucking it all up.”
I looked at where the voice had come from – to the side, perched atop one of the raised stones, the Wandering Bard was seated. Slender and dark-haired, with blue eyes and a rather attractive face. The accent, though, I had recognized. Alamans.
“Really,” I said, “Alamans? What, where there no other bodies left?”
The Bard cocked her head to the side, looking surprised and more than a little amused.
“That is uncanny,” she muttered.
Raising a silver flask I’d not seen her grab, she shrugged and took a swallow.
“Right,” the Intercessor grinned after wiping her mouth. “So I’d say it’s about time we had a little chat, you and I.”