“Reputation is as rope: it can be either a lifeline or a noose.”
– Eudokia the Oft-Abducted, Basilea of Nicae
Asking Archer why the Hells she’d just killed that soldier that would have implied in front of all those people I had at best partial control over her actions. Which, while true, wasn’t something I wanted to remind the League of right now. So instead of looking surprised or angry I allowed my face to slip into a cool mask, flicking a seemingly disinterested glance at the dying man. Indrani, eyes cold, left the blade in his neck and plucked at the hand still holding the parchments: a long, thin needle was brought into the moonlight by careful fingers.
“See,” Exarch Prodocius frothed, “her thugs murder our attendants without-”
The Nicaean soldier that’d been dragging him back slugged him in the belly. He wheezed out in pain, looking like he was about to vomit.
“Poisoned,” Archer idly said, sniffing at the needle’s tip.
She casually ripped her longknife clean of the soldier’s neck, snuffing out his life with the casual flick of the wrist.
“Merciful Gods,” Basileus Leo Trakas croaked. “Queen Catherine, I swear on the Heavens that I had nothing to do with this. I would never-”
I looked at the young man in fair pristine armour, his hair perfectly coiffed and his eyebrows impeccably plucked. What I saw beneath the façade was fear. The ugly kind that clawed desperately at your insides trying to get out. It’d been there before we ever began speaking, I thought, perhaps even before he’d set out with this procession. But where it had been mastered before, now it had slipped the leash. No, that one did not have the stomach to try to kill me.
“A personal guard of the Basileus of Nicae just attempted to murder the Queen of Callow,” Akua calmly replied. “Your guilt can be debated, Leo Trakas, but your responsibility is beyond doubt.”
Would the needle have pricked me, if Archer hadn’t intervened? Possibly. I wasn’t sure it would have killed me, though. I was hardly immune to poison, but Akua ought to have been able to keep me alive long enough for Sve Noc to come to my side and purge the blight. Was this Malicia’s doing? It was a sloppy attempt by Wasteland standards, though I’d been cavalier enough it’d nearly succeeded anyway. If there was someone who’d notice I had a habit of going ahead to negotiate with others with only slight escort, though it would be the Empress. If it’d been Masego and Vivienne with me instead, would the needle have broken my skin?
It sent a shiver up my spine I could not be certain as to the answer.
“No doubt this was the work of one of your many enemies,” Exarch Honorion dismissed, cutting through my musings. “Pay reparations, Trakas, and let us return to the matter at hand.”
The smug look on the man’s face had me itching for a blade in my hand. Someone had just tried to kill me and he thought throwing a few coins at me like I was a beggar with a bowl would end the matter? My fingers clenched. If he could not curb his tongue, perhaps a curse that silenced it would remind him of – no, no I could not. I breathed out, tamping down on the heat in my blood. I was being provoked and it was not an accident. Prodocius might be terrified, but this one was not. Did he know something the other Exarch-claimant did not, as the likely favourite of Malicia among the pair? Black had been scathing in his opinion of the man’s intellect, it might just be foolishness and arrogance.
“Secretary Nestor,” I said, tone calm. “The weapon that was used, does the Secretariat have record of precedents for its use?”
The white-haired man, who’d been looking at the work of one of his scribes over the young woman’s shoulder, turned his gaze to me and dipped it before turning to Indrani.
“Lady Archer,” the askretis said, “has the tip of the needle been dipped in a substance that is green and viscous, yet dry as leather?”
“That’s about right,” Archer frowned, then sniffed again. “Smells like rotten meat, too, but with something flowery mixed in.”
Her senses had rivalled some of mine even when I’d been Sovereign of Moonless Nights, nowadays even with Night lending me the occasional edge it wasn’t even a contest.
“Wyvern venom made into a paste with periwinkle blossoms,” Nestor Ikaroi said. “Known as the ‘Taste of Redress’, brought to our records by the Magisterium’s profligate use of it during the latter years of the Stygian Spring.”
“A wild assertion, this, and without proof,” Magister Zoe said. “It is known, however that, a substance like the one you describe can be readily obtained through Mercantis. It would have no current ties to Stygia even should it truly have roots there.”
“The Secretariat’s records are without fault,” Secretary Nestor coldly retorted. “And the use of the Taste and needle is the signature of the Manifold Laments. Killers for hire alleged to be based in the League.”
“My own grandfather was slain by the Laments, Queen Catherine,” Basileus Leo told me. “I would never bargain with them.”
“You spineless cowards,” Exarch Prodocius snarled. “How can you even know this wasn’t her doing from the start? How eager you all are to lick Callowan boots.”
“Catherine,” Akua murmured, low enough only Archer and I might hear. “This is a noose. I know not how or why, but this is a noose. A situation like this does not fall into place by happenstance.”
Yeah, I was starting to agree. Something was wrong here. Leo Trakas still didn’t know about his fleets being broken and stolen, yet he was strangely desperate to get Penthes on his side. I understood he needed allies, but why would he need them badly enough to risk provoking me? He could hardly afford any more enemies, much less one that was a member of the Grand Alliance. And the two Exarch-claimants had to know they were playing with fire by coming after me this hard. Especially in the wake of an attempt on my life, when it’d be damnably easy to accuse them of having a hand in it. I was missing something.
“Mind your tongue, Prodocius,” Magister Zoe Ixioni warned. “It is the mark of a weak stomach, to grow drunk from the scant power you wield.”
The Helikean generals, still mounted, watched all this unfold in stony silence. Unconcerned or indifferent, not that it made much of a difference. I could see, stepping out of myself for a moment, how this was going to unfold. The young Basileus had too many enemies, and just given me slight, so though it was plain to all that Penthes was a stone around his neck he’d have no choice but to try to salvage the Exarchs. If he lost a metaphorical finger bringing them out of this untouched, they’d owe him badly enough they should be halfway-reliable allies. Especially if they were without other allies of their own and antagonizing most everyone else in the League. Bellerophon was a beast most prone to devour itself, and likely to fall into that old habit in the wake of this mess. Atalante had quite literally walked away from this coalition and Delos was positioning itself as aloof. Helike was, well, it was hard to tell what Helike was at the moment.
Exarch Honorion had earlier accused General Basilia of being an usurper of some sort, but then he was hardly the most trustworthy of sources. On the other hand, if Kairos Theodosian had truly massacred most his kin and there was no true claimant left to the throne of Helike it would not be surprising that whoever consolidated control over the army became the ruling authority of the city-state. Theodosius had risen to kingship in such a manner himself, and if I recalled correctly General Basilia was highborn. Either way, for now it looked like she was the one speaking for Helike and she seemed utterly disinclined to step in and stabilize the situation. If Basileus Leo was trying to emerge as the saviour and leading light of the League in the face of chaos, then Helike would be at best uninvolved and at worst likely to spike any of his efforts simply to ensure Nicae didn’t emerge as the preeminent power among the League. Stygia, I thought. I’d not accounted for Stygia.
Magister Zoe was here for the Magisterium. Given that yesterday she’d made assurances to Hakram that even if Stygia made treaties of assistance with the Tower it had no intention of ever lending military support, I’d bet they were planning to use Malicia’s ‘protection’ as a deterrent against the rest of the League while offering only token compensation for it. For that protection to be worth anything, though, they’ll have to make it public, I thought, then hesitated. Had they already? Bellerophon and Atalante holing up, Helike looming and Nicae’s old Stygian foes promised assistance by the Tower. Leo Trakas was seeing the League fall apart around him after his fleets had ravaged Ashur, and realizing that in the wake of the glories promised by the Tyrant he’d been left out in the cold. Penthes alone was offering a hand, and though there were fools they were fools with coin, a largely intact army. The kind of ally that would give an adventurous Stygia or Helike pause. I stepped out of myself and looked at the world the way Leo Trakas would.
Retribution was coming, that could not be denied. Ashur would neither forget nor forgive, had deep ties to the Grand Alliance even after withdrawing from it, and the ancient shield that was the League of the Free Cities was falling apart. The League’s treaties to resist outsiders together must be shored up and the foundations of the arrangement made firm again after the debacles abroad – all under the leadership of Nicae, preferably, since no one else seemed willing to take up the mantle. If this could not be done, though? Then Basileus Leo was in desperate need of allies that would keep the wolves away from his door while he figured out a way to avoid losing his throne to a Strategos and keep retaliation from laying waste to Nicae when the balance swung back the other way. Either way, to him, Penthes was the key. And Penthes was owned by Malicia, who had carefully been setting her schemes in place even as I fought my way through Iserre. Now she was bringing them to bear one by one. So how do you want to use them to hurt me, Malicia?
“Though Exarch Honorion misspoke, he is yet a leader of his people,” Leo Trakas intervened. “Threats help none of us, Magister Ixioni.”
“The Magisterium seeks no help from Nicae,” Magister Zoe disdainfully said.
“Already found yourself a backer, have you?” Archer said.
Indrani was, with her usual nonchalance, putting her foot in a dispute that might have been best left to the League itself. Without knowing what Malicia had planned, any step taken here might be a blunder.
“What right does a vagrant from Refuge have to ask questions of of us?” Exarch Prodocius scornfully laughed. “Still your wagging tongue, girl.”
Merciless Gods, I thought, half-awed. She was going to kill him.
“Archer,” I got out.
Halfway through drawing her blade, Indrani reluctantly stilled.
“Your choice of allies speaks poorly of you, Basileus,” Akua said.
A swing in the dark from her, as it seemed she’d come to the same conclusions as me through reasonings of her own. Both of us were watching the younger man, and both of us saw the same thing: the twitch of a repressed grimaced, followed by a resounding absence of denial. So he’s pursuing these idiot accusations because Penthes – meaning Malicia – put him up to it, I thought. They’re backing him so long as he pushes me tonight, most likely.
“Another chattering peon for the Black Queen,” Exarch Prodocius snorted. “Are you to threaten violence as well, when reminded of your place?”
Here I had no worries. Archer, for all her keen perceptiveness, was not meant for affairs like this. I’d not hesitate before sending her along with heroes for something, or soldiers, but restraint in the face of provocation was simply not the way she’d been raised. If someone slighted the Lady of the Lake, she killed them. If someone took offence to that, she killed them too. Indrani might not have the age or reputation to be able to get away with that the way the Ranger did, but she’d been raised to think that way regardless. Akua, though? Prodocius could spend all day tossing the worst insults he could think of at her and she’d hardly blink. Akua Sahelian had been playing more dangerous games with more dangerous men since before she’d had her first moon’s blood. Still, the way Prodocius and Honorion were constantly antagonizing my two obviously dangerous companions was genuinely surprising me. Prodocius in particular, as the terrified white of his eyes still showed.
“Gods Below,” I slowly said. “What can the Empress possibly have on you that’d put you this deep in her grasp?”
Akua, at my side, went still.
“And now you accuse us of being in the service of your foes,” Exarch Honorion mocked. “As if you were not merely seeking an excuse to-”
“Still Water,” Akua spoke in Kharsum. “The Tyrant helped Malicia, you said, but Helike does not border the Empire. Where did the alchemical compounds come through? It would not have been small quantities, Catherine. The Empress would have needed assistance to keep it quiet.”
And it fell into place. Penthes, who had grown rich from trade with the Empire. Penthes who controlled one of the branches of the Wasaliti river. Penthes, whose last Exarch-claimants were two venal and corrupt men who’d been chosen to survive from all the many there once were by two people: the Tyrant and the Empress. They’d been accomplices to Still Water being used on the Nicean fleets, I realized. And now, too late, they were realizing that with Kairos dead and Malicia untouchable in the Tower they might end up taking the blame for that. For murdering thousands of Nicaeans, yes, and breaking that city’s naval power. Worse yet, for betraying a member of the League to a foreign power while the Free Cities were at war and under the rule of a Hierarch. If it came out, they’d have no allies. Even if Penthes itself did not turn on them most the League would end up coming after them.
If Malicia said nothing, she owned them. If Malicia said something she still owned them, because who else could possibly protect them? Mind control was not needed when you had that kind of leverage on people. It would be redundant.
“Why is she having them come after me so hard, though?” I replied in the same. “It makes no sense, Akua. She gains nothing out of those two getting on my bad side, by virtue of being her creatures they were already there. I might as well not-”
I swallowed my tongue. I might as well not be there. Because it wasn’t about me, not really. None of this had been from the start. I’d been thinking of these people as the tool Malicia was using against me, when in fact I was the tool Malicia was using against them. A Nicaean soldier had just tried to kill me not because the Empress had believed it would work – although I doubted she would have complained if it had – but because it burned a bridge between Callow and Nicae. And the Penthesians were going after me because the Basileus needed them, and the more he defended them the more at odds he and I became. Fuck me, she was trying to flip the League wasn’t she? Leo Trakas would go home and find his fleets were gone and his reign going to the dogs, and so to avoid losing his throne and possibly his head he’d need to rely on his friends. His Penthesian friends, who unlike Stygia had not openly declared for Praes. The Tower had seeded the sickness, then offered the remedy.
Penthes, Stygia, Nicae. Bellerophon and Atalante were removing themselves from the flow, Delos wouldn’t got at it alone and how difficult could it possibly be for Malicia to spark a civil war in Helike if the Tyrant had left no clear successor? She’d run the southeast of Calernia, more or less, and with the fleet that’d been broken by Still Water she’d have leverage over Ashur as well. And all she needed to get this all started was for a Catherine Foundling, a woman with a known temper, to get angry after someone tried to murder her in the middle of diplomatic talks. Gods, but I hated dealing with Malicia. Even now I couldn’t even fucking be sure there wasn’t another layer to this plan that I’d missed. And I still wasn’t sure how to step back from the ledge even now that I might have caught the scheme. Walking away was giving her the win, but my word alone wouldn’t convince the Basileus that his Exarch allies were playing him.
It was exactly the kind of thing I would say if I was trying to collapse the League so it couldn’t be a sword at my back anymore.
“If I may be so bold, Your Majesty,” Secretary Nestor said, “might I ask for a summary of the words that were shared with your advisor? None of the attending scribes speak the language.”
I flicked a glance at the old scrivener with the tattooed cheeks. It was a genuine request, not a hint of any sort, but it still had me thinking. Could it be that simple? I’d spent all this time trying match Malicia at her chosen field and gotten dirt in my face for it again and again. But that was fighting this war the way she wanted it to be fought. Hanno had warned me, hadn’t he, that I was still thinking like I was a villain needing to threaten and fight everyone into doing what needed to be done. The latter part of that, where he’d said the might of Judgement would carry the day, had been wrong. But he was right that in some ways I still thought, first and foremost, like a warlord under siege from all directions. But I wasn’t that anymore, was I?
“It is called Still Water,” I said. “It is a sort of alchemical poison developed by the Wekesa the Warlock that lingers in the body of those who imbibe it and, afterwards, requires only a ritual trigger to kill and turn into undead all those poisoned. Those undead in fact resist healing by Light, though they remain mindlessly violent without guiding by necromancers.”
“The First Prince of Procer sent word of such a weapon, before the Tenth Crusade was declared,” Nestor Ikaroi acknowledged. “Do you then confirm its existence?”
“I do,” I flatly said. “It was used on the city of Liesse by the Diabolist. And once more since by Dread Empress Malicia on the war fleets of Nicae.”
In the wake of that there was only silence, and the scratching of Secretariat quills. My gaze found the two silent generals of Helike, who were both unsurprised and watching me closely. Had the known? I couldn’t be sure, but General Basilia was said to have been Kairos’ favourite. And if nothing else, his will might have contained such secrets. So now I had a choice to make. Either I dragged Helike into this by revealing the Tyrant had a in this, or I kept my silence on that. The Exarchs might try to drag Helike into this anyway, but who’d believed them at that point? Might be enough to stir Helike to war if they tried, too, which was not ideal but still better than Malicia sinking her claws deep into the southeast. It would not be just, to spare them the consequences of helping such a great and traitorous massacre. But if kept the Dead King from devouring Calernia, I could live with having abetted that injustice.
“That is the leash the Tower has on these two,” I said. “They helped smuggle the alchemical brews into the League’s territory. Advisor Kivule was reminding me, Secretary Nestor, that the Empress would have needed local collaborators, individuals of authority hiding her tracks to achieve such a thing. It allowed for an explanation for the continued hostility of these ‘Exarchs’ to Callow, for it is no secret that their mistress is my enemy.”
“Advisor Kivule, is it? She would know of Still Water, no doubt,” Exarch Honorion sneered. “I had not intended to speak to this, but this filthy mudfoot intriguer leaves me no choice. Prodocius and I entertained envoys from the Tower, is true. I’ll not deny it. For Dread Empress Malicia meant to warn us of a plot to destroy the League and incite war with Praes: this advisor that masquerade before us is no fae nor drow, she is the Diabolist herself. Akua Sahelian, the Doom of Liesse.”
Malicia had caught on? No, of course she’d caught on. Black had too, it would have been fairly obvious for anyone in the know as those two were. And from there it was information that could be passed to her agents, like those two. But why did she think it would – oh, fuck.
“It is not the Empire that struck at the fleets of Nicae, Basileus Leo,” Exarch Honorion said. “It was the Black Queen using the foul alchemies of the foe she enslaved. What a neat scheme she planned, is it not? The League sundered and at war with the Empire, her enemies clawing at each other even as she bent Ashur to her will.”
Malicia, I seethed. Hellgods, I had not wanted to kill someone that much in a very long time. Could I deny Akua? No, that’d be a mistake. Too many people knew, or at least suspected, and when it came out she truly was Akua Sahelian it’d lead people to believe I was lying about not being behind Still Water’s second deployment as well.
“Are you seriously accusing Catherine Foundling of using something like Still Water?” Archer said, sounding somewhere between amused and offended. “She fought a war over the last use.”
Mistake, I grimly thought.
“You would have us believe it was the Dread Empress who has possessed such means for decades and never once used them?” Exarch Prodocius said. “We’ve all read the reports from the Battle of the Camps. Thousands dead from reckless sorceries! All of Iserre was almost destroyed because of a weapon that once lay in Callow, and we are to believe the Black Queen would balk as such a ploy?”
Leo Trakas was the key to this, I decided. Delos was unlikely to lift a finger either way, and Stygia would back the winning horse. And the Basileus did not look like he knew who or what to believe, right now.
“You then make the accusation that Callow was able to brew such alchemies, then seed them unseen in the fleets of Nicae?” Akua said. “How mighty you believe us to be, Exarch.”
She knew he’d have an answer to that, he wouldn’t have risked this otherwise – and his words were likely Malicia’s, anyway, who would not make this elementary a mistake. Akua was baiting out the last part of their tale, so that we might see if there were holes to poke in it.
“An animal like you has no place in this conversation,” Prodocius harshly replied.
The Basileus of Nicae raised a hand to end this before it could escalate.
“As part of the evidence for the accusations laid against the Black Queen was the secret meeting she had with King Kairos in the city of Rochelant,” Basileus Leo said, tone cool.
He was start to lean towards believing Penthes, I realized. Because he wanted to, because it’d be easier, because Malicia was brilliant woman and it was a skillful lie.
“And to hide evidence of your malice, you then sold the Tyrant of Helike to his enemies among the Grand Alliance,” Exarch Honorion said. “I will not pretend the man was anything but a bad seed, but your treacheries are worthy of contempt.”
Gods, but she was good. It did not make me hate her any less, but she was good at this. Even through as feeble a tool as those Exarchs, Malicia was still hitting all the right notes for the Basileus. I could see it in his eyes. I breathed out. I was not only a warlord, now. I had allies.
“Are you willing to repeat your accusations before a truthteller?” I flatly said. “The most skillful of our age is in Salia. I am more than willing to do the same.”
Akua almost began to move before she ceased, and in the Night I read her uneasiness. I had made a mistake of my own, it seemed.
“A transparent attempt,” Exarch Prodocius sneered. “You’ve sunk your hooks in the Grand Alliance, corrupted even rulers as respected as the First Prince. The Grey Pilgrim will say whatever you want him to say, lest you turn on Procer.”
I almost laughed at the notion that I could force Tariq to do anything, much less bend the rest of the Grand Alliance to my will, until I caught the look on their faces. Not Akua or Indrani, but the delegates of the League. Over half a hundred people were here, some of the most influential people in the League, and after the lunacy Prodocius had just spoken not a single one of their faces expressed disbelief. Fear and hesitation, anger and doubt, but none of them believed it to be absurd. Because they weren’t looking uphill and seeing me, I realized as my stomach sunk. They were looking at the victor of the Camps and the Graveyard, who’d strung along heroes and villains and dealt death to thousands. My reputation, these days, was enough to cow thousands of charging horsemen. I knew this, I’d relied on it.
Malicia was relying on it too.
My grip tightened around the yew staff. I’d fought wars, struck deals with the Everdark and the Kingdom Under, compromised and warned and did everything I could to keep this continent from falling apart. And still the Empress, who hadn’t left the Tower in a year, was strangling me with my own fucking achievements. Malicia, though, would be Malicia – a praise and insult both. What had my blood boiling was how eager these people were to be manipulated. To believe the worse of me and in the same breath decide that the Dread Empress of Praes was looking out for them. And they had their reasons, and it was one of the finest liars alive who was making a game of them, but still it… stung. That I always had to be patient and careful and let things go, while the rest of them could just fucking blunder along and let the rest of us pick up the pieces.
I could kill them, I knew.
The Night was but a thought away. They had mages, but I had Archer and Akua Sahelian at my side. It wouldn’t even be difficult or need to be a slaughter. Honorion and Prodocius were owned by the Tower, but Penthes itself wasn’t – the Empress would have influence, but hardly rule. I could snuff them out like candles and there went this ploy. Gods, there was so much I could do if I simply took off the gloves. All these soldiers heading south, all this insistence on backstabbing and bickering when the Dead King was seeking to kill us all, it could end. It’d be as simple as telling the people here, over the smoking corpses of Malicia’s tools, that they could march north to fight Keter either living or as corpses in my service. If their armies objected? They had no Named left to match me. I’d open portal over a battalion aligned with a large lake or a sea, then repeat the process every half-hour until I got an unconditional surrender. The Grand Alliance would whine, but the whining would end when I ensured our back was secure and brought a fresh army to the table.
Gods, it would be so satisfying. To order something instead of barter and beg, to just order something and see it get done. And even if Malicia had laid some kind of clever trap behind it all, well, cleverness only got you so far in the face of overwhelming strength. What exactly could she do, if it was Praes and Keter against the rest of Calernia? And all I needed to do was just… reach out. Sve Noc would approve, if anything. And the thing was, hadn’t I done it all the right way? I’d let the heroes take their swings, taken the whipping without complaint. I’d helped the same Procerans who had meant to carve up my home for a meal, sacrificed and bargained to keep the Dead King from killing hundreds of thousands. I’d done it all right, and at the end of the day Malicia could still just upend it all with a snap of her fingers. And if it was this… weak, this fragile to do things the right way, then what was the point? If it didn’t work better than being a bloody-handed tyrant, if it was objectively worse, then why was I putting myself through all this? I was not going to let Calernia die because I needed to clutch to the delusion that I was a decent woman. I would not.
I took a step forward, Night coiling, and my leg throbbed with pain. Do not forget, it whispered. That this was never a game. That you make mistakes. And most of all, and my fingers clenched white to hear it, the pain whispered one last thing: do not forget, that there must be more than ruin. I paled, leaning against my staff. Gods, the pain was agonizing.
“Cat,” Archer whispered, looking at me with worry.
I gestured harshly. Do not forget, my leg throbbed.
“You’d really do it, wouldn’t you?” I said.
The two men that would be Exarch of Penthes milled about uncertainly.
“Let thousands of your own people die,” I said. “Birth civil war in the League. Gods, you’d gamble with the fate of Calernia itself – all because you were foolish and greedy and you’re afraid to die.”
I looked at the two of them and saw something that it was not in my power to mend. In anyone’s power to mend.
“Go,” I said. “Leave. I have nothing left to say to you.”
It emboldened them, I saw. The resignation in my voice. They’d poured poison into the ear of anyone who would listen and not been chastised for it.
“How petulant you are when unmasked,” Exarch Honorion mocked.
“We’ll survive without you,” I said, gaze sweeping across the entire lot of them. “Despite you, if we must. So let your records state this, Nestor Ikaroi: when Death came for Calernia, men and women rose to meet it. From the Blessed Isle to Segovia, from Levante to Rhenia, they came when the call sounded.”
I spat into the snow.
“Death came for Calernia, and when steel was bared to turn it back the League of Free Cities was nowhere in sight,” I said.
Quills moved against parchment, the scribes of the Secretariat recording the words spoken. Cloak of Woe tight on my shoulder, I let out a misty breath and looked at the sky. I was done here, wasn’t I? If diplomacy could mend any of this, let Cordelia Hasenbach take care of it.
“And?” General Basilia said.
The other Helikean, pale-eyed and straight-backed, let out a hissing breath.
“Yes,” General Pallas. “Yes. The blood quickened.”
“Then we part ways here,” General Basilia said, saddened.
I would have left, had Archer not put a hand on my shoulder. Indrani was smiling.
“Will you not flee back to your barracks, Helikeans?” Exarch Prodocius called out. “Your little intrigues are of no import to us, and the cripple no longer-”
General Basilia unsheathed her sword, which had the man flinching.
“I speak now the will and testament of King Kairos Theodosian, Lord Tyrant of Helike, the Unbroken,” General Basilia said, voice echoing across the plains.
Prodocius flicked a glance at the sword and swallowed whatever he’d been about to say.
“With me dies the line of Theodosius, at last conquered by death. I name no successor and offer no legacy, save for the following words,” General Basilia said, and her eyes were wetly shining, “Ye of Helike, do as you will.”
“Oh, would you shut up with the-” Exarch Honorion began.
He did not finish, for General Basilia rammed her sword through his throat. Half the soldiers on the hill had swords in hand before a heartbeat has passed, but the dark-eyed woman only laughed. She ripped the sword out and flicked blood onto the snow. Penthesian soldiers crowded around the other Exarch protectively, shields raised.
“Murderer,” Exarch Prodocius screamed, voice gone shrill with fear. “How dare you, you-”
“Tyrant?” General Basilia said. “I suppose we shall see. You may consider this a declaration of war, Prodocius. Penthes can hang you as a traitor to the League and servant of the Empress, or it can burn. It makes no difference to me.”
“Are you mad?” Basileus Leo yelled. “Do you not understand the consequences of-”
“Tell me, you pathetic worm,” Basilia nonchalantly said. “What will you do, if I ignore your petty threats? What have you ever done that I should fear you?”
“I’ll not allow you to run rampant, Helikean,” the young man snarled.
“Then beat me, Nicaean,” General Basilia grinned.
And she had, I thought, so very little in common with Kairos in body. She was well-formed and made like a soldier, not striking save perhaps those sharp cheekbones but not in the least ungainly to look at. Yet when she grinned that grin, all pearly white teeth and daring, for a moment I would have thought… She reined in her mount, offered us a salute of her sword, and rode back to her soldiers. The young Basileus let out a shout of anger but did not pursue. He barked out orders in tradertongue and his soldiers clustered with the Penthesians once more, beginning a quick march back to the rest of his force. He offered no farewells, and I had said all I intended to say. Secretary Nestor Ikaroi, however, remained. Along with his scribes. They stood in silence, watching. Waiting. General Pallas dismounted. Under the pale moonlight she came to stand before me, tanned and grey-eyed and inscrutable.
“My name,” she said, “is Pallas Messene. I am a general of Helike, raised to the rank by the Tyrant himself, for a score I have been a soldier and leader of soldiers.”
“You know,” I replied, “how I am.”
“I have seen it,” General Pallas agreed. “I tonight I saw it again. Once you called me and those under my command a worm in the flesh, Black Queen. You deemed us servants of Keter, and stripped us of all the strappings of kataphraktoi.”
“And of a bone as well,” I calmly said, “for the lives in my service you took.”
“Bones mend,” General Pallas said. “Armaments, horses, they can be had again. Pride is not to easily bartered back.”
“That is not in my power to return,” I said.
‘’It is,” the grey-eyed woman disagreed. “In keeping to my oath, I spilled blood to the benefit of the King of Death. I weep not for this, for I swore to a Theodosian and there can be no higher calling. And yet I would even the balance, with oath given anew.”
She knelt, dark-haired and stone-faced, in the snow.
“Every wound I dealt, I deal anew,” Pallas Messene spoke. “Every battle I fought, I fight anew. Let spears shatter and swords break, for my oath will not. Let there be no rest nor relief until the war is won, and should death take me let me rise in indignation, for I am a daughter of Helike and we were borne unconquered. I swear to this, Black Queen of Callow: until the King of Death knows oblivion or I do, my sword is pledged to your war.”
Behind her, three hundred cataphracts dismounted under moonlight.
“How many?” I asked.
“Half,” she said.
“Half the kataphraktoi?” I said, surprised.
That was near two thousand soldiers.
“We do as we will, now,” General Pallas smiled, looking up at the night sky. “He gifted us this.”
After a long moment, she met my gaze.
“Half the army of Helike, Black Queen,” she said. “If Death comes, let it learn the same lesson as every other army under the sun: there is Helike, and there is the rest.”