“If you want something done right, steal it from someone who did.”
– Dread Emperor Malevolent I, the Unhallowed
I’d become unfortunately familiar with a certain feeling over the years that was hard to describe, at least in Lower Miezan.
It was that mixture of relief and wincing that came from looking at a debacle but knowing at least it wasn’t a catastrophe. Like if you came back one evening to find your barn was on fire, but at leas the livestock wasn’t in it. I’d told Akua this, once, after one too many times looking at the near wipe of a forward patrol that’d still caught a probe from Keter before it could do damage, and she’d answered with amusement that there was in fact an expression in Mthethwa for it. Kutofa ushidi, which more or less translated to ‘victory in failure’. It was a recurring theme in Praesi plays, particularly their comedies, with the traditional protagonist of those being Dread Emperor Baneful – who’d never actually been emperor, only one of the claimants during the War of Thirteen Tyrants and One. He was notable mostly for somehow having managed to hang on until nearly the end with only a string of mitigated defeats to his name.
Akua could actually quote some passages from one of the more famous plays, The Long Road to Ater, and it’d been as endearing as it had been surreal to hear her chortle about Baneful accidentally poisoning his cousin instead of his husband – only to later find out that she’d been about to betray him. He had, Akua had gleefully explained, avoided his own assassination but only at the price of a feud with his distinctly unimpressed warlock brother-in-law, who promptly cursed him. Any play with that much murder in it would probably have been a tragedy instead, in Callow. Except if it were foreigners doing the dying. Which was why I had rather mixed feelings, looking at the mutilated White Knight and the bloodied, unconscious body of the Mirror Knight. The Severance had been returned to the sheath and was now in Hanno’s hands, but there was less of those than there used to be.
Three fingers lost on his right hand, though at least he’d kept the thumb and index. He’d still be able to write with it even as he waited for a prosthetic, though I did believe he was ambidextrous regardless.
“You might say that,” the White Knight serenely replied.
Not quite so serene he was able to hide how he was trying not to put too much weight on his knees, gingerly shifting his footing. Though the cracked stone floor and the lack of cuts spoke to an overwhelming victory by Hanno of Arwad, I suspected it’d been a closer thing than it seemed. How many bones had he cracked just by hitting the other man? If the Mirror Knight had not fallen unconscious, it would have been the beginning of a downwards slide for the Sword of Judgement: I knew for a fact that his healing was shoddy, and not without adverse effects. Mind you, I thought as I pulled at my pipe and eyed Christophe de Pavanie’s blatantly broken nose, he’d still won. And without using a blade, by the looks of it, which was impressive. You were making a statement, I thought, studying him openly. That you can handle him on your own, and so there is no need for anyone to step in.
It was about three fingers too late for that.
Indrani, who’d been at my back this whole time, let out a low whistle.
“Nice scrap,” she praised. “But you missed a spot.”
The way she trailed a finger across her throat while looking at the Mirror Knight made it clear what she meant by that. I didn’t correct her, or indeed say anything at all, simply watching Hanno. I’d be a grave misstep for me to have even the slightest and most indirect of hands in the death of Christophe de Pavanie, as even the appearance of my involvement with the killing of a heroic opponent of mine would blow up in my face like a crate of sharpers. If the White Knight was the one who took his head, though, that was a different story. While an argument could be made that the Mirror Knight was simply too useful and powerful a Named to execute, I was lukewarm to the prospect of keeping the man alive. Part of that was that he was a very direct threat to me, but there was also the fact that he’d just fucking cut up the representative for the heroes under the Terms.
The White Knight hadn’t said anything, but after days at Hakram’s bedside I was painfully familiar with what cuts made by the Severance looked like.
“The Mirror Knight breached the Terms,” Hanno said, ignoring Indrani outright and looking straight at me. “But he has been subdued without lasting harm being done. I will now take him into custody, if you have no objection.”
I spewed out a stream of smoke, watching it spin and writhe before me. I didn’t want – and couldn’t afford – my hands on any of this, but I balked at simply leaving the Mirror Knight in a cell without further supervision than what Hanno might judge fit to provide. On the other hand, what were my alternatives? I couldn’t put him under a guard of my own without it looking like a villain had taken a hero prisoner and I sure as Hells wasn’t going to leave him loose in the Arsenal. Besides, the White Knight might have asked if I had objections but he wasn’t simply going to do whatever I asked. He’d listen to any grievances I had and try to address them, but Hanno wasn’t going to roll over something like this and I had little appetite for picking a fight. I still tapped the side of my own hand, where the dark-skinned hero was now missing fingers.
“That requires consequences,” I warned. “And do not expect to find much mercy in me.”
Or Hasenbach, for that matter, I thought. The First Prince would have taken it a greater victory to bring the Mirror Knight to her way of seeing things than to quell him, until now, but this little episode would change things. The baggage he’d be bringing with him when going under her wing would begin outweighing his uses, to such a canny princess’ eyes: anything he did after becoming an ally would reflect on her, and her position was too delicate to be able to afford much bumbling. Considering I spoke for Callow as well as Below’s lot and the Dominion had little reason to be fond of the Mirror Knight, that boded ill for the man in question. Hanno would be the one to pass the sentence, in the end, but the White Knight no more operated in a vacuum than I did.
Hanno did not blink in the face of my stare, unmoved.
“The Terms will be upheld,” the White Knight answered. “I will not let intentions excuse actions.”
But, I thought, for though his eyes were calm they had hardened.
“But make no mistake, Catherine,” the Sword of Judgement continued. “I will not sacrifice a good man for the sake of convenience. The Terms constrain, but they also protect.”
“At three fingers the chance taken on a fool, you’ll run out of one long before the other,” Archer sardonically said.
Well, she wasn’t wrong. I breathed in a mouthful of wakeleaf, savouring the burn I’d not allowed myself to indulge in when sharing a room with the First Prince out of politeness. Through flickering lights, rows of soldiers on both sides awaiting only my command to bare steel, I watched the White Knight. Even without armour, even without either of the swords on him having left their scabbards, he felt dangerous. Not like a blade at my throat, for there was not a speck of hostility in his stance, but like a sharp stone under water. It didn’t look like much until you tried to step on it, and by the time you felt the pain it was already too late. I’d trust him, I decided, at least for tonight. He had yet to disappoint me, and I’d not break that streak by forcing a fight that was not necessary. I hoped it would never be. But if it ever were, I would pick my grounds better than this.
I spat out the smoke, making my choice.
“I won’t war over what might be,” I said. “Take him, Hanno. But don’t forget how many eyes are on you, either.”
He inclined his head the slightest bit, not in concession but in acknowledgement.
“Have the Severance back in its room before night’s over,” I said, and it was not a suggestion.
On that I left him to his bloodied and bloody fool, Archer offering a singsong and almost taunting good night, and limped back to the ranks of my legionaries. They closed behind me seamlessly and I took aside the commanding officer long enough to order a line be sent to escort the White Knight as he carried the other Named to his holding cell. Some Proceran soldiers, I saw, were missing.
Cordelia would be getting a report soon enough, and tomorrow would bring consequences for all.
I woke up around what would have been dawn, were we still in Creation.
For all the weight of what had taken place yesterday – as much my conversations with the First Prince as the Mirror Knight’s beating and imprisonment – I found relatively little to do when I woke. I broke my fast quickly and retreated to Hakram’s room in the infirmary to see to what few affairs I had. I penned a recommendation to the First Army’s general staff for Lieutenant Inger to be promoted to captain, for her exemplary service when commanding against a demon, knowing it’d likely end up on Juniper’s desk. The First Army had been gutted to fill all sorts of needs, from garrisoning the Arsenal to organizing training camps and providing escorts for supply trains, which my marshal had been less than pleased by. It’d still been the natural pick, even she had admitted that, considering that Juniper still couldn’t work for more than a few hours a day without having… episodes.
Malicia had a lot to answer for. Tariq had seen to my old friend personally and assured me that eventually the damage that’d been done to her mind by the Empress’ planted controls would mend itself, but that it would take time. The Hellhound still got more done in a slice of a day than most people did with a full one, and had violently resisted the notion of resting more fully even though it’d accelerate her recovery, but these days she was forced to rely on her general staff too much for the First to be a functional battlefield command. I could have named someone else to serve as general under her and lead on the field, but why offer that insult when I had need of soldiers for all sorts of detached duties? At this point even if tomorrow she was healed her soldiers would still be more useful in their current assignments, so it’d change nothing. Mind you, if we were to assault northern Hainaut come summer I’d want her to be part of the planning so she might have to leave her staff behind for a bit. Aisha would be politely furious at me for making her travel, but there was no helping it.
I saw to some minor correspondence after that, the sort that seemed to accrue like dust wherever I stayed for more than a day, and wrote a formal request for the Arsenal to begin working on prosthetics for Adjutant. I’d already gone to the Named directly and found both the Blind Maker and the Hunted Magician highly amenable – the latter in particular, since he wanted to buy his way back into my good graces – but it would be easier to shake loose rare substances if this was made formal. As Queen of Callow I had no problem paying for any of this from my treasury, but a lot of the more precious materials in the Arsenal were bought through the Grand Alliance instead of anyone’s personal agents. It was half past Morning Bell that Archer strolled in to tell me of the day’s first arrival, which I’d been expecting for some time: Vivienne was, at last, about to get here.
To my surprise, Masego had roused himself to welcome her in person as well. The three of us set out together, which drew eyes enough as we made our way through the halls. The Woe had something of a reputation.
“I’m glad you made time for this,” I told Zeze. “It’s been a while since you’ve seen her, right?”
“We scried a fortnight ago,” Masego contradicted.
He was, I supposed, technically correct. He usually was, especially so when it was most annoying for everyone else.
“In person, I mean,” I specified.
I’d not seen Vivienne in person for… a little over a year, now? There’d been that conference in the Brabantine heartlands last winter, when I’d gone down in person to hasten along the negotiations over how the refugees were to be settled – the new Prince of Lyonis had been pushing for forced conscription of all those of fighting age, which would have been a disaster – when she’d sent word the process was being stalled. In all fairness, the Procerans hadn’t even been the most obstructive people in that conference. That honour had belonged to the delegates for the Dominion, who’d been trying to argue that the mass of displaced were an issue of the Principate alone and not worth discussion by the Grand Alliance at all.
We’d been in the same small city, Malben, for about a week before I returned north to prepare for the offensive. We’d spent a few hours together on several evenings, aside from the time duty ensured we’d spend side by side, but in truth we’d simply been too damned busy to spend much time together. She just as much as I, which not that many people could claim. I’d effectively dropped all Callowan affairs and foreign diplomacy into Vivienne’s lap, and while she’d taken to both admirably in tidier times both those duties would have warranted different appointments by sheer virtue of the work they represented. There was a reason that her personal staff had swelled by more than a dozen times over but I’d never once balked at signing onto the costs involved.
“Under those terms, it has been seventeen months,” Hierophant replied. “Not since her official visit to the Arsenal.”
“She actually likes the place, unlike some,” Indrani said, glancing at me sideways. “Mind you, that might just be the Thief in her salivating at so much nifty stuff being kept in the same place.”
“Vivienne would not steal from the Arsenal,” Masego firmly said.
Aw, I thought, looking at him fondly. The faith there was a little touching.
“Given the authority Catherine has granted her, it would only count as a requisition,” Hierophant told us.
A little less touching now, admittedly. Indrani snickered.
“Don’t Procerans have a saying about thieves and crowns?” she said.
“Petty thieves hang, the great wear crowns,” I quoted in Chantant.
Archer grinned at me.
“Give it a few years,” she said, “and we’ll proving that true.”
I snorted, mildly amused. I’d never made a mystery of my intention to abdicate in favour of Vivienne after the war, at least not among the Woe – though it wasn’t common knowledge outside them, to this day. It’d been with a mixture of pleasure and irritation that I’d realized that few of them actually cared. Archer was largely indifferent to crowns, and I suspected she fully intended on continuing send up bills to the royal palace even after it became Viv’s, while Masego had actually been pleased. It’d give me more time to help him with a few things, he’d been happy to tell me. We’d never made a proper study of Night, and since I’d have no use for all that power I wielded he did have a few projects that could use the fuel… At least it’d not been too difficult to talk him into setting up shop at Cardinal when it was raised, which as a side-benefit ensured Indrani would have a permanent anchor there no matter where the wind ended up taking her.
“I’m still glad you made time,” I told Zeze. “Unlike some here, you’re actually busy.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Cat,” Indrani blithely said, “I’m sure that whole queen thing will pay off eventually.”
“It pays for you, sullen wench,” I grunted back. “Though I’m beginning to question the wisdom of that.”
“I’ve never bought a drop of anything with Grand Alliance gold,” she righteously assured me.
I raised an eyebrow. Did she really expect I’d fall for that?
“How about silver?” I pointedly asked.
A heartbeat of silence passed.
“Zeze’s only here because he accidentally broke his spheres bothering elves,” Archer said, shamelessly selling him out without even a speck of hesitation.
I mouthed at her she was not yet out of the woods, then turned a cocked brow to Masego.
“I made the spheres,” Hierophant told me, a tad smugly. “And the spell that broke them. Therefore I did, in a sense, make time.”
Huh. I’d be damned. Compared to his usual brand of sneakiness, that was positively devious. I was inclined to blame Roland for this. The Rogue Sorcerer was pretty tricky sort, for a man who went around in a leather coat shooting fire at people.
“You’re spending too much time with Alamans,” I told him.
“The only thing you should listen to them about is the kissing,” Indrani agreed.
I shot her an amused look. Having recently basked in the luxury of displays of affections from her partner, it looked like she wasn’t willing lose the goods quite to soon. The braided mage cocked his head to the side.
“But it was from two of you I learned to dissemble,” Masego said, looking puzzled.
I swallowed a startled noise that was as appalled as it had been amused, because he’d been completely earnest about that. It was truly his most dangerous magic, I thought, that damned disarming earnestness.
“Catherine’s a bad influence,” Indrani told him. “The Grey Pilgrim said so that once, and that’s basically just like angels saying it.”
“Hear that?” I said, and allowed for a moment of silence. “That’s the sound of your discretionary funds getting audited, Archer.”
Naturally, she called me a brutal tyrant and the three of us managed to keep bickering all the way to the plaza where Vivienne would be translating in. Gods, but it was good to be home. It wasn’t the same with just Indrani or Hakram, though they tried. We’d simply gone through too many crucibles as a band of five for it to ever feel truly complete without all of the Woe there. Not that we would be, even when Vivienne got here. Adjutant had yet to wake. With that thought dampening what had been a rising mood, I found myself limping down the same bloody set of stairs for what felt like the hundredth time. Wasn’t there another access point without quite so many of those?
“It should all be slopes,” I muttered under my breath. “Nice, gentle slopes.”
The murderholes, siege engines and well-armed soldiers could stay, though. Those were always a good investment, in my experience. Indrani pretended she hadn’t heard me, hiding her smile in her scarf, and the three of us settled at the bottom to wait for Vivienne. It would have been convenient for her to arrive immediately, but instead it took long enough we ended up playing dice on the floor to make the wait tolerable. Masego cheated with sorcery borrowed from one of the silver trinkets in his braids, but that was fine: they were Indrani’s dice anyway, so they were loaded, and I’d yet to throw them without first weaving an illusion guaranteeing me the numbers I wanted.
Lady Vivienne Dartwick, heiress-designate to the crown of the Kingdom of Callow, arrived to the sadly not unprecedented sight of the Archer threatening to rise in rebellion if I didn’t stop abusing my powers to make her roll snake eyes – only to then roll another pair, as Masego was evidently finding her anger quite amusing and wasn’t above using an aspect for petty indulgence.
“This is Grand Alliance property, you filthy gambling vagrants,” Vivienne called out. “I’ll have you tossed out.”
The four mages that’d made the translation with her looked terrified, at least until I began laughing.
“She’s cheating, too,” Indrani complained. “It is a sad day indeed for the House of Foundling, that its head would resort to such sordid treachery.”
“We were all cheating,” Masego happily said, “you were simply the worst at it.”
An offended squawk was his answer and I left them to it, instead turning to have a better look at my friend. I was struck, once more, with how little she now resembled the woman I’d first met in Summerholm all those years ago. In principle not much had changed: her hair was still dark brown, her eyes that pleasant blue-grey tone and her slender frame had yet to thicken. The hair was even longer than when I’d last seen her, and as was her habit kept in a milkmaid braid that evoked a crown, but it was the little details that made all the difference. She’d aged, not by much but enough that her face had grown mature. And though she was visibly tired, even in her blue riding dress and trousers there was a lightness to her that was the burning opposite of the anger she’d carried with her everywhere during her eyes as the Thief.
Losing her Name had been good for her in a lot of ways.
I limped up to her, leaning on my staff, and she met me halfway. I pulled her in close for a hug, enjoying how she was one of the few people close enough to me in height it felt like there was little difference there. Her grip was firm when she returned the embrace, and I noted with approval she’d kept in shape. Just because she’d traded the respectable form of theft that was burglary on rooftops for the organized form of theft that was taxation from a palace was no reason to let herself go. Mind you, Vivienne had always been whip-lean in a way that was from breeding as much as an active nightlife of skulking through alleys.
“Catherine,” she smiled, after drawing back. “It’s good to see you.”
It’d been a while since I’d last felt pangs of attraction towards Vivienne, but now and then when she smiled like that I remembered why I’d felt them. It was a done thing, but not unsweet to look back on for all that it’d been entirely one-sided.
“And you,” I replied. “Would that you could have gotten here sooner. I heard something about rains?”
“They flooded the roads,” Vivienne said. “There were levees but they broke – no plot there, simply gone unrepaired for too long.”
I grimaced. I doubted it’d be the only place where something like that had happened. Considering the dark picture that Hasenbach and Frederic had painted for me on the state of the Principate, I suspected that a truly staggering amount of maintenance work must have gone undone because there were more pressing needs to fill.
“We’ll have our fill of plotting in here anyway, I think,” I sighed. “Things had been moving quickly enough in here that I suspect even you won’t have heard all of it.”
The Jacks had people in the Arsenal, naturally, as did the Circle of Thorns. The Dominion did not have designated spies so much as captains sending regular reports, which was perhaps not too surprising – it was a lot less centralized than either Callow or Procer, and if I’d learned anything about spies since becoming queen it was that they cost a lot of fucking money. A lot more than, say, one of the major Levantine lords would be able to afford tossing into such an enterprise if they didn’t want to fall behind their neighbours when it came to fielding soldiers. The Old Kingdom hadn’t been all that different, even though the Fairfaxes hadn’t been the largely symbolic leaders the Isbili still were. Nowadays we could afford the Jacks in part because nobility wasn’t there to drain the pot anymore, so to speak. Callow hadn’t gotten much richer, but a lot of more of its gold ended up in the royal treasury than before.
“I’ve no difficulty believing that,” Vivienne grimly replied.
We parted ways entirely just in time for Indrani to squeeze in between us, throwing out her arms around our shoulders.
“Vivi,” she grinned. “Long time no see.”
The former thief snorted.
“Last time you gave me that grin it was after emptying my liquor cabinet,” Vivienne said. “Though I’ll admit it was a nice touch to fill the bottles back up with water.”
“A lot harder than you’d think, too,” Archer cheerfully said. “Especially considering how drunk I got from drinking all your liquor.”
Masego’s long fingers were laid on Indrani’s shoulders and he gently moved her aside, freeing Vivienne at the price of leaving me stuck with a pouting Archer. Hierophant offered her a smile and, as ‘Drani and I watched expectantly, bent down to kiss Vivienne’s cheeks one after the other. She froze, not answering even when Masego welcomed her to the Arsenal. The flabbergasted look on my fellow Callowan’s face had been well worth the wait, I decided. She threw Indrani a confused and almost pleading look, which Archer answered with her usual shit-eating grin. She turned towards me after, perhaps expecting a greater degree of helpfulness coming from there.
“Zeze’s been rubbing elbows with Alamans,” I sagely said.
Which explained the kissing, at least, though the initiative to start doing it was all him.
“People keep repeating variations on that sentence,” Masego said, sounding peeved. “As if it were some sort of conversational panacea. Shall I obtain such an elbow and carry it around so that I can behave outlandishly without facing questions?”
“There’s probably a few still lying around the Graveyard,” Indrani mused. “Couldn’t be that hard to get our hands on one.”
“I see that in some ways remarkably little has changed,” Vivienne drily said, catching my eye.
I shrugged, offering her a small grin. If her days were anything like mine, and they most likely were, then this… lightness must be a balm on the soul. After hours of deciding life and death for thousands, of making ugly compromises and closing your eye to small evils, there was nothing quite like ribbing and idle talk with people you loved to remind yourself you were alive. A person, too, not just a collection of necessary decisions given a frame to inhabit. The four mages that’d translated with Vivienne had given us a wide berth, accurately guessing that the reunion of four of the Woe wasn’t something to just stand around listening to, but she left us for a bit to thank them and request that she be informed when her personal affairs arrived. She’d come with several wagons, apparently, and only pulled ahead of them and her entourage when it came to crossing into the Arsenal itself. Zeze and Indrani took the lead in going up the stairs, leaving us behind in a conversation that was unlikely to be of much interest to either.
“We’ve got lots around the corner,” I told her as we began our way up. “And it’ll be coming at us quick.”
“The trials, for one,” Vivienne agreed.
She’d know about two, the Red Axe and the Hunted Magician, but there might be a third on the horizon she wouldn’t have heard about. Whether the Mirror Knight would end up before a tribunal or not I couldn’t be sure, but I suspected he would. Hanno would want the Grand Alliance to have the opportunity to speak, if not sentence.
“The war council, too, which will start when Lord Marave gets here,” I said.
“I take it the First Prince has spoken to you on the subject of the Mercantis troubles as well?” my heiress asked.
“She did. Their envoys due here in a few days, Hasenbach and I are to dazzle and scare them so they continue coughing up coin,” I replied. “You heard about the Gigantes?”
“The Arsenal seemed like the natural location to entertain their envoy, this Ykines,” she confirmed. “Considering they requested the White Knight personally it was almost a given it would have to happen now, before the two of you return to the front.”
“I’ve limited hopes there, but even their scraps would be damnably useful,” I said. “Talked about them with the White Knight, he has good insight. Hard to say when they’ll get there, but I’m betting after the trials.”
“Quite a few weeks,” Vivienne drily said. “And to think we used to have the occasional restful month, you and I, where there was no especially urgent fire to put out.”
“A lot more ground to cover these days,” I mused, “and a lot more fires with it. There’s also a last thing, now that I think of it, which ought to be soon-”
Behind us sorcery roiled as another translation into the Arsenal began. Ah, of course Creation would deign indulge me now. A moment later the Painted Knife and her band of five passed through the gate, bringing with them a secret the Dead King believed would chill our blood.
Well, I supposed it’d make something to chat about over lunch.