“Fate is not the river but the fisherman: run wild as you will, it will reel you in before the end.”
– Queen Edda Norland of Summerholm, shortly before the surrender of her crown to House Alban
I was a city girl at heart so hunting had never been something I thought all that fondly of.
Not that I hated it, either. Out in the country, away from walls and merchants, a good stag or a few geese were a good way for my people to feed their families. One that’d become increasingly common after the Conquest, actually: with the removal of most nobles in the kingdom, there were no longer great forests and fields reserved for the sole hunting right of aristocrats. The Empire had required a yearly fee in silver for the right to hunt in a governor’s jurisdiction, but otherwise been largely indifferent to the practice. I’d maintained the policy, and why wouldn’t I? It was a good way for my subjects to put meat on the table, especially those who might not have otherwise been able to afford it. But that’d been in the country, not in Laure.
There hunting had been a leisurely pursuit for the wealthy and the noble, practiced by great trains of riders and multiple packs of hounds. Sometimes the animals being hunted were not even edible: by ancient law foxes could not be hunted for sport in Callow, but wolves and bears could and frequently were. It’d been a great deal of pageantry and gold pissed away on reminding people that even under the rule of the Dread Empire the rich and highborn were still important and worthy of awe. The coin would have been better spent ensuring that the basins the street drains emptied in near Nelly’s Alley didn’t fill up after rain and so end up becoming an open-air sewer that stank up a good dozen city blocks like you wouldn’t believe come summer sun, in my humble opinion, but what the Hells did I know?
I’d had them properly dug anew and done during my first year as queen, even though Ratface had howled about the costs.
Still, general distaste for the spectacle or not it’d been impossible not to pick up a few things about hunting being born in Callow. It wasn’t as simple business as riding a swift horse after a stag and running it down with a spear, else highborn would not get to be so bloody pretentious about the whole thing. You had to tire out the beast, set dogs after it so it’d run itself to exhaustion. Only when it was on the edge of collapse would it turn and fight, antlers down as fear turned to despair, and only then was the kill to be made. If the nobles had gone after the stag themselves from the start, their horses would have tired out long before the stag would. I was after a beast of my own, here in the Arsenal, so I’d used a method not so dissimilar to that of my countrymen: to get the enemy running, I’d sent out a pack of baying hounds.
The Mirror Knight’s band was even now chasing down a conspiracy to bring it into the light, though perhaps not the conspiracy they believed they were. They were a cacophonous bunch, but for all that I believed they’d be able to shake something loose. They certainly had the power and numbers for it: four heroes and the Maddened Keeper, with Adjutant to keep an eye on them and ensure they did not end up misusing the authority I’d granted them. They’d begun their investigation with the Hunted Magician who, all things aside, we could all agree was a shifty fellow. Whether or not he’d been up to any sort of wickedness was not of too great import, as far as I was concerned: more crucial was that the heroes would be seen digging, and word would soon after spread it was with my blessing. There was someone in the Arsenal with something to hide, and ruby to piglets that little tale would get them moving. With such fine hounds out in the woods someone’s never was going to crack, and they’d want to make sure their tracks were covered.
Following them should neatly reveal exactly what it was that was being covered up.
Mind you, the hand behind the opposition was not some ingrate prince with more greed than sense or a heroine fresh off her first nemesis’ death and looking to sink her teeth into another victory: it was the Intercessor pulling the strings here. Just because she’d already struck blows didn’t mean she was going to stop hitting me below the belt. If anything, it’d be the opposite. So I had to see to my own defences, which meant keeping the goblinfire away from any open flames. The Red Axe was a natural target there but seeing to her protection myself would make me directly involved in her death if it happened, which would be considerably worse than her simply dying. No, someone else needed to be charged with that else I was running into the risk that my personal involvement had been the desired object from the start.
The Kingfisher Prince was of high rank, popular with heroes and his word would mean a great deal to the likes of the Mirror Knight if he vouched for me. That he’d been demonstrably competent and receptive to the concept of the manner of war being fought over the Arsenal had sold me on the notion for good, and so off he went to sae the Red Axe with a signed set of orders from me granting him permission to do so under the Terms. Gods help him, mine and maybe even Above if they were to share a win instead of pissing in the communal porridge bowl out of principle.
Now, it wouldn’t be enough to simply wait and see now that the hunt had been sounded. Which was why Archer was hitting up her old acquaintance the Concocter for answers, a conversation that should end up with the latter spitting out a part of the Wandering Bard’s design here. It had to have been a long-term scheme, I figured: the Red Axe and the Wicked Enchanter had been tools of opportunity, but the tools to use them had already been in place. The smuggling, the precise timing used to guide the Enchanter onto the path of the heroine that’d kill him? That’d been arranged long before, one of no doubt many levers to nudge along the happenings within the Arsenal. After that it was just a matter of the Intercessor getting the right Named close enough, and she could get it all to begin rolling downhill.
The Concocter wouldn’t know the whole web, I was aware of that: there should be at least one outright accomplice to the Bard in here, as well as several agents unwitting and not. But by dragging into the light what she knew, I could get a glimpse of what the levers were meant to accomplish. And once I knew that, well, I could smash the Intercessor’s game to pieces with a sledgehammer and force her to swallow the broken shards with a smile. So there we were, I’d considered after the Kingfisher Prince had set off. The Mirror Knight’s band were out there turning over primarily – one hoped, at least – stones, Archer was finding me a thread to tug at so the net might unravel and the charming Prince Frederic was making sure this wasn’t about to violently turn on me.
Now, the Bard would see those stories in motion same as I did. The question was: if I was her, where would I strike at?
Setting the Mirror Knight after the Kingfisher would have been obvious, except my little letter and Frederic being trusted had cut that disaster off before it could start looming. The Concocter wasn’t officially one of mine, but with what Indrani had told me about her I could easily unmake any attempt to claim that ‘the Black Queen’s agent was persecuting a heroine’. The Mirror Knight’s band could be tricked I figured, even with Hakram keeping an eye on them, but there wasn’t a lot that could physically threaten them. At this point I’d be willing to let them encounter an early setback without intervening, anyway, since that should ensure they later brutally crushed whoever had beat them this early in the pattern.
My trouble, right now, was that I could not see an easy way the arrows I’d loosed could be made to swerve. Out in the open the Intercessor couldn’t beat me, because even if I was distrusted I was still recognized. A figure of authority, backed by other figures of authority. Yet Archer should be unearthing part of her machinations where I’d sent her, and using violence to prevent her of doing that would reveal part of the machinations as well: whoever struck at Indrani would be one of the Bard’s trusted hands, and pumping them for information would be even more useful than shaking some insights out of the Concocter. There probably were ways to beat my hand, but I didn’t know what they were and that meant I couldn’t prepare for them. Or, at least, prepare in specific.
There was going to be an answer, and I would have to react to it. While I could not prepare for the specifics for the unknown, I could prepare for the unknown. Practically speaking, that meant assembling a team to handle whatever came crawling out of the woodworks on the Intercessor’s behalf. Calling back anybody I’d sent out would be a mistake, unmaking the story they were playing out, which meant if I was to gather some sort of bastard band of five I’d need to pick from the rest of the Arsenal’s Named. Four comrades, huh? I could do that. First, I’d naturally needed a trusted second.
Thankfully I had a spare lying around.
“I’ve just had to put out a library fire,” Roland of Beaumarais, also known as the Rogue Sorcerer, mildly told me as he washed his hands free of ash. “I don’t suppose you’d know anything about that?”
“I know lots of things, Roland,” I vaguely replied.
His hands left the now-clouded water of the basin and he methodically dried them with a cloth.
“Books, Catherine?” he said, sounding agonized. “Castles, armies, ancient architectural wonders, I can make my peace with them all. But books, Catherine? A line has to be drawn somewhere.”
“If such a thing had been done, it would not have been done lightly,” I said.
“You haven’t even been here a whole day,” he complained.
Actually, I mused, this could also work.
“You’re right,” I said. “I’m a reckless, dangerous woman who’ll do anything to win.”
He cocked his head to the side.
“Have you been drinking?” he asked.
Well, yes. But that was not related to this. I decided, for the sake of tactics, to ignore his rejoinder.
“Which is why you should come with me,” I said. “Be the voice of reason, keep me out of trouble. Prevent me from burning more libraries.”
A beat passed.
“Not that I’ve done that,” I added.
Another beat passed.
“But hey, the day’s young,” I added with a hopeful smile.
He twitched a little. Still, under the harried exterior I could see something sharpen in his eyes. The understanding that none of this was as casual as it looked, or without calculation.
“The way Archer tells it, your last designated voice of reason once stole the entire sun,” Roland said.
“She’s still complaining we never got to pawn that off, isn’t she?” I sighed.
“I expect sooner or later the litany will be put to verse,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “Still, large boots to fill.”
“I’ve nothing else planned for the day, however,” he said. “So I supposed I might as well.”
“That’s exactly the kind of spirit I’m looking for,” I said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Come, Roland, we have an important task ahead of us.”
He shot me a steady look.
“I don’t suppose you could tell me a little more, that I might equip myself accordingly?” he asked.
I hummed, then thoughtfully clasped my chin.
“We’re going to cram as many potential traitors as possible into a band of five, then dabble into some stirring heroics,” I replied.
“Ah,” Roland of Beaumarais nonchalantly said. “We’ll have to take a detour through the Workshop, then. It’s where I keep my war artefacts.”
Good man, I thought, and smiled.
“Her name is Adanna,” Roland said as we walked, “and she was born, as she tells it, in Smyrna.”
“It’s got roots in Mtethwa,” I noted. “Not a common Soninke name, though. You said she’s highborn?”
“She certainly behaves like it,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “Though there is a distinct Ashuran bent to her manners.”
“What colour are her eyes?” I asked.
“Golden,” he replied. “It is quite unusual, even for a Chosen.”
I let out a low whistle.
“That’s not just highborn, that’s from one of the old lines,” I said.
Born in Smyrna, was she? It was one of the two cities of the Thalassocracy of Ashur, its capital. Hells, that must have been quite the tale. It would have been a point of pride for the Wasteland family they’d fled to have them assassinated, and old families like that tended to have a few grimoires’ worth of nasty tricks to pull.
“She’s made her disaster for the Dread Empire and all those who dwell within it quite clear,” Roland said. “It has been one of the reasons she so frequently clashes with Hierophant.”
Which was why Masego wouldn’t be part of this band, among other things. I also wanted him free to be a source of knowledge and wisdom for any of the three stories I’d loosed, which he couldn’t be if I was dragging him along for mine.
“Hierophant’s not here,” I said. “And she requested an audience with me, you said. We can have words as we move.”
“I expect that was not quit what she wished for,” Roland said, “but regardless, here we are.”
That last part had not been an outburst of fatalism on the Blessed Artificer’s behalf but instead Roland informing me we’d reached the Artificer’s quarters in the Workshop. We’d already picked up the Rogue Sorcerer’s artefacts, which were now stuffing his pockets and sleeves, and it’d not been a long walk from there. The bare stone hallways here were little different than anywhere else in the Arsenal, and though I would have enjoyed visiting the great workshops of the Workshop – birthplace of wonders that it was – there was no time for sightseeing. Instead we found ourselves in front of a neat wooden door, and without ceremony I knocked against it with my staff a few times. Mere moments later it was wrenched open to my surprise.
“I’ve told you already, I won’t-”
Adanna of Smyrna, wearing small spectacles over her golden eyes and garbed in clothes I would have expected more of some kindly toymaker than a powerful Named, was visibly taken aback when she realized who it was standing at her door. Realizing that the Rogue Sorcerer was at my side did nothing to help he confusion.
“Good evening,” I said. “I see that look on your face means I won’t have to bother with introductions, Blessed Artificer.”
“I am, yes,” the dark-skinned woman said. “I know of you, Black Queen. And Roland as well.”
“Splendid,” I said. “I’ve need of your services for a bit, as it happens. I’ll give you a moment to change and equip yourself.”
“Equip myself?” the Blessed Artificer blinked. “For what?”
“Trouble,” I vaguely said.
Yeah, looking more closely at her she had that highborn look down to the bone: quite literally, as those high cheekbones were one of those telltale marks of Soninke nobility. This Adanna of Smyrna had not quite inherited the inhuman good looks of Wasteland aristocracy, though she was far form ugly. I supposed having met Malicia in person and spent years in Akua’s presence had rather skewed my standards when it came to beauty, anyway. She’d definitely not inherited the Wasteland social schooling, anyhow, as it took her a full three heartbeats before she recovered from the onrush of surprises.
“I do not recall agreeing to lend you my aid, Black Queen,” the Artificer said, chin rising. “And if you believe that the Rogue Sorcerer’s presence will be enough to bully me-”
“I do believe you’ve just indirectly called me a tool,” Roland noted, though he sounded rather good-humoured about it.
“- into compliance then I assure you, you are sorely mistaken,” the heroine finished.
She had that look about her, like a cat ready to hiss the moment a hand was extended, but then that in the first place she’d assume I would need Roland to bully anyone told me exactly how I needed to handle her.
“Please lend me your aid,” I bluntly asked.
Ah, so she had been taught to hide her emotions some. She wasn’t great at it – Gods, but they would have eaten her alive in Praes – but she did smooth out her surprise after a moment.
“It is for a noble purpose,” Roland told her.
Noble might be a bit of a stretch, I mused, but did not contradict him.
“And you requested an audience, as I recall,” I said. “We can see to some of that as we walk.”
The golden-eyed Named hesitated.
“What is it you require of me, exactly?” she asked.
Gotcha, I smiled.
In what I hesitated to call a stroke of luck, given the amount of Named in the Arsenal, the last two Named I’d decided on were in the same place.
“You know I respect your judgement a great deal,” Roland murmured, leaning towards me.
“People only ever say that sentence with a but implied,” I said.
He shrugged, not denying me.
“This seems like it will make a terrible band of five,” the Rogue Sorcerer assessed.
“Yes,” I grinned, “just genuinely terrible, wouldn’t it be?”
He cursed under his breath in what I recognized to be tradertalk.
“Last time I saw you that savagely enthusiastic, I was thrown off a balcony,” he complained.
“If a villain throws you off it, it’s really more of a cliff,” I said, echoing an old foe.
One who’d deserved both better and worse than what she’d got, but that’d been the lesson of the Proceran campaign hadn’t it? That I was not facing righteous steel things glinting of Light but people of flesh and blood, with all the complexities of character that implied. Though we’d been quiet in our little talk, we’d not been that quiet: the Blessed Artificer overheard, and was not shy in offering up her own assessments.
“One’s useless, the other is drunk and useless,” Adanna of Smyrna said.
Well, I couldn’t deny the drunk part at least. The Arsenal held within its walls hundreds of people, who while they might not have been forced to come here had not been aware of exactly how long or where they would be. Given the concerns about the Dead King’s inevitable interest in this place and the fact that relative secrecy was the Arsenal’s best defence, we’d known form the beginning that people would only rarely be able to leave once they’d been brought into the fold. As a consequence, aside from what had been tacked onto the seat of Grand Alliance’s research and artifact-crafting to fill its secondary role as a communication relay for rulers and high officers, thought had been given to the entertainment of all the men and women we’d cram into here possible for years on end.
That was the niche the Frolic was meant to fill, in essence. Accessible only through the central halls of the Knot – as well as a discreet tunnel coming from the Alcazar – that part of the Arsenal had been built as a sort of ring made up of diversions. One section was essentially a sprawling tavern, another a private little brothel, a gaudy strip was a gambling house and there’d even been a fighting pit tacked on. Callowans and Procerans were fond of dogfights, but the more exotic beasts Levantines liked to throw into pits had been deemed too expensive and dangerous for consideration. Duels and brawls, though, were allowed. Only to first blood and with healers in attendance, but a few hundred people could not be squeezed in tight between walls for years without some fighting erupting.
Better to give a clear and controlled outlet for that strife than let it erupt out of sight, where there’d be no healers waiting.
What I was looking at, though, was not anger being settled with first blood. It was a crowd of maybe half a hundred cheering at one of the sloppiest fistfights I’d ever seen. The part of me that remembered fighting for coin in another pit was almost offended by how fucking terrible these people – these Named! – were at hand-to-hand combat. The three of us stood in the shadows of the entrance hall, looking down at the fighting pit and the rafter above it, and let the sound wash over us.
“Fallen,” the crowd howled. “Fallen, Fallen, Fallen.”
The Fallen Monk was one of Indrani’s band, and one of the villains on our rolls that heroes tended to react the most violent to. That was not because his sins were so great compared to the rest of Below’s lot, but because once upon a time he’d instead been known as the Merry Monk. A Proceran hero from their southern lands, whose very public fall from grace had been the talk of Salamans for year: it wasn’t every day someone force-fed one of the Holies until her belly literally burst. Archer counted him as better at sneaking around than Vivienne had been back in the day, and good as a bloodhound when something needed to be found in a town. When it came to fighting, though, aside from being able to take some punishment and being quite useful against Light-users she’d never considered him anything all that special for a Named.
Fortunately for the overweight and very clearly drunk middle-aged man in cloth robes, his opponent was even worse a brawler.
The Exalted Poet’s face paint, which had been a neat affair of black and red when I first saw him today, and since been damaged by a purpling black eye and an amount of sand that really could only have come from having his entire face shoved into it. His lack of shirt made it clear that they made them muscled in the Dominion, but for all that he was built like a warrior he certainly wasn’t performing like one: the punch he threw at the Fallen Monk’s face was met with a mirror on the other side, the two of them rocking back when they hit each other. The Monk stayed up though, if rocking on his feet, while the Poet took a dive and had to hastily push off the sandy ground of the fighting circle before he could get kicked in the ribs by the fat fallen priest. By the amount of empty bottles the audience had carelessly left around in the stands, they must have been at this for some time now.
“It is written in the Book of All Things,” the Fallen Monk shouted red-cheeked for the audience, “that those who are worthy of the love of the Heavens will be blessed with their golden love. Bless me, you mighty asses!”
The watchers cheered on, and someone threw a wineskin at the villain for what was evidently not the first time this afternoon. The former priest guzzled down what looked like some pale wine, even as the Exalted Poet got back on his feet and charged – even when tackled in the belly, the Monk kept drinking as he went down.
“They are perfect,” I solemnly announced. “Exactly what I was looking for.”
“It cannot be that hard to find a fool and an idiot,” the Blessed Artificer replied.
“The Monk has a body count of over a hundred, as I hear it,” Roland noted. “Though I suspect close quarters were not involved.”
Actually, the more I watched those two the less I was convinced that he was right. Sure, the Monk stumbled around a lot and got tackled and took punches. Yet, almost as if by happenstance, never at an angle that’d hurt him much: bruises might ensue, but little more. Either was damned good at taking hits, or he was a better fighter than what he was letting on here.
“If I fetch them myself, Black Queen, can we then proceed to more important matters?” the Blessed Artificer asked me. “You have yet to hear the complaint I mean to lodge.”
Somehow, I suspected that if I let her handle that we’d not have five Named up here but three down there. Roland suddenly stiffened, which caught my attention, and he discreetly gestured to our common right – though somewhat behind me. Up there, sitting on a bench and leaning back against the wall, another Named was reading a book. Sallow-skinned and thin-haired, the Sinister Physician had always looked to me like the last person you’d ever want to let cut you open. His skills as a healer were beyond dispute, though, if not his occasional indulgence in taking vitality or souls as payment or even his clear obsession with immortality.
“They’ve observed the rules, then,” I murmured at Roland. “They’re meant to have a healer at hand.”
I saw no need to seek the other villain out, as it happened. I’d not come for him. But that he was here, though, was interesting: at the very least, it meant he wasn’t elsewhere. At first glance anyway.
“Check if it’s an illusion,” I told the Rogue Sorcerer. “Discreetly.”
“You are ignoring me, Black Queen,” the Blessed Artificer impatiently said. “If that is all you sought me out for-”
“I’ll see to it myself, Artificer,” I replied.
Her open irritation I didn’t particularly care about, or even the threat to leave she’d obviously been building up to. I knew an empty threat when I heard one: for all that the heroine at the very least disliked me and had some axes to grind with Roland, she was too curious about where this was headed to leave now. I’d not missed her constant not-quite-subtle glances at my staff, either. While it was my understanding that Light and miracles where her wheelhouse and the length of yew I’d retrieved from the heart of Twilight after its birth was not exactly either, neither was it simply a staff. And as there was no sorcery at the heart of that difference, perhaps her interest in that undefined otherness should have been expected. A halfway clever Named could to a lot, with the undefined.
“So?” I pressed the Rogue Sorcerer.
He released what he’d been clutching in one of his pockets, breathing out.
“Not an illusion,” he confirmed.
Good, that was one more Named accounted for. Time for me to get bring in our last two comrades, then. The audience that’d been cheering for the two brawling Named all the while had not noticed the three of us, as we’d stayed in the shadows of the hall, but when I began to limp down the stairs a few caught sight of me. My face might not have been all that recognizable, but even this bare a crown and the Mantle of Woe were enough for exclamations of Black Queen to shiver through the crowd. I ignored the attention and made my way to the edge of the pit, looking down at the two Named whose brawling had ceased when silence spread. I flicked a look at the people up here.
“Dismissed,” I said, voice ringing.
Not one argued otherwise, and they filed out with a rather subdued mood hanging over them. Of the two Named below, only the Exalted Poet looked embarrassed at having been caught slugging it out in the sand with a stranger.
“Your Majesty,” the Fallen Monk jovially greeted me, his Lower Miezan crisp and perfect, “a pleasure to meet you in person.”
He raised a wineskin, not even the same one I’d seen thrown at him earlier.
“I hear from a common friend you’re partial to the pales, so it would be my honour to surrender this triumphant bounty to you,” he continued.
“Tempting,” I said, “but I’ve had enough to drink for a while. I’m here to inform you that Archer has lost you to me at cards.”
The middle-aged man cocked an almost incongruously delicate eyebrow.
“On a good hand at least, I hope,” he said.
“Half a good hand,” I said, then added, “seen double.”
That startled a laugh out of him.
“I am in your service for the day, then,” the Fallen Monk bowed, adroit for all his impressive girth. “Though I cannot think of what you might require an old priest like me for.”
“You’d be surprised,” I said, and turned my stare to the Exalted Poet.
Sadly enough, he’d put a shirt on again. He bowed very graciously, though, so I’d allow it.
“We meet again, Black Queen,” the Levantine hero said.
Yeah, that voice was still like getting honey poured in my ear – and drawing on Night just the slightest bit ensured there was no sorcery adding on to the impression this time.
“So we do,” I replied. “As it happens, our common acquaintance the Monk was not the only man I am here to look for. I’ve a need for your particular skills.”
“Indeed?” the Poet replied, sounding surprised. “I am most flattered, Honoured Queen, yet also befuddled. What is it you might need them for?”
I reached for my pipe, in the inner pockets of my cloak, and took it in hand while I went fishing for a packet of wakeleaf. I was about to tear it open, when a tremor went through the Arsenal. A second happened a moment later, stronger, and I felt the very stone around us shiver. You horrid wench, I thought towards the Bard, you could have waited until I actually lit the damned pipe.
“Don’t you hate it when a question answers itself?” I said, matching the Exalted Poet’s eyes.
I had my answer about how it was the Intercessor would avoid the story arrows I’d loosed at her, at least.
If you couldn’t move the arrows, I supposed instead you could move everything else.