“To offer forgiveness to the unrepentant is as the sheep embracing the wolf.”
– Hektor the Ecclesiast, Atalante preacher
Hanno had underestimated the depth of the troubles in the Arsenal.
It had already been an unpleasant surprise for providence to have failed him, not offering even the slightest of nudges otherwise when he’d decided to wait a few days before heading towards the Arsenal, but now it seemed that initial mistake had allowed several streaks of unpleasantness to take root. That Catherine would be as a scalded cat was only to be expected, given that she’d pitted her wits against the Wandering Bard and there was no victory to be had without a cost there. That could be worked around until it passed, which he trusted it would. That there would be distrust and discontent boiling up within the heroes as was not something he’d foreseen, at least not to such a grave extent. That Christophe de Pavanie’s name never seemed to be far behind whenever a spot of discord was there to be found was even more unfortunate.
It had become the White Knight’s habit to arrange for a great talk with all the heroes of a region whenever his travels allowed, so that they might vent their grievances before they could grow into formal complaints and frictions of character could be caught before they escalated, and it was without hesitation he followed the habit after coming to the Arsenal. There were nine heroes within these walls who bore Names, and most made good time when he sent for them. Still, extracting themselves from their occupations took longer for some than others. Hanno was not displeased by that, as them coming with waves allowed him to take a look at the currents binding them to one another. Roland, for example, came with the Vagrant Spear and the Forlorn Paladin.
The latter two of those three had spent more than a year as part of the Archer’s band, while the Rogue Sorcerer was perhaps the hero who best got along with the Woe in particular and villains as a whole. There were some who called him soft on Below because of that, though his distinguished record had ensured it was just idle talk. That the Dominion heroine would keep company with Roland and the Forlorn Paladin was interesting, however. If she had felt uncomfortable under the Archer, starved of respectable company or mistreated, she would not have chosen those particular companions. As for the Forlorn Paladin himself, though he remained improbably cheerful despite his Name it was clear that he felt lost and that the Vagrant Spear was serving as an anchor. Hanno sympathized.
He had more memories than any man alive, and their loss was something he dreaded like little else.
The White Knight spoke with the first three heroes to arrive, little more than small talk about what they’d seen and done since their last parting, but before long others began to wander in. Though the Kingfisher Prince was not someone Hanno had ever met in person before, the Prince of Brus was hard to mistake for another – between the fanciful Alamans clothing and the elaborate hair ribbons, there was simply no other hero he could be mistaken for. The man had a reputation for charm that must have been true at least in part, for the often-taciturn Bitter Blacksmith was laughing as some unheard jest as he gallantly opened the door for her.
Though Hanno did not particularly consider himself the host of this gathering – he had not fetched the refreshments himself, or done anything at all save requesting the help of messengers and attendants – he still welcomed the pair into the room, returning the Prince of Brus’ firm arm clasp and congratulating Helmgard for her impressive work on the sword he was not learning had been named the Severance. A shame. He’d been rather partial to the ‘Severity’, himself. It seemed a truer homage to the woman it had been forged from. There was hardly a ripple as the two Named joined the others, cordial smiles being offered up by those whose character so inclined them.
The Mirror Knight arrived rather late, considering that Christophe had been eager for a meeting like this one when they’d last spoken, but it was easy to see why. When the dark-haired hero arrived, it was with the Blessed Artificer and the Blade of Mercy at his side. He must have wanted the three of them to come together and so waited, though Hanno found that the Mirror Knight looked rather jittery underneath his attempt so seem calm. The White Knight almost frowned when he saw how uncomfortable young Antoine was, avoiding looking at the end of the table where Roland and the two heroines he’d come in with sat. Not, not Roland, Hanno decided. It was Sidonia in particular the younger man was avoiding looking at.
The Vagrant Spear did not gaze in their direction at all, as if noticing them was beneath her.
The Blessed Artificer strode forward with little apparent awareness of her companions’ discomfort, offering Hanno himself a nod before settling in the chair by the Bitter Blacksmith’s side. The two began to talk animatedly, and Christophe look almost miffed before he came to make his greetings. The White Knight took the time to speak with young Antoine for a bit, but the Blade of Mercy remained stiff and tight-lipped. Twice, in mere idle conversation, he redirected a casual question of Hanno’s to the Mirror Knight. The Ashuran filed that away, refraining from making assumptions but equally disinclined to simply ignore an oddity.
The Blind Maker was the last to arrive, the older man having been in the middle of delicate work when the messenger came and so unable to extract himself easily. He apologized, but no one felt slighted and so the matter was waved away. Hanno caught himself looking at the door, as if still waiting, and felt a pang of grief when he understood why. Nephele would not be coming, for she was dead. She’d perished in the fight against a demon, mere days ago, and so Hanno would never see his friend again. Hear her laugh, enjoy the sight of how she had come to thrive in the very place she had died defending. The dark-skinned man did not shy away from the grief, instead leaning into it. Let it pass through him.
The White Knight could not change what had been done, but he could keep Nephele alive within himself. Hanno’s mother had been fond of a verse from her homeland, one that claimed all were born to two deaths: one in the flesh, one in the memories of those left behind. It was not in the Ashuran knight’s ability to unmake the end of flesh, but in memory at least he could honour the woman who had been the Repentant Magister. Yet there was a time for grief and a time for the present, and now Hanno was called upon by the latter to set aside the former. He did so.
“I see were all here,” the White Knight said, standing at the head of the table. “I am not unaware that there are many demands on your time, and so I thank you for indulging my request.”
“We were long overdue a council of the Chosen, anyhow,” the Blessed Artificer said.
Adanna of Smyrna had spoken with characteristic bluntness and so Hanno knew better than to take offence, though that did not stop some from eyeing her with irritation. Or dislike. Heroes were not above the vagaries of human interaction in the slightest. They were, if anything, more prone to falling into them. A consequence of strong personalities, Hanno had often thought, which were those that tended to come into Names to begin with.
“A council over what?” the Forlorn Paladin asked. “The messenger never said.”
From the corners of his eye, Hanno saw that the Kingfisher Prince was carefully studying the heroes in the room. Looking, the White Knight suspected, for the invisible web of alliances and enmities that Alamans considered to be the foundation of all society. This one was a hero, the White Knight thought, but a prince as well. It would not do to forget that. The blue-eyed Prince of Brus caught Hanno’s own watchful eye, and with a quirk of the lips offered a wink.
“This is to discuss the fate of the Red Axe, obviously,” the Mirror Knight said.
“What is there to discuss, exactly?” the Rogue Sorcerer flatly asked.
“These talks are meant to allow you all to air grievances and worries,” Hanno cut in as he sat down, voice serene. “If such worries concern the matter of the Red Axe, you are of course free to voice them.”
“There’s grievances enough for twenty to be aired,” the Blessed Artificer said. “Most of them about the Black Queen’s atrocious behaviour.”
Hanno cocked his head to the side.
“The reports I received must have been incomplete, then,” he said. “For I have read them and found little to fault her with.”
That made a stir, though not a large one. He’d hardly said anything incendiary, besides. If Catherine had genuinely been at fault, it would have been his duty to act on it. If he had not, the reason why ought to be self-evident.
“This is ridiculous,” Roland said. “We heroes in our little hidden room, discussing the Black Queen like we’re some sort of secret cabal. If it came out, we’d be a laughingstock – or worse.”
“You worry too much of how things might look, Rogue Sorcerer,” the Mirror Knight said, contempt clear in his voice.
“You don’t worry enough, Christophe,” the Bitter Blacksmith sneered. “I don’t care if she stepped on your toes, she’s also sent troops to fight up in Twilight’s Pass. You don’t get to fuck that just because no one bothered to beat humility into you as a child.”
The Mirror Knight looked not only surprised by Helmgard’s words, but almost hurt. They were friends, the White Knight distantly recalled. But right now the Bitter Blacksmith was just seeing yet another Alamans posturing while her people died in droves, and that pulled on an older and deeper loyalty that anything friendship might earn of her.
“I choose not to believe that expecting civility of each other is being too ambitious,” Hanno calmly said.
The Blacksmith looked away, but not without embarrassment first painting itself across her face. Christophe looked pleased and almost vindicated, though, which had not been Hanno’s intent at all. It worried him that the other man seemed convinced that there were sides to take instead of disagreements to be had. The difference might slight, at first, but the longer the path was the starker the difference would grow.
“Impugning each other’s character is no more civil than insults,” the White Knight plainly said. “I will add, however, that expecting Catherine Foundling to withdraw the aid she has offered because her actions are being questioned is not a defence of her. It is, in fact, the contrary.”
The Kingfisher Prince cleared his throat.
“Considering grievances have been mentioned, I am curious to hear them,” Prince Frederic Goethal said. “I was part of the defence myself, after all.”
“You failed to hide the Red Axe from mere guards, then were laid down by your own ward,” the Blessed Artificer said. “Hardly a participation.”
Every single Alamans at the table looked appalled at her words, Hanno noted, though not necessarily because they disagreed with them. The Prince of Brus had an impressive martial reputation in the north, but he’d worked with few other Named and his showing during the assault on the Arsenal had been lackluster by some ways of looking at it. Hanno’s esteem of the man had raised at his restraint when faced with bare swords and threats, but even on the side of Above there were some who measured success largely through body counts.
“Adanna, you’re being insulting,” the Bitter Blacksmith told her.
The golden-eyed artificer looked surprised.
“I meant no insult,” she assured the prince. “Only that-”
Mercifully, Helmgard elbowed her before she could launch into an explanation that Hanno suspected would offer several additional insults. The dark-skinned man actually sympathized with Adanna a great deal, since he understood exactly where her occasional maladroitness came from: it was rather typical of Ashurans in general and citizens from higher tiers in particular. High Tyrian was a highly blunt language, compared to some on the continent, and most Ashurans who learned a second tongue had to unlearn habits that made them come across as very rude. Those born to higher tiers were also raised into believing that criticism of lower tiers was a civic duty, which could combine in unfortunate ways with other Ashuran customs. Captains, traders and diplomats were naturally taught how to avoid those pitfalls, but the Blessed Artificer was unlikely to have rubbed elbows with any of these in Smyrna – she would have moved in different, higher circles.
“No offence was taken,” the Kingfisher Prince said, and it he was lying he hid it well. “Yet my question stands.”
“I am curious as well,” the White Knight said. “Though I want it to be clear that you are all free to speak, and I will not take you words as a formal complaint under the Terms unless you explicitly state otherwise.”
“I was threatened with execution,” the Blessed Artificer said.
The Rogue Sorcerer laughed, and not kindly.
“Tell them why,” Roland said.
“It hardly matters,” Adanna said. “The threat is the reason of my complaint.”
“She nosed about an Arsenal project the Grand Alliance is going out of its way to keep secret, and then tried to bully the Black Queen into speaking about it in front of what turned out to be at least two traitors,” Roland his aggressively even tone making it clear what he thought of the entire affair. “The specific threat then involved first gaining the approval of the Grand Alliance for your execution by the lawful means, as I recall.”
Hanno’s brow almost rose. It had been a misjudgement on Adanna’s part to believe that the Black Queen would respond to this sort of a pressure, and an even greater misjudgement to resort to this sort of thing against an ally at all. He’d expected better of her.
“I can confirm there are projects under such stark secrecy that exist,” the Kingfisher Prince said, “though I am not conversant with their exact nature.”
The Blessed Artificer’s lips thinned, though she did not argue.
“I have a complaint of my own,” the Mirror Knight said.
Eyes moved to him and the dark-haired man smiled thinly.
“About the Rogue Sorcerer, and how he might as well be the mouthpiece of the Black Queen in this room,” Christophe continued. “Go where you belong, Sorcerer. Go sit at her side, and let us get on with our duties at last without your help.”
Roland’s fingers clenched at his face paled in anger. Hanno genuinely could not remember ever seeing the mild-mannered man this furious.
“I do not know you, Alamans,” the Blind Maker calmly said, his thick Arlesite accent tinging the words, “but your words fall well short of the chivalry your Choosing boasts of.”
“That was ill-said,” the Forlorn Paladin agreed, face grown serious.
Some were less courteous in their chiding.
“Fuck you, Christophe,” Sidonia hissed. “I’ve been with the Lady for more than a year now, does that make me traitor too? Who the Hells are you to tell anyone to leave?”
Hanno pulled on his Name the slightest bit, then slapped his hand against the table. The sound was like a thunderclap in the small hall, and it drew shocked silence from all in it.
“Civility,” the White Knight reminded them. “Be clearer on the nature of your complaint, Mirror Knight. Are you accusing the Rogue Sorcerer of having fallen from grace and become one of the Damned?”
That would, in fact, be a valid reason to ask for Roland’s exclusion from this meeting. In practice it would be difficult to prove either way, but it hardly mattered since Hanno doubted the Mirror Knight would pursue his hasty words to the end. It was a profoundly serious accusation and there would be consequences to using so frivolously. That the Principate had used such methods frequently against heroes of opposing nations was one of the reason it had such a poor reputation with Named, and for a Proceran hero in particular to be seen using the same means would see him made a pariah among their kind.
“I did not speak those words,” Christophe de Pavanie stiffly said.
“Then you should be more careful when you address others,” Hanno frankly said. “If you did not mean to make that accusation, then all you did was offer an insult.”
The Mirror Knight looked like he’d been slapped, but then he’d offered the same to the Rogue Sorcerer with intent nowhere as kindly meant. He must be made to understand that he should be choosing his words more carefully, not blurting out offences and then apologizing for them.
“Everyone knows the Sorcerer’s thick as thieves with the Woe,” the Blade of Mercy spoke up. “It’s not a crime to say that, is it?”
“No,” Hanno serenely replied. “Though neither is it a crime to have a cordial rapport with an ally, Antoine.”
In truth, it would be a poison to this alliance if heroes came to believe that being on good terms with villains was a sort of betrayal. Perhaps if bands of five had remained entirely Below’s or Above’s it could have been borne, but that had not been the case for some time now. The ability to forge a band out of Named of all allegiances was simply too potent a tool in the war against Keter to be easily discarded, and that meant heroes and villains must be able to maintain a degree of respect for each other.
“I have a grievance of my own, as it happens,” the Rogue Sorcerer coldly said.
The anger was still in him, the White Knight saw. That boded ill, for Roland was sharper with wits and tongue than many were with steel.
“Why is Christophe of Pavanie still strutting about with the Severance?” Roland asked. “More than half a dozen of us worked on it, and a fortune was spent forging it. The peril has passed, Mirror Knight, so why do you still carry that priceless artefact with you like some ceremonial blade?”
“I am safekeeping it,” the Mirror Knight harshly said.
“We’ve found no one else capable of using it,” the Blessed Artificer shrugged. “Where else should it go?”
“It’s an artefact meant to kill the Hidden Horror,” the Bitter Blacksmith disagreed, “it should be under lock and behind wards, not lugged around.”
“It hasn’t been observed since it was taken up, has it?” the Blind Maker mused. “It should be, or we will not know how it takes to being used.”
“It was taken up in a battle against great foes,” the Vagrant Spear said. “And used worthily. It would be a grave dishonour to claim it back now.”
The Mirror Knight threw her a look as surprised as it was grateful.
“Hear hear,” the Forlorn Paladin said. “It is not a deed to be lightly gainsaid.”
“Seven demons were slain with the blade in the Mirror Knight’s hand,” the Blade of Mercy fervently reminded them. “Seven. What fool would now give it to another, or put it back to rest?”
“I agree that Christophe is most fit to wield the Severance, given its temperament and his own talents,” Hanno said. “I have already informed the Black Queen as much.”
There was a moment of stillness in the room. Dismay on the Rogue Sorcerer’s face, triumph on the Mirror Knight’s – or was it relief?
“It must be returned, however,” the White Knight continued. “It was taken up during a crisis for laudable reasons, but the crisis has passed. Until it is formally bestowed upon someone, it belongs to the Grand Alliance.”
The scene of a moment earlier, reversed. Nothing about this, Hanno thought, ought to be taken personally. Diplomacy was setting the beat to the tune, not lesser and pettier considerations. He knew better than to believe it would not be taken personally regardless.
“The First Prince shares that belief,” the Kingfisher Prince said. “I do as well, for that matter. You’ve fought mostly in Cleves, Mirror Knight, while the sword might be needed elsewhere. That front is the mildest of the three.”
Christophe cast the prince an unfriendly glance, then turned to Hanno.
“Is this an order, White Knight?” he challenged.
He wanted, the dark-skinned man sensed, a confrontation. To make this about the two of them. That was disturbing, considering the White Knight had no enmity towards Christophe de Pavanie and had believe the opposite to be just as true.
“No,” Hanno said. “I have told you my opinion. It will become an order if the signatory members of the Grand Alliance so decide, likely by vote. I expect the Severance will be assigned in the same manner.”
The Vagrant Spear laughed.
“Should have been more careful who you insulted, Christophe,” she said. “Even if your First Prince takes a shine to you, that’s two out of three who’d rather burn than back you.”
“I am sure Her Most Serene Highness will see reason, when properly made aware of the facts,” the Mirror Knight said.
There was a certainty to his voice that Hanno would have found admirable were he not certain it was unwarranted. Though the White Knight had not lost the respect he’d found for the First Prince during the defense of Cleves, he’d since tempered it with appropriate caution. He could respect Cordelia Hasenbach without losing sight of the truth that she loved Procer more than she did most anything. It was why she now wanted the Red Axe to stand trial before the Highest Assembly, ignoring the protection promised the heroine by the Terms. The First Prince would not find many allies in this, unless he’d gravely misread Catherine so at the moment she was also highly unlikely to take a chance on championing Christophe de Pavanie.
“The Hasenbach will do what needs to be done,” the Bitter Blacksmith bluntly said. “Whether it pleases you or not. That is their way.”
There was an undertone of pride to the words, not quite hidden. Christophe looked upset, which led Hanno to suspect he had come into this hall expecting that Helmgard would support him in all things. The Ashuran was not the only one to notice.
“Is it because you’ve been fuckin Damned that you’re so traitorous?” the Blade of Mercy bit out.
There was a beat of silence, the half a dozen people started talking at the same time. Sidonia was loudly laughing instead, Hanno noted, while the Kingfisher Prince was looking rather interested even as he kept his silence. The White Knight struck his palm against the table once more.
“Order,” Hanno said. “Antoine, please apologize.”
“I think not,” the Blade of Mercy coldly said. “What did I say, save the truth?”
“So she took the Hunted Magician to bed,” the Blessed Artificer replied, dismissive. “What of it? He’s a comely man, and rather skilled in bedplay.”
Several of the heroes choked in surprise. Hanno did not share their shock, benefitting from the perspective of a shared homeland. Adanna of Smyrna would likely equate having sex with a villain to a citizen of a higher tier doing the same with one of a lower tier, and so see nothing there to raise an eyebrow over. Considering marriages across tiers were exceedingly rare such affairs were usually purely physical, and the Blessed Artificer would be highly insulted should someone imply her judgement – or that of a friend, which Helmgard was – might be affected by such a thing.
“Is he?” the Vagrant Spear asked, leaning forward eagerly. “Elaborate.”
The White Knight could not blame the Archer for that behaviour, sadly. She’d been this way since they first met and actually tended to be significantly worse when Rafaella was around for them rile each other up. The Dominion spirit of competition did not exclude revels.
“Adanna?” the Mirror Knight said, sounding horrified.
“I took up with him myself, for a while,” the Blessed Artificer said.
“He thought we didn’t know,” Helmgard grinned. “We kept making appointments at the same time, you should have seen him panic and make those tortured excuses.”
The White Knight cleared his throat.
“How any of us choose to share our beds is not anyone else’s concern,” Hanno said. “And not to be subject to insult. Antoine, apologize.”
For the first time that day, his voice hardened. The younger man froze at the sound, eyes going wide.
“He meant no insult, Helmgard,” the Mirror Knight said, addressing the heroine directly.
The Bitter Blacksmith spat to the side.
“Only a boy needs others to speak for himself,” she said, but curtly nodded.
Hanno caught her eye, raising an eyebrow in question, but she shook her head in denial. If she was satisfied, then he would pursue the matter no further.
“Are there any further grievances?” the White Knight asked.
“The Black Queen should not be a high officer of the Grand Alliance,” the Mirror Knight flatly said.
The entire room went silent, as if breathing in simultaneously.
“That is not a grievance,” Hanno noted.
“She’s corrupt,” Christophe de Pavanie said. “She made a deal with the Hunted Magician to let him off-”
“The Hunted Magician is to stand trial within the week,” the White Knight corrected. “I am to be a member of the tribunal.”
“Don’t be obtuse,” the Mirror Knight insisted, “she alone gets to decide the sentence, and she was arrogant enough to take her bribe while I was in the room. She thinks herself untouchable, White Knight.”
“She alone stands as judge over the Damned, by the Terms we all agreed on,” the Kingfisher Prince said. “To argue against that is to argue against their very existence.”
Which by the way his tone had cooled, was not a stance that would endear anyone to the prince.
“What meaning is there in the Terms, if the one enforcing them on villains abuses her office?” the Mirror Knight said. “We’ve offered amnesty to a parade of rapists and murderers but the Damned holding their leash is just as corrupt. Is it any wonder that the likes of the Red Axe strike against us?”
Christophe de Pavanie rose to his feet, animated and angry. The emotion did him no favours with some at the table, but it caught the attention of others. There had been doubts about the Terms from the beginning, after all, and two of the heroes who’d most stringently argued against their current form were in this hall – both Adanna and Christophe had been deeply opposed to the principle of villains policing themselves through the Black Queen. Enough that they’d threatened to walk, though it’d been an empty threat. It had been a point of principle back then, however. It’d since grown into a genuine belief for the Mirror Knight, it was plain to Hanno’s eyes.
“We are losing the mandate of the Heavens,” the Mirror Knight warned. “Every time we care more about the letter of a treaty than doing good, we lose ourselves a little more. That is Below’s subtlest scheme: to make us embrace one evil in seeking the destruction of another.”
Hanno had heard many people claim they understood the designs of the Heavens, over the years, and what their mandate for their children was. It was unfortunate that no degree of certainty seemed to prevent them from error, or mutual exclusivity in their claims. His attention, beyond the words being spoken, was on the heroes in the room. Some were skeptical, the White Knight thought as he studied the Named, but others were visibly in agreement. The Blade of Mercy, the Blessed Artificer. Reluctantly, the Bitter Blacksmith. Given the deep enmity she had with her brother, Hanno suspected that her leanings there were personally driven. She must be troubled by the thought that the reason she’d refrained from fighting her brother to the death, the Terms, might have been some trick of the Gods Below.
“Horseshit,” the Vagrant Spear said. “The Red Axe killed the Wicked Enchanter. He was an animal of the worst kind, but what does that change? She gave her word. We all did. And now you’re trying to wriggle out of it, like a worm on the hook.”
“She got Nephele killed,” Christophe de Pavanie hissed.
“No,” the Blade of Mercy burst out.
Astonished, the Mirror Knight turned towards the younger man.
“I was there, it wasn’t like that,” Antoine insisted. “She lost soldiers, too, and it was the Hierophant who caught the demon. Not her, not us, him.”
“Hierophant hasn’t enough interest in people to get them killed on purpose,” the Bitter Blacksmith grunted. “And he liked Nephele, I remember.”
“Praesi hide their intentions skillfully,” Adanna said.
She then withered under Helmgard’s skeptical gaze.
“It is perhaps unlikely,” she conceded. “And though she is a vicious brute, I’ll admit I have some doubts the Black Queen would have attempted to arrange the death of an ally in the middle of a fight with a demon. She is a practical sort of monster, and more careful with her life than her cavalier manners would make you believe.”
On the account of the pragmatism and cavalier manners, Hanno tended to agree. Catherine was also savagely protective of those she considered in her care, whether they were objectively deserving of that protection or not, so that she might have arranged for Nephele to die was… improbable. Not impossible, of course, and he was willing to hear out Christophe, but he was more inclined to believe in a misunderstanding than a conspiracy.
“What leads you to believe that the Repentant Magister was the victim of a plot?” the White Knight asked.
The Mirror Knight blinked, biting his lip.
“A library was burned, and in it there were two false Revenants who attacked us as we tried to rescue the Doddering Sage,” he said. “It must have been the Black Queen and one of her servants, who else could it have been?”
“Even if you were right, how would that lead to scheming Nephele’s murder?” the Rogue Sorcerer asked.
“She lied to us,” Christophe said. “Do you not see?”
The Blind Maker cleared his throat. The Mirror Knight’s face tightened with anger.
“And now you mock me, just as she did,” he said. “Does no one else understand what she’s doing to us even now?”
Hanno chose his words carefully, but perhaps too slowly. He was not the first to answer.
“So here we are,” the Rogue Sorcerer quietly said. “The truth comes out at last. Nephele died and your pride was hurt, so now you’re throwing a tantrum painted over with righteous speech. The part that disgusts me most, Knight, is that you are pretending you actually knew her. The way us here at the Arsenal did, we who shared years with her. You swagger around arrogating the loss of others, as if it makes you important and worth listening to.”
Roland cast a look of icy contempt at the other hero.
“All it makes you is the most despicable sort of braggart,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “Have the decency of silence, Mirror Knight, and sit in your fucking chair.”
“Roland,” Hanno sharply said. “That’s enough. Being insulted is no reason to return the treatment in kind, not amongst allies.”
“You’re a disgrace, Sorcerer,” the Blade of Mercy spat.
“Swallow your tongue, boy,” the Bitter Blacksmith harshly said. “You have already given away your right to speak.”
“I will not speak to the Rogue Sorcerer’s anger,” the Forlorn Paladin said, “but his doubts I’ll admit to sharing. You cast grave accusations, Mirror Knight, but offer no proof. Even a villain is due more than that.”
“This is all pointless talk, anyway,” the Vagrant Spear exasperatedly said. “Even if every word you spoke was true, Christophe, what is it that could be done? You want to spank the Black Queen’s bottoms until she learns about virtue? The moment one of us – any of us – attacks her, the Kingdom of Callow‘s armies will leave and let Procer burn to the ground.”
“They have a duty,” Christophe tightly said. “And I do not speak of forcing her to abdicate her crown, Sidonia. Is Lady Vivienne Dartwick not her heir? Let her replace the crooked queen as representative for the Damned, then.”
“That is enough of that,” Hanno said.
Eyes turned him.
“We do not rule the Grand Alliance,” the White Knight evenly said. “We do not settle its affairs for it, much less meddle with its constituent crowns. We are servants of the Gods Above who have sworn an oath of war against the Hidden Horror.”
Hanno swept his gaze across the room.
“We must remain aware of our limits,” the White Knight said. “We are not deciding the fate of the Queen of Callow between us, or the fate of the Severance, much less who the representative for villains would be under rules that we have already given our oath to observe. If you have concerns, I will hear them. I you have grievances, I will act on them. But do not delude yourselves, not for a moment, that we can dictate terms to half of Calernia bound in alliance.”
Few looked like they wanted to object, and none who dwelled in the Arsenal. They understood best, Hanno thought, the actual scale of something like the Grand Alliance. They’d seen it at work, when this unearthly place had been carved out of nothing in less than a year. The others knew only their front, their battle, their struggle. It was human nature, Hanno knew, to reduce things to something that was easier to grasp. That did not make you uncomfortable about how very small you were. The Seraphim had stripped him of that, among their many gifts. The White Knight perfectly understood how insignificant a speck of dust he truly was, and that had allowed him a certain… clarity of sight, in some ways.
“You’re going to kill the Red Axe.”
Hanno turned a calm gaze to the Mirror Knight, whose green eyes had gone cold.
“I am,” the White Knight agreed. “If a law cannot be borne, let it not be borne. I will not worship at the altar of our imperfections and pretend it is infallible. But if it is to stand, if it is to be heeded, there cannot be exceptions.”
Hanno did not judge, for that was not his place even bereft the guidance of the Seraphim, but he was neither blind nor deaf. He would act as he must, knowing his actions to be blind and imperfect. Christophe de Pavanie rose to his feet. Slowly, inexorably.
“No,” the Mirror Knight harshly said. “I will not allow it.”
Those were not, the White Knight thought, words that could be taken back.