“Fifty-five: if your powers are lost, they will nearly always return greater than before so long as the appropriate moral lesson is learned. With kindness and humility comes overwhelming martial might.”
-“Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
It was over.
The League’s soldiers withdrew, the hostility between the different forces open but reason prevailing just enough for battle not to erupt less than a day’s march from the capital of Procer. Considering the people involved, I’d not considered that a given. Secretary Nestor and his attending scribes withdrew for the night but requested permission to send an embassy under daylight. The clear intention was to request the presence of Secretariat scribes and chroniclers up north, and I accepted tonight as I fully intended to accept tomorrow. There’d be restrictions and conditions, but in principle I had not objection to their work. If I got lucky, maybe a report making its was south would even stir some Delosi to shed neutrality long enough to cease recording the end times and actively try to turn them back. A girl could dream. General Pallas and her kataphraktoi swore oaths and sent back half their number to claim their equipment and supplies still in the League camp, the rest returning with me.
Adjutant had finished speaking with Talbot and the remaining senior legate when I arrived – Tendai, wasn’t it? Sounded Soninke – though he opened his report by passing a dry comment on my ‘dragging yet another army home’. Like it was a bad thing, the wretch. As it turned out Juniper’s report had been essentially confirmed, with the sole fresh developments a few accusations of ‘Praesi treachery’ and ‘Callowan purges’ tossed around by soldiers that’d ended in brawls. One dead, from an unlucky broken neck, and both Tendai and Talbot had come together to hang those involved as per Callowan regulations. Adjutant argued for the growing urgency of intervention there, even if risking dire consequences to the compelled, but I had no order to give him. I hesitated still to speak when those words might just kill Juniper and Aisha, among others. I presented General Pallas to him instead and dropped onto his ‘drily humorous’ lap the work of getting the cataphracts settled.
There’d be talk later of how many soldiers Pallas was proposing to bring north, though it shouldn’t be more than ten thousand. Less, probably, though there likely to be the most finely drilled and commanded troops among the coalition’s armies. At least one good thing had come out of this otherwise ruinous night.
Archer wandered off, likely to check in on Masego though given the work I’d asked of him he was like as not to ignore her presence beyond what basic courtesy required. If even that much. Vivienne was speaking with General Abigail’s staff tribune to pick out what soldiers would be sent out as her escort, and I made a mental note of having the general formally granted the authority of a Marshal of Callow until Juniper could be declared fit to resume it. I’d no intention of promoting her to the rank, not for many years yet if ever, but to get affairs in order with the Army she’d need to have the weight of that authority behind her. Both the inherited structure of the Legions of Terror and the Hellhound’s preference for strict lines of command had resulted in formal authority being needed to get anything moving in the Army of Callow. Akua remained with me, a shadow shadowing mine, and though I could guess she wanted to address the fact that she’d been outed I did not approach the subject. It’d be out and about before long, I knew. If Malicia felt comfortable enough handing out that information to the likes of Prodocius and Honorion, it meant she was comfortable putting it out there.
I was still uncertain how my people would take it, on the Callowan side at least. If Akua had still been stuck in my collar save when I let her out I suspected it would have been taken as a long price, but ‘Advisor Kivule’ was not a prisoner or entirely unknown to the men. Like as not it’d cost me a few feathers in the eyes of the heroes in the Grand Alliance, too, though I’d not hesitate to call Cordelia a damned hypocrite if she spoke so much as a word in condemnation. She didn’t get to play that card when she had people lugging a Seraphim’s corpse around Procer. Truth be told, given the hour I probably ought to head to bed. The immediate necessities were seen to, and the rest was probably best approached with a well-rested mind and a clear head. Black was awake, there could be now that about that, because Scribe would have missed little of what had unfolded or left him to sleep during it. I was still not looking forward to that conversation, and arguably waiting until daylight for it would not be a bad idea. It’d allow Scribe’s people in the Eyes to learn more, and that when we held council we’d both have a clear idea of what was happening before decisions were made.
It was over, the succession of twists and turns that’d swallowed up my night. Or at least it ought to be over. If it was, though, why would my shoulders not loosen? Like I was awaiting a blow I was clenching onto myself, my instincts screaming there was something yet to come. And there were not, I thought, a thousand directions from which further trouble could come. So grimly I sent Akua away for the night and, cloak trailing behind me, limped towards empty smithy the Carrion Lord had claimed as his home for the duration of the conference. There were no legionaries at the door, or near either of the two windows, which was… unusual. Black had been the one to teach me that a Name was a useful thing but that it was no substitute for people watching your back. His Blackguards might not have been able to do much against a Named assassin, but there weren’t a lot of those and there were lot of the regular kind. Especially when you crossed Praesi nobles. The heavy wooden door was not locked and did not resist when I pushed it open. The burning glare of the lit furnace within blinded me for a half a beat, flames roaring tall and proud.
The shadows they cast on the walls of the smithy, which had been stripped bare of much it would contain during warmer seasons, were long and shivering. Amadeus of the Green Stretch sat alone by a blackened iron anvil, his drab grey tunic and worn boots making him look like an aging shopkeeper instead of the Black Knight of Praes. On the anvil was a bottle, and not of wine. An empty one had been set on the ground by the anvil.
“Catherine,” the green-eyed man greeted me. “An eventful night for you, I am told.”
It was so genuinely taken aback by the slight slur to his voice I didn’t manage to entire hide my surprise. I could not remember, in all the time I’d known him, seeing my teacher even half as drunk as he clearly was right now. Not even once.
“You too, looks like,” I said, flicking a glance at the bottle.
“Salian brandy,” Black replied, tone amiable. “It struck me as fitting.”
Shit. I wasn’t familiar with the Salian kind in particular, but brandy was hard liquor. Not necessarily the hardest-hitting stuff, but if he’d really drunk more than a bottle of the stuff I could only be reluctantly impressed he wasn’t falling down his Legion-issue folding chair. This isn’t like you, I almost said, but bit down on it. I’d never seen him like this before, true, but then when I’d been young he’d still had the Calamities with him. People he could unwind with, as I myself did with the Woe. Who was left of that for him now, save for Scribe? So instead I snatched a cup from his table and braced my staff against the side of it, freeing my other hand to claim the other folding chair. I bit down on a hiss of pain as I limped forward to the other side of the anvil, dropping my seat there as pale green eyes followed me. I let out a sigh when I sat down, glad for the rest, and set down my cup atop the iron by the side of his. Without a word he filled it with brandy, and his own again.
“What are we drinking to?” I asked.
“Epiphany,” my teacher said. “Harsh mistress that she is.”
That was not a promising start, I thought, and drank deep of my cup. The brandy burned on the way down and if I’d had swallow of that at sixteen I suspected my eyes would have watered. It was smooth on the tongue, so clearly good stuff, but it couldn’t be called anything but heavy.
“It’s been a day,” I agreed. “And a night, even.”
“Yes, it has,” he mildly said. “Eventful enough I’ll confess the tumult blinded me, at first. Time to think set that weakness to rest.”
“Kairos took us all for a ride,” I said. “Our enemies a little more than us, which is the saving grace of this, but everyone took a few bruises. It’ll be months if not years before we can really glimpse the scale of what he wrought.”
“Kairos Theodosian’s schemes are of only passing interest to me,” Black said, pausing to knock back a quarter of his cup without batting an eye. “No, it is the moments that led to his swan song I have been dissecting.”
The conference. Malicia. It won’t matter, Scribe had warned me. He always forgives. I might not love the woman, or even like her, but I that did not mean she had been wrong in this.
“Scribe told you about the Legions-in-Exile,” I guessed.
“I knew within an hour of your knowing,” Black agreed. “And now I ponder how it all came to be.”
“It must have been a contingency the Empress had in place for years,” I said.
Another quarter of his cup went down his throat. The breathy slip of laughter he let out after that had my fingers clenching in dismay. It was… unpleasant, seeing him like this. So close to losing control, when control had always been at the heart of him.
“Decades,” my teacher corrected. “The sheer breadth of possibly compromised individuals is simply staggering, viewed in retrospective. I assume it is the consequence an aspect. Wekesa would have noticed such a contingency were it sorcerous in nature and told me of it.”
Most likely, I silently agreed. Masego had rubbed elbows with Juniper for years while holding an aspect related to sight and then eyes forged of Summer flame without noticing a damned thing, so I was not overly surprised that the Warlock had caught nothing. Named power could imitate sorcery, but it should never be mistaken for it – it answered to different rules, took different shapes.
“Or he might not have,” Black then genially said. “It appears that the many warnings I received of sentiment being more blinding that I believed were accurate.”
“The writing was on the wall after Akua’s Folly,” I reluctantly said.
Not for reluctance to speak the truth, but knowing how deeply painful it was to him.
“Oh no, not when it comes to Alaya,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch softly said. “It is Eudokia I gravely misread.”
Fuck, I thought, and kept my face blank. I’d waited too long. All this time I’d been agonizing over whether I should tell him or not, if the likely fallout was worth the honesty, and somehow it’d never occurred to me he might just figure it out on his own. How much did he know, though? I’d gotten a confession and explanation, while he must have simply pieced together details on his own.
“It is a bad habit, forcing lack of expression,” Black chided. “You still do it sometimes, when taken aback. It reveals that you know something, by consequence of revealing you have something to hide.”
I grimaced. He drank again.
“Not that confirmation was truly needed,” he noted. “Your request with a private conversation with Scribe stood out even at the time.”
“I did not know whether I should tell you,” I admitted.
I might have, I thought. I liked to think I would have. But I would not lie to him and pretend it had been a sure thing.
“It would be ill-done of me to rebuke you for behaviour I instilled in you myself, largely through example,” Black said, sounding darkly amused. “Though it is a fresh novelty to be treated in so high-handed a manner by anyone save Malicia.”
“Scribe, she believed, believes she was saving your life, you know,” I said, then hesitated before continuing, “and I’m not sure I disagree with her.”
“Would you like to know how I inferred what happened?” the green-eyed man idly said, filling his cup anew.
I’d yet to finish mine, or him his, but down the bottle went. I slowly nodded, though I was not sure I actually did. He drank from his cup and I matched him, the brandy’s burn a pleasant distraction from the roaring heat of the furnace and this miserable conversation.
“In the moment it bled me, that Alaya stood in that hall and saw me only as a hindrance,” Black said. “That she had not, beforehand, even attempted to speak to me so it might be made into a game of silk and steel. That she’d considered a decision that so wounded me to make as inexorable, a betrayal assured – so assured there was no need to even attempt conversation.”
“Then I made myself cease to think of her as Alaya and began to think of her as Dread Empress Malicia,” he mildly said. “And I still saw an unexplainable mistake from a woman whose judgement I yet hold in some esteem.”
“You figured she knew something you didn’t,” I said.
“The moment Eudokia intrigued to pass the blame onto her for the botched Salian coup, everything that followed was set in stone,” he mused. “Either I had ordered this, and now stood her foe. Or I had been deceived, and anything spoken to me could aid Scribe in furthering her attacks. Or potentially reveal how they had been anticipated and answered. Either way, even a secret missive would have been a foolhardy risk.”
I drank again, deep, since what I had to say was like as not to be unpleasant to get through.
“That doesn’t excuse anything,” I said. “She’s still the ally of the Dead King. She still spent decades seeding commands in the minds of people. No one forced her to order the Night of Knives, Black. Hers might have been choices with reasons to them, but that does not excuse a single fucking thing. You’ve been preaching personal responsibility to me since the day we met – why would she, alone of all the people in Creation, get a pass?”
He held up his cup to the light of the furnace and it cast a streak of shade over his eyes.
“I trust people to act according to their nature,” he quoted. “Anything more is sentimentality. She said this not long after her formal claiming of the Tower, when there was still talk of who might be her Chancellor. It was the talk of Ater for weeks and remains her words most often quoted in Praes. I never thought much of the saying, for it presumes much, but it speaks to the woman who spoke it.”
The cup went down, and the green gaze was pensive.
“Malicia seeded commands preparing for a betrayal, and that betrayal came,” he said. “I blame her for this no more than I blame you for the terrible habits your learned at my side, though I would chastise another for them.”
“Brandy makes you chatty,” I said. “You’re muddling cause and consequence, Black. Fucking with the minds of your subjects is something that deserves answer. It’s not a betrayal to recognize that. You’re just being…”
I bit my tongue.
“Sentimental?” he finished, slightly slurring. “So I am. Eudokia said the same, when we spoke.”
I went still.
“And what else did she say?” I slowly asked.
“That she regretted her actions,” Black said, tone dry. “And would not repeat them. That she understood it had been a mistake. I thanked her for this, naturally, for it was a needed lesson to us both.”
And yet she was not here, drinking with him.
“So where is she?” I pressed.
“I wouldn’t know,” the green-eyed man said. “Neither does it matter, for she is no longer in my service.”
My fingers clenched.
“You’re drunk,” I flatly said, “you’re regret this after-”
“I made that decision without having had a drop,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch said, tone eerily calm.
“Then you’re grieving, not in your right mind,” I hissed. “There’s nothing practical about-”
“No longer extending trust to someone who deftly manipulated me into rebellion and undertaking a road that ends in the murder of someone dear to me?” Black said. “An interesting premise. I offered no rancor and held no grudge. It is a parting of ways, nothing more and nothing less.”
“You can’t afford to lose Scribe,” I bluntly said. “If you do you lose the Eyes, and if you no longer have the Eyes the Empire will eat you alive.”
“I considered this, but then decided it to be irrelevant,” he amiably said.
He drained the rest of his cup then, with clumsy fingers for one usually so sure-footed, produced a small strip of parchment from a pocket within his tunic. He put it down on the anvil, without a word. It was in Mtethwa, two words: Come home. I knew not the handwriting, but then unlike him I’d not spent decades corresponding with the Empress.
“You can’t be serious,” I quietly said.
“All of this might genuinely have untied the knot, you see,” Black said, sounding highly amused. “I did betray her, in the end. As she always believed I would, deep down. And after that betrayal failed and she triumphed over me so utterly she can now, at last, feel at ease.”
He poured his cup full again as I did absolutely nothing to hide the horror I felt.
“Of course, I will never question her again,” he said. “I will have lost that right, alongside any notion that this is partnership instead of vassalage. But the doors of Ater will be open to me and, as far as she is concerned, kneeling before the throne as every lord and lady of Praes watches will be my great penance.”
“It can still be turned around,” I said. “I know it’s a blow, the Exile Legions leaving and Scribe having manipulated you, but this isn’t your only choice. You have allies, Black.”
The green-eyed man tipped back his cup, taking another swallow.
“You misunderstand,” he said after. “I could no more do this than I could pretend I still put my trust in Eudokia. It is best to look what you are in the eye, as a villain. Lying to yourself is ever a dangerous business.”
“And what is it you are?” I quietly asked.
“Not yet content,” he said, smiling as if he was having a private jest at my expense.
I wasn’t helping him, I realized. Sitting here with Black and finishing that bottle would not make him feel any better. This breakdown had been a long time coming, maybe as far as Captain’s death, but letting him drink and entangle himself in his thoughts would solve nothing. Gingerly, I rose to my feet.
“Sleep it off, Black,” I sighed. “Scribe won’t have gone far, and that woman would forgive you nearly anything. She’ll forgive you this. We can make plans after dawn, when we’re all sober and rested.”
He looked at me for a long moment, then set down the cup. For a moment he looked about to say something, but instead he smiled crookedly.
“Good night, Catherine,” my father said.
I left, limping, and left the blazing heat of the smithy in favour of the cold. The coolness outside leant a refreshing touch the sweat on my brow and neck, but the exhaustion I’d expected never came. Even now, after all this, restlessness lingered in the marrow of my bones. High up above, under the stars and moon, to great crows feathered in darkness drifted across the sky. Their thoughts touched mine, gently, and shared a sight they were glimpsing in the distance. One man, leaving Salia. Well now, that was earlier than anticipated. I saddled Zombie and rode out, declining escort, and the journey on her back was swifter than it had been on foot. The small farm had not changed at all since my last visit, though perhaps that should not have surprised me: it might feel like an age ago, but I’d last stood here two nights back. The cattle wall, I saw, had been built anew. And stones had rolled down, as I’d warned the White Knight they would. By the eyes of the Crows I would not have company for some time yet, so after tying Zombie to the side of the farm I was spared a few breaths to consider how to comfortably wait.
Inside would be most reasonable, I thought. But the cold was pleasant, and I was reluctant to part from it. Instead I propped up my staff against the sidewall and, after soothing my leg with Night, hoisted myself up the side of the farm. The roof was as sturdy as it looked, good tiles and well set. Grimacing in pain even through the Night trick, I crawled atop it until I was resting my back against a chimney stump. Tightening my cloak against me comfortably, I let myself drift into the mixture of warmth around my belly and coolness against my face. It was soothing, and I almost fell asleep. I was not sure how long I’d been there when I finally heard approaching footsteps in the snow. I heard the White Knight chuckle as he figured out where I was, then deftly climb up the side. As Hanno dragged himself up on the roof, I finished stuffing my pipe and went looking for a match to light it. Finding one of my last sapper pinewoods I struck it against my sleeve but it failed to light. Sighing, I discreetly tapped a finger and seeded with black flame before hastily lighting my pipe with it.
The White Knight rose to his feet and strode to the edge of the roof, the two of us watching the nearing dawn begin to light up the sky.
“Back so soon?” I said, blowing out a stream of wakeleaf smoke.
“Within an hour of Tariq waking, he drew me out of my own slumber,” Hanno said.
All else about the man aside, there were Named out there with the word ‘healer’ in the Name who weren’t half as good at the art as Tariq Isbili was. Hells, for a time he’d even been able to cure death.
“And now you’re here,” I said.
An invitation to elaborate, but he did not take it.
“You were Queen of Winter for a time, were you not?” Hanno asked instead.
I hummed, pulling at my pipe.
“Close enough,” I said. “If only by virtue of being the sole scavenger with a road to it.”
“And you are no longer,” the White Knight said.
“Took a leap of faith,” I acknowledged. “All things considered, I don’t regret it.”
“And when Winter left you, Black Queen,” he softly said. “Did it feel like an absence?”
Oh, I thought, and was surprised to find I yet had pity in me.
“It felt like flying out of a pit into the blue sky,” I gently said. “It felt like the first drink of water after a long day in the sun. But I never loved that power, White Knight, nor did it love me.”
Not as he so obviously loved the Choir of Judgement, strange as that sentiment was to me. He stood there for a long moment, looking at the lightening horizon.
“They have all been asking me,” the White Knight said, “what befell of Judgement. Would you like to know, Catherine Foundling?”
I had half a dozen flippant replies on the tip of my tongue, but I was not feeling so callous right now as to offer them up to a decent man so obviously grieving.
“Tell me,” I said instead.
He flicked his wrist, and in the dawning light I caught the shine of silver. A coin, flipping, for a moment I almost struck out with the Night. But Sve Noc was silent, and I remained still. The White Knight caught the coin and did not even look at what had turned up. To him, and so to me, it’d just been a flip of the coin. There had been nothing more to it.
“Silence,” Hanno of Arwad said. “Only silence.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding.
“The Hierarch still fights them, then,” I quietly said.
“You warned me,” the dark-skinned man admitted. “I did not listen, for never before has the strength of Judgement failed before my eye. You warned me, and now there is silence.”
And silence stayed there, hanging in the air.
“And now what?” I asked.
“I am blind,” Hanno of Arwad said. “Yet even a blind man can see that war must be waged on Keter.”
“I have pledged myself to this,” I said. “And do not take such oaths lightly.”
He turned towards me, his broad silhouette ringed by morning’s light, and met my eyes.
“Then we are allies,” the White Knight said, and offered his hand.
I took it.
And so we went to war, against the King of Death.