Chapter 18: Clout

“You bargained for my soul, dear devil, and that is what you received. Is it my fault you did not stipulate it was to be my original one?”
– Dread Emperor Traitorous, trading the soul of a single gnat for infernal enlightenment

We shed the illusions like one would shed a cloak.

We’d get more use out of us being the Black Queen and the Archer right now, though there was also an aspect here of knowing I should not press my luck too much. I was a villain who’d just finished the first part of her plan, securing the expected victory, which meant I was due a nasty surprise if I kept going down the path. Best to shake off this story and embrace another before the teeth of it could come around to bite me. Gods forgive me, but tonight I would be following down the path Kairos Theodosian had so brazenly blazed through while he lived: always scheming, always at odds, so that very same thing that should be burying you instead kept you alive. I did not miss the Tyrant of Helike himself, for he’d been cruel and feckless and admirable only in his qualities turned against others, but sometimes I did miss the times I associated him with in my memory. The days where my foes had breathed and there had been an end to them.

“So what are we doing now?” Archer asked.

She’d caught up to me quickly enough, swift on the stride as she was, and shrugged when I’d asked if she had any difficulty shaking off the opposition. I would have given her good odds of pulling this off even without Creation’s favour blowing into our sails, so I was not surprised. None of the Named I’d seen of the band of five so far were made for the subtle side of things – well, neither of the Procerans anyways. I still knew distressingly little about the Maddened Keeper.

“When you asked me for the Harrowed Witch for your band,” I said, “you gave me two reasons. The first was that her stealth sorceries were impressive. The other was-”

“Aspasie is good at calling up the dead to chat with,” Indrani finished. “Which has been worth more than gold, Named being Named. So who is it we’re going to be chatting with?”

“The same man whose body we need to make disappear,” I said. “If the Wicked Enchanter has been seen walking around but his corpse is still on a slab, fingers will start being pointed.”

“We get my witch or your dead body first?” Archer asked.

She was a practical woman, my Indrani, and I really did enjoy that. Not the kind that would balk at either borrowing – it wasn’t stealing if you were a queen, probably – a dead body or calling on the spirits of the dead for questioning. Much as I liked, say, Hanno I suspected he’d not be up for a spot of corpse robbery without several serious questions first being asked.

“The corpse,” I mused. “Quiet-like, yeah? The point is to get it to the Harrowed Witch, so we’ll avoid being seen bringing her there.”

If we showed up there with a known necromancer in tow we’d be giving away the game. I cast a sideways look at Indrani.

“Her dead brother’s still haunting her?” I asked.

“Sure, but it’s more nuisance than trouble,” Archer shrugged. “And I’ll answer the question you’re building up to before you ask it, spare us both some trouble. She can be trusted, Cat. She’s not Woe, won’t ever be, but she knows who to close ranks with.”

It’d have to do. It wasn’t like the villains we’d picked up since declaring the Truce and the Terms were all black-hearted treacherous devils, though admittedly we had picked up a few of those. It was just that, as a rule, they tended to be a lot less preoccupied with other people’s wellbeing than the White Knight’s lot. Villains, I’d learned, were not beyond loyalty. But they had the loyalty of wolves, to the pack that bit and bled for them, while heroes instead had the loyalty of knights: to oath and realm and Good. It didn’t necessarily make the champions of the Heavens pleasant people, but on the other hand I couldn’t deny that Hanno’s side of the fence counted not a single rapist or thrill-killer. There were days, when the likes of the Mirror Knight’s ingratitude and ignorance became so very grating, that it was tempting to forget things like that. Tempting to forget that there was more to villains than the Woe and the Calamities, that the banner I’d chosen to bear had flown tall over millennia of dark deeds.

I couldn’t afford to close my eyes to that, going forward. Not if the Truce and Terms were to one day be remembered as the prelude to the Liesse Accords, as I so badly wanted them to be.

“I’ll take you word on it,” I said. “We need to get a move on, ‘Drani. There’s a least one of that band that’ll remember to go look for the Enchanter’s corpse as soon as nobody’s in danger anymore.”

She snorted.

“Wouldn’t count on that,” she said.

I shook my head. Tempting as it was to take the Mirror Knight and his ilk as all Light and no brains, it’d be mistake.

“Wind was out our back and the sun in their eyes in there,” I reminded her. “We get in scrap with them again, and we’ll get what Revenants get. A third time and it’ll be us with the wind in our faces.”

“Won’t make them any smarter,” Indrani pointed out.

“We fought their two frontliners and ambushed the eyes,” I said. “Someone serves as the thinking head of that band, we just haven’t run into them yet. Any cart’s a bad cart if you take off half the wheels.”

Hopefully Adjutant would be keeping whoever that was pointed in the right direction, cleaning up behind any mistakes Indrani and I might have made. Not that we’d be the ones having made the greater share of mistakes in there. The two Procerans here, in particular, had proved significantly easier to handle than I’d expected. It made a horrible sort of sense, now that I thought about it, because though I heard about things the Mirror Knight had done all the time I couldn’t honestly recall a single story where he’d been the leader. He wasn’t even a band’s second, most the time: he was the brawns to the Witch of the Woods’ magic, Hanno’s vanguard or bait for the Silver Huntress. Was this a blunder of our own making, I wondered? The man’s an ignorant ass, but has anyone actually tried to set him straight and teach him to recognize what’s going on around him? It ought to have been his responsibility to see to that, sure, for he was a grown man and few of us had gotten to have our hands held through the process of gaining power. But then was it not undeniably a blunder to let a hero with that kind of power stew in a puddle of his own obtuseness, growing ever more frustrated and wary?

Something to consider more in depth later, I decided. It would be Hanno’s failure more than mine, but I’d never spoken a word about it either and that made for shared responsibility. Indrani and I had been moving even as we talked and quickened our pace further as we fell into silence, her longer stride letting her take the lead as she guided me through the hallways of the Arsenal. I inquired as to our destination and learned that after the Wicked Enchanter was butchered before half a hundred people, his body had been taken away to the Depository. I’d been a little surprise to hear that, considering that was the part of the Arsenal where all the weapons and artefacts were kept in crates until they could be shipped to the fronts: it was a storehouse, more or less. But it was apparently a storehouse with some fairly secure sections, and as one of the parts of this place where no Named resided it’d been deemed as the least provocative of the places to stash a villain’s dead body.

“There’s going to be guards,” I said.

“Of course,” Indrani agreed. “But people aren’t allowed in and it’s a sealed room.”

Meaning that if we went in and, after a few moments, popped back out asking the guards where the Hells the body was there shouldn’t be anyone able to gainsay us. I could dump the corpse in the Night until we got it to the Harrowed Witch, so we wouldn’t essentially be blatantly lying with a dead body strapped onto Archer’s back. When we got there the whole affair turned out to be, well, surprisingly straightforward. There was a full line of guards by the door, Lycaonese by the looks of them, and their commanding officer had the key to the wards. I was recognized, even without my cloak, and when I requested entry they didn’t even bother to ask me why before accepting. Obviously I had the right, since this was a dead villain and I’d been his representative under the Terms, but I was somewhat surprised at how utterly indifferent the Lycaonese were to the whole thing.

They key to the wards was a simple stone disk that unmade the sealing enchantment on the steel-barded door when pressed into a slot above the handle and it remained in there even as I opened it and slipped inside. The tingle of other wards washed over me as I did – probably a few to prevent coming in by Arcadia and Twilight, and perhaps to prevent summoning within – but there was no other defence. The dead body was in the back, on what was very clearly four wooden shipping crates covered by a slab of steel, thought at least someone had placed a white shroud over it. There was no corpse-stench in the bare stone room, which meant the corpse had been preserved. By alchemy and not enchantment, I noted, since the sharp tang of embalming fluid and something more like flowers was lingering in the air. Good, the Night wouldn’t disrupt anything when I took the body then.

I checked it was the Enchanter under the shroud, sought Indrani’s confirmation it was the right man and received it with a nod, then I seized Night a heartbeat later. The body sunk into the darkness I wove under it, and I breathed in through my mouth as I began choosing my words.

Time to raise a ruckus about the theft of the body I’d just stolen.

The damned song just wouldn’t leave my head, I mused as I poured myself a fresh finger of aragh and knocked it back.

“The henhouse stands unlatched

All within, by the fox snatched.”

A fresh change of clothes had done me some good, though that wasn’t the main reason I’d done it and ordered Indrani to do the same before sending her out. Smoke had a particular scent to it, and not one easy to hide. At least one Named was bound to notice if we kept wearing garments smelling of a fire we weren’t supposed to have been anywhere near. I dressed formally, or at least what passed as formal for me: having a soldier queen’s reputation meant I could dispense with a lot of the finery some other crowned heads might be stuck wearing. The heart of it was a high-collared and long-sleeved tunic of dark green, bordered in deep gold and going down to my calves. It was split all the way down to my belly by more elaborate embroidery in the same golden colour, though buttons kept it closed and close against me all the way up to the hollow of my throat – where the sole button I’d left unmade prevented the tunic from digging into my skin.

A broader belt that I was used to in good leather was kept in a complicated knot I’d taken me ages to learn how to make without Hakram’s help and ended in a long stripe going down to slightly below the hem of my tunic. The buckles were gilded and a few patches as well though they were inscribed with the Crown and Sword instead of simply polished, lending the whole thing a rather ceremonial look. Trousers of the same good cloth and colour ended in knee-high boots of fine make, which I’d insisted have enough room for a knife to be slipped in. Up the sleeve of my tunic, an old gift from Pickler I more rarely wore these days had been made to serve a again: a complicated set of knots and leather strings that could have a knife falling into my palm a beat later if I flicked my wrist just right. With the Mantle of Woe on my back, my hair pulled back into a long braid and a bare circlet of gold that sat high on brow as my crown, for once I looked like a queen and not a soldier with a looted crown.

There might be more truth to the second of these, in the end, but appearances were too useful a tool to be discarded.

I’d abandoned my rooms not long after making use of them, preferring instead to return to that same small parlour in the Alcazar I’d used to entertain the Hunted Magician. The half-empty bottle of aragh from earlier had been pining for me there, along with what looked like little slices of bread with some sort of mousse on them. It smelled like meat and spices and it tasted delicious, so I polished off a few while waiting for Archer to return with the Harrowed Witch in tow. I was careful with crumbs and stains, since I was not going to go through all the trouble of dressing up regally only for the impression being ruined by mousse on the corner of my lips. The song stayed with me, and as I hummed absent-mindedly my brow rose: someone had knocked at my door. That wasn’t Indrani, who would not have bothered herself with courtesy like knocking before entering a room in general, much less a room I was in. I discreetly brushed off some crumbs from my cloak and gathered myself on the sofa.

“Enter,” I called out.

So here they go, once again, I hummed under my breath. Chasing a red tail into the glen.

Adjutant was the first to step into the room, giving me a bow that told me two things: this was a formal visit, and he did not trust whoever was with him with even the light knowledge of our usual informality with each other. Considering who it was I’d sent him out with, I could understand why. The Mirror Knight entered behind him and I noted with approval he’d been made to relegate his sword and shield before coming into my presence. The staff of yew laid lightly on my shoulder was a comforting weight, even though it was more a focus of my powers than a weapon. Behind good ol’ Christophe was not his perennial shadow the Blade of Mercy, to my surprise, but instead a more familiar sight.

The Repentant Magister, Nephele Eliade, was the very painting of what people thought of when talking of a Free Cities beauty. Though her face was sharp in cast and her nose strong, pale grey eyes and luxurious long dark hair would have made her worth a second look even if she’d not been a supple and curvy woman. There was a highborn look to her, in the way she stood and spoke, that’d made it easy to believe she had been born to the highest reaches of the Magisterium of Stygia. The Eliade, I’d been told, remained one of the most influential families in the city-state to this day.

I’d first encountered Nephele in Hainaut, as in the early days of the war against Keter she’d already been our foremost authority on the Dead King’s necromantic constructs. Even Akua had expressed admiration when she’d read her work on ghouls, and the shade was rather stingier with praise than Masego. In those days there’d not yet been an Arsenal, so the Repentant Magister had moved wherever there was a need for her. Her presence was always an easy sell, given that while she was not an impressive combat mage she was an extremely talented healer and capable of making artefacts that more than made up for her lacking offensive spellcraft. I’d found her rather pleasant, and not only because she usually wore tight velour dresses with dipping necklines. I would have expected someone emerged heroic from the horrors of Stygia to be eager to distance themselves from anything and anyone bearing Below’s mark, but she’d turned out to be almost serene about it.

That calm certainty, the knowledge of her place in the world, had been damned attractive and I’d begun making polite inquiries about her preferences – flexible, thank the Gods – to what I’d thought might just be a receptive audience when she’d left Hainaut to help found the Arsenal. Unfinished business, all in all, but not unpleasantly so. The kind that might even be picked up should the situation allow. Now, though, I had to consider her in an entirely different way. Already the Hunted Magician had told me that Nephele was part of whatever the Blessed Artificer was up to, only for her to be turning up here as well? I couldn’t be sure she was part of the Mirror Knight’s band of five, not yet, but neither would be it an unwarranted assumption. What is it you’re actually up to, Nephele? No third hero followed the first two, which I found interesting. It meant there were still three of them out there, out of my sight.

“Your Majesty,” Hakram greeted me. “If I may?”

“Proceed, Adjutant,” I granted, leaning back into the sofa.

“I present Christophe of Pavanie, the Mirror Knight,” the orc said, “and Lady Nephele Eliade of Stygia, the Repentant Magister. They would humbly request audience of you.”

The Mirror Knight looked like he’d swallowed a lemon, but he didn’t actually contradict Hakram. Huh, I’d not believed he had it in him. Nephele’s face was unreadable, not trace of our previous acquaintance there to be found.  I poured myself another splash of aragh. Was that a bit of a sting I felt? We’re never as charming as we think we are, Catherine, I reminded myself.

“Then be seated,” I said. “I expect this’ll be interesting.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” the Repentant Magister said, bowing slightly.

Gods, that accent. Helikeans sounded like they were spitting out every other word in Chantant, but the Stygian accent was like silk in the ear. Didn’t hurt that she had one of those smooth, throaty voices either. The Mirror Knight offered a curt nod and seated himself briskly, the heroine following suit more gracefully a moment later. Hakram stepped back, standing behind the sofa they occupied and looming as only an orc of his towering height could.

“There is a traitor in the Arsenal,” the Mirror Knight gravely said.

My eyes moved to Adjutant, who nodded, then returned to the other two as I cocked a brow.

“I take it you have evidence for such a claim,” I said.

“Two Revenants were allowed past the wards,” the hero said, “which is impossible without someone on this side letting them in.”

My eyes flicked to Nephele, who bowed her head.

“I believe they were not truly Revenants,” the dark-haired heroine evenly said, “but instead masking their true identities through an illusion. Which does not change the truth of what Christophe has said: there is a traitor in the Arsenal, and likely more than one.”

Well now, wasn’t that interesting? Not the revelation itself, as it was a conclusion I’d been inching towards myself for some time – the Bard would need boots on the ground to pull off something like this, there was only so much that could be done without willing hands – but that they’d bring it to me of all people. Nephele had allegedly been sniffing around Quartered Seasons, which for someone with only cursory knowledge of my intentions might very well look like an attempt at apotheosis, and the Mirror Knight both disliked and distrusted me. I sipped at my aragh, considering, and delicately set down the cup.

“I am surprised,” I said, “that a man who accused me of plotting murder not a bell ago would now come to me with such tidings. Unless, of course, you mean to accuse me.”

The Proceran hero grit his teeth and did not look away from my gaze, dark green eyes matching my own.

“I see what you are, Black Queen,” the Mirror Knight said, tone curt. “You have fooled the White Knight and broken the Grey Pilgrim, but I see you. Carrion Queen, heiress to a lord of the same: you burrow into the heart and then claim the body for yourself. You stole the armies of Praes, the Kingdom of Callow, the Tenth Crusade and now you would do the same to the Grand Alliance itself. I will not let you make yourself queen of the Chosen and Damned, Gods preserve me in this.”

“But,” Nephele mildly said.

“But,” the Mirror Knight continued, tone reluctant, “you are foe to the Dead King and all his works. This I… recognize.”

How kind of him. I was a little skeptical, though, considering that when I’d been veiled as the Wicked Enchanter he’d accused ‘me’ of having made a pact with the Black Queen. Unless he’d been baiting a monologue? Possible, though he didn’t seem like the sort. As far as I knew most of the foes he’d faced since becoming Named had been Revenants, and there was very little subtlety required in dealing with those.

“All well and good,” I said. “But it doesn’t tell me what brings you here.”

“We require your understanding, Queen Catherine, in dealing with these troubles,” the Repentant Magister said. “We are aware that there are… tensions within the Arsenal, but the situation requires investigation nonetheless.”

“You want my permission to run your own Chosen inquisition,” I said.

My tone expressed exactly what I thought of that without needing to say anything more.

“You are on Proceran land,” the Mirror Knight said through gritted teeth.

“Do tell the First Prince that, preferably when I’m in the room,” I drily replied. “I’ve never seen her blush in utter embarrassment before.”

The Arsenal was not in Creation and had been made explicitly beyond Proceran rule by multiple treaties besides. Actual laws here were a complicated issue, with nations being responsible for the people they provided and Named themselves falling largely under the Terms.

“We believe,” Nephele said, “that your second has already been a target.”

My brow rose and I looked at Hakram before returning to her.

“I’m listening,” I said.

“You have heard of the fire in the Miscellaneous Stacks?” she asked.

“I have,” I cautiously said. “You are arguing that the Revenants were responsible for this?”

“It was an assassination attempt on the Adjutant,” the Mirror Knight bluntly said. “You sent him to question the Doddering Sage discreetly, and it was seen as an opening. If my companions and I had not arrived in time he’d be dead.”

Huh. Well, Hakram clearly ought to be grateful at having his life preserved in such a manner by upstanding ladies and gentlemen, I mused.

“That was the plot, Queen Catherine,” the Repentant Magister quietly said. “Your second dead on the ground, and only heroes there among the ashes. Someone is trying to set us against one another.”

She was very much correct about that but given that I was seated across from two of the blades the Wandering Bard was currently swinging at me I couldn’t exactly come out and tell her as much. Still, this was a pleasing turn. I seemed to have accidentally stumbled into the role of authority figure these enterprising investigating rogues might somewhat answer to, which was something I could work with.

“You’ll understand,” I said, “that while I might believe you speak the truth at least in part, I also have sworn responsibilities. Letting Chosen run amok in the Arsenal and interrogate my lot without supervision would be a gross failure of those oaths.”

Nephele was clever enough to see through that, but then she’d been clever before entering this room: she would have known that their request for my blessing to hunt as they wished had no chance of being accepted without some alterations to what had been proposed.

“What if we had one of the Damned with us as well?” the Mirror Knight said. “Someone you can trust.”

“You have a name for me, I take it?” I asked, brow raised.

He looked back at Hakram. The same orc whose life he had ‘saved’, who he would have sent to save unconscious custodians and not been failed by. That decision made itself, didn’t it?

“The Adjutant is a good man,” Christophe firmly said. “It would not be an injury to count him among our number.”

But we know, oh we know, I almost hummed, that in the woods, the fox is king.

This would do, I decided. With Hakram following them and serving as my voice I could count on them keeping out of my way while I expunged the Bard’s influence from this fortress one pawn at a time. With a little luck, they might even actually unearth a real conspiracy that I’d missed.

“Where would you begin?” I said, tacitly accepting.

The Repentant Magister released a long breath, though the Mirror Knight only nodded as this was expected. His due. Dislike cannot dictate policy, I reminded myself, or I would have been at war with every other Calernian nation within a year of my coronation.

“The Hunted Magician has been seen going in and out of the Workshop at odd hours,” the Mirror Knight told me.

Because he’s been carrying on two love affairs with heroines, I thought, the most impressive part of this being that he’s yet to lose a limb. Mind you, if I was the Intercessor I’d consider the Hunted Magician as a good in for the Arsenal: he had a enemy he’d probably do next to anything to avoid being found by, and precious few scruples as a person. If they wanted to dig there they had my blessing.

“It’s start,” I agreed. “Come back to me when you’ve found something. I might even have insights of my own to share, as I’m looking into a few things as well.”

“It might be,” Nephele softly said, “that some of your own trusted have not proved entirely deserving of that trust.”

Well now, that was something. A warning, if I read her right. And considering she was one of the Arsenal regulars and there was only one of the Woe who shared that state of affairs? She was warning me about Hierophant. Quartered Seasons, I decided. She’s dug up something about Quartered Seasons, and she’s decided that Masego is deceiving me somehow. Or she was trying to sow dissent between myself and Hierophant. Either way, it was a swing and a miss. Zeze honestly didn’t care enough about my approval to lie, it wasn’t how his head worked. He’d either go through with it anyway or decide it wasn’t worth the trouble, deception wouldn’t be part of the recipe either way. That the Repentant Magister had said that at all, though, was telling. Masego was fairly open about his intention to one day reach apotheosis on his own terms and Quartered Seasons might be seen as a way to that. The Repentant Magister, and likely the Blessed Artificer as well, knew enough about the project to misunderstand. That put the alleged blinding of Masego by the Blessed Artificer in a rather more sinister light.

Someone had just shot up the list of problems I needed to handle.

“I am not,” I said, “in the habit of leaving stones unturned. Go, you two. I’ll speak with Adjutant a moment and send him after you.”

It got a nod from the Mirror Knight and a proper bow from Nephele, though she also carefully studied my face as she moved. I do not know what she found there, but she left looking satisfied. The doors was barely closed and the courtesies done when I turned a steady gaze to Hakram.

“Who’s the fifth?” I asked.

Mirror Knight, Blade of Mercy, Maddened Keeper and Repentant Magister. That made four, which meant there was one left I’d not seen. I would have bet the Exalted Poet, before Nephele’s presence was revealed, but now I had doubts. Bands of five were rarely so heavy on Gifted.

“The Vagrant Spear,” Hakram replied.

Shit, Archer’s second? That explained why she’d not heard armour, but we were lucky we’d not run into her: she likely would have recognized Indrani, glamour or not. Fuck, we actually gotten pretty lucky on that. If I’d not acted to split the band of five, Archer would probably have been outed. The first step never fails, huh? I’d been so worried about good eyes I’d missed the greater threat of simple familiarity. A reminder the victory was rarely quite as triumphant as it felt when it was happening.

“What’s she after?” I asked.

“I believe she is trying to keep the Red Axe alive,” he said. “And was drawn in by the Mirror Knight’s impassioned defence of her right to break the Terms for a revenge killing.”

The Red Axe had travelled with Archer’s band to come here, hadn’t she? And as I recalled, the Spear had almost begun a fight with the Hunted Magician over the Enchanter’s corpse. I’d need to ask Indrani about this, looked like. The way that Adjutant had phrased his answer told me both what I’d asked and his own opinion of the matter, which was rather helpful of him given how little time we had. I’d need to cut him loose soon else his new companions would ask questions, but I still had a bit more.

“Mirror Knight,” I said. “Your opinion of him?”

“There is more him than I had anticipated,” the orc gravelled. “Genuinely unambitious, but he clearly sees himself as the flagbearer of Proceran heroism with all that entails. And he’s on the edge, Catherine. Sometimes he snaps at the Blade of Mercy and the boy always looks surprised, so it can’t be habitual.”

I slowly nodded. That made the man even more dangerous, truth be told. People did stupid and dangerous things when they felt they had no other choice. I was glad I’d asked, since that would change how the Knight would need to be handled: carefully, in a word.

“On your end?” Hakram asked.

“Going to ask the Wicked Enchanter some questions,” I replied. “Indrani should be here any moment.”

“Then I’ll leave, they might be waiting for me outside,” Hakram said.

And we would not want them to run into each other. I got up to clasp his arm before sending him out, and when the door closed I closed my eyes and breathed out. The song hadn’t quite left me, I found as the hum left my lips.

“Yes we know, oh we know

That in the woods, the fox is king.”

 

100 thoughts on “Chapter 18: Clout

  1. So the Vagrant Spear is either fully onboard or being played.
    Also … possibly being used as cover for Wandering Bard’s involvement if Red Axe had expressed her desire to kill the Wicked Enchanter prior to their arrival at the Arsenal. Or could plausibly have done so and they lie about it.

    Nothing about this situation is particularly good.

    The song impulse is drawing parallels to Cat hearing the Tower’s call to climb it in song.
    And it’s concerning me. Might be an indicator of whatever Name she’s becoming a claimant to, or connected to it in some way.

    Liked by 18 people

    • There are a lot of In’s for the Bard. I suspect there are two: One that It contacted directly, and one that is only influenced indirectly.
      The latter is probably the Mirror Knight. For the first one, it is probably a villain. The Haunted Magician is a reasonably good bet, assuming he is an excellent actor in playing a bad liar.

      I also assume that if push comes to shove, she will use the “reveal” of the 4/4 Seasons project to tip the story at a critical point.

      Liked by 2 people

    • During the Fae arc, Cat dressed up in a fox-themed outfit intended for the Princess of High Noon, and stepped into a story where the Princess was supposed to challenge the Duke of Violent Squalls to a duel, fail and be trapped. As we all know, Cat refused to play by the rules and turned the chase inside-out, killing the Duke and taking his place in Court. My guess is that the Bard knows the original story but not how it got subverted this time around.

      Liked by 7 people

    • Maybe she is slipping into the groove of a Trickster role.
      Wasn’t the Fox King the Guideverse’s variant of Robin Hood or something like that?

      A random though of mine was that the Bard may try to influence the Name she is getting, or tries to stop it. Or, inadvertently, is speeding up the Name-forming.

      Liked by 8 people

    • I wonder.
      Songs are important to people as is story.

      So if Cat gaining power from her habit of humming songs (in war, in from of the great Council, and even in Aqua’s Folly after living 4 extra lives) I think is a good thing.

      Also, Cat will give up her crown to Vivienne soon, so I think is imposible that a song will change that. So a song about a fox in the woods can’t be the same as the Girl who climbed the Tower.

      Liked by 6 people

  2. That was fantastic. These longer chapters are well worth the reduced update schedule.

    I love that Cat think she’s “accidentally” ended up in the role of an authority figure as though her pattern in this story hasn’t been to end up in charge of any group she interacts with in an even mildly cordial manner.

    Liked by 20 people

    • Yeah, MK was right about how she stole the Prasi armies, etc. It reminds me of something Black once said, about how anything she can’t Take, she will Break. It’s almost like it happens naturally nowadays, like when Hanno refused to join her at first: he needed to be brought to a point where he would have no choice, so he lost his Choir.

      Liked by 12 people

  3. It’s very ominous to have a Song stuck in your head, especially when you’re on the edge of a Name.

    And someone needs to take the Plot off the stove, ’cause it’s getting pretty thick.

    Liked by 16 people

    • Indeed.
      The way she’s been handling things: gaining knowledge about the roles, the stories, the machinations – and then applying it…
      She is playing the game on the level of the Bard and the Dead King. Or she’s aspiring to anyway. It may well be that her Name will reflect that.
      And what are songs if not stories?

      Liked by 11 people

    • That would tie into her command of the Wild Hunt, the “clever foxes” as she called them. Not so sure bout the Queen part of that name though since her long term plan is abdication. Maybe just “the Fox”? Also sounds neutral enough that it can fit into both Hero and Villain stories, like Ranger is supposed to be able to do.

      Liked by 11 people

  4. That song… someone’s going to recognize that it is the same song from the library. That’s going to get her in big trouble.

    Mirror Knight is ‘genuinely unambitious?’ Huh.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Typo Thread:

    down the path > down that path
    only in his qualities turned (maybe “only when his qualities were turned)
    trouble,” > trouble.”
    take you word > take your word
    a least > at least
    be mistake > be a mistake
    in scrap > in a scrap
    a little surprise > a little surprised
    When we got there (should be new paragraph)
    They key > The key
    I’d taken me > I’d taken
    well though > well, though
    days had been made to serve a again > days which had been made to serve again (also, should be “— an old gift … serve again —”)
    relegate > relinquish
    someone emerged heroic > someone that had emerged heroic
    would be it > would it be
    not trace > no trace
    nodded as this > nodded as if this
    a enemy > an enemy
    It’s start, > It’s a start,
    do not know > did not know
    doors was > doors were
    we actually gotten > we had actually gotten
    more him > more to him

    Liked by 2 people

  6. A stressed shield, a vengeful spear, a repentant mage, one possessed and possibly failing soul… With a self-righteous blade.

    this is the making of a disaster instead of a heroic five or villainous alliance. This is going to end with the arsenal falling as sometimes you just need to trick someone to carry a bomb instead of having them sabotage anything.

    Answers that are left are simply left up to those who stand after the ashes fall. So Bard can easily spin whatever tale she wishes of one arsenal and some unwanted pieces were simply… Forgotten.

    Our little keeper is unknown and our dear leader forgot about the Demon who erases history having been told to the heroic band… Before the king of the dead declared his war.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. She is so going to get a new name, this many refenrences to songs remind me to the “girl who climbed the tower” thing.

    Also i was totally expecting the body to already be gone, glad that didn’t happen, another thing is that i could have sworn it was the blade of mercy who accused Cat not the MK? was that an error the previous chapter?

    Oh and what do you think is mor eprobably: that the Vagrant Spear and Red Axe are lovers, a sort of duo (as in those 2 guys kind of thing) or even a sort of mentor discicple thing (like Cat was supposed to have with the apostle RIP)?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. oh my god this is such an archetypical story and Catherine is in such a specific role in it GOD BLESS HER

    the best part is the ending, but wow I’m loving every minute of it.

    Also, prolonged and deep thanks to Erratic for not putting emphasis on the lying and rasing a ruckus parts. Valid plot elements, awful to actually experience reading about in detail.

    Can’t wait for the heroes to dig up Cat did all of that! We all know that’s coming, right? 😀

    Liked by 10 people

  9. I’m curious as to what the dynamic between the Repentant Magister and Cat is going to do to this situation. Right now, we the audience know they have a mutual interest in one another, despite their apparent inability to see it in the other, but they also seem to be pretty blatantly opposed on many integral parts of this particular story. This might be setting the Magister up as a slow burn romance into Cat’s moral anchor, which would be important if Cat’s Name ends up being a Trickster type.

    Side note: one fun thing about Tricksters is that they’re one of the few types that can reliably win (or at least not lose) even when they’re in a villainous role.

    Liked by 9 people

  10. So, a few things people have said above have got me thinking about what kind of name Catherine is coming into. Someone mentioned how she tends to take control of groups she has been in, whether she intends to or not, and usually despite her own intentions. How many times has what she was accused of been her ultimate end, often despite the intent to do anything but that. How many times has she been accused of reaching for power and, despite her own initial lack of willingness to do so, ended up having that power by the end. Often because no-one else could, or should, have taken up the roles she plays. Sometimes, more often recently, she’s seen the way things are heading and accepted that role. Because someone needs to do it gods dammit and if no-one else will pull their finger out she will.

    And someone else mentioned the idea of her becoming the Fox Queen (or perhaps some other cunning ruler name, it might not be exactly that). This sounds pretty damn plausible, especially with the song stuck in her head. And they also pointed out that that could well be a name that fits as both Villain and Hero depending on where they need to fit into the story.

    And the Mirror Knight has now outright accused her of planning to “…make (her)self queen of the Chosen and Damned…”

    Catherine already has the title of “Queen of Lost and Found”. Lost? Villains could be said to have lost their way. Found? Heroes are often said to have found themselves, or found purpose. And even though she is definitely going to be stepping down from the throne of Callow, that doesn’t mean she might not still have a throne. As a (rather frustrated) leader and arbiter of Named, being neither Hero nor Villain. The finger on the balance of the Accords, tipping either way as needed to keep things in check. Trusted just enough to not truly be one of Theirs, even if she’s not really one of Ours. Because it seems like someone needs to do a job like that to keep Named in line. And no-one else is going to do it properly…

    Liked by 6 people

    • I remember Kairos laughing right before his Final Monologue because every time the Choir of Mercy bends to her will, the more that becomes a precedent. Between that and the words of this chapter, it makes you wonder just how high she’ll go.

      Liked by 3 people

  11. I think one of the band of five isn’t really part of it. At a guess, Repentent Magister is only an ally, Bard is the actual fifth, and Hakram being assigned to their band is the next step in her plan.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I recall that during the Fae arc Catherine went to the Duke of Violent Squalls’ ball in an outfit with a Fox mask. This may be a reprise in the mortal world of the events there.

    Liked by 5 people

  13. “It didn’t necessarily make the champions of the Heavens pleasant people, but on the other hand I couldn’t deny that Hanno’s side of the fence counted not a single rapist or thrill-killer. There were days, when the likes of the Mirror Knight’s ingratitude and ignorance became so very grating, that it was tempting to forget things like that.”

    That’s, what, the second or third time in this book that the narration has called out the comment section? Although this is also acknowledging that yeah, MK is pretty annoying at times. I actually kind of liked him this chapter though? Like, he definitely is way too stuck on the old ways of hero vs villain with no regard for the details, but he still has some sense of priorities and can bend, just slightly, when he absolutely has to. Doesn’t make him particularly easy to like, nor does it mean he’s a particularly good person, but it’s a potential seed of character development. Reminds me a little of GP, actually; he starts out absolutely opposed to Cat, and ends up deciding that she’s not so bad after all

    Liked by 8 people

    • I’m honestly not sure that you can say that the heavens don’t have any “thrill killers” among their heroes. Some of them seem a little too gung ho at the “smiting anything they perceive as evil” for me and they’re often prone to moral absolutism and charging into situations half cocked. All of that is a good recipe for creating problems and doing evil.

      Liked by 3 people

    • It can be very hard to remember how evil Dark can get when we’re constantly shown essentially the Batman of Calernia. Just because someone adopted the darkness doesn’t mean the people born in it, molded by it, aren’t far worse.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Worse is comparative. Worse than what, the Heroes?

        I think that comparing categories in a vacuum is not really helpful. If all we had was say, serial killer Villains on the prowl and detective Heroes hunting them down to stop them, sure. Who cares if the detective roughs up a few witnesses, if he stops the serial killers from killing again?
        And even one who cared wouldn’t go so far as to argue they are worse than serial killers.

        But that is not how the game of the gods works. We saw there are Good and Evil COUNTRIES, and countries are made of people. When you have Heroes and Villains warring on one another, and Good is not always the invaded, and most of what Named do is either enabling their side to kill more people more effectively, or kill a lot of people on their own… is there really a difference?

        There is no comparing a Hero going to repel ratlings in the north to someone like the Hunted Magician that just looks after himself. Of course there isn’t.
        But that is not what most heroes spend the most time and energy doing, is it? Because those stories are boring, and thus the narrative pushes them to seek something else to fight. And when you have these huge conflicts, and invaded countries with Named spearheading the assault or the guerrilla resistance… can you really say “this side good, that side bad”? Or even “that side better?”

        On average, as a category, the Heroes are probably doing more good than the Villains. But really… it doesn’t look like that big a margin.

        Someone that goes around murdering, pillaging and raping like the Wicked Enchanter sounds terrible (and, well, is), but when you consider how much murdering, pillaging and raping can be caused by a pack of Heroes enabling an expansionist Good country to invade another (invasion of Callow, Humbling of Titans…) you need a LOT of small-time Villains to come even.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. I feel like the traitor has to be someone Catherine knows or trusts. A common trope in these stories is that the authority figure has a blind spot towards the villain and that’s why the hero can see something that the authorities can’t.

    Now, clearly Masego isn’t the traitor – all the Woe are loyal, and as Cat notes, Masego doesn’t lie. And we’ve already done the “Masego has fallen to the dark side and we have to retrieve him” bit, anyway. But Quartered Seasons is still a major source of suspicion. It’s something that the Bard could easily turn into a story against Cat – she admits it looks like another attempt to claim godhood. And it’s something completely off the books, where Catherine is basically just signing the checks and not looking at the details.

    What I’m saying is, just because Quartered Seasons is a legitimate, Catherine-backed project with worthy goals doesn’t mean it can’t *also* be something that was corrupted by a dastardly traitor.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Corrupting Masego’s project without him noticing (unless he is under the influence and youa re freaking Dead King besides) sounds kind of impossible, honestly.

      EIther Masego has personally twisted the project which I don’t buy for a minute – or it’s working as intended.

      It being misinterpreted is, of course, completely possible.

      Liked by 6 people

  15. I’m willing to bet that Mirror is bound to take a swing at Masego. He probably gets told by his friends about Quartered seasons, and then he decides Cat is either stupid or in on it, so she won’t grant permission anyways.

    The actual question becomes if Masego and possibly Idrani are enough to survive heroic assault. With gifted who have been building counter Masego artifacts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A “counter Masego artifact” is exactly what I thought when that whole thing went down.

      Why, of them all, did they single our Masego to use that light on? I’ll tell you why, to test it, to see the limits of what his glass eyes and abilities can do. I think they want to assault him over what they perceive is Masego going rogue. Even the Repentant Magister hinted at the betrayal, which Cay knows better.

      4/4 Seasons being “off the books” make Hierophant look very suspicious. If it were the White Knight or Grey Pilgram there, they would know better, because they know what Masego went through, but not these people.

      Another possibility is that the Repentant Magister is a lot sneaker than she is letting on, either for or again Cat. I think she is like the Rogue Sorceror, and willing to operate in a grayer area, seeing the bigger picture and does not have the bias of MK.

      I am enjoying this arc a whole lot, feels like it back to basics.

      Why isn’t this a published novel yet?

      Liked by 6 people

  16. Man, I’m just thinking of all the people this trick wouldn’t’ve worked on.

    “Masego, who set the fire?”
    “Catherine, of course,” he replied, then paused. “What fire?”

    Liked by 13 people

  17. The Red Axe. I wonder if it will end with a cursed heroine. They can’t kill her, that would arise heroic insurrection, but let her get away is not an option, that would break the Terms.

    Maybe it will end with Cain’s Curse, or something like that. She will no longer gain help form signatories of the Terms, nor protected, but whoever damages her will receive double the pain until the Dead King’s war ends.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. “The Adjutant is a good man,” Christophe firmly said. “It would not be an injury to count him among our number.”

    MK is failing his sense motive check so hard…

    Liked by 6 people

    • I don’t know about that. Hakram is very much a very good man, just maybe not a Good one. 🙂
      And he does indeed want the investigation to succeed. That is, succeed in uncovering the real killer and the real plot…

      Liked by 6 people

      • Not… really? He’s a great friend, but he doesn’t seem to be overly concerned for the well being of people just because they are people.
        He’s not out to help those around him, is what I mean. He cares about his own buddies, which is what most do. He is awesome, but… he is not really how to improve the world nor anything.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Actually Cat fired him up by getting him angry at the world’s injustice and that’s his basic motivation? He didn’t just fall in love with her or something, her opposition just pissed him off and he decided to show them all.

          Hakram also held Cat back from something she would later have been horrified by when he stopped her from killing the Helikean cataphracts. He has a pretty fine discernment for what ethics are, even if he’s mostly following them for other reasons, he IS following them.

          Consider the low, low, low bar for villains that Kairos, Wicked Enchanter and their ilk set.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Again, all true, yet…

            … he got angry at a very specific injustice, he’s not out to ensure the well-being of people. I’m just saying, if this makes him a good guy then anyone that has a cause other than himself qualify. Very few of those think it’s not helping someone.

            … Hakram held back Cat from making decisions in anger that would have sabotaged her long term or that she’d have regretted making down the line. He was looking out for her, nothing less, and nothing more.
            Cat’s own morality was the paradigm he used, not morality itself.

            Liked by 1 person

            • > … he got angry at a very specific injustice, he’s not out to ensure the well-being of people. I’m just saying, if this makes him a good guy then anyone that has a cause other than himself qualify.

              …yes?

              See also: really, really low bar for what heores expect of villains.

              Liked by 1 person

  19. hiya EE – just dropping into say that I’ve been reading this work since it was still in Book 1 (so four and a half, coming up on five years now?) and I’ve never ceased to be impressed with each and every new update. haven’t commented before because, well, that’s just not my usual style. but now that the end of the journey’s in sight, I’d be remiss to not drop in to voice my appreciation.

    also, I made you some art. took forever to finish it (over two years) cause life’s wack but I think it was worth it in the end. https://www.artstation.com/artwork/8lJlxE

    really eager to see how this story pans out and will definitely be following whatever you decide to work on next!

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Hm, I’ve never noticed EE adapt the story thuis much based on the comments from the previous chapter. Guess he didn’t expect people to dislike Mirror Knight this much for his actions to so often add subtlilities and spreading of responsibility and guilt around.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Because while usually the comments and the story that follow aren’t too conjoined, this time I noticed some things that didn’t seem that much in EE’s ordinary writing style and didn’t quite fit the pace and flow of the story. Kinda just, adding them in. Making me think that maybe EE read the comments and saw a trend that he never intended, thus patching it up quickly after reading comments like ‘Before it was a matter of perspective, but now I’m fed up with the Mirror Knight, he’s beyond redemption now.’ or whatever. In response EE might’ve written things like

        “Was this a blunder of our own making, I wondered? The man’s an ignorant ass, but has anyone actually tried to set him straight and teach him to recognize what’s going on around him? It ought to have been his responsibility to see to that, sure, for he was a grown man and few of us had gotten to have our hands held through the process of gaining power. But then was it not undeniably a blunder to let a hero with that kind of power stew in a puddle of his own obtuseness, growing ever more frustrated and wary?”

        Especially the italics (which unfortunately weren’t copied along) sounded very out of place for the pace and tone of the story that EE has been setting up here. To so openly and suddenly step out of the story to address something that happens to align a lot with the comments of the previous chapter and which contrasts the tale Cat is in now and her Role and mindset, it seems like our comments might’ve been the cause of these additions to avoid MK to be too ostracized. And there were a few other places in this chapter where I noticed such subtle diversions, though none as clear as this one I think.

        Liked by 1 person

    • It’s sloppy writing to adapt a story based on what the readers think. It’s somewhat ok to not kill a specific character because of his fanbase (so long it make sense and he still is relevant to the plot).

      EE would not do this. Actually I would be surprised if he did not have 10 of so chapters made in advance to keep his sanity intact

      Liked by 2 people

      • See my post to Haru on the foundations. But there’s a difference between adapting a story on what the readers think, and seeing in the comments that you unintentionally screwed up someone’s reputation to something that shouldn’t be this negative and viewed in the way that it was. There were several parts in this chapter in too stark contrast and fitting the last chapter’s comments too well to be truly natural. I think EE never intended to have Mirror Knight be dropped by the audience as an outright idiotic pariah instead of just a frustratingly heroic lad like Pilgrim was. Which events like him asking if Cat were working with the Dead King sollicited from the audience last chapter, only to see in this chapter that they refer to that with a hinted solution to hopefully redeem things a bit back into an acceptable grey.

        And it needs not be a completely rehaul, just some sentences added to an already written chapter.

        Liked by 1 person

  21. gotta say, as much as people in the comments sometimes forget just how evil below tends to be, its not that the mirror knight is annoying, it’s that he was seconds away from drawing swords on cat, had left his post in the middle of a war, was going to deliberately break the Truce and Terms over someone who had previously done so as well, and Start a heroic inquisition with no authorization from Hanno inside a weapons factory staffed almost entirely by non-combat names.

    like there’s a whole host of valid reasons for people to hate his ass beyond “his personality bad”

    Liked by 4 people

  22. Interesting that Cat jumped to Hierophant as the possible traitor, completely ignoring Archer.
    I doubt Archer is a traitor, but Cat doesn’t even consider the possibility

    Liked by 1 person

    • Repentant said it was a regular of the Assembly, and Archer is a visitor same as Cat and Adjudant. Only Hierophant is a regular staff member of this place. Going on what RM said he was the only Woe that fit, Cat hasn’t gotten any Name advice from anyone about the other two. When talking about a traitor in general then Cat might suspect Archer as ‘quickly’ as Zeze, but for the specific clue and context given there’s no reason to suspect her based on what Repentant said. And Cat wouldn’t have considered Zeze at all either if it weren’t for that hint to begin with.

      Personally, if there’s a traitor in the Woe then it might be Adjudant. While Cat is completely unaware and unwilling to entertain the thought, Vivienne’s extra chapters and some hints sprinkled through other extra chapters and interludes actually hinted at (their suspicion of) him being a schemer and inevitable traitor to be.

      Liked by 1 person

      • If Adjutant has treacherous schemes and plots going on … they aren’t aimed at hurting Cat.

        He got his Name based on helping her and facilitating her desires. I’m fairly confident that knowingly and/or intentionally betraying her, in addition to being wildly out of character, would damage his ability to use his Name.

        At worst, Hakram is likely to do something that he thinks is in Cat’s best interests without telling her about it or even against her implied or stated wishes. Ie, the interlude/extra chapter where Hakram goes to have a chat with Thief after Cat makes her an offer after (re)taking Laure, in the process terrifying the hell out of Viv, and laying the groundwork for Hakram cutting off his hand to reassure Viv post the Woe’s expedition to Keter while Cat and Archer are in the Everdark. Or the extra chapters that involve the attempted assassination of Hakram and some of the other members of the 15th’s leadership cadre close to Cat in Ater, and their attempt to deal with it without getting Cat involved (who they thought would likely react poorly and overreact).

        Liked by 4 people

        • Agreed.
          Personally, even that I find extremely unlikely after they got to see Black and Scribe falling out because of that kind of mess. I doubt he’d follow in her footsteps, especially since her actions didn’t actually get him anything good.

          Liked by 2 people

        • You should read Vivienne’s Extra Chapters again. Adjudant scheming against Cat seems to be exactly what EE is hinting at, even if this may be a red herring or Vivi being misdirected or even seeing ghosts that aren’t there. However, she and others (I think Tyrant and Akua but I could be wrong) have hinted at there at least being the possibility in EE’s mind and thus the story.

          Like

  23. NO CAT!!!! You do not want to slip into the role of disliked authority figure to a band oof maverick heroes investigating a conspiracy…. not when you are lying and hiding things from them. Because the story will MAKE THEM UNCOVER THAT. Genre savvy on noir fiction she is not…

    Liked by 2 people

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