Chapter 19: Spectral

“I’m afraid that that old saying about resting when you’re dead has proved overly optimistic, my good fellows.”
– Dread Empress Malevolent III

Having a dead body splayed on a table in an otherwise nice room was oddly nostalgic, I’d admit. It made me miss my sappers, who back in the old days had brought me the corpses of my enemies much like cats brought home chewed-up birds. It’d been too long since I’d sat down with Robber and Pickler in person, though in truth I might be able to see them before too long: if we went on the offensive in Hainaut to take back its capital and secure the shores, I’d want them both as part of the attacking army. There wasn’t anyone quite like them when it came to getting the job done.

“The spirit still has ties to the body,” the Harrowed Witch told us. “I can summon it back for a time, Your Majesty, if that is your wish.”

The villainess looked nervous around me, as she’d been ever since I’d made it clear I could see through the enchantments she used to hide. I couldn’t, actually, but the Crows could and I was not above the occasional lie to obscure the true scope of my abilities.  Brown-eyed, brown-haired and rather drab in both clothes and conversation the other woman had a slight hunch in her shoulders that never quite went away – like she was expecting someone to slap her hard in the back at any moment. As I understood it the brother she’d murdered and now haunted her could not directly touch her, but as his strength waxed and waned the wraith was capable of speaking to her and sometimes even throw small objects.

Archer was inexplicably fond of this one, though I supposed Aspasie might be an acquired taste. Indrani herself was lounging on the edge of the sofa, having stolen the last of my bottle along with the nice little snacks the servants had put out during my absence. Admittedly the Wicked Enchanter’s corpse had taken up the table where the plate had been waiting, but that was no excuse to just steal the whole thing and begin tearing through them.

“Is it actually the soul you call back?” I asked, genuinely curious.

In theory, necromancy was capable of doing that. In practice necromancers tended to prefer setting up wards to prevent the souls from passing on or even outright binding the soul to the body before killing the individual – as Masego had once done for me, before First Liesse – since calling back a soul gone past the veil of death was tricky at the best of times. The only mages I’d ever heard of regularly doing such a thing were the Twilight Sages of the drow, who wee long gone and their knowledge destroyed. The Sisters had seen to that, and thoroughly.

“The priests say it isn’t,” the Harrowed Witch hedged. “That it’s just some spirit called up from the death and the echo of the mind.”

Said priests had declared me an abomination in a Salian conclave after I’d tricked a resurrection out of the Hashmallim, so I was inclined to take their assertions with a grain of salt. Though calling back a soul was hardly resurrection the House of Light in the west had always jealously guarded what it saw as the sole domain of the Heavens, and thus theirs. Proceran mages having been squeezed out of the healing trade was proof enough of that.

“And what do you believe?” I asked.

“Even if they’re right,” she shrugged, “there’s not much difference, is there? Whether the spirit’s fresh or old, it’s still got the same stuffing.”

“Praesi believe it’s the soul,” Archer told me. “And that the imperfect memory is because you can’t drag one back without damaging it some, not unless the formula is perfect in a way no one’s managed.”

Yeah, well, just as the Proceran priesthood had a vested interest in claiming this to be spirit-work it could be said that the Praesi had an interested in claiming the opposite. The Wasteland was fond of claiming its ways would make you as a god, if you were good enough at them. And if someone could master life and death, while it might not make you a God shouldn’t it make you at least the lesser kind?

“So long as I get my own questions answered, that one we can leave to the Wasteland and the priests,” I said. “Do it, Witch.”

“By your will, Black Queen,” the villainess bowed.

She knelt by the Wicked Enchanter’s corpse and laid hands on his face, peeling open the sightless eyes and prying open his mouth. Two fingers she pressed against the black and swollen tongue, whispering urgently in the mage tongue, and the same again on the ear of the left side and then the right.

“Three black pearls were granted unto me by the spirits of the land, and I bestow upon you their use this hour,” the Harrowed Witch said, her Chantant fluid and beautiful and ringing of something that was not Chantant at all. “One that you may hear, and in death obey. One that you may speak, as I bid you now. One that you may know once more, heedful and waking. I know the secrets of the sleeping stones and I have heard the echoes that outlived the word: I am mistress among the lost, and I command you to return.”

The last word reverberated with power, with will, and though it was neither aspect nor Speaking it was the culmination of a skilled witch’s craft: the weight of it was not to be trifled with. A burst of cold wind passed through the parlour even as the Wicked Enchanter’s corpse took a ragged gasp, as if the corpse had somehow sucked in the air, the brown-haired witch laid a hand atop the corpses’ brow. The shadows in the well-lit room somehow seemed longer to me, and deeper in their darkness.

“I have him,” she said, brow furrowed in concentration. “Ask your questions, and swiftly: he struggles against the call.”

I cast a look at Indrani, who seemed only mildly interested by all of this. Not her first time up close to such a thing, I imagined. Well, might as well get this over with.

“Are you the Wicked Enchanter?” I asked.

“I am,” the corpse rasped.

He twitched, as if trying to say more but being prevented by the Witch’s firm grasp.

“Have you ever spoken with, or been spoken at by, a woman named Marguerite of Baillons?”

“I have not,” the corpse rasped.

I frowned. Had the Wandering Bard changed face and name once more? No, perhaps my mistake had been of a different sort.

“Have you ever spoken with, or been spoken at by, the Wandering Bard?” I asked.

“Yes,” the corpse rasped.

My veins thrummed with something that was neither fear nor excitement, for though I was not cowed by the notion of tangling with the Intercessor neither was I looked forward to it. I already had too many deadly enemies. And yet I would not deny that I was also relieved. Until that single word, it’d been possible that I was just putting up my own fears on a blank slate. Now I knew my enemy, and the war could begin in earnest.

“What did she tell you?”

“She warned me that I had been noticed,” the Wicked Enchanter’s shade told us. “And that my joys in the wilds would come to an end.”

As I recalled, the dead villain had been the one to seek out the Grand Alliance and not the other way around, though there’d been some rumours of his existence in the far south.

“And this convinced you to seek out the Truce and Terms?” I pressed.

“Eventually. I brought my court to another three villages first.”

So there it was, I mused. There was a story, back home, about one of the petty kings that’d ruled in Callow before the Albans united the realm. An old man, said in some tales to have ruled over Liesse and others in Dormer, but all agreed he’d been as harsh a tyrant as they come. But his knights had stayed loyal, and kept him from knives in the back, and for subtler threats he had bargained with a wizard. For great favours he’d won an enchanted amulet that would glow when in the presence of poisons, and so for many years the tyrant had ruled safely in his castle. Until one day a clever cook, whose kin had been killed on the tyrant’s whim, arranged for a particular plate to be served: grilled mushrooms, the savoury kind growing in stone shadows known as the ‘False Wings’.

The tyrant ate, for the amulet had not glowed, and then drank of his favourite mead as he every meal. The mushrooms, the False Wings, were not a poison. Neither was the mead. Yet mixed together, as they were in the tyrant’s belly, they became a deadly mixture. The story went that the tyrant did not die of the poison, actually, but went so mad from the pain eating his insides he’d thrown himself off the highest tower of his keep.

The Wicked Enchanter was not, by himself, poison for the Truce and Terms. Scum, there was no denying that, but even scum was worth marshalling when the King of Death was on the march. The Truce being extended to the likes of him was the price of being able to pull in villains not quite so vile, who otherwise might wonder exactly where the line was drawn and elicit to instead remain in hiding – or, worse, make troubles at our back. And it’s necessary for what is to come, I thought. The Liesse Accords must apply to everyone, even the worst of us, and if their predecessor-treaty had been used as a way to execute villains many of Below’s would see them as a tool of heroic control and nothing more. Yet the Wicked Enchanter would have been tolerated, if he lent his Name and skills to the war against Keter.

He only became poison when the Red Axe was added to the meal: a heroine born of his very depredations, fated by her Role to slay him. And when she’d fulfilled that role, well… There would be time to consider the full breadth of that blow later, I told myself. First there was one last piece of information that I must extract from the dead. While it was possible the Bard would have relied on mere chance to have the two fated foes encounter each other, and chance did tend towards a certain theatrical certainty when it came to Named, the way the killing had been described to me smacked of it being arranged. It’d taken place in the Knot, the central halls of the Arsenal, when they were filled with people and other Named were not too far – yet not so close that they might be able to intervene.

The Intercessor had boots on the ground, like as not, and I wanted to know who was filling them.

“When you encountered the Red Axe,” I said, “where were you headed?”

“To the Repository.”

My brow rose.

“Why?” I asked him.

“A supply convoy had come the day before,” the corpse rasped. “The red orchid I paid for would be stashed in the usual crate.”

“I can’t hold much longer,” the Harrowed Witch hoarsely said.

I nodded in acknowledgement. Smuggling, huh. I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised: this place might be a wonder, but in the end people were people. I’d see to it this leak was plugged and whoever was involved got the noose, but what had been mentioned was not familiar to me. Red orchid, was it? I cast a curious look at Archer, whose own brow rose.

“Drug,” she told me. “Hard stuff, expensive and from the Free Cities. Hard to kick when the hooks are in, too.”

Probably illegal in Procer, I mused. An addiction – particularly one to a substance even Indrani seemed wary of – was an obvious lever for the Bard to use, I thought, but there would have been need for another Named to arrange the practical aspects of it. Possible well in advance, I thought, which was a disquieting notion.

“How did you hear about smuggler?” I asked the corpse.

“I was told by the Concocter,” the shade of the Wicked Enchanter rasped.

And there went the last detail I’d needed to know.

“Thank you for your service,” I told the dead thing. “You will receive your dues under the Terms, even from the grave.”

And not an inch more, I thought. I gestured at the brown-haired witch, signifying I was done.

“Kill the girl,” the corpse hissed. “Killkillkillkill-”

“I release you,” the Harrowed Witch gasped. “Begone.”

Wind blew out violently, rustling my cloak and pushing back strands of my hair, but in its wake the room seemed settled. There’d ben a weight in the air, a tension, that had now been released. Sweat beaded the villainess brow, and she was panting like she’d just fought for her life.

“What a charmer, that one,” I nonchalantly said. “But at least he was talkative, thanks to you. You’ve done me a good turn, Harrowed Witch.”

“I know to keep my mouth shut, Your Majesty,” she weakly replied. “There is no need to present the stick now that you’ve dangled the carrot.”

“Archer’s already vouched for you,” I said, “else I would not have asked you at all.”

Aspasie shot Indrani a surprised look. I sympathized with her there, as Archer’s actual affections tended to be rather opaque. I tended to blame that on the Lady of the Lake, but honesty compelled me to admit it might have been in part natural inclination as well. Indrani replied with a smile, or at least tried to: she’d stuffed the last snack whole in her mouth, so her bulging cheeks rather undid the intended effect until she swallowed.

“I meant what I said,” I told the witch. “Consider how you’d like the favour repaid and return to me when you are certain.”

“You’re powerful enough to simply compel my service,” Aspasie said, sounding genuinely bewildered. “Why make this offer when you have nothing to gain?”

Because if you never reward siding with you, the only rewards to be won are in siding against you, I thought.

“Forced service is always mediocre,” I said. “And I’ve no patience for such things. I’ll use you, I won’t deny that or pretend we are equals, but you will also gain from the use.”

The Harrowed Witch slowly nodded, looking abashed, and hesitantly rose to her feet.

“I will keep your words in mind, Your Majesty,” she said. “And return to you with an answer.”

Archer from the side, finished licking up the last of the mousse on her fingers and snatched up my bottle of aragh. She tossed it at the brown-eyed witch, though she was too slow and only caught it after it’d hit her sternum and dropped into her outstretched hands.

Archer,” she complained.

“I know how your head gets after a restless calling,” Indrani said, almost gentle. “Drink up, or you’ll have a pounding headache by the time you get to your rooms.”

“I’ll still have one if I drink this,” the Harrowed Witch said, “I’ll simply be drunk as well.”

“It’ll take the edge off, at least,” Archer snorted. “You still got your fancy herbs?”

“Timothée scattered them,” she mourned.

Her brother, I took it. The realization seemingly drove the decision to pull at the bottle, though she choked on the Praesi hard liquor and had to force herself to gulp it down.

“What is this, the Dead King’s piss?” the Witch moaned, then had a moment of panic when she looked at me. “Um, I mean, Your Majesty-”

“Taghreb delicacy,” I told her amusedly. “Consider yourself lucky you never tried dragon’s milk.”

“I might have something for your head,” Indrani mused, “I’ll pass by your rooms later.”

“If you’re just bringing a hammer again, that ceased being even slightly funny after the third time,” the brown-haired woman complained.

I smothered my chuckle with all the practice of a woman well-acquainted with Indrani. It was a dismissal, even if one delivered by Archer instead of myself, and the villainess treated it like one. She made her courtesies and departed swiftly, my bottle still in hand. I blew out a long breath after Archer closed the door behind her.

“The Concocter, huh,” I said.

“She’d a shady, haughty prig,” Indrani said, “always has been, but I don’t think she’s your traitor Cat. Hells, what would the Bard have to even offer her? She doesn’t care about politics, only that she can keep making her potions.”

I wasn’t inclined to romanticize the Concocter having joined us without prompting, myself. Much like the Beastmaster she’d only come to us because Refuge had collapsed after Ranger’s disappearance, though her concerns had been more direct than Beastmaster’s: without a pack of Named to trade with, the Waning Woods had lost much of their appeal for her. It wasn’t like she was going to be hunting for manticore hearts or elderwood snake fangs herself. The Arsenal had been what she was after, the funding and books and safety of it, and she’d certainly thrived there. She’d gone from trading healing poultices in the woods to being able to order her pick of ingredients from Mercantis through Proceran envoys, and she’d been judged useful enough to be made the informal lead of one of the secret projects: Sudden Abjuration might also be under Roland, who was higher in the pecking order of the Arsenal, but it was ultimately an alchemical pursuit and so her word carried more weight than his.

“She’s involved with the smuggling, at least,” I replied. “And she brought in the Enchanter. I’m not saying she’s an ardent partisan of the Bard, but do you really think she’s above cutting a deal?”

The Intercessor had been studying human nature since the days where Calernia used bronze. She was a very, very skilled temptress when she put her mind to it.

“Dunno,” Indrani reluctantly admitted. “The Lady was always keen on reminding us that fucking around with your betters was a sure way to get burned, and we all learned that lesson some, but the Concocter was always clever. She got ahead just by trading, and she used what she had to get away with a lot. It’s always been her, then everybody else. I don’t think even Lady Ranger knew her real name.”

“I have questions for her,” I said. “How nicely they’ll be asked, that depends on her.”

Indrani put up her hands in appeasement.

“Don’t misunderstand, Cat,” she said. “We shared a camp years ago, that’s all there is to it. If you want to cut off a few fingers to set the mood, I’m not protesting. I’m just saying that the Arsenal is a wet dream come true for her, so she’d be careful about not mucking it up too much.”

I grunted in acknowledgement. To my understanding having shared the tutelage of the Ranger wasn’t really the kind of shared history that bound people together closely, save perhaps in shared mingled fear and admiration of the woman, but I still knew precious little about Indrani’s years there. She was rather tight-lipped about it, save for a few well-worn amusing stories she was always ready to dust off around a campfire when the drinks got flowing.

“Would she say more if you went knocking alone?” I asked.

“Would she be less wary if the wasn’t the fucking Black Queen popping up unannounced?” Indrani said, sounding amused. “Who knows? It might just be one of those unsolvable mysteries of life.”

I sighed.

“Fine,” I said. “Go ahead, see what you can get out of her. But ‘Drani, I need those answers. If you don’t think you can-”

“I can,” Archer assured me.

I searched her face for a moment, to see if it was stung pride talking, but she seemed certain.

“I’ll get harsh if I have to,” Indrani continued when I did not answer. “Cat, you can trust me with this.”

But this was important, I almost said. This was the Bard, and I could not take risks, and… You were warned by Adjutant that you could only take so much on your shoulders without running yourself ragged, Akua’s voice echoed, over the broken corpse of a boy and the bitter taste of failure. You did not heed his words. I couldn’t handle this alone, guiding every moving part. Hells, having trusted allies might genuinely be the single absolute advantage I held over the Intercessor. And still it felt like a mistake to let Archer go alone, because what if she made a mistake? There was trusting someone, and then there was trusting them to win. I clenched my fists. This is fear, I thought. This fear speaking through my lips, a worm slipped into my mind through my ear. And once fear rules, she is the mother of defeat.

“Go,” I said. “And ask about the gas in the Miscellaneous Stacks as well. There are others here who could make those, but she would be the best hand for the work.”

“I’ll get it out of her,” Archer promised. “I know that look, though. Where are you headed?”

“A pretty blonde invited me for a drink,” I told her. “Figured now as good a time as any.”

“You’re pulling my leg, you wench,” she grinned.

“I speak no lie,” I grinned back. “If I’m not here, then look for me in the rooms of the Prince of Brus.”

Now, I’d never actually paid all that much attention to the arcane rules governing Proceran wine drinking so I had to wonder: which was it that went with asking a stranger to commit what was technically a spot of treason, a red or a white?

“And you say this liquor is called aragh?” Prince Frederic Goethal said, sounding delighted.

I made a mental note to order a raise for the Callowan quartermaster here who’d ensured there would be a decent reserve of Legions and Army liquors. The Taghreb drink was actually a favourite among even my countrymen these days, the taste for it having spread from the former Legions officers to the men and women they’d trained.

“Indeed,” I replied. “I developed a taste for it when I trained at the War College. It was quite popular amongst the cadets there.”

The Prince of Brus was no longer in armour, having instead traded it for a riot of silk in red and blue whose shape and cut somehow evoked wings splayed across the Proceran warrior-prince’s chest. I availed myself of what was being displayed, namely some very nicely muscles on an otherwise slender body. The accompanying silken trousers were tight enough they made clear the calves under them were iron-hard, which they were very clearly meant to. Prince Frederic had been quite surprised by my unannounced visit but proved to be an amicable host, leading us to the little salon attached to his rooms and dismissing the servants so that we might speak alone.

“Ah, the famous War College,” the blond mused. “I have heard many tales of it, most of them I suspect of being splendid lies.”

He popped open the bottle and laid down the cork on the table between us – once again a low one between two sofas, the Proceran basics had very clearly been used as a standard for decoration across the Arsenal – before offering me a smile.

“Unless, Your Majesty, it is true that you once defeated an army with an exploding goat?”

I coughed.

“It was only a company, and the goats were part of a greater strategy,” I confessed.

“Dear Gods,” Frederic Goethal mused, “if I return home with word that Special Tribune Robber is not a complete and utter liar, the Morgentor itself might well fall over from the shock.”

That little shit, I thought, not entirely angrily. A quarter of the continent away, and still he was finding ways to be a pain in my ass.

“Tell me he’s not doing plays anymore, at least,” I asked.

“Their all-goblin rendition of ‘The Election of Blessed Clothor’ saw several of my courtiers weep openly,” the Prince of Brus cheerfully denied.

I noted he did not specify whether the weeping was at the beauty of it or the sheer horror. Truly, the man was a skilled diplomat. I gestured to offer to pour from the bottle and he conceded, rising instead to fetch to very crystal glasses with gold rims. Gods, I hoped those were his and not the Arsenal’s. If my kingdom’s taxes had ended up pitching for gold-rimmed glasses, someone on my side had been botching their job. I poured him a generous measure, and a smaller one for myself – I’d already had a few, after all. Besides, from what I recalled Proceran court etiquette dictated that women should drink daintier cups of strong spirits. Larger cups of wine, though, strangely enough. Something about men having stronger stomachs but women better palates.

“Prince Frederic,” I began.

“Frederic,” he insisted. “I’ve told you before, Your Majesty.”

“Catherine, then,” I replied.

It was a false closeness, this, but not one that was particularly unpleasant to me. I suspected that if I got to know this man, I might actually grow to like him.

“It would be my pleasure,” the Prince of Brus smiled, perfect white teeth and stunning eyes taking me aback. “Might I offer a toast, Catherine? To the Grand Alliance!”

He raised his cup.

“To old enemies, and new friends,” I replied, touching his glass with mine.

We both drank, and I noted with approval that he did not choke and his eyes did not water. It was always pleasing when a man knew how to hold his liquor. Our glasses touched the table, and the Prince of Brus leaned back.

“I believe,” he said, “that I might have interrupted you. I offer apology, and willing ear.”

I mulled over that a moment, choosing how the subject was to be broached,

“Are you fond of stories, Frederic?” I asked.

“A complicated question,” the Prince of Brus said. “As a boy I would have mocked it, but I have learned better in the years that followed. It would be a lie to speak of like or dislike, perhaps. In the end I take stories to be much like the finest of paintings: a thousand men and women can look at the same and find different sight, yet none of them are entirely right or wrong.”

“Ah,” I mused, “but there lies the power of it all: for a thousand men and women, there was something there to be found.”

“I have known the right truth to give a man wings, Catherine,” Frederic Goethal quietly said. “I do not deny the power of stories.”

“That is comforting to hear,” I said. “Now, if I spoke of intercession to you, would the word mean anything?”

The Grand Alliance was aware of the Wandering Bard, the enigmatic Named that had not joined the Truce and Terms and could not be trusted – I would have had her known as a foe outright, but the Grey Pilgrim had been bitterly opposed. Knowledge of the Intercessor, though, was more sparse. I had shared much of what I knew with Cordelia Hasenbach, and in turn she had shared the insights of the Augur, but I did not know how broadly she had spread that knowledge. Considering Frederic Goethal was both a prince of Procer and Named, though, he struck me as likelier to be warned than most.

“It would,” the man murmured. “Agnes Hasenbach is a woman of deep and painful wisdom, whose word I will not gainsay.”

“Knowing both these things,” I said, “do you understand how a ruler who is Named might sometimes act according to rules that are not the rules of Creation’s shallows?”

I’d asked Vivienne about Prince Frederic Goethal, about his reputation in Procer, before he became Named. He’d garnered some interest from me since he was the only southern royal to have marched his armies north instead of south. The report had mentioned some things that were well-known, like the fact that he was wildly popular among Lycaonese as well as northwestern Alamans and apparently considered to be among the finest warriors and generals in Procer, as well as more discreet truths. He was considered to be one of Cordelia’s fiercest loyalists and had once proposed to her, but within the Highest Assembly and Proceran royalty at large he was considered rather indifferent to politics. He’d survived this long dealing with cutthroat princes though, I thought, so he wouldn’t be slow on the uptake. In the highest reaches of Procer, even standing still required a great deal of cunning.

“The kind of action,” Prince Frederic slowly said, “that an unenlightened observer might consider… harmful to one’s position, I imagine. Yet most sensible according to a different set of rules.”

Gods, but I did enjoy dealing with intelligent allies. It was always a treat not to have to drag people to the right conclusion kicking and screaming.

“I would not want a request for such an action,” I said, “to be taken as having another, baser purpose.”

“I am not blind to the corpses you have left behind you, Queen Catherine,” the Prince of Brus softly said, “or to fell deeds done by your hands. But I also remember the stench on the fields of Aisne, and that men had never needed Below or Tower to make butchery of themselves. I also know that if it is the destruction of Procer that you sought, the most required of you was not to do a thing at all. We are allies, Catherine Foundling. If you need my help, I will do what I can.”

I looked at him steadily and tried not to let out that I was actually rather impressed with the man. After a moment I cleared my throat.

“I’ll be direct, then,” I said. “I need you to break out the Red Axe from where she is currently being held, then protect her from what is coming.”

“And what is it that is coming?” the Kingfisher Prince asked, eyes gone hard as steel.

“I cannot yet name it,” I said, “but I know this: were stand atop a mound of sharpers, and the death of the Red Axe is how the match is struck.”

78 thoughts on “Chapter 19: Spectral

    1. Insanenoodlyguy

      “I cannot yet name it,” I said, “but I know this: we stand atop the rankings of tobwebficiton, and the votes of the dedicated readers is how the slot is kept.”

      Liked by 16 people

  1. Frivolous

    Really good update. Nice and enlightening depictions for the first time of the Harrowed Witch, Aspasie, and again of Frederic, the Kingfisher Prince, who really does seem to be a jolly good fellow. Cat would be difficult to fool at this point, her judgment is pretty good.

    Also I like that Cat has (I believe correctly) deduced that killing the Red Axe is the aim of the Intercessor.

    Liked by 10 people

      1. Frivolous

        Sorry, I thought it went without saying that the Red Axe is not the ultimate goal of the Intercessor, just a way station on the way to the doom of Cat’s hopes and the Age of Order.

        Let me clarify, then: I think the Intercessor’s ultimate goal is to avoid having to learn to navigate an entirely different set of stories than the one she has spent millennia learning, the set of stories typical of the Age of Wonders.

        Cat’s Age of Order (so named by Amadeus) would be very different in terms of the stories it would favor and the ones it would disallow, and the Intercessor would fear and hate that. She’d be rendered at least a little bit irrelevant, because her instincts would be all wrong. Like re-learning to run when the rules of physics you’ve known all your life have changed.

        Liked by 12 people

        1. Sakul_A

          I would even go farther.
          The Intercessor role is to keep the balance of power within the Age of wonder.
          The moment the age of order truly manifests this role will be lost and this would mark the end of the purpose of the Intercessor.
          Cat is in the process of becoming named again and we learned that there is some connection of succession at play.
          It might be possible that under the accords a new name will be born to keep the balance and that Cat might replace the Intercessor.
          So to allow Cat to become Named again she first has to win against the Intercessor. With this the Age of Order wins over the Age of Wonder.

          Liked by 8 people

          1. In this vein, Cat may be being lined up for a mantle of power along the lines of “Arbitrator” instead of “Intercessor”.

            The Intercessor maintained the status quo of the Age of Wonders, while the Arbitrator will establish and enforce the Age of Order.
            Although, as a successor to the Intercessor, the Arbitrator might not be a normal Name as we understand it.

            Liked by 11 people

    1. erebus42

      Frederic seems like an intelligent and reasonable sort which is quite refreshing. His presence is a bit perplexing though. It seems like the work of providence but it would appear to work against WB’s plan. That would seem to imply that two opposing stories were being pushed or at least that an out was provided. But by whom? I was under the impression that while she could nudge things along and broker deals on behalf of the Gods, WB was incapable of working at cross proposes with them. Maybe Frederic is really a hidden ace in the hole for WB. Maybe WB made a miscalculation. Maybe the Gods are just stirring the pot on a whim. I’m sure all will eventually be revealed in appropriately dramatic fashion.

      Liked by 8 people

      1. Consider: what if Bard’s goal is in fact to set Cat up to handle the sharper before it explodes in a worse way without her around?

        Like… come on. The nemesis problem was going to come up INEVITABLY. Bard’s not arranging something that WOULD NEVER HAPPEN WITHOUT HER MEDDLING, here.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. Shveiran

          This pretty much boils down to the old argument of Bard actually being on Cat side. A different take on Tariq’s own speech back in book 5: “the Bard put you to the test, but because you survived that’s proof she thinks you are a good person and thus is on our side”.
          Likewise, the argument here is (simplifying, obviously) that since WB is the mistress of schemes and plots and narrative and Cat has been sailing those winds to victory time and again, doesn’t it make more sense that she is doing with Bard’s help behind the curtains rather than against her will?

          And I mean… it’s not like it is a flawed argument.
          I don’t find it persuasive, but it’s not like there are objectively wrong things in that reasoning. Basically, we know so very little about the Bard for certain, that most theories can make sense if you take a little time explaining all her known actions in the novel so far.

          I’d argue this from a meta point of view, though: would that twist be satisfying?
          Because… honestly… I don’t see how it could ever be.
          Bard’s fingerprints have been all over the story ever since book 3: if it turns out Bard is working against Cat, winning is Cat’s triumph; if Bard is working with Catherine unbeknownst to her, this becomes Bard’s triumph through Cat.
          We know she has been dueling the DK as an equal, if she is on the Alliance’s side… it’s not Catherine’s victory anymore.
          It’s the Bard either finding a good horse or outright breeding one to finally win.

          Maybe, if there were more books coming, I could see your twist working. But now? Even if Bard was to bit it in this narrative arc, that still steals the thunder from everything Cat has achieved so far, and leaves us so very little time for her to step up to the challenge and have a satisfying conclusion.
          I’m sorry, I just don’t see it working from a narrative perspective. It would be so very unsatisfying.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. We’ll just have to see, because I find the narrative of “Bard cannot actually do shit without someone doing all the actual work of their own will” pretty compelling in potentia.

            Like

      2. mamm0nn

        I don’t think providence has been shown to be that absolute, with foresight and complexity. William couldnt be beaten by normal foes and was likely even more protected against Black, back when Cat was destined to be killed by him, but with Tyrants swan song Providence kinda just gathered a lot of Named in one place from which most were not used at all.

        Providence can influence but not completely control, lest you let it. Frederic might be just one of those Named gathered here just to have another playing piece nearby if needed, simply attracted to the weight of events same as Tyrants swan song. Or his intended Role might have just been interrupting a premature fight between Cat and MK, without providence assuring he wiukd leave immediately after.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Frederic seems to have been sent by the Oracle, who is a known ally against Bard’s manipulations. I think he’s meant to be a spoiler for the fight plot — a charismatic, smart hero who even the Mirror Knight will back down for, and who Cat can recruit for “solving the mystery” and the associated parlor scene.

          Liked by 4 people

      3. WealthyAardvark

        In all likelihood he’s here for the all-staff meeting. Everyone is coming, and those who can’t are being scried with the Mirage. Archer and Catherine were merely the first to arrive.

        …It occurs to me that we saw the Repentant Magister and Blessed Artificer mucking about in the depths of the Mirage during the Terms interlude (supposedly having something to do with Cat and Night), but Masego left without doing the inspection he intended to do. I’m suddenly worried that if Cat enters the Mirage there could be disastrous consequences.

        Liked by 5 people

        1. Agent J

          I’ve been eyeing that gun on Chekhov’s wall for some time now. That the Artificer blinded Masego when he came is highly suspicious for a slew of reasons.

          Liked by 6 people

          1. We were already told that because of that action the Artificer is filing a compliant, Cat essentially has a free pass to talk to her now (one on one if need be) and be accusing towards the Artificer’s whole schtick with legitimate cause of items, her attacking her superior unprovoked, etc., without this being illogical or mere Good vs Evil, though quite likely this could be a Bard scheme same as luring Cat into the library just before it getting gassed.

            Liked by 1 person

        2. WealthyAardvark

          Ah, it’s beyond likelihood. I just glanced at the Terms interlude and found this line.

          “Twilight’s Pass sent the Kingfisher Prince to speak in its name, but neither Princes Rozala nor the Iron Prince will be able to make the journey.

          So he does have a legitimate reason to be here. While it’s still possible he is here as part of a scheme, I see no reason to suspect him of anything at the moment.

          Liked by 5 people

    1. JJR

      I wonder if we’re about to see some symmetry breaking in the Above Below dichotomy. Until recently there was only the good/evil axis. Perhaps going forward we get to see a law/chaos axis form.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Fucking Bard.

    And, I think that is likely confirmation (or as close as we’re likely to get) that Frederic was probably sent by Augur to spike Bard’s plots and assist Cat in the maintaining of the Truce and Terms.

    Fucking Bard.

    Liked by 9 people

    1. It would be ironic, but I’m afraid that’s the only thing it has going for it. By either our sotry or (inferred) status in the Guideverse, Red Axe is a bit character who popped out of nowhere to kill another bit character. Which is fine for setting up a trap for Cat, but not remotely in the league for “finally kills off the Eternal Kibitzer after 10,000 years”.

      Liked by 11 people

      1. flashburn283

        That would be the one thing she didn’t see coming, what kind of story is it where a no lines bit part suddenly cuts the knot?

        It’s not a story at all, it is plain old reality coming in and doing what it wants, and the Intercessor has no defense against that.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. RoflCat

          Physical death doesn’t stop Bard, she’ll simply get a new identity each time.

          As much as Severance/Severity has been sitting there like a Chekhov’s Gun for a while now, unless Cath’s punishment for Red Axe is to be a test subject for ‘how to wield the sword made of angry grandma’ I doubt Red Axe will get to use it.

          Also it’d require Cath (or more likely, Frederick here) to somehow convince Red Axe that her being Bard-led into killing her tormentor was a ‘bad’ thing and that she should take revenge for it.

          Liked by 3 people

  3. Isaac Martinez

    “Forced service is always mediocre,” I said. “And I’ve no patience for such things. I’ll use you, I won’t deny that or pretend we are equals, but you will also gain from the use.”

    Do you think that this form of thinking was what gave form to the not-undead when she was the Ice Queen?

    Liked by 7 people

  4. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    and now haunted > that now haunted
    wee long > were long
    right,” she shrugged, “there’s > right”—she shrugged—“there’s
    Queen,” the > Queen.” The
    air, the > air, and the
    corpses’ brow > corpse’s brow
    was I looked > was I looking
    and elicit to instead (something wrong here)
    that I must > that I had to
    about smuggler > about the smuggler
    ben a weight > been a weight
    villainess brow > villainess’s brow
    Archer from the side, finished > Archer, from the side, finished
    “She’d a shady > “She’s a shady
    traitor Cat > traitor, Cat
    if the wasn’t > if there wasn’t
    This fear speaking > This is fear speaking
    wench,” she > wench.” She
    lie,” I > lie.” I
    nicely muscles
    fetch to very crystal > fetch very crystal (also, is very crystal intentional?)
    pleasure,” the > pleasure.” The
    broached, > broached.
    were stand atop > we stand atop

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Okay, so… seriously, Cat? You did not see this coming?

    The poison metaphor is great, but two nemeses being both brought in on the agreement is not exactly an unlikely combination? Like, the king wouldn’t have ever eaten those two things together if the cook hadn’t set it up, but THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN INEVITABLY AT SOME POINT. Bard accelerated the timetable and likely determined the precise time and place of the explosion, but – CAT. WOULD. HAVE. NEEDED. TO. DEAL. WITH. THIS. EITHER. WAY

    JEEZ CATHERINE

    anyway yeah I love how Frederic is awesome and I love how he understands that Catherine is an ally ❤ of course he of all people would ❤
    (also Cat still kind of sucks at subtle, but that might just be me)

    luv this next step of hers, too :3

    Liked by 4 people

    1. hakureireimu

      It became a problem only because it happened in the Arsenal with too many witnesses. Otherwise if the Wicked Enchanter is killed out in the boonies they can just cover it up, assuming they even find out in the first place.

      Liked by 10 people

      1. “Covering it up” is not a long-term solution to a systemic problem. “So what happens if I run into the person I swore to kill” is a legitimate question for heroes to ask upon joining, and “so what happens if I run into the person who swore to kill me” is a legitimate question for villains.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. John

          Truce and Terms are meant as a temporary measure, only needing to last until the Dead King has been dealt with and a de facto unified Calernian government is established. There is no time or money for eternal perfection during an all-out war, and so the adequate fix would normally be to compile a roster of who’s feuding with who, then simply assign them duties within the larger military machine such that they need never interact with each other.

          The longer-term system is likely to tolerate personal vendettas – or at least consider them a local, rather than strategic, concern – so long as they end with a nice tidy duel and maybe some weregild, rather than burning cities or otherwise needlessly endangering innocent bystanders.

          Liked by 5 people

          1. More specifically, the Truce and Terms are really only supposed to last for the duration of the war plus a finite period of time to negotiate a post war order, which will include the Accords.
            And under the Accords, Heroes and Villains can and will be able to go after each other, with some limitations on what they can do and to what extent they can pull non-Named people into disputes between Named.

            That is, the Truce and Terms are intended to keep everyone focused on the Dead King, without needing to worry about getting stabbed in the back by their supposed allies.
            The Truce and Terms aren’t supposed to stop all Named conflicts. They’re just supposed to put them on hold while dealing with the far greater mutual and existential threat that is the Dead King, plus some extra time to allow for negotiations to take place about post war international structures and rules governing post war Named conflict. Plus a degree of trust building measures so that those post war negotiations and the Accords are more viable.

            As a real world analogy, think World War 2 China – the communists and the nationalists mostly stopped fighting each other when the Japanese invaded. They focused their efforts on fighting Japan, until Japan had been defeated, and then postwar negotiations between the communists and nationalists collapsed and the civil war restarted.
            The Truce and Terms are a formalization of a similar truce and de facto alliance against a greater mutual threat, here in the form of the Dead King, and hopefully lay stronger foundations for additional and more successful post war negotiations and agreements.

            The long term, hopefully permanent, Accords cannot, will not, and were never supposed to prohibit all Named conflicts, just put restrictions on them to minimize collateral damage.

            Oh, I’ll grant that if/when Cardinal is established, there’ll probably be strictly enforced rules about Named conflict within its bounds, above and beyond those that apply elsewhere, but there’ll also be a dispute resolution mechanism for those covered by those extra restrictions.

            And, sure, maybe the Accords will include clauses that allow for reactivation of a temporary prohibition on Calernian Named conflict in the event of a major threat to Calernia as a whole.
            But again, that kind of prohibition on Named conflict is always going to be of finite (if not necessarily always pre-, or easily, determined) duration and everybody knows, or should know, that to be the case.

            Liked by 5 people

            1. > The long term, hopefully permanent, Accords cannot, will not, and were never supposed to prohibit all Named conflicts, just put restrictions on them to minimize collateral damage.
              > Oh, I’ll grant that if/when Cardinal is established, there’ll probably be strictly enforced rules about Named conflict within its bounds, above and beyond those that apply elsewhere, but there’ll also be a dispute resolution mechanism for those covered by those extra restrictions.

              The other thing that the Accords will provide is a method and structure for judging cases and deciding who gets to deal with violations.

              E.g., Some lord comes by saying: “The Prasi lord that attacked my land threatened that if I didn’t pay them protection, they’d summon a demon against me…” Somebody needs to check the credibility and truth of the allegation, if upheld then they decide who gets to go and take out the demon-summoner.

              Essentially they’re trying to upgrade things from individual vendettas, to at least the level of vigilance committees.

              Liked by 3 people

          2. > compile a roster of who’s feuding with who, then simply assign them duties within the larger military machine such that they need never interact with each other.

            and is it Intercessor’s fault that they did not do that?

            Like

            1. Shveiran

              Plus, Red Axe is a newcomer and information sharing is still limited with regards to wandering murderous vagrants- I MEAN Bands of Five. Indrani knew about the Wicked Enchanter – Red Axe issue, but she didn’t know that WE would be at the Arsenal.

              This is not a flawed system (or rather, it isn’t a system with a big flaw someone should have seen coming), it’s just a system that has several mobile parts required to deal with the DK and the war, that even when willing to have logistical difficulties talking to each other. Things slip through the crack.

              With that said, the system is just meant to make it easier to put grudges aside.
              When the system fails, it’s not like you are forced to act on it: it is still a choice.

              So we are back to the fact that at the end of the day the Red Axe dropped the ball. I can sympathize with her conundrum, but the moment where she drew her weapon was the one she decided that killing that SOB was more important than the Truce that’s keeping the continent afloat.
              And I don’t know about Heroes, but that is not what a hero does.

              Liked by 2 people

              1. We still don’t know how the confrontation actually went. I don’t DISAGREE with you per se, just that there’s several moving parts in it that might impact the overall estimation of Red Axe’s actions.

                Like

      1. Shveiran

        Yes. Simply imagine it happening in a way that allows Hanno and Cat to discuss the matter and taking action together. It would still be a thorny issue, but far less dangerous.

        Liked by 5 people

          1. If it comes in as a report, that goes right to the Hanno & Cat showmeeting. Routine if regrettable business, optionally with mystery sideplot, but our buddies are ready for it.

            Way different from “Hello–” “Shh! There’s been a murder. Come around the back way.” “HALT MISCREANTS!” “Who are you calling miscreants, barging in here like that?” “Ahem. What’s all this then?” 😉

            Liked by 2 people

            1. Just… I am not sure this would actually go better as a report to Cat&Hanno. Going to be like ‘so a hero killed a villain and then everyone else killed each other and the place burned down despite being made of stone. sorry’

              Liked by 1 person

              1. The point is,that wouldn’t be a story in itself, it would basically be “sling and arrows of outrageous fate”, sent to divert Cat’s attention from the main fight, or at least open a new front (and we’re late in the game for that).

                But this is in fact her story, so instead, it kicks off just when she shows up, for her to deal with in realtime, not just investigate in retrospect.

                Liked by 2 people

              2. Shveiran

                I’m with Mental Mouse. This happening here and now has momentum, a gang of fanatical heroes serendipitously appearing on the scene “to prevent a murder that has just been even considered”, the presence of the creator of the T&T, secret investigations over Fantasy-Manhattan project, and an incoming gathering of the bigwigs.

                Without all this?
                What gets to C&H table is not the report of a mass murder that destroyed the Arsenal, but rather a breach of Terms with a body on the floor.
                That ends with a “You broke the Terms and killed an ally; is there something we can do to make you more comfortable before executing you?” talk, and even the fanatical heroes are stuck arguing with the Blade of Judgment over what is right rather than accusing the former Archeretic of the East.

                Really not quite the same.

                Like

    2. It seems less like she didn’t see the nemesis thing coming at all, and more that she didn’t predict the extremes of it. Another aspect of the story: if the mushrooms and mead had been mixed before the king ate them, it wouldn’t have been a problem, because the goblet would have lit up to indicate the poison. Similarly, most of the time, nemeses could have been kept apart or convinced not to kill each other until the fight with the Dead King is over, but having such utter scum as the Wicked Enchanter run into a heroine who witnessed and may have been personally victimized by him, with no preparation, in an area full of named where the conflicts would be less expected to turn violent (after all, combat named like the Red Axe, who would usually be the type to swear vengeance, would generally be expected to show up at the war camps, not the Arsenal) is an unexpected problem. I can legitimately see the idea of nemeses itself coming up as a “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” problem for the Terms, only to arrive at the bridge and see that it’s already on fire with a pack of monsters on the other side and more coming up behind you.

      Liked by 6 people

        1. Fair point, though I would argue that while Bard’s involvement isn’t necessary to make a mess of this, it most likely would have been much less of a mess without WB. The thing I personally find most unbelievable about this scenario isn’t that the Terms as written didn’t include a measure for this particular situation, but rather that this hasn’t come up in the whole, what, two or three years thus far since the agreement was signed. Like, getting longstanding enemies with a variety of viewpoints and cultures working together is always going to be difficult, and I could easily see this being something that came up at the negotiating table only to have a pin put in it due to disagreements over how it should be handled threatening to derail the talks; “we’ll work something out for this when it’s not getting in the way of working everything else out,” or something along those lines. After all, even without the difficulties mentioned above, they were on a deadline for the fight with the Dead King resuming. But nemeses never killing or trying to kill each other this whole time seems very far-fetched to me. That might just be that EE didn’t think about it (they tend to catch most important details, but nobody’s perfect), but I can also see it being meant to imply that they had some sort of workaround that kept problems to a minimum until now. Or, alternatively, the Truce and Terms might actually be a very bare-bones agreement with provisions for frequent amendments; that would actually fit well with their role as a prototype for the final Accords, as a good way to prototype is to start as simple as possible, then figure out solutions to problems as they come up, and once the rate of new problems has slowed you go back, refine everything, and integrate the various solutions with each other so the final product isn’t a cobbled-together mess. I don’t think that’s actually what’s going on here, because I’ve gotten the impression that the Truce and the Terms are pretty in-depth, but I couldn’t make a citation to back that impression up, so it could be an option. Or you could be right and Cat actually just didn’t think about it. Wouldn’t match well with how thorough she was being about the Accords, but everyone has dumb moments

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I honestly get the impression it’s bare bones yeah.

            And honestly the fact nothing blew up until Cat went to the Arsenal for some downtime is part of what is suggesting to me that Bard is helping, here. As in, is actually being helpful from the sidelines.

            Liked by 2 people

            1. That does make a lot of sense. I mean, the Bard has been fighting DK longer than anyone, and if I’m remembering correctly, he got something he could use against her when he was controlling Masego, so this could be her attempt to rebalance the scales.

              Liked by 2 people

              1. ninegardens

                And then we found out WB had spent the last two years preventing this pot from boiling over, and finally got sick of it and was like “Fine, we’ll boil it over when Cat is there to clean up the bloody mess…. now who deserves an execution this week?”

                Like

  6. It really does feel like Frederic is here as an outsider to the current story, but not necessarily in a forced way. My best guess is that he was sent by someone like Augur to be a disruptive influence. He’s cunning and informed enough that he could possibly have seen around a story even Cat might have missed, heroic and noble enough to have beneficial if sometimes unpredictable reactions to events, and even handsome enough to play passive spoiler to any honey pots the Bard might set (like the Repentant Magister, say). While I don’t necessarily hate the story it seems Cat’s being goaded towards, it’s still very likely a story of the Bard’s construction, and therefore very unlikely to be good for Cat’s health.

    Liked by 7 people

  7. Captain Amazing

    Hanno doesn’t judge. He is the designated arbiter for the heroes and. He. Does. Not. Judge. The villains can only view this as a betrayal, especially with the Mirror Knight running around saying she must be spared. The Red Axe isn’t meant to die at all. She’s meant to live. I think Red has to be convinced into a heroic sacrifice against that bridge Neshamah is building. Along with maybe the Bard’s mole if they’re a hero. Possibly the Poet, considering the circumstances of their arrival? Anyway, if Catherine says something about wastefulness the villains will be appeased. Execution by heroic sacrifice bites against the heroes too. The heroes would also be fine as she voluntarily went there and so obviously wasn’t executed.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Shveiran

    “I am not blind to the corpses you have left behind you, Queen Catherine,” the Prince of Brus softly said, “or to fell deeds done by your hands. But I also remember the stench on the fields of Aisne, and that men had never needed Below or Tower to make butchery of themselves. I also know that if it is the destruction of Procer that you sought, the most required of you was not to do a thing at all. We are allies, Catherine Foundling. If you need my help, I will do what I can.”

    Finally.

    Finally, FINALLY, FI-NA-LLY, Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinally, fiNAlly, F.I.N.A.L.L.Y, finally, finally, FINALLY.

    Fuck.

    I mean, I think I’ve been waiting 4 Books for this. Possibly 5, and maybe even 6.

    Was that too hard, godsdamnit? Was this too high a bar to clear? WAS IT? WAS IT REALLY???

    I’m good now.
    Thank you, Frederic, for cleaning up after all the other imbecilles in your team. That would be all, I believe, take the day off and enjoy the aragh. Your job is done.

    Liked by 10 people

      1. Shveiran

        It is. Because I ship Frederic with myself and I will not tolerate rivals.
        I will absolutely write awful self-insert fan-fiction if need be.

        Eh, who am I kidding? I already have.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. So…, after the war’s over she could retire up north with him, close to her Drow and far enough from Callow to still qualify as The Queen Under The Mountain Up North. Maybe even produce an Offspring of Doom or two. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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