“To boast of an opinion unchanged is to boast of wearing child’s clothing.”
– Atalantian saying
The Mirror Knight’s appearance had me surprised, but the three other Named that followed him out pushed that over the edge and into consternation.
One of those I was already familiar with: the Blade of Mercy’s youth and greatsword would have made him memorable enough even if I’d not once ripped out his arm to throw it in another hero’s face as a distraction. Another Alamans, like the Mirror Knight, and one who’d strenuously argued against the Terms before they were forced through with the Pilgrim and the White Knight’s backing. The other two took me a moment to place, as I’d only ever heard of them through reports. But heard of them I had, and they were not unknown quantities. Short, stocky and painted in colours that belonged to no Blood, the Exalted Poet looked like he belonged in a Dominion shield wall instead of the pleasure palaces of Levante he was said to have been conscripted from. Archer had mentioned to me he’d once been among the Hidden Poets, some highly prestigious Levantine society of poets and singers, until he’d somehow touched upon some truth of the Heavens through his words. Yet for all that he did not wield Light – he was a spellcaster, if a middling one, and likely how the band had come through.
The last of the four was a Callowan, though she wasn’t one of mine in any sense. She’d allegedly fled in the early years after the Conquest, and she was the only one who did not openly consider herself one of Above’s champions. The Maddened Keeper looked instead like a perennially exhausted woman in her early twenties, skin drawn and pale and her dark hair ratty. Her threadbare robes ever rumpled and she was thin, but there was a sense of… menace about her. Not like a snake coiling but rather like a diseased thing, the sight of which had you withdraw your hand out of fear and disgust. She was host, it was rumoured, to a great many old secrets that should have stayed unknown – and had even turned herself into a living seal on a Hell Egg from Triumphant’s days. After the Mirror Knight himself she was the one of that bunch I’d be most wary of fighting. I knew from personal experience that one didn’t rub elbows with entities on the darker side of the fence without learning some rather nasty tricks.
“Mirror Knight,” I said, tone cool. “I was under the impression your duties kept you in Cleves.”
Adjutant fell on my left side to cover by bad leg, as naturally as taking a breath, and he did not need to reach for a blade for the heroes to tense. Christophe, for that was the Mirror Knight’s name, looked as surprised to see me as I was to see him. The Blade of Mercy’s hands closed around the handle of his greatsword so strongly the metal creaked as he stared me down with pale eyes and clenched teeth. I was meant to be respectable, these days, so I refrained from asking him how his arm was doing. The Poet looked calm, and had even warily stepped away from the Blade, but the Maddened Keeper was looking at me blearily through the long strands of her ratty hair.
“And I was under the impression I need not answer to you, Black Queen,” the Mirror Knight replied, back straightening.
“Christophe, you speak to the anointed queen of Callow,” the Rogue Sorcerer mildly said. “Have you forgotten your courtesies?”
Roland had stepped between myself and the newcomers, while I was studying them, and though he seemed calm I recognized the tension to his stance from the last time he and I had been in a mess together. He’d not known about this either, then. I’d not expected him to, but these days my trust came slower and died more swiftly than ever before. The world had gotten larger, the older I got, and ever more complex. There were fewer certainties left in my life than I’d like. To my surprise, Roland’s admonishment actually seemed to strike true with the Mirror Knight. A flicker of something like regret passed across his face, and the man offered me what a generous soul might call a bow.
“That was not one of the usual portals,” Masego suddenly said, voice cutting through the room. “And there is more coming.”
The glass eyes beneath the cloth were staring at what I would have thought to be nothingness, but then I was not the Hierophant. There were only three other Named with Christophe, I noted once more. I’d thought him one short of a band of five, and that a good sign, but was he really?
“What are you doing here, Mirror Knight?” I asked, tone grown colder. “The Arsenal is not a hostel anyone can visit when the whim strikes. Explain yourself.”
My gaze swept by the armoured hero and onto the rest of his companions, flat and unfriendly.
“That question stands for the rest of you,” I said. “Two of you ought to be in Cleves, and the –”
“Hooves,” the Maddened Keeper suddenly said. “Someone rides.”
My brow rose. That implied whatever was coming was not with them, which only further added to my confusion. Supplies, maybe? There would be carriages and wagons for those. It should be too early for it to be my own, though I supposed time did tend to get rather fluid when it came to places like this. No telling what it was.
“You tneed to ask why I am here, Queen of Faithlessness?” the Mirror Knight sneered. “Fine, play your games if you must. I am here to prevent the murder you’ve plotted.”
The what now? Wait, was he talking about the way Prince Gaspard of Cleves might bargain himself into a slit throat if he didn’t curb his ambitions? Because I’d not even begun to pursue that, choosing instead to delay until I spoke with the First Prince before beginning to act.
“Have we been plotting murder?” Masego asked, sounding a little bemused. “People never tell me these things. You should write more often, Catherine.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. The last part was probably true, I’d give him that at least.
“See, even the Hierophant admits it,” the Blade of Mercy triumphed. “A murder here in the Arsenal, where no word will escape of it-”
“This is absurd,” Roland flatly said, “and beneath you as well, Antoine. Are we now nothing more than a pack of street thugs throwing around wild accusations? We set down rules to address suspicions like the one you have brought, and swore to follow them.”
“Va te faire foutre, Sorcier,” the Blade of Mercy cursed in a hiss. “You might have forgotten the butchery at the Camps so you can get comfortable playing the wizard in your little tower, but we are not all so eager to be bought out of our principles.”
“What principles would these be?” Hakram gravelled. “All I see is a handful of Named who were caught breaking agreements and now spin unlikely tales to dig their way out.”
“It is no breach of the Terms to come to the Arsenal,” the Exalted Poet said in Chantant, and I started at how gorgeous his voice was.
Warm and full-throated, like honey for the ear. I could understand why he’d never had to work a day in his life, with a voice like that: people would have thrown coppers at him just to hear him list out the chores of the day.
“That may be true. Lacing your voice with sorcery when speaking to other Named is, however,” Hierophant said, tone gone icy.
The warmth left me, gone as if by a snap of the finger. I frowned, eyeing the Poet rather more warily than before.
“Who throws wild accusations now?” the Blade of Mercy said.
“Keep your lackeys in hand, Black Queen,” the Mirror Knight ordered me. “This is disgraceful.”
My fingers clenched around my staff of yew.
“What,” I asked very gently, “did you just say to me?”
“Did I perhaps stutter?” the Mirror Knight smiled.
I breathed out, mastered the frozen vicious thing that was roaring in my veins. At seventeen, you arrogant little shit, I would have answered that sword in hand. But now I had responsibilities, and no matter how fucking satisfying it would be to make the prick spit out his teeth it would also be a major incident. The Truce and the Terms, I knew, would already be stretched to a breaking point by the killing of a villain no matter how the matter was resolved. If the representative for Below’s lot assaulted the most famous Proceran hero alive the same week, they might just snap. I told myself this again and again until the anticipation of that smirking jackass bleeding from the mouth had left my knuckles, and only then spoke again.
“Under the Terms, I judge your presence here to be suspect and your behaviour needlessly provocative,” I said, voice cool. “You will be held under guard until the White Knight is here to speak on your behalf.”
Outrage was the answer, and the Blade of Mercy laughed scornfully, but I was not finished,
“Set your weapons down on the ground, right now,” I said. “All of you. You will use neither sorcery, Light nor Name until it is made explicitly clear to you it is permissible once more.”
“I did not mean to breach the Terms,” the Exalted Poet said, raising his hands, “and will not add further insult to the injury.”
The voice was just as gorgeous as before, I thought, but it wasn’t so… attention-grabbing anymore. Huh, interesting. A little like fae glamour, then? That made him an odd duck compared to the usual Dominion lot, who rarely resorted to tricks on the more subtle side.
“You bloody coward,” the Blade of Mercy swore. “Have you no pride?”
“Roland,” the Mirror Knight gravely said, “did you not hear her speak? Hear the threat she threw at our feet like challenger’s glove?”
The Rogue Sorcerer’s face was a blank mask.
“If Hanno had given the order to a group of Named, I would have backed him without hesitation,” Roland replied. “Christophe, swallow your damned pride for an hour. It is not worth what your swaggering threatens to bring down upon all our heads. I do not know what brings you here, but I have been here all this time and I tell you now that you are mistaken.”
The Mirror Knight hesitated. I kept my mouth shut, even though by all fucking rights in the eyes of Gods and crowns just my giving the order here should have been enough, because I was not so enamoured of my pride that I’d knife a method that seemed to be working.
“It was a villain that was slain,” Roland continued, “and-”
“See,” the Blade of Mercy spat, “see? It is exactly as we learned. Some wizard rapist got nothing more than he deserved and now they would slay a Chosen in cold blood for it.”
“And how did you learn this, I wonder?” Adjutant asked, voice calm.
“Orcs have-” the Blade of Mercy began-
“Finish that sentence,” I mildly said. “And I will have to answer it.”
I met his eyes, pale blue, and idly ran a finger just to the side of my shoulder. About where I’d ripped his out with my bare hands, the last time we’d fought. The boy flinched, until his eyes glowed with Light and he leaned forward instead.
“Answer the Adjutant’s question, Christophe,” Roland said. “Something is afoot.”
“I will not unmask our friend in these walls so that you might silence them and hide the next sin from our eyes,” the Mirror Knight harshly replied. “Queen you might be, Catherine Foundling, but you are no queen of mine.”
Was I supposed to be stung by that? I sometimes pitied Cordelia Hasenbach for the fact that the blunders of her nation’s heroes inevitably reflected on her and counted my blessings that the closest thing to a hero I had to answer for was Vivienne Dartwick. Once in a while, I supposed, I did get a stroke of luck.
“I didn’t ask you to kneel,” I said. “But I did ask you to put your fucking sword on the ground, Christophe. I can’t help but notice you haven’t even managed that much.”
“And what will you do, if I do not deign to indulge you?” the man smirked.
“Do not think,” I softly said, “that I will not beat some sense into your empty head, if you leave me no other choice.”
“What do I have to fear of Night?” the Mirror Knight chuckled. “Perhaps this is for the best, yes? Too long have better souls tread softly around your pride for fear of your power. You are in dire need of a-”
I’d have to aim it carefully, to finish it one blow. Just tossing Night around like some Secret-drunk ispe wouldn’t do anything, the man had survived being submerged in acid with only light discomfort. The trick to it would be-
“Hooves,” the Maddened Keeper sighed. “I told you.”
The portal’s opening was silent, though the shiver of power was not. A rider came through, leaning low against the neck of the horse to avoid hitting their head, and there was no missing the power wafting off of them. Another one?
“Weeping Heavens,” I swore, throwing up my hands. “Is this a secret magic fortress or a bloody fish market?”
“We do have ponds,” Masego helpfully told me in a whisper, “and some of them have fish.”
“Thank you, Masego,” I sighed. “But the fish weren’t the point of the comparison.”
“It’s not a very good comparison, then,” he informed me.
I did not answer that, because I had better things to do and also I couldn’t think of anything that’d be a match for that serious earnestness he’d spoken with. For a moment, looking at the rider straightening in the saddle, I was genuinely unsure whether I was looking at a man or a woman. But then I caught sight of the ornate kingfishers carved into the armour and put one and one together. Frederic Goethal, the Prince of Brus. More importantly, the Kingfisher Prince: the only ruler Named in Procer I’d ever heard about outside old legends. Prince Frederic, I decided as I took in the perfect blond hair, slender jaw and fair skin, was ridiculously pretty. The mass of ribbons in his hair would have looked ridiculous, I thought, if a closer look did not reveal they were purple and silver. The Dead King’s banners, torn up and made into vain ornaments.
The Prince of Brus had style, I had to give him that.
“My, it seemed I’ve stumbled onto quite the assembly,” Prince Frederic laughed. “I dare not claim it was sent for on my behalf.”
Eyes just a little too sharp for me to find them beautiful lingered on me, and the Prince of Brus offered me a theatrical bow from atop his horse.
“Queen Catherine, I must say it is a fine pleasure to meet you in person at last,” he said. “I am, one might say, an admirer of your work up in Hainault.”
The heroes I’d been about to draw on looked utterly befuddled by a Named prince of Procer quite literally riding into the middle of the confrontation. It calmed the waters some, took the edge off the stormy urgency everyone had been feeling in their air.
“I hear good things of you from my people, Prince Frederic,” I replied, meaning every word. “Or do you prefer your Name instead?”
“There is less difference between one and the other than I would have thought,” the man mused. “But Frederic is all I would require of you, Queen of Callow.”
“How forward,” I said, smothering a grin, but did not outright deny him.
It was just an Alamans thing, the grandiose manners and bold suggestions, but it was still flattering in its own way. Dismounting smoothly, the Prince of Brus set foot on the stone and offered a sweeping bow to the rest of the Named here.
“I am Frederic of the House of Goethal, Prince of Brus,” he introduced himself.
“Did we invade that?” I heard Masego ask Hakram in a whisper. “He’s very polite, if we invaded that.”
“We haven’t,” Hakram replied in a whisper. “Too far north. And technically speaking we never invaded Procer. We were invited into Iserre by Prince Amadis Milenan.”
“Oh, I get it,” Masego said, tone brightening. “We never killed any Procerans either, we just stabbed them and then an unrelated death ensued. Politics is all about ignoring causality.”
I decided, after a moment, to pretend I’d never heard that. The Kingfisher Prince greeted several the other two Proceran heroes by both Name and name, which seemed to rather move them, and charmed his way through introductions with the Poet and the Keeper. Who was, if I was not mistaken, blushing. Roland stood at my side, a rueful look on his face, and shrugged when I raised an eyebrow as if to say, Alamans, what can you do? The glance I traded with Hakram was more laden with meaning. Retreat, I asked him with my eyes, or press forward? He studied the heroes and the Prince of Brus for a moment, then nodded. Forward, he was saying. I was inclined to agree. Though in principle the Mirror Knight and the Blade of Mercy were of equal standing to the Kingfisher Prince, in matters of Truce and Terms at least, the way they behaved spoke differently. They were deferring, treating the man a superior whether they were conscious of it or not.
And I’d been around Alamans long enough now to learn that their culture frowned on making a scene when a superior was there to see. The trait was even more pronounced in highborn, who would be expected to ‘remain graceful’ to the extent that they’d have to face even an utter disaster with a smile and a pithy phrase instead of genuine emotion. It galled me that I’d have to use someone authority’s as well as my own, but not so much that I wouldn’t actually do it. I stepped into the circle, Hakram and Masego trailing behind, inserting myself into the ongoing conversation.
“- it was the of the Bitter Blacksmith’s make as it happens, though not the one here,” the Prince of Brus said, touching the sword at his hip with a smile. “The younger brother of the pair. His blades are in high demand, and Revenants have learned to fear their sight.”
“I am sure that stories would be best traded in comfortable a place than this room,” I said. “Your horse will need stabling as well, Prince Frederic.”
“Every time title is used, Queen Catherine, my heart breaks a little more,” the man said, hand over his heart.
“Frederic, then,” I smiled, against my own better judgement, but the mirth went away as I turned to the four unexpected guests. “As was discussed earlier, your unexpected presence at the Arsenal means you’ll have to remand yourself to the custody the guards until the White Knight can be scryed. I expect you’ve no issue with this?”
“None at all, Black Queen,” the Exalted Poet immediately conceded.
“A place with little light, please,” the Maddened Keeper said. “Queen of Lost and Found.”
My eyes narrowed as I looked at the haggard woman. That was not one of my better-known titles, much less by someone who should not have ever gone anywhere the Firstborn. This one was worth keeping an eye on. I smiled at the Mirror Knight and the Blade of Mercy, who were both doing poorly at hiding their anger. But they were only two against many, and likely to disgrace themselves in everyone’s eyes if they fought back against my very reasonable request.
“Of course,” the Mirror Knight said. “We will do what is right.”
“We always do,” the Blade of Mercy said, looking at me defiantly.
I glanced at Roland, who nodded. I’d trust him with seeing to that, then. I knew not the officers that must be spoken to or the places the heroes would have to be stashed away until Hanno could either free my hands to deal with this mess or deal with it himself.
“I’m sure one of the guards can show you to the stables,” I told Frederic Goethal. “I’m afraid I cannot claim the same.”
“Every hour parted from you will be a torment,” the Prince of Brus assured me, “but I may be able to withstand it, for the promise of a cup of wine shared at a later date?”
“Best you bring the bottle,” I told him, tacitly accepting, “I know little of Proceran wines.”
Even when it came to Callowan bottles, I only knew so much. Gods, I realized with some amusement, I could name more sorts of liquor than wine.
“A journey of discovery is always a pleasant evening to share, Queen Catherine,” the Kingfisher Prince smiled, and with a bow took his leave.
A charmer, that one, I considered. That made him that dangerous, if rather pleasant. The heroes left, until the only ones here in this strange room in this strange place were of the Woe: Masego and Hakram, who I would trust so long as I still had it in me to trust anything at all. I breathed out, then, appreciating how close to fighting this had come. The heroes were bucking the Terms and bucking them hard. Those two Proceran hotheads were trouble, had been from the start, but I’d thought that Hanno’s word would be enough to keep them in line. That belief was starting to wane, unfortunately, and if words failed then there was only one way left.
“Fuck,” I muttered. “This is going to get worse, isn’t it?”
I knew better than to believe house arrest would keep a hero contained. Which meant I now had to take this situation in hand before the fucking idiots broke the agreements that were keeping Named pointed north at Keter instead of squabbling.
“Find me a room I can received people in, Zeze,” I asked Masego. “And then get me the Hunted Magician.”
“Are you not going to settle into your quarters?” Hierophant asked, cocking his head to the side.
“I’ll rest when I’m dead,” I sighed.
Better that than everyone else dying, I supposed.
“And Hakram-” I began.
“I’ll see what bottles I can rustle up,” the orc agreed.
Ah, Adjutant, that prince among men. What would I do without him?
I’d expected to end up in a glorified scholar’s nook, but perhaps that’d been naïve of me. After all the Arsenal had been built on the Grand Alliance’s gold with the understanding that it would be receiving some of the finest minds from three nations as well as packs of Named. Moreover, for something like the Mirage – that great enchanted room that’d been sold to me as the sorcerous step beyond scrying – to be worth making, there would have to be fitting accommodations for the few people on Calernia that would actually be allowed to use that room. That meant that an entire wing of the Arsenal, named the Alcazar, had been built for that purpose. There were luxurious private quarters, there, and private dining rooms, but also the kind of parlour where a prince or a queen could receive important guests away from prying ears.
Masego had cut me loose in the wing after bringing me there, admitting he was less than familiar with the place and so of limited use, and instead gone off to find the Hunted Magician. The attendants here, though, had sorted me out. I’d requested something ‘intimate’, which was what rich people called small, since I’d not brought a household with me and the villain I was going to receive was both Proceran and mostly likely highborn. Better the lack of personal attendants be taken as preference for privacy then an admission I’d simply not brought any. Or had any, to be honest. Even when I’d spent most my time in Laure, I’d kept a rather modest house by royal standards. Enough that Anne Kendall had once praised me for my frugality, and that thought had me reaching for the bottle of aragh that Hakram had somehow gotten his hands on.
I’d been a while since I’d last thought of the once Baroness of Dormer, who’d been my Governess-General and died so senselessly in the Night of Knives. Her and people dearer to me, like Ratface, whose death Malicia would one day answer for.
I gulped down the thimble I’d filled, the roaring warmth of the Taghrebi liquor spreading down my throat, and leaned back into the cushiony Proceran sofa I’d claimed as my seat. The parlour was not large, two sofas and a low table taking up the greater part of the room while service tables and tapestries took up the rest. It would serve for my purposes, as would the bottle of aragh set on that nice polished table along with one wet thimble and one still dry. Adjutant stood behind my seat, to the side, since he was here as my second and not a villain his own right. I’d not expected for Masego to return with the Hunted Magician, since he’d see little point in walking back and forth the Arsenal for courtesies he only dimly paid attention to, so I was not surprised when it was only the Magician that was announced by attendants. The man was ushered in, and as he bowed I took the time to study the man that Hierophant’s indifference to matters of status had allowed to become chief among the villains of the Arsenal.
Nearing or past thirty, I decided, well-dressed in fine robes but leaning towards the practical – and I did mean well dressed, not richly dressed, which smelled of nobility to me. Good-looking and well-groomed, the stubble on his face sculpted, he was dark of hair and his eyes straddled the line between grey and blue. No one knew his name, only his Name, and the mystery around him had so far remained inscrutable. He cleaned up nicely, I thought, but that wasn’t why I kept staring at him. There was something about the Hunted Magician, something strangely familiar. It was on the tip of my tongue and it was irritating me I couldn’t quiet spell it out.
“Queen Catherine, it is my honour,” the Hunted Magician said, bowing respectfully.
I stared at him, some part of me feeling like I could just order him to kneel and he would. The certainty of that thought was what surprised me, because there was no room for so much as the shadow of a doubt in it and that was not something that came upon me often. Not anymore, thank the Gods. And just like that, it fell into place.
“Oh,” I said, “you poor dumb bastard. Which Court is it that you sold your name to?”
The man twitched, then looked at me what I could only call naked fear. I was almost surprised Masego hadn’t noticed it, but then I supposed that was not he part of fae nature Hierophant was familiar with: he’d studied fae, made use of them, but he’d never felt that power coursing through his veins. He knew it like a rider knew a horse, while I knew it like the horse knows the stride.
“I-” the Hunted Magician began, mouth gone dry. “I do not know what you mean, Your Majesty.”
“I can smell it, Magician,” I said. “They’ve still got a claim on you, and a debt like that can be pulled at by more than the true debtor. Can’t be Summer, or I’d feel like smashing your skull open, and if it was Winter you would have physically balked at lying to me. So, which is it: Autumn or Spring?”
“It is true, then,” he quietly said. “You were, for a time, queen amongst the Fae.”
“I scavenged that crown,” I said, “and it ever sat ill on my brow. I was glad to be rid of it. Answer my question, Hunted Magician.”
I did not Speak – I’d lost the talent when I ceased being the Squire, and my new Name was not so close to coalescing that I could call on old tricks – but he shivered anyway. There was an echo of power there that had a call on him, much as he would like to deny it.
“Autumn,” the villain answered. “It was Autumn I bargained with.”
And you use Maviii runes that not even Masego can seem to figure it out, I thought, so I don’t really need to ask what you bargained for, do I? Ancient knowledge seemed a petty thing to sell your name for, but then that’d never been my calling.
“Good,” I smiled. “Then I have a use for you, Magician.”
“I have evaded the eye of the Prince of Falling Leaves, remaining free of eternal servitude,” the Hunted Magician angrily said, “I’ll not suffer the yoke of the Black Queen instead.”
“I’m not going to make you into a puppet,” I snorted, “I’m going to speak to Hierophant so that you might be brought in onto a project of ours that the Kingdom of Callow backs above all others. You have the potential to greatly contribute, and so be greatly rewarded.”
Masego had been running into trouble proving his Quartered Seasons theory, but if we could bring into the work someone who had a lasting tie to Autumn then doors would open. And I’d just discovered I could squeeze the Hunted Magician rather hard if I felt like it, so I was even fairly comfortable bringing him in. Already my mood was improving.
“That can wait for later, though,” I dismissed. “You wanted an audience, Magician. Well, you have it.”
I gestured vaguely, inviting him to proceed. The man straightened in his seat.
“The death of the Wicked Enchanter was not happenstance, a stroke of fateful misfortune,” the Hunted Magician told me. “This is a plot, Black Queen, and we are all in danger.”