“One must not look down on tricks that deceive only fools, my son, as the better part of the people of the world are patently foolish.”
– Extract from the infamous ‘Sensible Testament’ of Basilea Chrysanthe of Nicae
It’d once been a delicate balance, keeping Zombie walking at a pace that Hakram could easily match, not anymore. She’d grown used to it and was quite capable of understanding without me pulling on the reins that I wanted to keep pace with my towering second-in-command. Sometimes I wondered exactly how intelligent the undead horse was, or even if she was truly still that at all. The necromancy I’d used when Sovereign of Moonless Nights had been… off. The dead Akua had raised in my place at the Battle of the Camps had famously ignored holy water, and I’d noticed myself that the longer they remained raised the more intelligent they seemed to become. That was not, I’d been told, something typically associated with necromantic sorcery. It was with the summoning arts, though, and some days I could not help but wonder whether I was riding a corpse or a bound spirit. I stroked the mare’s mane softly, and she neighed softly in approval.
“The White Knight is five days behind,” Hakram said, breaking me out of my thoughts. “He found it difficult to arrange for a trustworthy replacement in seeking fresh Named.”
Trustworthy was unlikely to be the problem with Hanno arranging for someone to stand in his place. Even the worst pricks on his side of the fence tended to be at least well-meaning. I’d guess that the trouble had been finding someone who wouldn’t pull a blade on a fresh villain or talk in a way that got a blade pulled on them instead. Heroes with a diplomatic bent didn’t grow on trees, though if I ever caught so much as whiff of such a thing growing anywhere I’d been sending a band of five after it faster than you could say ‘oh Gods please, just please’.
“Do we know who he picked?” I asked.
“The Silver Huntress,” Hakram gravelled.
Approvingly, I noted. I was more ambivalent over that particular heroine, as though she was undeniably competent in all manners of ways she also fought like cats and dogs with Indrani whenever they got even remotely near each other. Archer had, to no one’s surprise, regularly ‘sparred’ with the heroine back when they’d both been pupils of the Lady of the Lake. The Huntress was eager at the notion of settling that old debt, and very sensitive to the perception that she might be getting forced back over anything by her old bully. Between that and the two of them being Named with a preference for bows, there were quite enough grounds there for seething hostility to be the name of the game.
“She’ll get it done,” I evenly replied.
And on that we set the matter aside, both of us having noticed the approach of the outriders headed our way. The fortress where we were headed went by the name of Saregnac, though fortress was something of a misnomer: it’d been as much a jail as a castle, which a less diplomatic woman might have said meant it’d been a pretty shitty castle. Gods, look at that curtail wall: the bastard thing wasn’t even crenellated, it was like they were just asking to be stormed.
“It’s all over your face,” Hakram said.
“I could take this place with five goblins and a scarecrow,” I muttered back. “I’ve seen the costs to the treasury, they could have at least sprung for a place with a proper moat.”
“How good of a scarecrow are we talking?” Adjutant asked, sounding interested.
I flicked another glance at those walls: barely twenty feet tall, and I’d seen thicker ogres.
“Below average,” I decided.
“I could do with three, it it’s a really good scarecrow,” Hakram said, the fangs he allowed to peek slightly through his lips implying mocking challenge.
“Please,” I snorted, “any idiot could do it with that good a scarecrow. Just dress it up like Black and bait them into a field full of munitions. Scarecrow quality is the crux of the difficulty here.”
The outriders from Saregnac reached the vanguard of our little caravan, though in truth our entire group was ahead of the slower-moving wagons as unlike those we could cut through the countryside without risking wheels coming off. The line of legionaries ahead of us spoke with the Procerans and shorty after a lieutenant peeled off from the rest to pass along the message. Saregnac, he told us, was ready for our arrival and the Arsenal had been told of our coming. We were lucky, as it happened, as one of the functional times for translocation was one hour before Noon Bell and we were nearing it. The wagons would have to stay behind and wait until one past Afternoon Bell, but if our little group picked up the pace we’d get there with time to spare.
“Send a messenger back to Captain Forfeit,” I ordered Adjutant. “We’ll be going on ahead.”
The Soninke would approve of resting the horse teams for the wagons beneath the shade of Saregnac’s walls, I suspected, however unimpressive the walls in question. She’d probably enjoy a halfway decent meal and cold water as well, I mused, the spring days were much warmer in southern Brabant. Even as a messenger peeled off, the rest of us returned to the journey. It wasn’t long before we were back on the Proceran country roads – which, though it pained me to admit it, were better than anything in Callow save for the royal roads and what little highway we’d inherited from the Miezans – which I was coming to suspect were the reason Saregnac had been chosen as a boundary station for the Arsenal. The defences might not be anything to praise, but the place did seem eminently accessible. That was almost as useful, though in all honesty I would have preferred the northernmost of the Arsenal entrances to be a stronger holdfast.
The gatehouse was respectable, at least, with a drawbridge over a shallow dry moat leading to a well-maintained portcullis that was already up when we arrived. The commander of the forces holding Saregnac came out to meet me personally. Some middle-aged cousin of Prince Etienne of Brabant, which was the unfortunately not an unexpected amount of nepotism when it came to Proceran soldiery. They weren’t usually stupid about raising up kin, though, so there ought to be – ah, and there was the man actually in charged. A former fantassin, by the looks of the garishly dyed red and yellow hair, but he’d clearly not gotten the scar under his eye in garrison duty. I requested the man in question – Lucien of Pitrerin, as it turned out – to be my escort, pawning off the royal relative to Hakram, and was rewarded by a blunt assessment of the situation as we were escorted deeper into Saregnac by impressively well-drilled soldiers.
“We can’t hold the walls if we’re seriously tested, Your Majesty,” the man agreed without hesitation. “I wouldn’t even try. The place was a prison for nobles, so it was never meant to withstand a proper storm.”
“I don’t mean to impugn your efforts here,” I said. “But that’s not the answer I was looking for, Master Lucien.”
“We have truly defensible grounds, Your Majesty, they’re simply not the walls,” the man told me. “The barbican deeper in is what the place was built around, and it’s from the early days of the Principate. That I could hold against an army for days, and the room where the magic circle is was dug beneath into bedrock.”
That was good to hear, I thought, though I still had concerns. While losing one of the boundary stations to the Dead King wouldn’t necessarily mean losing the Arsenal – there were further precautions – it’d be a hard blow. While it’d be a waste to send a Named to stand guard here, there were things that could be done without resorting to that.
“I’ll see if I can’t shake loose a company of sappers and send it your way,” I replied. “Not permanently, but at least long enough to turn those outer defences into something it doesn’t wound me to think about.”
“My most humble thanks, Your Majesty,” Lucien of Pitrerin said, sounding genuinely thankful.
I waved a hand, somewhat embarrassed.
“We’re all in the same boat, soldier,” I said. “Gods forbid it capsize.”
“I hear that,” the man muttered back.
By the time we reached the barbican the soldier had told me about – which was a solid little bastion, I’d admit to that, though hiding the arrowslits under gargoyles was good as, practically speaking, not hiding them at all – Hakram was back in the fold, his royal lamprey in tow. I almost had to admire the dedication to social climbing of a Proceran willing to fawn over an orc. It was oddly inspiring to see petty ambition triumphing over bigotry, kind of like if I’d seen an imp knife a Beast of Hierarchy. The nearing turn of the hour served as sufficient excuse to escape an invitation to a meal with the man, and reluctantly we were led into the barbican and then through a broad downwards tunnel into bedrock. A few wards and fortified doors later, we stood in an otherwise bare ritual room large enough to accommodate maybe a hundred people at a time. Rituals arrays, a dizzying tapestry of circles and squares and interlocked arcane shapes that would give me a migraine if I looked at them too long, had been craved directly into the floor.
The mages stationed here were mostly Procerans, though there were two of twenty that were on loan from the Army of Callow. I was attended to by them – Callowans both, I learned, fresh to the service but both taught personally by Masego at the Arsenal – as my escort and I were herded into the proper locations and finally asked to avoid leaving the circles we were standing in. Some larger shapes, probably meant for wagons and the like, remained empty. The ritual itself was not long, half an hour of incantations in sequence as the arrays were methodically powered, and then with a shiver we were all standing within an almost identical stone room without the mages who’d sent us here. The air here had that particular taste to it I knew well: Twilight’s subtle sweetness, or perhaps freshness. Arrowslits in the walls around us were the first indication that any intruders would find this a well-prepared killing ground, though when red-robed mages from the Arsenal entered the room to invite us to follow them I was quick to see that was only the beginning of it.
The corridor beyond had been built with seemingly two things in mind: for supply wagons to be able to pass through and the ability to wage a stubborn defence against anyone entering through the array room. Spike-bearing steel bars could be brought down to anchor makeshift palisades, portcullises were set in the ceiling every thirty feet and I even caught sight of runes and ritual arrays carved into the walls, awaiting someone to wield them. Soldiers in red, the Arsenal’s own garrison drawn from every army of the Grand Alliance, watched in silence as we passed through ward after ward. This place, I thought with approval, would be a bloody grinder if the Dead King ever reached it. Which he shouldn’t be able to, as it’d begun as a simple cavern within a mountain in the Twilight Ways before being expanded into this: no full route to the surface had ever been opened. At the other end of the corridor, we reached another ritual room that would take us to the last stopover before we reached the Arsenal proper.
To my surprise, though, it was not only red-robes mages awaiting us in there: pushing himself off the wall he’d been leaning against as he waited, Roland de Beaumarais – also known as the Rogue Sorcerer – stood up at my approach. His inevitable long leather coat swirling behind him, he made to bow until I caught his arm and pulled him into an embrace instead.
“Roland,” I smiled, “Weeping Heavens, it’s good to see you.”
He looked about to say something, his still-tanned face beginning a frown, but instead he returned my smile in kind.
“And you as well, Catherine,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “It’s been too long.”
Over a year now: he’d not set foot outside the Arsenal since its construction that I knew of, at least not on Creation. The half-realms allowing entry to our little house of wonders didn’t count. Hakram stepped up and the two of them clasped arms, the orc towering over the human.
“Rogue,” Adjutant gravelled. “Always a pleasure.”
“Deadhand,” Roland replied with quirking lips. “Glad to see the Stained Sister didn’t leave you with a limp.”
I was a little sad Indrani wasn’t there to hear that, since she would have been able to make something damned filthy out of that.
“Is something wrong?” I asked. “I’m always glad to see you, but I’d not expected to run into any of you until we reached the Threshold.”
Which was on the other side of that complicated array in front of us, as it happened.
“There’s been some trouble,” Roland grimaced. “I judged it necessary to give you advance warning.”
My brow rose.
“Not Keter,” I slowly said.
We’d be having a rather more urgent conversation were that the case. It wasn’t that I believed it to be impossible for the Dead King to reach this place – I couldn’t think of a way out of hand, given that we were using the Twilight Ways as way to keep his creatures out, but that hardly meant there wasn’t actually one – but rather that if he did get to the Arsenal, it would be for a killing stroke. I couldn’t see Neshamah revealing his hand over anything less than a good chance of outright destroying the place: a raid would just lead us to tighten the defences, after the frankly ridiculous amount of Named within the halls drove it back.
“There has been killing,” the hero told me, sounding like someone trying very hard to avoid saying the word murder.
If there’d been blood spilled by the mundane staff of the Arsenal, I thought, he wouldn’t be standing in front of me offering advance warning. It would not be my place to address a knife fight between guards or a scholarly rivalry gone red. Which meant this wasn’t about the killing so much as who had done the killing.
“A villain by the Name of the Wicked Enchanter was slain,” Roland told me, pitching his voice low.
“And one of you lot did the slaying,” I deduced.
My fingers clenched, though I would not hasten to judgement. I’d given a bleeding boy surrounded by the corpses he’d made the benefit of the doubt, and it was not a principle if it only applied to people you felt for.
“The Red Axe,” he tacitly agreed. “I will not argue for breach of the Terms, Catherine, but there were… extenuating circumstances.”
“The Enchanter has – had – a certain reputation,” Hakram told me. “Though he was also considered a promising lead in usurping control of lesser dead from Keter.”
“I hope they’re damned good circumstances, Roland,” I bluntly said. “Otherwise this ends with gallows and a noose.”
I leaned a little closer.
“This is known?” I softly asked. “It was seen?”
“It was done as our people were heading out for midday meal, an openly fought battle,” Roland murmured back.
Shit. Whatever happened now, there would be no keeping that from spreading. The Arsenal might be isolated from Creation and we read the letters going in and out, but given the amount of people that lived within its walls there would be no way a Named fight would stay secret forever.
“How many Named are there in the Arsenal right now?” Hakram asked.
Good, I’d been wondering that myself.
“Archer arrived two days past with her full band and the Red Axe,” the Rogue Sorcerer replied. “Which brings us at sixteen – eighteen including you and Adjutant, Catherine.”
In other words, I was about to walk into a warehouse full of goblin munitions after someone had tossed a torch into it. Fuck. Better it be me than anyone else I could think of, and even better that Hanno was on his way, but still. In the immortal words of Queen Catherine Foundling, first of her name: fuck. And there were more of us coming, too. The White Knight for one, but the Painted Knife and her own band were headed our way at a brisk pace. I genuinely could not remember reading of such a large amount of Named in the same place at the same time, at least not outside a crusading army marching on Keter itself.
“Tell me it didn’t get out of control after that,” I demanded.
“Tell me no one else died after that,” I said, haggling with disaster.
“Accusations were thrown that the Chosen were attempting a purge, and Archer had to pull the Vagrant Spear off of the Hunted Magician. Bruises and a cut, but nothing lasting.”
I repressed the urge to swear under my breath, knowing my soldiers were close enough they’d be able to hear. The Vagrant Spear was one of Indrani’s crew, so I wasn’t worried there, but all my reports about the Arsenal mentioned the Hunted Magician as being fairly influential among the villains there. Masego could have edged him out of the unofficial leadership fairly easily, as either more or equally powerful as well as significantly better-connected, but Masego would have no interested in playing court games as long as the Magician let him have his way on the things that actually mattered to him. And if he’d been good enough to survive as a Procer mage villain while the Saint and the Pilgrim were still kicking around, then it was safe to assume he was at least that smart. Fuck, I thought once more. Why was it that, of the two Proceran spellcasters with social skills, it was the one supposedly on my side that was most likely to become a headache?
This had the making of a pivot, and not one I liked the looks of.
“Get me there, Roland,” I said. “Before the fucking Eleventh Crusade starts in our backyard.”
“Your Majesty,” the Rogue Sorcerer replied, inclining his head.
He was one of the few heroes that’d never actually sounded at least a little mocking coming from, yet another reason I’d seriously considered asking Masego if it was possible to make more of him. With a Named wizard taking over the ritual, the second translocation was a breeze: Roland outright dismissed the attendant mages and handled it all himself, taking us into one of the larger wagon circles and muttering the incantation under his breath. With a sensation like having a stiff wind suddenly blown over my entire body, we went through after a mere quarter hour of chanting and when my eyes opened it was to the sight of a slab of stone standing surrounded by nothing. Behind us was only void and ahead of us was another slab of stone, but only one.
“I took us through a shortcut,” Roland told me. “Otherwise we’d be stuck going through several checkpoints.”
“What is it with wizards and not putting up railings?” I wondered out loud, looking at the empty void surrounding us.
There was some quiet snickering form my soldiers, to my own amusement.
“Your horse can fly,” Roland pointed out.
“My horse is only coming through with the wagons, so I am distinctly lacking wings at the moment,” I replied. “Crows, at least it doesn’t rain in here.”
Just the thought of treading slippery-slick wet stone with only nothingness around was enough to have me want to wince. I’d worked through most of my old fear of heights, but half-finished dimensions like this were in a category of their own.
“I’ll be sure bring up your complaints at the next monthly assembly,” the Rogue Sorcerer amusedly said.
He took the lead, walking assuredly through the first stone slab and then not pausing as he reached the end of the second. With reason, as there was another slab in place under his foot before it could be put down. I looked back, wondering if the first slab would disappear, but it was still there. This was unlikely to be a conjuration, I decided – it’d take a massive amount of power to make something like stone slab out of seemingly nothing – but odds were this was from too esoteric a branch of sorcery for me to be able to make a proper guess besides. I simply followed, as did my personal guard, and Roland led us through a walk of perhaps half an hour in a straight line before we reached a significantly larger slab, where a circle of silvery light the size of a door was hanging in the air.
“The shortcut leads into the most heavily defended part of the Arsenal,” Roland told us. “Do not be alarmed by the steel and spells awaiting you on the other side, they are a mere precaution.”
“Reassuring,” Hakram drily replied.
While the defences were slowing our way, even with a shortcut being what we took, I could not help but approve of how thoroughly the safety of the Arsenal was being seen to. I was one of the few who’d been brought in on the nature of the place, so I was aware that the Arsenal itself was in neither the Twilight Ways, Arcadia or even Creation: Hierophant had, using Warlock’s old research and what he’d learned by stealing the ruins of Liesse, hung a fortress in a stable dimension somewhere between Twilight and Creation. The Witch of the Woods had then gone a step further and grafted on the Threshold, less dimensional pockets between the Arsenal and everything else. That was where we were right now, and that gate ahead ought to be the last hurdle in getting in. Roland saw to it quickly, tracing the hanging edge with his fingers until it filled silver and speaking in cadenced mage tongue until the circle had become a rectangular door anchored on the ground.
“I’ll have to be last to cross,” he told us. “But the way is open, go ahead.”
“See you on the other side, then,” I shrugged.
I limped through, ignoring a half-hearted protested by my escort that one of them should be first to cross. It wasn’t all that different from a fairy gate, I decided as I crossed, though somehow more… precise. Travelling Arcadia or the Ways was a journey, while this was more like… walking up or down stairs. The other side was, I found out, a beautifully designed killing field. Flat stone grounds overlooked by tall structures leading into corridors, bristling with soldiers and engines of war, and even just striding through and onto the stone I could already feel the sorcery buzzing in the air. Wards and enchantments and half a dozen other things too. My escort followed me through as I limped forward, at least a hundred soldiers looking down on us, and I noted that the only way through was a stairway wedged between the heights. I waited until Roland crossed as well, the gate closing behind him, and only then noticed that someone was coming down the stairs. I smiled, recognizing him immediately.
Though Masego was tall as ever, he’d gained some weight since I last saw him. Nowhere near what he’d worn when he was still young, but at leas enough he no longer seemed thin – though he was still built like a scholar, not a warrior, as there was not much muscle to his frame. The long braids goings down his back had shed some of the ornaments they’d down, now limited to one ring per braid. Most of them gold but a few silver and even bronze. All of them carved with runes. His robes were no longer the old black ones he’d taken to wearing after becoming the Hierophant, instead a more ornate grey set touched with tiles of pale green and paler gold. The cloth band that covered his eyes matched the grey of the robes, though it was not broad enough to hide the glimmering light of Summer’s sun still dwelling within his glass eyes. Masego looked, well, hale and happy. To my admitted surprise.
I’d not exactly expected him to waste away here, but I had expected that without one of us to keep an eye one him he’d go through an obsessive phase the way he had after the Observatory was first built – only without Indrani around to force him to eat and actually talk to people. Evidently I’d been wrong, and I was pleased to learn it. Masego swept down the stairs and, to my deepening surprise, brought me in for a short embrace before leaning down and kissing my cheeks one after the other.
“I, uh,” I eloquently said. “Hello, Masego. It’s good to see you.”
Hierophant looked rather pleased with himself, standing a little straighter.
“And it is good to see you, Catherine,” he said. “We have much to talk about.”
A pause of a heartbeat.
“I would also enjoy catching up,” he mused.
I choked on a startled burst of laughter before coughing into my fist, though I found myself grinning like a fool. Some things never changed, huh? It just wouldn’t be Masego without the effortless praise and insults, neither of which were entirely meant to be offered.
“I have missed you, Zeze,” I admitted.
I patted the side of his elbow and he withdrew, straightening his perfectly straight robes. While I’d been distracted Adjutant had come to stand at my side, and the dark-skinned practitioner tuned to him afterwards.
“Hakram,” Masego smiled. “Good. I have been meaning-”
“Win a shatranj and I’ll consider changing the hand,” the orc replied.
“I have been practicing,” Masego swore. “And I have this lovely artefact, which has fingers but also shoots lightning and –”
“Shoots lightning?” I mused. “Hakram, you should reconsider.”
I was only halfway screwing with him, since I could think of a lot of situations where shooting lightning might be useful. Like, a solid half of all the conversations I’d ever had in my life.
“Masego, please stop bartering away ancient Mavii artefacts,” Roland sighed. “Especially when our ownership of them is dubious to begin with.”
“It was my understanding that grave-robbing is allowed when a hero is the one doing it,” Masego replied, sounding surprised. “Surely that is not invalidated simply because it was a heroine instead.”
His tone implied a degree of appalment at the discrimination involved, which had me breathing in sharply so I would not laugh.
“That’s not,” the Rogue Sorcerer began, “I mean – you ought to… we can discuss this later, Hierophant.”
I suppressed my grin. Masego’s occasional bouts of well-meaning earnestness had always been near impossible to ward against, in my experience. The humour faded, though, when I considered what was still ahead.
“So,” I said, eyes on Masego, “I hear from Roland we’ve got a bit of a situation on our hands.”
Hierophant’s face brightened.
“Oh,” he said. “That reminds me: I have been asked by the Hunted Magician to arrange an audience with you at your earliest convenience.”
I did not groan, because I was a grown woman – sadly enough, as grown as I’d ever get – and a queen and I’d not yet found a way to pawn this off to anyone else.
“Lovely,” I muttered.
“The Blessed Artificer also requests such an audience,” Roland said, coming up behind me. “She wants to lodge a complaint under the Terms.”
My brow rose.
“What about?” I asked.
The Rogue Sorcerer looked meaningfully at Masego, who looked unimpressed.
“The device blinded me,” he said. “I will not apologize for breaking it.”
The device had what? If some fucking heroine thought she could take a swing at Masego and that I’d then make him apologize for it just to keep the peace, then someone was in need of a rude awakening. My friend might not be the deftest of hands when it came to avoiding giving offence, but on the other hand I’d almost never seen him resort to violence without dire provocation himself.
“Who did what now?” I asked, lips thinning.
“I’ll not get into it without her being there,” Roland said. “There is little point. Something to discuss when we are not standing in the middle of the translocation area, yes?”
Fair enough, I silently conceded. I wasn’t like we were in anyone’s way, but I should settle in my guards and take up quarters of my own instead of standing around. Besides, considering the treasury of Callow had pitched in to pay for building this place I was rather due a tour of this Arsenal. I would have preferred to visit when the Named here weren’t at each other’s throats, but if wishes were horses than beggars would ride.
“You have me there,” I easily said. “Which of you fine gentlemen volunteers to-”
A silver rectangle opened behind us, though more than ten feet to the left of where own door out of the Threshold had stood.
“Roland,” I said. “Was anyone else supposed to come today?”
By the shortcut, too, if I was correct.
“No that I know of,” the Rogue Sorcerer grimly replied.
“To the stairs,” I barked at my guards.
We’d only barley begun to withdraw when a silhouette came out. My staff rose, until I caught sight of the perfectly polished shield the figure bore. The Mirror Knight gathered his bearings, then started in surprise when he caught sight of me. I ought to have been the one surprised, really: after all, he was meant to be in Cleves right now.
So what the Hells was he doing here?