Chapter 9: Acceleration

“As sage in Nicae is a fool in Stygia.”
– Free Cities saying

Afternoon Bell came and went before Hanno made his way into my tent. The bundle of reports that inevitably accompanied contact with Salia had eaten up even more of my time than I’d anticipated it would. Vivienne had been enthusiastic in her account of the progress in the talks over the Accords, writing that giving ground over whether or not scrying a foreign country could be considered an act of aggression – which both Procer very much wanted it to be, considering its massive deficiencies in both city-warding and scrying rituals compared to Callow and Levant – had allowed her to get concessions over what we’d termed ‘civil diabolism’, the summoning and binding of devils for purposes other than war. The rest had been more disparate a pack of news than a cohesive, though no less useful for it.

Archer had apparently been seen in the Proceran heartlands with a sixth member to her band, which meant a fresh Named had been added to our roster and would be in touch soon. The First Prince had passed along a note on the state of the Grand Alliance treasury – which remained surprisingly good, all things considered – but also cautioned that the Principality of Brabant’s harvests seemed headed for catastrophe. She went on to write me that feeding this territory, and its massive numbers of refugees, would put us squarely back in the red before winter came. Pickler had sent a refinement on the rotating siege harpoon ballistae schematics she’d made up in Twilight’s Pass. She also mentioned in a separate letter, sounding somewhat flattered, that Prince Otto Reitzenberg had extended a formal invitation for her to found and settle a tribe in Lycaonese lands after the war.

It was a grave misreading of my Sapper-General’s interest in leadership duties so I wasn’t worried about poaching, but I doubted this would be the last of it. Even the Iron Prince had expressed interest in goblin engineering and, considering that Hannoven was yet in the hands of the Dead King, his people had a great deal of rebuilding ahead of them. Still, maybe a strongly worded letter to Otto Redcrown might serve as a helpful reminder that trying to recruit from my sapper corps was, at the very least, a slight to the crown of Callow.  Moving on to less grounded matters, the rumours gathered in the south and east by the Jacks remained wild as ever.

The dead were said to walk the streets of Nicae, General Basilia had supposedly eaten the heart of a holy oracle and could now see the future. A band of pale spectres was haunting the Green Stretch, all the while Dread Empress Sepulchral had turned into a black-scaled dragon and ravaged the outskirts of Wolof’s territory. That last one might in truth be the reappearance of General Nekheb of the Tenth Legion, though I’d also heard it said they were nesting among the ruins of the Red Flower Vales so I was less than sure. Somewhat amusingly, it was also quite a popular tale that I’d apaparently brought down the sky on Refuge so that I could steal its Named away into my service.

More important than the wild stories, though was the hastily tacked-on addition from Vivienne that Duchess Kegan had passed forward Dread Empress Sepulchral’s request to open formal diplomatic talks with the Grand Alliance. So far the diplomacy there had been informal and half a secret, and I’d gladly left it to my successor and Hasenbach. This, though, would require my personal attention. Joy. At least we might get enough leverage from that I might be able to wheedle out whether Sepulchral was a genuine claimant or just a horse for Black to ride. I’d better bring Akua into this as well, though that wasn’t unlike asking a wolf about their opinion of the hunt. Still, even years away from the Wasteland she had a better grasp of the way functioned there than anyone else under my command.

Aisha’s family was old and well-connected, after all, but ultimately minor nobility. The Sahelians lived and breathed intrigued at the very highest levels of Praes, and Akua hadn’t just been any one of the lot: she’d been the heiress to Wolof, groomed for either rule of the High Seat or the claiming the Tower itself. Short of kidnapping an actual High Lord there was just no beating that. I was considering who else to bring into this – Hakram, naturally, but it might be worth bringing in some of the high-ranking officers I’d inherited from the Legions of Terror as well – when one of my guards popped in to inform me Hanno had arrived. I thank the man and rose to my feet, limping my way to the commode even as the White Knight entered.

He looked at me then sighed.

“Let it be brandy, at least,” Hanno haggled.

I tapped the top of the commode, jostling a lock, and the door to left compartment popped open. I snatched out a bottle of Creusens brandy and two small silver cups. I’d been prepared. Amusingly enough it was easier to get him to drink liquor than wine, and he drank quick – if only to get it over with. He waited until my nonchalant gesture to take a seat, though I’d long told him not to bother anymore.

“Well bargained, White Knight,” I solemnly said.

“You only ever say that when I’ve been had, Black Queen,” he drily replied.

I limped back to the table, using his momentary distraction as he felt out one of Indrani’s latest carvings to take a closer look at him. Even after two years of facing one brutal horror after another, the Sword of Judgement had little changed in appearance. His fuzzy hair was so closely cropped as to seem almost shaved, leaving the eye to linger instead on a plain but well-formed face. He was built like someone who worked for a living, which I’d always found appealing, and the long-sleeved grey tunic he tended to wear when out of armour had earned a few more stitches since I last saw it but still framed those muscled arms rather nicely. He wasn’t a looker, not the way Ratface had been or Akua was, but he wasn’t without his charms either. Not that I’d ever seriously consider going there, Crows, though apparently Tariq still suspected we were somehow secretly engaging in torrid trysts.

You’d think that after trying to mentor me into the grave the man would have a better appreciation of how much I had no intention of coming anywhere close to something that could, even vaguely while in dim light, pass for a tragic love story. Dismissing the thought I idly noted that he’d brought a small leather satchel – papers, maybe? He shouldn’t need to, his memory was unusually sharp. It was a side-effect of his aspect of Recall, he’d told me, which I’d found fascinating. How many aspects had little quirks like this one, barely noticeable boons tucked away in the shade of the more prominent use? Looking back, after getting Struggle as the Squire I’d gotten rather good at assessing the skill and power of my opponents compared to me. How much of that had been my gaining experience, and how much an ancillary benefit? It was an interesting bit to consider, if at this point largely academic.

“Is that the Saint of Swords that the Archer depicted herself fighting?” Hanno asked.

I set the two silver cups on the table and went to work on the bottle’s cork.

“Battle of the Camps, it was,” I agreed. “They had a scrap while Masego and I were dreaming.”

“Impressive,” Hanno said even as I finally got the cork out with a pop. “There were not many capable of facing Laurence de Montfort’s sword up close and live to tell the tale.”

Indrani had privately admitted to me that she’d waited until the Saint was tired out from the battle and it’d still been a damned close thing, but I wouldn’t disagree with Hanno’s assessment even knowing that. Archer’s talent in close quarters was only slightly helped by her Name, while the Saint had been sharpening her skills in this regard for decades. Considering how much of a terror the woman had been in her old age, I often thought we’d been damned lucky not to fight her in her prime. I poured out two cups of brandy, quirking a brow at the dark-skinned man.

“Wouldn’t have you been able to check with Recall, anyway?” I asked.

He grimaced.

“The fresher the death and the stronger the personality the more it… lingers after use,” the White Knight admitted. “I would not call on the Saint of Sword’s life without great need.”

“Lots of her tricks came from her domain, anyway,” I mused. “Which you can’t mimic, as far as I know.”

He shot me an amused look, well used by now to the way I went about digging up everything I could about his abilities. Well, it was no mystery I’d not been raised by angels. He touched his fingers to the brandy cup, brow rising.

“Two,” he said.

“Five,” I replied without missing a beat.

“Three,” he compromised.

Ah, an opening.

“Twelve,” I boldly tried.

“Four and I’ll not tell Tariq you tried to get me drunk,” he suggested.

Oh Gods was I not in the market for another hesitant, indirect conversation about not ‘casting doubts on the nature of the Truce and Terms through unwise indulgence’. On the other hand, apparently the Witch of the Woods had heard about those and thought the whole thing was fucking hilarious – she kept making fun of Hanno in that nonverbal Gigantes language they used with each other, with all the poses and shifts. He had a stake in this as well, I figured.

“Five and I’ll stop implying in front of Secretary Nestor that your tunic’s grey because you don’t wash it,” I retorted.

As something said by the Black Queen about the White Knight, it went into the Annals every time. Every single time.

“Four and I’ll share the Workshop gossip I received with you,” Hanno offered.

You shit, I thought, not without fondness. He would definitely have shared that before, but he’d hold it back now for sure just so that when we next negotiated he’d have this to point back to.

“Fine,” I mercifully allowed. “Four.”

I set down the bottle on the table and took my cup, offering a toast.

“May you live to bury your enemies,” I said.

“Fair winds and slow rivals,” Hanno replied.

We clinked our cups and drank deep, setting down in unison. It took the edge off enough I barely felt the sting when I seated myself across from him.

“Dare I ask what’s in the bag?” I probed.

“It is not meant to be a mystery,” he said, leaning down to take the satchel before setting it in front of me. “It is a gift, Catherine. Your twenty-third nameday happened while I was away, no?”

I blinked in surprise.

“Oh,” I said. “Yes. Thank you? I’m an orphan, so I don’t really have one of those – just the foundling day late in the spring.”

It also didn’t explain why he’d given me a gift, though I wasn’t complaining.

“From your polite confusion, I take it nameday gift-giving is not a Callowan tradition,” Hanno noted.

“Not really,” I admitted. “For nobles sometimes, I think, but for most people gifts are given at the solstices and when you reach fifteen.”

The dark-skinned man cocked his head to the side, curious.

“Fifteen?” he asked.

“Age of enrollment,” I told him. “Used to be, anyway. It was kept for private noble armies under the Empire but I kicked it up to seventeen all around when I took the throne.”

Keeping it at fifteen would have helped fill the ranks after our losses more quickly but, as both Ratface and Governess-General Kendal had pointed out back then, if we kept pressing the young into service there’d be no one left to practice trades and tend to the fields. A large army was no help when it was busy starving.

“How interesting,” Hanno said, sounding genuine. “Ashurans are expected to give yearly nameday gifts to those they are tied to – family, friends or close collaborators. All within the same tier, naturally. For a citizen to court favour from a higher tier or display favour to a lower one would be frowned upon.”

The Thalassocracy of Ashur sounded like a deeply unpleasant place to live in, as usual. Weren’t there families with citizens of different tiers in them? Still, the implications there were a little flattering: I was being called both an equal and close collaborator.

“Thank you,” I said again, and took the satchel this time.

It was easy to unmake the bronze buckles, and within I found in neat little cloth packets what must have been at least half a years’ worth of wakeleaf.

“You know, when I told you to keep some of the Delosi coin I didn’t mean for you to blow it all on enabling my worst habit,” I drily said.

It’d been, though, a rather touching gesture.

“I have also been considering buying another tunic,” the White Knight calmly replied. “I’ve been told it passes as unclean to the unskilled eye.”

I swallowed a grin and clasped his wrist in appreciation. He smoothly returned the gesture.

“So when should I be looking to return a gift in kind?” I asked.

“Two days past winter solstice,” he smiled.

Ought to bring him to twenty-nine, that. As I recalled he had more or less five years on me, not that it showed: he had one of those faces which would look much the same age until he started greying. I set down the satchel to the side.

“So,” I said. “Business?”

“To business,” he agreed.

I poured him another cup, then myself, and we knocked them back without a toast. I gestured for him to begin as soon as the burn had faded from my throat.

“The Titanomachy reached out to us through Levant,” Hanno began. “They are sending an envoy north.”

I sucked in a surprised breath. The Gigantes were notoriously isolationist, and though they had longstanding ties to the Dominion it’d been my understanding those were limited to exchanges of gifts and the occasional favour. They didn’t even trade with humans in the traditional sense, as far as I knew.

“You don’t sound all that thrilled,” I noted.

His body gave what might have seemed like a twitch at first glance but I’d learned to recognize as him beginning to use that silent language he used with the Witch before stopping himself.

“It will be a complicated matter to handle,” he admitted. “I am told it is Ykines Silver-on-Clouds that was sent.”

“Which is,” I slowly said, “… bad?”

“When I left the Titanomachy, Ykines was skope for Hushed Absence,” Hanno told me. “It is… hard to describe in human terms. A skope is one charged with a message, speaking for others, but it is not exactly a position of authority. It does denote respect, however, and the Hushed Absence is the chorus that most prizes retiring from the affairs of Calernia.”

“So they sent us a lesser noble from the isolationist faction at court as the envoy,” I tried.

“That is untrue in every single specific yet broadly accurate in essence,” the White Knight said, sounding impressed. “You have to understand, Catherine, that since Triumphant and the Seven Slayings the Gigantes have only ever spoken of ties outside their borders in terms of loss.”

“The Seven Slayings,” I repeated curiously. “That’s the Humbling of Titans, right?”

“I would not recommend using that name around any of their kind,” Hanno advised. “The Slayings soured most of their kind on humans, though the tendency had been there for ages before.”

“I never did get why they’re still so viscerally furious about the Hum- the Slayings,” I said. “Procer struck by surprise, sure, but that’s hardly a first for them. Their armies still got savaged when they got deeper in, and all the Principate got to show for those deaths was a modest stripe of land added to southern Valencis.”

They’d also gotten the Titanomachy to unofficially back down from its defence pacts with the Levantine petty kingdoms, which had allowed Procer to eventually keep pushing into Levant after its conquest of Vaccei. Yet the amount of losses taken during the Humbling had supposedly kicked back that conquest by at least a decade, so in a sense the Gigantes had fulfilled their treaty obligations.

“It is not the treachery itself but what was committed through it,” the brown-eyed man said. “When the Principate called for talks, it was some of the greatest left among the Gigantes who went. Three of the last elder spellsingers, the amphore for the Sublime Auspice chorus and two candidates for the Name of Stone Shaper.”

My brow rose.

“Choruses are court factions,” I guessed.

“Gigantes are not social in the way humans are,” Hanno admitted. “You would find their cities to be empty things, and there’d be no court to be found. A chorus is more akin to an ideology, though even within a chorus there will be differing songs. The Hushed Absence, for example, will call to both those who advocate for isolation and those who curtail wonder-making by all Gigantes. Yet some will speak to one over the other or speak of both these in relative moderation. A skope will be messenger for one of the shades of belief, should it gain enough adherents within the chorus.”

“So what does the Sublime Auspice sing about?” I asked.

“Guidance of younger peoples and intervention beyond the borders,” the White Knight said. “In the past they were also the foremost slavers among the Titan Lords.”

I grimaced. Proceran history wasn’t something I’d studied in great depth, especially not when it came to the south – which had barely ever crossed Callow’s path before the Principate was founded – but I had learned some broad strokes back at the orphanage. Arlesites are passionate and romantic people, fond of poetry and duels, Douglas Robinson’s much maligned yet still widely used ‘Peoples of East and West’ described them. Their name comes from the ancient Arlesen Confederacy, which rebelled against the slaving giants. There were stories to be found there, to be sure, but I’d always had a hundred other things to attend to and never had the Titanomachy seemed likely to become relevant to my affairs. It wasn’t the first time I’d been wrong and was unlikely to be the last.

“They never recovered from losing their amphore to human Named while under truce banner,” Hanno continued. “And though the killing of the candidates was a grave insult in the eyes of the Gigantes – not unlike killing a Fairfax prince would be to your people – it was the death of the spellsingers that incited outright hatred. The magnitude of that loss for them as a people is not easily put into words, so I will simply say it was worth great grief and grief often turns to matching enmity.”

My brow rose.

“Named did that?” I asked. “I’d heard it was just assassins.”

“All were Arlesite heroes save for the White Knight of the time, who was of the Cantalii,” Hanno said. “Most of those Names are dead and gone now. Of the twelve assassins to strike only the Drake Knight survived, and not even that potent blood allowed him to grow back the arm he lost.”

He had that distant look on his face as he spoke, the one that told me he was drawing on memories he’d obtained through Recall.

“So you’re saying that since they’re sending us the isolationist skope as an envoy, we shouldn’t get our hopes up about the Titanomachy entering the war,” I said, drawing him back to the here and now.

“To an extent,” he replied, brow creased. “From what I can remember, Ykines was of the Hushed over the Absent – that is to say, his isolationism came as consequence of his desire to restrict wonder-making. It might be he is meant to haggle down contributions, not obstruct involvement.”

“I’ve seen the wardstones the Blood use, Hanno,” I said, hands tightening with want. “They have no fucking idea of how those even work and they’re still better in most regards than anything my people can make. Hells, even if they don’t want to enter the war I’d take a hundred of them joining the ranks of the Arsenal and still lick their boots clean in thanks.”

Metaphorically speaking, anyway. Considering their probable boot size, it seemed like a bit of hassle to get done otherwise.

“That is the complication, Catherine,” he admitted. “In some ways, entering the war might be more popular. What I tell you now, I would have your oath no to repeat.”

I let out a whistle. That was rare. He wasn’t one to ask oaths without a reason, and I perhaps still a little charmed even now that the Sword of Judgement considered my oaths to have worth, so I gave it without argument.

“Gigantes are not ageless in the way of the elves or the drow,” Hanno said.

To this day I was still uncertain as to whether he actually knew that Winter had done away with the mortal lifespan of the Firstborn or he’d simply, like most, assumed that drow were effectively immortal if not taken by strife or sickness.

“They gather power unto themselves by bathing in the light of moon and star in sacred places, by songs and patience, and this power lends them vitality,” the White Knight said. “To be a spellsinger is to be born with the gift of power, to come to weave a second soul and through it be able to pluck at the chords of Creation. These are rare, and prized, as for most Gigantes to make a wonder is to craft with the very stuff of what keeps them alive.”

My eyes narrowed.

“The Seven Slayings,” I said. “They came after that tussle with Triumphant that’s said to have made the Titan’s Pond out of what used to be plains. How much of their lives did they spend to take her on?”

I’d always counted it passing odd, that a people capable of playing rough with the greatest monster to ever come out of the Wasteland had taken hits from an infant Principate without any great retaliation save for the building of the Red Snake Wall much later, after the Dominion freed itself. It made a little more sense now, especially if heroes were thrown into the mix. I knew better than most how dangerous those could be when properly motivated. Sisters bless, these days I’d come to rely on it.

“A fifth of their people died outright,” Hanno frankly said. “Centuries of accumulated power were spent in an hour, and many left themselves only enough to live until they could fill themselves again – yet, even now, a great many of the Gigantes are but a decade away from death should they not observe the old rituals.”

“So they’re not going to want to spend themselves close to the grave to save Proceran lives,” I grimaced. “Harsh. The spellsingers, though, if they’re born with the Gift wouldn’t they be effectively immortal?”

“In a sense,” Hanno conceded. “Yet most of them are young, by the reckoning of the Gigantes, and so have spent but a century or two accumulating power after forging their second soul – through both celestial rituals and their own gift folded onto itself, true, but even so it remains a delicate and time-consuming process. The trouble, here, is that the Titanomachy’s greatest wonders all require the stewardship of spellsingers to some extent.”

Of course they did, because those would have been made before good ol’ Triumphant swaggered in, butchered most of their spellsingers and emptied out the vitality-power reserves of a significant chunk of their population. Much like the Firstborn after Sve Noc first bargained for survival, they must have felt like rats scuttling in the ruins of their own empire, forced to choose between their lives and seeing their greatest works fall apart. Shit, no wonder they hated the Principate like poison: to them it must have felt like Procer savagely kicked them when they were down and just starting to consider how to get back up from the last kick.

“So if they’re with us they’re not keeping their own cities functional, which is going to be less than popular at home,” I sighed. “That’s great. If they’re that tied up, Hanno, why even bother sending an envoy?”

“Because inconvenience and hatred of Procer does not mean they are willing to surrender Calernia to Keter’s grasp without having lifted a finger to fight the encroaching doom,” the White Knight said. “I imagine that our failure to drive back the Dead King has them justly worried, given the scope of the efforts employed by the Great Alliance. I fully expect the Titanomachy will try to gift us old wonders instead of agreeing to craft new ones, and strictly limit the numbers they sent north. Yet even that much would be godsent, let’s not pretend otherwise.”

It’ll be fear that got them moving too, I mused, now that the initial disappointment had passed. Procer alone and surrounded by foes, the way it’d been before the Grand Alliance steadied, that’d be acceptable to them. But Procer as the heart of a great continental alliance that included even their old allies the Levantines? They couldn’t let that happen without keeping an eye on it. I imagined the great developments of the last few years would have attracted the attention as well. It was one thing to play the hermit kingdom when your magic was beyond the wildest dreams of your neighbours, but what happened if the Arsenal put Procer on even footing in even just some regards? A Principate with a few war-making artefacts like that under its belt might not be so inclined to let it go when the Gigantes killed its people on sight near the border.

And given that the Twilight Ways were without precedent, I imagined a lot of their defensive wards would need reworking to adapt to their existence. That had to be keeping them up at night. While they might be able to access the Ways on their own, they’d need deep study before they could feel safely walled up again – and the quickest way to achieve that was sending people to the Arsenal to look through what we’d already found out. No, there were decent reasons for them to reach out even though Hanno had already succeeded at weaning me off the hope that the Titans would come in at this late hour and turn the tide of the war. Hells, if nothing else just seeing how fragile the situation on the fronts was might motivate them to send more than crumbs our way.

“I’ll take what we can get,” I fervently agreed. “I’m guessing this was kicked up to you because we can’t use Cordelia as our diplomatic workhorse this once?”

“It would be unwise to ask the First Prince of Procer to meet Ykines Silver-on-Clouds on behalf of the Grand Alliance,” he mildly agreed. “The Holy Seljun noted that Antigone and I were both mentioned by name, as even to the Hushed Absence we are known.”

“Might have to be you, if they want a familiar face. Haven’t heard of the Witch in a month,” I said. “Not since she went up to have that gander in northern Cleves.”

“From there she struck at the Enemy,” Hanno informed me. “I expect you’ll be getting the message from Princess Rozala late tonight. Antigone put together a band of five and intercepted a turtle-ship before it could land.”

A savage grin split my lips. The Dead King marched his skeletons at the bottom of the Tomb and the Grave regularly, but it wasn’t without effects on the equipment of his soldiers: you couldn’t keep chain mail or a sword underwater for a month without it rusting. For the fodder that was all fine and good, but when Neshamah went to the trouble of arming a few thousand Binds in good steel he didn’t then proceed to scrap it by sending them on an underwater march. For those he used ship transports, in his own horrible manner: massive turtle-barges made of bone and wood with a hollow shell protecting his elites from the elements. As tended to be the way with him, the turtle-ships were made to move by a necromantic flesh construct that was more lizard than turtle and boasted both massive claws and bags of liquid poison it could spew out in a stream.

“Godsdamn,” I whistled. “Now that’s something to brag about. They sunk it? I thought he’d hardened the shells to magic after Akua ripped one open last summer.”

“It had the cold iron linings,” Hanno confirmed. “Antigone made the tactical decision to use her available assets according to methods that had previously proved successful.”

A beat passed and I cocked an unimpressed eyebrow at the hero.

“She threw the Mirror Knight real hard at it,” I deadpanned.

The slightest twitch of the hero’s lips was the most openly he allowed himself to be amused.

“I honestly can’t remember a time where that didn’t work,” I pondered out loud. “Maybe she’s onto something.”

The Mirror Knight was, admittedly, the closest thing to unkillable I’d ever seen even amongst the distinctly hard to kill company that was heroes. During the Dead King’s winter offensive, he’d lasted alone against three Revenants for an hour at Duchesne until Ishaq and I arrived. Though he’d put none of them down it was still utterly absurd that they’d not managed to put a serious wound on him either. Regardless, it was impressive he had a hard enough head that it had sent a few thousand of Neshamah’s finest troops at the bottom of the Tomb. I poured us each another cup of brandy and offered another toast.

“To the Mirror Knight living to be thrown another day,” I said.

“To success against the Enemy, whatever the shape of it,” Hanno said, almost reproachfully.

I wasn’t fooled, he found the whole thing just as hilarious as I did. The drinks went down, and the cups hit the table. A grimmer look passed across his face, afterwards, which immediately had my hackles rising.

“They did more than simply break a turtle-ship,” the White Knight said. “When out there they found a hollow where the scrying disruptions didn’t reach. They got a glimpse of northern Hainaut, before Keter adjusted to block them.”

“Tell me,” I said.

“The Hidden Horror is making a bridge across the tributary river to the Tomb,” he told me, tone calm. “We’ll be facing a full-on offensive within six months, and the numbers…”

I grimaced at his hesitation.

“How bad?”

“At least two hundred thousand of his finest foot is preparing to cross,” Hanno replied. “He’s building from both shores and building in stone – if we don’t break it while unfinished, it will be warded and enchanted so thoroughly as to be near indestructible.”

Fuck, I feelingly thought. On parchment a bridge wasn’t much of an issue, considering Keter could walk its troops at the bottom of the lakes and ferry them across with turtle-ships, but in practice it might be a deathblow to our hopes of retaking Hainaut. The Tomb and the river limited how quickly the Hidden Horror could send his soldiers from the Kingdom of the Dead, especially considering the strong current of the tributary, and the turtle-ships were vulnerable to heroic raids. A bridge, though, meant he could just keep pouring troops into Hainaut day and night: and that wasn’t a metaphor, it wasn’t like the dead tired. So far we’d been keeping our edge against the massively larger numbers through superior troop quality: even a Proceran conscript could handle a few mindless zombies alone, or a pair of skeletons if their arms and armour were rusted through. Once we got full battalions of Binds to deal with, though, we’d be facing a well-armed and fully intelligent army.

If we gave them room to manoeuvre, let the Dead King deploy his full array of tricks against us, then this was the death knell of the Grand Alliance.

“Do you have dimensions for the bridge?” I said. “A notion of the timeline on its completion?”

“Antigone used one of the Repentant Magister’s artefacts to capture an illusory image,” he said. “And sent it south to me by a trusted hand.”

Who did he – ah, and that would be why the Valiant Champion was in my camp. The three of them were supposed to be close.

“Shit,” I cursed. “We need to bring this to the Alliance’s high command as soon as possible. This changes our schedule for the offensive into northern Hainaut, at the very least. If we can grab it back fast enough we could put this entire mess to rest, or at least take the southern end of the bridge and defend it.”

“Antigone went east to blunt another offensive against the western coast of Cleves,” Hanno said. “Which means I will have to move south to speak with the Gigantes envoy myself.”

“We’re due a proper council anyway,” I pointed out. “And a visit to the Arsenal couldn’t hurt. Hells, the Painted Knife is due back soon as well, the way I hear it, and I’m curious to hear what she has to say.”

“We gather it all at the Arsenal, then,” Hanno agreed. “It ought not to be impossible, given the facilities there.”

“It can be done in the other senses as well,” I grunted. “We have the pull to ensure it.”

Though the mood had grown more somber, I poured out another two cups. Hanno’s eyebrow rose questioningly.

“Surrendering the last cup so soon?” he said.

“Well, if we’re to have the conversation I suspect we’re about to have we might as well finish the drinks first,” I said. “Argument does tend to spoil the taste.”

“Ah,” Hanno exhaled.

He took the cup in hand and we drank. Because he was a polite sort, he waited a few heartbeats before speaking.

“You have lashed out at two heroes in two days, Black Queen,” the White Knight said. “I would know why, and what happened to the Named you meant to bring back to camp.”

85 thoughts on “Chapter 9: Acceleration

    1. "help" bleh.

      how about this instead:

      “You have lashed out at two heroes in two days, Black Queen,” the White Knight said. “I would know why, and I would have you vote for PGTE on topwebfiction.”

      Liked by 2 people

  1. There’s no plausible way that the fact that Valiant Champion skinned and is wearing Captain as a cloak is offensive to Cat is news.
    Hell, Hanno was in the immediate vicinity (and an active Band of Five, less casualties, with her) when Valiant Champion first did that. And Captain was one of the Calamities, and therefore close to Cat’s first mentor and father figure … it doesn’t take much thought to get to the point that Cat might dislike someone wearing a person she knew as a cloak.

    Throwing the Mirror Knight at enemies. That’s a classic in the making.
    And it’s not like most of the rest of the Named will feel a personal loss when the asshat finally gets thrown into something that he doesn’t walk away from.

    Liked by 16 people

    1. caoimhinh

      I think it’s more along the lines of “Are you ok? Stress seems to have piled up and it’s taking a toll on you” rather than “why did you treat Raphaella that way?”.

      Hanno is concerned for Cat’s mental and emotional state. He’s not there to reprimand her, but to listen to her.

      Liked by 20 people

      1. Agent J

        And that she snapped on the little kid is definitely questionable. I mean, we get why, but he still has no idea about Tancred. And it wasn’t right to do, even knowing about Tancred.

        He’s noticing what Akua, Hakram, and maybe even Indrani already have. Cat’s slipping and he’s worried about her.

        Liked by 14 people

        1. Insanenoodlyguy

          Clearly the best solution to this is sex. Sex with Hanno. Since, as she pointed out, tragic love story comes from a relationship, it has to be sex devoid of meaning beyond the act itself. I’d have said invite Akua but that clearly is becoming it’s own story, so lets go with that one flirty Mercenary captain for a threesome. That should do it.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Catherine is not capable of having sex without meaningful attachment, and being possibly aromantic means sex is exactly the one thing standing between her already existing friendship with Hanno and a tragic love story.

            Of course, it doesn’t have to be tragic in the first place…


      1. TAP_M113

        “You have lashed out at two heroes in two days, Black Queen,” the White Knight said.

        Two out of three… Is a pattern of three. Either Cat & Hanno cotton on, or it strikes home.
        A sneaky Necromancer Skynet, our dear Neshamah is.

        Liked by 3 people

          1. Scribe of Astor

            So everyone is going to skip over the fact that Malicia has been dethroned and that there is a new Dread Empress? How did the master schemer finally fail? Who is the new Empress who did it? Was Black involved?


            1. Earl of Purple

              Dread Empress Sepulchral doesn’t have the Name Dread Empress yet- she’s a Claimant, nothing more. Malicia still sits in the Tower, weaving her webs and gathering her allies. Sepulchral only has a third of Praes, I believe, so Malicia isn’t out of the game yet.

              Nobody knows where Black is or what he’s doing, though it’s suspected (by Cat, with no evidence) that he’s sitting behind Sepulchral and using her to focus attention away from himself, as he’s also a Claimant.

              Liked by 2 people

            2. She was not dethroned. There is a civil war (if not one that is currrently being actively fought by lare armies). Malicia still holds the Tower, Sepulchral is a claimant operating out of IIRC Blessed Isle.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Sepulchral is based out of Aksum, her own seat; Nok has declared for her.

                The Blessed Isle would, I think, fall behind the lines of the breakaway legionnaires that are Black loyalists and really didn’t like the revelations about Malicia planting mind control hooks all over the place, they’re said to be camping on the edges of the Green Stretch. Those positions got started as the Legions being a de facto buffer zone between Callow and the rest of the Praes.
                Also, the Blessed Isle wasn’t a fortified position anymore – it never got rebuilt after it got trashed and the Paladins exterminated during the Conquest.

                Liked by 4 people

                  1. Abreha got the Governorship of Blessed Isle and its environs.
                    She never lost her core and actual home powerbase of Aksum.
                    Aksum is a lot more useful than Blessed Isle for internal Praesi politics. Especially when you’re the High Lady of Aksum.
                    Even more so when you’re kicking off rebellion and civil war against someone currently sitting in the Tower as Dread Empress.

                    Plus, when it came up in Chapter 7 … Aksum and Nok were mentioned as being for Sepulchral. Blessed Isle wasn’t, and Blessed Isle is on the Callowan side of the Green Stretch, which is where the Black-loyalist legionaries that didn’t like Malicia’s mind control over their leadership are camping out – and they are described as a separate faction.

                    Liked by 1 person

          2. TAP_M113

            Does the narrative weight restriction really apply if you only wish for a very small/subtle effect?
            Patterns of three are repeated and visible on subtle little tidbits of lore, not only in the big, climatic adversarial relationships between named. In general, a pattern of three themathically relevant events seems to leave a small groove in creation, no matter how shallow.

            Giving a subtle nudge to a named character flaws (anger response against fairly broad sets of maed hero behavior), amplifying something that was already here, is plasuible and workable… and Neshamah is on par on age and power with the Bard.

            And last time Cat interacted with the Bard, she saw how she nearly got her by subtly placing 3 overlapping losing stories, ones that would have got her killed if she hadn´t took a really unortodox action course. I would say that Neshamah isn´t as terrifingly canny when it comes to narrative, but his knack for collecting Revenants and inflicting cruelly ironic demises on them means he is a VERY fair hand at psychologically breaking people.

            This is what I see here: a fair bit of preemptive assassination of a troublesome, nascent name, with some psychological and narrative warfare of opportunity, to twist the knife.
            Neshamah has spoken a suspicious amount of times with Cat since the whole “War on Keter” deal, and I think he has a “meta-narrative” plot in mind when he does that.

            I get the impression that tends to get the Pappenheim and other named by being conversationally “Affably Evil” and intimate with them, so that when the time comes, they are narratively easier to kill – at this point, when he comes to meet them, alone and surrounded, it is like a naked man surrendering to his inevitable death at winter´s cold, welcoming embrace.

            Underestimate not Old Bones – I doubt that such a canny Necromancer does any action that does not further his plans, after so many millenia. Given that he operates a fair amount of forks in parallel, does not sleep, tire or forget, at this point he is more akin to Skynet or a Seed AI than anything remotely human. Ignore this at your peril.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. A subtle nudge to get a subtle effect only works when there’s not enough noise of other cause-effect chains interfering. I can see Neshamah wanting to rattle Cat period but (1) I do not believe he’d be able to predict that she would specifically “lash out against two heroes in two days”, (2) Hanno interfering here will disrupt that (potential) effect before it’s really begun.

              To be worthwhile, narrative effects have to be strong enough to work against regular probability of events.

              Liked by 2 people

  2. ruduen

    Honestly, that’s fair. Cat’s definitely been more temperamental after dealing with the fallout, and for better or worse, it probably helps to have someone on the Heavens’ side who’s not completely unreasonable to air things out with.

    Liked by 10 people

    1. Not quite everything can be blamed on Triumphant.
      I’d pin a lot of the Praesi bullshit on … the second Emperor of Praes – the one who assassinated the first Emperor of Praes, and started the pattern of succession and promotion via murdering your predecessors.

      Plus, both the Dead King and Bard predate Triumphant by significant factors.

      Liked by 13 people

    2. TwilightGlimmer

      The Bard used her as a catspaw to kill an angel to create a weapon capable of destroying the Dead King (with a side of doom worse than what the Dead King is bringing

      Liked by 2 people

  3. caoimhinh

    I had always thought that the Humbling of Titans (now known to us as the Seven Slayings) had been what Triumphant had made, not a Proceran betrayal of the Titanomachy after the battle against Praes. It was the impression I got from every time it was mentioned.

    What’s the name of the battle against Triumphant then?

    Also, the Gigantes Spellsingers are kind of the equivalent of Cultivators at Nascent Soul Stage in a Xianxia story. Fascinating

    Liked by 10 people

      1. caoimhinh

        Well, kind of.
        A Foundation Establishment one wouldn’t live past a hundred years without aging, nor would be able to perform great workings of magic. Plus the Gigantes explicitly make a second soul out of the energies of the Cosmos, so I would count it as a Nascent Soul.

        Although their particular brand of magic sacrifices their Nascent Soul, so there’s that big difference.


  4. Konstantin von Karstein

    I wonder if the flaw in the anti-scrying spells was involuntary or not. It would completely be in Neshamah’s style to reveal a plan that could make his enemies lose, and when they are busy countering it doing something else even more dangerous. But I am maybe too paranoid.

    Liked by 10 people

      1. AceOfSword

        But Neshamah is good with stories, wouldn’t he expect providence to pull some stuff like this? He adjusted the anti-scrying afterward, maybe he intentionally left the flaw to influence providence, that way he knows what his opponents know and can plan accordingly.

        Or maybe he set up a target that can’t be ignored, knowing that providence would focus on warning the heroes about it and that makes it less likely for his other plans to be revealed.

        Liked by 8 people

        1. TAP_M113

          I concur. This bridge is a single, BIG point of failure akin to flying fortresses – for someone as lore-savy as Neshamah, a plan that relies on such a flagrant narrative vulnerability doesn´t parse.
          Neshamah, as the biggest bad ever, WILL get rekt by narrative at the first opportunity, and the success of his career is mostly credited to his ability to mitigate villain narrative handicaps.

          I suspect that this bridge is a Stalingrad, or the battle of Kursk – a strategic trap, in the military and Heroic/Villain sense.

          1º) In the Military sense: the Grand Alliance army is rushed into an all-out offensive into a surrounding, entrenched defensive position. If Neshamah has a reputation, it is to be the Calernia´s “General Winter” – certain doom to an entangled, surrounded foe, brutally punishing such military mistakes with absolute annihilation.
          If he envelops them and cuts their retreat (what happened in Kursk), he can annihilate them.
          He also is the agressed party, an unexplored tale – a more favourable one than the “Lest Dawn Falls” tale for when he is the attacker.

          2º) In the Narrative sense: the Heroes get dangled a “Nefarious Plot” they can´t ignore, then blunder into a “Demise of their own Making” and the Villains get thrown into an unforgiving, grinding environment where “Any Mistake is repaid with Death” and “With No Clever Escape”.

          3º) In the Meta-narrative sense: deathtraps are always averted by “Comic Relief” heroes… and Neshamah has been steadily killing ALL of them. Remember how the “Fortunate Fool” constantly saved the Procerans from encirclement deathtraps? He and all of his kind were forced onto “Heroic Sacrifices” these last years. By killing them, he is steadily shifting the story´s tone into a “Grim, Dark Tale” where even providence can´t save you, and Plot Armor has no place.

          4º) In Catherine´s tale sense: I think that the fact that Cat is slipping and angry is intentional on the Death King´s part – he has intentionally been manouvering her (and likely others) in losing stories with soft touches via his agents. He talks a lot to his foes via Ghouls, and it doesn´t make sense to fall into the risk of possible “Villain Monologue” if he wasn´t doing something like that.
          The Tancred situation and Cat getting suddenly “Black-like Unreasonable angst at the World” are REALLY too well engineered against her background to be a coincidence. Something is up.

          If the Grand Alliance retreat is dumb enough to lean into the big, fat single point of failure that is the Twilight ways, I bet you that the “Kursk trap” will pay off. Admiral Ackbar screams so.

          Liked by 7 people

          1. LarsBlitzer

            I can understand the narrative weight there. The bridge does scream trap to me, and it would be one of the very best kinds of traps: one that cannot be ignored. I can’t see Cat or Hanno marching a full force out using the Twilight Ways though. Taking out the bridge would be on a tight schedule, and the logistics of moving an army are slow as molasses. No, my bet would be on sending a team of Named heroes and villains, volunteers all, to sabotage the bridge. In using a WWII analogy, even one based on movies, think less Stalingrad or Operation Market Garden, and more Dirty Dozen or The Guns of Navarone. Cat would be blind not to see the opportunity of narrative weight there either: Once enemies turned comrades in arms by circumstance, heroic band united by a clear objective, underdog gambling on a faint hope to destroy a Big Bad Thing (she even noted that while it isn’t a floating fortress it is pretty awful,) throw in a redemption arc for one of the more dastardly villains and that’ll likely kick off a Heroic Sacrifice to blow the thing to pieces. Send along a few Goblin and Orc Sappers to set the explosives and Hell, one of those might even get a name out of it.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. A trap is begging for a heroic or tragic reversal. But it doesn’t have to be a trap.

              An unignorable war-changing construction which forces a response still forces a response and takes attention away from other fronts, whether reacting to it is a trap or not. And even if it and a misdirection play are noticed and thwarted, the Dead King will have still forced the Alliance to commit a massive chunk of resources outside their secure supply network where their logistics can be harried and their troops bled, on terrain he’ll have had a chance to prepare, against his fortified position. He’ll be able to inflict worse losses than he takes, even if he loses.

              And even if he looses the bridge project, it’s not like he’d be handing over a tactical or strategic advantage. He’d still be able to send over troops as he is now, the Alliance won’t have gained anything they can use cus the bridge either won’t be built or will be his enchanted structure, and the location will still be outside the alliance’s secure support network with no nearby castles.

              This is what the Dead King does. He makes a move which allows for trickery, but doesn’t depend on it. He makes a move which would hit hardest if unnoticed, but still works if Providence bungles that. He makes a move where when if he loses at every single step, he still bleeds his enemy harder than he gets bled. And he does so with troops he’s spent centuries building up so he has spares to throw away without personal worry.

              Liked by 6 people

              1. TAP_M113

                I mean, as you said, there are clear advantages for Neshamah if the bridge plan works… but it also doubles as a trap, because even if the bridge is destroyed, it is pulling, and likely destroying, critical Grand Alliance resources at multiple levels as they are thrown against a fully prepared killzone.

                It is like a Chess grandamaster aperture – it positions their pieces to occupy all of the optimal paths available, expanding his options, losing none key peices, and denying the enemy moves.

                Even the key element – the fact that Neshamah has the intitiative and dictates the battlefield and flow of the war by forcing his foes to react – is a massive strategic benefit in and on itself.
                Initiative in warfare is only ceded when you are weak enough to be forced to drop it.

                Liked by 1 person

            2. TAP_M113

              I like the cut of your jib, but Catherine has noted that it is such a solid target – stone-built, surrounded and guarded by entire army corps – that it needs at least a “Market Garden” degree of commitment, and spoke at marching the entire army by land in a “Kursk offensive” level to get it destroyed.

              “Built in stone” means no easy way to completely demolish it – if you bring down sections, the hard work on the bridge foundations remains, and it would be relatively easy to rebuild from them. For me that implicates hundreds of people on deck, at least, to bring it down for good.

              But assuming that this is NOT the case, and a stealth mission to bring it down is possible, you are going to need a LOT of Named firepower, which again obviously benefits Neshamah.
              As you said, it is then a “Dirty Dozen” scenario… and could the Grand Alliance afford to lose a full dozen named if things go wrong? I doubt it.
              Even if not, a LOT of Names would be tied away from fronts where they are needed. Named may be more powerful than Revenants, but they are significantly outnumbered by them. Imagine multiple bullshit plans like the magical plague seeds simultaneously succeeding on several critical locations – this is the kind of thing that may allow Neshamah to spill his forces onto the highly populated Procer hearthlands, and reach criticality for necromancy reinforcement rates.

              So Neshamah is proving himself quite clever – no matter the way things go, he will get a windfall out of it.
              Condition the entire Grand Alliance Army on a land offensive in a ground of his own choosing (“Kursk”), commit a valuable army corps through the Twilight Ways (“Market Garden”), or put an uncomfortable amount of her named eggs in a single basket (“Guns of Navarone/ Dirty Dozen”)

              He may yet be defeated, but this forces again the Grand Alliance to react instead of act, and allows him to keep the initiative and choose the terrain – the historical hallmarks of a Victorious Commander.
              That is what I like so much – there is magic-ruled world and a VERY imaginative, yet sensible Necromancer running an WWII-sized undead army, and EE still finds logistic and military challenges fettering it that seem like they always belonged here, and makes this as tense, yet understandable, as the Russian front situation in WWII. Kudos, EE.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Rainemetel40

                See this entire war and all of the Dead Kings plans read, to me at least, like the set up for a “To Clever for their own good” scenario.

                Wherein the DK unwittingly gives the heros the keys to his defeat. I don’t know why I feel like this but, it seems pretty likely.

                Liked by 1 person

          2. Ciara

            I think you’re overthinking it. The bridge is just *one* way that Nessie can win. Contrast that to a flying fortress which is supposed to be *the* way you win. The narrative weight here is more of a scheme-of-the-week than ultimate weapon. If they stop it, the status remains quo.

            I mean, he’s got to assume any given plan has a massive chance of being foiled, but you don’t become a villain on the level of “setting element” by NOT trying plans that give your army a massive advantage at zero risk to yourself.

            Liked by 4 people

      2. Patrick Herke

        I’m not so sure. The idea that it was deliberate was actually my first thought when it came up. It’s one of those things that’s so bad you almost can’t ignore it which makes it more suspicious. But at the same time, if it’s that bad you kinda have to do something.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I like the point that it’s a Scheme of the Week. If the heroes decide it’s a trap and don’t come, you win, because you actually for real were investing into it. If the heroes do come, why, you have a trap prepared just for that!

          It’s resource intensive – you have to fully invest into both possibilities for both to be effective – but if you have as many resources as the Dead King has, you can safely set up Xanatos Gambits like this.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. CATHERINE’S BIRTHDAY IS IN LATE SPRIIIIING -skips around happily, giving people random hugs-

    Also, Hanno’s 28! Seems like he’s approximately of age with Cordelia. ALSO BLESS THE BIRTHDAY CLARIFICATION

    SO much lore about the Gigantes, I LOVE IT

    but the best part of course… is the promise of the conversation to come 😀

    (and throwing Mirror Knight at enemies. poor guy)

    Liked by 8 people

  6. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    “As sage > “A sage
    a cohesive > cohesive
    Nicae, General > Nicae. General
    from that I > from it that I (or remove the “from”)
    intrigued > intrigue
    the claiming > claiming
    thank the > thanked the
    is be > it be
    to left > to the left
    shouldn’t need > shouldn’t have needed
    live to tell > living to tell
    years’ > year’s
    recognize as > recognize it as
    oath no > oath not
    perhaps still > was perhaps still
    sent north > send north
    the attention > their attention

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thanatoss

    I got today egzam and couldn’t last minute study due to new chapter XD
    Great lore, great relationship between White and Black Queen.

    Also I was almost sure that Black is not involved with *fake new Dread Emperor…. Hmm now I am not so sure, Cat said she doesn’t know. Maybe just maybe Black himself is claimant to the Tower but how does he keep it a secret?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. First it’s not a secret, he kind of said it during a continent wide conference.

      Second, what he’s keeping secret is where the fuck he is and what the fuck he is doing. Who’d be able to tell if he is or isn’t a claimant to some Name if they have no idea what his current story is at all?

      Liked by 3 people

  8. Captain Amazing

    I hope Hanno suggests necromancy here. He has an impressive realist streak and putting pieces back on the board is the prerogative of the head villain after all. Besides, Masego said necromancy isn’t a strictly evil branch of magic.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. TAP_M113

    One of the things that I believe has been stealthily elaborated by EE, but rarely commented in depth, is at which extent Neshamah has been manipulating the culture of all nations of the Grand Alliance to subvert the narrative convention of “All Villains eventually Fall” that forms the staple of Heroic and Above´s dominance.
    And, by extension, how Neshamah, Catherine, Black and Triumphant work alike.

    For any Villain to successfully affect the world, they must navigate a cultural substrate and belief system than extols following Above-ordained divine authority, conservative tendencies and, above all, that the actions of the individual to change the world to his liking against the majority, the root of “Villainy”, is always doomed to fail. This is the basic narrative “fact” that any succesfull Villain must somehow navigate well enough to be able to enact a lasting impact on the world.

    This begs the question of what is the Narrative.
    The first answer would be “people´s beliefs of what is possible for an individual/nation to achieve & what are the driving forces of history”, codified by legend, historical account and folk tale.
    A second, more general answer would be “Above, Below & the Unaligned Wants of Individuals”, rooted in some biological substrate common to all species that drives an individual´s preference for collectivism (Above-Hanno), the individual Vs Society (Below-Catherine), or the autonomous fulfillment of the self´s desires (Unaligned-Archer), and his own interpretation of what “makes the world tick” across the course of history.

    Of course, this means that a conflict between all individual views of “how the world works” is wont to happen, and needs to be arbitrated – which inevitable leads to demographics.

    “Above” stories and Heroes tend to win in most of Calernia because the most POPULATED countries are Above-aligned; conversely, “Below” stories and Villains lose everywhere except in Praes, Bellephoron-Stygia and the Serenity, because there a VERY significant population is culturally “Below”-aligned. But there is also a long-standing tradition of “Archers”, “BeastMasters” and “Rangers” everywhere, because those are universal, unaligned tales of exploration, adventure and hermit self-sufficiency that are common to all of human experience that do not map into the moral axis.

    This explains why narrative tends to favour Heroes worldwide, but Villains have some narrative niche advantages in even Above-aligned countries, while Praes and other Below-aligned places were tiger papers that turn into unassailable “Afghanistans” when invaded – the cultural demographics provide a significant “home turf” advantage that can only be wiped by wholesale cultural engineering.

    Orcs were only conquered by toppling their cultural milestones in a culttural genocide; Praes only held Callow when a militarily hyper-competent occupation aware of narrative coincided with the cultural acceptance of a Callow-born, overwhelmingly popular Villain (Cat) was acclaimed to the throne; Neshamah only got apotheosis when an entire civilization unflinchingly thrusted him with their own very life as a savior…and later on, as a god.

    Neshamah, Black and Triumphant share the common trait of having managed the most succesful instances of cultural engineering.
    Neshamah created a populous nation that worships him as a God (granting apotheosis and a nifty buff) and convinced the entire Calernia to see him as an unbeatable bogeyman, the “death that cannot be denied”. “A single man cannot vanquish the World” is the only narrative convention left standing, and has already hit “godhood”, with lowercase “g”

    Triumphant MADE Praes, and is its cultural staple. She overturned every opponent, defiled every temple, belief and convention that opposed her, and only run afoul of the “A single woman cannot vanquish the World” trope, which is the last narrative brake left before the metaphorical rape-train hits the GODHOOD station, with capital G.

    Black & Malicia became sharply aware of the narrative weight against Praes, and how it was ultimately anchored in reality & a resources problem. They did not only be clever enough to overcome the narrative gradient with organizational davantages, they also did the long-term cultural engineering that made Callow an allied state from an ACCEPTABLE cultural, and hence narrative, standpoint.

    Catherine, sweet Catherine, is onto something that may dwarf all of them. She is LEGITIMIZING and REDEFINING the very concept of “Villainy”. Instead of being a classic “Villain” as someone who “rages against society and will take what is their due”, she is a new Villain that “Only trusts Her Own Hands to do what needs to be done”. And she is spearheading the Kantian, universallly acceptable, “ethical” Villain – the one that can have an universal appeal, to any and every demographic across Calernia.

    In short? No wonder that EVERY single major narrative player across the “Above-Below” and political spectrum, from Grey Pilgrim to Neshamah, considers her a very serious threat. She is creating the biggest demographic consensus block across the entirety of history and Calernia; one in which a “Villain” tale scan be sung, its deeds cheered on as worthy of emulation, across any and every fireplace.
    Catherine may well change culture, and hence narrative, across the entire Creation – and that is why both Neshamah & the Intercessor agree on trying to kill her.

    She is building a new game, instead of playing the old one – and this is something that even Above & Below cannot tolerate. For at the end, they may be nothing but self-aware narrative conventions themselves.

    Liked by 11 people

      1. There was her chat with Catherine immediately before she talked to the Grey Pilgrim about the Bard. In that, she first tried to persuade Catherine to follow a route she considered acceptable, but when that failed, she subtly tried to push Catherine into working against her in a manner where the Bard would have a deadly, decisive advantage.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. And Tariq pointed out it could just as easily be read as a test that Catherine passed (and that it was fairly predictable she would).

          Catherine was still pissed because she did not fucking sign up for testing, but the fact remains that Bard’s intentions are ambiguous.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. TAP_M113

    “You have lashed out at two heroes in two days, Black Queen,” the White Knight said.

    Two out of three…….
    SHIT, pattern of 3 incoming! So that was what Neshamah was about with the Tancred affair, making lashing against Heroes an established narrative convention about Cat!

    This would be a lethal wedge to drive against the Grand Alliance. Good catch, Hanno… hope your pep-talk skills are sharp, we are going to need them for surgery.

    Neshamah / narrative was a sneaky, brilliant bastard in there. Kudos to you, EE.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. TAP_M113

        A Genuine example. It would make for a small impact, but subtlety is the name of the game.
        Arguably, Catherine greatest strength is how she manages to make every named cooperate into a well-oiled warmachine regardless of their place in the Hero-Villain alignment axis. At this point, ingraining a short temper and a dislike for certain key heroes is a subtle narrative pivot that Neshamah could exploit to his advantage, small enough to pass unnoticed, but targeted enough to weaken Cat, and the Grand Alliance, by extension.

        Never forget, the current shape of the Grand Alliance in this operation theater is a feudal coalition that critically relies on a large set of Named and troops freely gifting their loyalty to Catherine, in a feudal fashion. Impair her diplomatic abilities, and it significantly impairs the army.

        “Lashed at two heroes, in two days”… This implies to me that lashing against one a third time, on the third day, makes for a rule of three.

        Taking into account that this would be the kind of subtle “narrative assassination” that Bard has pulled in the past, and Neshamah is stated to be her equal, I wouldn´t be surprised if this is what we are seeing here.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I think ‘two make the third follow’ is too broad a rule and so only really works when the narrative weight is overwhelming – like assimilation of Fae courts. Lashing out at people after being upset is… just not on the same level. Like five people even know that Cat did that at all, you know? And out of them like two care. So no, narrative pull won’t even be noticable (like how gravity strictly speaking works between all objects, but you do not notice being pulled towards the ceiling and walls).


        2. Another problem is that this is too specific. If Neshamah had the pull / predictive power to make it specifically two heroes in two days, this war wouldn’t even be a fight at all.

          What you’re ignoring is that this is a result of the blanket effect – Neshamah is fucking with Catherine’s head. He’s making her upset, sloppy, taunting her about capitalizing on her weaknesses. This works in his favor period, whatever the exact flavor of mistake / lashing out it results in. And it works even if Hanno disrupts this particular “pattern”, since at the very least it ties up resources / takes time to deal with.

          Remember, a plan with more than two steps is not a plan, it’s wishful thinking. This plan has just one step: ‘rattle Catherine’. That’s all it needs to accomplish, and that’s all that Neshamah has to have predicted.

          Liked by 3 people

    1. KageLupus

      That is not really how the Pattern of Three works, though. It is not just “A Named does the same thing three times”, and it doesn’t transfer across different Named.

      The Pattern happens when two Named which are narratively connected clash multiple times, and dictates what those clashes look like. The first time someone loses but survives, the second is a draw, and in the third clash the winners/losers are reversed but the losers die.

      Cat had a Pattern contest with the Lone Swordsman and came out on top in the end. Akua purposefully maneuvered herself into having a Pattern with Cat early on specifically so she could leverage it when it mattered (she did end up winning the final contest, but Black and Assassin interfered afterwards). Tariq tries to trick Cat into a Pattern but she used her genre-savvy superpower to sidestep the whole thing.

      None of which even kind of resembles what has happened in the last few chapters with Cat and the Champion, or the Apostle. There was no fight, not even in a subtle narrative way like Tariq. And even if there were, there wasn’t a second clash where both sides took a draw. Cat yelled at a kid for being chosen by Above, and then yelled at the Champion for (when you break it down) killing someone she cared about.

      There is no deeper narrative fight going on, no big clash of fate being promised or resolved. This is just Named posturing and normal social dynamics.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Earl ofPurple

        The loser of the third confrontation doesn’t have to die. Dread Emperor Irritant used this to his advantage by confronting every hero on the continent, in such a way that he had eight or more patterns going at once. And when he ran out of patterns, he abdicated and made very good shoes, which we know worked three times.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. > Akua purposefully maneuvered herself into having a Pattern with Cat early on specifically so she could leverage it when it mattered (she did end up winning the final contest, but Black and Assassin interfered afterwards).

        That’s not what happened. The last confrontation of the three that Akua was fated to win was the one against Chider, and the victory was that Chider successfully ambushed Cat and took away her Name.

        It just, uh, didn’t stick, becuase of the whole ‘undead’ thing.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Frivolous

    Does Hanno only manage heroes and do diplomacy with notable non-Named figures, or does he manage soldiers as well?

    I don’t recall ever seeing Hanno command a host, or do paperwork, or other administrative duties.

    Because if Hanno only manages heroes then it occurs to me that one reason why Catherine might be deteriorating (or at least more quickly than Hanno has been deteriorating) is that she manages an entire army in addition to standing for the villains under the Truce and Terms. Cat does a lot more work.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes. Yes, she is.

      On the other hand, Catherine doesn’t make excursions to fight herself like Hanno does. Technically there’s things he does that she doesn’t.

      The load is obviously uneven, though, yeah.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. “Engaging in torrid trysts.”

    Isn’t that just the most horny and romantic way to put it? A forbidden love, a couple of day and night, adversaries that should be exchanging blows instead engage in torrid trysts. The Black Queen’s Bedchambers III: White Knighting, in stores now.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Frivolous

      The phrase is rather Harlequin Romance, yes.

      One of these days Robber is going to ask Cat what Hanno’s favorite position is, or vice versa, just like he once asked Masego whether Wekesa was a top or aa bottom.

      Cat’s answer will probably be “Missionary, of course.”

      Liked by 3 people

  13. Dread Emperor Ridiculous

    Calling it now: It’s too astoundingly obvious that Dread Empress Sepulchral is Hye, so Sepulchral is someone *other* than Hye.


  14. WeeMadCanuck

    Oh god the cliffhanger. What a time to finally be caught up. Hanno is great, and his friendship with cat is such a refreshing change to her interactions with most heroes. Looking forward to more!


    1. The good news is that the next chapter should be out fairly soon as of my writing this.

      The bad news is that you’ll be caught up again right away. And then you’ll have to suffer and wait like the rest of us.

      Liked by 1 person

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