“To have faith is to believe there is a plan greater than your own. And so the dreadful crowned are faithless one and all, for what plans could ever be greater than our own?”
– Dread Emperor Reprobate the First
“As I recall, the game requires three people,” I said. “I’ve only had half a cup, Kairos, it’s too early to start seeing double.”
Which was as pointed a cue as he could hope for before unveiling whatever nasty surprise he’d been keeping up his sleeve. The wretched little bastard grinned at me appreciatively, recognizing the extended hand for what it was. It was never pleasant to be forced to look in the eye the truth that I understood Kairos better than I did more people – and that it came naturally, without effort.
“I believe you’re familiar with the man,” the Tyrant of Helike mused. “He goes by Beiakim.”
In Ashkaran, that’d be Be-Iakim, which translated to ‘Child of Iakim’. The name was not unknown to me, for though it had been millennia late and in another realm I had attended King Iakim’s burial. It’d been in that echo that I had first heard the word Intercessor spoken by the lips of the man that would become the Dead King: Prince Neshamah, at one time the most obscure of King Iakim’s many children. That was on the nose, even by villain standards, but I couldn’t say as much without acknowledging Masego and I had stolen knowledge of the long-dead tongue from Arcadian echoes. Along with others things. Hierophant had plundered the thoughts of still-mortal Neshamah but I’d seen/
/. Still, this was a rather clear indication of our coming guest’s identity. Chittering gargoyles scattered as someone left the back of the shop to join us, some of them hurrying to bring forward a skull-adorned chair and place it to the side between myself and the Tyrant. The Dead King’s puppet, for I much doubted this to be the true body of the King of Death, made no pretence of still living. Though dressed in long cloths of purple and silver – the colours of Keter’s banner, as I recalled – it was a skeleton that I was looking upon. The bones were as polished ivory, much of them adorned with purple chalcedony and silver, and there was something lurking in the shadows of the empty eye sockets that was dreadfully vital.
“Catherine,” the King of Death greeted me. “How pleasant to see you again.”
“He is rarely so sweet to me, you know,” Kairos complained. “Favoritism is a sin, Catherine.”
“Might have something to do with all those betrayals you did,” I noted.
I then cleared my throat, gaze turning to the Dead King. Wariness quickened my pulse, but I could not show weakness in this den of tigers. They would not strike at me with violence, not here and now. It would have been more reassuring if those two were not some of the finest masters of twisted words living and dead. The dead thing claimed the skull chair, leaving me to wonder if Kairos had ordered it made for this very occasion or if he’d campaigned across a third of Procer with a spare skull thorne stashed somewhere in Helike’s baggage train.
“Beiakim, is it?” I said. “That’s new. Surprised you didn’t stick with the classics and go with Trismegistus.”
“If I had, I would have been robbed of the pleasure of your pretended ignorance,” Neshamah replied in Ashkaran.
“I don’t speak that, you ought to know it by now,” I replied without missing a beat.
“Dandelion mouse fishing,” the Tyrant proudly added in Ashkaran.
More or less, anyway. He was accenting the wrong parts of the words and there were some syllables he was pronouncing in what I figured to be the tradertongue way which just… didn’t work with Ashkaran. There was almost no commonality between the languages. He might have meant moue instead of mouse, now that I thought about it.
“Well said, Kairos,” I agreed.
“I suppose that, bereft of anyone able to share my humour, Trismegistus will have to do,” the Dead King said.
“King Trismegistus,” the Tyrant mused. “It has a ring to it. Might I offer you refreshments, Your Highness?”
I eyed the clothed skeleton skeptically. It had no, well, throat. I assumed the fact that he could speak at all was the result of sorcery, maybe some sort of runic trick. Likely I was looking at a small sliver of the Dead King invested in a construct, not unlike the crows that Sve Noc has sent south with me – and which, physically speaking, had about as much business talking as a skeleton. I had to say I admired Kairos a little for the amount of sheer pointless pettiness it took to offer the Dead King drinks he couldn’t drink. Say what you would about the Tyrant, but there was absolutely no one to which he would no offer at least one inconsequent slight.
“That will not be necessary, Tyrant,” the Dead King said.
I willfully ignored the chittered disappointment of a few gargoyles, unwilling to entertain exactly what it was that Kairos Theodosian might have considered fitting refreshments for the Hidden Horror.
“Come to attend the peace conference, I take it?” I said.
“As I told you I would,” Neshamah said. “I find I’ve lost taste for war, even in the defence of my ally.”
Keter had made bargain with only the Tower – officially, anyway, I thought as I glanced at Kairos – which meant it was Dread Empress Malicia he was speaking of. Might have been more apt to call her a shield or an excuse than an ally, in my opinion, but it was true he’d not actually struck before being invited out of his lair by the Empress. I was not unaware that killing Malicia might actually forced him back into the Serenity, though actually achieving that would be difficult considering Ater would be murder to siege and against all odds the Empress still had a firm grip on most the Wasteland. Pulling away the kind of forces that would be required to take Praes from the Proceran fronts would almost certainly collapse them, which made the plan rather unattractive. It might still come to that, if everything went to shit, but it was not the first or finest arrow in anyone’s quiver.
“It’s more than a few corpses too late to be claiming a fondness for peace,” I said.
“Mayhaps,” the Dead King said, “it is a few corpses too early instead. It matters not: I am a patient man.”
“How I love a pleasant evening with friends,” the Tyrant enthused. “Yet I believe there was talk of indulging a foible of mine.”
“Tower-raising, is it?” the Dead King said.
“Indeed,” Kairos smiled. “’tis an interesting game, though I believe it would benefit from a greater number of competitors.”
“Is there a single thing you don’t believe that about?” I drily asked.
That actually surprised a laugh out of him, and it ripped out of his throat in too ungainly a manner – spit touched his lips, his side convulsed – to be entirely feigned. Though I wasn’t all the inclined to play and the Dead King seemed largely indifferent, Kairos still adroitly pressed for us to indulge him. The rules were not all that complex, and I’d had vague memories of them. Each of the three of us would begin with a hidden amount of stones: either six, eight or ten. To win one of us must gather twenty stones, and those could be obtained both by taking from opponents as well as from the ‘kingdom’, a pile of fifteen stones all could see and take from. Acquiring stones had a tad more nuance to it, for taking from an opponent required the assent of the third while taking from the kingdom could be done without. One could destroy one’s own stones, one at a time, also without assent. The game ended in common defeat should twenty full circles pass without anyone having raised their tower, as the kingdom being plundered ‘rebelled’. The last detail was the ‘pledges’, bargain struck between opponents.
Anything could be agreed on, with the only forced detail being that a number of stones had to be ‘pledged’ as collateral by both sides. Should one of them then break the pledge, the stones would be obtained by the wounded party. The Tyrant covered the bowls with embroidered cloths after having a gargoyle move around the stones, and only then had them set on the table before us. I checked under mine, raising an eyebrow. Fortune had been a little too much on my side, these days: I began with six stones.
“As the most ancient king among us, I would invite honoured Trismegistus to begin,” Kairos said.
The Dead King’s eyeless gaze turned to me and I shrugged.
“If you’re robbing him, I’ll assent,” I said.
The Tyrant of Helike pouted but handed over his stone, which the Hidden Horror deftly took and slid into the cloth-covered bowl before him.
“So Malicia twists the Thalassocracy’s arm so it’ll leave the Grand Alliance,” I lightly said. “And now the two of you are here, thick as thieves. Now, if I were a suspicious sort, I’d suspect some sort of coalition was being assembled.”
A counterweight to the Grand Alliance, in a way. The Dread Empire, the Kingdom of the Dead and the League of Free Cities bound by treaty. With that in mind, forcing Ashur on the fence made a great deal more sense. Malicia had been trying to make an alliance there for decades without successes, but the Thalassocracy lived and died on trade: when its ports were closed by blockade, it quite literally starved. It could not petition to re-enter the Grand Alliance the moment the wight fleet sailed away if doing so cost it closed ports across the entire League, the same of Praes and the displeasure of the Dead King. Trade with the League of Free Cities was Ashur’s lifeblood, much more so than trade with Levant and Procer. Oh, I doubted the Thalassocracy would turn on the Alliance even then. But it would suddenly have a great interest in remaining neutral, one that’d be highly encouraged by how absurdly lucrative it would be for Ashuran trade to become the middleman between the two great alliances. This had Malicia’s mark all over it, precise violence followed by the subtle chains of coin and politics.
Of course, there was one little detail in the way: such an alliance could not take place without the assent of the Hierarch of the League, and I suspected Anaxares of Bellerophon would rather eat his own sandals that bargain with the likes of Malicia or the Dead King. Not for the Evil involved, but rather the crowns. Sisters bless that highly inconvenient madman. I stole a stone from Kairos as well, with the Dead King’s amused assent.
“Catherine,” the Tyrant said, “if you would-”
“No,” I said.
The Dead King refused as well when Kairos’s gaze moved to him. The Tyrant took from the kingdom, still pouting.
“There would be advantages to endorsing peace with such a coalition,” the Dead King said. “I’d think such a gesture would sway all its members into signing your Accords.”
And there was the bribe they wanted to throw my way. Even if Praes and the League came out as allied with Keter – which I still figured at least somewhat unlikely – the Grand Alliance might still try its luck. The League’s armies were marching south and depending on Procer to ward off hunger, Praes dealing with the loss of two major cities, one of them lost to goblin rebellion that’d birthed the Confederacy of the Grey Eyries and now threatened the Wasteland’s south. It’d be damned risky to push through with war in such a situation, but it was a gamble that might be made. It couldn’t be made without me, though. I brought to the table the Firstborn as well as the Army of Callow and the Legions-in-Exile, and if war came out the eastern front would be my kingdom. In effect, if I refused to press through with war then the Grand Alliance had little choice but to accept peace. My pulse quickened with excitement. Not because the offer was one that pleased me, for it did not, but because of what it implied.
The drow were marching on the Kingdom of the Dead with the intent of seizing it as their home on the surface. If the Dead King had known as much, he would have realized that his offer was not so tempting after all – it involved selling down the river my own patron goddesses and the nation that was arguably my steadiest ally, while they were all carrying out a plan I’d been the one to suggest in the first place. No, if the Dead King knew then this was a botched offer. Which meant he’d not yet found the Firstborn marching towards him, and they might yet launch their assault from the north with the benefit of surprise.
“A meaningless gesture,” I hedged. “You could forge the kind of doomsday artefacts forbidden by them in the Serenity by the dozens and without access we’d have no way of knowing.”
Silently, I assented to the Hidden Horror once more stealing a stone from Kairos then in quick succession did the same.
“Inspection might be considered, should the inspectors not bear Names,” the Dead King said.
“No,” I said without turning.
“No,” the Dead King said, before Kairos could even ask.
The Tyrant took from the kingdom again.
“Gods,” I muttered. “She really scares you, doesn’t she?”
“You believe it is fear of the Intercessor that commands my interest in your Accords,” the King of Death stated. “In a sense, you are not incorrect.”
My brow rose. That was quite the admission, coming form the Hidden Horror himself.
“So long as the Liesse Accords stand, I have no need to war against Creation,” the Dead King calmly said. “I lose nothing in observing such a peace, even on the terms of another.”
An ivory finger pointed at Kairos questioningly and I absent-mindedly agreed. The Tyrant complained about the unfairness of being so brutally and repeatedly plundered, but neither of us leant much of an ear to it.
“No need,” I repeated.
“What is it that you believe I gain from such ventures, Black Queen?” the Hidden Horror asked. “Wealth, bodies, fame?”
We both knew he had need of none. His wealth was beyond measure, he had a Hells’ worth of human farms to harvest and the Dead King was the most storied being on Calernia bar none.
“You keep your story alive,” I said. “And shape it in the cultures of those who live in your shadow. It’s not about invasion, you know the risks in that. You were pruning Calernia so nothing that could strangle you would ever grow.”
That was the conclusion I’d come to, after my latest chat with the Intercessor. The Wandering Bard might nakedly have tried to manipulate me, but she’d not necessarily been lying about everything. There was no denying it was unlikely to be a coincidence that the Principate had never had a Named ruler. Someone must have had a hand in that and given that the Intercessor worked best through Named she did not strike me as the obvious culprit there. The routine of tower-raising continued, Trismegistus assenting to another theft of Kairos and the both of us refusing the Tyrant’s attempts to break out of encirclement.
“You miss the forest for the trees, Black Queen,” the Dead King said. “Why is it that all that grows in this garden of Creation would so seek to destroy me?”
“You’re saying you were warring on the Intercessor, not on Calernia,” I said.
“I was denying tool to my opponent,” the Hidden Horror said. “You would do this for me with your Accords. What need have I then of pursuing the matter further?”
I paused. Ghastly as what he was implying was it sounded terribly, well, believable. Neshamah as a mortal prince had already recognized the dangers in bearing a Name, for all the power they brought, and so carefully arranged his apotheosis through the work of years if not decades. He would not have forgotten those early lessons after touching the godhead, him least of all: undead did not change, at least no in the way that the living did. His only invasions had been under the shield of alliance or invitation, and it could not be denied that he’d been cautious about intervening on Creation. He’d been utterly monstrous when he did, but then it wasn’t his soul I was putting on trial. That ship had long ago sunk at the bottom of a deep, black sea. It was the sense in what he said and horrified as I was to admit it rather fit. If he’d been using scorched earth tactics against the Intercessor instead of pursuing conquest of any sort, some pieces of the puzzle began to fit together. Cordelia Hasenbach had nearly gained a Name, hadn’t she? Which meant the Principate had been growing into a nation where the ruler might be Named, which the Dead King would see as a direct threat.
Which explained him taking Malicia’s offer over mine, among other things. He wasn’t really interested in taking lands or helping the Tower: he wanted to thoroughly dismantle everything about the current Principate that might grow into a danger to him, and there was no world in which I would have allowed him that loose of a leash. The Dread Empress, though? So long as Praes and its breadbasket stood, she hardly cared about what happened to the rest of the continent. I’d been invited to Keter to bag two birds with a stone: the Dead King could have a look at the latest fool to touch the outmost edges of apotheosis and simultaneously use my presence as a way to finally secure Malicia’s agreement after months of negotiations. Now, though, large parts of Calernia had come together in a coalition, which as a story was poison to him. War, even if he had the advantage in strictly military affairs, carried other risks if pursued.
On the other hand, signing the Liesse Accords meant that so long as he did not provoke the living realms he wouldn’t be up to his neck in crusades anymore. What was curtailing a few of his worst habits in the face of that? Shit. It fit together well enough I couldn’t be sure if this was true or an exquisite lie – the only kind the likes of the Dead King would deign to employ. The Firstborn might be able to find a home among the tall grasses of the Chain of Hunger, I thought. It’d certainly give the Mighty something to do other thank killing each other. Another circle passed according to our habit, Kairos’ stone slowly dwindling at our hands. No, I decided, that entire approach was mistaken. The Intercessor being an enemy did not mean her opponent was an ally, or indeed ceased being an opponent.
Leaving the Dead King to rule his realm and garden horrors in the Serenity was not the same thing as admitting that Stygia’s slavery was not mine to curtail, or that Praesi blood magic would not end because I found the practice disgusting. On the other hand, was it really my place to make a decision that would see at least dozens of thousand die? No, even though I probably had the influence to force the outcome either way. It was something that Cordelia Hasenbach needed to be brought in on, and likely the Blood as well. Another circle passed, the Tyrant complaining at how dully uninspired our playing was. My eleven stones could not be in the lead, no matter who it was that’d begun at ten stones, but soon enough the rising threat would see the game beginning to have real conflict.
“This isn’t a decision I can make in haste,” I said, biting my lip.
It was a lie, I thought. Unless the rest of the Grand Alliance flinched, the decision was already made. And I remained skeptical that the League would fall on the side of this scheme, no matter what the Tyrant wanted. So long as the Hierarch lived it was unlikely and should be he slain I rather doubted Kairos Theodosian would be elected to the office instead, or anyone for that matter. Which would mean the end of unity between the city-states, every ruler able to bargain for their own people again. Malicia might have full coffers and the influence to sway some, but she wouldn’t even get most the cities on her side. It’d turn into a quagmire that would effectively take the League out of the war, which was more than acceptable. That would leave Praes and Keter, and a fight that could be won.
“There is yet time,” the Dead King said. “Consult your pawns if you must.”
Another way around the table, leaving me at twelves stones – and Trismegistus at either fourteen or sixteen. One more, then, I’d assume he’d begun at ten.
“Lovely Catherine,” Kairos tried.
“Flattering,” I said, but shook my head.
The circle passed, and I now had thirteen stones in my bowl.
“Truce for seven turns,” I offered the Tyrant. “Neither theft nor assent against either of us. I’ll pledge six stones over it.”
“Alas, I only have one stone,” Kairos smiled.
I frowned, counting in my head, and that should mean he’d begun at eight stones. The Dead King was only three away from winning, then.
“What happens if you can’t pay the full pledge?” I asked.
“One pays as much as one can,” the Tyrant said.
“Offers stands, then,” I said.
I glanced at the Dead King, whose gaze conveyed amusement and little else.
“Denied,” Kairos grinned.
My brow rose. Interesting strategy. The moves continued in quick succession. I allowed Kairos to be robbed once more by the Dead King to turn up the pressure then myself took from the kingdom, as did the Tyrant. I reiterated essentially the same offer for fewer turns and a lesser pledge but was once more turned away. The Dead King took from the kingdom, bringing him to nineteen and I gazed at the Tyrant. Unless he wanted to throw the game, if I took from the kingdom he’d have to ask from my assent and take from the Dead King. It’d be better for me to take from the kingdom, there were only four stones left in it and they were the only way to gain stones without someone’s assent. So I smiled back at Kairos, and from the kingdom’s bounty rose up to fifteen stones in my own bowl.
“A pointless exercise,” the Dead King suddenly said. “It is not a game that can be won save through the idiocy of another.”
Hollow sockets gazed at Kairos.
“Should you require it for the settling of my boon I will continue until the end, but this can only lead to a common loss,” the Hidden Horror said.
He wasn’t wrong, I thought. Cannibalizing the rest of the kingdom with Trismegistus would bring me up to sixteen while he stayed stuck at eighteen, but after that Kairos would have no real incentive to do anything but assent to the Dead King and I robbing each other while he profited from the side. Our possessions would then slowly equalize until we all lost.
“I got all I bargained for, Trismegistus King,” the Tyrant of Helike grinned. “The debt is settled in full.”
“Then a pleasant evening to you both,” the King of Death said, rising to his feet.
He did not bow, for haunted bones or not he was the Dead King, and left without further deigning to speak.
“Tell me a game of tower-raising isn’t what you asked for in exchange for bringing him to Salia,” I slowly said.
“That would be a lie,” the Tyrant piously said. “Although I’ll confess, this affair was not meant for my own benefit.”
My eyes narrowed. Kairos Theodosian smiling took the last stone in his bowl and rolled it against his own palm, before tossing it behind him.
“You would have destroyed your last stone,” I said.
“I have lived on no terms but my own,” the Tyrant of Helike tranquilly replied. “And when the day comes, as it does for us all, it is on my terms I will perish. That is my nature, Catherine Foundling. That is the truth of me.”
And with Hakram’s game, he’d also tried to show me the nature of the Hidden Horror. Who’d not considered for a moment, I thought, that any of us could take any action in this save that which benefited us the most.
“He wouldn’t keep to the Accords,” I quietly said. “That’s what you were trying to tell me. It’s not in his nature to suffer his will to be leashed.”
“Neither of them would tolerate your little orderly world, I don’t think,” the Tyrant mused. “And who could blame them? It’s a dreadfully dull one you have painted. Yet for all your occasional snivelling self-righteousness, you’ve not been boring. And you’ve indulged me, so I shall return that favour with a boon of my own.”
The odd-eyed boy leaned forward.
“Here is the first secret: angels cannot be seen by the Augur, save if they allow it,” he said. “Neither can the Intercessor, the Dead King and yourself.”
“Here is the second secret: one who has made treaties with the Queen of Callow will soon break them.”
He grinned, red eye shining malevolently.
“Here is the third secret, and the last I offer this night: the Twilight Paths can lead to places not of Creation.”
Kairos Theodosian dropped back into his cushioned seat, a grin like a knife still stretching his lips.
“Sweet dreams, Catherine Foundling.”