“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?”
“Julien 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.”
“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?”
“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.”