“A dog to the brave, a wolf to the craven.”
– Arlesite saying
I would head for the Arsenal tomorrow, I decided after the White Knight left.
There were still decisions to be made and responsibilities to discharge, so I put my back into it instead of leaning backing into my seat and sleeping for a few months the way I wanted to. It was tempting to simply say I could take the bundle of reports and letters with me, but if I wanted to keep a decent pace while on the move I couldn’t afford to have wagons of affairs and a crowd of attendants with me. That meant answering every bit of correspondence I’d received – or left to languish, honesty compelled me to admit – over an afternoon’s span, Hakram flitting in and out of my tent like some big green bureaucratic butterfly after I’d told him of my intention. I’d left Baron Henry Darlington’s complaint about the continued Deoraithe presence in the northern baronies unanswered for two months, considering the shit knew very well it’d been at Vivienne’s order that Duchess Kegan had sent her soldiers to hold our end of the Passage. He was just trying to extract concessions for the supply convoys passing through his territory to feed the host there, the rapacious prick.
I penned an amicable reply inviting him to propose a plan to field a force apt to replace Kegan’s, if his objections to the Deoraithe were so deeply felt. No doubt he’d enjoy that, it was the kind of thing that could be used to muster up some support and influence among the few remaining nobles of Callow. I added that he should forward such a plan to ‘Heiress-Designate to the Crown Vivienne Dartwick’ as soon as it was done, which he’d enjoy a great deal less. Did he really think I’d not noticed he was trying to go over Vivienne’s head by calling directly on me over something she’d already ordered? I might be the Queen of Callow, but I wasn’t fool enough to start undermining my own chosen successor’s authority. The invitation from the Closed Circle of Mercantis to attend one of their auctions had already expired by the time I got it, in a practical sense, given that the auction had already been held when I got the letter. I’d been meant a mark of honour than a real expectation I’d leave the front, though, so I wrote a polite refusal anyways.
It always paid to be polite to people you owed money to, even if the ‘you’ here was the Grand Alliance and not me personally.
The offer by the Holy Seljun of Levant, one Wazim Isbili – who was, to my understanding, Tariq’s grand-nephew – to formally send an ambassador to the Callowan court and receive one from us in Levante in turn was rather more pressing. It was heartening to see that the Dominion was willing to establish closer ties with my kingdom, and to an extent rarely sought given the distance between the two realms, but there were… complications. For one, I didn’t really have anyone to send as an ambassador. In the Old Kingdom that’d been a role for the highest ranks of nobility, which had been quite thoroughly exterminated in the decades since the Conquest. My father being the viciously meticulous bastard that he was, he’d also done all he could to stamp out what one might call diplomatic apprenticeships. Almost like he’d wanted to make sure Callow was isolated and incapable of properly reaching out. It was a sad but undeniable fact that most ‘diplomats’ I could send would be Praesi officers of noble birth from my army, with as other option maybe Brandon Talbot. Who I needed in command of the Order of Broken Bells anyway, making him highly unsuitable for the task.
I kicked that decision back to Vivienne, after pondering the matter a bit, along with a note outlining that she’d be in charge of finding a suitable ambassador if she decided to accept. I also suggested that a potential Levantine ambassador should be received by her in Salia rather than at my ‘court’ in Laure, and lastly stipulated that no ambassador of ours could be related to Duchess Kegan. There was already enough discontent at the way the Duchess of Daoine kept naming kin and vassals to key court and bureaucratic positions, she needed no encouragement. Especially if a decade from now the Duchy of Daoine was to be independent, complicating the loyalties of all such appointees by a great deal. More recently, the Iron Prince had sent a missive describing the way the dead beyond the defensive lines had massed for assault before suddenly withdrawing and asking if I had an explanation.
I spent the better part of an hour describing the Dead King’s latest plot to tie us here down south while he went on the offensive again. Klaus Papenheim had added a note that his envoy had spoken glowingly of the results of the assault formation on the field – somewhat to my surprise, given that she’d not expressed such enthusiasm before me – and that he would want to pit a formation against a more traditional mixed force of Bones and Binds before committing to that doctrine but he was definitely interested. Amusing enough, he also warned me that Otto Redcrown had extended an offer of settling in Lycaonese land to Sapper-General Pickler but that no offence should be taken by it. Any such offers made in the future would pass by me first. It was enough for me to soften my language when I wrote to the Prince of Bremen over the matter, mentioning that I was willing to serve as intermediary between the Lycaonese and the Confederation of the Grey Eyries if they wanted to extend that offer to the Tribes instead of to troops sworn to my service.
The rest was minor correspondence, mostly from my commanders on other fronts, including the usual letter written in Crepuscular from General Rumena that turned out to bear some insulting nuance to a native speaker I wouldn’t get without asking for help. Hence getting me insulted in front of an audience every single time. The old bastard never actually bothered to send me proper reports, given that Sve Noc saw to it we spoke in ‘person’ regularly. I’d be due that tonight, I thought. Not necessarily a conversation with Rumena, but communion with my patronesses. Last time they’d brought me in for a waking dream it’d been to show me the sigils of the Exodus raising the foundations of a hidden city in the depths of Serolen, though also to make a point that warfare around the edges of the Gloom reborn was growing… rougher. The Dead King was getting serious about dislodging them from their positions, not just trying to erode them one corpse at a time. I set those drifting thoughts – a sure sign I’d been going through these chores for a while – aside when Hakram flitted back in, wasting no time to bring another folded parchment to me. I took it with a sigh.
“What am I looking at?” I asked, eyes begin to scan the cramped lines.
“The proposed numbers and composition of our escort to the Arsenal,” he said.
“I don’t need knights,” I said. “They’re a lot more useful out here.”
“You’re the Queen of Callow,” Hakram pointed out. “Knights are expected. They expect is as well, Catherine.”
“I’ve no personal guard,” I said. “There will be no second Gallowborne. If the Order of Broken Bells understands this differently, Talbot is in need of being disciplined.”
These days I was not quite so prone to leaping into the fire, but what mortal guard could possibly be expected to survive the kind of messes I got into? No, there would be no revisiting that old blunder under a different name.
“And cut that number in half,” I added. “I want us riding briskly.”
“Wagons don’t ride briskly, Catherine,” Adjutant gravelled.
“Then they can catch up at the Arsenal,” I said. “I’ll not double the length of the trip for comfort.”
“Let me requisition packhorses, at least,” the orc said.
I waved my hand.
“So long as we don’t slow,” I said. “And send for Akua, will you?”
“You’ll also need to personally write to the Rapacious Troubadour, if you want him to take up Origin Hunting without feeling slighted,” he reminded me before leaving.
Ugh, and I’d been just about done too. That letter I took my time in writing, since he was a prickly thing for a bandier of words and not half-bad with a knife. Mind you, when he’d admitted he stole songs from those he killed I probably shouldn’t have replied ‘surely you mean souls’ in a dry tone. He hadn’t taken that well. Still, vicious bastard or not he’d sniff out any Named popping out in this neck of the woods and ease them into the Truce – and I’d make it clear that Hanno was in the area too, which ought to keep him honest when it came to his more unsavoury tendencies. I was up and limping about looking for my seal when my right hand and my left arrived. I waved in their direction, pushing aside sheaths of parchment with a frown.
“It’s in your desk,” Hakram said.
“I looked in my desk, thank you very much,” I waspishly replied. “It’s not in-”
Having stepped around my desk and opened one of the drawers even as I spoke, he produced my personal seal – the Crown and Sword, as it’d come to be known – and said nothing. His silence was, admittedly, quite damning enough on its own.
“Must have been under something,” I weakly said.
“Walnut shells, mostly,” the orc reproached.
“Look, sometimes it’s late and I’m not hungry enough for a meal,” I defended.
“And so the Black Queen so spoke to her dark legions,” Akua intoned. “Bring me walnuts, my wicked servants. But don’t tell Adjutant, for he gets snippy about the mess.”
I flipped a finger at her and hobbled to the side of the desk, picking up the bar of grey wax I’d set next to the letter before forming black flames against the side. Wax dripped and I dismissed the fire, extending my free hand and receiving my seal from Hakram. With a firm push the seal was affixed and I set the letter aside.
“Right,” I said. “So I considered it, and we’ll be scrapping the wardstone to get the obsidian spike.”
I gave a heartbeat of room for Akua to protest, but of course she’d been taught better than that.
“I’m not comfortable going on campaign against Keter with a repaired wardstone anyway,” I told the shade. “So we might as well get another weapon to study out of it.”
“You no longer speak in the theoretical,” Akua noted.
When it came to a summer campaign? No, no I did not. That little revelation about the bridge had ensured as much. We couldn’t afford to ignore that.
“Talks with the White Knight were fruitful,” I grunted. “I’ll need to speak with the rest of the Grand Alliance leaders, but an offensive campaign in Hainaut is now a certainty – the only thing up in the air is the timing of it.”
“I’ll see to extracting the spike immediately, then,” Akua decisively said. “If you’ll excuse me?”
I nodded my thanks, she returned them with a smile and just as quick as she’d come she was gone. The tent flap closed behind her, cutting through the slice of dusk it’d bared. She must have appreciated the courtesy of being told in person, I supposed, even if ultimately I’d not taken her advice.
“Tell me when it’s done,” I said, eyes turning to the tent flap. “I’ll have a look at it myself.”
“And until then?” Hakram asked, sounding curious.
“It’s getting dark out,” I said. “Time to speak with the Crows.”
At the exact moment night fell, I was seated alone in the dark of my tent.
The sprite-lanterns had been hooded, the braziers put out, and I’d dragged my fae seat away from the desk so that there’d be more room around. I’d long grown familiar with weaving silencing strands of Night around my tent that would prevent eavesdropping, be it physical or otherwise, and even my guards had been told to step further away. My pipe in hand, breathing in the wakeleaf I’d been gifted, I watched the burning red brand that was the only light inside and spat out a long stream of acrid smoke. The only sign that Sve Noc had deigned to join me was a slight breath of breeze, almost like an exhale, and then they were there. Perched on either side of me, on the back of the seat, great crows feathered in darkness so deep and even the dark of the tent seemed bright in comparison. Long, sharp talons dug into the wood of the armchair with a sound like steel scraping bone.
“First Under the Night,” Andronike said, voice cool.
Like stone far below where the sun never shone, like a deep lake whose waters were as a veil.
“Losara Queen,” Komena said, voice sharp.
Like the ring of steel against steel, like pride and hate and all the things that made men go mad.
“Sve Noc,” I replied, dipping my head in respect.
Two years was perhaps not so long a span, as gods would have it, but it had made a world of difference with these two. They were no longer taking their first stumbling steps past the threshold of apotheosis: these were goddesses in all the arrogant vigour of their youth, casting a covetous eye upon the world. And I was, on most days, the closest thing they possessed to restraint. I breathed in the smoke, held it in my throat and blew it back out. I ought, perhaps, to be afraid of those sharp-clawed patronesses of mine. I’d never quite managed, though. That might just be the reason they took my advice still.
“General Rumena brings ill tidings back to the Night,” Komena croaked.
“Do they?” I mused. “I’ve not had the displeasure to hear them.”
“Watch,” Andronike ordered. “Listen.”
The darkness within shifted as the Sisters seized the darkness for their own, made it as a domain forced onto Creation. It was one of their lesser tricks – a paltry thing, compared to the waking dreams that saw me tread grounds halfway across the continent and speak with others as if I were there – but it was still a casual display of power. Similar end could be achieved with sorcery, true. But it would be the work of years, not moments. I saw now, from my seat, two different fractured memories given unto the Night by willing Firstborn.
A human, a prince, an Alamans. All three and no longer young, seated with another crowned head: Rozala Malanza, vulgar in form to drow eye yet respected for its mettle. Not so its companion, this Prince of Cleves who could not preserve it sigil yet had not seen it stripped from its grasp.
“- this talk of leaving all conquered lands to the dark elves,” Prince Gaspard of Cleves snorted. “A kingdom’s worth, for a paltry few thousand raiders? It is madness, Princess Rozala.”
“The greater might of the Empire Ever Dark fights in the deep north,” Princess Rozala replied.
“And let them keep it, by all means,” Prince Gaspard dismissed. “But the lands south of Hannoven’s height should be brought into the fold: some of them would make good farmland, after a proper cleansing. It would be a waste to surrender them to these lesser elven cousins.”
A human, a killer, the Dawnstride: Mirror Knight, humans called it. Unsettling, its power like the sting of morning, and harder to kill than Savanov Hundred-Lives. But like most cattle, its guard lowered when it was busy mating with another of its kind. The other one in the bed: human, the daughter of a prince, Langevin. Carine, daughter of the Gaspard. They spoke after spending themselves.
“You really should consider it, Christophe,” Carine Langevin said, fingers trailing naked flesh.
“The war’s not won, Carine,” the Mirror Knight replied.
“But when it is, all those lands will need proper stewardship,” Carine Langevin insisted. “And who better than one of the Chosen who fought to reclaim it?”
“I wouldn’t know the first thing about ruling,” the Mirror Knight said.
“It would be my honour to help you, of course,” Carine Langevin smiled.
I let out a shallow gasp, closing my eyes. How very Proceran, I thought, to begin divvying the spoils of victory before the end of a war we were currently losing. Malanza had seemed lukewarm at the notion, at least, so I didn’t have to revise my opinion of her by too much. That she’d not stamped out this petty scheming immediately, though, got stuck in my throat. Hadn’t they learned by now that it was exactly this sort of habitual treachery that’d nearly seen them stand against the Dead King alone? What exactly did they think was going to happen next time a calamity like this struck and Procer had a record of backstabbing even the people who fought to save it? I brought the pipe to my lips and breathed in the wakeleaf, ordering my thoughts as I let the burn in my throat sharpen my attention, and spat it out.
“That’s one prince,” I finally said. “It would have been too much to ask for that all of that lot be kept honest by even the looming prospect of annihilation.”
And if it’d been going to happen anywhere, it was going to be Cleves. Between the Firstborn forces under Rumena, the veteran Dominion reinforcements under Lord Yannu Marave and Rozala Malanza’s practiced hand guiding the fight, it was the front that’d arguably least suffered. While the Dead King’s raiding parties frequently slipped the coastal defences and warfare around the lakeside fortresses was an almost permanent fixture, it was the most ‘stable’ of the fronts. The city of Cleves had not suffered a third siege, the supply lines remained wide open and the Named there were proving capable of dealing with Revenants – at least defensively, as the Stormcaller still had the run of all western Lake Pavin and we had no one that could touch her in the water. No, if anyone was going to start getting ideas it was the royals in Cleves. They’d not been afraid for their lives in too long.
“Does it go any further up?” I asked. “If they can’t even bring Malanza into the plot, it’s dead in the water.”
“If they continued down this path,” Komena said, “they will be as well.”
“More sinister than humorous, but not half bad,” I absent-mindedly praised.
Yeah, that the literal goddesses of murder and theft that were my patronesses would not look kindly upon their so-called allies planning to turn on them had been a given. I was not unaware, either, that they were in no way above calling back the forces under Rumena from Cleves and leaving the Procerans high to dry. It’d be a disaster both militarily and diplomatically speaking, but the Crows had no interest in playing nice with people sizing them up for a knife in the back. They’d cut ties with the Principate without batting an eye, if it came to that.
“The First Prince was told,” Andronike said.
My fingers clenched around the arms of my chair.
“You’re sure?” I asked.
The shadows shifted once more.
Humans, bearing the emblem of a red lion. Magelings, surrounding the Princess Malanza. They speak into the scrying bowl, believing themselves safe behind their wards. They are not, for the Lord of Silent Steps has brought great knowledge into the Night as to treading through without tripping.
“Gaspard is pushing hard, Your Highness,” Princess Rozala said. “But he’s toed the line carefully so I’ve no grounds to come down him. He’s still gathering support but the notion is a popular one.”
“It would permanently alienate the Empire Ever Dark,” the First Prince of Procer’s voice replied. “And perhaps Callow as well. If the Black Queen did not slaughter everyone involved first, that is. I do not suppose he spoke to this?”
“There’s a lot of heroes who don’t believe she’ll survive the war,” Princess Rozala said. “And with his daughter in the Mirror Knight’s bed, he gets to hear every rumour going around the Chosen. Callow under Vivienne Dartwick is a beast with a lot less bite, Gaspard argues.”
A long silence.
“I cannot step in,” the First Prince said. “Already the heartlands are chafing under the taxes and levies, there will be accusations of tyranny if I begin imprisoning princes over mere words. Let them plot, Princess Rozala. It will be seen to at a time of our choosing.”
It took a moment to gather my bearings. That turned to anger quickly enough, that Hasenbach was once more failing as an ally because of the Principate’s fucking internal politics. I mastered myself, though, and took a calming drag from my pipe. Procer was, undeniably, bearing the worst of the weight of the fight against the Dead King. It was its lands being ravaged, its people being conscripted and its traders being taxed into poverty. It was even its princes falling into debt. Callow and Levant, meanwhile, had sent north largely professional armies and while we’d felt the burden of war neither had suffered attacks from Keter. Procer, I then silently corrected, was bearing the worst of the weight among human nations. The Firstborn had been fighting against Keter in earnest for two years, and they’d had no reinforcements for any of it. But they were also fighting very far away, and people were people.
Sacrifices earned less gratitude when you didn’t get to see them happening.
“The two most prominent women in Procer don’t back the plot,” I said. “And it’s years away, besides. You’ve reason to be angry, and I’ll be taking up the issue when I next see Hasenbach, but it’s hardly a crisis.”
“An undeniable and weighty precedent for the Firstborn being reasonable, restrained actors,” Andronike said, mimicking my voice perfectly as I repeated words I’d once spoken to the Sisters.
“When we refrained from taking Twilight, you promised us our restraint would bring forth results,” Komena croaked.
“I’d have you fight this war in a manner that doesn’t guarantee having to fight another one in twenty years with your current allies,” Andronike said, eerily imitating my every intonation from back then without flaw.
“And yet,” the youngest of the sisters said.
They were questioning the value of playing nice when faced with allies like these, whose actions might very well lead to that war in a few decades regardless of what the drow did. It went back to the lessons they’d been taught while still mortals: that restraint would always be seen as weakness, that only the strong were bargained with and strength came without mercy. Of course, they were wrong in this.
“You did get that,” I pointed out without hesitation. “Sure, we might need to arrange an accident for Gaspard of Cleves in a way that can’t be traced back to us a few years from now, but you’re missing the point: the two most powerful people in Procer want to shut him down and will at the first good opportunity. The Empire Ever Dark is seen as valuable, something not to antagonize without reason. Considering the general amoral ruthlessness of Proceran diplomacy over the last centuries, that’s basically weaving you a crown of flowers and asking if you’re going to the fair with anyone.”
I’d, uh, maybe gotten a little too enthusiastic with that last metaphor.
“Were you going to the fair with anyone?” Andronike asked, tone too serene for her not to be fucking with me.
Great, they were still missing the mark half the time with sarcasm but naturally they’d be the finest of students when it came to learning how to pull my leg.
“I had a shift at the Rat’s Nest anyway,” I said.
I felt Komena’s gaze descend on me, somehow coming across as skeptical even coming from a bird.
“Fine,” I grumpily admitted, “Duncan Brech did not, in fact, ask me to the fair.”
He’d asked Lily from one of the other rooms at the orphanage, whose… charms had developed quicker and more amply than mine. Mind you if I’d had my pick of the litter I might have chosen Lily as well, so I could hardly blame him.
“Procer has not asked us to the fair either,” Andronike comfortingly said.
See, if it’d been her sister I might have thought that halfway genuine but coming from her I just knew she was just having me on.
“Very droll,” I said. “Thank you for passing this along, then. I’ll be seeking out Hasenbach to bury it for good.”
Preferably without dead bodies being involved, but that depended on how reasonable Prince Gaspard intended to be. If he was willing to bend his neck and make reparations for overreaching in this way, I’d leave it at that. Otherwise I was going to have to take some measures to express my irritation, less than subtly. If even that didn’t make the point sink in, then I’d have to put some thought into how best to have him disappear without entangling the Mirror Knight into this mess. Tricky but not impossible, if I leaned on the White Knight to get him moved to another front and he’d not confused sleeping with the pretty Langevin girl for true love. Hells, though, why couldn’t he just have stayed out of this mess? The prince would not have been so bold without a Chosen to back him. Why was it that the only Proceran hero to have any degree of sense was Roland and he was the one I couldn’t have on the field? The Gods were pricks, as usual.
“How’s Serolen?” I asked.
There really wasn’t a proper, commonly accepted name for the massive forest in between Lake Netzach and the Chalice. Most maps ended at the bottom of the Kingdom of the Dead, and few people had an interest in what went on north of the human nations of Calernia. I’d seen it called the – inventively-named – Dead Wilds, the Forest of Ghosts and rather more poetically the Bleak Weald. Mapmakers tended to call it whatever they felt like, and there was no one to contradict them: it wasn’t like the Dead King’s legions had shared their name for it, if they even had one. Serolen was what the Firstborn had come to name the forest, and in Crepuscular it more or less meant the Duskwood. The Firstborn had fought nine battles and a hundred skirmishes before claiming the greater span of the woods, securing them enough that Sve Noc could bring down the Gloom around the edges and plunge the territory in permanent dusk.
Neshamah was perhaps the greatest sorcerer Calernia had ever known, so of course he’d found ways to pierce through the Gloom. They weren’t perfect, though, and it’d enabled the Firstborn to secure their frontline and begin settling in the depths of Serolen. The first drow city on the surface still shared its name with the Duskwood, for now, but I expected that would change with time. I’d already filled the ears of the Crows with rants about why Proceran principalities and capitals sharing their name was highly inconvenient in half a dozen senses, so you might even say it’d be a religious obligation. I’d shove that in the holy book if I had to, they knew damn well.
“See for yourself,” Komena said, open pride in her voice.
The shadows shifted, but this time it was not a memory that was offered up for me to tear through. I dragged myself up to my feet, teeth keeping my pipe in place, and walked over what had been made to seem like the evening sky. Below me, misty woods shrouded in shadow spread out as far as the eye could see. The ground fell beneath my feet as we closed in on the Duskwood, my old calcified fear of heights sending a familiar pang up my leg. What I found beneath the mists had me smiling, though. The sigils of the Everdark had come together under the Ten Generals and their great cabal of the Exodus, whose founders were Sve Noc themselves, and the results were a wonder. An empire’s worth of looted wealth had been made into a city at the heart of the gloomy woods, temples of stone and millennia-old steles held up by trees coaxed through Night to serve as stairs and roads and a hundred other things. Within the bark had been nestled precious stones and obsidian, while leaves around the sacred places were painted with colourful prayers and poems.
It was a city like none I’d ever seen, like no one had ever seen, made up from the stolen parts of half a dozen cities who’d once been among the most glorious of this land. And everywhere among the labyrinthine lay of its ‘streets’ the Firstborn were living. Sleeping and haggling and brewing their horrid drinks, making lizardscale clothes and harvesting the mushrooms from the deeps that’d spread like the plague. Waters had been diverted from half a dozen streams, and stolen lakes brought from their ancient homes, making the entire span richly watered and leading into an artifical lake at the heart of Serolen. There the great temple that had once been the soul of the Empire Ever Dark, the seat of the Twilight Sages and where Sve Noc had struck their ill-fated bargain with Below, stood tall. Entire flocks of crows like the ones on my shoulders perched there, ever-hungry and ever-watchful shards of godhood. I let out a low, impressed whistle after taking my pipe in hand.
“That’s new,” I said, pointing towards the great temple. “I didn’t know you’d looted that.”
“All of Holy Tvarigu is within us,” Andronike replied.
“It’s coming along nicely,” I approved. “Do you intend to keep a strong presence up here even after the war?”
“There would be advantages,” Komena said. “Like the nearness of the Chain of Hunger.”
Words to make a Lycaonese choke, that, but it made sense. To the drow, yearly ratling raids would be like a fresh harvest of Night coming over and asking to be scythed through.
“We’ve got time yet,” I said. “Might be worth speaking with the First Prince when you decide on where you’ll raise your cities. She’ll be better placed than I to point out the northern trade arteries of Procer.”
I received no acknowledgement of my words save for the two of them taking flight and landing on my shoulders, sharp talons digging into my flesh. I put my pipe back into my mouth and took a drag, spewing the smoke upwards just to spite them. It was time, it seemed.
“All right,” I said afterward. “Show me the war.”
I steeled myself and the shadows spun.
Horror swallowed me whole.