“I assure you, Chancellor, that with but a few words they’ll come around to agreeing with me. Almost like an incantation, really.”
– Dread Emperor Imperious
Good grip, I thought, as he clasped my arm tightly once back before withdrawing.
“I was warned about you,” the White Knight conversationally said.
He was a dangerous man, I knew, for heroes usually were. Yet I did not feel particularly endangered, for by all reports Hanno of Arwad was not the sort of madman who’d draw a sword thoughtlessly. I leaned on my staff to push myself up on the low cattle-wall, pressing my cloak against the back of my leg with my other hand so it wouldn’t bunch up. That’s better, I thought. Took the weight off my bad leg.
“Were you?” I replied. “You don’t seem all that worried.”
“Not that sort of warning,” he said. “The Grey Pilgrim called you a thresher.”
My brow rose. I was a city girl to the bone, true enough, but it was still a Callowan city. I knew a thing or two about farming, if only in principle.
“Like for grain?” I asked, cocking my head to the side.
He had a rather honest face, I decided, for all that it was plain. The calm on it wasn’t affectation, no. It was just the consequence of being so amiably unruffled by all that went on around him, perhaps not even something he knew he showed.
“One that separates the wheat from the chaff,” the White Knight quoted. “He argued that there are Bestowals that, by their nature, draw to them both great loyalty and great enmity.”
“Sounds like Tariq,” I conceded. “Mind you, I’ve always found he throws words like ‘fate’ around a little too easily. Anyone who ends up making waves will draw both enemies and allies, there’s nothing magical about it.”
“There is, when so many of those allies were once your enemies,” Hanno said. “I am told that most of your closest companions fought you at some point or another.”
Well, not that many. Indrani had introduced herself by ambushing me, I conceded. Vivienne too. Juniper and I hadn’t exactly begun as bosom friends, and there was a reason that I’d ripped Akua’s heart out of her chest. Shit. Hakram had always been a delight, though! And Robber had mostly been other people’s problem, which by goblin standards was positively saintly. I forcefully refrained from thinking too much about how the Everdark had turned out for all involved.
“Oh Gods,” I muttered. “I genuinely can’t argue with that.”
If I’d lost that argument in my own head, I somehow doubted it’d go my way spoken aloud. The hero softly chuckled.
“It is not unlike sculpting, I’ve found,” Hanno said. “What your hand knows, what you have crafted, is not what the eyes of others see.”
“Been mistaken a few times, have you?” I asked.
He agreed with a nod.
“Often it is misunderstood what the Choir of Judgement is,” the White Knight said. “I’ve been asked to adjudicate land disputes, to settle disagreements over scripture and once even to decide on the rightful owner of cattle.”
He breathed out, as if exasperated by the whole of it.
“The Seraphim do not attend to earthly laws or even holy writ, Black Queen,” Hanno of Arwad said. “They render only one manner of judgement and it is not fettered by anything of Creation.”
“That’d be the spinning coin and the,” I mimed a blade across the throat, “I take it?”
“If the coin spun for ever soul on Calernia, it would show the laurels more often than not,” the White Knight said. “The circumstances in which it is prone to spinning, however, have favoured the showing of the swords.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?” I asked.
He cocked his head to the side.
“Why would it?” the White Knight asked. “If only wicked men are judged, why would another end come of it?”
“And you don’t think you’re passing judgement as well?” I frowned.
“That is not my place,” he said.
“The coin doesn’t flip on its own, you know,” I pointed out. “And as far as I know, you don’t toss it for everyone you meet.”
The hero looked frustrated, but only in passing. I supposed I hadn’t been the first person to say as much to him. He was one of the great Names of our generation, true, but he was also a pretty personable man all things considered.
“You are Queen of Callow,” the White Knight said.
“Don’t suppose you could get me that in writing?” I drily said.
If getting the Sword of Judgement to put it to parchment didn’t end up settling the legitimacy of my rule, nothing ever would. He blinked, visibly bemused.
“Ignore that,” I sighed. “Yes, I am Queen of Callow. Couple other titles too, but that’s the highest one.”
“Then, unless I am mistaken, you have right of high justice over all in your kingdom,” Hanno said.
That was slightly more complicated an issue than you’d think, actually. High justice – essentially the right to sit in judgement of anyone no matter how high their birth and the severity of their crime – had been moved around some these last few decades. Before the Conquest the answer would have been a straightforward yes, as the ruling king or queen of Callow had been one of the few figures able to sit in judgement over anyone. Under Black the right of high justice had in theory devolved to the imperial governors, though in practice he’d been the one holding it: though his authority came from the Tower and not a crown, he’d been the only man in the kingdom would could sit in judgement of both governors and the remaining nobles. It was no without reason that when I’d called my teacher the crownless king of Callow not even the Choir of Contrition had gainsaid me. These days my kingdom’s laws were a messy jumble of old Praesi decrees and dusty Callowan laws, but as the anointed Queen of Callow I did in principle have right of high justice. If I started going after the few nobles left through even legal means, though, I’d have a rebellion on my hands. I’d allowed my court to squeeze the northern baronies in their coin purse but nowhere else, and Gods forbid I ever try to pass judgement on Duchess Kegan even if she ate a full cartload of babies in broad daylight before a hundred witnesses.
“By law I do,” I conceded.
“As one with the right to pass judgement over any Callowan,” Hanno said, “did you then proceed to drag every man and woman you encountered before a tribunal?”
My brow rose.
“You don’t stand judgement in Callow without having broken a law,” I said.
“And I do not bring into the gaze of the Seraphim every soul I encounter without reason,” the White Knight replied. “Nor would I stand benumbed and allow a life to be taken before my eyes while I asked for their verdict. I do not judge, Catherine Foundling, because I recognize the fallibility of what I am and what I know. It does not mean I am blind or helpless: it means that where others have no choice but to be burdened with uncertainty, I am not.”
That was rather more reasonable than I’d expected of the man, I admitted to myself. My brushes with Choirs had been less than pleasant, most of the time, so I’d been predisposed to seeing lunacy lurking in one who had openly sworn himself to do the bidding of one. Black had been less than flattering in his assessments of the man, too, though he’d also cautioned that the White Knight was both intelligent and an exceedingly dangerous and versatile killer. Then again, I could hardly imagine my father ever sitting down to have a polite chat with a hero – or the opposite, in all fairness. Over two decades of the Calamities smothering heroes in their narrative crib had rather thoroughly burned that bridge for both sides. I still found the notion of the Seraphim being considered an authority over even a chamber pot rather revolting, but hardly enough to draw a blade over it. So long as that authority was not forced on anyone, and it stayed well out of my kingdom, it fell under the category of ‘someone else’s problem’. If the nations of the west wanted to grant the right of high justice to the Choir of Judgement, that was their decision to make.
Of course, there was one little issue with all this.
“And villains?” I asked. “Don’t they always get a flip, White Knight?”
He smiled, though it was a distant sort of smile. One straddling the line between reminiscence and the aloofness of professional attending their trade. He stood before me, little more than a well-built man in cloth, and still he spoke with an authority that could not be denied. Conviction was at the heart of Names, I knew, and this one did not lack faith. Black was one of the finest hero-killers Calernia had ever known, and he’d gone after Hanno with the full roster of the Calamities while the White Knight led a disparate band of greenhorns. And the man stood before me still. Some of that could be laid at the Bard’s feet, at her schemes, but only so much. Even the Intercessor could not make a sharp blade out of straw.
“Are all those that worship the Gods Above to be called Good?” Hanno replied.
“No,” I said. “But worshipping Below is against the scriptures, isn’t it? Heresy.”
“Do you worship Below?” he asked.
“I curse in their name, mostly,” I drawled, rather amused. “But I’ve been called an odd duck amongst my kind. Most villains do in fact keep to the Gods Below.”
I knew Hakram did, though it was in the orc way under the name of the Hungry Gods. He wasn’t particularly pious, though, and considered it a private matter besides. Indrani’s utter indifference to all things religious probably counted as some sort of heresy, I was pretty sure, and while Akua worshipped the Hellgods in that very Praesi way that did not exclude attempted murder and usurpation that worship was not less sincere for it. That her growing fondness for heroics had not been paired with conversion to the ways of the House of Light had been a source of some amusement to me, particularly since even if she was a Wasteland aristocrat she knew her way around the Book of All Things better than I did.
“The Choir of Judgement does not follow scripture,” Hanno reminded me. “It was written by mortal hands, a fetter like any other.”
“But if a villain, say, made a carriage out of skulls,” I said, then let the sentence hang.
“Graverobbing is not a particular concern of the Seraphim,” the White Knight replied, sounding almost amused. “Especially when it is only presumptive.”
“But you’d keep an eye on them, after that,” I shrewdly said.
“As I would keep an eye on a man walking into a house with a bared sword,” Hanno said.
While the man in front of me was far from an idiot – I suspected he’d be deeply unpleasant to argue with – I wouldn’t assess him as the kind of silver-tongued schemer I’d come across more than a few times. Oh, it was possible a long game was being played even if he was a hero. But my instinct was that he was much as he put himself forward, and I’d stayed alive this long by listening to that little voice when it tugged at my attention. And right now that voice was telling me that the White Knight didn’t have to be my enemy. I didn’t relish the notion of angels passing judgement through someone else’s hand, and I very much doubted that Hanno would stay his work even if I asked him to pretty please do so, but he could be accommodated. If he worked within the bounds of the Accords, and even worked to enforce them? Hells, he might be a legitimate boon. Heroes would follow the Grey Pilgrim out of respect for the man, but if the White Knight endorsed something a lot of people would take that as the blessing of the Choir of Judgement. There were parts of the continent where that carried a great deal of weight. Even now, after the Tenth Crusade and the fury that’d followed the Salian conclaves, Callow was still one of them.
Everything he’d said fit with what I knew of his actions. He’d come to be involved in the Free Cities because the Tyrant had started a war, and as far as I knew never fought where there wasn’t a villain involved. He’d come as part of the southern crusade, which was a mark against him, but it was largely Black he’d been there for. And while I loved my father a great deal, I couldn’t deny that he was a monster twice over. I believed him to be the man who’d stood between Praes and its worst impulses for decades, and perhaps the monster needed to reform the Dread Empire into a nation that wouldn’t vomit its poison over the rest of Calernia every few decades, but that in no way made him a good man. It was not unjustified, to want to kill him. That didn’t mean I’d allow it, or that it would not make things objectively worse if it happened, but I wouldn’t delude myself into thinking that Amadeus of the Green Stretch was not a monster. He was other things, too, but that didn’t expunge the first truth him. In the end, I didn’t have a lot of axes to grind with the White Knight and he’d proved one of the more reasonable heroes I’d come across. Hanno had even gone north to fight the Dead King and only returned to prevent the Tyrant from having a continent-collapsing tantrum.
In all honesty, that put him pretty high up my list of people who hadn’t severely fucked up in the last year. He had Black beat, for one.
“You don’t take issue with mortal laws, then,” I said.
“It would be absurd to,” he noted. “Lest the Heavens themselves rule, what other way is there?”
“And if those laws applied to even Named?” I pressed.
“A law need not be just,” Hanno of Arwad said. “It need only be a law. I would no more bend my neck to such a wrong than any other threat.”
“I’m not talking about settling right and wrong for all of Calernia,” I said. “That’s doomed. Howling Hells, let’s not even talk about Good and Evil – not even all of Good agrees on the same boundaries. No, I mean basics. You can’t tell Named that regicide is over, neither heroes nor villains would obey that. But limiting the means by which it can be done? That might work. And it’d end the practice of burning down half a city to kill a tyrant or usurp a throne.”
“Not laws, these,” the White Knight said, eyes curious, “but rather rules of engagement.”
My veins thrummed with excitement, because unlike Tariq he’d not needed to be led to that. He’d grasped it, quickly, and did not seem opposed in the slightest. The dark-eyed hero let out a little noise of understanding.
“Ah,” he said. “I see now your cleverness in making such rules so basic. If the expectation placed is so low and Named still fail to clear it, none will desire to support them. Neither others who bear mantles nor the powerful without, for only the erratic would break such bare bones rules. The vast majority of Named will see their lives go untouched, with only the most radical being restricted.”
He paused, looking at me with an expression I found difficult to place.
“This is more than rules of engagement,” the White Knight said, “this is a blade swung at the most callous servants of Above and Below. Within a few generations of grand gestures being harshly answered by all other powers, you would excise that entire manner of thinking from the Named on Calernia.”
Not even Black had caught that, I thought. Oh, he’d seen parts of the Accords as being meant to restrain the most destructive aspects of Praes, but he’d not really gotten it because at the end of the day he did not think of stories the way I did. He’d stayed alive as villain occupying my home, a hotbed of rebellion, by avoiding ever getting caught in a story or pattern that’d get him killed. Unlike me, unlike Akua even, he only rarely wielded like a weapon. It was the same with the Pilgrim, I though, in his own way. Tariq carried around on his back the weight of all his tragedies but at heart he was a guest in the stories of others. Sometimes a guest who ended that story before it could grow into something dangerous, others a wise old man who nudged it to something more acceptable, but the Peregrine as an entity remained… constant. Always playing the same few roles in different stories. He’d know a great many of those, but it would be his nature to think of them as a landscape he’d travelled far and wide. Not something that could shift and change.
“If the flying fortress crowd and the Contrition-ritual crowd always die, always fail? People will remember that,” I quietly agreed. “Gods know it’ll be public enough when the hammer’s brought down. And when it’s been happening for long enough, well, everyone will ‘know’ that sort of thing doesn’t work. Same way heroes don’t die when they’re thrown down cliffs or villains don’t get beaten on the first step of their plan.”
“And with most Named having a stake in ensuring at least the barest of civility is maintained between their kind, the odds are strong that your rules will last long enough to make that mark,” Hanno said. “It is a sound notion.”
“Then you’d be in favour of such a set of rules?” I asked.
“They did warn me,” the White Knight pensively said.
I almost cursed. Gods, let this not turn into a damned flop where by simple nature of having been proposed by a villain this entire concept was to be dismissed as a plot of Below. That would be bitterly disappointing after the rest of this conversation.
“I’ve not spoken a single lie,” I said.
“Which makes you singularly dangerous,” Hanno agreeably replied.
My fingers clenched until the knuckles went white under the gloves.
“Ah, you misunderstand me,” the White Knight said. “That you are silver-tongued and perhaps one of the most dangerous people alive does not mean I am dismissing your proposal, Black Queen.”
“Then what does it mean?” I asked.
“That I understand what the Grey Pilgrim meant, now,” Hanno of Arwad said. “You have a pull, Catherine Foundling, that drags others into your wake: either as followers or as wreckage. I am glad to have seen it myself before we first met on formal terms. It would have been startling.”
That last part he spoke ruefully, as if mocking himself.
“There doesn’t need to be anything mystical about this,” I insisted. “I don’t have sole claim to the Accords, not in the slightest. I speak for them because I’m in a position to, not because they’re solely my horse to ride. I don’t know what you think-”
“I very nearly agreed,” the White Knight amusedly said. “Just now. Without thinking twice. After speaking with you for not even an hour. Because you are reasonable, well-spoken and even charming in what I assume to be a rough Callowan way.”
That last one was kind of insulting, I decide, but the rest pretty flattering. I cleared my throat.
“Still not too late to agree now,” I gallantly tried.
“No, perhaps not,” Hanno calmly replied, “but it is certainly too early.”
He suddenly twitched, head turning to look at the far south. I couldn’t hear or see anything, at this distance, and it might be a little gauche to call on Night to aid my senses next to the Sword of Judgement so I refrained out of politeness.
“My friend is returning,” the White Knight said.
It took a moment for me to place it.
“The Witch of the Woods?” I asked.
He dipped his head in agreement.
“A great she-wolf walks with her,” he said. “Neither are fond of cities.”
“I’ll take my leave, then,” I said.
I could on occasion recognize a hint when it was sent my way. I dropped down onto the snow, softening the blow with my staff, and tightened my cloak around my shoulder. Wouldn’t be too long a walk back to camp and I probably should head to bed – I had quite the day ahead of me tomorrow.
“Good night to you, White Knight,” I said, dipping my head in salute.
“And to you, Black Queen,” he replied, doing the same.
I cleared the path, though as I crossed back into the plains I was stopped by a call.
“I expect they will not grow fonder of cities overnight,” Hanno said.
He wasn’t speaking loudly, but his voice carried perfectly.
“Might be I go for a walk, then,” I replied without glancing back.
The yew staff dug into the snow as I limped back home – thump, thump, thump – and I wondered if it truly should go. There might come a day where the coin went up spinning in judgement of me, after all. Not this winter, not this year, maybe not even this decade. But one day? Oh, there’d been a shiver of that going through the conversation. Violence coiled and controlled but never too far from the surface. As a younger woman that might have disturbed me, but these days it simply marked him to my eye as someone able to handle strength properly. Still, I now understood why many heroes deferred to that man: he was so utterly at peace with the power he wielded and what he wielded it for that looking on the surface of that placid pond you’d only ever see your own doubts reflected. I wondered if he’d hesitate, if on that day the coin showed swords. I wondered if I’d hesitate to kill him before the coin ever began spinning.
Neither yew nor snow held answers for me, save that when night came again I would return.