“The tragedy of our time, of every time, is that while there is power in knowledge there can be just as much in ignorance.”
– First Princess Eugénie of Lange
I watched the Scorched Apostate sit in silence, face solemn, as the two healers from the House Insurgent finished seeing to the wound on his leg and moved to the larger task of his heavy burns. I’d had him brought away from where the last four survivors of the nameless village were being looked at by another priest. Grandmaster Talbot spoke with the priestess in question – a fair-haired Liessen girl in her late twenties – before trudging his way to me through boggy grounds. With his helmet removed, Brandon Talbot’s neatness was even more apparent than usual, all the more glaring for the contrast with his worn armour. He sketched a bow and I flicked an impatient hand to tell him to cut it out. I’d made my peace with a lot of the formalities having put on a fancy hat meant for me, but they had no place out in the field.
“My queen,” the knight said. “Sister Cecily says the survivors are physically healthy and without disease.”
If the boy was right about the seeded plague and his eyes were sharp as I suspected they were, he might have spared them for that very reason. Or it might be he’d simply missed them before exhaustion caught up with him and he ended up retreating to the temple.
“Send a rider ahead to Lord Adjutant, informing him he is prepare a quarantined tent for them,” I ordered. “Then have them sent back on some of your spare mounts, under escort.”
“By your will, Your Majesty,” he said, then hesitated. “Though it is unlikely they will know how to ride.”
“Tie them on, if need be,” I flatly said. “They’re in no state to walk and I’ll not have them rubbing elbows with this one.”
The last two words were married to a jerky nod of the head towards the young villain I’d found.
“Agreed,” Grandmaster Talbot said, tone heavy with distaste. “I’ll see to it.”
I let him handle the arrangements, gaze lingering on the Named. Two healers from the House Insurgent spent thirty heartbeats trying to heal the burns, but to no avail. There was less bleeding beneath the blackened skin, but no other difference to speak of. The charred ruin that’d been made of the Scorched Apostate’s face was not something Light or sorcery would be able mend, I suspected. I limped up to the three of them, the two priests ending their attempts as I approached and falling into deep bows. The House Insurgent’s priests always seemed to be trying to make up for the my significantly more nuanced relationship with the House Constant by open displays of esteem and allegiance, which I still wasn’t quite sure how to deal with. Over my years of ruling Callow I’d had good working relationships with a few brothers and sisters of the House, but genuine deference from people sworn to Above was still something I struggled with.
“A gallant effort,” I said, “but those are beyond Light’s ability to mend.”
The boy’s eyes betrayed no disappointment at my words, only a sort of cynical satisfaction. He’d not believed for a moment he’d be freed from the burns.
“I can only apologize our failure,” the older of the priests said, and seemed intent to continue along that line until I briskly shook my head.
“There is no need for that. It is a natural thing, and not unknown to me,” I said. “I once had such a scar as well.”
A long red cut that went all the way across my chest, where the Lone Swordsman had gutted me before leaving me to die.
“Once?” the boy spoke up, picking up on the implication. “No longer?”
“It took a death, but I was rid of it,” I agreed. “But you’re rather to young to be thinking of trifling with angels.”
It’d taken snatching a resurrection from Contrition to wipe the scar away, and I was not truly certain it’d been the angelic touch and not the victory before it that’d actually done the trick there. I’d ask Tariq to have a look at the boy regardless, just in case Mercy might feel like living up to the virtue it claimed, but his Name seemed like it might just resist the change tooth and nail: he wasn’t called the Lightly Singed Apostate.
“Thank you,” I told the priests. “I would speak with him alone, if you don’t mind.”
Deeps bows once more, and murmurs of agreement.
“Congratulations,” I told the Scorched Apostate. “You are Named, and the first of this spring to be brought into a treaty backed by almost every crown on Calernia.”
He blinked with his blue eye, uncomprehending.
“There’s a proper formal name for it,” I idly continued, “but most of us call it the Truce and the Terms.”
“A treaty about what?” the boy asked.
“Not hanging boys like you when we find them,” I said.
“I’m not a boy,” the boy insisted. “I’m fourteen.”
I did not betray my surprise. The burns had made it hard to tell his age and he was tall for a boy of fourteen. Especially a peasant one. Fourteen, I thought with muted grief, and already hundreds of corpses to your name. There were some among the Named he’d be rubbing elbows with that would be impressed by this. They wouldn’t even all be villains.
“That’s the part that trips you up?” I still asked, dimly amused. “Not the hanging, being called a boy?”
“You can call me Tancred instead,” the young villain said. “Or Scorched.”
I did not quite have the heart to tell him no one would ever call him the latter save as mockery, though I suspected even Archer would feel a little bad about making sport of someone so painfully earnest.
“Tancred,” I said, a half-hearted concession. “You are Named, and though there will be an investigation about what took place in this nameless village-”
“Marserac,” the boy interrupted, tone heavy. “It is called Marserac.”
I forced myself not to look at the burning wrecks in the distance behind us. Only a handful of far-flung houses would survive of what had been called Marserac.
“Do not interrupt me again,” I said, tone calm but firm.
Tancred bit the sole part of his lip that was not a blackened ruin, looking like I’d slapped him. I made my heart ache, but it needed to be done. I was not his mother or his friend: I was his patroness, and perhaps on occasion I’d be his teacher. Boundaries needed to be set from the very beginning.
“As the Scorched Apostate, you have been approached by one of the Grand Alliance’s high officers and extended the chance to sign and abide by the Truce and Terms,” I said. “Though what took place in Marserac will be investigated by my people, and your claim of a seeded plague looked into, even if you are mistaken in that claim you’ll still fall under the blanket amnesty that comes with agreeing to abide by the treaty.”
Tancred’s sole blue eye burned with indignation and he looked about to boil over, but he kept his tongue. My lips quirked in approval. Good. If he could master himself on this day, of all days, then he had some promise.
“Speak,” I said.
“That’s rotten,” the Scorched Apostate burst out before I’d even finished the word. “That I’d still get away with it if I’d just-”
He shivered, and I could almost see his mind shying away from fully looking at what it was he’d done today. There would be a need to nip that habit in the bud – failing to recognize what you were was a dangerous thing, for a villain – but even now I still had enough mercy in me to leave that for another day.
“- if it’d just been slaughter for slaughter’s sake,” Tancred forced out, “murder for sport. That’s rotten.”
The boy hesitated.
“Sir,” he hesitantly tacked on, half as a question.
“That’ll do,” I said. “And it’s not a pretty thing, you’re not wrong about that. The business of survival never is.”
The indignation had yet to abate, so I flicked out a hand in permission for him to speak once more.
“They say we’re winning the war, though,” the Apostate said. “Last summer the Black Queen and the Iron Prince almost took back the capital in Hainaut, and since then the attack midwinter was beaten back. Why does there need to be an amnesty for villains?”
“For heroes as well,” I plainly said. “We’ve no sole claim on bloody swords.”
It was somewhat refreshing not to have been recognized, I found, but this perception that we’d achieved anything but a bloody stalemate against the Dead King – the ruling champion of wars of attrition – needed to be put to rest. This summer we might just begin turning the tide, Gods willing or out of my damned way, but the sole front that could be said to have truly gained victories until now was the Lycaonese one. Those hard fuckers up in Twilight’s Pass were making all of us proud.
“There is a truce, Tancred, because that first summer offensive in Hainaut nearly lost us the war,” I said, tone serious. “Because the midwinter attacks would have broken through the defensive line if the Fortunate Fool hadn’t sacrificed himself to take out the Lord of Ghouls, or if the Witch of the Woods hadn’t flattened one of our own fortresses with two thousand of our soldiers still in it. Because we need every Named, even the worst of them, and each one that hides from us out fear might end up raised into the Dead King’s ranks instead if he gets his hands on them.”
The young villain looked at me as if he’d never seen me before. My assessment had been stark, true, but I’d wager that was not the reason: I was not speaking as an officer would, but as someone who had a seat at the kind of table where there were precious few warranting one.
“So crimes committed before joining the treaty are granted amnesty, no matter how foul,” I said. “Heroes and villains are to observe the peace of the Truce with each other until Keter falls, no matter past enmities. Should conflicts arise, or accusations need to be made about breaches of the Truce, they are to be brought to their representative under the Terms.”
I nodded at his inquisitive look, granting leave to speak. Indignation had gutted out, looked like, as it tended to when it was cast against the abstract instead of something you could see or hear. Curiosity was more tempting a mistress than arguing with me, at least for now.
“And who are they?” the Scorched Apostate asked.
“The White Knight, for heroes,” I said. “The Black Queen, for villains. Those who claim to be neither can choose who they would appeal to. A band was assembled under the Archer that has a degree of legal authority as well, but they are wanderers.”
Tancred slowly nodded, seemingly not unfamiliar with the Name. Indrani’s reputation had made it this far north, then. She’d be pleased to hear it, vain creature that she was.
“Under the Terms are also set out obligations that must be fulfilled to remain protected by the Truce,” I continued. “I’ll let you paw through the lot of them later – actually, can you read?”
Tancred looked away, then shook his head.
“Something else to see to, then,” I said. “They’ll be read to you in detail by a sworn representative until you can read them yourself. The crux of them is simple: follow the laws of the land and serve in the war against the Dead King. If there are lesser grievances or breaches, punishment will be meted our by your representative under the Terms.”
Quite a few of the heroes had howled at that last detail, a few like the Blade of Mercy and the Blessed Artificer even threatening to walk if it was upheld, but with both the White Knight and the Grey Pilgrim in my corner we’d had the clout to ram it through. Not that Tariq hadn’t had his reservations, but we were all aware that precious few villains would even consider Truce if joining it meant they were under heroic jurisdiction. On my side of the deal the trouble had been making it clear to the Named that I was actually serious about enforcing the Terms. The Pilfering Dicer hadn’t really believed me, and so Hakram had held out his hand on a stump as I hacked a finger off as chastisement. There’d been another sort of challenge too, unsurprisingly: two other villains had lost little time before trying to take my place as representative by force of arms.
The Barrow Sword had been pleasantly straightforward about it, telling me outright he intended to use me as a stepping stone to rise high enough he could bargain with the Dominion to be named as the founder of a line of Blood. He’d just as straightforwardly submitted when I’d struck him hard enough with Night to blast him through two carts and a palisade. We’d had drinks after, and while he was a ruthless bastard he was also halfway decent company if you didn’t get him started on the Silent Slayer’s line. The Red Reaver had not been so respectable in his ambition. He’d tried to slit my throat in my sleep only to be caught by Indrani while trying to slip through my tent’s wards, and after that I’d… made an example. A warning to anyone else who might have similar ambition and lack of sense. There had not been a challenge since, though I’d no doubt that the longer this war lasted the more I’d end up having to face.
“I will fight the Hidden Horror,” the Scorched Apostate solemnly said, “on that you have my oath. I will march north and face the dead.”
“You’ll be headed to the Belfry for a few months, Tancred, unless there’s a pressing need for your talents,” I drily told him.
While the smouldering remnants of Marserac behind us were testament to the power the young villain was capable of wielding, I had no intention of sending a mage so spectacularly untaught straight into the nightmare of the northern defensive line. That was a recipe for either losing a company to an uncontrolled blaze or serving up Keter a fresh Revenant. Named lost a great deal of power after the Dead King got to them, and some aspects Neshamah either could not or would not maintain in death, but a Revenant spellcaster with this much of a bite to him would be a rough ride to deal with even if he ended up having only one trick.
“The Belfry, sir?” the boy hesitantly asked.
“This isn’t the kind of war that can be won with boots on the ground alone, Tancred,” I said. “The Grand Alliance understood that well before it began mobilizing. There would be a need for fresh sorceries, for unprecedented warding schemes and artefacts. A safe haven would have to be built for those scholars who would study the Hidden Horror’s tricks and learn how to unmake them, too, one beyond his reach. And so the Arsenal was ordered raised.”
I let a moment pass, gauging how much I should truly say. There’d been some of us, at the beginning, who’d argued that the Arsenal’s existence should be kept a secret. Princess Rozala had been one of the more ardent partisans of that belief, arguing that against Keter the best defence was secrecy, and the Grey Pilgrim had backed her – which meant the Blood had as well. In private with me, Tariq had argued that by keeping the Arsenal secret now we would later get the benefit of revealing it when tipping a pivot one way or another, but I’d been unconvinced then and I was unconvinced now. As it happened Hasenbach and I had, for once, been in complete and utter agreement. Even if one was willing to write off the effects on morale that knowing such a place existed would have on the rank and file of the Grand Alliance, which neither of us was, the fact remained that practically speaking keeping it secret would be near impossible.
Too many people would be involved in its construction and its upkeep. Whether it be building the towers and laboratories, bringing in food by cart or even something as simple as making the beds in the rooms there would be a need for workers and servants to handle the labour. That we’d gathered some of the finest magical minds in Procer, Callow and Levant before going further by bringing in scholars, priests and artisans meant that numbers alone would make disappearances glaringly obvious anyway. And it wasn’t like the Dead King wasn’t going to expect us to have such a facility. No, better to lay false trails by the dozen and keep the location secret rather than attempt the improbable outcome of utter secrecy.
“There are two societies within it, the Workshop and the Belfry,” I continued. “The Workshop concerns itself with the making of artefacts, armaments and alchemies. The Belfry’s mandate is broader in scope: study of the Dead King’s creatures, war magic and warding, experimental research.”
I let a beat pass so the details could sink in. The part that mattered most I’d consciously split from the rest.
“The Belfry also concerns itself with teaching mages,” I told the boy.
It’d been a struggle to pull away Masego from his attempts to establish his proof of concept for Quartered Seasons and the other half dozen projects he’d picked up, but the results had been well worth the hassle: he’d trained up a few talented Proceran practitioners to what he called ‘acceptable’ scrying ritual standards, which was maybe two decades ahead of what anyone west of the Whitecaps had previously been capable of. That cadre now served as permanent teachers for the hedge talents the First Prince was sifting through Procer for, sent in by bands of twenty for teaching. The scrying network for the Grand Alliance was arguably the largest and widest-reaching on the continent at the moment, if likely still inferior in quality and reliability to Praes’. Communications grew harder the closer we were to active warfare against Keter, too, now that Neshamah had begun using disruptive rituals.
Adjusting our rituals so that the disruptions wouldn’t affect them was exactly the kind of puzzle the Belfry had been assembled to solve, though, so we’d see how long that lasted.
Getting a training camp running for war magic had been a great deal less successful, unfortunately. Even after lowering the bar of used sorcery to the standard of the Legions of Terror we’d proved incapable of reliably training up mages in that manner. We were running thin on instructors, true, but at the end of the day the unpleasant truth was that there was simply a limited amount of people in Procer with a Gift that was strong enough to be useful for war. The total number of mages living in the Principate was likely higher than that in the Empire, by simple dint of population, but the quality of those talents was the trouble. Massed sorcery remained beyond our grasp for now, though at least training up a handful ritual cadres had proved a workable alternative. Standardization remained the largest issue there, since no two cadres were capable of doing the same things and there was only haphazard overlap.
“Are you not going to teach me?” the boy quietly asked.
His face was hard to read, which I supposed was a feeble silver lining to the scorching of his face. His voice, though, his stance? He was fourteen and, Named or not, he’d seen precious little of the world. He might as well be an open book to me.
“There are things you’ll learn from me,” I said. “Magic, however, isn’t one of them. I don’t have the Gift. I do happen to be acquainted with a few of the finest practitioners of it alive, though, so rustling up a good tutor for you shouldn’t be all that difficult.”
Who to send him to would be something to consider. Masego’s interest in teaching could best be described as passing, though he was a rather able tutor when talked into it. Hierophant also had so much on his plate the meal could feed two and he’d lost the ability to practice magic. Roland might be a better fit, anyway, given that his tendency to be a generalist meant he always had common grounds with pupils. The Rogue Sorcerer was a hero, though, and the way he ended up saddled with the work that no one else was particularly good at meant his days were nearly as filled as Masego’s. The Hunted Magician owed Indrani a favour which I might be able to call in for this, but the Proceran villain was an enchanter for the Workshop and just… generally unpleasant. I’d rather the Scorched Apostate be taught by a Named mage instead of a Nameless one, but we’d have to see.
“But I will be sent to this Belfry,” Tancred said, hesitant.
“Not alone,” I replied, taking a measure of pity on him. “I’m to head south myself before long, and I meant to pass through the Arsenal. I’ll be accompanying you there, at least.”
Indrani had been riding me about physically setting foot at the Arsenal for a few months now, though until today I’d been on the fence about taking the detour there after the council. This settled it, though, since I’d want to settle the boy comfortably under someone able to teach him before moving on. Archer wasn’t wrong, either, when she said that it was sloppy of me to have never met so many Named on our side, including villains I represented under the Terms. How many were there nowadays, between the Workshop and the Belfry? Ten, twelve? Less than half of that were of mine, since it was harder to find villains willing to play nice with others than heroes, but even getting a good look at the currents of the place might not be a bad idea. If we lost the Arsenal, the war would begin a death spiral downwards in a matter of months: best to make sure it wouldn’t shatter itself from within.
“Good,” the Scorched Apostate said, perking up. “I have-”
I wasn’t riding Zombie this time so her discomfort could not serve as warning for the closeness of the Beastmaster, but the old trick I’d once taught Vivienne still worked. Someone had been looking at me intently, too intently. It’d been an attempt to sneak up on me, I decided, and there were few who’d attempt that against me in broad daylight.
“Beastmaster,” I interrupted, “have you grown shy? Come out properly, introduce yourself.”
The man bedecked in furs and leather let out a grunt and circled away from my back, only then catching Tancred’s notice. Only one hawk was still on his shoulder.
“Your pet witch sent word,” Beastmaster said. “She makes haste, as you ordered.”
“Have you called her that to her face?” I asked, morbidly curious.
I almost hoped he hadn’t, just so he might try it before me: it’d been too long since I’d seen Akua flay someone alive with her tongue. The Beastmaster spat to the side.
“Better to embrace vipers than speak with witches,” the Named dismissively said.
So, I thought amusedly, you’ve most definitely called her that to her face and the predictable ensued. Slow learner, was he? Not that he’d been the first. It never ceased to amaze me that some people somehow ended up thinking Akua Sahelian would be an easy prey for barbs or bluster just because she did not have a Name while they did. It was like sticking you hand in a wolf’s maw and expecting the teeth not to wound because they weren’t a bear’s.
“That hawk,” Tancred said. “I’ve seen it before.”
“She saw you,” Beastmaster replied.
Since apparently Ranger’s education in Refuge had not extended to basic courtesies – and Gods, I’d meant that as a jab but now that I thought about it – I saw to the introductions myself.
“Tancred, this is the Beastmaster,” I said. “He’s a former pupil of the Lady of the Lake, and now a mercenary in the service of the Grand Alliance.”
Paid not in coin, which I would almost have preferred. The Beastmaster had instead bargained for certain rights and permissions, as well as guides to be provided to show him paths to ancient places in the depths of Brocelian Forest. Coin meant little to the Named of Refuge, used as they were to barter instead, and the relative modesty of the man’s demands meant he’d gotten near everything he’d asked for. He’d simply been too useful an asset to be carelessly tossed aside, and even with Refuge having effectively collapsed it wasn’t like he’d not had other places to go. The fighting in the Free Cities was far from over, despite General Basilia’s streak of victories.
“Greetings,” Tancred said, though he was frowning.
“Beastmaster, this is the Scorched Apostate,” I said. “He has agreed to abide by the Truce and the Terms.”
The older Named looked the younger up and down, seeing no longer the villain who’d caused the blaze in the distance but a boy a fourteen with most his face lost to burns and clothes that were well on their way to being rags. He was visibly unimpressed.
“Another one plucked out of the mud?” Beastmaster said with a hard bark of laughter. “At least this one has fight in him.”
“Not half an hour ago,” I mildly reminded him, “you were wary of him. Did you boldness perhaps travel by foot, to be arriving so late after the rest of you?”
His face darkened. I met his gaze squarely. Like Archer in the early days, he’d take any attempt at diplomacy as weakness and continue to push his luck. But he wasn’t Indrani, and I was not a Squire well out of her depth. I’d killed harder men then him and done it with a great deal less power than I could now call on. Confident in his strength as he might be, he’d be looking at the trail of corpses left in my wake and be forced to admit that were Named among the lot that would have butchered him without batting an eye. And so he backed down, or at least as close to that as his character could afford to let him.
“There is nothing left to hunt,” the Beastmaster said. “I take my leave of you.”
I could sting him further, but there would be no point to it save passing pleasure. Not that I’d let the retreat pass entirely without comment, lest he take that as relief on my part.
“By all means,” I replied. “The conversation was getting stale.”
Beastmaster’s lips thinned, but he strode away without speaking any further. I glanced at Tancred, who’d been following all of it with wide eyes and now was looking at me a little guiltily.
“I’m sorry,” the Scorched Apostate said. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”
“Trouble?” I echoed.
“Won’t he complain to the Black Queen?” the boy asked. “You’ve made an enemy of a powerful Named on my behalf.”
He seemed genuinely worried, which was a little touching.
“You seem to have misunderstood the nature of my relationship with him,” I said, smoothing away any trace of my amusement.
Tancred looked appalled, and a little sickened.
“I am sorry, sir,” he said. “I did not mean to insult your lover.”
I choked. Beastmaster, of all men? Gods, I’d rather sleep with the Mirror Knight. The man might be an insufferable prick, but at least he bathed regularly.
“He’s not my lover, he’s my subordinate,” I said.
In the boy’s defence, he seemed pretty mortified by the mistake. His embarrassment passed soon enough, though, and left behind only the latest hint in a series of them that’d been growing the longer we spoke.
“Those priests and horsemen,” the young villain said. “They were Callowan. And yet they bowed to you.”
“So they did,” I agreed.
My hand reached within my cloak to extricate the long dragonbone pipe Masego had gifted me so many years ago, then producing a satchel of Orense bitterleaf from another pocket. Sadly the bitterleaf enough had come to replace wakeleaf as my vice of choice as it was much easier to get your hands on this far north. The smoke was heavier than wakeleaf’s, and it was often mixed with sweeter herbs to take the edge of the sourness off, but it scratched the itch well enough when stuffed in a pipe.
“You implied you were a high officer of the Grand Alliance,” the Scorched Apostate continued. “But that’s not all you are, is it?”
I passed my palm over the pipe, flames flickering within through a twist of the Night, and pulled at the mouth a few times before spewing out a steam of smoke.
“Who are you?” Tancred asked.
“The Firstborn named me Losara, the Queen of Lost and Found,” I lazily replied. “To the Wasteland I was the Squire, the Carrion Lord’s sole apprentice. The fae knew me by many names, though the last I ever bore was that of Sovereign of Moonless Nights. On this side of the Whitecaps, though? It’s a simple name I am known by.”
“The Black Queen,” the boy whispered hoarsely. “The leader of the Woe.”
“Aye,” I said, with a crooked smile. “And now let’s find you some boots, because I refuse to keep wincing every time I look at your shoes.”