“Trust not oaths: from a liar they are wind, from the true they are needless.”
– Penthesian saying
Gods, I should have seen it from the start.
What did Scribe actually care about, in that all-consuming way Named cared for things? It wasn’t land or wealth or glory: all of those she could have easily claimed from her position at the side of the Carrion Lord and no one would have batted an eye. She hadn’t, though, and neither had she claimed any formal authority beyond what her service to Black brought. She’d been a shadow, the spider at the centre of the web. Named could be quiet, subtle even, but rarely in the manner she’d been. I doubted more than a dozen people on Calernia knew what Assassin’s face looked like, but he had a reputation. He’d done deeds, however grisly. Scribe, though? Even in Callow, where she’d effectively run the bureaucracy of the occupation for two decades, she was known as little more than Black’s aide. When Named wanted something they acted, and those actions rippled consequences outwards in ways that had little to do with power – it was the Role that cast a long shadow, not unnatural swiftness of limb or the heady thrum of an aspect unleashed.
Yet when thought was given to the matter, the Scribe had been slightly more than a shadow: she’d been my teacher’s shadow, in particular. There was something about Amadeus of the Green Stretch, or perhaps his ambitions, that must have drawn her to him. She had little stake in the Empire, though, and was not from it: she’d herself told me she was not born of it, and Black had once told me they’d met in Delos. I could go mad trying to parse together the desires of such a purposefully obscure stranger, though, so why even try? I could see what mattered to her simply by looking at where she hadn’t… faded into the background. She’d cared for the old Calamities some, less so their children – Masego rarely spoke of her – but in the end it was my father she’d attached herself to. Fear of pain or death wouldn’t work on someone like Eudokia, Adjutant was right about that. You’d have to threaten something she cared about, and as far as I could tell one of the few things she valued in this world was the trust between her and Black.
Hakram had caught scent of that, far before I could even begin to glimpse the shape of the truth, and so now I had a knife to rest against the throat of that trust. No longer strangled or threatened, the villainess slowly rose to her feet and talked.
“It was necessary,” Scribe said. “And considering your personal and political enmities with Malicia, none of this should be unpleasant to your ear.”
Akua’s Folly had been permitted and even somewhat obliquely funded by the Tower, I had not forgotten that. Akua Sahelian would pay her dues for that and more, but the Dread Empress would not be spared the settling of all accounts. And her debt had only grown, with the brutal attack that’d been Night of Knives. Some of those losses had been personal, too. Ratface would not soon be forgot. Only now I had to wonder if I’d been steered, didn’t I? If Scribe could do it to Black, someone she loved and trusted, she would not bat an eye before aiming me at her enemies. On the other hand, would the Empress not have tried to cast the blame on Scribe for that if she could, even if it was even slightly feasible? And there was General Istrid’s death during the Doom, too. Juniper’s mother had taken a knife in the back and it was still anyone’s guess who’d wielded the blade. These days I was inclined to flip a coin over whether it’d been the Empress removing one of the key Black loyalists in the Legions or the Matrons getting their pieces in place and giving me opportunity to swallow up leaderless legions into the nascent Army of Callow. Which I had, promptly enough. Now, though, looking back? Malicia had lost two legions and the supreme commander of my freshly strengthened armies been given good reason to despise the Empress. There was no end to that rabbit hole, if I tumbled down it.
“As far as I’m concerned, this can only end with Malicia’s head on a pike,” I conceded. “But this is not a reasonable way to go about this, Scribe. Shit, you were more than just playing with fire: Procer might have collapsed, if someone put a knife in Hasenbach! All for something an honest conversation might have achieved instead.”
“That is where,” Scribe calmly said, “you are wrong.”
There was no tremor to her voice, no hesitation. She believed what she said. And she also didn’t give the slightest fuck about the hundreds of thousands of deaths that might come from the Principate toppling. No, I darkly thought, she wouldn’t. Sabah had been the only one of the Calamities who gave more than a passing thought to the lives she took, which made it all the more a tragedy she’d been the one to die first.
“I expect we’re not about to have a stirring discussion about whether Cordelia Hasenbach truly is the key to keeping the Principate functional,” I cuttingly said.
“He would have forgiven her, Catherine Foundling,” Scribe said. “Without ever using the word forgive, but that would be the truth of it nonetheless. No matter what any of us said, he’d make peace again.”
“Look, I’m not going to argue he doesn’t get sentimental on occasion,” I said. “To be blunt, there’s a reason I’m still breathing. But he’s still Black. There’s lines, and if he has to choose between the Praes he wants and Malicia-”
“He’ll try for both,” Scribe said. “Offer her to be his Chancellor, another leap of faith: trusting that she would be one of the few who never schemed the death of their tyrant.”
“That would not be acceptable,” I sharply said. “If she takes a ship across the Tyrian Sea I won’t pursue, but she doesn’t get to stay anywhere near the reins of power. Not after all the shit she’s pulled. He knows that.”
“It won’t matter. He always forgives,” Scribe said, and under the calm tone that were and old and cold anger. “Malicia. Ranger. Even Wekesa, who spurned one of the few ways the Empire could be corrected without steel in hand out of sheer petty apathy. He always forgives them and takes up the work instead. It will kill him, Catherine. It has been killing him for years, but this once he might as well slit his own throat. I will not have it.”
I almost denied her, the words on the tip of my tongue, but then I thought of Arcadia. Of the Queen of Summer holding Masego and I in the palm of her hand, and how she’s still not come the closest to killing me that day. He would be angry, if I killed you, Ranger had said, her desire to take my life almost a physical thing, but we’ve been angry before. It passes. The Scribe had known my father for a very long time, and though she was… warped in some ways, as all Named were, she was not necessarily wrong.
“There were ways that weren’t as risky,” I said.
“None that would hold under scrutiny, which you can be certain will be had,” Scribe said.
And the thing was, if you counted Black’s life above everything other concern I could even understand why she’d believed this was what needed to be done. And why she’d assume I’d go along with it too. As a play, it’d finished isolating Malicia from every other halfway trustworthy actor on Calernia – at this point, who aside from Kairos would even consider bargaining with her? It would ensure that Black would climb the Tower, putting someone at the head of the Empire I could trust when I abdicated, and while Hasenbach still held the reins of Procer her position was weakened just ahead of pivotal negotiations. Now that this had been carried out successfully, I only benefitted from the outcome of her scheme. Oh, no doubt she’d have preferred I never catch on, but this was not a fatal mistake to her was it? I gained nothing from outing her and would lose quite a bit from tattling. Now that the Jacks could benefit from her agents in the Wasteland, I had an actual reason to want her to keep breathing – the arrangement would likely die with her. Would Black killer her, if he knew? I honestly wasn’t sure. He’d tolerate manipulations for Malicia, I suspected, but then he’d considered the Empress his superior.
Not so with this one, I thought.
“It wasn’t worth the risks,” I finally said. “And you know if he ever learns about this, he’ll snap.”
“There are three people alive who know of this,” Scribe said.
I felt a pang of irritation.
“Don’t be daft,” I said. “He’s a villain. So are you, so am I. Secrets like this always come out with the likes of us, Scribe. And if you don’t do it on your own terms it’ll be on some hero’s instead.”
There were simply so many ways for secrets to be snatched from even the grave. Some manners of necromancy, echoes in Arcadia, or even just a very improbable but not outright impossible human mistake. Providence wasn’t a panacea for all ills that handed you everything always, the way Black had once intimated to me, but it did make sure that if there was a chance in a hundred all a hero needed to do was roll the dice.
“You speak with great certainty,” she said, “yet I have buried greater sins than this and never did they rise from their graves.”
“You’ve never been in everyone’s eyes like this, though,” I flatly replied. “Every great power on the continent is looking at Salia and the smouldering remains of your plot, Scribe. Hells, you’ve got the White Knight and the Grey Pilgrim here. Your really think two Choir busybodies like that aren’t going to get even a hint from up on high?”
“There are limits to how much even angels can intervene,” she said, sounding irritated. “It is not a rule that the Heavens see through every scheme, else there would be no purpose to ever scheming. They have no reason to even begin to look, so-”
“How are you not getting that you’re not playing iron sharpens iron in the fucking Wasteland anymore?” I snapped. “This isn’t killing teenage heroes in Callow before they get their first aspect, Scribe. You’re trying the odds with the godsdamned fate of millions on the line, every hound the Heavens have to send sniffing at the ashes, and you think-”
A hand came to rest on my shoulder, though it was not warm.
“Cat,” Hakram said. “This no longer serves a purpose.”
I breathed out angrily. I’d not even noticed getting to my feet, much less the clatter of my abandoned pipe against the table. Ash had spilled, though not enough to start a fire.
“Fine,” I said. “You’re right. This is not acceptable, Scribe.”
“A decision made in anger might be regretted,” Adjutant cautioned.
My fingers clenched. My instinct was to drag her, by the hair if need be, in front of Black and let the truth spill out. But Hakram was right, there’d be long-lasting consequences to that. And until I could separate my instinct to go through with this from my harsh urge to see Scribe getting the rude awakening she’d been bargaining for, it would be best if I stayed my hand.
“I’ll hold my tongue for now,” I said.
“I will require guarantee that you will first speak with me, should you unwisely choose revelations,” Scribe said.
Fuck you, I almost said, you get nothing from me you– but Hakram’s bony fingers squeezed my shoulder slightly.
“Fine,” I got out.
Both Adjtutant and I knew she might start scrambling for leverage over me the moment she left the room, but if she did take off the gloves and flay her alive before use her reanimated puppet-corpse to call off whatever she’d schemed. The days where I was willing to let the Calamities twist my arm were long past me. I snatched back my pipe, though the wakeleaf was spoiled. Out of sheer pettiness I hobbled to cut in front of Scribe as she made for the door.
Wasn’t much, but it did slightly help my mood.
Even after the anger cooled no answers had sprung forth, because there were some choices that had no clean way through. It’d been one of my earliest lessons as the Squire, and though I wished it hadn’t proved as repeatedly and brutally true there was no denying it had. I could have slipped away into a warded room with the same half-council I’d gathered earlier to debate the matter, let their advice carry me through the noise until some sort of conclusion took form. I didn’t, for I’d grown weary of the same words echoing around my mind again and again. A council sounded deeply unpleasant, at the moment, and though I knew indecisiveness could be a costly thing to a woman in my position a day’s staggering would not change too much. Dawn would carry with it a great many hopes, for messengers had come from Salia and the delegations were to be received at midday. As agreed, an escort of four hundred would be allowed to every representative save for Black – who was, effectively, here as an extension of my own delegation. It would have been wiser to head to bed brisk and early, but restless and the coming of darkness had me too awake for it.
I went out instead, shedding all escorts save for the handful of Mighty I sensed trailing me in the dark. The countryside around Salia was, well, rather mundane. Given all the wild things one heard about the Principate’s capital I’d half expected everything within ten miles of it to be a pleasure garden dripping in jewels, but this could easily have been Callowan countryside. Lands did not look so different from one another, when covered by ice and snow. Though the village where my soldiers had been quartered, Roque-Faillie, had nothing of note all that close I was surprised to find a light fluttering in the distance after ghosting past my guards. It was coming from structure, too, though not a large one. Curiosity drove me forward, limping as I went and leaning on my staff of yew. The Mantle of Woe I’d left behind, traded instead for a warmer fur-rimmed cloak that Hakram had sown me. It was quite lovely, and he’d even reminded my whining about all my clothes being black: it was a pleasant shade of deep green instead, almost like the colour Archer favoured. I blinked in surprise when I got a good look at where the light was coming from, for though the sight was not that odd I’d not expected to see it.
It was a small farm I was looking at, though it must have been used for cattle-herding as well by the looks of the low wall to the side. Someone had hung a lantern on the side of house, off a rusting iron hook, and I caught a grunt of effort coming from near the low wall. Light in my limp, I moved onto the snowy path and found a man working on the cattle-wall. It’d been shoddily built, I thought, more piled stone than anything else, and a large swath of it had collapsed. Some had used a shivel to break the snow and ice and was steadily stacking the stones anew. Brow raising, I took a closer look. Not a Proceran, this one, at least not by birth: his skin had that Thalassina tone to it, too pale to be Soninke but too dark to be Taghreb. Tall and built like a working man, with fuzzy hair cropped even closer than even Legion regulations demanded, he’d shed his coat. Instead he wore a long-sleeved grey tunic he’d rolled up the sleeves of, and I let my gaze linger just a moment on the muscled forearms and calloused hands. He was rather plain-faced, I saw when he turned to glanced at me, and either clean-shaven or hairless. His dark brown eyes had a sense of steadiness to them, peace almost.
“Can I help you?” he asked in flawless Chantant.
Almost embarrassed at having stared, I gestured towards the wall he was working on.
“Won’t hold without mortar,” I said. “And it’s a little late in the year for that. Won’t take properly in the cold.”
He looked surprised.
“Are you a mason?” he asked.
“I have a friend who works with stone,” I shrugged.
Insofar as Pickler could be said to be doing then, when she crafted engines to tear down walls. I took another few steps, moving to the side of the path so I could lean against an intact part of the cattle-wall.
“Spring is coming soon enough,” the stranger said. “It may hold.”
“Hopeful sort, aren’t you?” I drawled.
“I see no purpose to ever assuming the worst,” he replied. “It seems like a tiring way to live.”
“You get more pleasant surprises that way,” I hedged. “You don’t have the look of a local, if you’ll forgive my saying so.”
“I am not,” the man agreed, body shifting as he stacked another stone. “It is not my farm, if that is your question. I was given leave to use it while waiting for a friend.”
“Here?” I said, genuinely surprised. “You know there’s delegations close, right? The League further east and Callow’s just to the west. That’s a lot of jumpy soldiers.”
Not to mention I’d let Robber loose. He wasn’t going to around stabbing farmers – although this definitely wasn’t one – but he wouldn’t be above a bit of a scare if he got bored.
“I had heard,” the man said. “I warned my friend, though she cared little for the warning.”
“Headstrong?” I said, genuinely sympathetic.
Indrani wasn’t exactly what you might call a pliable young maiden, even when I wasn’t actively insulting her.
“Rather,” the man said, amused. “And she dislikes cities. It will do her some good to stretch her legs.”
“Been in Salia, then?” I casually asked.
“I have,” he said. “We are being hosted in the city.”
“Not Levantine, by the look and sound of you,” I mused. “Sure as Hells not Proceran. Ashuran, then?”
“A long time ago,” the man agreed, then shifted to Lower Miezan. “You are Callowan, yes?”
“Laure born and raised,” I agreed in the same.
“Come with the Black Queen, I would think,” he said.
“More or less,” I said. “You a translator? I expect with the amount of people coming into the capital there’s bound to be good coin in it.”
He was perhaps in too good a shape for one, but it would rather impolite to outright call him a mercenary who’d picked up a few languages while out on campaign. A hired blade wouldn’t make it into any place of import, but with foreign soldiers in Salia knowing their tongues would be a skill people were willing to pay coin for.
“I know a great many languages,” the man said. “You might say I have a gift with them.”
There was an almost rueful note to his voice when he said that. Yeah, that wasn’t a mercenary. No idea what he actually was, but I was leaning towards whatever the Thalassocracy’s equivalent of the Eyes of the Empire was.
“Were you at the Princes’ Graveyard?” he suddenly asked.
“It is said that angels seeded dreams among soldiers of all armies,” he said, dark eyes lingering on me.
I’d gotten an interested look or two in my life, and this wasn’t one of them. He’d assessed me as someone who knew how their way around a blade – checked my frame, my stance, for callouses on my palm. Yeah, definitely not a common mercenary.
“Didn’t get one,” I said. “But I’ve heard the same.”
He slowly nodded.
“Unfortunate,” he said. “I’d wanted to speak with someone who had dreamt.”
“Oh?” I asked. “Dubious about the Arch-heretic of the East not getting smote by angels?”
He looked amused.
“It is a meaningless title,” he said.
I cocked my head to the side, honestly surprised.
“It comes from no sacred writ, it has the blessing of no Choir nor the assent of the Heavens,” he elaborated, seeing my curiosity. “If priests declare the sun to be wicked, does it make it so?”
“I think you have a large enough conclave, probably yes,” I mused.
The man’s lips quirked into a smile. He hoisted up another stone and set it down before wiping his brow and pulling down his sleeves. Picking up his coat, he moved to sit by my side on the cattle-wall.
“You do not think much of priests, it seems,” he said.
“A priest is usually a good thing,” I drawled. “It’s when you’ve priests in the multiple that the trouble starts. They’ve a way of starting to believe that whatever they agree on is the truth, and it’s all downhill from there.”
“Is there not a House of Light in Callow?” the man asked, sounding surprised.
“Sure,” I snorted. “But it’s never been overly guilty of agreeing on anything. Mind you, they still keep to the Book. It’s the Praesi that have no priests at all.”
“My mother kept to the Gods Below,” the man admitted. “She was rather bemused at the notion of formal priesthood.”
I glanced at him.
“Soninke?” I guessed.
He nodded. I’d been right then, he had mixed blood as was – had been now, I reminded myself – common in Thalassina.
“From Thalassina,” he said.
“Hope you didn’t have any family there,” I said.
“I do not know,” he admitted, then frowned. “It is true, then? That the city was sunk into the sea?”
“Large chunk of it went up in smoke, way I heard it,” I said. “And that much sorcery, even when you’re just close…”
It was his turn to grimace. Yeah, I suspected that’d not been a pleasant way to die for those unlucky survivors.
“Heavens shepherd their souls beyond,” he murmured.
A well-meant sentiment, I thought, though most Praesi would sneer at it. The man pushed himself off the wall and put on his coat – good make but well-worn, most likely not a noble then – and with a smile offered me his hand.
“Hanno,” he introduced himself.
I went still for a heartbeat as it all came together. Slowly, I breathed out.
“Catherine,” I said, clasping his wrist in a legionary’s handshake.
His eyes widened, the slightest bit.
“Black Queen,” Hanno of Arwad said.
“White Knight,” I replied. “Fancy meeting you here.”