“One who rears a tiger should not complain of stripes.”
– Soninke saying
The Painted Knife’s band had been one of the first we’d assembled, back in the first days under the Truce and Terms.
I’d been a given that a hero would have to lead it, as even with Hanno and the Pilgrim backing the Terms there would have been desertions if a villain had been put in charge of Above’s precious little bastards. The Painted Knife, whose name was Kallia, was a tall woman who wore elaborate red face paint and had been Tariq’s personal recommendation for the task. A heroine but not from one of the Dominion’s great lines, and one who tended to be more comfortable on the prowl than standing shoulder to shoulder in a shield wall. I’d wedged in a Proceran villain I’d thought it best to keep out of sight for a while, the Poisoner, since amnesty or not she’d killed a lot of nobles. She was a decent alchemist besides, which tended to be useful in all sorts of ways, though naturally to keep an eye on her the heroes had pushed for a Proceran hardcase known as the Relentless Magistrate to be added to the band.
The man was deeply unpleasant to anyone he considered to be a criminal but obsessed with respecting the letter of the law and a prodigious investigator, so I’d made my peace with it. To add a bit of bite to the band we’d rustled up the Grizzled Fantassin, though we’d had to appropriately pad her retirement fund to get her on board, and since I wasn’t sending anyone hunting for old secrets without a dedicated mage I’d reluctantly parted with the Royal Conjurer. The Helikean mage was an escapee from Kairos’ rise to power and remarkably flexible in ability – he was a more than decent combat mage as well as capable of subtler touches – so it’d been a real loss sending him out. He would have been a good fit at the Arsenal, or any of the fronts for that matter, but in my experience sending a band of five digging into ancient mysteries without some sort of magical support tended to result mostly in corpses.
Yet they’d returned, at long last, and all five of them were alive. Not without some missing parts – I saw with dismay that the Grizzled Fantassin was missing a finger, and from what I remembered of her contract that was going to put a dent in someone’s savings – but the way they held themselves as they strolled out onto the expanse of stone caught my eye. Wary, yes, but that wariness was aimed outwards. The Poisoner, a plump and smiling middle-aged woman, stood close to the skinny and permanently stubbled Relentless Magistrate whose gaze was sweeping their surroundings without an eye being kept on the criminal he’d once been so scathing about. The Royal Conjurer was trusted to stand at the back without anyone feeling nervous, and the Grizzled Fantassin was standing next to the Painted Knife instead of slightly behind so that she’d be the one to eat an arrow if they got ambushed.
I knew that look, that way of standing together. How could I not, when the mere presence of three of the Woe at my side had me feeling lighter on my feet than I’d had in months? Those five gone through the crucible and come out on the other side changed. Bound to each other in some intangible way, and though it wouldn’t make them like each other it had brought trust with it. A lot more precious a thing, that, in my opinion.
I liked a lot of people, after all, but trusted only a handful.
I wasn’t the only one to see it. Vivienne had turned when I did, but it wasn’t her who let out a low whistle. Archer, ever more perceptive than she seemed, was watching the five Named with narrowed eyes.
“Those five have had an interesting year, I bet,” Indrani murmured.
I’d expected the Royal Conjurer would be eager for a different assignment, after this, but now I doubted it. A proper debrief would be needed, at some point, but I was personally more inclined to find something else important to send a proper band of five at than try to break it up. Practical considerations aside, my heart clenched in excitement. A band, a real band, with villains in it. That was… there were precedents for temporary truces, even the occasional cooperation, but never anything like this. Not that I knew of, anyway, and I’d made it my business to know.
“Catherine’s associate is making his way here,” Masego noted.
I flicked a glance upwards and found him at the top of the stairs, burning glass eyes staring at the unseen through the walls of the Arsenal.
“Which one?” I asked.
“The tolerable Ashuran one,” Hierophant said, then added, “By which I do not meant the Blessed Artificer, to be clear.”
Three amused looks were turned onto Zeze. His continuing feud with Adanna of Smyrna, now drained of the dangerous underlying tensions, had resumed being entertainingly petty. He meant Hanno, presumably, who I really should have expected to turn up the moment the Painted Knife’s band came through. The White Knight had a general knack for being in the right place at the right time, even more so than most heroes. Mind you, providence was not absolute. It could be gamed, if you knew the right tricks. I looked down at the gathering Named, speaking with the mages who’d spelled them through, and grimaced as I realized it’d be rude not to greet them down there and instead continue up and wait there. Which meant I was going to have to go up and down these fucking stairs again.
Forget the Dead King: if I didn’t get to take a sledgehammer to these… tyrannical stones before I died, I might just have to come back as a vengeful spectre.
“’Drani, go tell him to get a move on,” I said. “Vivienne, do you remember their Names?”
Blue-grey eyes turned to me and she grimaced the slightest bit.
“All but one,” she admitted. “The smiling one who looks like the village baker?”
“The Poisoner,” I said, enjoying her slight wince. “One of mine.”
“You don’t say,” Vivienne drily replied.
Admittedly the Name was not one that, uh, invited nuanced interpretation. The
“I don’t know any of them,” Masego informed us.
Neither of us bothered to pretend we were surprised. Painted Knife and her companions had begun the walk across the floor but we got to the bottom of the stairs before they did. The red-painted heroine offered me a salute, a fist against the chest, that I vaguely remembered being a gesture of respectful acknowledgement among Levantines.
“Black Queen,” the Painted Knife greeted me. “We return.”
“And I am glad of it,” I replied, offering her a nod before turning my gaze on the others. “What you have found is eagerly awaited.”
Especially since they’d refused to commit it to either scrying or letters, which would have gotten it to us months ago.
“Ah,” a voice came from above. “I had been wondering why I was here.”
Hanno looked pleased but not entirely surprised as he came down, Indrani idling at his side and only parting ways at the bottom to throw an arm around a tolerant Hierophant’s shoulder.
“White Knight,” the Painted Knife greeted, significantly warmer.
Still the same salute, though, so I decided not to feel too insulted. The Grizzled Fantassin cleared her throat, freeing her grey hair by removing her helm.
“This is all lovely, but after this long on the road I’d knife an angel for bed and a warm meal,” she said, her Arlesite accent light and pleasant.
“Contrition’s your choir,” Archer advised. “Steer clear of Mercy, though, they’re a little…”
I cleared my throat. The old soldier looked mostly amused, and Hanno patiently forgiving, but the Painted Knife was waiting to see if the Peregrine’s own Choir was about to get insulted. Would a Levantine fight an honour duel over an angelic choir’s reputation? It said a lot about the Dominion that I could not reply with an immediate and definitive no, to be honest.
“We’ll get you settled in,” I said. “But for a few hours at most. There will be a council to receive your findings by Afternoon Bell at the latest.”
Considering how the First Prince tended to pack her hours even more tightly than I did, I suspected she’d have trouble shaking loose the time for a proper debriefing before then anyway.
“Will Kallia speak for all of you?” Hanno asked. “Or will the report be given as a group?”
“As a group,” the Painted Knife said, and there were nods all around.
I caught the Royal Conjurer’s eye, cocking an eyebrow in question, but the tanned old man discreetly shook his head. No need for a separate talk between us, then.
“Good, it will simplify matters,” I said. “Messengers will be sent to you rooms to inform you of when the council will take place.”
I paused for a moment.
“Water’s rationed in the Arsenal, but feel free to ask to be drawn a hot bath anyway,” I said. “Under my authority, if need be,”
Groans of anticipatory pleasure were my answer.
“Many are temptations of Evil,” the Relentless Magistrate gravely said.
His tone was serious, but the slight quirk of his lips gave the humour away.
“I assure you,” the Poisoner said, “evil paid much better than the Grand Alliance.”
Fair, I admitted even as the band let out the kind of small chuckles a fond but worn joke would get after a few months or a year of being bandied about. Exhausted as they were, we didn’t linger around for small talk.
Ultimately my pride was my downfall, as I decided that asking Masego to levitate me over those fucking stairs would be too undignified.
I’d either overestimated how full Cordelia Hasenbach’s schedule was or I’d underestimated how much she wanted to hear the report from the Painted Knife’s band, because as soon as an hour past Noon Bell our little council was seated in one of the formal halls of the Arsenal.
We’d kept the numbers relatively low, since this was unlikely to be the sort of thing we wanted spread around and numbers were always the death of secrecy. There were three seats filled as a given – mine, Hanno’s and Hasenbach’s – but after that it’d been on strict basis of need. Vivienne, while tired and fresh off her own travels, was my heiress-designate so she’d naturally been brought in. Masego was as well, as my advisor on sorcery and the eldritch, and he’d not even needed to be talked into it. Hierophant had no interest in politics, but he’d always been like a magpie when it came to secrets. Hanno had brought in Roland and the Blessed Artificer, both of which had been hard to argue with. The Rogue Sorcerer was a generalist, when it came to magic, and Adanna of Smyrna understood Light in ways few others could.
I was pretty sure that the only reason she and Masego weren’t trying to stare each other down was that the Artificer knew he didn’t blink.
The First Prince had brought in Frederic, and I’d had a hard time placing why at first. The Prince of Brus was popular and a Hasenbach loyalist, but he wasn’t exactly in the running for the throne even if she stepped down from it. Malanza was all but certain to get the chair, if it came to that. I liked Frederic, our little affair aside, but as far as I knew he didn’t bring much to the table. Except, I realized after a moment, security. He was a Named that the First Prince knew would be on her side, if anything went wrong in this room where no guards would be allowed in. Given that he was a prince it was hard to argue with his presence, regardless, and one might argue that anyhow I’d already put my faith in the… discretion of the Kingfisher Prince. Hasenbach’s other seat had been given to a middle-aged man by the name of Alvaro Corrales, who was introduced as a scholar and one of her secretaries.
He’d be taking the formal notes for the session, though Vivienne would be taking notes for my side as well.
Since Lord Yannu Marave had yet to arrive, the Dominion would go without a representative today. It wasn’t ideal, but to be honest there simply wasn’t anyone high-ranking enough from Levant on the premises. Anyone brought in – one of the few captains, most likely – would be lost for most of the conversation and require access to several more well-kept secrets just to understand most of what was going on. It wasn’t going to be happening, Hasenbach and I had agreed. We’d keep the Painted Knife and her band here long enough that the Lord of Alava could hear the same report we had, if a little later, and maybe offer a polite apology for the haste. Not a very sincere one, though. No one had been particularly inclined to delay until Marave got here, given the potential importance of the report and how long we’d been waiting for it. Sparse small talk was had as a courtesy for the short while we waited after the coming Named, but it’d barely gotten past greetings by the time the five were brought in.
A few hours of rest had visibly done them some good, I thought. Months on the road couldn’t be cured with a catnap, but at least it’d taken the edge off and allowed them to change into clean clothes. By habit my eye sought weapons and found none, not that Named could ever truly be harmless. After the attendants escorted them down to the lower table – ours was up on platform, in a bit of pageantry – and the Painted Knife offered greetings for the band as a whole. Hasenbach took the lead in answering, even as I studied the five Named. The Poisoner looked uncomfortable, which was only to be expected since she’d once accepted a tidy sum to kill the First Prince even if she’d ultimately failed, but that the Relentless Magistrate looked the same caught my attention.
Whatever it was they’d found, it didn’t sit well with the man.
“- if my fellow high officers have no objection?”
I’d kept half an ear on the talk, so I wasn’t caught unawares. Cordelia was trying to move this along.
“None,” I said.
“Agreed,” Hanno replied.
The Painted Knife breathed out, and I wondered how much nervousness the thick face paint was actually hiding. The people in this room, the people she’d be addressing, were not without power or influence in the wider world.
“The mandate given us by the White Knight and the Black Queen was to find the truth of what took place long ago in the place known as the Verdant Hollow,” Kallia of the Knife’s Blood began.
It was Neshamah himself, during the conference in Salia, who’d suggested we should look into a place where the first Grey Pilgrim would have ‘slain many men’. Paired with the insinuation that we owed Kairos Theodosian all our lives and that the Wandering Bard had been playing us for fools, it’d warranted investigation. Tariq himself had known of the existence of the hidden valley, this Verdant Hollow, and even negotiated with the Holy Seljun on our behalf to access the records of the secret records Isbili when it turned out that the White Knight could not see a single thing that’d taken place within the valley grounds through his aspect. After a look through the records the band of five had chased after the trail like bloodhounds, but I’d heard very little of how they’d gone about it.
“We first tried the Verdant Hollow ourselves, using sorcery to try to bring forth a shade from those ancient days,” the Painted Knife said. “It did not succeed.”
She glanced at the Royal Conjurer, who cleared his throat and asked for permission to speak.
“Granted,” I said.
“Old battlefields and sites of slaughter usually have stray spirits even when shades have faded, as the former often feed on the latter,” the old man said, offering a grandfatherly smile. “There was not a trace of either, however, and my attempts to conjure up the dead failed in a manner that can only be called absolute.”
At my left, I saw Masego lean forward in his seat.
“Tabula rasa?” Hierophant asked.
The wrinkled old mage nodded.
“Indeed, Lord Hierophant,” he replied. “I drew the obvious conclusion.”
“Angelic intervention,” Roland said, voice quiet and troubled.
I sagely nodded, as if I’d known that all along. Although, the tabula rasa thing did vaguely ring a bell. Akua had once mentioned that the touch of angels on Creation tended to ‘renew’ the fabric of the Pattern, often erasing old damage, which was why even though Callow had been subjected to more than a few rituals it wasn’t up to its neck in fae and devils all the time. Still, this was hardly a great revelation. If the first Pilgrim had called on an angel to tip the scales against a villain, it wasn’t exactly unprecedented.
“It was clear there would be no shortcut, so we followed our other lead,” Kallia of the Knife’s Blood said. “The records of the Pilgrim’s Blood spoke of survivors that fled north, into the Alavan hills, carrying wounded with them. We looked for graves along that path, combing the countryside.”
A sideways look at the Grizzled Fantassin saw the older woman salute – towards Cordelia in particular, I noted – and speak out in a cadenced tone I recognized from my own years on campaign.
“There weren’t any Dominion graves, Your Highness, but I recognized old markers in the tradition of the southern companies,” she said. “It was my kind that got butchered in that valley, and they buried their own as best they could while running away.”
I’d not guessed it would be fantassins that’d gotten killed by the first Pilgrim, but that it would be Procerans had been something of a given. The founders of the Blood, immortalized in the epic poetry of the Anthem of Smoke, had been rebels against Proceran occupation.
“We attempted to summon forth the spirits form the graves, but there was a complication,” the Painted Knife said.
“Someone had beaten us to it,” the Royal Conjurer said, sounding amused. “Necromancy had already been used there, and recently.”
“How recently?” Masego asked. “For how many corpses?”
“A month, five corpses,” the old Helikean mage replied.
Zeze scoffed, and I let out a low whistle myself.
“That’s a hell of a bleed,” I said.
From the corner of my eye I saw Roland lean to the side to explain to the First Prince in a whisper what I’d learned from my own lessons in the Art. Usually the turn of the moon dispersed weak magical residue, so for it to still have been detectable after a month when there’d only been five corpses to raise meant that the caster had grossly overcast their spell. Usually either the mark of the incompetent and ignorant – Masego’s own conclusion, obviously – or of people with a lot of power but little control.
“Fortunately, we were able to track the risen dead through the gift Bestowed upon of one of our own,” the Painted Knife said.
The Relentless Magistrate, who I could not help but not had yet to shave, rose to offer us all a stiff bow.
“We followed the trail to a fishing village south of Malaga before it went cold,” the man said, his strong Alamans accent showing even when speaking Chantant. “Upon investigation, Your Highness and Majesty, it turned out that villages in the region all had a few missing individuals. While the locals were disinclined to answer the questions of a Proceran magistrate, Lady Kallia’s stature as one of the Blood bridged the gap and we figured out the common link was access to boats.”
My brow rose.
“The Royal Conjurer and my humble self meanwhile found out that graves were being robbed in the area,” the Poisoner tittered. “Which painted a damning picture, yes?”
Considering I’d heard that poisonous things tended to grow around Dominion barrows, I decided not to ask exactly what they’d been doing when finding that out.
“When another young man was abducted we followed,” the Painted Knife said, “and after borrowing a boat and sailing across the Pond we made shore south of the Brocelian.”
Which was, from what I recalled, one of the last largely unexplored stretches of Calernia by virtue of most people going into it dying ugly deaths. Ventures in there were profitable if you could handle yourself, though, given the amount of magical creatures and rare resources. The city of Tartessos should be an impoverished hole in the ground, going by simple geography, but trading in Brocelian goods had instead made it one of the great cities of Levant.
“Didn’t even get to find our way before we got ambushed by undead,” the Grizzled Fantassin sighed. “Although that was still better than the damned boat reeking of fish.”
“It was clear we were on the right path, if the enemy was attempting to obstruct us,” the Relentless Magistrate smiled, a small slice of teeth and malice.
“The Brocelian is not a forest to be tried without preparations,” Hanno said. “Did you seek a guide?”
“One of the ambushers was a living man,” the Painted Knife said. “And though terrified of his ‘master’ he agreed to serve as our guide after some convincing.”
The Poisoner tittered, smiling girlishly.
“It is easier to bargain when one has the only antidote to be found for a thousand miles,” she said.
That’d been an impressively creepy titter, I mulled to myself. The woman was talented.
“Ten silvers it was some Named undead trying to gather an army on the sly,” I muttered under my breath.
“I will take that,” Masego decided. “No one with that much bleed could possibly be competent enough to lead an army.”
Ha, the sucker. Although it’d better not come out of the Arsenal budget, since that’d just be cycling my own coin around.
“Twenty it was trying to take over Levant,” Vivienne offered under her own breath.
The White Knight turned a steady gaze onto us, and I felt vaguely ashamed at having been caught betting on this.
“I’ll take the bet on the twenty,” Hanno softly said, leaning towards us. “And thirty it has Barrow in the Name.”
It was probably some sort of heresy to gamble with the White Knight, I thought, but then I had been Arch-heretic of the East. They couldn’t reasonably expect me not to dabble at least a little.
“I’ll take that bet,” I snorted. “We’ve already got a Barrow Sword, the Gods Below wouldn’t be that uninspired.”
“It’s Levant,” Hanno drily replied, “there’s always a barrow involved somehow.”
A few gazes had turned towards us at the continued whispers, so I painted a solemn look onto my face. It’d been a serious, professional conversation we’d be having and there was no reason to even suspect otherwise.
“We pushed on into the woods, meeting little opposition as we went,” the Painted Knife said.
“About a hundred zombies and just the most horrid manticore,” the Grizzled Fantassin corrected.
“It was unusually unpleasant even by manticore standards,” the Royal Conjurer agreed.
“We then found an army of the dead being gathered in the depths of the Brocelian, thousands of corpses being armed in the shade of the trees,” the Painted Knife continued.
I cocked an eyebrow at Masego who looked mightily disgruntled at the revelation. Ten silvers for me, that was.
“We knocked out the prisoner and infiltrated the camp, where we learned that it was one of the Bestowed who was gathering a host,” Kallia of the Knife’s Blood said. “Though long dead, it had once been of the Tanja and wanted to claim rule of Malaga once more – Lord Razin Tanja was only titled through a loophole, it argued, and so it would rise the same.”
It made me feel a little dirty inside to refer to Praes laws on anything, but for once the Dread Empire might just be the leading light there: it had pretty strict laws cutting out the undead of both inheritance and holding titles at all. It’d only taken like three civil wars to get there, too, which by Praesi standards was basically unanimous consent. Hanno glanced at Vivienne, who was to embarrassed to curse in front of the Sword of Judgement but looked like she very much wanted to. Malaga wasn’t all of Levant, after all.
“He had proclaimed himself to be lord of the dead,” the Relentless Magistrate said, sounding offended by the pretension.
“She,” the Poisoner corrected.
“They named themselves the Barrow Lord,” the Painted Knife cut in.
I cursed in Kharsum, which drew some gazes. Including the First Prince’s. Really, Below? That was why Good kept winning, because they were such shits about it all. Now the White Knight was the one who’d won the most out of this whole blasphemous sidebar, and let that be a lesson: Above would always win so long as Below wasn’t willing to spring for some proper Names. Barrow Lord, I scathingly thought. They might as well have just named the poor bastard ‘Grave Noble’, it was about as clever in the greater scheme of things. People were still looking at me, so I cleared my throat.
“I grieve for the people of Levant,” I said, which strictly speaking wasn’t a lie.
“I thank you for your kindness,” the Painted Knife said, sounding surprised. “But the five of us were able to defeat the old dead. Though it refused to rest even when broken, the Poisoner was able to find a way to destroy it.”
“Manticore venom is a powerful acid, when mixed with blood and rhododendron,” the Poisoner smiled.
Well, that was an image. Masego and Roland both looked interested but were aware enough not to indulge their curiosity just now.
“And the corpses you had come there to find?” the First Prince calmly asked.
“We had destroyed several without knowing it,” the Painted Knife admitted, “but the fifth made itself known.”
“It proclaimed itself the new Barrow Lord,” the Grizzled Fantassin snorted. “Which several other undead saw fit to argue with. It was all very Highest Ass-”
The older woman paled.
“-League of Free Cities,” she hastily corrected, glancing sideways at the First Prince of Procer.
I was rather amused she did not so much as glance at Frederic, who was a sitting member of the Assembly as well.
“You captured your corpse, however, I take it?” Hanno asked.
Subtle laughter rippled through most of the band.
“I arrested him,” the Relentless Magistrate defiantly said. “For false arrogation of noble title, which is a crime under Proceran law.”
I choked at the bold assertion and was not alone in my surprise.
“Dead or not, he was a Proceran subject,” the man insisted.
I was a little disturbed to see that Cordelia Hasenbach was beaming down at him, or at least as close to that as her face would allow.
“Is it actually illegal to be undead under Proceran law?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“It would fall under the heresy laws, in most cases,” the First Prince told me. “Though in the four northern principalities undeath is considered high treason and acted upon as such.”
“It’s illegal for undead to do manual labour under the Accords, by the latest draft,” Vivienne noted.
“We’re going to need to make sure I don’t accidentally qualify under the wording, given how often I’ve died,” I told her under my breath.
“The ancient dead was convinced to surrender to the authority of the magistrate,” the Painted Knife said. “After some aggressive persuasion. And after we ran away with him tied to the Grizzled Fantassin’s back, we finally had our answers.”
That caught everyone’s attention.
“The mercenary companies were led by the White Knight of the time, a woman of Procer,” Kallia of the Knife’s Blood said, “and had been hunting the Grey Pilgrim for some time. They caught up to him and his fellow rebels in the Verdant Hollow.”
Wait, it was a heroine he’d been fighting? I’d known that in the past the Principate had fielded the occasional hero when taking a swing at its neighbours, but I’d not expected a damned White Knight to end up serving as a bloodhound for insurgents. By the look on Hanno’s face, he was less than happy to hear this but not outright surprised. I supposed he’d seen too many of the lives of his predecessors to hold any illusions about their infallibility.
“The fight went in the favour of the Pilgrim,” the Painted Knife said. “Yet the White Knight would not have it. When defeat seemed to be looming, she called on the help of a Choir.”
Oh, fuck. I did not like where this was headed. I did not like it at all.
“Which one?” Hanno calmly asked.
“Mercy,” the Relentless Magistrate quietly said. “I… glimpsed, and it must have been Mercy.”
Considering how brutal Tariq could get in the pursuit of greater goods, I could actually believe the ancient White Knight had been backed by the Ophanim in her quest. Suppress the rebellion and reform from the inside, maybe? It was an uncomfortably familiar refrain, and it might just be I was painting my own history on a blank canvas there. But she’d led fantassins instead of regulars, so perhaps it had been unkind to assume she’d been with the rapacious princes occupying Levant back then.
“And what happened after that?”
“Angels came,” Kallia of the Knife’s Blood said. “But a woman stepped in, and then the angels left.”