“The doom of carefully laid plans is two unfeeling sisters by the names of mishap and surprise.”
– King Pater of Callow, the Unheeding
“She’ll be here in two days, we believe.”
Masego thoughtfully peered down at the blade, insofar as it could truly be called that.
Though Helmgard had eventually been able to forge a sheath for it, an ornate affair of enameled steel, even that skilled heroine’s finest work had not proved sufficient for full containment. The sheathed blade was being kept in a deep pool of ice cold water so that the power it constantly emanated would be dispersed, though to his practiced eyes it seemed like there would be need for more liquid: as matters stood, the surface of the pool subtly stirred as if touched by winds and the Hierophant believed that someone dipping a finger into the water was near certain to lose it. The aspect that Catherine had extracted of the Saint of Swords’ corpse had been a temperamental thing even before seven Named and one had lent their hand to making a proper artefact of it. Masego was careful not to stand too close to the edge of the pool, for the edge of his robes would be no more immune to the power than flesh, and he frowned. Though the capacity of what had been forged here could not be denied, he suspected that he might well be scolded for the unfortunate impracticalities of certain aspects of it.
The odds were at least six in ten that anyone drawing the blade would die, after all.
“And you’re not listening to me in the slightest, are you?” the Rogue Sorcerer sighed.
“Perhaps if we made a suit of armour,” Masego considered. “That allows one to withstand using it.”
Though in principle he supposed use would be ‘withstood’, if at the likely loss of limb and or head. It was all a matter of defining the acceptable boundaries of loss. It would take significant time and effort to create such a suit of armour, however, and a wielder for the blade would have to be decided upon first. Such matter, to his admittedly half-hearted understanding of the politics involved, might become somewhat contentious.
“You could at least deny it,” the Rogue Sorcerer complained.
What were they talking about again? Hierophant vaguely remember talk about hearings, and beliefs. A trial of some sort, he decided.
“I agree,” Masego said, which usually got him out of these situations.
A heartbeat passed.
“Yet we should discuss it in greater detail with the others,” he cunningly added.
It would not do to accidentally approve of another bout of foolishness like a wine cellar being added to the Workshop, even if acceding to that request had ended up making the Hunted Magician unusually agreeable for a few weeks. Either that or drunk, Masego could sometimes find it hard to tell.
“You only ever say that when you haven’t been listening, Masego,” Roland said. “It’s the single most transparent evasion in an arsenal made of particularly thin air.”
Hierophant’s brow furrowed. He’d been seen through, then. Fortunately, Indrani had taught him how to escape this sort of situations flawlessly. Pushing down his general dislike of physical contact with anyone but a few, he laid a hand on Roland’s shoulder and put on a sympathetic expression.
“I am flattered by your interest,” he said, “but I do not reciprocate the attraction.”
Roland looked down at the hand, then back up at him. It would probably take a few heartbeats to work, Masego mused. Referring even obliquely to sex made people skittish, which made sense as it seemed like a lot of trouble for middling returns. It wasn’t like children couldn’t be made with the proper alchemies, either, though admittedly the lack of soul might be off-putting to some.
“It is important to me, my friend,” the Rogue Sorcerer slowly said, “that you understand the Archer is not an appropriate person to take cues from.”
Masego’s brow rose, loosening the silken blindfold before this glass eyes.
“In what context?” he asked.
“In any context,” Roland feelingly said.
That sounded rather dubious but then, for all his intelligence and learning, the man was a hero. And Proceran as well, which some of the bolder treatises about bloodlines from the ninth century considered to be a birth defect. Masego withdrew his hand, having left it there quite long enough.
“As you no doubt already knew,” Roland said, tone rather pointed for some reason, “Queen Catherine has reached out to one of the boundary stations and informed the garrison that she will be arriving within two days.”
It would take the better part of a day to get to the Arsenal proper from any boundary station as well, Masego knew. He’d never known the translocation to happen in less than six hours, and it had to be initiated at the proper time besides.
“It will be good to see her,” Hierophant agreed.
“It will,” Roland sighed, then muttered under his breath about herding cats.
That was a notoriously difficult activity, Masego knew, which meant the other scholar had likely reached a dead end in one of his research ventures. Hierophant could sympathize, given that proving his Quartered Seasons theory had become increasingly difficult. If there was truly a fourth realm of power out there, or even the husk of one, it was resisting his best efforts to locate and measure it. Yet Catherine’s return, he thought with a brightened mood, would – as if often did – open up the option of using overwhelming brute force against a complex problem.
“Is this why Tomas and Helmgard have been holed up in their private workshops for two days?” he suddenly frowned. “Catherine wouldn’t insist on running them ragged to finish the last touches on the Mirage, she’s always found the Observatory quite sufficient for all her needs.”
Masego allowed himself a degree of pride over that last truth, for he’d known granting his request to built in those first months after her coronation had been ab extension of trust on her part. It was deeply pleasant to know he’d not failed that trust. Besides, while she knew neither the Blind Maker nor the Bitter Blacksmith he doubted Catherine would want them to face consecutive sleepless nights on her behalf.
“It’s not for her personal use, it’s for a full council session of the Grand Alliance’s highest officers,” Roland said, as if he ought to already know this. “Twilight’s Pass sent the Kingfisher Prince to speak in its name, but neither Princes Rozala nor the Iron Prince will be able to make the journey. That means the Mirage will have to be fully functional or we’ll be relying on constant scrying-chains.”
Hierophant idly wondered if he should start paying more attention at the daily evening briefings of the Belfry. Maybe, since he’d had no notion of any of this. Would he? Probably not.
“The Order cadres in Salia would prove sufficient for the task, when it comes to Vivienne and the First Prince,” Masego said.
It was a little unseemly, resorting to such slick wiles to ascertain if either of these would be coming. Yet to do otherwise would shatter the illusion he’d been maintaining that he devoted his full attentions to any part of those meetings that was not about funding or the attribution of staff.
“It won’t be necessary, with both of them here in person,” Roland replied. “Mind you, there might be as much as a week between Queen Catherine and the arrival of the rest of them so we’re not out of time quite yet.”
“It would be best to be ready ahead of time in case of any surprises, though,” Masego caught on. “That is reasonable. I’ll take a look at the complex myself.”
“That would be appreciated,” Roland said, inclining his head.
Hierophant briskly nodded but cast a lingering look at the sheathed sword within the waters. When the other Named moved he willed one of the glass orbs within his skull to pivot and watch him, noting the short-sleeved cloth shirt and simple trousers the other man wore. Tinkering clothes, the kind that would not get caught on things and would not be a significant monetary loss were they irreparably damaged. The shorter Named strode up the five steps to the edge of the pool, only there ending his advance. Out of politeness Masego kept an eye on him, even if he did not turn his head.
“We still haven’t agreed on a name for her, have we?” the Rogue Sorcerer mused.
“It is not a sentient artefact, it cannot have a gender,” Hierophant noted. “And I remain in favour of Severance.”
“Severity has the better ring to it, as far as I’m concerned,” Roland replied.
“It hardly matters,” Masego said, “unless one adheres to that Pelagian nonsense about term resonance.”
Though Procer’s sorcery was largely of the unfortunate Jaquinite mold, there were several enclaves in the Arlesite territories where older methods were at work. The Pelagian theory of magic was a child’s mimicry of what the Gigantes could to with Ligurian methods, liberally seasoned with ignorant mysticism and rites more religious than magical. Pelagia herself had been famous in her time for her splendid enchantments, and some of that talent still remained in those who claimed to be the inheritors of her ways, but the few shards of truth to be found there buried in a sea of drivel.
“I do believe in it,” Roland reminded him.
Ah. He’d quite forgot that, admittedly.
“Naming something cannot stabilize its ‘nature’, which is a rather dubious concept in any case,” Masego bluntly said. “There has been no dependable evidence of this being the case.”
“When it comes to most things, I would agree,” the Rogue Sorcerer said, then he flicked a glance at the blade in the water.
Ever-roiling, as if waiting for the hand that would wield it.
“But there are bodies in Creation that obey different rules as the rest,” he said. “How can I not believe that, having seen it with my own eyes?”
“We are all ignorant children trying to piece together the truths of titans,” Masego said, “but the moment, Roland, that was we are satisfied with an explanation we are lost. Observation is not understanding, and is there anything as hateful as willfully lingering in your own ignorance?”
The other man’s lips quirked.
“You’ve a surprisingly poetic bent, on occasion,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “But in the end, my friend, you are a scholar of the Gift while I remain a mere practitioner. If I only ever used what I understand, I would use nothing at all.”
“You are deepening your faults beyond the reasonable,” Hierophant informed him. “Though on occasion you act more like a collector than a mage, you’ve also used sorcery from every extant theory of magic without going stark-raving mad.”
That was, as far as Masego knew, largely unprecedented. At best one of the Gifted would borrow insights from other approaches to sorcery, as delving deep into another after already being taught tended to learn to severe mental sicknesses as well as deeper spiritual weaknesses. In this matter Hierophant suspected that it was one of the Rogue Sorcerer’s own aspects that shielded him from the backlash inherent in genuinely believing often fundamentally opposing facts about magic, the same that allowed him to flawlessly wield any sort of magical artefact he touched: Use, simply termed for how frightfully deep the waters of it ran.
“Collector’s accurate enough,” Roland quietly said. “Though I like to believe myself a principled specimen of the breed.”
The man was in an odd mood, one Masego found it hard to decipher, so he decided to press forward.
“Would you accompany me to the Mirage?” Hierophant asked. “If I find defects in the work, I’ll have to seek you out regardless.”
“If that is agreeable,” Roland replied. “Shall we?”
Masego nodded. A few steps took them away from the pool where the blade that once been an aspect lay sheathed and seething, and the pulsing runes carved into the otherwise bare stone walls shone brighter as the pair of them left the room before winking out. Behind them, enchanted doors barred themselves shut and they continued across the granite walkway leading them further from the cube they’d been inside of. The holy water within, regularly blessed by priests, swept over the walkway the moment their feet reached the other side: the wretched Blessed Artificer, though utterly unpleasant in most regards, had been somewhat helpful in providing mechanisms that would allow the walkway to rise and lower without relying on sorcery the blessed water might disrupt. The precautions were, in the end, warranted: that blade was, so far, the closest to a weapon capable of destroying the Dead King the Arsenal had come to making.
Another set of enchanted doors closed behind them as the pair entered the Depository proper, which Masego tended to think of as an overly grandiose name for what was in effect a glorified warehouse. There were parts of it more protected and restricted than others, the one they were leaving most of all, but the least secure parts were typically large rooms full of crates awaiting shipping out and not some mysterious maze of wonders. The nature of the men and women the two Named encountered after passing another three protective chokepoints reflected this. There were few of the scholars in red, white or bronze – Gifted, priests, academics – that were everywhere in the branches of the Belfry. Instead it was armed guards, handpicked from the different hosts of the Grand Alliance in equal numbers, and workers that they came across. Most bowed, though unlike scholars they tended to aim the courtesy more towards Roland than himself.
Masego asked of his companion’s latest venture, a runic seal meant to be able to impress that same rune into cloth or wood and have it magically functional, as they walked and found himself engrossed in the pleasant conversation as they made their way out of the Depository, through the curling hallways of the Knot and through that oft-messy and crowded crossroads up warded stairs and into the silent hush of the Chancel. There only a few were allowed entry, and the wards guarding the sanctum had been of his own design. Though the Chancel was the smallest section of the Arsenal, it held within its walls several matters of variable importance: the central warding array, the restricted stacks and the offices of the Arsenal treasury. It also held the reason the two Name had come: the great enchanted room called the Mirage, which Masego suspected might just be the first example of the sorcery that would come to replace scrying.
The lower level belonged to the treasury and the restricted stacks, the latter of which being warded and guarded, but the Mirage and the central warding array were further above and even more heavily restricted. At least the Mirage was not the furthest level up, where the array awaited: the guards here, heavily armed and armoured as they were, were not allowed beyond the first checkpoint. The second gate would open only for a drop of the proper blood, fresh from the body, and would fill the hallway with hellflame should it not be provided quickly enough. The last and seemingly third gate was kept closed unless one of a limited set of keys was used, though depending on which was another action was required beyond it – else a mounting accumulation of power in a hidden enchantment would grow to trigger an alarm ward. The Mirage was meant to be used, however, and restricting access too much would be inconvenient.
A series of comprehensive checks and another set of wards were all the two Named had to wait through before entering, though the guard captain supervising notified them there were already people within.
“Scholars?” Roland asked, brow rising.
“Chosen, Lord Sorcerer,” the soldier replied. “And one of the Damned as well.”
Masego strode pas the two of them, mildly curious but rather more interested in inspecting the latest refinements of the Mirage. The room itself was not so large, a circle of a mere two hundred feet in diameter, but it had still taken a colossal amount of work to ensure that not so much as speck of the floor, walls and ceiling would offer magical interference with the delicate sorceries meant to be worked within. For that reason the great round table at the heart had been made of stone as well, as materials that had previously been alive had been judged risky, though the parts worthy of admiration were not these. Around the table, exactly twenty armchairs of stone had been placed within boxes of glass just slightly apart from each other. Linked to the scrying pool hidden beneath the table, ropes of a dozen different purified metals – including grey adamant, which only the Gigantes knew how to make – connected to different parts of the ritual arrays hidden under the floor of the seats, connected to the glass of the boxes through a superbly clever bridging enchantment of the Repentant Magister’s invention.
The result was a nearly perfect illusion carried by the glass: with the proper preparations made on both sides, anyone seated at the table of the Mirage would be within an illusion perfectly mimicking the immediate surroundings and individual of whoever was being scryed by the central ritual. When Catherine would claim her seat here, she’d be able to converse with the likes of Rozala Malanza and the Iron Prince as if they were all truly in the same room. The difficult part had been creating the portable kits that’d allow the illusion to carry from the other side, and there imprecisions remained in need of fixing. But an elementary kit for connection had already been provided to all three fronts, and at this point the burden of work was largely on the Arsenal’s side: it was the room here that needed to be flawless so that everything would function. Which was why Masego’s lips thinned when he saw that one of the glass boxes had been opened, the seat within removed and the tile of stone covering the hidden arrays taken out.
Of the three people already in the room, two were kneeling and digging into the entrails of the array while the last was on his feet and looking down with apparent indifference. The Hunted Magician, as the only one not occupied, was the first to notice Hierophant’s entrance. The dark-haired man in ornate court dress took a bow.
“Lord Hierophant,” the Magician said. “An unexpected pleasure.”
The sound of boots scuffing stone informed Masego that Roland had caught up, and the Rogue Sorcerer answered before he bothered to.
“Magician,” Roland said. “Shouldn’t you be working on a replacement wardstone for the Army of Callow?”
The distaste between those two had been instant and instantly shared, which Hierophant found a waste given that they were the two finest Proceran practitioners he’d met.
“Have my hours suddenly become accountable to the likes of you, Sorcerer?” the Magician nonchalantly replied.
“A pleasure to see you as well, Lord Magician,” Masego finally replied.
If he was lucky, his intervention might even end the bickering before it truly began.
“Roland, kindly abstain,” one of the kneeling pair called out. “I was the one who requested his assistance.”
The Repentant Magister rose to her feet after speaking, smoothing down her robes.
“Assistance with what?” Masego asked.
“Worry has been expressed that the Black Queen’s mere strength in the Night might serve as a disruption of the Mirage,” the Hunted Magician said. “And so there was a need to get at the lower arrays for testing.”
The Proceran villain had been the one to design the enchantment that kept the stone tiles in place, so both his presence and the way he’d merely been waiting around when Masego entered were explained in a single stroke. Yet a question was begged by what he’d been told.
“And when it comes to matters of Night,” Hierophant said, turning his head towards the Magister, “you did not come to consult me?”
“She didn’t need to,” the last person in the room said, rising to her feet.
The Blessed Artificer smiled tightly in his direction. Her dark skin and golden eyes, the signature of Wasteland highborn of the oldest and most powerful lines, were always jarring to behold when paired with the truth of what she was: a priest with a blacksmith’s hammer, an ignorant meddler of the worst sort. Masego was not Roland, to let his irrationally strong dislike of the other Named affect his judgement, but neither would he deny that something in him always itched to crush her work utterly whenever he caught sight of it. It was quite distressingly visceral a reaction.
“After all, she already had an expert on hand,” the Blessed Artificer said.
“You have never even encountered Night,” Masego replied in clipped tones. “And you hardly have the proper academic frame to even begin to conceive of it.”
“You’re a Praesi miscarriage of a person,” the Artificer smiled. “You’ve no proper frame to conceive of anything at all.”
Her hand slipped into her tunic, fingers closing around some half-seen device, Light bloomed and then Masego saw nothing at all. Not that he’d fallen into unconsciousness, but rather that some sort of device was interfering with the sight of his eyes. How deeply unpleasant of her.
“Adanna,” the Rogue Sorcerer reproached.
Witness, Masego thought, and his Name sang. His eyes burned behind the blindfold, with Summer flame and something entirely his own, and in the Artificer’s grasp he found the whirling device of steel and Light she’d used to blind him.
“Wrest,” the Hierophant coldly said, raising a hand.
The Light ripped out of the device, uncontested for the lack of will behind it, and it formed into a ball above the palm of his hand. He closed his fingers into a fist. When he opened his palm again, it was to reveal dispersing wisps of Light.
“You broke my device,” the Blessed Artificer harshly said.
“Be thankful it was not your spine,” the Hierophant replied, just as harshly.
Both eyes on the heroine, he did not catch sight of the sculpture until it bounced off the side of his head with a perfect bopping sound.
On most days, Indrani was all for the amount of pretty people in this room getting all red-cheeked and flustered but sadly this looked a lot more likely to end up in the Eleventh Crusade than clothes hitting the floor. Something had to be done, so Archer turned to a method that had never failed her: throwing things at people until they did what she wanted. The wooden sculpture she’d been working on over the last wander just because it made Alder and Aspasie embarrassed bounced off Zeze’s head magnificently, catching the eye of all five other Named in their secret hush-hush magic room.
“Is that a naked woman?” the Repentant Magister asked, cocking her head to the side.
“Is that Catherine?” Masego asked, sounding rather curious.
Bless his soul, Indrani fondly thought, he no longer even bothered to comment on her tossing things at him.
“You’ve seen the Black Queen naked?” Roland asked, sounding shocked.
Indrani swaggered up to her paramour, throwing an arm around his shoulder so he’d be too distracted to mention it was the faint scar carved across the belly and not the nice ass that’d revealed the identity of the woman she’d been carving.
“He’s been in her quite a bit, Ro-ro,” Indrani told the Rogue Sorcerer, wagging her eyebrows.
“Quite regularly, during the Tenth Crusade,” Masego agreed absent-mindedly, which was just perfect.
The Repentant Magister – Nephele, wasn’t it? – cast a look at her carving that bore curiosity of more than merely academic nature, so Indrani almost patted herself on the back for being such a good friend. The Stygian heroine was quite the beauty, with those curls and curves, so one might even argue she was being a very good friend. Indrani’s intentions to keep stirring the pot for entertainment and also the sake of peace, she supposed, were neatly waylaid by utter surprise when Masego turned and put a hand on her shoulder. He stood almost a head taller than she, Indrani froze when he leaned down and pressed a soft kiss on her right cheek and then the left. His lips were soft. He smelled of ink and cool stone.
She was not blushing.
“Welcome back, Indrani,” Masego warmly said.
“Er, yes,” she said. “Lovely to welcome you too. Back. You know what I mean.”
“Not particularly,” Masego cheerfully admitted.
He extricated himself from their embrace and she let him – she’d known from the start it would be best to let him set the boundaries of their involvement, when it came to physicality – only after they’d separated tugging down her tunic.
“You can keep the sculpture,” Archer told the Magister, winking. “You know, for comparison purposes.”
The Stygian reddened, speaking a denial in tradertalk that shouldn’t fool anyone with any sense.
“What a delight to have you among us once more, Lady Archer,” the Hunted Magician smiled at her.
Ah, yet another pretty one. That one was all about the chase, though, as Alamans tended to be – the way he was simultaneously pursuing the Bitter Blacksmith and the Blessed Artificer spoke to that. Both of them looked they wanted to cave in his head, on most occasion Indrani had seen, but also there seemed to be a lot of feeling reluctantly flattered. Right on time, the Blessed Artificer shot the man an unimpressed sideways look.
“Same, Mags,” she drawled. “Brought in a new girl for you lot, so put on your fairday best.”
“I would not dare to disappoint, Lady Archer,” he drily replied.
“New girl, you said. A mage?” Roland asked.
He looked all hopeful now, which made it all the more a pleasure to crush his happiness. In her defence, Archer wouldn’t have kept picking on the man if it wasn’t so fun.
“She’s called the Red Axe,” Indrani grinned. “And she screws with magic just by being around it.”
“That would be interesting to study,” Zeze agreed, blind to the disappointed look on Roland’s face.
“Brought in the rest of my band too,” Archer idly mentioned. “Rest and recovery, until we head out again. Magister, you know the Vagrant Spear right?”
“We fought together in Cleves,” the heroine agreed. “Though I would not consider us closely acquainted.”
The way Indrani had heard it Nephele had been pretty much a twat up there in Cleves, before she got her shit together, so she wasn’t surprised to hear it. Then again, Cat did like the catty ones so it checked out.
“You’ll be staying for some time, then?” Masego asked her.
“At least a week,” Archer shrugged. “Why?”
“Catherine will be arriving in two days,” he told her. “I’ll have your affairs moved to my quarters.”
Indrani suppressed a smile. It was pleasant to sleep in the same bed, and even more so when he seemed to enjoy that intimacy as well.
“You could buy me a drink first, at least,” she said, fanning herself.
“A wine cellar has been added to the Workshop, so that shouldn’t be necessary,” Masego revealed.
Indrani flicked a look at the Hunted Magician, whose lips twitched, and she bestowed upon the man a nod of solemn approval. It was heartening to see at least one of these people had their priorities straight.
“That’ll be fun to break into,” Indrani mused, the eyes the calmed situation in the room and decided that if she left all the ingredients here the brew was likely to start boiling again. “Come with me to have a look at the Red Axe, would you? I want to know if the poor girl will be locked into a room for the rest of this or if she can wander around some.”
To her appreciative surprise, Masego not only agreed but offered her his arm. Considering she’d made it clear that he shouldn’t offer physical contact unless he wanted it, a lesser woman might have been chuffed by how unhesitatingly he extended the unspoken offer. Not Indrani of course, unless you squinted a lot in the right light. She threaded her arm through hers and offered the rest of the Named a nonchalant wave, allowing herself to be escorted back out.
“So, is it me or do you have even more Named kicked around than before?” she asked as the began their way down the stairs.
“It isn’t you,” Masego replied. “The First Prince got her hands on the Forgetful Librarian, but we’ve added two since your last visit: the Blind Maker and the Doddering Sage.”
“Heroes?” Indrani idly asked.
“We are not certain for the Sage,” he admitted. “His moments of clarity are rare, if incredibly useful. We’ve also a guest in the person of the Wicked Enchanter, though he’ll not be staying. He’s more a hedge mage than a true practitioner, even if he has mastered some lesser arts, so his value outside the field is limited.”
“Anything fun?” Archer said, mildly curious.
“Mind control, though rather imperfect,” Zeze replied. “Some elemental conjuring as well, but his arsenal is essentially varied methods of domination.”
Indrani’s steps stuttered.
“The Wicked Enchanter,” she slowly said. “Where did he come from?”
“Valencis originally,” Masego said, “though he spent some years in Helike and lately in –”
“- Orense,” Indrani finished. “He was in Orense, where he slew and robbed and raped his fill in the villages around the outskirts of the Brocelian.”
“You have heard of him before,” Masego realized.
“I just spent two months travelling with the heroine he made,” she grimly replied. “So we best hurry and keep them apart, or there’ll be blood on the floor.”
They were too late.
Archer realized, with a sinking feeling, that she might just have helped make a very large mess.