“A good liar finds every lie a fetter.”
– Arlesite saying
It shouldn’t be possible, I thought. How did this somehow not qualify as direct intervention? I was looking at myself standing between the Peregrine and the Carrion Lord, smoke coming up from my pipe hanging still in the air like it’d been frozen stiff. The Bard had what, stolen my soul out of my body under the nose of Sve Noc and slowed the flow of time to a crawl? Considering anything sorcerous touching upon time was known to be requiring the kind of power that’d break a kingdom to steal away a mere heartbeat this had to be a Name thing, but even if that proved true this was… My fingers clenched. No, Cat, you damned fool, I grimly thought. You’re looking for a heavy-handed miracle when this one’s the reigning queen of smoke and mirrors. I’d stood here before, though I’d been brought into such a folded moment by another old monster’s will. The difference was that the Dead King preferred titanic scenes – an old crusade assaulting the walls of Keter, the chaotic field some had already taken to calling the Princes’ Graveyard – while the Intercessor had subtler tastes. A lighter touch that hinted at powers she likely did not possess, but who could know for sure? Some sardonic jest at my expense, or an attempt to rattle me?
“Going in circles, are we?” the Bard drawled. “That’s fine. We got time, Cat.”
This was an illusion, I thought, or perhaps a memory made into something both more and less. Yet it was exquisitely woven, I’d admit, for the silhouette of the Intercessor perched atop the old stone was flawlessly touched by the cast of starlight that could not truly exist. The shoddy lute on her lap, more driftwood than instrument, was as much one of her signatures as the shining silver flask in her hand. This thing of many faces and a hundredfold in years, there were some who might call it a god. One that sat astride the boundary between the Gods and Creation, like some fickle high priestess of inscrutable designs. And for all that Kairos Theodosian had whispered in my ear secrets of her nature, there was still much more that remained unknown to me.
“So it seems,” I finally said. “What name do you happen to go by these days, Almorava?”
“Marguerite of Baillons, at your service,” the Bard said, bowing foppishly.
“Does it not get tedious?” I curiously asked. “Trading names and faces so often?”
“You’d be surprised what people can get used to,” the Intercessor said, then looked me up and down. “Or maybe not. You’ve had an interesting few years, haven’t you?”
“Same as you,” I calmly replied. “Heard you a little spot of trouble down south. Tyrant’s a tricky one, eh?”
“You get a particularly sharp one every few centuries,” Marguerite nonchalantly admitted. “Mind you, that boy’s not making it to thirty.”
I don’t think he’s trying all that hard to, I thought. I did not voice it, though, for though Kairos Theodosian was my foe and had betrayed me many a time – and would again, given occasion – I would still choose him over the Intercessor every time.
“Is this a warning, then?” I mildly asked. “That I need to fall in line if I want to make it to that age?”
She laughed, dark-haired and blue-eyed and looking frightfully young for what I knew her to be. Barely out of girlhood, and on such an ancient creature that was almost obscene.
“Shit, Cat, you think this is what – some kind of intimidation racket?” she grinned. “Behave now, young girl. No more slaughtering your enemies or I’ll slap your buttocks with a wooden branch.”
Her tone was gently mocking, though her face turned serious quickly enough.
“This is a favour I’m doing you, Catherine,” the Wandering Bard said. “Because you’re trying real hard to do some good and it might even work. If you stop getting in your own way, just the once.”
Ah. So we were starting with the friendly, smiling face then. Like I’d swallow that.
“I do make it a point of always believing ambiguous immortal creatures without question, when they assure me they’re doing me a favour,” I prettily smiled. “So, do I need to sign something before you take my soul or will a spoken bargain be enough?”
I winked exaggeratedly.
“For the first of my three wishes-” I began.
“You really are a terrible asshole,” the Intercessor said, almost admiring. “Hells, I bet even Nessie gets a little vexed at times and he’s gotten pretty hard to ruffle over the millennia.”
I was never going to get those wishes, was I? The disappointment only grew with the passing of years.
“You would know,” I smiled.
A heartbeat passed as she studied me.
“Spinning this out won’t allow the sisters to take you out of here,” Marguerite sighed. “You can stop trying to delay now.”
Shit. And I’d been trying to hard not to actually think about it just in case she could pick up on things like that.
“Fine,” I said. “You want to talk, Bard, let’s talk. What do you want?”
“I’d like for you to not help Nessie wiggle out of this, is what I’d like,” the Intercessor said. “I don’t mind your Accords, Catherine. I think they might even do some good for a century or two, before they become a noose around the neck of Calernia. If you get them signed, well, congratulations. But you’re about to scrap most your efforts before the year is out, and while that’s mostly on your head and I’d usually abstain from the mess what does matter to me is that you’re endangering more important endeavours.”
Even if we’d been under the noon sun instead of under the veil of night, I thought, I would not have been able to read the woman perched atop the stone. She’d been a weaver of words for longer than Callow had stood and though the Wandering Bard was hardly unbeatable or infallible she was not someone I’d ever have a solid grasp on. Still, even knowing she might be spinning a web of lies tailored exactly for me I had to keep her talking. When else was I ever going to have the opportunity of stealing a glimpse of what she intended?
“And what would those endeavours be?” I pressed.
“Killing the Dead King,” the Intercessor said. “For good. Not a soul-shard or an inhabited corpse, not his endless legion of expendable intermediaries. Neshamah King, he who once reigned over Sephirah and so doomed it.”
“I’ve no quarrel with that end,” I shrugged.
Which was nothing but the truth. Creation would be better off without the Dead King, there was no denying that. I fully intended on seeing it done, too, if the price for it was not ruinously steep. That did not mean, though, that whatever the Bard had planned was to be blindly welcomed. Assuming she was speaking the truth, which I would not. And now, I thought, comes the demand. Oh it’d be disguised, but the tricks being plied on me were not unfamiliar. A common enemy, a common striving, had first been established. Then it’d been hinted that she would not oppose my own heart’s desire, seeing the Liesse Accords signed, so long as I did not begin a feud with her. Now she’d make her demand, reasonable and modest, and she might even go a step further by throwing in a bribe. Some secret that’d be of use to me, or a light nudge that’d help me along the way. So, I wondered, what was it to be? Was I to bite my tongue when it came to sharing with the Pilgrim what I knew of her? Or perhaps it’d be something subtler, a particular secret that need be kept.
“Good,” Marguerite smiled. “Then when he offers you a truce – and he will, that much is certain – do not put your weight behind accepting it.”
I pushed down my surprise, keeping my face a bland mask. What? I’d considered the offers Neshamah had half-extended while in Liesse, since the end of the battle, the truces of ten or a hundred years. Tempting as they were, in retrospect the former more than the latter, I’d been growing increasingly inclined to refuse them outright. The long game was his more than ours, in the end, and the Dead King would never had made the offer if he did not gain from it more than we. Yet this was not what I’d expected of the Bard. I’d taken this little aside of ours, much as she pretended otherwise, as a tacit admission that my speaking against her to the Pilgrim might do damage. That she must prevent it. Yet she now spoke as if her great concern was war on Keter and nothing else, which was raising my hackles. I’d seen her act in the name of Below as well as Above, which meant she was not the heroine she oft presented herself as, but what she truly wanted did remain a mystery to me. The destruction of the Dead King was a believable striving for this entity, along with the admittedly chilling notion that there was little she was not willing to sacrifice to see it done, but it was… too clean. The two scheming immortals, plotting and scheming across the span of history with Calernia as their pawns?
It had the shape of a story to it and that was what had me wary. The Bard’s trade was the peddling of stories, and I could not help but think I was being sold one right now.
“And why shouldn’t I?” I said. “A reprieve would allow us to gather stronger forces before marching on Keter.”
Was I playing into her hand, I thought, by keeping her talking no matter my true intent? I could not know, but ignorance was cure to nothing at all even lies taught something of what was.
“You’d be clinging to the wrong story,” the Bard calmly explained. “In truce he will ‘hold’ the territories he seized in Procer. And after the truce runs out, you’ll take them back from him. Drive him back to Keter. And that’ll be your victory.”
“And so nothing will change,” she said. “Oh, I burned a shard of him when he got greedy in Arcadia. That’s a loss for him, it is, but it’s a drop in the ocean. I did not wait centuries to let him slip away now, Catherine Foundling, not when he could be destroyed instead.”
“You’re implying that if the war is unbroken by truce, our victory will be in Keter instead,” I slowly said.
That by cutting a deal, we’d dilute the substance of the triumph that could be had. Which, while sounding to me of a repugnant repudiation of the practical for nebulous ‘principles’, sounded quite a lot like some of the hero-talk I’d heard over the years. No truce with the Enemy and all that. And coming out of the Intercessor’s mouth it was a lot harder to dismiss, I thought, for though I still doubted the virtue of such a stance I wouldn’t deny that as a story-knife it might just hold up. The more complicated a tale the less strongly it bound, in my experience, and I doubted anything short of steel fetters would keep the Dead King dead. Besides, this entire affair assumed we’d be able to win the war in the first place. Which was far from certain, in my opinion.
“He needs Keter, you know,” Marguerite idly said. “Everything else he can spare, but Keter? Without it he’s no longer the King of Death, he’s simply Evil in a box – and that, my dear, delivers him into my hands sure as dawn. So he’ll fight for the city tooth and nail, and that’s how he ends.”
“If that’s true,” I said, “why would he ever wage war? Why not simply close the borders of his kingdom and avoid the risk entirely?”
After a grisly demonstration of power or two, harsh enough they were seared into the Principate’s cultural memory, it was unlikely Procer would try his lands again. Few rulers would be fool enough to seek war with the peace of death to the north when there were better lands south and east to annex instead.
“Because I haven’t given him a choice,” the Bard candidly said. “If not regularly bled of strength by a war he’ll gather enough to try something genuinely dangerous, like conquering another Hell or ingesting another kingdom into the Serenity. So I’ve arranged for the war to be taken to him, again and again.”
“Not this time, though,” I said. “He’s the one who wanted to sally out, and he’s taking risks. Why?”
She laughed, fiendishly pleased.
“Because he’s been cornered, Catherine,” the Bard said, “by the passing of time. The Kingdom Under will have taken the entire continent underground soon. And on the surface cities are getting larger. Sorcery and learning keeping crawling forward. Larger, more stable alliances are forming. By the time there is a Twentieth Crusade, it’ll be able to win.”
“So he needs to do something now,” I said. “A sweeping change of some kind.”
“Oh, he caught onto that some time ago,” Marguerite said. “There’s a reason Procer is such a bloody mess. Ever wonder why the dead strike so often at the Lycaonese while the Alamans by the lakes are an afterthought?”
Because there are much fewer Lycaonese, and they lack allies in the broader Principate, I’d thought. It was much more feasible to slowly eradicate the northerners and their smaller population than it was with the lakeside Alamans, whose principalities tended to be more populated further from the coasts regardless.
“You’re implying he’s been sabotaging the Principate,” I said.
“He’s been sowing hate between those tribes since before there was a Principate, Catherine,” she replied. “Keeping them estranged, shaping their stories one incursion at a time so that when the black days come they’ll be too far gone to band together.”
“If you’ve known for so long then why did it come to this?” I flatly said.
“First Prince isn’t a Name,” the Intercessor sighed. “That’s what I work with, like your teacher told you. Names. I can’t touch the Nameless outside of some very narrow boundaries. And what a funny coincidence it is, that the Principate took the shape it bears to this day after Nessie and his friend in the Tower ran roughshod over it. You following me yet, Foundling? Kairos isn’t the only one who’s ever pulled a fast one over me. The entire bloody nation has been a fire in my lap since its founding.”
It was, I thought, believable enough. Though there was one detail more than the rest I focused on.
“Narrow boundaries,” I repeated, hinting at a question.
She looked amused.
“You spoke of me,” the Bard said. “It was enough, given who you are.”
And wasn’t that just the loveliest of ambiguous sentences? Who I was. It might even be true, given that I’d avoided speaking of her as much as I could. The last time I could recall, in truth, had been with the Tyrant of Helike and we’d been hiding behind the madness of the Hierarch unleashed on that night. She would not have known anything that was spoken in that carefully forged blind spot, Kairos having no doubt made it largely to check her. And that, more than anything else, was what had me convinced she was lying. Because it was a pretty story she was selling me, but she did in fact have a way to get to the First Prince: the Augur, her cousin and most trusted of advisors. She’d had that way in for years now, and still the Tenth Crusade had headed east instead of north. There was, I thought, a greater game afoot than she would have me believe. Oh, if I pressed no doubt she’d have an answer for me. A reasonable one, too, as for why it had all unfolded the way it had. But my instincts were screaming I was being had, somehow, for some reason. Why would you tell me any of this? Why are we having this conversation at all? You’d have me believe this is your first true opportunity, but since when would you see this as an opportunity at all? A sculptor does not owe a chisel an explanation.
Gods Below and Everburning, what was her fucking game?
“What are you, really?” I quietly asked, looking into eyes that were not the first she’d ever worn. “You’re Named, but like none I’ve ever seen. And for all your pretences you’re not a heroine.”
“I’m what was made so that no one ever eats the world,” the Intercessor said. “I am herald before the ruin; envoy when it waxes beyond restraint. What I am has no name in any tongue still known to the living or the dead, and many have gone mad seeking it. I’ve had as many faces as there are graves and never once did I taste true death.”
The old thing smiled.
“I am not an arbiter,” she said. “When the hour is kind, I am granted kind purpose. When the hour is wicked, I do what I must. And when the hour is mine, I seek the story that will free Creation. Until I have found it, you grasping thing, I see to the monsters that slip through the cracks. So crawl through the muck and do the passing things you can, but do not once presume to meddle in the greater works beyond your understanding – I will not tolerate the meddling of amateurs.”
She had given me, I thought, I reasonable enough answers. Not justifications, and only barely would I call them explanations, but it… held up. More or less. Enough that I could glimpse the shape a tale that’d make sense of it all. And that was why I doubted it, but I did have to wonder – had I sunk too deep into lunacy, that a plausible tale was enough to have me disbelieve? Had I become like Kairos, baring knives at the faintest hint of weakness? Or is this kind of hesitation exactly what she wants from me by doing this? The trouble here was that I had so very little to bring out as argument if I wanted to qualify the Intercessor an enemy in the eyes of the Pilgrim. She’d pulled strings for the death of Captain, it was true, but Sabah had spent a lifetime as an enforcer for my teacher and through him the Tower. She’d had a hand in the sundering between Black and Malicia being so deep and bitter, but again what sin would that be in the Pilgrim’s eyes? I had the words of Kairos Theodosian, which to Tariq would be less than nothing, and the memories of the Sisters when they had sought out Below and encountered the Bard as an envoy. Which, while less than sunny a cast for the Intercessor, was not utterly damning. What else could I bring up, save the words of the very Dead King we were not gathering against? Even I could not that deny that for all the hints of more sinister intent I’d seen her put the finger on the scales for Good rather more often than the other way around.
I had little to say, which begged the question of whether or not I was truly looking at an enemy. Oh, she’d sought my death once or twice – but then I’d been a rising villain attempting to claim Callow and considering the amount of deaths I’d personally brought down on Creation since I couldn’t fault her on principle either. In strategy, perhaps, but then given the scale she worked on it would have been painfully arrogant of me to pretend I knew everything she did. I kept my fingers from clenching, for it was too obvious a tell. Was that the answer, then? That I was to kneel and trust in the benevolence of some eldritch creature’s designs, to step only where she deigned to let me step and babble out thanks for the privilege? No, I thought. Even if all she’d spoke was true, she no more owned the right to shape the Creation than any of us. She was my enemy, come what may. But not one I could face tonight, with preparations so feeble. If she caught even a hint that I was coming for her… I’d only be able to act in surprise once, and I doubted there would ever be a second chance. I clenched my fingers and unclenched them, allowing the conflict I genuinely felt to touch my face.
“You’ll back the Accords?” I asked.
“I’ll let them stand on their own merits,” the Intercessor said. “Neither more nor less.”
I spat to the side.
“Then we’re done here, Bard,” I said.
She peered at me, seemingly amused.
“That we are,” she agreed.
I blinked, tasting the warmth of smoke in my mouth, and Tariq Fleetfoot’s face creased.
“Why must we speak of her?” the old hero asked, tone wary.
And this was the moment, I thought, where I hinted arrangement had been made and began to bide my time until I could strike. Plotted behind bling spots with the Hierophant and learned from the sharp madness of the Hierarch. Like a clever little villain attempting to snuff out a great light. It was a story, I realized in a moment of cold dread. I’d been sold yet another story, on the sly, and come so very close to embracing it wholeheartedly. I’d not bit the bait when she’d approached me as a smiling offeror of advice and bargains, so she’d changed the story. The immortals warring over the world I’d again refused, silently as I had, and in doing so tumbled down the most dangerous of the three stories she’d woven. Believing it was my own notion every step of the way.
“I do believe she just tried to kill me,” I thoughtfully said. “So let’s drag out into the light every dirty little secret I know about her.”
Back in the old days, if I’d gone down the hill to meet the Exiled Prince in an honourable duel he would have made sport of me. I would have been, after all, fighting him on his own terms. Why would I offer the Intercessor the courtesy I’d refused him, even if clothed differently? I would not fight a weaver of stories the way she wanted to be fought, damn her.
Elegant had never been my strength, so time to drag us both into the mud.