“For though the Gods Above laid down the path of righteousness for all to see, so did the Gods Below then lay down a hundred others that look just like it.”
– Extract from the ‘Truths of the Shore’, a collection of the teachings of Arianna Galadon (considered holy text only in Procer)
Hanno would have to be very careful, to ensure Christophe de Pavanie was alive by the end of this.
Even as half a dozen shouts erupted in the wake of the Mirror Knight’s challenge, the dark-skinned man wondered if he should first have spoken with the other knight alone. No, he decided. That, too, would have been a mistake. It would have been treating Christophe like a sickness to be quarantined instead of comrade whose doubts needed to be allayed. Hanno was no more lord over heroes than heroes were lords over Creation, and though the demands of experience often saw him walk the fine line between stewardship and government he must never cross it willingly.
“Sit down, Christophe,” the Vagrant Spear called out, “this is-”
“- ful Gods, I will punch the sense back int-”
“Silence,” the White Knight said.
The ripple of power in his voice sucked the cacophony out of the room, as if by magic. The Mirror Knight stood ramrod straight, as if the outpouring of anger had been a matter of indifference to him, but the slight hunch to his shoulders spoke otherwise. Still, for all the red colouring his cheeks Christophe did not desist. Pride was the stone around his neck, and now Hanno would have to find a way do ensure it did not end up drowning him. First, however, the venom must be drawn out. The White Knight did not rise to his feet, or react beyond turning his head to properly address the other Named. Christophe watched him with strained eyes, his light brown hair harried.
The angle of his arms ensured the polished bracers he wore on his wrists reflected only a muddled haze.
“Let us avoid misunderstandings,” Hanno calmly said. “What is it that you mean, Christophe, by ‘I will not allow it’?”
“How many of us need to die before you face the truth of what you made us part of?” the Mirror Knight said. “The Exalted Poet was shot in the back by one of the Woe, and who here has said even a word of it?”
“He was a traitor,” the Blessed Artificer coldly said. “Good riddance.”
She looked more conflicted that her words might indicate, Hanno thought, but here and now she’d chosen anger over qualms. Few in the rooms shared her apprehensions, given that the man had been seen working with the fae of the Court of Autumn. Whatever his reasons, he’d sided with creatures that had slain soldiers and broken works dedicated to the end of the Dead King. That in the process he’d tried to betray two heroes had seen his memory grow increasingly reviled: the Vagrant Spear’s face had gone icy at the mention of the Name, for she was Levantine as well and had taken the betrayal as a slight on the honour of Levant as a whole.
“Traitor to what, exactly?” Christophe de Pavanie said, voice just short of a shout. “To the rules and designs of a Damned? To ‘terms’ that would see us murder a woman for slaying her own rapist?”
“You have not answered the White Knight’s question,” the Kingfisher Prince cut in, voice measured. “Are you threatening to take up arms to enforce your will, Christophe de Pavanie?”
The fair-haired prince’s hand had slipped, ever so slightly towards the sword at his hip. Hanno thought better of his comrades than to expect they would brawl like tavern drunks but, should there be fighting, he suspected it was not the Prince of Brus that would be the victor there. The Kingfisher Prince’s role was a martial one, but also soldierly in nature. He could turn a company of riders into an unbreakable lance or fight as a champion for his host, but he would not be the equal of the Mirror Knight in a duel.
“Let him speak,” the Forlorn Paladin hesitantly said. “Or has it now become a sin to even speak against the Terms?”
“Why bother? This isn’t a vote,” the Bitter Blacksmith bluntly replied. “No point in pretending otherwise, the Terms are there to stay. We can whine about it all we like, but at the end of the day I’d rather share a room with a villain than a Revenant.”
“How often are we going to be made to bow our heads using that argument?” the Mirror Knight asked, turning to her and sweeping the room with his gaze. “Accept this, or the Dead King takes us all. So first we welcome crooks. Then we welcome thieves, then rapists, then murderers – and Gods only know what comes after that. What single thing can we not be made to swallow, when it is put to contrast with the end of days?”
“Spoken like a child of summer,” the Bitter Blacksmith said, tone gone hard. “There is no bargain to be had with the night: do what needs to be done or disappear.”
She was not the only here there to have doubts, though Christophe’s appeal had not been without impact. Neither was it without sense, Hanno knew. It was all to easy to justify all manners of cruelty by drawing some invisible path linking their avoidance to the victory of Keter. Yet that was no excuse to ignore what still lay just beyond the horizon, waiting for a misstep. It did not surprise the Ashuran that it was Roland who gave further answer, for few among them better understood what still lay ahead of them all.
“We contrast with the end of days,” the Rogue Sorcerer thinly said, “because the end of days is looming. It is not a rhetorical device, Mirror Knight. It’s what happens this winter if we make too many mistakes.”
“We’ve won wars like this one before,” the Blessed Artificer disagreed. “And won them without destroying what we are.”
“We haven’t,” the Vagrant Spear said. “This many soldiers, this many Bestowed, and all we can do is hold? No one’s had a war like this in, maybe not since the Empress Most Dread.”
Even in Levant the memory of Triumphant had not quite faded. Hundreds of thousands had died in the creation of the Titan’s Pond, and most of them had not been Gigantes. Neither had they been Levantines, not exactly, but they had been kin to those tribes that would one day become the Dominion of Levant. It was a good conversation to have, what was being said, and a necessary one. Yet it had strayed from the words that first set it into motion. This was not happenstance.
“Fear, Christophe,” Hanno said, and his voice cut through the room. “That is what I see now. You spoke words, and now you fear them.”
The green-eyed man turned a burning glare towards him.
“You can retract them,” the Ashuran man continued. “Spoken in heat, they can be set aside as the heat fades. Or you can stand by them, if that is your choice. But this pretence that they were not spoken is beneath everyone in this room. Let it end.”
He simply could not leave the venom to linger in the flesh, much as it would be painful to squeeze it out. Else Christophe would leave this room believing that he could keep challenging the powers of the Grand Alliance without consequence, that a Name and a sword made him invincible. He was failing to see the power of the enemies he was making, how even the popular sentiment attached to his fame could turn with the wind. If the Army of Callow and the Firstborn left the fronts over his affronts and it was made known why, how long would it take for every throat from Rhenia to Tenerife to begin howling for the blood of Christophe de Pavanie? There were some who believed that the Black Queen had gone tame, lost her bite, but the White Knight knew better.
There was a saying, in Ashur, that a lioness in her lair was twice as deadly as one in the field.
“I will not allow anyone to kill the Red Axe,” the Mirror Knight said, “not when-”
“That is treason,” the Kingfisher Prince flatly interrupted. “You would be taking up arms against the First Prince and the Highest Assembly, never mind the rest of the Grand Alliance.”
It was a mark of the respect afforded the man by those in the room that no one had even considered complaining that he was the First Prince’s eyes and ears here, even though he’d more often mentioned the opinion of Cordelia Hasenbach than his own. Of course, those that did not notice would be more inclined to take it as their man in Highest Assembly sharing knowledge with them than the other way around. Which made it all the more pointed that the Rogue Sorcerer, by simple virtue of speaking up for restraint and the Terms, had been accused of being Catherine’s creature. The taint associated with magic in these lands was, the White Knight had often thought, one of the most insidious poisons he’d ever seen.
“Taking up arms?” Roland quietly said. “No. Taking up arms is for an army, or at least an armed band. When a single man does it, that’s just called committing a crime.”
He’d meant to impress the pointlessness of such a stand, perhaps, but for once the other hero had misread the room. It’d been taken as a challenge instead and Named were taught to answer challenges only one way. Another chair clattered back.
“He would not be alone,” the Blade of Mercy said.
The young man looked both thrilled and terrified, taking a stand with someone he admired yet uncertain as to the consequences. The heat was rising in the room, and even those not all that inclined to agree with Christophe’s arguments would be feeling a strange leaning towards him right now. Adanna, Sidonia and even the Forlorn Paladin looked troubled by the turn things had taken. We are trained to this, Hanno thought. Conditioned. To side with the underdog, the dark horse. Most of us have been in that place, once in our lives, and it calls to us still. This, though, he could and would nip in the bud.
“How,” the White Knight calmly said, “will you prevent the execution of the Red Axe?”
There was a heartbeat of stillness. Hanno deliberately looked at the pommel of the Severance, leaving his gaze to linger.
“Is that how?” he asked. “Will you cut me down, Christophe?”
“I will not kill you,” the Mirror Knight said, “unless you force me to.”
And like that, he lost the room and the story along with it. He was no longer the rebel fighting tyranny: he was a man threatening to kill a comrade to get his way.
“Do you so badly crave to be part of injustice, Hanno of Arwad?” the Mirror Knight said. “They wouldn’t even let me speak with the Red Axe, did you know? Black Queen’s orders. She’s to be butchered in some dark room-”
“After a trial is held,” the White Knight calmly replied. “After I listen to the evidence, determine guilt, pass my sentence and carry it out. Which will be, almost certainly, death. That she killed the Wicked Enchanter and attempted to kill the Kingfisher Prince is not in doubt, it is established fact.”
The latter man was keeping a close eye on them all, Hanno found. He’d spoken little but missed nothing. Frederic Goethal, the White Knight decided, had not come today to steer the conversation one way or another but to mark the positions and allegiances of his fellow heroes. And while the man was as canny as any prince of Procer, Hanno had no doubt that this was the stratagem of shrewder mind still. Cordelia Hasenbach liked to know the full lay of the board, before she cast her dice.
“She was used by the Wandering Bard,” the Mirror Knight said, “as many of us were. And yet Chosen must die for this offence, while the Black Queen will let off her Damned with a slap on the wrist. And these are the rules you would have us heed?”
Hanno cocked his head to the side. There was no point, he thought, in continuing to argue that Catherine had yet to render any judgement and that she would be holding trials over rather different breaches of the Terms besides. Continuing to drown in details would resolve nothing, for the Mirror Knight was not truly looking to debate anything. His fingers were grasping for a stone to throw, not an answer to consider.
“Yes,” Hanno said.
Christophe visibly stalled at the unexpected reply.
“I will pass judgement over the Red Axe, and carry out the sentence,” the White Knight explicitly stated. “In this matter I cannot be swayed or bargained with. It will be done, that is all. Do you now intend to kill me, Christophe? I will not be fighting you, if that is your choice, so strike at your leisure.”
The eyes of every single person in the room went to the Mirror Knight, whose face had gone red. His hand was on the pommel of the sword, but he’d not unsheathed it. Even the Blade of Mercy took a step back form him. Antoine was not the sort of young man to let even admiration overcome a reluctance to kill in cold blood.
“Let us assume you do kill me,” Hanno gently said. “What happens then, do you think? Will the Grand Alliance let the Red Axe go free?”
“It is the representative for the Chosen that would pass sentence over her,” the Mirror Knight harshly said. “Do not now pretend otherwise.”
“And killing me would make you the representative?” Hanno asked.
The dark-haired knight took a step back, as if struck.
“They would have to,” he said, stumbling over the word. “It would be obvious that…”
“You would need the agreement of every constituent crown of the Grand Alliance,” Hanno said. “Given that you believe the Black Queen to be scheming against us, why would she agree?”
The dark-skinned man leaned forward over the table.
“If she refuses,” Hanno asked, “will you kill her too?”
“She’s Damned,” the Mirror Knight defended.
He took a step back anyway. Giving ground it had become impossible to defend. He would feel it, the way the room was turning against him. Even those he had considered to be his own followers, warped as such a thought was to even entertain.
“And if the First Prince refuses?” Hanno continued. “If the Holy Seljun does, after that? What then, Christophe? How many heads will you have to take before no one is left to argue with you?”
“I haven’t killed anyone,” the Mirror Knight said, voice gone faint. “It doesn’t have to be me, the representative. It could be any of us so long as they see what you won’t. What you can’t, anymore.”
The dark-haired knight’s fingers tightened around the hilt of the sword. Hanno did not tense. Why would he? At the end of the day, he simply did not believe that he was facing someone capable of killing an unarmed man in cold blood.
“You are no longer the Sword of Judgement, White Knight,” Christophe de Pavanie said. “The Seraphim have gone silent, you do not speak with their blessing. What sets you apart from any of us now, Hanno of Arwad?”
And there was his mistake, laid bare. The belief that the justice had ever been in Hanno, when it had always been in the Seraphim. Hanno had not become any blinder, by simple virtue of always having been blind.
“What sets us apart,” Hanno of Arwad replied, “is that you are on your feet, with your hand on your sword.”
The Mirror Knight flinched, fingers leaving the hilt of the Severance as if burned. It would be enough, Hanno prayed. Being shown himself in a mirror, bereft of all the little lies people told themselves to soften the edges of the world, it would be enough. Christophe was not a bad man, even at his worse. His mistakes were sculpted by pride and fear, but they rose from a bedrock of good intentions. And if it ended here, if Hanno had correctly walked the line once more, then this could end without any blood being spilled. Catherine would return to her usual mercenary pragmatism the moment she no longer felt cornered, the First Prince would withdraw if she felt the situation handled and there was simply no one else that would care to contest with him over Christophe. Hanno caught sight of his own face on the Mirror Knight’s bracers, the reflection fleeting but troublingly vivid for the moment it lasted. He had looked calm, the dark-skinned man thought, but also aloof. Almost indifferent.
The Ashuran felt the turn of the tide in the air, even thousands of miles away from any sea at all.
“You are not the only one allowed principles, White Knight,” Christophe said. “You are willing to die over this? So am I. And if you will not free the Red Axe, I will.”
The Severance cleared the scabbard with a rising whistling sound, as if it were cutting the very air of the hall. The Mirror Knight’s sleeve tore with fine cuts that looked like veins, but his polished braces remained untouched. Already he was learning to use the artefact, Hanno thought, though if not for the whistling the Severance would hardly have looked like one. The arming sword, for all its power, was not a fantastical sight. Its steel was fine and touched with small, shadowy patterns like trails of smoke that could hardly be seen with the naked eye, but it neither glowed nor shone, or boasted some fanciful enchantment. The guard was straight, the pommel an angular globe, and the handle covered by an iron grip. The sheath was an ornate thing, but the sword? No, the sword would not have suffered ornament. There was still enough of Laurence de Montfort in there such frivolity would have been carved right through.
Three people rose to their feet in quick order – Sidonia, first, then the Kingfisher Prince and lastly Roland – but Hanno was not of them. He only met Christophe’s green eyes, unblinking.
“Nothing of what you seek can be obtained using that,” he said, gesturing towards the blade.
“You’ve drawn steel on allies,” the Vagrant Spear said, tone icy as she palmed a knife. “Sheathe now, or you will be treated as a foe.”
The Kingfisher Prince drew as well, sword coming out with a muted ring, and Roland pushed back his chair so he could have a clear line of fire for his sorceries. The Blade of Mercy had only a hunting knife at his hip but he drew that, falling to Mirror Knight’s side and covering his flank.
“This is madness,” the Blind Maker said. “We are Chosen, not-”
“Sheathe the sword, Mirror Knight,” the Kingfisher Prince coolly interrupted. “And put it on the table: you have proved unfit to bear it.”
“Enough,” the White Knight said, finally rising to his feet. “Christophe-”
Hanno saw, from the corner of his eye, Helmgard’s eyes go flinty as she glared at the Mirror Knight. He was, damn him, still just a little too slow. The Bitter Blacksmith kicked the table into Christophe, half-flipping it, and the Hells broke loose. Hanno tried to catch it but it slipped through his fingers, and before he could do anything more the Severance had carved an eerily neat path through it. The Vagrant Spear was halfway into a leap, knife raised, but the Blade of Mercy made to stop her even as the Blind Maker scrabbled to get out of the way. Helmgard had already snatched up half the table and she swung it with little skill but enough strength to shatter stone – the White Knight, Light flickering around his hand, shattered it in her grip.
Antoine made to avoid the blind old man between himself and Sidonia and succeeded but at the cost of a stumble. The Vagrant Spear’s foot hit his jaw and the young man went down, but before Sidonia could try to move on the Mirror Knight a streak of Light tossed by Adanna passed in front of her – it hit the edge of Christophe’s left brace and most of it careened away, though the metal glowed with heat. The Kingfisher Prince weaved through the chaos with a dancer’s grace, ducking under a flailing Helmgard and coming up against the Mirror Knight’s flank. Sword met and the Alamans prince parried adeptly enough his sword was not simply sliced through, but in matters of might he was outmatched and had to take a step back.
Hanno did not let him press his attack, grabbing him by the back of the neck – the man started in complete surprise – and tossing him towards the back of the hall unceremoniously. The Blade of Mercy had gotten back on his feet and he tried to force back the Vagrant Spear but she turned the blow, caught his shoulder in a hold and forced him to his knees. Passing the knife into her free hand she twirled it as she readied a blow. Hanno, from where he stood, could see she meant to strike Antoine’s temple with the pommel of her knife after flipping it. Yet from where the Mirror Knight stood, all that could be seen was the Blade of Mercy on his knees and the Vagrant Spear drawing back her arm for a blow.
The White Knight saw it all come together, as if he were looking down at it from above. Christophe’s wrist rising as he prepared his own blow, stepping forward through flying shards of wood. Sidonia seeing the movement at the edge of her peripheral vision and her body trying to react – she lost her rhythm, and what would have been a blow of the pommel as it went down instead remained a strike with the point of the knife. And in turning towards the blow, what would have been a cut through her wrist instead passed through the front half of her face. It would kill her, sure as day, even if it had not been meant to.
The window to act would be slight, for all here were Named, but he was not among the least skilled of his kind. The White Knight moved with purpose, balancing it all on the span of a single breath. His left hand caught Sidonia’s wrist before it could come all the way down, leaving to prick Antoine’s skin just lightly enough no blood was drawn. And with his right he turned aside the Severance, forcing it to the side so that no life would be taken. The edge of the sword carved through the first two phalanges of his middle finger and through his ring and little finger before veering off, the Mirror Knight ending the blow before it cut into the ground.
Hanno had yet to draw his sword.
“No,” Christophe hoarsely shouted, drawing back.
The White Knight’s fingers dropped to the ground. The cut had been clean and painless, but it might still kill him if – Hanno resorted to an old trick let out a pulse of blinding Light, brute forcing the healing and hardening the skin irreparably. There’d be no mending what the Severance had cut, anyhow.
“Sheathe your blades,” Hanno said, and his tone brooked no argument. “Every last one of you.”
It had taken more than just Christophe de Pavanie for it to come to this.
“I-” the Mirror Knight stammered, “I didn’t mean to-”
And before anyone could speak so much as a word, he bolted for the door. Hanno almost cursed. He’d expected anguish, not flight. This was potentially much worse. The door opened the other way but it had not been meant to resist Named and it broke with barely a touch as the Mirror Knight pushed through, the White Knight forcing aside the Vagrant Spear as she moved into his way. He flicked a glance back to the assembled heroes.
“By my authority under the Terms, I order that you all return to your quarters and remain there until sent for,” Hanno said, tone forcefully calm.
He did not stay long enough for anybody to begin arguing, instead stepping into the halls of the Alcazar and catching sight of the Mirror Knight turning the corner. Christophe would have no destination, right now, but Hanno knew that the longer he ran with the sight of burning bridges at his back the more the Mirror Knight would look for a way to justify all of this, any of this. And that mean, right now, the Red Axe. If Christophe hurt or even accidentally killed guards breaking her out, Hanno knew there would be no saving his life. There would be no deal to be made, no bargain when so many heroes had broken so many roles. The tolerance from the Grand Alliance would run dry.
As things stood, there was only one way to settle this.
The White Knight breathed out and let Light flood his veins, hastening his steps. He scarred the stone as he turned the corner, Christophe not far ahead, and unclasped his sheathed sword from his belt. The Mirror Knight glanced back just in time to see the strike coming and twist around to face the White Knight, narrowly avoiding the blow at the back of his knee that would have had him tumbling.
“It didn’t have to be like this,” Christophe pleadingly said. “You could have listened, and you can still-”
“I’m sorry,” Hanno said. “But now it has to end a certain way.”
If I do not show them I am capable of handling you physically, this can only end in your death. Christophe did not truly want to fight, even if his body reacted to being attacked, so his initial reaction was sloppy. The Severance was swung quickly and powerfully but with little skill, trying to cut through Hanno’s own sheathed blade, but strength without precisions was meaningless. The White Knight took half a step back, then use the backfoot and a flicker of Light in what had once been the Flawless Fencer’s favourite trick: the side of his sheath struck the Mirror Knight on the left cheek, smashing him to the side. The pain returned Christophe de Pavanie to the there and then, his eyes hardening.
“You lost a hand,” the Mirror said. “Retire, before I must hurt you.”
Hanno had lived through so many memories he hardly recalled whether he’s originally been left-handed or right-handed, not that it mattered. He was perfectly capable of using either hand to wield a sword.
“Your worry does you honour,” Hanno evenly said, “but it is unnecessary.”
Something like anger flickered across the other knights’ face and he rushed forward. A simple swing forced the White Knight back and with a half step he feigned use of the same trick – yet when Christophe threw a punch where his face would have been were he reiterating, instead the other man caught the Mirror Knight’s wrist with the hand he’d freed by dropping his sheathed sword. Light scouring his veins, Hanno clenched his fingers around the bracers until they crumpled and threw his hip. Lifting Christophe de Pavanie, he smashed the other hero into the ground like a mace. The stone cracked rather than the Mirror Knight, but the tremor toppled several of the magelights hanging above. They toppled, several cracking and the light of the hall began flickering. Christophe shouted, Light glimmering over him, but Hanno called on it as well and threaded the two together.
Before the Mirror Knight understood what was happening, he seized the now single-entity Light and used it to strengthen both his kneecaps as Implacable Monk had been fond of doing – he then hammered his boot down into Christophe’s throat, knowing that the Mirror Knight was too tough for it to kill him. The other man choked and Hanno repeated the process thrice, each time increasing strength as the stone fractured beneath them and the ground shook. The Mirror Knight’s hand seized his ankle after the third time and he swung the Severance upwards and half-blind. Hanno leaned down, snatched up his sheathed sword and pragmatically slapped the other man in the eyes with the side of the sheath. Christophe yelped and released the foot, which returned to kick his chin at full strength.
The White Knight had not strengthened his kneecap this time, unfortunately, so while the strengthening on his limb held fine he felt the bone of his knee crack.
Pushing down the wave of pain he drew back a step, waiting for the Mirror Knight to get up on his knee before sweeping it – and, this time, smashing down on the wrist with his sheathed sword. The Severance clattered on the floor and Christophe screamed in pain and anger, catching the sheathed sword in his grip and effortlessly crushing it. Hanno released the hilt, but not quickly enough: he was tugged down enough that the Mirror Knight caught his tabard and dragged him even further down. Aware that wrestling with a man who might as well be made of steel would be foolish, the White Knight used his still-bloody mutilated hand to hook a finger into the Mirror Knight’s mouth and drag the other man’s face straight into his knee.
Christophe’s nose broke, but so did Hanno’s kneecap.
It bought him long enough, however. Catching the bloodied man by the back of the neck even as he dropped to his knees in pain, Hanno let the Light run loose through his veins until he could feel it filling him to the brim. He smashed the Mirror Knights head into the ground, repeatedly, as Christophe struggled against the other hand keeping him from turning properly to fight. Hanno felt several of his bones fracture from the other hero’s twisting about, but on the sixth impact Christophe de Pavanie finally fell unconscious. The Light slowly left him, leaving behind only waves of pain as the lights continued flickering and casting the fractured and bloodied stone into strange reliefs. The White Knight breathed in and out slowly for some time, but the sound of boots forced him to open them again. Gingerly, he took the sheath of the Severance from the Mirror Knight’s side and slid the artefact back into at the costs of only a few shallow cuts on his fingers.
Soldiers poured into the hallway from both sides, staying in the steady lights.
The legionaries of the Army of Callow were the easiest to recognize, the painted shields and red tabards that heralded some of the finest professional soldiers of Calernia putting a name to them just as surely as the unique mixture of orcs and humans of different hues. Yet there were other soldiers there, in colours less straightforward to place even though their long mail coats, coiffe and broad rim helm marked them as Proceran. Swords and spears came to the fore in good order, the now infamously deadly Callowan crossbowmen spreading out in the back. Quite a lot of trouble, Hanno thought, for only two men – only one of which was conscious, besides. Admittedly, he tiredly thought, they had made something of a ruckus.
Unfriendly eyes remained steady on him as he rose to his feet with a swallowed moan of pain, but the White Knight was hailed by no officer. He’d not expected to be, as it happened. There were only two people in the Arsenal who would have had the authority to mobilize troops like this, and it was unlike the First Prince of Procer to be so heavy-handed. With the crisp sound of steel-clad boots hitting stone, the legionaries smoothly split to the sides and a shadowed silhouette began limping her way towards him. Even through the helmets Hanno could glimpse the burning, violent devotion those soldiers had for Catherine Foundling. It was in the way they looked at her as she moved past them, in the way the stood taller and with straighter backs for her mere presence.
Some of the White Knight’s colleagues worried of the Black Queen’s power, of her fearsome mastery of Night, but that’d never been anything to him. It was strength, and strength failed. But the look in those soldiers’ eyes, those orcs and Taghreb and Soninke and Callowans? That was a dangerous thing. Hanno knew faith when he saw it, after all. Faith in their saint of impossible victories, in their hard-handed goddess of blood and mud. That look in their eyes would still matter long after strength had faded into irrelevance.
Catherine Foundling limped forward, the uneven steps somehow ominous even without the sharp contrast of her absent staff against stone. The Queen of Callow was, to his great surprise, wearing a dress. Long-sleeved and lightly touched with silver thread, the black velvet suited her well and was even accented with a set of silver bracelets. The dark fabric complimented the tan of her skin, and her braid was rather more elaborate than the simple ponytail she usually kept her hair in. It was an odd sight, in the sense that he was unaccustomed to it, but it was returned to a semblance of normalcy by what followed.
The Archer, who sometimes filled Catherine’s shadow in place of the Adjutant, stepped out from behind her queen and flicked her hand. A small packet was caught by the Queen of Callow, who then produced seemingly from nowhere a long pipe of Hanno suspected to be genuine dragonbone and began stuffing it with wakeleaf. The White Knight studied the Archer, whose bow was not yet strung, and decided this would not be a confrontation. Deadly as the Ranger’s most famous pupil was with her blades, it was a paltry thing compared to the threat she was with a bow in hand. Falling in slightly behind the Black Queen, the hard smile the Archer was offering him was revealed by the sudden flicker of flame of Catherine lighting her pipe. Within moments, she spat out a thick stream of acid smoke as the red embers lit up her face.
Wreathed by shadows and smoke, Catherine studied him with cool eyes as she closed the last of the distance. A moment of silence took hold between them, and she was the one to break it,
“Busy night?” the Black Queen asked, smiling as if she’d spoken a jest only she knew.