“Poison is the weapon of the trade, knife the weapon of the intimate and sorcery the weapon of war. To use any for the improper purpose is the mark of inferior breeding, save if greater game is yet afoot.”
– Extract from ‘The Behaviours of Civil Conduct’, by High Lady Mchumba Sahelian
Akua leaked a sensation of query into the Night, an implicit question as to whether or not she should leave given the nature of our arriving guests, but I shook my head. While she was close to neither she was likely to be a fairer hand at reading them than either Vivienne or Hakram, and that lack of closes itself was not without its uses. I doubted a distraction as petty as that would be enough to get beneath the skin of the Scribe, but it took more than one stone to build a house. Adjutant smoothly rose to fetch another two seats without my asking, while Vivienne pressed into my hand a cup before pouring her own. Cold ice-cooled water, sadly, but I did get drunk a lot faster than I used to these days so perhaps that was for the best. Only a fool blunted the edge of their sword just before tugging at a tiger’s tail. Might not be necessary, I reminded myself. It would not do to assume hostility from Scribe because of the less than stellar terms we’d parted on last time we spoke. Or even with those in mind given that if my father asked her to play nice, I believed her likely to do so. Still, I’d recently learned that Black did not have nearly as tight a leash over the Scribe as I’d once assumed.
It would not do to presume in favour of her either.
It was still half a surprise every time to see Black in anything but plate when it was daylight, though I noted that while he wore a dark tabard and matching long-sleeved tunic the faint hint of a coat of mail could be seen under them. Hard to unlearn a lifetime’s worth of paranoia, I supposed – though when it came to Praes it could not realty be called paranoia could it? Scribe was as slippery to the eyes as she’d always been, even when I was actively trying to watch her. It wasn’t invisibility, for she was definitely there, but trying to notice anything about the villainess had my attention sliding away like water off a duck’s back. She had ink-stained hands, and she was not tall, although she might just have been slouching. Her clothes were loose and made of cloth. I bit the inside my cheek, using the pain as a spur as I narrowed my eyes. She had pale, seemingly bloodless lips. They were not smiling. Black took a seat at Adjutant’s invitation and I only then realized how long I’d been staring at Scribe, with only little to show for it. Something to revisit later, perhaps. I sent an idle prayer to my patronesses, though who knew if they’d deign to intercede for such a trifle.
“Would I be correct in assuming you have been parsing through the reports of the Jacks?” the Carrion Lord calmly asked.
“More or less,” I agreed. “Speculating as to the consequences of the mess, too. An insider’s eye of the affair would be appreciated.”
The last sentence I spoke casually, though none here were fool enough to believe it. I was reserving anger along with judgement, but I was less than pleased at the fact that Cordelia Hasenbach had apparently come rather close to being buried in a shallow grave. If the Eyes of the Empire truly had been either authors or helpers to this episode of convulsive stupidity, I would see to it that heads would roll unless very good reason was given. And I did not mean it as a figure of speech, this once. Black glanced at his aide, either ordering or encouraging.
“The Eyes of the Empire were involved,” the Scribe calmly confirmed. “Not directly, but in the nascent stages of the conspiracy and on its edges when it came to a head.”
“Do the Procerans know?” Vivienne flatly asked.
“The Circle of Thorns did as it took place. By now I would venture this has expanded to the First Prince and her most trusted,” Scribe said.
My eyes flicked to my teacher, whose face had remained serene even as one of his oldest companions casually admitted she’d just attacked the Principate in front of Cordelia Hasenbach while we were under formal truce and headed for the negotiating table besides. He was unmoved, so there was likely more to the story. At least some semblance of a reason for me not to denounce Scribe as an agent of the Tower and send her fucking crucified corpse to the First Prince as an apology.
“Elaborate,” I coldly ordered.
“After the ambush sprung by the Grey Pilgrim that saw Lord Black seized, the Tower reached out to me through the Eyes of the Empire,” Scribe said. “The Empress intended a rescue mission in Salia, paired with a strike at the internal stability of Procer, and given the circumstances I agreed with the necessity. Lady Ime and myself, over the span of several months, laid the groundwork for certain factions within Procer to come to the conclusion a coup was feasible.”
“The rumours that Rozala Malanza was backing the coup,” Hakram gravelled. “They were not simple slander.”
“It was difficult but not impossible to impersonate her by letter,” Scribe agreed. “Given that neither the House of Light nor the Silver Letters use scrying mages and the First Prince’s own order was rendered helpless by the interdict cast over Iserre. We’ve had a convincing forgery of the royal seal of Aequitan since the Proceran civil war, when we funded Aenor Malanza’s bid for the throne through the Pravus Bank.”
“The coup happened,” I said. “Which means the trigger was pulled on this scheme, and recently too. After you were informed of my intentions for treaties with the Grand Alliance.”
“I was ordered by scrying link to end any ongoing operations, erase any evidence of Praesi presence in the capital and ensure the loyalty of all agents in the city,” Scribe agreed.
I glanced at Black, who inclined his head in confirmation.
“In this I did not succeed,” Scribe said. “Ime had several long-term plants among our scrying mages I was unaware of, and she used the Tower’s clout to mobilize the Eyes in the capital for action before I could clean up all loose ends. It appears the Empress had judged the Liesse Accords to be an existential threat to herself and her continued reign.”
Well, I grimly thought, she wasn’t wrong about that.
“Given actions that could not be denied, you had to ensure your loyalists among the Eyes were seen as undertaking damage control,” Akua quietly said. “Which is where the Circle of Thorns was brought in. The First Prince will not take the word of anyone here as to the actions of your agents, but she will heed the reports of her own spymaster. A calculated move.”
“Concessions had to be made to the Circle in order for their leader to agree not to spread knowledge of our involvement beyond the necessary, and hand over the written proof of Praesi involvement,” Scribe said. “I gave formal agreement to the Praesi and Callowan delegations backing the First Prince when she requests relief ships be allowed through the Nicaean blockade around Ashur.”
I’d likely have agreed to that anyway, I mused. Oh I’d have tried to exact a little something to sweeten the pot, or made a show of asking for nothing in exchange to foster a sense of debt between myself and Hasenbach, but this was not a great loss for me. I was still swimming in leverage. On the other hand, Scribe had just entered a biding commitment in my name. That she’d presumed to speak for me was galling enough. Considering that Black was effectively my dependant under Proceran law at the moment, Hasenbach would not be entirely without grounds to kick up a fuss if his aide made promises and then they were gone back on. It’d never hold without the strength to enforce it and I could cut right through by sending the Highest Assembly the charred corpse of Scribe along with a polite note informing them she in no way spoke for me, but it’d sour my reputation with some people I badly needed the willing collaboration of. Worse still, though, was that simply by speaking in my name when negotiating the cover up the Scribe had implicitly stated I was in some way related to this. Sedately, I set down my cup on the table.
“I’ll not insult your intelligence by asking you if you know what you’ve done,” I calmly said. “I assume if you were willing to be in killing distance of me, you have further explanation as why I shouldn’t execute you out of general principle.”
Black’s lips thinned, but he did not object. Neither fucking should he. If Adjutant had entered a binding agreement on the behalf of the Black Knight, back in the day, even if my teacher had then judged it worth upholding he would have put Hakram’s head on a pike as a warning for anyone else wanting to overstep. All else aside, I was the Queen of Callow and a villain in my own right. That someone not in my service or given my explicit permission had presumed to speak for me in such a delicate situation was worthy of violence.
“The Empress was aiming at the Accords themselves, apparently considering them the primary threat,” Scribe replied, voice unruffled. “The Silver Letters brought stolen goblinfire into the city and Ime’s agents set fire near their safehouses in attempts to trigger a blaze. Such an event would have destroyed large swaths of Salia and, given your reputation for the substance’s use, affected popular opinion enough to make made negotiation near impossible. Especially for a weakened First Prince, be it a surviving Hasenbach or a freshly elected Malanza. The odds were more than fair that the Grand Alliance itself would collapse.”
I smoothly drummed my fingers against the table. Her answer, unspoken as it’d been, was that she might have overstepped but she’d done so while in the process of averting what could have been a great crisis for me. Certainly one much worse than the minor concession this had ended up costing me – and the unfortunate implications to Scribe having spoken for me could be smoothed away by making it clear to Hasenbach it’d been an exception and not to be taken as face value again. It still got stuck in my throat that her own personal failure to get her house in order would cost me, and that Malicia’s unimpeded schemes would be considered my problem, but I supposed an argument could be made that I was the one who was diplomatically cornering the Empress. Scribe’s repeated mention of the Accords as the main target was certainly hinting at that heavily. Black cleared his throat.
“Regardless of circumstance,” he said, “offence was given. We will offer reparations to the Kingdom of Callow for having drawn on its influence to clean up our own mistakes.”
Scribe did not speak for a moment, as if reluctant.
“As of this morning, the Jacks serving under Duchess-Regent Kegan of Callow have been granted access through liaison to my informants within the Wasteland,” the Scribe said, “along with a list of all suspected Malicia agents within the kingdom.”
My brow rose. Those were… not small things. Black had been outing Malicia’s agents in my kingdom for a while now, true, but he’d done it slowly and at a pace Vivienne was adamant had been chosen so his own agents would not be outed by the revelations. And the cooperation with Scribe’s own faction in the Eyes would go a long way in keeping Kegan from ending up in a grave between Ratface and Anne Kendall. Those were heavier reparations than I would have felt comfortable asking for, if I’d set the terms, which my teacher would know. Ah, I thought, meeting green eyes with my own. This was not just reparations it was a polite gift-assisted request not to kill Scribe for having crossed me. Which I was finding difficult to refuse, all thing considered. Black was being genuine here, I decided, this was more or less the way he dealt with allies. But there was something about the way Scribe was acting… Oh, she didn’t like me. Which was fine, as the sentiment was broadly shared: the cordial beginnings of our acquaintance had begun to fade effectively the moment I sought power independent of my teacher, which I suspected had simply moved me from asset to liability in her eyes. Still, while she didn’t like me I would not deny she was an intelligent woman.
Which was where the flaw could be found. My temper had waned some, these days, but not quite that much. So why would she test it by appearing reluctant over Black’s reparations? She had to know I’d not be all that well inclined towards her, and exactly what those reparations were meant for. Meaning either she didn’t consider her life or freedom worth these concessions from the perspective of the resources available to Black, which was too warped a view to be objectively credible, or she was playing me. Playing up reluctance so I’d feel more grateful for my teacher’s contrastingly fair attitude? Could be, it would be just like her to damage her own reputation to prop up his own. Even made sense from a tactical perspective, given that she and I were unlikely to ever be on good terms and so the loss relative to gain was greater. Except that I could taste it in the air, now that I’d notice a flaw: I was being sold a story. Not the way the Pilgrim or the Bard would, no. That wouldn’t be Scribe’s game. Instead I’d been invited to stroll through a house of mirrors so that I could take in my own reflections and hold them as truth. Even my father’s blunt but sincere bribery had been used as an ingredient in the brew, something I’d find and read as true and so believe the rest was true.
So, I was being had. And Black hadn’t been brought in on it. So was this really Malicia’s ploy at all? It was true the Empress was only losing so much even if it became public she’d helped along the coup, considering the Grand Alliance had been founded in large part to bury her and the Accords would entail her removal regardless. This could be Malicia realizing that openly allying with Keter had burned too many bridges, and that the same alliances taking shape to drive back the Kingdom of the Dead might turn towards her if victorious. Sloppy work, by her standards, but then she had to be running out of tools to use. On the other hand, if I was frustrated in my efforts to establish alliances to the west she had to know I’d be headed east instead – and with a sword in hand. Short-sighted, yes, but honestly still a feasible mistake if Malicia was desperate enough. Which she had to be, with the Tribes having taken Foremen and the Dread Empire on the edge of rebellion from repeated defeats. Feasible, though, was why people thought the hooded figures with tattooed eyes on their skin were the true Eyes of the Empire instead of the chatty innkeepers. Feasible meant you stopped looking because you had the answer. Yet I couldn’t see, frankly, what Scribe had to gain from all this.
“Appreciated,” I said, not bothering to force a smile. “I’ll want a report of everything that took place so no detail can be sprung on me at the table.”
“Naturally,” Black conceded.
He dipped his head in thanks, trusting in the word I’d just as good as given.
“Vivienne,” I said, “I’ll need you to arrange a scrying session with Duchess-Regent Kegan as soon as possible.”
“I’ll see to it immediately,” she briskly replied, rising to her feet.
“Akua,” I said, simultaneously dumping into the Night a sense of stillness, “we still need to bring General Rumena into the loop.”
“As you say, dear heart,” she smiled.
In the Night she shaped her will as a sense of action, then a question, and I assented through the same. Neither of us missed a beat, or otherwise gave sign of this.
“I’ll arrange for that report presently, then,” my father said, sounding rather amused as he rose to his feet.
His old friend followed suit without missing a beat.
“Scribe,” I said. “A word, if you would. I’ll require a few more details out of you in case Hasenbach sends for a private meeting soon. I’m not walking into that blind.”
“The report-” she began.
“Eudokia,” Black sharply said.
She returned to the seat. I nodded thanks at my teacher, who acknowledged them with a discreet dip. No, he most definitely hadn’t been brought into this. I smiled at Hakram, who was lingering behind me, and drained my cup of water before handing it to him. Clicking his fangs in amusement, he moved to fill it again. Scribe waited patiently even as I reached for my dragonbone pipe and slowly stuffed it, only then clearing her throat.
“If you could refrain?” she said.
A heartbeat later I felt Akua’s working slither around us, smooth and silent, and tapped a finger against my pipe to light it. I puffed out, waiting until Hakram had set down the filled cup at my side before speaking.
“You get one chance to tell me the truth,” I said. “After that, my patience will run out.”
Adjutant’s muscles shifted the slightest bit, coiling as he readied for strife. He’d not hesitated in the slightest, I thought with affection.
“You are seeing shadows of your own making,” Scribe said.
I breathed in, then spewed out a steam of smoke.
“Hakram,” I said.
Over two hundred pounds of raw fighting orc struck with blinding quickness, leaping across the table and catching a surprised Scribe by the throat. She began screaming for help. I leaned back into my seat.
“We’re under containment,” I said. “Screaming won’t help.”
“They betrayed us?” Adjutant casually asked, slamming her against the wall and dragging her gasping form up the wall.
“She’s lying,” I said. “But whatever she’s up to, Black isn’t in on it.”
“You are making a mistake,” Scribe gasped. “There is no deceit, only your need to be right.”
She didn’t try to bring Black’s name into this, for which I afforded her a sliver of respect.
“You had months with the Eyes in Procer,” I said. “Oh, I’m sure that everything you told us about how it unfolded is correct in detail. That there were plants answering to Lady Ime among the mages, even that the order to start fires near possible munition locations came from the Tower. What I don’t believe for a moment is that you couldn’t have prevented it from happening. You had months with the Eyes in Procer, Scribe. What was your game?”
Black, I thought, would not question her story. It wouldn’t even occur to him, I thought, the same way that it would not occur to me to wonder if Adjutant was lying to me. Too much of the bedrock of who we were depended on the certainty that they could be relied on, even when all else failed.
“Sometimes we fail, Catherine Foundling,” Scribe gasped. “Sometimes it is not malice, or scheme, or treachery. Sometimes we just fail.”
“I will torture you,” I frankly said. “I won’t like it, but the stakes here are too high for me to leave stones unturned out of squeamishness. I’ll bleed you, and if that doesn’t work I’ll ask one of my people to peel your mind like an onion until the secrets come spilling out.”
“We trained this in you,” Scribe laughed. “I suppose it is our own doing, in the end. There is nothing to be found, Black Queen, save the unravelling of what you have wrought.”
I blew out a long breath.
“Rip out an eye,” I said.
It occurred to me a moment later that Hakram had only one hand left, made of bone, and that it was already holding up Scribe by the throat. I had begun to rise, to do the dirty work myself, when I saw Adjutant was moving. At the end of his stump folds of gleaming translucence were taking shape, almost spectral on appearance. They folded into themselves, methodically, until a broad clawed hand had come together. I glanced at his face, saw only the pleased baring of fangs, and the point of two claws touched above and beneath Scribe’s eye. And then the hand dispersed.
“No,” Adjutant said.
I blinked in surprise.
“Pain won’t do anything to a woman like that, Catherine,” Hakram said, calmly studying Scribe. “And neither will something live having her mind sliced open.”
“We don’t have anything else to threaten her with, Adjutant,” I flatly said.
“We do,” he disagreed. “Send for the Carrion Lord. Let him see this.”
I began to tell him I’d sent Black away in the first place to spare him this when I noticed stillness. Scribe had gone utterly still, even through her aspect I could feel that. Hakram had found the pulse of her, somehow.
“She’s not kept him ignorant out of disloyalty,” Adjutant said. “Have you, Scribe?”
“I suppose you would understand, wouldn’t you?” Scribe rasped.
“You love him,” Hakram Deadhand said, almost gently. “Not a call of the flesh or a tender feeling. The way a knife loves a steady hand, the way a sparrow loves flight. It can’t be helped.”
It felt wrong, to be here. Like I was intruding on a moment to which I alone of us could claim no kinship. Yet my mind turned heedless of the rest, cogs falling into place. The details had been there all along, hadn’t they? The conversations I’d had with Scribe were few, but one had mattered more than the rest. When I’d tread the halls of the Tower for the fist time, and she had whispered a dangerous secret in my ear. Ranger and I disagreed on many matters, Catherine, but there was one thing we always agreed on. Was it really that simple, that… I hesitated to say petty, but what else could it be called? No, not petty. Personal, and in a way that was worse.
“Malicia,” I croaked out. “This wasn’t about Procer or the Accords or anything else. You did all this so he would have no choice but to kill Malicia when he returns to the Wasteland.”