Chapter 70: Dawning

“For light blinds just as surely as the dark, and hatred binds just as surely as love.”
– Sherehazad the Seer, Taghreb poet

I woke up to the feeling of bony elbows digging into my ribs. It surprised me not because I’d forgotten that Indrani and I had ended up in bed – I still felt pleasurably sore from those exertions, so it’d have been a shame to – but because she was still here. In my bed, though for once she was only mildly hogging the covers. The gift of awareness Sve Noc had granted me, I sometimes suspected without strictly meaning to, had me mindful that dawn was a little more than an hour away. It’d not been a long night of sleep and to be honest I still felt a little drunk, but worse come to worse I’d take a nap come the afternoon. I might need to whatever my intentions, if raising a gate into Twilight was as exhausting as I suspected it would be. My mind recoiled at the thought of it, for I would need the guidance of the Sisters to see it done and that was rarely pleasant or gentle thing. I stretched and yawned to keep my thoughts moving instead of lingering on the coming unpleasantness, sliding out of the blanket and sitting on the edge of the bed. Indrani began to stir awake and I smoothed away a puzzled frown. I’d wondered if our arrangement would be set aside until she’d resolved whatever she was going to resolve with Masego, but truth be told I’d not been entirely surprised we’d ended up in bed after the rough few days we’d had.

Honesty compelled me to admit I’d not needed much convincing when she’d offered, either.

That she’d stay afterwards, though, that had me wondering. Not at whether or not this was blooming into something more romantic in nature – for all that Akua had once claimed I had difficulty separating bedplay from attachment, Indrani and I had always been very clear that neither of us was likely to ever fall in love with the other – but at the nature of whatever accord she was trying to reach with Zeze. I doubted a man raised by the Warlock and an incubus would be all that inclined to give a single thought to what people might or might not consider proper, but I disliked not knowing what I was involved in. Even if only peripherally. That was on a personal note, anyway. As the nominal leader of the Woe, there were concerns about what all this fumbling might mean for our little band. Though in all fairness, I grimly thought, if it’s such a great concern I probably shouldn’t be sleeping with Archer. I bet Black would never have – huh, no, he most definitely had. With Ranger, of all women. I cast a speculative look at Indrani as she opened her eyes. Comparisons between the Woe and the Calamities had begun before the Queen of Summer had even granted us the name, so if I was to be my generations equivalent of Black and Indrani of Ranger? Ugh. That did feel a little sordid.

Indrani took my lingering gaze for something else entirely, and just so happened to stretch in a way that pushed back the covers and arched up her breasts.  Pure coincidence, no doubt. Well. It would have been rude not to appreciate the sights, really, if you thought about it. Best not to mention that earlier thought about equivalences, I decided. Archer was not, as a rule, all that opposed to sordidness. She did like to rub my nose in it, though, so no need to hand her a full quiver.

“Don’t suppose I could convince you to stay in bed a little longer,” Indrani said, voice still husky from sleep.

And perhaps something else as well, though that might just be my continuing look at the smooth expanse of brown skin laid out before me.

“Any more of that and we’ll break the cot,” I smiled. “Wasn’t made for two people, much less that sort of… exercise.”

“Wouldn’t be as an issue if I tied your wrists again,” Indrani airily said.

Now that was just unfair. And surely I could spare a bit of time before leaving the tent. Or perhaps half my time. Unfortunately, my awareness of looming dawn made it clear that was not the case despite my body’s insistence otherwise.

“I’ll need time to prepare the grounds for the ritual,” I reluctantly said.

She sighed, though from the sly look in her eye I’d say my hesitation had been the prize she’d been after from the start. Indrani always turned pixie, after a shared night, as if the shedding of clothes brought out her vainest sort of guiles.

“Boring,” she said, waving a hand in dismissal. “Still, I’m already up. No point in going back to bed alone.”

I snorted. Yeah, she hadn’t been expecting me to accept then. It was still night out, and so it was not all that difficult to spin black flames around the stone basin to the side of my bed until the water within it was warm. I took the cloth to the side of it and began by washing my face, though I ceased when I felt Indrani looking at me.

“Not happening,” I said.

I swept my unbound hair back over my shoulder as I spoke, aware from how frequently Indrani liked to grip it that she had something of a fascination there. I didn’t have curves to display, unlike my friend, but I was hardly unattractive to her. It was my arms, though, that she was looking at.

“You’re getting wiry,” Archer said, sounding fascinated. “Haven’t seen your body change that much since the Folly.”

Had I gained muscles? Strange, since I wasn’t walking around in plate or sparring regularly anymore. Some of my surprise must have shown on my face, as she continued to speak.

“You were bulkier when we first met,” Indrani said. “Warrior-framed. You look more like a hunter now, made for the long stride instead of the shield wall.”

“You’re feeling rather poetic this morning,” I drily said.

“Been a while since slept in the same bed,” she smiled. “Don’t get used to it.”

I wet the cloth again, for the wetness had cooled, and wiped the lower half of my face to hide my hesitation. Ah, well. If I waited for either Indrani or Masego to tell me what was going on, I’d still be waiting on my deathbed.

“Should,” I delicately began, “I get used to this?”

I flicked a few fingers at the messy bed we’d been sharing. Her expression was difficult to parse, and not for the lack of light in the tent: a sliver of Night had seen to that.

“Not sure yet,” she said. “But I did tell you, back in Great Lotow – that is that, and this is this.”

For you, maybe, I thought. I wasn’t sure exactly what she was trying to have with Masego, but any manner of pairing would rather imply he could have an opinion as well. It wasn’t that I expected Zeze to suddenly make like an Alamans priest and condemn the pleasures of the flesh as wayward. Mores aside, he was not above those himself: me might not have any interest in bedplay, but I’d seen him dig into fresh apple tarts like a starving orc would a pig. He’d not been overweight when we first met without reason. Still, I honestly had no idea of what he’d want of a relationship – any relationship – that wasn’t friendship or family. Didn’t help that I’d never heard him express a desire for one. His fathers had been married and a closed circle, as far as I knew, and among the rest of the band of Named who’d raised him Sabah had been happily wed and mother while Black had his… rapport with the Lady of the Lake, though I’d been made to understand that they only met every few years for a short span. Gods, none of us had been raised in a traditional family, had we? Orphan, diabolist and incubus, Ranger. Vivienne’s mother had been assassinated by the Empire, after all. Although, now that I thought about it, Hakram’s childhood had not been all that unusual by orc standards. He’d simply been an ill-fit for his clan, and later the College.

Hells, that might actually go some way in explaining why he tended to be the most stable of us.

“Still, I’ll not be offended if our company lapses until you have your house in order,” I told her.

She ought to know already, but sometimes it was best to have those things stated outright.

“And who will you work out your tensions with, then?” she grinned. “I suppose our shady friend might be up to scratching that itch, but you’ll have to train her up to snuff first.”

I frowned.

“That’s thrice now that people have commented on that,” I said.

Hakram had asked me directly, and though last night Aisha’s question had been a great deal more circumspect it’d been of the same vein.

“Come off it,” Archer said. “It’s hardly the first time I’ve jested about the Mighty Shadow Lass’ neckline plunging whenever she thinks you’re looking. No need to be troubled over it, Cat: she’s a looker, and invites the looking. It’s hardly a sin to accept the invitation now and then.”

On occasion it felt otherwise, though that voice was the same that reminded me there could be no just reason for allowing the Doom of Liesse to breathe free air. That a hundred thousand souls demanded, if not lasting torment, at least as painful an execution as I could carry out. I could not entirely articulate why it was worse that I found her attractive added to the rest, but it’d always had that taste against my tongue. That I’d grown to like, and in some ways even trust, Akua Sahelian was worse still. The fate I meant for her was just in the ways that mattered, I truly did believe, but I suspected many would disagree. And so the wheel spun, the endless loop of wondering if I being swayed or played or if the whispers were black and brutal vengeance indignant at being denied. I’d wondered these wonderings before, and no truth had come of the spinning. Which had me glancing thoughtfully at Archer, curious if that’d all been a skillful to steer the conversation away from a subject she was not yet ready to speak of. Given her enduring reluctance to simply state as much – for which I blamed Ranger, who’d beaten into her head while young that admitting anything of the sort was naked weakness – I wouldn’t put it past her. Best let those sleeping dogs lie for now, then.

“You can’t lecture me about sin, you wench. Who’s the priestess here?” I lightly replied.

That devolved into petty bickering, not that there’d been any doubt, and we washed up and dressed in quick order after that. Hakram was sleeping, for once, but we still found a fire going outside my tent and a pair of legionaries awaiting by it with breakfast. We chatted over the porridge as cuts from last night’s meal – horse, by the smell of it – were put over flame. The two were lieutenants, one from General Istrid’s old legion and the other one of mine since Marchford though she’d first seen combat when Winter struck at my demesne. The lieutenant from the Sixth was an old Soninke and quite obviously a bastard from some noble line by the cultured, highborn manner of speaking. They were both respectful but neither gazed at me with the near-awe I got from so many young legionaries these days. It was both a great deal more comfortable and made conversation easier. Archer left early after stealing half my horse meat, alleging she was going to have a look at Masego.

“Bring him, if he’s awake,” I said.

Pilgrim might not like it, but I was less than charitably inclined towards the man right now. As for the Sisters, unless they wanted to be present at every gate-crafting then the knowledge of how to craft it would have to be passed and I could think of none more fitting than Hierophant to hold it. Their last talk had, uh, not been all that civil but no grudge should be kept over that. They’d acted like carrion and so been treated as such, and it was doubtful Masego would keep a grudge on his side. I felt Sve Noc’s attention, brought by the thought pertaining to them, and their silence was implicit agreement. They gained nothing from being at odds with Hierophant, though I doubted it was writ in their fates they’d be bosom friends anytime soon. I finished breaking my fast, thanked the officers and claimed a steaming cup of the herbal concoction Adjutant had arranged to be waiting for me before I began my trek back up the slope of the barrow. My fondness for the place had grown with the use I’d made of it, but Sve Noc and Akua were all adamant: the heart of the old Mavian prayers was where the boundaries were thinnest. It’d be significantly easier to make a passage there, though sentimentality aside I’d had more practical objections.

The raised stones would make it more difficult for large amounts of people to pass through, and this gate into the Twilight Ways was meant for my armies to use. The footpaths up the slope were difficult, which meant there were no roads for supply carts and siege engines to feasibly employ. Besides, unless we knocked down the stones it’d be effectively impossible to take them through. My advisory triumvirate of assorted crows and shade had uncertain when I’d asked them whether after the passage was made it’d unmake it to bring down the stones. Akua insisted that it was a ‘boundary echo’ that made the place appropriate, and so it wouldn’t matter, but Andronike had disagreed. Something about an indent having a particular shape, and not existing without that shape. I was a decade of schooling in sorcery short to understand Akua’s opinion and short an apotheosis to properly understand Andronike’s. Still, even if the entire thing proved unworkable without the stones then at least we’d have a working pathway into Twilight for small groups and schematics for the second one to be made. The wards and workings around the tumulus had been removed, so there was nothing keeping the cold bite of the night wind away as I limped up the hill. I drew on Night to chase away the cold, though it was more an illusion cast on myself than true warmth.

I’d been able to feel her through the Night even before calling on it, so my face betrayed no surprise when after passing between the circle stones I found Akua Sahelian waiting atop the barrow. She’d eschewed dresses for a heavy yet elegant cloak line with fox fur, its deep red tones perfectly married to the heavy velour robes she wore below. She did not turn as I limped forward, nor when I came to stand by her side and sipped at the herbal brew in my hands.

“Deep thoughts?” I said. “I’ve a copper or two to spare for them.”

She did not immediately reply. Unlike with the drow, I could not taste of Akua’s emotions through the Night. The Sisters had told me it was because she partook of their bounty only through me, and the nature of that tie was older than the touch of the Night itself. It’d been inherited through the Mantle of Woe and Winter’s last gasps, which made things rather more complicated. Amusingly enough, in some ways my patron goddesses were as much in the dark as I: there was no precedent to any of this, and no understanding of sorcery or power was so comprehensive that this extraordinary an unfolding would be perfectly grasped. A reminder, perhaps, of the unbridgeable gap between gods and Gods. The shade’s eyes were not on me or even the dry riverbed of what had once been a place halfway to Arcadia: she was, instead, gazing at the now empty firepit that’d been dug yesterday.

“Do you remember Barika Unonti?” Akua suddenly asked.

Truth be told, for all their high birth and purported importance most of the then-Heiress’ helpers had half-faded from my memory. Sneers and tittering and arrogance could only have so many flavours without my keeping them in my remembrance only as some Wasteland brat who’d insisted on crossing me until death ensued. Barika, though? Her I remembered. The way I’d broken her finger, the first time I attended court in the Tower, and been punished for that mistake. More for the way she’d died. Convinced she was untouchable, even after helping Akua open a Lesser Breach straight into Liesse. I’d put a crossbow bolt in her eye as she knelt, and she’d died before she could even be surprised. And that death I’d made into salt to rub into Akua’s wounds that day, when I’d ordered her buried in consecrated grounds so that nothing of her could ever be brought back from the afterlife.

“I do,” I said. “She taught me a valuable lesson.”

“Looking back now,” Akua said, “I suspect she might have been my friend. Or as close to that as our understanding of the sentiment allowed.”

And still, I thought, the young Heiress had left her behind as an illusory decoy knowing I might very kill her for what was about to be unleashed. Part of me scorned her for that, though another wondered of the cold choices I’d made sending some of those I loved into battle and wondered if the difference there was not shallower than I’d wish. I did not answer. In part for my role in how Barika Unonti had died, no matter how worthy of that death she had been, but also in a moment of wonder. I’d suspected, even back then, that of all her followers Unonti was likely the only one she had any degree of real fondness for beyond that which usefulness garnered. It’d been years since I killed the girl, much less thought of her, but her mistress remembered her still. It was a small thing, and fragile. And it tasted like triumph to my tongue, for the fate I had promised Akua Sahelian was beginning to take shape.

“I used to think you lacked the knack for cruelty, did you know?” the shade smiled. “Oh, you’ve a way with the striking: to evoke fear or loyalty with an act and turn of phrase. Yet I always found your ways to be… clear. Lacking that touch of malice my people drink along with mother’s milk.”

A moment passed, wind stirring both our long cloaks.

“But not anymore,” I said.

“Last night,” Akua pensively said, “might be the single most cruel act I was ever subjected to.”

I did not protest. Because it was true. Because this was the sound of bile being bled out of tainted veins.

“I cannot even muster rancor, Catherine,” she said. “For it was a misery entirely of my own making, and exquisitely brought besides.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” I said.

She laughed, bleakly.

“Doesn’t it?” Akua said. “For I was allowed, for just a moment, the taste of something I might have had. And oh it was a heady thing, my queen. A place by your hearth, partaking of the warmth and belonging that radiates from it. And though they love you and have long despised me, your favour alone was enough for me to be made welcome. For them to…”

She turned to me with burning golden eyes.

“Do you not understand that the laughs should have been empty?” she hissed. “That it should have been artifice, at show put on for purpose. I am a better liar than any of them, Catherine Foundling, than any of you. I know the face of truth. After years of enmity all it took for them to make room for me by the fire was a word from you. I could have had all of this years ago.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “you could have.”

“The closest I have to match to last night is a girl I sent to die,” Akua bitterly said. “You’ve devised a poison so sweet I will crave the taste of it.”

I looked at her, in the dark before the dawn, and knew that in that moment either I had been made of fool or I had won. Once more I chose silence, knowing that the slightest hint of what might be taken as gloat would send the entire delicate edifice tumbling down.

We were silent still, when the others arrived.

149 thoughts on “Chapter 70: Dawning

    1. Insanenoodlyguy

      Nah, if Akua is Dread Empress now, it will be one of if not the longest reign. Cat wont let her off that easily.

      Just imagine, Cat in her new capitol, the shadow palace of the empire of a new age. With her her family, the warmth of the fire. Sometimes there are conflicts, sometimes shes out putting put the other kind of fire, but even then the warmth goes with her.

      And seeing it all from a tower high in the sky, impossibly far away yet still seen thanks to tethers distance can’t weaken is the Dread Empress Magnificent. With a cold hard wind blowing that whispers “you wanted this” and laughs. Because Akua has been given everything she ever strived for, but only after she realized none of it is what she should have wanted. Shes the best damn Empress since Triumphant, and nobody on this throne has ever wanted it less. She turns back from the fire below and so far away, back at the door inside to a palace full of snakes waiting to strike and synchophants who will flatter her and worship her and declare their love and never even be half of Barika, let alone that distant hearth. And the wind blows again, and it is at her back, pushing her back inside, and she turns to face it, but with eyes closed, to let it dry the one tear she let escape that needs to be gone by the time she reaches that door.

      Liked by 27 people

        1. Andrew Mitchell

          Plus, the extra irony that comes from Akua knowing that she’s missing all the good feelings normal people have and knowing that that is exactly what she stole from 100,000 Liesse citizens.

          Liked by 7 people

  1. Aeon

    Such a beautiful scene there. We’ve been building towards it for so long, and it was worth the wait. Akua finally UNDERSTANDING friendship and real positive relationships is one of the biggest payoffs we’ve had, and it is glorious.

    Liked by 18 people

  2. I certainly wasn’t expecting an Akua chapter after her declaration about being Dread Empress last chapter, but it certainly does make some sense when you think about it.

    We getting a Vivienne chapter next, I suppose?

    Liked by 10 people

    1. Insanenoodlyguy

      I never thought Cat could combine the two possible stories, but now I see it. A path where Cat does make Akua the next Dread Empress. In the end, even Viv agrees there was no greater punishment.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. IDKWhoitis

        In a way, she would get just what she wanted from the beginning. Only to find she doesn’t want it anymore. To find that she truly wants friends, she wants to be around the Woe, she wants to craft the stuff of legends.

        Only to find herself surrounded by enemies. Far away locked in a Tower, forbidden to touch upon the full powers once the Accords are in effect. It would be a personalized hell, and also allow Cat to stabilize Praes long term. A curse bestowed onto her foe, a crippled Role, and denial of the full Name.

        Liked by 9 people

      2. RoflCat

        I’m still hoping her being the Headmistress of Cardinal.

        Because even if she seeks this sort of cozy, familial feelings again, Cardinal will be a miniature center of politics that very few people would indulge in such closeness.

        And if Cath also put her into something akin to Losara Sigil but for Cardinal as a whole, then Akua will have to remain distanced to all to be impartial when judging.

        The most painful punishment after having given her the sweet sweet taste of friendship would be to deny her a second serving.

        Liked by 6 people

        1. Insanenoodlyguy

          No, Cat will be in Cardinal. She’d be able to have some amount of this if she’s there. The poision she craves and all that.

          Even if she’s not Dread Empress, if this ends with her alive and being made to suffer she will be far, far way from the warmth of last night. Someplace where those people not be regularly, where there’s no hope of having what she had last night on the regular.

          Liked by 5 people

  3. Cap'n Smurfy

    Damn. I know she said she would, but I still never thought I’d see the day that Catherine defeated Akua Sahelian at social-fu. Like watching a housecat beat a fish in a swimming contest.

    Liked by 15 people

    1. Oh, Akua was never actually good at it. She had a lot of resources and a moderate skill bleedover from systems engineering, but real relationship building, real understanding of other people? There’s a reason Catherine beat her at COURT INTRIGUE within a year of the initial loss.

      Liked by 7 people

      1. ninegardens

        Wait- when you say Cat beat her at COURT INTRIGUE are you refering to “I have hostages, and I’mma gonna tear some folks souls out unless people give me them votes?” Or to some other situation?

        Cause I’m not really sure how well that counts as court intrigue…

        Liked by 4 people

        1. Consider the end result: Catherine had her Ruling Council, and Akua had… well, Akua had the Empress backing her with the expectation that she will fail spectacularly and leave the weapon behind.

          Choosing your alliances wisely IS part of court intrigue, and Akua lost that competition pretty damn badly.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Shveiran

            To play Devil’s Advocate, I’m not sure Akua did lose.
            I think she was simply playing a different game.

            And yes, it was a stupid game, but credit where credit is due… she set an objective, and accomplished it aganst awful odds.
            It was not sustainable nor sensible, but it’s wrong to judge her SKILL based on that when sustainability and sensibleness were not factors she considered relevant.

            She chose the right allies, for what she wanted: resources and yesmen to use, to empower her own skill until she could reach her wild designs. She was aiming to make a bang, and she did. Her skill at court games, in my opinion, is not in question.
            You could argue Malicia was playing her like a fiddle… but then again the battle was way too close a call with too high a pot to say the Empress’ move was anything but a gamble.

            Liked by 2 people

    2. KageLupus

      She didn’t beat Akua at social-fu, she beat her at being a human being. Social maneuvering and manipulation is what you do in politics. Akua would know in a second if anything that happened the night before had been artificial or staged. But it wasn’t, which is why it was so effective.

      Cat showed Akua what life could be like with real friends, what the world looks like when you step away from the constant scheming that makes up Praesi court games. The simple pleasures of good friends and food and a fire, without having to worry about what anyone has planned or who is after what. After a lifetime of being on guard and not allowing herself to trust anyone, even the one woman she was closest to considering a friend, Akua never stood a chance.

      Liked by 9 people

  4. IDKWhoitis

    Awww, Akua felt like she had friends. She probably even felt happy.
    Truly, torturing her with kindness seems to be the most effective strategy.

    This also makes me question if Viv ever did show up. I sincerely doubt that Viv would be able to emanate warmth towards Akua in any form other than red hot fury…

    Liked by 6 people

    1. caoimhinh

      Yeah, apparently whatever operation the Jacks were carrying out was in a critical moment last night, they were sent to get information on what Cordelia got from the lake, but to keep Vivienne on edge and alert for reports, they must have been doing something all night.

      Liked by 7 people

  5. Cap'n Smurfy

    Wait a fucking minute, did Cat just weaponize the power of friendship for the purposes of evil?! She did, didn’t she! She just used friendship to torture her sworn enemy. That has to be the most Evil thing she has ever done.

    Liked by 26 people

    1. BlackPhoenix7777

      The power of friendship is still feeling a little confused about what the hell is going on ever since Akua broke it, which made it easier, but I agree, it’s an impressive feat nonetheless.

      Liked by 6 people

    1. As far as we know, before Indrani in the Everdark, Cat hadn’t been with anyone since her breakup with Killian. Before Killian, Cat was too busy as the Squire.
      Before she was the Squire, she’s stated previously that she’d had a brief relationship with a fisherboy (I think) in Laure.

      As for how long that’s actually been … the timeline is hard to work out.

      Liked by 8 people

    2. Dolgruff Rummins

      Bisexuality isn’t a scale that needs to be balanced or it goes away. You could date only women your entire life and still be bisexual. It is simply a description of your sexual preferences. Just because Cat hasn’t had a man around that she’s interested in, doesn’t mean that she isn’t bisexual.

      Liked by 7 people

    3. People who are straight are still straight even if it’s been a while since they’ve had sex. Even if they’ve never had sex.

      Similarly, bisexuality is not defined by how recently someone has had sex with different-gendered partners. Catherine could have *never* had sex with a man and still be bisexual. If I recall correctly, the last time she had sex with a man was before meeting Black, with a boyfriend who lasted a few months, but that’s frankly irrelevant. She’s bi and that would be true even if she’d married Killian and never had sex with anyone else ever again.

      Liked by 14 people

    4. “Bisexual” doesn’t mean someone needs both men and women, only that they can go either way. And while it’s often been a figleaf for “really prefers own sex but can function with the other”, there’s also the point that relationships with one’s own sex can skip much of the toxicity of male dominance, not to mention the complications of reproduction.

      On the gripping hand, Cat’s not living in one of in our world’s cultures, she grew up in a world where a succession of Named women have Taken No Shit at the length of a sword or worse.

      Liked by 7 people

      1. > On the gripping hand

        Ayyyy references!

        > Cat’s not living in one of in our world’s cultures, she grew up in a world where a succession of Named women have Taken No Shit at the length of a sword or worse.

        Yeah, if I even try to imagine someone trying to impose gender discrimination on the likes of Saint or worse Ranger my mind just cringes. I mean at that point it’s not even a social shift, it’s just natural selection weeding out everyone who’s that stupid from living long enough to reproduce.

        Liked by 8 people

        1. Past Dread Empresses weren’t known for being particularly gentle (or subtle) about gender equity, either.

          Plus, there’s no indication of any kind of gender disparity when it comes to mages and their potential. That alone would be a huge leveler.

          And I suppose we might actually need to give Bard some credit here – as far as we know, Bard/Intercessor only incarnates as women, so it was probably in her interests to promote gender equality.

          Liked by 5 people

          1. I mean, Cat responded with a verbal smackdown (and I think the more salient issue – assuming you’re talking about the exchange just past – was less the patronizing and more that he was shrugging at a murder attempt, from Cat’s perspective). I’m pretty sure Ranger’s response to anything similar would involve less talking and more arterial spraying.

            Liked by 5 people

            1. Not just a verbal smackdown — she also credibly threatened the survival of his nation and the other nation he’d been helping. Not to mention making it clear that she can swat him like a bug, and the only reason he’s alive now is because she willed it so. Even the stories are on her side — turning on his benefactor is not something he can spin.

              Liked by 3 people

              1. Shveiran

                Not to be that guy, but I’d argue against the use of the word “threatened”.

                “I would remind you that not helping you solving what is mainly your problem is a thing I can do” is not quite the same as “unless you fall in line, I’m gonna wipe away the continent”.

                The fact that the threat comes from outside, and is not of Cat’s making (though it was a close call” makes a relevant difference.

                Liked by 3 people

    5. Isi Arnott-Campbell

      Not to be rude, but bi people are still bi even if they happen to have a stronger preference for one gender than another, and enough bi people IRL are challenged by people acting in bad faith to “prove” their orientations that it kind of rankles to see it happen here despite Cat being fictional and the nature of “show don’t tell” storytelling.

      Liked by 5 people

  6. Hmm. So it seems Cat’s (current) plan for Akua might not involve literal killing, but a more metaphorical killing and reshaping her into something/someone new.
    I’m not sure Vivienne will approve of that.

    The Heirarch will know the secret of the Twilight Ways. I don’t think anybody expected that he wouldn’t. At least, none of us. And Tariq ought to be expecting it.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. edrey

    reading again her point of view since book 1, she didnt lie. but did she truly like that kind of love enought to put aside her “holy treason” and the ambitious that is the heart of praes? i would say that when she truly change, the novel would be near it’s end

    Liked by 3 people

      1. edrey

        she said that she is more than what is made for to the tyrant, but not that she had throw it away, steel come from iron should be her new ideology, Praes is all about looking forward and surpassing the past, so tell me what is more important, the action or the conviction

        Liked by 3 people

  8. Great development for Akua.

    And it just occurred to me that they will go soon to Salia and probably see Cordelia’s cousin.
    So I’m wondering, what will happen when she see the sisters? She’s totally specialized in divination thought birds, so I think it’s going to be something big.
    Maybe something similar to when the pilgrim tried to read them, but worse and without a choir to protect her? Some kind of enlightenment? After all, if she can predict the future with normal birds, what could she do with godly birds? Or maybe some form of corruption? Anyway, it’s probably going to be fun to watch and maybe a diplomatic incident…

    Liked by 12 people

  9. byzantine279

    The worst part for Akua is probably knowing that everything that happened was entirely her fault. That she could have had this place from the start – all she needed to do was be an ally to Cat. …And she knows that would never have happened. And that makes it so much worse.

    Liked by 9 people

    1. medailyfun

      it was not just her fault: she had been made into the person she was, to make other decisions meant to be entirely different person from the start. It’s a miracle she managed to preserve some good things in her, like relations with her father.

      Liked by 5 people

  10. Can we start rumors that Grey was raised with necromancy tho?

    Ah cmon this is just cheap. Ooooo power of frieeendshiip. Ooooo the things she couuuld haaaaave if she wasnt sooo eeeeviiiil. This is the crazy lass who killed hundreds of thousounds you arent turning her with the power of friendship -.-

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Andrew Mitchell

      I disagree, I really appreciate the journey I’m on with Akua’s arc and I suspect most of the other commenters here do as well.

      This isn’t the end of a 30 minute pony cartoon. It’s one small step on an extraordinarily well-crafted character arc with many genuine feels along the way.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. nipi

    Hmmm… Im going to have to recheck but didnt Cat mention that she can no longer sleep during the night after becoming the High Priestess of Night? Or is my memory playing tricks on me?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. konstantinvoncarstein

      As she is more powerful at night, she logically prefer to act during this time, but if nothing urgent calls for her attention she will gladly sleep.

      Liked by 6 people

  12. Faiir

    I just realised that Masego is like an anti-priest.

    Rather than being granted the power from the gods he believes in, he takes the power from the gods that don’t deserve it (and none really deserves!).

    Liked by 13 people

    1. caoimhinh

      Indeed. Though Masego doesn’t really take power from gods, so much as comprehends how it works and thus gains the ability to replicate that power.
      Masego’s Name of Hierophant enables him to “vivisect miracles” to understand how they work, that knowledge lets him copy that through his sorcery.

      The closest equivalent I know for Masego’s abilities are the Cultivator Techniques in Xianxia novels. As in, they are supernatural abilities born from understanding a phenomenon or aspect of the universe.

      Masego witnessed the Summer Sun when the Princess of High Noon used it, and gained the ability to wield a similar flame (Sunrise Final), same goes for every supernatural entity they have faced, each encounter makes Masego stronger, as he gains more insight on the phenomena of the world.
      It’s important to mention that he can apparently still wield that knowledge and power, even in his current magicless state, as shown during his recent encounter with Sve Noc. Similar to how a Cultivator would be able to perform extraordinary feats related to their Dao even if exhausted of Qi, albeit with a cost, as their power comes from comprehension and that insight can’t be taken from them without the enemy paying a huge price.

      The most relevant fact for the current Masego, I think, is this:

      There is nothing he has witnessed that can be taken from him.
      And that paves the way for Hierophant to move forward in his current state, probably recover his magic and grow even stronger.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Yeah, my understanding is that Hierophant’s miracle-repurposing stuff is aspect-based rather than sorcery-based per se, and has thus survived his loss of sorcery since his Name is still intact even after his loss of magic (which an explicitly sorcery-based Name like Warlock quite likely wouldn’t have survived, I’d think).

        Liked by 5 people

  13. Okay, this chapter hit incredibly hard on a personal level. Maybe as hard as anything I’ve ever read. Why is going to take some explaining but I would like to do so nonetheless.

    I am a sociopath. That means that I do not feel empathy (automatic mirroring of other’s emotions) or guilt. It does *not* mean that I am devoid of the impetus to socialize or of basic human emotions. I am a human with a single piece missing, not a cold robot or an inhuman monster. However my lack of empathy makes basic human decency a choice rather than a impetus, makes social skills something learned by rote rather than intuitively mirrored, and my lack of guilt opens up certain options for selfish cruelty that most people simply aren’t capable of. I’m not innately a monster … but it would be very easy for me to chose to be one, and many of the drivers most people have which direct them towards kindness are absent in me. To harm other is effortless for me, to do right by others is a laborious chore.

    However I did make the conscious choice to do right by others and act selflessly, originally for rather abstract reasons. (Long story short: My OCD wouldn’t permit me to have a non-isotropic moral framework.) It took me quite a while after that to even reach the utilitarian understanding of the benefits of cooperation, kindness, and general human decency that Akua-In-The-Cloak had. And I was *certainly* not anywhere as good as she was at making use of those benefits.

    But eventually there came a point where I had gained a sufficient understanding of others’ emotions, learned enough sympathetic skills, and cultivated through actions others’ trust in my compassion to the point that I could share genuine emotional vulnerability and intimacy with loved ones. Where I could let my emotional walls down completely with them, and have them do so in return/ Where I could be secure in the knowledge that they would not harm me through malice, disregard, or mistake, that I would not do the same to them, that we would care for one another’s vulnerabilities and hurts, and warm one another with honest affection for each other’s strengths and accomplishments. I remember the first moment where I consciously realized this had happened, that someone had let me in so deeply and that I had no walls against them. That my odd abstract reasons for acting selflessly I’d originally thought of apathetically at best had led to such genuine love and joy in my life. Despite my absent empathy and guilt, I’d found *love*.

    Just remembering it makes me tear up.

    And in this chapter Akua had just such a moment. She saw what love could be like. She experienced genuine camaraderie.

    But it’s not the moment I had. I had a crystallized moment where I got to see all the love my decision to be selfless had brought me and all the love that was yet to come. Akua got to see the love she could have had. She had it wielded against her like a scalpel, by a woman whose likely goal is to see Akua learn the value of life and love until she walks willingly to her own judgement for unforgivable crimes.

    Even before I had decided if I wanted to revel fully in the selfish cruelty my sociopathy would enable or to do the ‘right’ thing and be kind to others, I made the decision to absolutely not cross any lines which could not be uncrossed, lest I finally make my decision and realize the path I wanted was now closed to me.

    But seeing Akua in this chapter … She already crossed those lines. She left them far behind her. And now she *knows*. She *knows* how wonderful the love she could have had is. She *knows*.

    And she can’t have it.

    I don’t think this is something most people will ever experience. The moment, the singular moment, of seeing past the calculus of kindness and understanding for the first time how wonderful love truly is. It’s certainly not ever something I’ve seen described in literature before. But here it is, this thing I value more than anything, being experienced by a character for the the first time.

    And she can’t have it.

    Emotionally ravaged, I think, is the best way to describe how I am feeling right now.

    Thank you Erraticerrata, for writing this. It resonated with a very deep chord in me. Now I’m going to cry myself to sleep.

    Liked by 21 people

    1. Andrew Mitchell

      Thank you sengachi for openly sharing your experience – both the details of your journey and your current “emotionally ravaged” state. You’ve given me yet more evidence that our community enhances my appreciation of EE’s work ten-fold; and a personal reminder of the value of vulnerability. ❤

      Liked by 5 people

    2. Non-neurotypical guide-shaken high five.

      (Although the moments that really had me crying had actually more to do with discussions of sexual and romantic attraction and how it is not everything there is…)

      God, this book is so good.

      Liked by 6 people

  14. SpeckofStardust

    *See’s people going on about akua become dread empress
    Its not going to happen, it is not the plan. Cats plan is for black to become emperor. She has literally said it within the last 24 in universe hours.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. mordered

      I agree, but I believe Black is going to die. If Cat is going to survive until the end of the series I hope she will climb the tower, but Akua definitely won’t. She might become a teacher or head mistress of the school Cat is planning to built.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ActionKermit

        I still think that the song is older than Praes and all the emperor’s who built and climbed the Tower did so in ignorance of its true meaning. If Nessie can screw up Procer to protect his kingdom then the Bard can screw up Praes to keep any claimants from succeeding to her Name.

        Liked by 4 people

          1. caoimhinh

            Well, the song does come from Nowhere, as stated by Amadeus.
            Guess who is the only character who is actively in Nowhere?
            It starts with “I” and ends in “ntercessor”.

            Which reminded me of Amadeus early assessments of the Bard, back in Book 2, I went back to check and found this very interesting paragraph:

            Thrice beaten and she stayed gone, then. He’d thought that would do the trick: Names like Bards lived closer to patterns and were able to use them, but they were also more closely affected by them. None of the times where she’d been gone had been willingly triggered, he assessed. Odds were she did not control where and when she went. More than that, if the ability had not been teleportation the implications were… interesting. How could you be somewhere and then somewhere else, if not teleportation? Simply by being there, he thought, although that brought other questions with it. The appearances were not instantaneous. Where did the Bard go, when she was not in Creation? Possibly a pocket dimension. More likely, nowhere. Power did not come without costs, certainly not power of that magnitude. No wonder she drank.

            Liked by 4 people

        1. ninegardens

          Okay, the idea that Bard is the Girl who climbed the tower seems completely nutso…. and I love it.

          Hell, even if the song isn’t ABOUT her, the idea that the song was sung BY her is so sneaky, so neferious… the idea that something so Praes is actually the work of Above (or at least their agent) is just… delightful

          Especially since even if the song never seemed *good* (for the listener), it at least seemed to be on their side.

          Liked by 3 people

    2. Insanenoodlyguy

      Oh I agree that at the moment, that’s not the plan at this moment. But remember, STORY. This is the cutaway moment in a more humerous work.

      “I am not making Akua empress. I said I’m not making Akua empress! Seriously, how many people do I need to explain this to, I’m not making Akua empress now or ever! Not happening!”

      *Spongbob Narrator*: Some Time Later….

      “I can’t believe I’m making Akua empress.”

      Liked by 4 people

        1. Insanenoodlyguy

          it wouldn’t actually be one, I’m just saying, when you say you won’t do something this much, the end result of a gilligan cut becomes more likely. to the point where Akua as empress is no longer unthinkable, on a narrative level.

          Liked by 2 people

    1. More to the point, there’s the question of how she’ll react to “yeah, now Cat can let me into the circles of love and friendship… but I have no competency here, and without her I’m starting from far less than zero.”

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Sahelian is just a last name.

      It’s the family she was brought up in and the culture she was brought up in, but she’s known its toxicity for a long longer than she’s seen a way out of it.

      She wants out.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh that’s what she wants Cat to believe. It’s part of her long con. As long as Cat remains ready for her, she can make use of her skills and dispose of her for good when Akua reveals her true colors. I’d love Akua to remain loyal but I doubt it given who we are dealing with.

        Liked by 2 people

          1. Oh yes, very much so. As far as I’m concerned, she’s biding her time. Slowly building trust by being charming and making herself useful. And when the time is right, she’ll strike–as a Sahelian would.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. The way I see it, in the future, she will perform a great act that will save lots of lives numbering more than she killed in Liesse. This will even the scales to her favor. After that feat is where I’ll be looking out for her betrayal. She may not take the first opportunity that presents itself but she will eventually.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Yeah, I’m not seeing it.

                To betray Cat, she’d have to give up on the one person who isn’t her father who ever looked at her beginnings with sympathy, who ever got horrified for her, the one person she’s accidentally opened herself up to and didn’t find a knife waiting.

                What does she have to gain that’d outbalance what she’d be losing?

                Like

                1. Don’t let the facade fool you. Beneath that manufactured persona is where the Doom of Liesse resides. Praesi are known for their treachery and Sahelians are prime example of that. Akua is the model Praesi highborn and she will show everyone why.

                  It’s not a question of whether she will betray Cat or not, it’s when. And when that happens, will she be pulling a fast one like Larat or will Cat be ready for her? That’s what I’m looking forward to finding out.

                  Like

                    1. Yes, please hold on to your views. I’d love to be proven wrong. The optimist in me would like to see that Akua is being geniune. The realist in me speaks louder though. And as you said, time will tell.

                      Liked by 2 people

  15. laguz24

    No, personally I think that she is to become the chancellor and rule over Praes. Black does not know how to deal with the high lords like Auka does and where black can build and do. Auka has to deal with the snake pit that is the court, all crafted smiles, and sharp knives with not a single speck of warmth or love.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Agent J

      My take is that there’ll be no High Lords to deal with. Either Black exterminates them like he always wanted to, or Cat exterminates them as her father should have.

      I think their absolute last chance for survival will be when Cat comes marching back East. They will throw all their weight behind Malicia as they did with Akua before, but this time, there’ll be no one else left to save them of Catherine’s wroth.

      Whether Black rules or Cat does, there will be no need for a Chancellor. It was a Name suppressed under Malicia’s reign and will die in her successor’s.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. The only scenario I see going otherwise, is one where Alaya is his Chancellor, and some of the noble bloodlines still need handling (those that bowed their heads quickly enough and low enough that even Amadeus did not see a justification for going after them).

        But without Alaya? He will not need a justification.

        Liked by 3 people

  16. ICSM

    This was beautiful.

    You see, I’m an old cynic. Not that I’m a old person, but that for the relatively few years I have, I have been a cynic for most of them. All that power of friendship shlock we commonly see in media amounts for me as no more than a well worn trope. Worn enough that I can’t even muster disdain for it. I know full well that histerical strenght is a thing in real life, but the fact that it is pretty much the only way friendship is relevant in media is tiresome.

    But this? The use of the basic human craving for companionship as a scalpel to expunge the rotten upbringing out of a person so she can grow healthly? This is something I have never seen. And it is beautiful.

    Liked by 10 people

  17. edrey

    she said that she is more than what is made for to the tyrant, but not that she had throw it away, steel come from iron should be her new ideology, Praes is all about looking forward and surpassing the past, so tell me what is more important, the action or the conviction

    Liked by 3 people

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