“Turn back, Emperor, for if you venture further west the sole stretch of land you’ll have of me will be six feet long and three feet deep.”
– King Jehan the Wise, before the famous Battle of the Sparrows
I tapped the side of my pipe, seeding flame, and drew in a long breath of wakeleaf.
It was a good gambit, I decided as the Arsenal shuddered again. Shuddered like a wall taking trebuchet fire, like a gate being touched by the ram: someone, something was trying to force its way in. An obvious outside threat would draw in the Mirror Knight and his lot like a moth to the flame, and in the ensuing chaos a move could be made against either Archer or the Kingfisher Prince. Hells, if the mess got big enough a ruthless schemer like the Intercessor might just be intending to tie up all her loose ends through casualties. My choices in giving answer were limited, each an opportunity I could not easily discard. Fighting at the Mirror Knight’s side now might earn trust I’d need down the line, but intercepting enemy action headed for Archer or Prince Frederic would pay greater and more immediate dividends. I breathed out the smoke and offered a calm glance at the Named assembled around me before turning to the side.
“Sinister Physician,” I called out.
The man had closed his book and risen to his feet the moment the first shiver went through the stone around us, but aside from a small bow to me he’d shown no interest in being involved with this situation.
“My queen,” the villain replied, turning and indifferent gaze on me. “How my I serve?”
“Head out to the Knot and prepare to receive wounded,” I ordered. “Set up a temporary infirmary. You have my full backing to requisition whatever you might need.”
A glint of interest appeared at that, though not particularly deep. Still, unpleasant as the man was he’d be able to handle this without trouble. The Knot was the centre of the Arsenal, a mess of winding hallways, but it would have the benefits of being accessible no matter where the enemy struck from and being some distance from the fighting itself: it struck me as the best location to set up our healers.
“It shall be done,” the Sinister Physician said. “If I might take my leave?”
“Do,” I replied. “As for the rest of you, we’ll be headed elsewhere.”
So, should I see to the front door or the back? I mused. Either way I’d be taking a risk. Hells, given who I was up against it might be that there was simply no good decision to be made here. Perhaps instead of thinking in terms of avoiding mistakes, I should be thinking in term of picking the mistake whose consequences I could deal with more ably. No, that was still playing the Bard’s game. Getting stuck in a story, digging in my heels. A defensive mindset would inevitably lead to my loss when facing an opponent whose understanding of the terrain was superior to my own. I’d already sent out Archer and the Kingfisher Prince, I must now trust in their skills. Where could I attack?
“A defence must be organized,” the Blessed Artificer seriously said.
“Catherine?” Roland asked, eyes meeting mine.
He’d always been a sharp one. He must suspect by now we were fighting on more than one front and that I’d gathered this band of five as much to make sure it wasn’t out of my sight as to make us of it. Which means heading into a fight wouldn’t necessarily be the best move, I thought, but then breathed in sharply. Not, I corrected myself, it absolutely would be the best move. Sure, as a fighting band we’d be highly dysfunctional at best: both the Exalted Poet and the Fallen Monk would be better against people than the sort of things we were likely to face, and the Blessed Artificer wasn’t a frontline Named. Furthermore, while the Rogue Sorcerer and I were both forces to reckon with, neither of us were in the habit of being in the thick of it these days. We’d grown used to relying on martial Names to take the frontline. But that only mattered if the objective of the fight was victory, which it wouldn’t be here.
If any of these people had served or were serving as agents of the Intercessor, given the stories we had unfolding they were likely to be very difficult to kill even when by common sense they should be thrice-dead and buried. Creation would nudge things to help them might survive, so that in the last act of the play they could be unmasked by the triumphant heroes. The quickest way to ferret out an answer, I thought, would actually be taking this bunch into a fight far beyond what such a purposefully shoddy band of five would be able to handle. Good, I mused as I breathed in wakleaf and smiled, that meant I could attack and defend with the same stroke. I spat out the smoke, Roland batting it away so it wouldn’t linger near his face.
“This is a distraction,” I said. “We need to intercept the enemy before they get what they came for. Roland, which would you believe the most likely target for destruction among our potential war assets?”
“Either the Severance or that one theoretical exercise,” the Rogue Sorcerer said after a beat. “I’ll add that the former is significantly better defended.”
So either the weapon that might possibly end the Dead King or the first steps of Quartered Seasons. The aspect I’d taken out of the Saint of Swords’ corpse and which had since been forged into a sword was unique, and thus would be irreplaceable if lost. The other was technically recoverable, since while losing Masego’s set up here in the Arsenal would set us back some months the truly important part was the surveying artefacts we’d seeded across several realms. It’d be a pain to re-establish connections with those again, but hardly impossible. Of those two tools it was my opinion that only Quartered Seasons’ ultimate results would feasibly be able to harm the Intercessor, but that didn’t necessarily meant that was what she’d be going for. The Dead King had implied, back at the conference in Salia, that some aspect of the Intercessor’s plans hinged on the corpse of Judgement the Procerans had dredged up being used.
I’d worked on Hasenbach enough that I knew she’d not pull that trigger without having no other option left, so I had to wonder if that was the Bard’s game: peeling away every other alternative, until that was left was oblivion’s approach and a finger on the trigger.
“The sword is in the Repository,” I said. “The other is…”
“Belfry,” Roland said.
Masego’s quarters in that part of the Arsenal, then. He’d never quite understood why anyone would separate their life from their work, as he saw little difference between the two.
“And for those of us slower to catch on,” the Fallen Monk cheerfully said, “might an explanation be provided?”
The Exalted Poet cleared his throat in support.
“Please,” he politely added.
“Isn’t it obvious?” the Blessed Artificer sighed. “They believe someone’s making a grab for the most dangerous projects in the Arsenal: the Severity and the Hierophant’s own private research.”
Wait, had she called the sword the Severity? From what Roland had said, I’d thought it was the Severance. Didn’t matter, I decided. Especially not given what she was trying to pull here.
“That research is secret by the order of more crowns than any of you can afford to defy,” I mildly said. “Do have a care about those loose lips, Artificer.”
“Light ever cleanses,” the Blessed Artificer replied, uncowed. “Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear.”
“I must have been unclear,” I patiently said, “if you ever talk of that subject again, within the hour I’ll have an order signed by every high officer of the Grand Alliance to have you executed without trial or appeal. You have absolutely no idea what you’re trifling with, and your ignorant swaggering is a potential existential threat to this continent. Congratulations, Blessed Artificer. There aren’t a lot of people alive who’ve had apocalypse counted as a possible consequence of their blind arrogance.”
Adanna of Smyrna reared back like I’d slapped her across the face, which to be fair I essentially had. I did not regret it, for I had rather limited patience for unearned self-importance these days. Especially from heroes.
“I,” she said, “I didn’t-”
“Think?” I coolly replied. “Consider this matter with a thimble’s worth of commons sense? Evidently not.”
Harsh as I might have been right now, there had been ways to handle this other than sneaking around investigating and then trying to force my hand by talking about it publicly. If she’d brought her concerns to the White Knight earlier, or Hells even to the First Prince, then this could all have been dealt with by the mechanisms we’d put in place for that very purpose. Instead she’d blundered onwards, heroine to the bone, and become yet another ingredient in the poisonous brew the Bard was trying to pour down my throat. My gaze swept across the rest of the gathered Named.
“I expect I won’t have to repeat myself,” I added.
“Already forgotten,” the Fallen Monk said, raising his wineskin.
“My Chantant is lacking at the best of times,” the Exalted Poet said.
Roland said nothing, only inclining his head. He didn’t know the specifics of what Masego was looking into, since there was no need to, but he’d been made aware since the beginning that if Hierophant required time to spend on Quartered Seasons instead of other duties he was always to be granted that request.
“Good,” I said. “Now, let’s get moving. The moment we’ve ascertained where the breach will happen, we’ll-”
There are limits, Bard, I thought even as the Arsenal shuddered once more and then a massive cracking noise sounded as the wards were broken through, to having a nasty sense of humour. My senses weren’t anywhere sharp enough to tell me where the breach had taken place, but then I was far from the Crows and surrounded by wards. Someone who’d helped put those up, though, would have a better idea.
“Roland?” I asked.
“West,” the Rogue Sorcerer replied. “Near the Belfry and the Workshop.”
Opposite of where we were, unfortunately.
“Then to the Belfry we go,” I ordered. “Prepare yourselves, my friends. This could get interesting.”
I let Roland see to the Artificer’s rustled feathers while we moved, the two of them taking the lead as we sped trough the halls as quickly as we could. I wove Night through my leg to numb the pain so I wouldn’t slow us down too much, but even so I had to stay in the back with the Fallen Monk and the Exalted Poet. I didn’t mind, since it was as good an occasion as any to get them talking.
“So I heard you killed one of the Holies,” I told the Monk. “In a pretty grisly way, too.”
The villain laughed. There’d been no deep emotional reaction to the mention, not on his face anyway, and his weight made it more difficult to gauge his body language. Especially in such thick robes when it was a man I did not know well.
“You refer to my first, though not my last,” he fondly said, Arlesite accent thickening slightly. “I got my hands on three before the Saint of Swords began popping up around the region and I had to flee. I slipped into the Dominion through the Brocelian Forest, and I’d made it as far as Levante when the war up north erupted.”
Ah, I thought. So that how he’d survived as a villain west of the Whitecaps contemporary to the Saint and the Grey Pilgrim. I knew for a fact the House of Light in Procer had records on both, he might just have been keeping an eye out for them from the start.
“I heard rumours,” the Exalted Poet said, a little too casually to be casual, “that around this time, several lodges of Lanterns disappeared after venturing into the Brocelian.”
The Fallen Monk smiled, friendly as a beloved brother, but there was something about him… there was nothing comical about his weight then, his size and lumbering demeanour. It was like looking at a predator that’d gotten large and slow by devouring, feeding again and again until it weighed him down.
“Does the Book of All Things not preach that the righteous must answer kindness with kindness and wickedness with wroth?” the Monk pleasantly said.
The Poet stiffened.
“That is blasphemy,” he hissed.
“To quote the Book of All Things?” the Monk chuckled. “What interesting practices the Dominion keeps to, if that is indeed true.”
It was always nice, I thought, when Named made friends. If only it weren’t so fucking rare.
“Can’t cast stones, I suppose,” I noted, “I was proclaimed an abomination for a few years, and Arch-heretic of the East for a tad shorter. What did they do to piss you off, anyway?”
“They called themselves holy,” the Fallen Monk said. “That was, all things considered, more than enough.”
“A Proceran priest is still a Proceran, after all,” the Exalted Poet conceded.
In a sense, was ragging on the Principate not the foundation of international diplomacy? It’d yet to fail me, anyway, not even with actual Procerans.
“Can’t argue with that,” I snorted. “Mind you, Hasenbach seems to be cleaning house there.”
She’d named some kind of spy lay brother her Lord Inquisitor with the coup attempt as a pretext then used him to rip out the fangs of the House in the Principate, the way the Jacks told it. She’d even done it carefully enough they’d had to just lie back and take it, which was damned impressive given the pull the House of Light still had in Procer even after their leaders got caught backing a coup.
“A cleaned pigsty does not become a temple for the cleaning,” the Fallen Monk shrugged. “Though I suppose peeling some jewels off the pigs is laudable work.”
Godsdamn, I thought, reluctantly impressed. This one would get along splendidly with the House Insurgent if they ever got introduced.
“Lanterns know better,” the Exalted Poet proudly said. “They have a single lodge in Levante, and it does not involve itself with politics.”
And if you believe that, there’s a house in Hannoven I’d like to sell you, I thought. The Lanterns had kept themselves from being squeezed under any ruler’s thumb since the founding of Levant, and that wasn’t the sort of thing that could be done by keeping your hands entirely clean.
“Right,” I said, keeping my skepticism off my face, “you lived there, didn’t you? As one of the Hidden Poets.”
The man looked surprised at even this bare bone knowledge of him, though perhaps I should not be surprised by that in turn. We had never met in person until today, and as both a recent addition to our roster and one without impressive martial skills he’d warranted precious little attention from me.
“That is true,” he said. “Though I am one of them no longer, as I have left the Old Palace and taken up paying work.”
“I heard of the Hidden Poets claiming an entire street’s worth of brothels for their use a full day and night, when I was there,” the Fallen Monk slyly said. “Though no doubt that was mere vile calumny.”
“No,” the Exalted Poet assured him, “it is quite true. It happens every spring, as part of the Feast of Many Sighs.”
Why was it that all these southern nations seemed to have those delightful customs involving a lot of beautiful naked people, when all that Callow could measure up against them was harvest festivals where everyone got drunk and made poor decisions? It was a little unfair, in my opinion. Anyhow, the Monk had been trying to tease by relying on a cultural need for discretion in such affairs that was very Proceran in the first place. Levantines, though, were remarkably forthright about sex even by my own Callowan standards.
“So what is it that moved you to leave the Old Palace?” I asked. “Sounds like a pleasant enough life.”
“It would have been shameful to remain there as Bestowed,” the Exalted Poet said, “given the call to war by the Holy Seljun. Besides, I have been thinking of composing an anthem of my own.”
Bold, that. If I grasped what he’d said correctly, he was referring to the Anthem of Smoke: the founding epic of the Dominion of Levant, verses recounting the legendary hero-led rebellion that’d thrown out Procer and created the nation that still stood today. Mhm. This little chat had done nothing to move me towards believing those two were or were not pawns of the Intercessor, unfortunately. The Fallen Monk’s fairly open hatred of the Proceran House of Light didn’t necessarily make him an ally, since it wouldn’t be impossible to use the Dead King as a way to break it without breaking Calernia itself along with it. If you had the right ally, anyway. Obviously he wasn’t shy about getting a little blood on his hands or even killing to make a point, but then he wasn’t one of Hanno’s. My lot rarely had clean hands to show.
As for the Poet, he remained opaque to me. The Dominion’s distinct fondness for honour and debts meant their Named had obvious levers for the Intercessor to use, but he did not seem quite as stuck in that rut as most of his countrymen: he’d backed down instead of dug in, when I’d pushed against the Mirror Knight’s band right after its unexpected arrival. In a sense that only made him harder to read, though, and considering how straightforward Dominion Named tended to be that had me warier of him than not. I knew myself to be a fair hand at assessing people, it was a skill that’d saved my life more than a few times, but I had too little to go on here. For both of them. Until I got a finger on the pulse of what it was that drove, distrust was the order of the day.
Nothing new in that, sadly enough.
The Belfry was one of the more unusual parts of the Arsenal, in the sense that its existence was only possible because of the peculiarities of this place. In one sense it was exactly what it’d been named after: a belfry tower as could be seen in most temples of the House of Light, if a particularly large one. There could be no such thing as a view of outside in the Arsenal, though, as there was no outside. The pocket dimension this place was built in was very precisely tailored to what had been needed, as anything more would have been a waste of resources. To put it simply, the entire facility had been carved out from the interior of single stolen Arcadian mountain, using existing caves that were now the Knot as the start. It accounted for strange, sprawling and yet stratified lay of the Arsenal, which had been designed in a way that would have been absurd in a place not surrounded by stone on all sides.
We’d reached the broadly square base of the Belfry a while back, and been greeted by the first sight of the Arsenal I’d really consider to be worthy of story: where in a temple’s belfry there would have been an empty hollow for the rope and bell, instead hung a long sculpted stalactite of what might once have been stone but was now quite different. The material had grown translucent from the sorcery poured into it, almost like a sort of crystal, and it offered a gentle glow that I recognized from some of the magelights in the rest of the Arsenal. Fourteen floors of a great library swept upwards around the former stalactite, which now hung more like a chandelier than anything else. It was the single greatest repository of books in this Arsenal, but the lay of the stacks also filled with writing desks and research nooks and even places to sleep. A few discreet hallways on different levels even led into personal quarters carved outwards from the Belfry, one of them Masego’s. The stone railings on every floor parted to allow for a stone path leading into the crystalline hanging hear, which itself had been hollowed out and could serve as both stairs upwards and way across.
The truly beautiful part, though, was the lights and sights echoing within the translucent stone. They were not from here, as it happened. Though the Belfry’s tallest heights reached the summit of the mountain the Arsenal had been carved in, there would simply have been nothing to see outside the windows. Just an endless void which had been described to me as desolately empty yet somehow oppressive, like a ceiling too close to one’s face. It was the kind of thing that chipped away at one’s sanity if looked at long enough, regardless, so the ‘windows’ at the highest ring of the Belfry instead showed something entirely different: they were great silver scrying mirrors looking instead at the beautiful vistas of Arcadia and the Twilight Ways, at the seas and sky of Creation. There were smaller mirrors on lower levels showing such sights as well, all of them angled so that what they held within might echo in the central stalactite.
It was genuinely wondrous to behold, and I’d cast more than a few looks to the side in fascination even as we went up the first floor and onto the second. Masego’s quarters would be on the thirteenth floor, and they where the enemy was most likely to strike, so I’d been prepared for the long hike up. My steps slowed before we could even come close to the third floor, however, same as Roland’s in front of us. I cocked my head to the side, strengthening my senses with Night. The entire Arsenal was walled in by wards and had been raised in a pocket dimensions created and maintained by sorcery, which permeated the air and made sensing anything but the ambient power a difficult task, but the both of us had recognized a twinkle of what was coming up behind us.
“Enemies,” Roland said. “It seems we arrived first.”
“Fae,” I added. “And if I can feel them from this far out, in this place? They’re titled.”
Not a weak title, either, which meant this was going to get rough. My otherworldly senses were too muddled by the surroundings for me to be able to put a finger on exactly what manner of fae was headed our way, but there could be no good answer to that sort of question.
“We should make our stand at the stairs leading up from the first floor,” the Exalted Poet suggested, sounding rather enthusiastic. “Hold the line there.”
“It’d be pointless,” I grunted.
Roland nodded in agreement. I wasn’t sure if he’d tangled with fae before, but at the very least he’d been in a few scraps with the Tyrant of Helike and his bloody gargoyles. The lessons to learn were not entirely dissimilar.
“Ah,” the Blessed Artificer breathed out, quick to catch on. “They fly, the stories say.”
Everyone’s eye’s turn to the empty space between the central crystalline structure and the railings. If they could go right up flying where we could only go on foot, they’d make it to Masego’s quarters long before we did. Assuming they knew where those were, and that was truly where they were headed for. Wasn’t a risk I could afford to take, regardless.
“Rogue Sorcerer,” I said. “Head in there, find a good vantage and try to keep them from going straight up. I’m leaving-”
The Blessed Artificer? Not a fighter, but potentially bearing useful tools to clear out a swarm of lesser fae. Dangerous for the same reason, though. The Fallen Monk would be next to useless save as a bodyguard – and couldn’t be trusted for that anyway – while I knew much too little about the Exalted Poet’s combat abilities. He had the Gift, though, and unless you were cooking up a ritual putting all your mages in the same basket was typically a bad idea.
“- the Blessed Artificer with you,” I said.
She was the most likely to be able to crack open the wards Hierophant would put around his quarters, if she was the traitor. Roland already knew I’d gathered potential traitors here, so he’d know to both keep her at hand and keep an eye out for a knife in the back.
“Understood,” the Rogue Sorcerer replied, catching my gaze and dipping his head.
I did enjoy working with Roland, no two ways about it.
“I will do what must be done,” the Blessed Artificer grimly said.
Fair enough, I thought, so long as that didn’t involve a knife slipped between mine or the Rogue Sorcerer’s ribs.
“And the three of us, Black Queen?” the Fallen Monk asked me, a theatrical gesture extending the question to include the Poet.
“You two should run down to the entrance as quick as you can, we’ll contain what we can there,” I said.
“You will not be coming with us?” the Exalted Poet asked.
“I’ll be taking another way down,” I said. “Get moving, would you? There’s no time to waste.”
Though I could tell neither of them were convinced, they didn’t manage to talk themselves into asking about it either. Keeping a good distance from each other, as if making a point of it, they doubled back at a run towards the stairs we’d taken up to get here. As for me, I waved off Roland and the Artificer and went fishing for my pipe again. I’d not finished the wakeleaf from earlier and it had gone quite cold, but a touch of blackflame saw to that. I limped my way to the railings and propped up my staff against them, leaning forward as I pulled at my pipe. A stream of smoke left my lips as I waited, patient, for the enemy’s first blow. Unlike what I assumed to be the rest of this little band, I was familiar with fighting the Courts. Though Winter and Summer had preferred very different tactics, they’d had a few in common. There were, I imagined, only so many ways to make use of similar assets.
Which was I was not surprised when, before either the Named I’d sent down could make it down to the entrance, a winged silhouette shot out of the floor below and began to ascend the gap at a breakneck pace. A titled vanguard, hard enough to take a few hits from a powerful foe but not so powerful it’d be a great loss if their heads got caved in early. Classic fae, that.
“Not a prince or a duke,” I mused, gauging the amount of power wafting out of the humanoid shape. “A count or a baron?”
Hard to tell, but I’d be more inclined to bet on baron. Regardless, it was time to act. I snatched up my staff and used it to deftly pull myself atop the railing, calling on Night and beginning to weave it even as I estimated the right angle. I leapt down, pitch-black power beginning to erupt from the top of my yew staff and hurtled down towards the fae heading up. It could see it – no, her. Decked in dark brown armour styled like a coat of branches, translucent wings batting as her long golden hair flowed behind her, the fae offered me a mocking smile even as she veered off to the side and avoided me entirely. Leaving me, without a word or care, to fall towards the ground.
“Mistake,” I noted around the mouth of my pipe.
Taking my staff up by both hands I snapped it forward like a fishing rod , and so the rope of Night I had woven snapped forward as well, snatching the fae passing me by the neck and smashing her down.
The golden-haired fae passed me as I continued to fall down in a descent barely slowed, mouth open to scream in anger, but I took a hand off my staff and pulled at the Night-rope. It tightened around her throat and I dragged her close even as my teeth clenched around my pipe, then gripped her throat and forced her further beneath me. Using my staff as support I shot a painful jolt of Night into her body, disrupting her wings, and used her twitch of pain to flip her around. We kept falling, but I was now above her back and holding a makeshift rein of Night to guide our descent.
“- am the-” the fae forced out before I tightened the rope again.
I eye the rapidly approaching ground beneath us, counting in my head how long we had before impact and disrupting her wings with further jolts of Night another two times as we dropped. Only when we were a mere count of two from the ground did I allow her wings to form again, and our descent to slow as I impacted her back from the gathered momentum and she swivelled down and forward a bit before stabilizing. We were a mere six feet above the ground, and in the hallway in front of us what looked like a raiding party of fae were fast approaching. Best to finish this before they got close.
I laid a hand on the Night leash and poured further power into it, turning rope to flame, and with a twist of will sent it to eagerly devour the fae’s throat. The neck turned to ash in an instant, the head plopping down unmoored and the wings winking out. The corpse dropped below and as the Mantle of Woe fluttered around me I adjusted my fall, landing on my feet a heartbeat after the corpse did – the head hit the ground a moment later with a wet sound, rolling half a foot towards me by happenstance. I brought to a halt with my boot, taking a last inhale of wakeleaf before all that was left was ash, and with my foot angled the fae’s head so that I could empty my pipe into the silently screaming mouth.
I put it away after, smoothed my cloak and turned a winning smile into the incoming fairies even as the Fallen Monk and the Exalted Poet emerged from the stairs to my right.
I blew out the smoke, let it wreath my face as the fae emerged form the shadows of the hall.
“Good evening,” I said. “I can’t help but notice you’ve taken something of a wrong turn. Do you need some help in finding the way out?”
I’ll take that as a no, I decided as a raging thunderstorm erupted in answer.