“My dear High Lords, there is nothing to fear. We might be losing the war against Callow yet there is an obvious remedy to this: this morning, I declared war on Ashur. I will be surrendering unconditionally as soon as they acknowledge this, which ought to take care of our Callowan troubles.”
– Dread Emperor Irritant I, the Oddly Successful
The scent was cloying, heavy against the roof of my mouth before I even stepped into the room.
The incense was the heaviest of the tastes, but there were subtler scents threaded along: sage and cedar, as well as the faint bloom of flowers. The burners from which it all came were spread around the room haphazardly, tended to by chittering gargoyles, and the glow cast by the glass lanterns hanging from the ceiling played shadows along the thick trails of scented smoke rising up. Kairos Theodosian lounged on a seat that was little more than a large bowl of bronze filled with thick red cushions, though as always he’d found a way to have it incrusted with jewels and covered with sculpted bas-reliefs. The Tyrant of Helike greeted me with an indolently raised hand, his brocaded robes of gold and scarlet folded with careful precision so that they would almost hide the length of his arm prone to trembling. Though he’d been thin and sickly for as long as I’d known him, Kairos’ narrow face seemed to have shed the last of its softness: his brown curls hung low on a forehead whose skin looked pulled taut over bone. His good eye, the brown one, moved around lazily as if it could not quite focus on anything. The other one, the red of fresh blood and always wetly shining, almost seemed to have grown. As if the crimson had grown to devour more of the Tyrant’s face as the rest of him pulled back.
“Welcome, friend,” Kairos Theodosian cheerfully greeted me, throwing in an exaggerated wink. “Welcome to my humble shop. You’ll not regret visiting, for our prices are princely and our merchandise most definitely acquired through at least partially legal means. Probably.”
The cheerfulness was nothing new, from this one, but for once it did not entirely succeed at covering something had grown… feverish in the villain. I’d thought more than once that the Tyrant’s position would collapse if he was dealt a grave enough defeat, but now I was wondering if perhaps defeat might not cause in him troubles rather more visceral. My staff rasped against the wooden floorboard as I limped in, and I found a seat awaiting me on my side side of the low table between us. Mine was less a nest of cushions and more along the lines of my favourite seat, the one I’d had creatively acquired from Arcadia. Padded, with heavy armrests. On the low table the sight of a strange game being toyed with caught my eye: three bowls filled with differing numbers of smooth pebbles had been put down, as well as a handful more on the surface of the table itself. Kairos had been moving a few around as I entered. The game did feel vaguely familiar to my eye, though it clearly wasn’t mancala. Not enough seeds or pits for them to be sown in.
“Tired of shatranj?” I asked.
“I grew curious, after reading the treatise,” Kairos mused. “It is a game meant for three, in truth, but trying my hand at the play was interesting regardless. He’s a barren little thing, your Adjutant, but I’ll not deny he is brilliant in his own way.”
Ah, was that were that was from? I’d seen Hakram fiddling with the game once or twice, for it was of his own making, and Robber had once told me the orc had been doing so since before he first came to the War College. I mostly remembered being vaguely irritated that the pot of stones everybody could steal from was called ‘Callow’, accurate as it was to the game’s implicit metaphor.
“Tower-raising, isn’t it?” I frowned. “I didn’t know he’d finished the treatise, much less made it public.”
“It has become rather popular at your royal court, I am told,” the Tyrant said. “And has even come somewhat in fashion as a curiosity in Ater.”
I eased myself into my seat unceremoniously. Amusing as Kairos’ petty schemes could be on occasion, passing amusements hardly made up for the nuisance he was in so many ways. I wouldn’t pick a fight with him without a good reason, of course: so far he’d not aimed his plots at Callow itself, only at my soldiers in Iserre. Yet neither would I forget he’d made bargains with the Dead King and the Bard, in full knowledge of what they might lead to for this continent.
“What do you want, Tyrant?” I asked. “I haven’t got all night.”
“That’s hardly a way to talk to a shopkeeper,” the ruling king of Helike solemnly told me. “I’d be well within my rights to raise my prices for such disrespect.”
I broke the wax over the bottle in my hand and took a sniff at the contents. It did smell like genuine Vale summer wine, to my surprise. A swallow confirmed as much.
“You just called my right hand a barren little thing,” I said. “And likely meant it, given the curse of truth laid on your tongue. I have limited patience for your games, and other business to see to tonight. Speak or I’ll leave and wash my hands of this.”
“You’re free to go, if that is what you truly wish,” the Tyrant shrugged, red eye pulsing.
It might be safer to do so, I thought. With no one to speak to and a continent of close doors facing him, there were not many ways for the Tyrant of Helike to slither his was back into a story that’d keep him from sinking into a swamp of his own making. Speaking with the people of most influence in Salia might do the trick, though, or at least allow him opportunity through talking to cajole the winds of fate back to his sail. From that perspective, the best decision here was to rise and leave without another word. On the other hand, that also left Kairos Theodosian with precious little to lose. Vivienne had warned me he was unlikely to have emptied his quiver quite yet, and it could be argued that villains were often at their most dangerous just before they were defeated. And he’d let slip some of what he was up to, I suspected. Not carelessly but instead carefully, like a fisherman baiting a hook. And to get his foot back in the game the Tyrant would not hesitate to toss me some secrets of worth coming at the expense of his many enemies. Some of which were also mine, as it happened.
I sighed and caught sight of a gargoyle carrying a tray with cups – only one which was empty – and gesture for it to approach. It did and I snatched the empty silver cup before holding it out, reaching into the Night to fashion a tendril of darkness that poured from the bottle into it. More discretely, as my theatrical gesture distracted those in the room, a very thin tendril of darkness crept into the filled cup and stole a single drop before withdrawing. It didn’t look like water, instead like some sort of herbal potion, and though tasting it myself would tell me little I had people in my service who knew much of herbalism and alchemy.
“I’ll buy the wine and the leaf,” I said. “So long as it’s not poisoned, and the price isn’t ridiculous.”
“I never found out how much any of it cost,” Kairos admitted. “A hundred royals?”
That was Helike gold coinage, if I remembered correctly. There were several currencies floating around the Free Cities, and Helike’s was not considered to be one of the more reliable.
“I’ll offer you a whatever’s in my tunic pockets right and now,” I offered instead. “As well as one sentence that is more or less a compliment.”
He leaned forward.
“Intriguing,” the Tyrant enthused. “You have a bargain, Catherine Foundling.”
I surrendered the treasures hidden away in my tunic: a handful of half-chewed oats I’d forced Zombie to spit out after catching her indulging, a few pinewood matches and a soiled tablecloth from the palace I’d used to wipe my mail clean earlier.
“Your tunic’s colour matches the cushions, which makes you look significantly less scrawny from a distance,” I added.
“It does, doesn’t it?” Kairos replied, sounding deeply pleased. “That is what I was going for.”
He gestured for one of the gargoyles to waddle forward and handed it my end of the bargain.
“Feed the oats to Hakram,” he instructed.
My brow rose questioningly as the gargoyle whined in protest then scampered away after gathering everything up.
“Hakram is the name of my trusty war steed,” the Tyrant revealed. “It was a most wonderful gift, Catherine, my thanks. I’ve taught her to bully the gargoyles and it has been most diverting.”
Oh Gods, he was talking about the goat wasn’t he? I’d not expected him to actually keep her.
“It was,” I hesitated, then valiantly rallied, “my pleasure?”
He picked up the cup I’d stolen a drop from and sipped from it after dismissing the gargoyle, then leaned back more comfortably into his cushions.
“Would you like to talk about the Dead King?” Kairos Theodosian casually asked.
“Sure,” I replied. “Heard he’s up in Keter. Good manners, maybe a little heavy on the devouring of all living things. Keeps a good table, though.”
“So I’ve heard,” the Tyrant amiably said. “He also intends to send an envoy to the formal talks tomorrow, I’m told.”
My fingers clenched, and I forced them to loosen before taking a sip of wine.
“He intimated as much in Liesse-Before-Twilight,” I said. “Dare I ask where you heard it from?”
“The Dead King,” Kairos smiled. “And his envoy, which he intends to send to the formal talks tomorrow.”
“You’re hosting the Hidden Horror’s diplomats,” I flatly said.
“Diplomat, singular,” the Tyrant corrected. “Tough you are in essence correct. I was prevailed upon to bring the envoy to Salia and introduce them.”
“You must realize that’s twice now you’ve provided aid to Keter,” I grimly said. “Your bridges are not so much burned as turned to smoke.”
“I imagine our friend in Keter would have found a way regardless,” the Tyrant mused, sipping at his cup. “This is hardly a deep collaboration.”
“You’ve repeatedly made pacts with the Dead King, and now serve as facilitator for his diplomacy,” I said. “Kairos, that has consequences. It’s one thing to play princes against each other or to make a red ruin of the League for your schemes. Villainous, true, but it stays within certain boundaries. What’s happening up north, though, is a higher order of war. The consequences of defeat there are… severe is too light a word, really.”
“You seem certain there will be a war,” Kairos said, sounding amused. “As if it were inevitable, written in the stars.”
“At this late hour, it effectively is,” I bluntly said. “There is no offer he can make that will change things. The Grand Alliance will gather and sweep him back into the Crown of the Dead.”
“Or he’ll leave when faced with such an unprecedented coalition,” the Tyrant said. “For he is not an utter fool.”
“Then we reclaim the Kingdom of the Dead without loss of life and begin to siege the Serenity,” I shrugged. “It is not too disadvantageous an outcome.”
“You misunderstand me,” he said. “His armies retreat, and as they do several millennia of the worst rituals Calernia has ever seen are unleashed on the lot of you. And then your shaky alliance, stripped of its common foe, must face the brewing horrors you ignored as your eyes remained fixed on the north.”
“So we should take his peace, should we?” I scathingly said. “Pass the torch to those yet to come and hope they take care of it for us? That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. It’ll be ugly work, closing the door on him, I’ll not deny that. And costly in ways I suspect will resound for generations. But someone will have to pay that price, sooner or later, and it’s cowardice of the worst sort to pass the duty down the line our of petty fear.”
“And it is mere pleasant coincidence,” Kairos mused, “that a great shared cataclysmic war would lay deep foundations for your Accords. Your own Arch-heretic of the North – the King of Death, the peerless Named that suffers the yoke of no laws even in death – crucified over a sea of corpses so that the story of your rules enforced becomes as whisper passed from mother to child across the lands.”
The accusation rang true because he wasn’t entirely wrong. The Liesse Accords being signed and then promptly yielding the end of the Kingdom of the Dead would be the strongest possible mortar to build with. Undeniable proof that even the greatest of monsters could not stand alone against the rest of us when heroes and villains kept to terms. The thought had lurked in the back of my mind for some time now, it was true. On the other hand, unlike what he was implying I was not eager for the horrors that war would bring. Marching on the Crown of the Dead and the creature that ruled it was not something to be lightly considered no matter what advantages it might bring.
“Mock as you will, you offer no other path,” I said. “You never do, Kairos. And still I am a little disappointed, because I figured that no matter how deep in the old madness you went you’d at least grasp the consequences of Keter claiming victory in this.”
“You speak as if the Dead King could truly win,” he said, cocking his head to the side. “As if this confluence was not a carefully arranged affair, a trap laid by subtle hands.”
“I’d be much more willing to listen to hard talk about the Intercessor from you if you’d not make a damned bargain with her yourself,” I harshly said. “Your actions have not matched the distaste you profess.”
“Of those that collaborated with the Bard on that night I am not the one that wounded your side deepest,” Kairos mildly said, “though you know it not.”
“You lie, Tyrant,” I sighed. “Even speaking only truths, you lie. And if you had something that’d cut deep when plainly said you would have spoken it plainly.”
That made it two secrets he’d dangled in front of me now. He’d implied there were disasters brewing elsewhere, earlier, and there were only so many places that could be the case. Ashur was still blockaded by Nicaean fleets, last I heard, and it was possible for it to be turned into a cradle of madness through desperation. Yet I knew Malicia to have schemes afoot, and she stood the more likely culprit: the Tower’s arsenal of horrors had not been unleashed in many years, but it might yet be if she felt there was nothing left to lose. So someone had worked with the Bard on the night that saw Twilight’s birth, then, and I’d been wounded by it. Probably Saint, I decided. It’d explain why the Tyrant had not outright given a name: she was dead by my hand, that account already settled. All he had left was suspicion to sow while speaking exact truths.
“We are pieces in an intricate game, Catherine,” the Tyrant smiled. “One whose board was lain far before either of our births. Did you believe it coincidence, that the Principate would be so weak and isolated? Decades of civil war to bleed it dry, foes on all sides and then even a disastrous campaign to the east before the Dead King had first stirred. There have been but a few times in the history of Procer it has been so weak, and I’d wager none when the greatest heroes of the time were either far past their prime or far short of it.”
“She’s not a god, Kairos,” I said. “And neither is he, despite all his boasting. Even a continent like Calernia has so many moving parts it’s impossible to manipulate it so precisely. They may have seen it coming, helped it along even, but this is not an elegant game of flawless immortals: this is two old monsters riding a tiger and hoping the other one is bucked first. You know they’re not unbeatable. Hells, you handed the Bard a defeat yourself.”
“So I did,” the Tyrant conceded. “Neither is invincible, Catherine, I agree. They are cleverer than that. Yet we approach the crescendo of their hatreds, the unmaking of the knot. And I suspect neither’s lasting victory would be a pleasant ending.”
“Help me, then,” I said. “Help the Grand Alliance. You’ve been gathering everyone’s secrets, Kairos. The Intercessor’s, the Dead King’s and everyone else’s. You could be the finger on the scales.”
“I find it most amusing that your good intentions will haunt this world for centuries to come, if you truly win,” the Tyrant grinned. “Ah, the necessary villain. The hard woman making the hard decisions when trouble has come calling and all others are flinching from what simply must be done. I wonder how many atrocities will be poured out of that mould in years to come simply because you scratched that groove deep enough onto the fabric of Creation.”
I’d gotten about as much out of him as I would, I decided. All he was doing now was spreading the poison of suspicion, and I had no reason to indulge him I continuing to lend an ear.
“Even as we speak,” Kairos idly said, “thousands are dying in agony to the far south.”
“End the blockade of Ashur and the starvation will end with it,” I flatly replied.
“It already has ended,” the Tyrant of Helike smiled, red eye burning like a red star. “Tomorrow, Catherine, the Tower reminds the world it is yet to be feared. Magon Hadast will withdraw the Thalassocracy from the Grand Alliance.”
“She doesn’t have the ships to scatter Nicae,” I said. “Or the calibre of mages to not need the ships.”
“No,” the Tyrant agreed, “what she does have is many men who must drink water from barrels.”
Poison? That seemed unlikely, even if it was one that took an absurdly long time to kill. It was possible to craft poisons that had no taste and would not visibly mar water but making one that also took months to kill – the only way slipping that much poison onto so many ships unnoticed was even remotely feasible – would be massively difficult and expensive. It’d also require the skills of the Empire’s finest alchemists employed in concert, as well as exotic ingredients by the barge. Scribe would have noticed such movements, even if the Jacks were fooled. Kairos reached a shaking hand into his tunic and produced a small glass vial filled with a light gray powder, tossing it to me. I caught it, holding it up to the light. That was an alchemical powder, I’d bet rubies to piglets, but not one I recognized.
“Poison?” I asked.
“In a sense,” Kairos said. “If inclined to poetry, I might call it the stillness of death.”
Oh. Oh. Oh shit. Stillness, water? This was the same horror Akua had used to turn into wights the entire population of Liesse. One of the Warlock’s old doomsday tricks, named Still Water. Mere alchemy, almost impossible to detect as it accumulated in bodies. Until it was triggered by sorcery and slew all it’d contaminated before raising them as undead. If the water barrels on the Nicaean fleet had been tainted, there was no telling how much of it Malicia had instantly turned to her service with a mere snap of the fingers. She can’t have done that before they even struck at Ashur, I thought. No one’s that far-sighted, not even the Empress. Yet if the barrels had been tainted in the months since, that meant…
“That can’t have passed by you,” I said.
“It did not,” Kairos agreed.
“And you didn’t stop it?” I frowned.
“Why,” the Tyrant of Helike grinned, “that would rather defeat the purpose of helping her, wouldn’t it?”
My mind raced. While I was less than surprised Kairos would betray even the League he was currently leading to war, I saw little advantage for him in this. If Ashur was willing to fold and leave the Grand Alliance at Malicia’s behest, it might have done the same at the League’s. This did hurt Nicae, which was arguably still his strongest rival for power within the League, but there would have been less costly ways to achieve that. And in truth a great defeat might shake his own position even if it’d not been dealt to him, as the Hierarch’s violent indifference towards such matters meant Tyrant was effectively setting the policy of the League of Free Cities at the moment. This… didn’t fit, I thought. The Tyrant of Helike might have been a true partisan of Below, but however deeply it was buried there was always a method to his madness. The ripples from this would be a blow to the Grand Alliance but not a crippling one, and a victory for Dread Empress Malicia but hardly a substantial one. And it’d weaken the League going into this peace conference. Kairos might have used all this as a mere vessel to get his hands on the White Knight, but it was unlike him to so utterly spoil one game in favour of another.
“What do you want, Kairos?” I asked, honestly lost.
The odd-eyed boy leaned forward, trembling hand touching the bowls filled with stones he’d not touched this entire conversation.
“I’d like us to play a game, of course,” Kairos Theodosian smiled. “Why else set out the stones?”