“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.”
“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.