“Assertion that the end justifies the means in in truth embrace of the Heavens, for it is they who will decide the Last Dusk and so all justice then derives from them.”
– Hektor the Ecclesiast, Atalante preacher
It was a little unsettling to see that even without the Name my teacher could still shed the face of Amadeus of the Green Stretch and become the Black Knight. A single sentence and humanity slid down his face like morning dew, leaving behind a cold-eyed thing weighing the necessity of harsh violences to visit. The Grey Pilgrim, on the other hand, did not look surprised. Troubled, the lines on his face deepening with weariness, but not surprised at all. The blue-eyed old man cast a glance at Black, fingers tightening with something like concern at what he saw, but the faint weight that was the attention of the Choir of Mercy scrutinizing him was batted away like overbold fingers. Perched atop the same stone where the Intercessor had sat, two great and shadow-feathered crows gazing down with merciless eyes. They had no claim on my father, I knew, and he was the kind of man who would rather die straight-backed than accept patronage. The extended warding had been offered as a courtesy to me, their thoughts whispered against mine, though all three of us knew they’d have mourned losing out on an opportunity to take a swipe at a Choir without starting a celestial war.
I breathed in smoke, disconcerted by the way it was warm and barely touched when it felt like that pipe had been lit for so long. Masego had told me, once, that there was no such thing as time: only the perception of it, and entropy’s ruining touch. I couldn’t quite grasp that, truth be told, for even entropy’s encroachment must be measured by something. Yet the disparity between the acrid smoke against my tongue, the weight of the dragonbone pipe still mostly-full, and the span of the conversation I’d had with the Wandering Bard? They’d lent me a glimpse, perhaps, at what he meant. Had I still been Winter’s Queen, such a sliver of understanding would have been turned into peril and artifice without batting an eye. As the priestess to dark goddesses, instead I hoarded it away the way I did so many other half-espied revelations and the secrets they led to. I had little wisdom of my own to offer, but I was not above passing through that which had been bestowed upon me by wiser souls.
“That is an accusation not without gravity,” the Peregrine said.
He flicked a glance at Sve Noc, as if he’d felt their intervention, though what he saw there had him recoil from the unpleasantness. The cold night went colder still, and as the stars above grew more radiant from the wroth of the Ophanim the Sisters cawed out in mockery – though their touch against my mind was agitated, as the attention of an irate Choir of Mercy felt like a burn on their godhead. To my eye, there were times and places where Sve Noc would cow the Ophanim should it come to a contest of might. After they’d taken a petty shot at Mercy’s own favourite son was not one of them, though. I cleared my throat, intent on distracting the angels by distracting their champion.
“You don’t look all that surprised, though,” I mused. “Something you’d like to say, Tariq?”
The white-haired hero turned his attention to me, and as expected the weight of Sve Noc’s chiding began to wane with the turn. You’re welcome, I uncharitably thought. Now please cease screwing with the hero I’m trying to convince, if you would. Komena cawed in irritation at my gall, though Andronike signified amusement. I forced myself to ignore the distracting dance of their thoughts against mine, for this was too important a talk to attend to it only half-listening.
“That though you’ve been known to have… broad an understanding of what constitutes as such an attempt, I have no difficulty believing there was dispute,” the Peregrine said. “Younger Bestowed might defer to my decision to take a chance on you out of respect, even if disagreeing, but the Bard is both my elder and greater in the service of the Heavens. She would not feel bound to yield to my decisions.”
I breathed out and did not clench my fingers, for it would have been an obvious tell of my sharply risen anger. A broad fucking understanding, was it? Coming from a man who’d tried to send me to my death or shackling down the spine of a redemption story, that was a little rich. He could try to pretend he’d kept his hands clean all he wanted, in the hands of a Named a story was no less murderous a tool than a knife.
“You admit to the likeliness of an ally’s attack and in the same breath castigate her for having a dainty disposition,” Black mildly said. “Come now, Pilgrim, if you’re in the business of betrayal at least have the decency to display some skill at it.”
He looked like a person again, and not a monster with a mask of clay, but beneath the calm affability he’d painted over his face I could see the blades were still bare. I’d seen him smile just as pleasantly before he Spoke and ordered Akua to nail her own hand to a table.
“I scheme no treachery, Carrion Lord,” the old hero bit back. “And jeering at me will not serve whatever purpose you seek from it.”
“And he’s going to stop anyway, isn’t he?” I sharply said.
Wondering, beneath the sharpness, if he was being so acerbic with the Pilgrim for the very purpose of my reining him in or if he was simply enjoying mocking a hero. Knowing Black, I grimly thought, it was likely to be both.
“If I must,” he nonchalantly shrugged. “Shall we then return to the Peregrine simultaneously absolving himself of responsibility for the actions of his ally while also refusing to denounce her? ‘Twas a charming bit of rhetoric. Add a few insincere protestations of friendship and it’ll be like I never left Praes.”
Ouch. That one had to sting a bit, especially when taken by someone whose understanding of the Wasteland would be through the latest horrors mighty enough to leave Praes and become a peril for everyone else.
“I do not condone attack, if attack was had,” the Grey Pilgrim sharply replied. “Do not speak for me, much less with viper claims. Yet neither will I pretend that all servants of Above will follow me in making bargain with the Black Queen. As for the Wandering Bard, her Bestowal forbids as much as it allows. Behaving with grace will ensure she neither wants nor can act against any of you.”
“She’s not a heroine, Pilgrim,” I said. “I’ve seen her make pacts on behalf of Below. If you don’t believe me, I’ll even ask the Sisters to let your little winged friends have a look at me to ascertain the veracity of what I saw.”
That either the Ophanim or Tariq Fleetfoot himself would feel entitled to have a look at my bloody soul simply so that my words would be given due weight was infuriating, but that was the nature of the game. Trust was ever in short supply, in matters such as this. Especially when accusations were being thrown around.
“So have I,” the Grey Pilgrim calmly said.
I went still with utter surprise. What?
“I suspect I am a great deal more learned in what the duties of the Wandering Bard entail than you, Queen Catherine,” the old man continued. “An envoy does not decide the substance of the offer they carry, and some of the bargains the Bard was sent to offer were dark indeed.”
“You know she has a greater game, then,” I pressed.
“I know that across the faces she has worn she has warred against Keter wherever there was war to be had, and ever done good over evil whenever the choice was given to her,” Tariq said. “That the Gods Above do not have sole claim on her works does not mean she is not a heroine.”
“The moment before this conversation began, she dragged me out for an aside,” I flatly said. “And she-”
“It does not matter what was said, Queen Catherine,” the Pilgrim told me. “For you were being tested, as I have seen others Bestowed be and once was myself. By choosing rectitude over baseness, you emerged unharmed and proved you were not a menace that must be seen to.”
“So you’re agreeing, then, that the Wandering Bard just took a swing at me,” I slowly said.
“She would have if you were less than you are,” he said, as if it was evident. “You were not, and so this was merely confirmation.”
Black laughed, softly, the sound of it like cool silk.
“See, Catherine, there was nothing to it,” he smiled, sharp and cold. “The ordeal would only have stung were you a heretic, which makes wanton use of it perfectly permissible. Indeed, how dare any of us question the Wandering Bard’s right to pursue our demise whenever the whim takes her? How very impious.”
“He’s being a bit of a shit right now,” I said, “so it rather pains me to agree with him, Tariq. Even if you trust in the Bard – and Gods, I’d like to know what you have on her for that to be the case – then how the Hells does that translate to her getting the right to pull things like this? Nobody here is your fucking vassal, Pilgrim, much less Above’s. This wasn’t a test, it was a fucking act of war. And you’re defending her right to have done it.”
“I trust in a woman I have seen dedicated a lifetime to carrying out good deeds wherever and whenever she could,” the Pilgrim said. “I have known her to do this since before either of you were born, and in her deeds she has not spared heroes when they courted disaster. I do not know what she intended by acting as she did tonight, nor do I blindly presume it was righteous. Nor will I, just as blindly, accept your belief that she is… by your words, some manner of sinister immortal schemer?”
“You’ve seen part of her work,” I flatly said. “I’ve seen others, and they’re hardly pleasant. Her enmity with the Dead King is more or less the only thing I take as a given with her. She was part of the Lone Swordsman’ band, before he called down Contrition on Liesse. She was in the Free Cities before it all went to shit there, and she had a hand in Akua’s Folly as well – though the exact nature of what she did remains unclear.”
“And so she fought the occupation of Callow through every means at her disposal, when the rest of the servants of the Heavens forsook their duty to the fallen kingdom,” Tariq kindly said. “I’ve no doubt her actions were harmful to you or others beloved of you, but that does not make her sinister – only a foe you never evened your scores with.”
This wasn’t going to work, I thought. And it was why the Bard had been so utterly unworried about my talking with Tariq: she’d known she had decades if not half a century of a solid record with the man that’d weight against whatever I said. And the more I made this about the places where I’d fought her, the more this became a personal grudge between myself and his old friend. Bringing in Black’s run-ins with her would make it even worse, given that the Pilgrim would wholeheartedly endorse the decimation of the Calamities and the break-up of the partnerships that’d kept Malicia’s reign so strong. My teacher had mentioned she’d openly admitted to allowing a heroine to die so that Sabah’s death would be set in stone by a story, but she’d also likely been fucking with his head at the time so that his break with myself and Malicia burned all involved. And even if he believed us… well, Captain had killed more than a dozen heroes over the span of her career. From a practical Good perspective, trading a young heroine for the death of an old monster and the first crack in the Calamities would be worth it. I’d been counting on the shock of the Intercessor having acted on Below’s behalf to create the Night to jar him into re-examining their history, but there’d been no surprise. Which left me only with a second-hand memory in which the Bard had still outright advised annihilation over taking the bargain.
Shit. She’d covered all her angles there, hadn’t she? It made sense. The Grey Pilgrim had been Above’s foremost agent in the west of Calernia for at least half a century now, by sheer dint of the stories he’d have been involved in they would have encountered each other quite a bit. Plenty of time to work on him, which once more made sense considering how influential a man he’d been headed towards being for a very long time. No, it would have been absurd for the Intercessor not to foster strong ties with him: she was too old and too fair a hand at weaving to have left such an obvious loose end unattended. And to have attended to it in a manner that I couldn’t feasibly shake right now, I grimly thought. I had interests in common with the Peregrine, maybe even some shared principles, but also a red history that’d turned amicable only very recently. Hells, I’d killed the woman that’d probably been the closest thing he had to a friend without wings not even a week ago. Truce and my begetting the Liesse Accords was not enough to have him cut ties with the Bard. It’d be like going at an iron chain with a butter knife: how long had she spent to ensure the strength of those ties? How much time had been… Oh, oh. No, I’d been thinking about this all wrong, hadn’t I? I’d learned a few tricks in the art of bargains and how to wag my tongue instead of my sword-hand, but in the end I was not more silver-tongued than the silvertongue.
It’d been laughable of me to even try, because once more I was letting the Bard pick the face of our struggle.
The Intercessor had invested time and effort and trustworthiness in her relationship with the Grey Pilgrim, but while he trusted her he did not seem to defer to her outright. When he defended her actions, it was as an act of trust. Trust she’d earned over decades, and I’d tried to fight with respect mere days old. I’d been so fixated on removing the Wandering Bard from this entirely I’d missed the obvious: that the ties went both ways. That if she was relying on relationships she’d forged in the past to have a finger in every pie, then she had to live up to the terms she had set to those relationships. And considering the high esteem in which the Grey Pilgrim apparently held her, the standards she’d set could not be low. So if I made a reasonable request born out of reasonable – if, in the Pilgrim’s eyes, still unwarranted – fears then unless she had a damned good reason then she couldn’t go against it. No, wouldn’t be enough, I thought as I parsed out what doors it closed for her in truth. Relying on the decades of trust she’d be able to make apologetic noises but get away with it by simple virtue of producing one of various skeleton keys: it was necessary to beat the Dead King, allowing it would have caused suffering in years to come, had to prevent the rise of a great Evil. The Pilgrim would be angry, maybe, but the expectation would still be there that as long as the damage wasn’t too bad for the greater good I’d have to grin and fucking bear it. On the other hand, was I good? They couldn’t both treat me like Triumphant incipient and expect me to be their own personal Choir of Endurance. I’d surprised heroes pleasantly over the last few years because their expectations of me were low.
Well, they were certainly the easiest kind to live up to. Feigning indignation here would be risky, for though Tariq’s inability to understand that one could be good without being Good had left him strikingly naïve in some ways he was frighteningly perceptive in others. Thankfully, I wouldn’t have to. My jaw clenched and I did not have to look far for the anger. I’d stowed away the wroth, chosen the benefits of a clear head over it, but it had not disappeared. How many times was I supposed to let the whip crack against my back because my betters were not willing to see to their own? How many times was I supposed to let it go, that to kill me or mine was a virtue but that daring to crawl out of the ash alive – much less fight back – was a sin? I blew out the wakeleaf smoke, and the bitterness that lingered against my tongue was not only from the herb. There were parts of my father’s madness that I would never make my own, but some that’d always rung true: in the end, in their eyes we were not equal. And we’d never be people until we followed their rules and spoke their prayers, until we’d admitted that their way was right and ours was wrong.
“For small slights,” I hissed, “long prices.”
The Pilgrim’s blue eyes widened in startlement, and he raised his hands in appeasement.
“Your Majesty-” he began.
“Yes,” I coldly said. “That is who I am, Peregrine. The Black Queen. The Arch-heretic of the East. It seems you have forgot how we came to stand here on this night. Shall I help you remember?”
“There is no need for threats,” the Pilgrim evenly said.
And yet I could see it in his eyes, the rising awareness of who it was he was dealing with. Remember, you arrogant old priest, I thought. Remember that you did not take me for Triumphant come again without reason and then curb your fucking priestly tongue.
“You sing the praises of she who strikes at me and declare her worthy of passing judgement upon my works,” I mocked. “You, Tariq Fleetfoot? By what right?”
I grinned, sharp and vicious.
“You are not victor here on this field,” I said. “You are the defeated, breathing only by the grace of the aspect I ripped out of you with my own hand. Your plots I shattered, your armies I routed and your own Choir stepped aside when faced with the glare of my purpose. And now you strut about like a green boy, arrogating the rights to lecture me when it is only my mercy that spared your throat my boot.”
“This is not the talk of an ally,” the Grey Pilgrim warningly said.
“You do not behave like one,” I snarled. “And if you can only conceive of amity as vassalage, then this truce is at an end.”
“You have sacrificed much to deliver it,” the Peregrine reminded me flatly. “And through such savage actions you would end any chance of the Accords being signed.”
I laughed, full-throated and cold.
“You think I’d give you a choice?” I smiled. “You think I chose peace because I fear the other path? I’ll not fight the Grand Alliance, Pilgrim. I’ll leave and let you die like whimpering dogs, alone in the dark.”
I took a step forward, limping, and he drew back.
“I’ll return only when I have the full might of the East behind me in array of war, and when I come back wherever the veil of night falls all will have a choice,” I snarled. “You can take up a sword and join my war against Keter, or you can do it as a walking corpse. If treaties and alliances fail, I’ll take steel and fire to the Dead King as Dread Empress, Victorious.”
His eyes went cold.
“You will find me waiting at the end of that road,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
“At the end?” I grinned. “You’ll be the first damned thing I step on, Peregrine.”
He looked at me searchingly, looking for lie or weakness, and found none. Harsh as my words had been, Gods but the truth of them simmered in my belly. I had chosen peace, but I was not beholden to it. And if the only way through was crowned in dread, then so be it.
“What do you want, Black Queen?” the old man finally asked.
“WANDERING BARD,” I screamed out into the night. “INTERCESSOR.”
I waited a beat, to see if she would appear. She did not. No matter, it would be enough to attract her gaze.
“You spoke for that faceless thing, Peregrine,” I said. “And so now you answer for her as well. If you shelter and safeguard her, then you are responsible for her actions: if she schemes against me or mine, if she moves against truce or Accords, then I will take it as betrayal from both of you.”
My jaw clenched.
“That will not be without consequence.”
And I would tell every soul willing to listen. I’d tell the First Prince, I’d tell Princess Rozala, I’d tell the Blood and every hero willing to hear me shout from behind a blood wall. But most of all, I’d just told the Pilgrim himself. From now on, if she acted against me she was knowingly fucking over the Accords and the truce that was the only thing keeping Procer standing in the war on Keter. If she pulled something, she now had to justify it to Tariq as something more important than the death of several million people. Silvertongue or not, there wasn’t much that would even those scales. This was, I ruefully thought, the principles of the Accords used once more: the practical realities of Creation being used to restrain its stories. Ties went both ways, didn’t they? Sure, if the prize was worth it the Bard would make her move anyway. But she’d lose the Pilgrim, and when she did strike I fully intended on being ready for her. If you’re without ties, you have no strings to pull, I thought. If you keep them, though, then a strong enough tug on the strings makes it a thin line between puppet and puppeteer. Tariq looked tired and grieved, but I was out of pity to spare.
“At dawn I’ll begin work on the gates into the Twilight Ways for the armies,” I said. “Be there or not, as you wish.”
I began hiking my way back up before he answered, intent on returning to the soothing warmth of fire and booze and good company. And before the end of the night, I thought, there would be a need to speak with Masego. He’d get whatever he needed to test his Quartered Seasons theory, even if I ended up cutting corners elsewhere for the allocated resources.
Deicide, sadly, was unlikely to come on the cheap.