Chapter 15: Machinations

“A ruler should always join regicide plots: is the finest possible teacher for a locksmith not a thief?”
– Dread Emperor Traitorous

I poured myself another finger of aragh, since it was quite evidently going to be one of those days.

“A bold claim,” I said, “but I am open to the notion.”

The Hunted Magician would, by my reckoning, have spent Gods only knew how many years pursued by a prince of the fae. Most likely through agents as there would have been… waves if a fae noble of that calibre came into Creation to collect a debt, but the old Courts of Arcadia had come by their reputation of always getting their due honestly. It would have been a constant ordeal of enemies hidden under glamour, pursuit that could not be shaken off by simple distance and terrifying visions both sleeping and waking. The occasional complaints I’d gotten about the man being cryptic, distrustful and generally unpleasant now had an explanation. Living in a world where there might be an enemy hidden behind any smiling face, with forced servitude as the consequence of making even a single mistake, had a way of making people paranoid to the bone.

The thing was that the kind of enemies I was up again did actually warrant that level of caution. The Dead King had been three steps ahead of the rest of the world this entire war, the Intercessor had been out of sight for an unsettling amount of time and that was setting aside the most dangerous enemy of all: simple, petty human nature. The trouble here would not be the paranoia itself but figuring out if the Hunted Magician’s paranoia was the right sort of paranoia.

“Two weeks ago, the Blessed Artificer received news that troubled her a great deal,” the Hunted Magician told me. “I know not what they were, but I do know that some of the other Chosen here began acting oddly around the same time.”

“And how would you know that?” I mildly asked.

“The Bitter Blacksmith was herself unchanged, and did not seem to notice any difference,” the Magician said.

I traced the rim of my cup with a finger.

“You misunderstand me,” I said, and perhaps on purpose, I did not speak out loud. “How do you know that the Blessed Artificer received such news?”

The man did not answer, his face turning into a pleasant mask that was just a little too sloppy to be believed. It didn’t reach the eyes, which to a Praesi would be counted as a beginner’s mistake. He did not trust me, which was fine, but that distrust was getting in the way of my finding answers and that was not acceptable. Using coercion here would only make things worse, I decided. Threats would serve to make me an enemy and that was not the role I wanted to play in this conversation. Another approach would be needed.

“I am observant,” the Hunted Magician replied.

“So you are,” I mused. “You must work closely with the Artificer?”

His eyes narrowed.

“On occasion,” he said.

“This is unrelated to the current conversation,” I elaborated. “I’m told she wishes to lodge a complaint under the Terms about some device being broken, and I would like some understanding of the technicalities involved coming from someone else than the plaintiff.”

A chance to exert influence, which I knew he’d want to take: one did not become the informal speaker for villains in the Arsenal by accident. It was ambition, and ambition was a familiar beast.

“It is not my field of speciality, but I do have some insights,” the Hunted Magician said.

“Do you know what it was meant to accomplish?” I said. “Or at least what it might have been based on?”

“The underlying principles had some similarity to an artefact displayed by the Repentant Magister last year,” the Magician said, “though I am unsure whether or not you’d be familiar with it.”

Underlying principles, huh. No, that could still be shop talk between colleagues.

“Made of the same materials?” I asked, pitching my voice in surprise.

The Proceran mage suppressed a smirk. That’s right, I thought, I’m just some uneducated mudfoot from Callow. Lord your knowledge of me, you know you want to. I’d bet rubies to piglets the man was highborn, and some of that stayed in the marrow even when you left the life behind.

“Light favours different materials than sorcery,” the Hunted Magician told me. “She chose them accordingly.”

“So you saw the device as it was being built,” I said.

The man went still as stone.

“Adjutant,” I mused. “Do remind me – can projects without official sanction be built in the official crafting rooms of the Workshop?”

“They cannot,” Hakram gravelled. “Though it is allowed in one’s private quarters, on their own time.”

A beat passed.

“So,” I smiled, “you’ve been sleeping with the Blessed Artificer.”

“I was simply visiting-”

“I would invite you,” I mildly said, “to consider very carefully whether or not you want to lie to me.”

The Haunted Magician’s mouth closed. Yeah, I’d thought as much.

“I like to operate by a simple rule, when it comes to keeping an eye on my Damned fellows,” I told him amicably. “Don’t make it my problem, and I won’t treat it like one.”

Looming behind me, a tower of muscles and fangs in burnt plate, Hakram stared the man down.

“Are you going to be a problem, Haunted Magician?” Adjutant growled.

“I came to lend aid,” the man protested.

Good, he was off-balance. Time to press.

“So aid me,” I smiled. “Have you been sleeping with the Bitter Blacksmith as well?”

He did not immediately answer, and I had to hide my utter surprise. Godsdamn, that’d been a shot in the dark since he’d specifically named her as well: I’d actually wanted him to deny it so I could twist it into a confirmation he was sleeping with the Artificer. The silence was as good as an admission, though. I cocked my head to the side, studying him carefully.

“I am impressed,” I said, and he smirked, “that you haven’t gotten your head caved in.”

Would you look at that, the smirk was gone. Probably helped that neither of those heroines were fighting Named, I mused, though that hardly made them shyly blushing maidens. Still if he’d tried to pull something like that with, say, the Painted Knife and the Vagrant Spear? There’d be a mistake-shaped corpse propped up in front of me instead of a living man.

“That makes you a useful source of information,” I mused.

That reassured him as it was meant to, though he tried to hide it. If I’d tried to assure him I held no ill intentions towards him he wouldn’t have bought it for a second, but from villain to another an open admission of usefulness was one of the most prized guarantees of safety.

“You said the Artificer was troubled,” I said, “and others began acting oddly. Expand on this.”

“She put an end to our trysts, irregular as they were,” the Hunted Magician admitted. “And I saw her speaking with the Repentant Magister frequently afterwards, when they have never been close.”

Shit, Nephele too? She’d not struck me as the scheming type when we last met, but a flirty acquaintance wasn’t exactly understanding in depth.

“And the oddness?” I asked.

“They’ve several times gone to the general archives, both together and separately,” the Magician said, “and the two times I spied on them it was the old assembly transcripts they were going through. Specifically, those of the monthly sessions.”

What were those for again? Roland had not long ago joked about bringing up my complaint about lack of railings in one, but they couldn’t be just a general venting of complaints. It’d be a waste of time to make the ten Named based at the Arsenal sit through these. Of course, asking would make me look like I’d missed what he was implying. Which I had, but he didn’t need to know that. Cowing people stopped working when they saw you stumble.

“Allocation of personnel and resources, general financing,” Hakram said. “Do you have a notion of what they were trying to piece together?”

Ah, Adjutant to the rescue. So, going scavenging through the records of what and who had been allocated to projects those two had been trying to figure out the nature of one they hadn’t been brought in on. There weren’t many of those, only three. As I recalled the Hunted Magician and the Sinister Physician – who was also one of mine – were working on a ‘plague’ that would affect undead, under the appellation of Late Regret. Roland and the Concocter were working on a brew that’d affect undead like holy water and could feasibly be produced in sufficient quantity to contaminate the northern lakes, called Sudden Abjuration. The last was actually under debate to be opened to all Named, an attempt by Blind Maker and the Repentant Magister to make an artefact that’d prevent the Dead King from actively possessing undead within a certain range.

Only the last of the three was showing promising results, though it was also the one whose success would be hardest to prove: Neshamah was clever enough to pretend it was working to take us by surprise after we’d come to rely on it. The Haunted Magician hesitated, and not because it was Adjutant who’d asked the question. It was well-known to everyone by now that when Hakram spoke it was with my voice.

“I believe,” he finally said, “that they were not interested in what was in the records so much as what was not.”

My face remained calm, because it was not the first time an ugly surprise had been sprung on me today. Hells, it wasn’t even the first time today. I reached for my cup of aragh and sipped. Shit. Was this about Quartered Seasons, then? Hierophant was the only Named on that and we’d kept it very, very quiet. Hasenbach knew the name and that it could yield a potential tool for deicide, but on the Dominion side the only one I’d told was Tariq since Levantine nobles had famously loose lips. I’d wanted the Pilgrim to be able to vouch someone from Levant had been told and picked him in particular because it’d put out any talk of dishonour the moment the Peregrine’s involvement was mentioned. It was even true that the funding and resources for Quartered Seasons wouldn’t be discussed in their little Named councils, since I’d made it clear to Masego that if need be the crown of Callow would fund it entirely on its own.

But there’s only many so people within the Arsenal, and for some parts he would have needed helping hands, I thought. For drudgework and fetching records or even assembling mundane objects. Hells, just the use of limited ritual resources like high quality scrying tools or rare substances were trails that could be followed if you knew where to look – which Nephele would, since she was in on one of the quiet projects. The two heroines had been trying to figure out what had been used by figuring out what hadn’t been allocated in the actual sessions: resources and staff that mysteriously never made it to the discussion, unexplained holes in the budget. Even if they had managed to pull it all together it still wouldn’t be enough to actually know what Masego was trying to accomplish, but it might be enough to allow them to make a few educated guesses. Which as lot more dangerous than them actually knowing, in my opinion.

“Interesting,” I finally said, putting down my cup. “But it’s the killing of the Wicked Enchanter you mentioned when making claim of a plot.”

“There have been rising tensions for weeks,” the Hunted Magician said. “Incidents occur more and more frequently, and become graver – and then, in a fortress the size of the Arsenal, the Red Axe and the Wicked Enchanted simply happen to meet. Someone filled the cup, Black Queen, and then arranged for the drop that would make it run over.”

And the thing was, that made perfect sense to me. But then I was speaking to a man for who paranoia had been the path to survival for years and coming back from fighting on a front against the Hidden Horror for two straight years. I was inclined to believe him because I’d grown used to death hiding in every shadow, which meant my judgement was not unbiased. And if I tighten my grip too strongly around honest mistakes by heroes, I thought, I might just cause the incident I am trying to avoid. There were more than twenty Named in the Arsenal, if I – a villain, however respected I was in some quarters – acted like I was trying to cover up something then someone was going to do something stupid. And when the first stone in the avalanche came down, it’d be beyond my power to turn the tide back.

“That is speculation, not proof of anything,” I said.

The man’s face fell into a mask again, this time tying to hide his anger.

“But I mislike the shape and timing of this,” I conceded. “You were right to bring this to my attention. I’ll take the situation in hand personally.”

Anger was gone, a mix of relief and wariness in him instead. He must have been halfway decent at this at some point, I thought, since the reflexes were there. He was badly out of practice, though, and he’d learned some self-defeating habits since. Another detail adding an entry to the ‘highborn who fled from the consequences of his actions’ tally I was mentally keeping.

“Then I can only thank you for granting me this audience, Black Queen,” the Hunted Magician said, bowing in his seat.

I didn’t invite him to stay and share a drink, though it would have been good politics, as my mind was already considering what needed to be done and I was reluctant to let the pot keep boiling while I played courtesy games. Instead I rose to escort him out, then closed the door behind him and leaned against the wooden frame. Hakram poured himself a finger aragh in the cup the Magician had not used, then sat down on the edge of the sofa to sip at it.

“Two Named, if not more, were led to start digging around one of our most dangerous secrets,” I said. “Another two Named, between who conflict is good as certain, happened to run into each other here. And now the Mirror Knight was sent here to prevent a ‘murder’, when even with the fluidity of time in the Ways it’s near certain he was warned about the circumstances before they took place.”

I grit my teeth.

“Once is accident, twice is coincidence,” I began-

“Thrice is enemy action,” Hakram finished.

Except that, when it came to Named, coincidences were nothing of the sort. Which meant my enemy had drawn first blood and then struck again before I even realized I was in a fight, so I was in dire need of catching up. I limped back to low table and took my drink in hand, tossing the rest of it back in a single swallow.

“You have a plan,” Adjutant said.

“I have a step,” I corrected. “What I need is someone with utter disregard for other people’s privacy, an inveterate hunger for juicy gossip and a pathological need to screw with everyone until it’s clear what makes them tick.”

“Wouldn’t it have been simpler,” Hakram asked, “just to say Archer?”

I’d meant for Indrani to come to us but apparently she was currently eating, not all that inclined to move and the attendant we’d sent to fetch her was afraid of her. Which, in all honesty, was probably smart of him. So instead I limped my way down to the meal hall with Hakram at my side, the two of us and our guide passing through corridors ghostly empty. The Alcazar, the part of the Arsenal meant to host important guests, was apparently connected to quite a few other sections by private halls not meant to be used by anyone else. It made sense, I supposed. If Cordelia Hasenbach needed to use the Mirage, she wouldn’t want half the scholars in this place to watch her every time she headed there. I learned from our chatty guide that Archer had ignored her own guest rooms in the Alcazar to bunk elsewhere – Masego’s quarters in the Belfry, at a guess – and that she’d never bothered to use the private eatery in there. She was eating the same commissary fare as everyone else, which I found odd given her appreciation for luxury.

It all made a great deal more sense when we entered a hall that could have seated four hundred and I saw she was the only person in it, sprawled lazily on a bench as she dipped pieces of bread in melted cheese and popped them into her mouth. Indrani did not need decadence to be brought to her, she brought decadence wherever she was.

“Did you make the kitchens cook this for you alone?” I called out. “I’d call it abuse of power, but honestly by your standards this is almost reasonable.”

Practically inhaling another dipped piece of bread, Indrani swung around and rose to her feet in a single fluid gesture. It would have been a lot more impressive if she didn’t have a string of melted cheese hanging off the corner of her mouth.

“Your Queenly Majesticness,” Archer solemnly bowed, smothering a grin, “your most humble servant hath returned. I now pray most faithfully that Your Great Regality will smile on-”

With great pleasure, I stopped leaning on my staff just long enough to smack her on the crown of the head – or would have, if she’d not twisted around and caught the yew before pulling. Before I could so much as insult her I was made to stumble, caught by the waist and led into a dip before she kissed me. If I put a hand behind her neck it was purely to hang on, not because I was trying to lean into it and feel a little more of her. She withdrew with a smug grin, leaving my lips pleasantly bruised.

“You smell like cheese,” I told her.

“You sound a little breathless,” she replied, the smugness deepening.

“From trying not to breathe it in,” I scorned, then parted from her with a step to the side.

“That aragh I got from you?” she asked, sounding interested.

I leaned forward and stole a piece of bread from her plate, dipping it and deftly popping it into my mouth. Huh, that really was quite good. Adjutant cleared his throat, reminding Archer that he was also there. The attendant had retired during my passing moment of distraction, though the more honest word for it might have been fled.

“I’m happy to see you too, big guy,” Indrani warmly said, clasping his arm. “But you’ve got too much teeth for a dip of your own, if that’s what you’re hinting at.”

“You’ve got too little to warrant a hint,” Hakram replied without missing a beat. “But it’s good to see you too, ‘Drani.”

Even as I laughed at the casual verbal backhand she’d received with a stunned oof, the tall orc picked her up in a hug as easily as if she were bag of turnips. She shrieked in laughter, her ‘surprised struggling’ somehow ending up with him being smacked on the side of the face quite a lot. She was put down on the long table little bird and tried to bat away my continuing pillaging of her meal – there was some Arlesite sausage there, the good stuff with the spices from the Free Cities, so I’d gleefully helped myself – only to be ignored by right of queenly prerogative.

“Did you come all the way here just to eat my food?” she complained.

“Callow pays for part of the food budget,” I said, chewing on a mouthful, “so in a sense it was really always my food.”

“It’s sad how power will go to the head of even the most sensible of women,” Archer sighed. “And you too, I guess, but-”

I threw a stripe of mustarded venison at her, though as expected she caught it. I’d been hungrier than I’d thought, I mused as I stole a stripe for myself. There was a sweet taste to the sauce as well that was delicious, and I let out a little noise of pleasure. In a sense the way I’d been when I’d still been Sovereign of Moonless Nights, requiring neither sleep nor food, had been better. It’d certainly been more efficient. But I still remembered the nights where it had all been like ashes in my mouth, when nothing but the hardest of liquors had tasted of anything at all, and I could only count my blessings that I was now rid of those times.

“Is no one going to offer me anything?” Hakam drily asked.

We ignored him, since it wasn’t that large a plate.

“We have something of a problem,” I told Indrani.

She nodded.

“I brought the killer in from the cold and didn’t keep close enough a watch on her, that’s on me,” Archer frankly said. “Mind you, the man had it coming if even half the stories I heard are true.”

The Wicked Enchanter had been, from what I beginning to grasp, broadly disliked and held in disgust. It shouldn’t be difficult to find out exactly why, though likely unpleasant, but that wasn’t what caught my attention. He’d been a villain even other villains were lukewarm about, one the heroes would be able to hold up as the kind of monster deserving the headman’s block instead of the protection of the Truce. That was a problem, since it meant this wasn’t just a thorny little mess to arbitrate: it was a knife someone had aimed at the Truce and the Terms themselves.

If the Red Axe was killed over this, I suspected the heroes would riot. If the Red Axe wasn’t killed over this, I knew sure as I knew my own breath that the villains would riot. And on top of that, just adding more more disastrous insult to the injury one of the heroes I’d find it most difficult to beat into humility without killing him, the Mirror Knight, had just blown in with supporters and no warning to meddle. If it even looked like I was lenient on the Red Axe, the perception among the villains I spoke for would be that I’d been leaned on by one of the luminaries of the other side and given ground.

I’d look weak and Below’s champions did not follow weakness, much less obey it.

“We’re in a fight, ‘Drani,” I murmured. “And it’s starting to look like we showed up to it already bleeding. I’m going to need you.”

Archer’s hazelnut eyes turned serious as she leaned forward.

“You have me,” she said. “Are the heroes taking a swing?”

“I don’t know yet,” I grimly replied. “But we’re in a story, Archer, make no mistake. And it’s one meant to cut us deep.”

And it might just be my imagination, I thought, the habit of seeing a grinning skull in every dark corner… but I can almost the smell the cheap booze in the air, hear the mocking tune from the badly strung lute. I took the pretty silver knife on the side of Archer’s plate, idly flipping it through my knuckles as I stepped back from the table.

“There are now,” I said, “twenty-three Named within these walls.”

That we knew of. Certainty was a necessity for Named, if you wanted to ever be more than a middling swordhand in the middle of nowhere, but this early and when the game afoot was still shrouded it would be a mistake to believe we knew everything about the board there was to be known.

“The Arsenal usually counts five heroes, three villains and two Named of unclear allegiance,” Hakram said.

I took to tapping the flat of the silver blade against the side of my fist, thoughtful.

“The Concocter’s one of ours,” Archer said. “She keeps it quiet but the things that end up in her cauldrons aren’t always the sort the Heavens would approve of, if you catch my drift.”

Charming. Five to four, then, and with the Doddering Sage being the only uncertain – though more because his bouts of lucidity were rare than because of any reluctance to pick a side, as I understood it. That was still ten Named who stayed in the Arsenal on a more or less permanent basis, and most of them would have ways to communicate with the outside world beyond those the Grand Alliance had made available to them.

“You’ve got four,” I said, eyes turning to Archer.

“Half and half,” she cheerfully said.

And she’d brought in the Red Axe as well, who was now being held in a cell. Then another five Named after that: the Mirror Knight and his close friend the Blade of Mercy, the seemingly cautious Exalted Poet and the ambiguous Maddened Keeper, and last of all the gallant but decidedly dangerous Kingfisher Prince. Throwing in Adjutant and more generously my own nascent Name brought us at twenty-three. Twelve heroes, nine villains and two whose nature was not so clear-cut. Enough that the villains would feel outnumbered, and dangerously so since one of them had just been killed. Yet the heroes would feel pressured as well, given the quality of the opposition: four of the Woe were here, and our reputation was a weighty thing. The two poor bastards in between would be seen as potentially decisive in any clash, and so worth forcing the allegiance of – either to get rid of liabilities before blades came out or to secure a nasty surprise to spring on the opposition when they did.

It was a murderous brew someone was pressing to the lips of the entire Truce and Terms, and all it’d take was for one fool to be scared enough to drink.

“The Arsenal regulars are the thread that should be quickest to unwind,” Adjutant said. “Someone set the Repentant Magister and the Blessed Artificer after a secret – it may truly be Quartered Seasons, it may be something else. But they were contacted, and that is a concrete thing.”

There were five under Above in these Arsenal ‘regulars’: Roland, the Blind Maker, the Repentant Magister, the Blessed Artificer and the Bitter Blacksmith. The Hunted Magician had implied that his ‘close study’ of the Blacksmith had revealed no change in mood around the time the Magister and the Artificer began digging, so she was not a likely suspect. I closed my eyes to think.

“So we find them in their rooms and make them spit out a name,” Indrani mused.

“As it happens, the Blessed Artificer has already requested an audience to lodge a complaint under the Terms,” Adjutant gravelled, pleased.

Something about that had me begin tapping the side of the blade against my knuckles, the coolness of the silver against my skin grounding me.

“It’s bullshit,” Indrani flatly said. “She was pushing Zeze, not the other way around. I don’t think she meant to actually blind him – she looked surprised by how harsh his reaction was – but she was definitely trying something.”

“What he means is that we should now consider ourselves watched at all times,” I said without opening my eyes, “and that an audience she requested is a reason to meet in private with her not even the heroes can grumble about.”

As it happens, Hakram had said. That was what had raised my hackles. It’d happened and it’d happened in a fight where coincidence was nothing more the flimsiest of the lies at play. A story had been offered up to us: Adjutant, Archer and the Black Queen met with the Blessed Artificer. It was the only the first step, though, the air of the tune. Through guile and reason those three would reveal the machinations hidden in the shadows of the Arsenal, to prevent madness from seizing the halls and keep the peace. It was a pretty story, true, and for more than a few Named it’d be a serviceable horse to ride. For us, though? I was a warlord, a killer and maker of pacts. Adjutant was my right hand and guardian, Archer was my blade and my eyes. It was a good horse but one for which we’d make poor riders, which made it a shit horse in every way that mattered. After all, no matter how good the horse if an ass was riding it’d still lose the race. We’d been offered that hook so we might bite it and be reeled in to our defeat.

Another angle was required here. The villains? There were four among them that were Arsenal regulars: Masego, the Hunted Magician, the Sinister Physician and, if Indrani was correct, the Concocter. I was inclined to believe her, given that they’d known each other back in Refuge when they’d been pupils of the Lady of the Lake. But no, it was still the same story from a different angle. We’d shake the tree until truths came tumbling out, and they would. I was not so naïve as to assume that if some plot was afoot there would not be at least one of mine involved. The Hunted Magician himself was not exempt from the suspicion for having brought this to me in the first place, for though I doubted he had the skill or know-how to hook me onto a losing story that did not mean he was not the tool of someone who was. Trouble was, we only had so much to go on here and following any of those threads would take us back to the end I was trying to avoid it.

“It’s a shit horse,” I muttered. “But it’s the only one we’ve got, isn’t it?”

Ah, but that was my mistake. I was trying to win according to the rules when I should be trying to win despite them. If you were forced to run a race you could only lose, then the only way to win was to cheat. I opened my eyes and found both Hakram and Indrani were watching me in silence. Waiting, knowing from experience that if I’d emerged from inside my head it was with an idea.

“This is a story,” I repeated, and smiled.

I twirled the knife across my knuckles, enjoying the blur of silver and movement that danced according to my will.

“And we might not know how it goes, not exactly, but we know the shape of it,” I mused.

We three curious souls would learn things from our first step that only caused more questions, struggle and search and perhaps even tangle with a mysterious or misguided opponent. It’d go downhill from there, though, but when it all seemed like it was going to fall apart we’d get a moment of revelation from an unlikely source that flipped it all upside down and allowed us to turn it around at the last moment. We wouldn’t, of course, because we were not the heroes of his story. I was likely to be executing the Red Axe before long, so it’d be like a chicken trying to fly in a sparrow’s tracks if I tried to act like I had the right to that sort of providence.

“The thing about providence, though, is that once you understand how it works you can predict it,” I told them with a smile. “It can’t do something out of nothing, and it uses the most appropriate tool for the job.”

And of the ten Arsenal regulars, who was it that was the best fit for a revelation at the edge of disaster? I caught the knife and flicked it down, smiling when it bit into the table with a satisfyingly sharp thunk.

“We’re going to speak to the Doddering Sage,” I said. “To see if going backwards from the revelation allows us to quicken the pace.”

Disaster was on the horizon, I thought, I was in over my head and even the trusted companions at my side might not be enough to get us through this unscathed. And still, as I hummed the first few notes to the old rebel song The Fox In the Woods, I found myself smiling.

Gods, but it was good to be home.

81 thoughts on “Chapter 15: Machinations

  1. Yep, this is a situation rife with problems.

    And yeah … Bard is almost certainly tied into this in some way, shape, or form.

    And there’s confirmation of third party involvement and meddling.

    Liked by 7 people

      • Honestly, if she weren’t the Intercessor, I’d say someone needs to give her a hug. All these years she’s been chained to this life, constantly decaying, just sounds like a very bad time. But then she goes and ruins it by being herself.

        Liked by 12 people

  2. Oh. That is a good way to fuck up a conspiracy story. The sage is the one everyone would ignore until he spouts off some crucial insight that sets the stage for the final act.

    Liked by 21 people

  3. The Bard is back. I do wonder how long it’ll take before her ultimate aims are revealed. I’m honestly surprised the dead king hasnt bellowed it into the universe by now, just to be rid of her.

    Liked by 5 people

    • If the Dead King said it, who would believe him?
      He pretty much has zero credibility with almost everyone.
      Anything he claimed would be nigh automatically dismissed as lies and deceptions, and any evidence supporting his claims that was later uncovered or otherwise found out would be viewed in the same light.

      Liked by 7 people

      • He already set up for his revelation. Remember the thing cat is hunting among the Dominion’s past. That is where he will start. The Bard knows it and I’m betting this is her play to counter his.

        Liked by 8 people

        • —> “And we might not know how it goes, not exactly, but we know the shape of it,” I mused.
          We three curious souls would learn things from our first step that only caused more questions, struggle and search and perhaps even tangle with a mysterious or misguided opponent. It’d go downhill from there, though, but when it all seemed like it was going to fall apart we’d get a moment of revelation from an unlikely source that flipped it all upside down and allowed us to turn it around at the last moment.

          If the Painted KNife doesn’t end up appearing just to play this role, I’ll eat my keyboard. Cat was even playing with a knife as she said it XD

          Liked by 5 people

    • Considering what the Arsenal and the Terms stand for, my guess is: her goal this time is to break the rising ‘peace’ between Heroes and Villains.

      We have the Hunted Magician as an example of that, he’s managed to bed at least two heroines who in normal circumstances would likely smash his skull in asap.
      But with this slowly built up peace between them, if left alone some day the Named might stop caring about Heroes and Villains and only punish the ones doing bad things, Heroes or not.
      Which means the end of many old Stories, and in a sense Bard’s influence.

      So Bard need to poke the biggest “WE GOOD” Hero and stab the biggest “I BAD” Villain to try and stir hostility between them.
      And hey, we got one dead Enchanter whose crimes are so bad everyone, even Villains, detest him.
      And here’s Mirror Knight, the ultimate Good (read: stupid) Hero oh so easy to use even Procer nobles are doing it.

      Liked by 6 people

  4. Cat is sidestepping the story… again. I have to wonder, if whoever plotted this accounted for it. For Cat is predictable in the way she never rides the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is the environment she’s supposed to be in. Not a position of ultimate power where things tend to go right (she’s not a Hero), not a million-and-one-step scheme where ten thousand people each have a slice and can’t interact (though that was a really fun moment last book), not even an even fight. Her environment is uphill battles. She can only truly succeed if every deck is stacked against her, she’s surrounded by enemies, and there’s no hope for survival. Then, she can Struggle. It’s good to have OG Cat back. Especially when she can play with her Archer.

    Liked by 18 people

  6. Typo Thread:

    knowledge of me > knowledge over me
    Which as lot > Which was a lot
    Enchanted > Enchanter
    for who > for whom
    years and coming back (maybe “years, and I myself was coming back”, so it’s easier to parse)
    finger aragh > finger of aragh
    to low table > to the low table
    Majesticness,” > Majesticness.”
    grin, “your > grin. “Your
    long table little bird (something missing?)
    what I beginning > what I was beginning
    more more > more
    the smell the > smell the
    more the flimsiest > more than the flimsiest
    the only the > only the
    avoid it. > avoid.
    his story > this story

    Liked by 2 people

  7. >Ah, but that was my mistake. I was trying to win according to the rules when I should be trying to win despite them.

    Finally, she remember that one thing that help her through so many impossible odds: Screw the rules.

    Now let’s see how she’ll put that Mirror Knight in his stupid place for getting manipulated so easily.

    Liked by 13 people

  8. I’m kind of surprised that Cat isn’t worried about killing the Mirror Knight. She seems confident that she can; she worries instead about stopping him without killing him.

    Makes me wonder what set of tactics with the Night she has planned that can zap MK. Maybe putting him into a domain, exiling him into outer space?

    We keep getting hints that there is more than one Bitter Blacksmith, and that they are siblings. How is that possible? I thought there was only ever one holder of a Name.

    Really wish I knew what Quartered Seasons was about. I didn’t anticipate it would turn out to be a weapon, and yet Cat thinks it can be used for deicide.

    I love the Name Sinister Physician. So cool.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Honestly, whatever else she ahs become, she is still Black’s pupil: just because she has been working with the Heroes for a long time, I doubt she doesn’t have a plan to take down every single one of them if the need ever arises.
      Tony Stark preparing to clone Thor ever since the first Avenger meeting has NOTHING on Black and Cat.

      And to think she used to say she didn’t have this sort of mindset and never would have. Ah, they grow up so fast…

      Liked by 6 people

    • Heavenly Artificer and Bitter Blacksmith are siblings of one another. One good, one evil.

      Quartered Seasons is probably that if there’s a Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn, that’s a consistent number. Either they haven’t found Spring yet, or the Book 2-3 stuff now merged Summer and Winter or dissolved them completely to require 1-2 new realms. One is Twilight, the other might be undiscovered. Maybe good, maybe something akin the Shadowvale, maybe the Drow’s Gloom will end up becoming it. Or maybe the elves stole Spring turning it into the Bloom, thus leaving it undiscovered.

      Liked by 1 person

      • > Heavenly Artificer and Bitter Blacksmith are siblings of one another. One good, one evil.

        No, you’re wrong. For one Blessed Artificer is Soninke and Bitter Blacksmith the female is named Helmgard, which is decidedly not a Soninke name. For the other we have repeated mentions of a ‘younger brother’ who is a villain and currently located at Twilight’s Pass. Like, it’s explicit. While this one is specifically mentioned as a hero.

        Liked by 2 people

    • > We keep getting hints that there is more than one Bitter Blacksmith, and that they are siblings. How is that possible? I thought there was only ever one holder of a Name.

      I think it’s not hints, it’s blatant text at this point.

      We’ve had twin Soninke candidates for a Name in the Squire arc in Book 1 (though it was revealed only in WoG that they were twins) and there are the Sisters (who likely had the Name of Priestess of Night until their apotheosis with Cat’s help).

      It looks like siblings can, in fact, share a Name.

      Liked by 3 people

        • No, it was pretty explicit from the start that a heroic sister and a villainous brother by the same Name exist. Like, the whole context in which it first came first was Cat clarifying “this Bitter Blacksmith, not that other one”.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Maybe the Bard wants to trap Catherine in a Name? Names are Roles. Some have buit in limitations. We know the Bard chooses the stories. Or maybe she fears what Catherine’s nascent Name could become. She might want to lock Catherine in a Name to prevent her from getting a more dangerous Name. Who knows? Catherine could have the potential to get a Name whose schtick is affecting the stories themselves. Ther Bard might feart this. Or she could be trainning Catherine as her replacement. Maybe Catherine’s story mirror the Bard’s origins. Who knows? The only certainty is that I can’t wait to read more.

            Liked by 1 person

            • That was what I think, what better name for an enemy you hate, releasing yourself and stopping her from directly leading or interfering again… Cat would still catch on to how use it well very quickly I dare say

              Like

      • It makes me think of quantum exclusion: Siblings can share a Name, but they still have to be differentiated — say, one Hero, one Villain. I wonder if one of those twin Squire candidates would have followed the White Knight instead of Black?

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        • That seems definitely wrong. They were both fighting William, they were running on twin telepathy, and our other likely example (the Sisters) did not have a differentiation like that either.

          Liked by 2 people

    • Remember when Masego got his Name and made an exclamation about understanding the nature of Gods, after witnessing the fae sun attack from ground zero? That’s what quartered seasons is. They’re trying to something something Gods by something something Fae

      Like

  9. Look, just resurrect Tancred and use him to even the numbers some (I kid, I kid).

    Seriously, though, in stories where the villain needs the hero to discover a truth for themselves, it’s usually best for them to drop hints for a sometimes allied hero. Roland actually would fit that story perfectly, as he’s an unimpeachable hero that seems “permitted” to work with agents of Below, even outside of extenuating circumstances. He has been noted as taking on the wizard in the tower role, though, so there may be some ambiguity there.

    Liked by 9 people

    • …Huh. Cat’s failing to properly take on the mastermind mantle, isn’t she? Her best story bet should be guiding one of the heroes towards these same revelations, and Roland would make an excellent candidate… but it seems she’s not there yet skill-wise 😀

      Liked by 3 people

          • The mastermind in a conspiration story does not win. The protagonist does.

            In some stories, the mastermind dies “while misunderstood”.

            I think she has it right in staying clear of those roles.

            Like

              • I think it’s more that you are thinking in terms of “can work means Cat could make it work”, whereas with this many Named around I think more in terms of “can work means can fail, and there is too many variables for Cat to choose to ride this particular horse”.

                As in, you see her going Pilgrim (stories lend me strength, so I embrace the right ones) whereas I think she’d go more Black in this instance (stories carry risks, so I stay clear of the wrong ones).

                Liked by 1 person

                • Cat doesn’t really go for Amadeus’s approach. She rides stories that suit her and twists ones that don’t until they do.

                  “Framed party on the run trying to goad the heroic investigators into the real truth” is a quality variation ^^

                  Like

  10. –>If the Red Axe was killed over this, I suspected the heroes would riot. If the Red Axe wasn’t killed over this, I knew sure as I knew my own breath that the villains would riot.

    –> We wouldn’t, of course, because we were not the heroes of his story. I was likely to be executing the Red Axe before long, so it’d be like a chicken trying to fly in a sparrow’s tracks if I tried to act like I had the right to that sort of providence.

    Confirmation we were on the right track, it seems.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I feel like this Story may shape her new Name. It will end in some epic line where she comes fully into her Name.
    But yeah Intercessor is very likely to be involved here, or maybe not, maybe Dead King is making it look like Bard?

    Liked by 4 people

      • Enough things are lining up in a world where coincidences rarely are actual coincidences. And Bard has the means to set this up (we don’t know the motive, but she could do it), and the DK has the motive and unlikely but possibly the means.

        I would be absolutely shocked if this was just a series of unrelated events. I’ll follow Occam’s Razor on this one and say that it’s more likely these events are related than each one of these things happens to be a complete coincidence. Not to mention, SOMEONE tipped MK off about what was going to happen… before it happened.

        Liked by 2 people

        • > in a world where coincidences rarely are actual coincidences.

          …except for when they usually are. Again, narrativium makes sure everything COINCIDES in maximum drama way.

          I mean yeah odds are this is all related somehow, but there are degrees of related that are not ‘there is a puppetmaster directing every single weird event individually’.

          Like

            • I mean, ‘puppetmaster directing every single event without any unexpected interference popping up from people just being idiots/assholes in a general way’ is straight up bad writing regardless of what Book it’s in, so there’s that.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Sure, but there is no need to go that route.

                For a while, Aqua served as the “puppetmistress” opposed to Cat’s “brute” role.
                EE handled it by showing us that Aqua’s defeats in Book I were red herrings (she was never really planning to become the squire or win a Legion) or that they were bumps in the road that she could, nevertheless, work with because she had secured some of her objectives (Aqua getting mauled at First Liesse, yet securing at least the governorship that would allow her to start the preparations for her ritual array).

                Bard (or Malicia, or DK) would not need to have foresaw all of this since its inception. They’d merely need to be able to say “this protagonist induced change causes stress to the system/narrative here, here and here. With the many subtle, secret yet narratively established tools, how can I prod these sensible parts to shape this mess in a way that is profitable to my own long term objectives?

                I mean, really; Malicia spending these two years making a study of heroes and their mind frame to find ways to manipulate them would really be out of character or a bad twist, considering how many spells there are in her treasure trove? I wouldn’t find it contrived in the slightest.
                Granted, I’d want the novel to explain to me how it happened, but that’s kind of a given for anything.
                And of the three of them, Malicia is probably the one will LESS secret weapons.

                Liked by 1 person

    • Regardless of whether she had a hand in instigating this situation, I can’t see the Wandering Bard not getting involved at some point. It’s too important for her to sit out.
      Which gave me an odd thought: Scribe is behind this and is planning to trap the Wandering Bard.

      Like

    • I well I think it would be fun if Cat gets a Hero NAME in all this mess. That would make a lot of Charakters totally shocked and therefore likely 😅

      Like

    • Or Bard is meddling and using this to shape Cat’s new Name, plus setting up a strong enough story for Cat to finally cross that final hump. It has been pointed out that the Intercessor has less influence on those without Names.
      Cat has been ruining stories, orchestrating the Truce (which would effectively flip the chess table Bard has been playing on for millenia), and running an arguably successful war against the DK all while the Intercessor has little more than a light grasp on how to steer her.
      UnNamed Cat is a threat, the DK is a long term opponent. By forcing Cat into a Name that is “acceptable” to Bard, there is a handle to use to tilt the story in a way where Cat and the Dead King either destroy each other or at least weaken each other enough for their easier demise. In Cat’s case, the Intercessor then gets to end the Truce and keep creation functioning as Above and Below intended.

      Like

  12. We have two named whose allegiances aren’t clearcut, Below or the Heavens? The Doddering Sage and the Maddened Keeper.

    And at a glance you’d think it would be somewhat easy to put them both on opposing sides because they mirror each other somewhat: they both have access to important knowledge, but they’re mostly cryptic and only reveal important stuff somewhat randomly. The Maddened Keeper because she’s… well mad, and the Doddering Sage because he’s senile. And from there you’d put the Maddened Keeper with Below because madness seems like a villain thing and she’s the one dealing with forbidden knowledge, while the Doddering Sage seems to be a harmless senile scholar that Providence would love to use to drop important information when it is most useful to the heroes.

    But I’d like to point out that “doddering” actually describes a condition of physical frailty more than a mental decline. And while Villains stop aging once they get their name… they can be of any age. So I’m thinking that the Doddering Sage might be a villain pretending to be a harmless senile old man.

    Liked by 7 people

  13. So the analysis that murder is necessary, as well as the analysis that Bard is likely to be involved, is backed up by Cat’s opinion so far.

    Of course, Cat’s looking for a way out of the whole thing, and she’s been wrong in assuming a known antagonist to be behind a new problem before. We’ll see 😀

    So far my bet is that a lot of people are going to end up involved ^^

    Liked by 3 people

    • …come to think of it this would be an excellent (awful) setup for “Catherine I was trying to work with you I was literally offering you a straight road to walk (that would have coincidentally cast you as more of a hero, don’t look in that corner please that’s a long-term setup that doesn’t concern you really honest) there IS NO CATCH” from Bard ;u;

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Looks like Black told Catherine about ‘cheating providence’ reasoning, likely as thanks for ‘blowing up a perfectly good warhorse’ trick. I wonder what Cat will use as her proverbial ‘decoy stuffed with explosives’ in this situation.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I’m honestly curious what kind of heroine the Red Axe is. Is she the type who says “screw the rules, I do what I want,” or the type who says “I know it was against the rules, but it had to be done and I accept the consequences.”

    Either of those could be a problem. The first one would make a big stink about things and pull the Mirror Knight into making a stink about things, regardless of the fact that she’s legally in the wrong. The second one would be a nobly suffering martyr which is very sympathetic and very likely to generate providence to help her get out and bad press if she does get executed.

    But yeah, this is a situation where a hero is morally in the right and legally in the wrong. Those stories tend never to go well for those tasked with upholding the law.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I reject that she’s morally in the right. She might be… if she can prove that the Wicked Enchanter was still engaging in the same behavior under the truce and terms. Or if she could prove he was going to return to the same behavior in the future. Otherwise what she’s done is nothing more than petty vengeance… and vengeance is not a virtue. What the Wicked Enchanter did in the past is irrelevant to morality. The past is always irrelevant to morality… except in so far as it informs our understanding of likely futures.

      Like

      • Following that line of thought, doesn’t that make ALL “justice” (randomized punishment for past deeds, if you so will) the same as “vengeance”? Aka… there never is ANY justice at all?
        (At least not in the sense that most would understand, as in some kind of … compensation / reparation for the victim / heinous deeds someone committed.)

        So, it’s moral to (try to) defend yourself against, say, a rapist. If you succeed – and that means, he ends up dead – so be it, all fine and moral. If you do NOT succeed, however, because the other is too strong / you ended up in shock / whatever – you’re simply fucked?
        (Trying to find out the application of (this understanding of) “morality” in a *general sense* — that is, no longer related to this specific case here, where the argument is not about morality at all, but about how a sense of morality is juxtaposed to a specific set of terms/laws (the Terms and Truce). As you seemed to make the case that morality is somehow absolute and always comes along in the sense of “the past is ALWAYS irrelevant to morality, only the future ever counts”.)

        Like

        • To clarify, I actually came up with the exact same understanding some years ago. That it seems as if all “justice after the fact” seems to be simply “vengeance”, because it’s all about punishing some past deed, giving some sense of satisfaction to the victim(s) by whatever reparations/punishments thus incurred… But if I turn this on its head… I always end up with the question: Then what about the victims?

          We do not KNOW about the future, CAN never know – we can only ever judge by past deeds. A rapist might turn into a self-sacrifing martyr afterwards, trying to make up for what he did – or he might not and just go on like he did before. We don’t *know* and can only ever know AFTER the fact… So there seems to be no “safe way” to judge a perpetrator.

          But what about the victim? Do we just go on because of said conundrum we have in the person of the perpetrator and tell the victim to “shut up and live with it”? How do we ‘make good on’ the victim?

          Morality that says the past doesn’t count seems to totally forget about the victim. While the kind of justice that seems more vengeance… is maybe too much centered on the victim.
          Is there no standpoint in between these two extremes? If there is, what would it be… =/

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          • Also, “past” and “present” are rather mixed concepts when it comes to certain crimes. From other viewpoints, the deed might be rather fixedly in the past – but for the victim? It’s all too often the DAILY REALITY they *live in*. It’s their PRESENT; not their past. How to alleviate that, without at least punishing the perpetrator and telling people “this is NOT okay”?

            It doesn’t seem quite “moral” to leave out the victim and their reality out of such thoughts or even concepts, now does it. =/

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            • The Truce and Terms are presently a clusterfuck because it’s total amnesty for *whatever*. The concept seems somewhat too absolute to me to still be “human(e)” and thus something that simply WILL turn into a clusterfuck at certain points (like this case here), if not amended via some exceptions where some kind of non-*total* amnesty comes in.

              Not killing, of course. But some kind of “making up for what you did” – as well as some kind of leniency in cases of highly emotional confrontations, like “murder” and “killing in moment of unmanagable emotion” (lacking the correct word) are usually different things in our modern law systems.
              Of course, that’s still a whole new kind of clusterfuck as edges get muddled, but… aren’t the Truce and Terms already all about alleviating the biggest problem into something a bit more manageable, cutting off the utmost extremes into some kind of … less extreme behavior to each other?

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              • (Yes, in this present case, serving the war is the “making up for it” – but that leaves out the other part of the equation: the leniency in situations where overboiling emotions come into the equation, as seems to have been the case with the Red Axe. Killing as a way to solve all such conflicts that ended in more or less “accidental”, out-of-the-moment killing is no solution that fixes the problem, as Cat has stated, that will only lead to one side foaming from the mouth – and that is full well knowing that leniency regulations might lead to people trying to exploit them, as in any law system. Just like there will always be some people arguing for making the law fiercer vs. more lax – but what’s the solution? Extremes and absolutes certainly don’t seem to lessen the problem, least of all solve it.)

                Like

  16. After this chapter I see the Repetant Magister snatching the little statue with Cathrine’s likeness under a new, more warry, eye.
    What a sorceresses can (attempt to) do with a figurine of one’s likeness?

    Like

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