“Inexorable is the end of the journey; choose wisely how you spend your steps.”
– Ashuran saying
“Look, I’m not saying half a hell won’t come howling out if you disappear instead of attending like a good Choir boy,” Queen Catherine said. “But this whole serene thing you’ve got going on? That’s the look on the face of someone about to have it slapped right off.”
Hanno was not certain what was more surreally amusing: that the most prominent villain of their age was expressing sincere worry for his well-being, in her own rough way, or that the First Prince of Procer was seemingly unable to decide what part of this she found the most appalling. The three of them were riding ahead of the rest of the column and at brisk a pace, though Lyonceau would not be in sight for some time.
“I have fought the Tyrant before, Your Majesty,” the White Knight replied. “I am not unaware of the danger he represents.”
“You fought Kairos when he was sowing the seeds of a hundred enmities,” the Black Queen flatly replied. “Now he’s reaping his harvest, Hanno. He’s going to burn every favour and story he’s got up his sleeves so he can snap Judgement over his knee.”
“Damned or not, he remains a single man,” Cordelia Hasenbach carefully said. “Surely you do not mean Kairos Theodosian could face a single angel alone, much less an entire Choir.”
“I’ve been in brawls with two Choirs, Your Highness,” Queen Catherine reminded the other woman. “It can be done, and without losing a finger if you’re quick and careful enough.”
From the look on the First Prince’s face, Hanno mused, she had finally happened upon the part she could find the most appalling. The White Knight was less offended, for though the touch of Contrition always served a purpose it was not often gentle in pursuing it. As for Endurance… Hanno cleared his throat.
“Fuck off, you bottom feeders. This one’s been claimed fair and square,” he quoted, drily amused.
Some of the last words the Stalwart Paladin had ever heard. That life had perhaps been the most useful to call on, when studying the Black Queen. The Lone Swordsman had been the rival of her youth, and her struggles there too far removed from the woman she’d become, and none of those who’d died at the Battle of the Camps had seen much of her aside from the terrifying foe that’d been the Sovereign of Moonless Nights. The Stalwart Paladin, though, had walked among the people of the Callowan city of Dormer and then spoken with the Black Queen for some time. It had been fascinating, hearing through him the offer she’d extended. Go home, Catherine Foundling had offered, looking so very exhausted. She’d offered peaceful means, and bared steel only when pushed.
It was not his place to judge, yet it had troubled Hanno that he could not easily decide what his answer would have been, had he truly stood in the other hero’s boots.
“Shit,” Queen Catherine said, cheeks darkening. “Went fishing for that, did you? In my defence, they tried to snatch the man after I’d already put him down hard. It was unsporting, is what I mean.”
“You cursed at angels,” Cordelia Hasenbach slowly grasped. “You called them bottom-feeders?”
“It wasn’t about the bird wing thing,” the Queen of Callow assured the other royalty. “I can’t stand puns. It was about the kill-snatching.”
“Perhaps,” the First Prince said, voice choked, “we might return to the matter at hand.”
“As I was saying, Your Majesty,” the White Knight calmly continued, “your worry is appreciated yet I speak not in arrogance. I understand what it is that the Tyrant of Helike seeks to achieve through this purported trial.”
“He’s going for Judgement,” the Black Queen agreed. “And any other day I’d say the Seraphim lose a feather before they eat him, but today? We get a curse on the way out, White Knight, and it sticks. Even when it has no right to.”
For once, the memories that set his mind astray were not another’s. Gods of my ancestors, grant me due, his mother has once snarled. And as the blood-soaked tile through which she had honoured Below for many years shattered, the heavy weight of a curse had filled the air. All it had taken for it to seize men by the throat was for a knife to kiss a throat, and Hanno of Arwad to become entirely an orphan. The White Knight knew a thing or two of curses spoken with one’s last breath.
“I speak not in ignorance either, Your Majesty,” he softly said. “I understand that Kairos Theodosian is perhaps the closest thing to a high priest of Below that draws breath on Calernia, and his passing will not be a gentle thing. Yet it is your own past, that drags your eye away from the truth of this.”
She considered him with those clever, serious eyes that ever belied the casual manner of speaking she wielded as club and scalpel both. Honestly examining herself for where she might have made a mistake, a misstep. A refreshing thing, this. The willingness to entertain she might have erred.
“You think it doesn’t matter what he comes at you with,” she slowly said. “All he’s accomplishing is giving the Seraphim a good, clear shot at him.”
Judgement had already been passed on Kairos Theodosian, on a floating tower in sight of the walls of Delos. That verdict had not waned or weakened for the passing of months, and still resounded like a whisper in the back of Hanno’s mind. The Tyrant of Helike had ran across half the continent hiding in the shadow of great hosts and great needs, yet now he was delivering himself to the Tribunal of his own free will. There was no escaping that judgement, once it had been passed.
“Even as Queen of Winter, you did not wield your full might,” Hanno said. “You understood, then and now, that strength without restraint in a villain is a call to the grave. Yet I am not a villain, Catherine Foundling.”
He met her gaze, serenity untroubled.
“I am the Sword of Judgement,” the White Knight said. “If Evil seeks to end me, I will break it. Should the Enemy seek to struggle against the Tribunal instead, then what heeds not justice will be put down with overwhelming might.”
“Using strength on Kairos Theodosian is like trying to strangle a stone,” the Black Queen warned.
“Yes,” the White Knight agreed. “And crow he might, that he will not lack for air. Yet it will not matter when the grip shatters rock.”
He watched her watching him, saw the eyebrows narrow and the thoughts adjust. She had understood, without him speaking a word of it, that there was more to his certainty than she knew. From he could almost see her passing through a list of possible allies, now as nimble in her thinking as William of Greensbury had found her to be on her feet. Her eyes almost flicked behind them, to look where the other guests were riding, and Hanno nodded in assent. Yes, she’d understood correctly. It would be not one but two Choirs the Tyrant of Helike would face, should he bare his fang against the Tribunal. The Black Queen clicked her tongue against the roof her mouth.
“I’ve given you warning,” she finally said. “I have nothing more to say on the matter.”
Her gaze moved to the First Prince, whose face had remained inscrutable for some time as she followed the conversation closely.
“Your Highness, I extend offer from Sve Noc to weave… containment over Lyonceau, in case the Tyrant’s last surprise is meant to spread.”
Cordelia Hasenbach smiled pleasantly.
“A kind offer,” the Warden of the West – though only the shadow of what that might have been, to his sorrow – replied. “Yet I wonder at the price of it.”
The Black Queen grinned.
“No cost,” she said. “Call it a gesture of goodwill between allies against Keter.”
The First Prince seemed even less pleased, which took Hanno some time to grasp. Ah, it had been horse-trading. Cordelia Hasenbach would have preferred this to be a transaction, bought and paid for. The Black Queen offered instead a favour, to be repaid in kind one day. It was a bargain that demanded little of Procer yet would benefit the drow in the currency they would need the most after the Tenth Crusade came to an end. The blue-eyed princess turned to him, and already he could hear the question on the tip of her tongue: how likely would it be that such protection would be needed? Yet she never spoke the words and looked faintly ashamed for a flickering moment.
“Procer will be grateful for the aid, First Under the Night,” the First Prince of Procer said.
Hanno’s esteem for the woman, which had already been set high by the laurels branded onto her palm, rose a notch. She’d preferred owing a favour than to gamble with lives in her charge, even on the finest of odds. The Black Queen nodded in acknowledgement, then flicked him a glance.
“Mind you, they’re not coming any closer even if things go south on your angels,” Catherine Foundling said. “I’m not risking their feathers on the Tyrant of Helike’s chosen grounds.”
“The grounds were our choice, Queen Catherine, not his,” the First Prince reminded her.
“That doesn’t mean they’re not his chosen grounds,” the Black Queen grimly replied.
Both she and the White Knight moved in unison when there was a tremble of sorcery ahead, though when the silhouettes revealed became clearer the tension went out. Antigone could hardly be taken for anyone else, riding Lykaia’s broad back as she was, and Roland’s eternal leather longcoat was almost as familiar a sight. The other two he recognized only by description. The tall woman in mail with a long green coat and a half-hidden face must be the Archer, a guess that the massive longbow on her back seemed to support. The blind man with dark skin and long trinket-woven braids must be the Hierophant, a warlock who when enthralled by the Dead King had very nearly killed every single living thing in Iserre. Hanno cocked his head quizzically at Antigone, who replied in the same Gigantes stance-speak.
Respect, dislike, danger. The dislike had implication of arrogance, not offence, which was interesting. So was the danger, for the corresponding tilt spoke not of ‘past danger’ or ‘potential danger’. Antigone’s opinion was that the Hierophant, even stripped of his sorcery as he currently was, might be able to kill either of them in a fight. That spoke to the respect, for the Gigantes prized not a single virtue should it be accompanied by weakness.
“You both seem untroubled by those approaching,” the First Prince of Procer mildly said.
Unlike them, her eyes could only discern details so far.
“Archer, the Rogue Sorcerer and Hierophant,” the Black Queen said. “And if I’m not mistaken?”
“The Witch of the Woods,” Hanno agreed. “I expect they will have word of Lyonceau for us.”
Simply because the Tyrant of Helike had kept his cards hidden until the last moment did not mean they would enter the trap blind. The White Knight had learned much from his own defeats, from studying the dooms and triumphs of his heroic predecessors. And this particular method, which he had once discussed with the Peregrine, often served: sending a companion out with only vague mandate when the enemy was afoot. It was creating an opportunity for providence to smile upon them, for as all other things providence must be helped along lest if fail. That Roland had been chosen as an instrument along with Antigone was no great surprise, and neither was the Archer’s presence. Like her storied teacher the Lady of the Lake, she was likely cast in Roles either heroic or villainous by circumstance.
Her allegiance to the Black Queen put a hand on the scales towards Below, it was true, but then Catherine Foundling had often sailed dark ships to pale shores – terrible shores, it was true, but pale nonetheless. The Hierophant’s presence was more surprising, and ill-omen. For providence to have offered a stirrup to his foot, his particular knowledge must have been needed. The four approached, and though the First Prince’s armed escort neared they were not so uncouth as to take defensive positions. Cordelia Hasenbach’s horse was shaken but not put aflight by the massive shape of Lykaia, which he noted approvingly. It was a well-trained beast.
“I don’t suppose you just happened onto Lyonceau by accident,” the Black Queen tried.
“Warded up to the Heavens,” the Archer said. “Literally, even!”
The Hierophant stirred.
“Inaccurate,” he said, voice mildly irritated. “For the third time-”
“Greetings, Your Majesty, Your Highness,” the Rogue Sorcerer said, bowing. “What my companions are attempting to convey is that the town is heavily warded with an eye as to the angelic.”
Accurate, Antigone silently told him. Secrets, Dead King.
“Are any of the wards harmful in nature?” the White Knight asked.
“No,” the Hierophant said. “Not in the slightest. They command and retain attention, and so in function have similarities with the initial part of a ritual Breach-”
“As in devil summoning,” the Black Queen flatly interrupted.
“The first segment of such a ritual, yes,” the Hierophant peevishly replied. “As I was saying, Catherine, if you had let me finish.”
“Surely that must be harmful in some manner,” the First Prince said, looking sickened.
“Not unless you want to argue that attracting angelic attention is harmful,” Queen Catherine drily noted. “Which I’m guessing might be less than popular a stance with some of your subjects.”
“Simply the act of warding makes such a meeting place suspect,” the blonde princess insisted.
“Salia’s warded,” the Archer said.
“What Lady Archer means, Your Highness, is that making such an argument given the nature of the wards might be considered by some a breaking of faith,” Roland delicately said.
Which was a peril that Hanno would not lightly risk, as it would expose all those that had broken faith with the Tyrant of Helike to the vengeance that would follow. In a stroke, the heads of all signatories Grand Alliance would be in the villain’s reach. There was no understanding of this situation that was acceptable, for even if the White Knight was certain to die in such a trial his life would weigh less on the scales than that of Catherine Foundling and Cordelia Hasenbach: without those two, the war on Keter was lost. The cause would be weakened by his own death, but hardly irreparably.
“We must proceed,” the White Knight said. “Though given the circumstances, I believe the presence of great mages among our number could not easily be made into a slight.”
“I don’t care if the Tyrant gets snippy about,” the Black Queen snorted, “Hierophant is coming. Archer, I need you in Salia.”
“You can’t be serious,” the Archer replied, tone hardening.
A swift exchange in Kharsum followed, neither of them apparently aware he’d used Recall to learn some of the tongue months ago. Queen Catherine was insisting that should they all die in Lyonceau then Vivienne Dartwick would need both the Archer and the Adjutant at her side to keeps things from collapsing, while the Archer argued not untruly that if the Black Queen died the talks were dead anyway. The discussion ended when the Archer informed her queen that she’d stick around ‘Zeze’ to watch his back and stay out of trouble, if that was what it took, and Queen Catherine angrily conceded. Neither of them paid any attention to the Hierophant’s protest he had no need of a bodyguard.
Antigone inclined her head in question, but he dismissed it. Best for all if she started with them, as far as Hanno was concerned, and Roland as well. He was not as powerful a spellcaster, but he was cunning and his knowledge broad in scope. And so they resumed the ride forward to Lyonceau, into the jaws of the beast waiting to gobble them up.
It was, for a hero, one of the most practical places to be.
It had made for a serviceable temple, if to admittedly asinine Gods and the occasional feckless Choir, but it made for a rather dignified courtroom.
Kairos Theodosian had seen to it, assigning his most trustworthy servants to the task. Sadly most of the gargoyles that could tell colours apart with their beady little stones eyes had been merrily massacred by Catherine when they’d had their little tiff at twilit Liesse, which had made for a charmingly eclectic selection of paints and cloths. Even as the latest of his esteemed guests passed the threshold of the wards encircling Lyonceau, the Tyrant of Helike leaned back against his throne and cast a critical eye on the stained glass before him, which was depicting the first elected First Prince being crowned by what appeared to be a flock of naked giggling cherubs. One of his trusted servants had painted over the face of Clothor Merovins a bright red beaked nose and touched up his hair with bright blue spikes, which one might venture to say was a fetchingly clashing addition, yet it was lacking a certain je ne sais quoi, as the Alamans said.
“Naked angels?” the Tyrant of Helike said. “’tis most obscene, my loyal minions. Possibly blasphemous as well, I’d have to inquire with a priest.”
Inquisitive chittering was his answer, his last gaggle of gargoyles gathering to hear his regal proclamations.
“You shall have to clothe them,” Kairos decided, touching his lip with his scepter. “In undergarments, naturally.”
More chatter, increasingly inquisitive.
“The colour will be of your choice, I would not lightly infringe upon your artistic integrity,” the king of Helike assured them. “Yet if I might venture a suggestion as to the appearance? Lacy.”
The chittering turned rather enthusiastic, matching his mood perfectly. Even as he ordered his porters to move him away, his heart already warmed in anticipation of the fresh abomination those incompetent little mongrels would create in trying to paint something as delicate as lace. The House of Light was coming along nicely, in his opinion, and all it’d taken was knocking off the roof. And large swaths of the walls, and rearranging most the insides. Also desecrating the consecrated grounds, as the delightful outrage from Above at his presence thundering in his ears sadly hadn’t been worth the constant migraines. Yet now the temple was a lovely piece of work, raised platforms with benches and seats surrounding what he liked to think of as an arena: the altar to Above turned into the defendant’s stand, and the splendidly shoddy table and chair the Hierarch of the Free Cities had spent several days making with his own hands, as Anaxares despised the notion of using tyrannical Proceran tables and chairs instead.
Gods Below, Kairos had not regretted having the man elected even once.
The sole standing walls that remained were those encasing the tall panels of stained glass, casting colours lights on the ground that mixed with that which the afternoon sun carelessly shone through the gaping swaths. The Hierarch of the Free Cities was already seated on his rickety three-legged stool chair, methodically scraping any ink off the parchment that’d been used to send messages to him, avoiding the need of in fact using any such scroll not given unto him by the People – which was perhaps for the best, as to Kairos’ understanding of Bellerophan law he would then have to report anyone having gifted him such parchment to the kanenas for having paid tribute to a Foreign Despot, namely the Hierarch himself. The laws of the Republic were as a splendid maze made entirely of trapdoors, to the Tyrant, most of which led to a pit of spikes but some instead to a mob of angry crocodiles. That there would be a dead body at the end of the journey was perhaps the only part of it not in doubt. Truly, the people of the Free Cities could all learn a lesson or two from the Republic.
They were significantly better than anyone else at spontaneous lapidation, for example.
“It’s all the practice, I think,” Kairos told his trusted attendants.
“It is fascinating,” the Dead King said. “Even now, I cannot tell if you are mad or feigning.”
The Tyrant’s good eye found the skeleton-thing that claimed kingship of death and Keter, and to his continued distaste found nothing at all. Oh, the body was there. A shell, pretty enough if a little too pretentious for his tastes, but he couldn’t see in it. Even if he leaned into the aspect, in that way that allowed him to glimpse past that first burning wish at the heart of everyone into that myriad of lesser ones, all that there was to be found in the Dead King was a darkness. If he saw the first body, the true one, Kairos believed his sight would not fail him so. It had not failed him with the Wandering Bard, after all. Yet Trismegistus was ever a cautious one, a creature of brokers and emissaries and intermediaries. All of them the same old horror, but as the name went it was intent on remaining hidden. How unsporting of it, really. How was he to break what the Dead King wanted most in the world, if he knew not what it was?
“How boring life would be, if there were only ever two choices to be had,” Kairos lightly said. “Our guests have come, dear friend.”
“Yes,” the Dead King said. “I can feel the Hierophant. Soon, now.”
“It is a shame the Empress could not attend,” the Tyrant sighed.
The old thing laughed, for the both knew Kairos would have betrayed her as eagerly as he intended to betray Ol’ Bones himself. Sadly, Malicia had decided that after wringing him dry of every use she had of him and cutting the grass under his feet among his beloved allies she no longer had a need to humour him. The Dead King himself was here because the old thing was under the impression the only one that could make him bleed was the Intercessor, and that these games in Salia were a passable amusement until he retired to his domain. What splendid arrogance, this, what sumptuous hubris! Truly, was the King of Death not among the greatest of their ilk?
“I shall have refreshments brought to you,” Kairos smiled, for he was an impeccable host.
It should be interesting to see if the Dead King would in fact drink from a cup of human blood, even though he had no throat or stomach or any real need to. Still, with the guests so soon to arrive the Tyrant of Helike had his porters bring him to the highest point in the old temple, atop the platform in the back. A more discreet snap of the wrist had another cup of Valiant Passing brought to his hand, and he drank the brew fully though the taste was horrid. It was a necessity, sadly. Without it the fits came every half hour and he was blind in one eye, though the old recipe was only a temporary reprieve. Soon, Named or not there would be enough of the poison in his bones that no purging trick would see him through it unharmed. Ah, but the harm had been done long before the drink and there’d never been any purging of that. Tossing away the cup in a corner, Kairos allowed his loyal attendants to drape him in the formal regalia of the kings and queens of Helike: the cloths of purple and gold, the heavy bejewelled crown that Theodosius has adorned with the jewels of defeated royalty, the pearl-incrusted slippers.
He was ready before the first of his guests arrived, passing through the open and unhinged gates of the former temple. Catherine, bold as ever strolled in first. The Queen of Callow still bore one of the strongest wishes he had ever seen, pulsing with her heartbeat: peace, peace, peace. It was like watching a flower bloom anew with every beat. Even now it was all he could do not to laugh until his throat bled, for what an exquisite jest it was that one of Below’s finest servants in the long history of Calernia was at heart one of Above’s! At her side that boring little thing the White Knight tread, all desires his own faded while that horrid thing intertwined with the Seraphim – I wish to be just – tainted everything. Most of the others that followed behind were tedious to behold, Cordelia’s implacable duty and ugh, the Blood was all honour and glory as always and oh, wasn’t that Itima Ifriqui craving revenge? Ah, what a proper villain that one would have made with a little prodding.
Neither Rozala Malanza nor Vivienne Dartwick were attending, which was amusingly cautious of Catherine and Cordelia, though it seemed the Witch of the Wilds and the Hierophant had been dragged along. Reading the latter was always amusing for the splitting headache it gave him, the Hierophant’s path to apotheosis being so deeply steeped in High Arcana that trying to understand the concept was like driving nails through his own forehead. The Witch was intriguing, for a hero, her wish for completion too complex and driven in notions he did not understand to properly grasp, but she was still a passing fancy compared to the Archer and that delightfully strange and nuanced horizon. The wonder of discovery, of the fresh and new, of doing things no one had done before. It was not all-consuming like Catherine’s craving for a peace that would justify all the horrors or the White Knight’s childish need to have his hand felt, but it was deeper in some ways.
It was not always the wish that commanded her, but it was so deeply ingrained abandoning it would kill her sure as dawn.
The Tyrant of Helike gestured for his porters to take flight, though until more of the flock joined in to even the sides his throne was slightly askew in the air and Theodosius’ crown, always too large for his brow, went askew with it. His rise caught the eye of everyone in the room, even the Hierarch.
“Greetings, friends,” Kairos Theodosian grinned, “and welcome. Now that all are in attendance, it seems we can at last begin the trial.”
At last, he yearningly thought. At long last.