“I have been assured that my enemies lie behind every shadow, which is why they will henceforth be illegal.”
– Dread Empress Sinistra III
During one of the first conversations I’d ever had with Black, he’d told me that he did not believe rule through fear alone could be sustainable. I found it one of those lovely little ironies of life that my first teacher had arrived by cold pragmatism to share that belief with Cordelia Hasenbach, who’d gotten there largely on account of being a halfway decent person. Whatever the reason, in practice it’d ended up meaning that while we could have bullied Mercantis into withdrawing with nothing to show for its efforts they’d instead been thrown red meat. Not in the quantity or quality they’d wanted, but enough that they’d have something to chew on besides their pride.
In the event of a lapsed debt by princes, Hasenbach committed the office of First Prince to taking up the debt in their name and repaying it from diverted taxes at a fixed rate. She also guaranteed payment in goods if coin was not forthcoming, for up to a third of the worth of debts and offered that both commitments she’d just made would be guaranteed by a treaty under the aegis Grand Alliance. To sate the hungriest of the merchant lords, she even sold a handful of monopolies as well: only for a duration of ten years, however, and they would solely be enforced in Proceran lands.
Mostly it was monopolies on goods in which Mercantis already dominated trade – perfume, cloth, dyes and enchanted luxuries – that were sold, which would essentially serve as a ten-year stay on competition in those goods whether or not the monopoly was enforced in Callow. My kingdom had neither the skilled artisans to begin trading in such goods nor the gold to sink into building the workshops necessary for their creation. In time we might, but the merchant lords would have quite the head start by then and no competition from the greatest realm on the surface of Calernia while they took it. My people lost nothing with this and might yet gain, though. The audience ended coolly but not with hostility, and the matter was considered settled.
The following days went by quickly, the last stretches of haggling over how the Hainaut campaign was to be raised and waged – Malanza was still trying to trade back some of the drow sigils for Arlesite foot and horse, the Iron Prince wanted fewer prongs on the attack than Juniper’s suggested three – occupying my hours along with regular meetings with the White Knight to discuss which Named should be assigned to the campaign. So far it was skewing a little heavily favour of heroes for my tastes, but we were starting to figure out what a functional roster would look like. A haze of anticipation hung in the air of the Arsenal, as all awaited the arrival of the envoys from the Titanomachy.
They were the last loose end left to tie up, and when they were tied we’d return to the business of war.
When the Gigantes did arrive, they startled me with their swiftness.
We had less than a day to prepare between the first warning that the three giants had reached Iserre and their unexpected arrival in the Arsenal. The fortress in Iserre where they’d appeared was used to cross into the Twilight Ways but wasn’t actually one of the translation points, just a shortcut to head towards one in southeastern Salia. Which made it all the more of a surprise when the three giants emerged in the translation room of the outer gatehouse to the Arsenal most of a day later. Neither the swiftness of the march nor the direct crossing into the first level of Arsenal defences were something any of our people would have been able to replicate, Hierophant privately admitted to me.
I got the message the Gigantes were sending, as I expected the Procerans and Levantines did as well: there were mysteries at their disposal we could only dream of, and we should not get too cocksure even after all we’d managed to build.
The hastily arranged welcoming party for the envoys ended up being a headache to wrangle. The Titanomachy still did not have any formal diplomatic relations with the Principate, and while it was dubious they’d attack the First Prince if she stood before them that did not mean they would be willing to speak with her. Which meant Hasenbach couldn’t come, and if Procer couldn’t have someone in attendance then to save face it would be best if the Grand Alliance simply ‘elected to send a single representative’. I voted for Lord Yannu Marave to handle it, given the Dominion’s cordial if distant relations with the Titanomachy, but he voted for me and the First Prince abstained.
A round of bickering later, I ended up sent out when the whole matter was settled by our being notified that Hanno intended on going to greet the Gigantes himself. If the heroic representative went so must the one for villains, while Lord Yannu and I could not both go – it’d make Hasenbach’s absence all the more glaring. Masego tried to be there as well, rather transparently so he could have a look at the Gigantes from close with his magical eyes, but I turned him away. He could try his hand at that later, when the diplomatic claptrap was over with. And so I found myself standing once more atop the stairs leading down to the stone floor where the translation ritual would take place.
At least I wouldn’t have to go down the damned stairs again, so there was that.
I wore formal clothing in black and silver, a crown set on my brow and the Mantle of Woe on my back as a pointed reminder of the two offices I was standing for here. The White Knight was in plate with a sword at his hip, though he’d chosen not to wear a helmet. We’d exchanged a few courtesies after I arrived, a dozen attendants from the Arsenal staff standing behind us, but while there’d been no brusqueness from either part we’d quickly lapsed into silence anyway. Neither of us were in much of a talking mood. There was a little more to it than that, of course. Since our conversation over the fate of the Red Axe, we had not once shared words save in our official capacities.
There was a price to everything, I’d learned that lesson early – and never forgotten it since, as fate went out of its was to refresh my memory every few years. My thoughts did not get to linger on the subject, as a shiver of power in the room warned that the Gigantes were soon to be among us. Leaning against my staff, I had a look over the edge from the high vantage point.
Immediately it became clear that this was not the usual ritual. The gates in and out of the half-realm that served as the funnel into the Arsenal had a particular look to them, like a cut into the fabric of Creation that rippled outwards, but the large gate beginning to open was nothing alike. A broad and tall rectangle bordered in shining glyphs came into being at once, with a muted blast of air, and along the inner side of the border there was a small tremor. The filling of the rectangle wavered, and I realized it had been almost like a cut as the layer between the Arsenal and the travellers crumpled and shrivelled into nothing. Slower than our own method, I noted, but it looked more stable and their gate was perfectly aligned with the ground on both layers of reality.
I wasn’t sure that was actually possible under the laws of Trismegistan sorcery.
The Gigantes came in without fanfare, or for that matter human mages guiding their translation. I’d not been sure what to expect, as I’d never seen any member of their race before and illustrations in books tended to vary wildly. Their height was impossible to miss, of course. The tallest must have been thirty feet tall, and the others but a few feet shorter, which had them standing taller than the ledge I’ve been using to overlook the platform. Though there was some variation between them, their skin was a deep brown and looked rather coarse. Though shaped not unlike humans in much greater proportions, there were easy differences to pick out: they had long, powerful legs and their necks were noticeable shorter.
Their clothing was light, eerily beautiful white cloth which had no stitches but instead complicated folds that revealed a triangle of brown flesh beneath the neck and went down in a tunic that covered down to the lower legs. It was belted with flashing bronze, fashioned as a hundred little cards of the metal interlinked, and the short-sleeved cloth revealed arms covered by winding, curling patterns of flowing gold. It was the same with the parts of their legs bared, and their sandals were polished stone bound by sinuous copper strings. Two had beards, of the same dark brown as their skin, which were without a moustache and went down to their chest in luxuriant curls – to the side they went up to where ears would have been on a human, though on the giants there was only smooth skin and a small cartilage-like ridge.
All of them had shaved their heads in part, though the one without a beard instead had a long stripe of hair beginning near his – – her? Hard to tell, I saw no difference in body shape – brow and going all the way down to the back. Their eyes were startlingly human-like, though, I found. Perhaps a little pale for our kind, but otherwise much the same as ours and similarly topped by eyebrows.
The gate collapsed into the ground behind the giants without a sound, and there was not a trace of it in the heartbeat that followed. They took slow steps forward, careful of the arched ceiling above, and the tallest of the three – he had a beard, and unsettlingly luminous blue eyes – subtly moved his head and arms while his body otherwise remained eerily rigid. Hanno moved, at my side, the way his own head moved to the side displaying what I believed to be friendliness and deference. The Gigantes shot me a cursory look, which I returned with a face like a blank mask.
“I am Ykines Silver-on-Clouds,” the giant said, his Lower Miezan only slightly accented. “Amphore for the Hushed Absence, envoy of the Titanomachy. I greet you, Queen of Callow.”
I’d not expected him to recognize me, to be honest. It unsettled me some, even though I could reason it away at the cloak and crown being rather distinctive. Amphore wasn’t the title Hanno had called this one by, I thought with a frown, when we’d last spoken of the Gigantes. It’d been skope, I was certain. From context I’d gathered that amphore was a higher title, though I was uncertain as to what it entailed. Before I could answer the greeting, the envoy turned towards the White Knight. They moved their bodies in ways that were too quick and slight for me to really catch any of the nuances.
“I greet you, Guest of the Nine Peaks,” Ykines said.
“I welcome you in peace,” Hanno replied.
“Indeed,” I said, forcing myself not to cock my head to the side. “You are all welcomed to the Arsenal, as guests of the Grand Alliance.”
“We receive your hospitality,” Ykines Silver-on-Clouds said. “Slumber will be required for some hours. After, the Titanomachy can be heard and hear in turn.”
Blunt, though I didn’t particularly mind. I didn’t hound the envoys with small talk, instead passing them to the awaiting attendants. Most of the hallways of the Arsenal were too low even if the giants bent their bodies, so it would be a specific itinerary they had to follow. Their rooms would be fitted for them, at least, though they’d be lodged in the Repository instead of the Alcazar. Their ‘quarters’ were a repurposed warehouse, though it’d been decorated richly enough I wouldn’t have believed it if told. Following through exactly on their word, the Gigantes disappeared into their quarters and did not stir in the following hours. Knocks on the doors were not answered.
It’d been early morning, and it was only mid afternoon that they emerged. Lord Yannu’s presence was requested, as was the White Knight’s, and for a few more hours the doors closed. They broke only for a communal meal – Gigantes apparently did not eat much meat, to my surprise – and then cloistered themselves away for one last hour. The two humans left after that, and I was not entirely surprised to receive a messenger from Hanno soon afterwards. I agreed to meet without delay and limped my way to one of the Alcazar halls not too far away.
He’d changed out of his armour, I noticed, and settled into his usual grey tunic. A few papers and scrolls took up part of the table where he’d sat, as well as a quill and inkwell, but it looked a light workload. The White Knight duly rose to his feet when I entered, which I dismissed with a grunt as I took a seat on the other side of the table. Hanno had asked for the meeting, so as I sipped at the glass of water he’d poured for me I waited for him to speak.
“The Myrmidon has volunteered to participate to the Hainaut campaign,” he told me. “Since the Grey Pilgrim will be participating as well and the Mirror Knight will be with him, the Anchorite must stay in Cleves. The principality grows too lightly defended otherwise.”
My brow rose. Not the conversation I’d expected, though it wasn’t unimportant either. Cleves was admittedly getting low on Named, since both the Exalted Poet and the Maddened Keeper had come from that front and they wouldn’t exactly be coming back.
“I can leave the Red Knight there, if you’re worried,” I said. “Though not the Headhunter, that tracking trick is much too useful.”
The Red Knight was one of the finest killing Named on my side, but she was also deeply unpleasant in a lot of ways. There were only so many times you could be told that the weak should die and the strong take what they wanted before it became more than slightly grating. No, given the difficulties inherent in juggling a coalition of Named it might be wiser to leave her regardless – I could even cite Named running thin in Cleves as the reason why when she inevitably complained about being left out of the offensive.
“That would be appreciated,” he nodded. “I also intend to reassign the Stained Sister from Twilight’s Pass to the Cleves theatre, unless you have a major objection.”
My brow rose.
“She’s been doing well there, last I heard,” I said.
Hard old girl, the Stained Sister, and her affinity with Light made her very useful against the massive necromantic constructs that the Dead King used as siege engines up north.
“I need someone to take up leadership in Cleves,” the White Knight admitted. “With the Mirror Knight gone, the eldest hero in the region is the Anchorite and they are… not a good fit.”
Yeah, spending forty years in exile in the mountains did not tend to do wonders for one’s social skills. The Myrmidon was probably second in the heroic pecking order there, right now, but while an impressive fighter all her languages except some obscure Penthesian dialect were a little shaky. She also despised the Red Knight, a feeling violently returned, which made her even worse a fit. The Knight wasn’t exactly a leader of villains – I’d assigned mostly Named with an independent streak in Cleves partly as a way to prevent her from gathering a power base – but she was the strongest of my lot in the region, which carried some weight.
“You need someone good with Light assigned to the Pass,” I said. “We’re already pulling out the Forsworn Healer, they’re starting to look a little bare up there.”
Of the three villains in Lycaonese lands – the Bitter Blacksmith, the Affable Burglar and the Skinchanger – only the last was truly fighting fit in my opinion. From Above’s lot the Daring Pyromancer had proved worth twenty times his weight in gold since he’d come from the Free Cities and the Bloody Sword’s appearance as the first Lycaonese hero of the war had been a massive morale boost for his countrymen, but for all their skill neither of them could smash a beorn the way a Light-wielder could.
“The Stalwart Apostle will be heading there, the Astrologer has agreed to take charge of her,” he countered.
Ugh, that Ashuran lunatic. I didn’t care how often she’d predicted storms, what she did was just specialized scrying and not some sort of unearthly discipline. Still, she was older and not prone to getting herself killed. There were worse mentors to have. Like the Skinchanger, who the Lycaonese would probably have gone wild over as their first Named in at least half a century if she’d not also been a shapeshifting cannibal. That, uh, tended to put a damper on things.
“The Unravellers are proving effective, so I’ll make my peace with it,” I sighed. “You hear back from the Swaggering Duellist?”
“He still considers his honour sworn to the protection of the First Prince until next winter solstice,” Hanno replied, “even if she personally orders him north. We’ll be without him.”
Shame, the man might be next to useless in an actual battle but he’d be a right headache thrown at Revenants.
“The roster’s taking shape,” I mused. “Archer is leaning towards releasing what’s left of her old band, right now. If she does, I take it you want the Paladin for up north?”
“His presence would neatly fill the niches left empty by the departure of the Stained Sister and the Forsworn Healer, when combined with the Stalwart Healer’s assignment,” he agreed.
Replacing strong hands with weaker ones, but then if we wanted our finest fighters in Hainaut we couldn’t then complain they weren’t elsewhere. I sipped at my water, and a moment of silence I offered as an opportunity to speak up ensued. We were done with Named, then. Good.
“How’d the talks with the Titanomachy go?” I bluntly asked.
“Fruitfully,” he replied. “A formal proposition will be made to the Grand Alliance this evening.”
My brow rose.
“Good news,” I said. “What are they offering?”
He met my eyes calmly and did not reply. I knew instinctively, from the start, that this wasn’t the silence of someone choosing his words. I still waited.
“So it’s going to be like that,” I eventually said, voice gone quiet.
“You cannot have it both ways, Catherine,” Hanno simply replied. “Lord Marave will soon attempt to arrange a formal meeting of the Grand Alliance, during which he and I will present the offer made by the envoys of the Titanomachy. That is all I have to say on this matter.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to correct him, to say that he should be calling me Queen Catherine then, but I mastered my temper. I would not further salt these fields out of petty spite. I breathed out, studying him. I felt, I’d admit it, a tinge of sadness over this. We’d been friends, in our own way. It had been a friendship with many boundaries, but a friendship nonetheless. Perhaps we might be that again, someday, but even if we were it wouldn’t be the same. I looked for an echo of the same thing in him but found only a tranquillity that now seemed… cool. Distant.
Perhaps it always had been, I thought, and I’d just been too busy staring at my reflection in the pond to notice.
“Then we’re done talking,” I said. “I will see you when the proposal is made, White Knight.”
For a moment I thought he might speak, but instead he nodded.
I had neither the words nor the right to change his mind, and so I simply left.
The message came within moment of my having returned to my quarters, and I wasted no time agreeing to the time suggested – a little after supper, this very night. A note from Vivienne was awaiting me also, as it happened. Her people in the Arsenal staff had seen Lord Yannu and the First Prince having a private meeting that began not long after my own with Hanno. The Levantine lord made no such effort with me, I could not help but note, and somehow I doubted it was because he’d expected the White Knight would fill me in. Hanno had, after all, taken pains to make it understood that he would not meddle in the political affairs of the Grand Alliance.
Was Marave showing goodwill to the First Prince, to make up for the times we’d made common front to leverage her? Callow had common interests with the Dominion, it was true, but my kingdom was far and Procer was close. Careful Yannu might simply be living up to his name once more, hedging the Dominion’s bets when it came to its alliances. It was unpleasant to be the one left out of the loop this time, but I would take it as a helpful reminder that my influence within the Grand Alliance was not something everyone enjoyed. I’d concentrated a lot of power in my hands by virtue of being both Queen of Callow and representative for villains, and while no one was trying to replace me that didn’t mean no measures would ever be taken to check me.
The council came quickly, and after an afternoon’s worth of anticipation I found the proceedings rather anticlimactic. The White Knight standing as witness, Lord Yannu brought out written transcriptions of the proposal made by Ykines Silver-on-Clouds on behalf of the Titanomachy. The goods offered were well worth a second look, I silently admitted to myself. Two hundred wardstones, around a hundred artefacts suited for fighting and the temporary services of ten artisans from the Reticent Fidelity – a Chorus whose preoccupation was such artefacts, and whose members were some of the most frequent traders of their kind with Levant – to adjust them before they were used, as well as lend their expertise on the fronts so long as it did not involve combat.
In ‘exchange’, the Gigantes required two of their spellsingers – whose identity had yet to be determined – to have full access to the Arsenal, its resources and all its public projects. They also wanted formal recognition by the Grand Alliance of their people’s right to use the Twilight Ways.
Tempting as the artefacts were, I was honestly inclined to hold out for better terms given what was being asked of us. The Arsenal had cost a fortune to make and carried the research of some of the finest minds on Calernia: we ought to ask for more than trinkets if we were to share it with the Titanomachy. Then Lord Yannu put the final part of the offer on the table, and I was glad to have held my tongue.
“The Titanomachy acknowledges the threat of the Dead King’s rising,” Lord Marave said, “and though they will not make war at the side of Procer, they offer instead a gift: a great warding, raised along the shores of the Tomb, that will turn away the dead.”
I saw the hunger in Hasenbach’s eyes at the words and knew the giants had us. I set aside the strategic implications of such a gift, instead wondering that the Gigantes knew to make it at all. It was not yet common knowledge that we were to have an offensive in Hainaut. I eyed the White Knight and the Lord of Alava, wondering how much they’d told the giants, before admitting to myself it didn’t matter. The Gigantes might have made the offer meaning to begin the work in Cleves, were the shores were somewhat secure, and going east along the water with our armies in support. Besides, even if it turned out these two had been overly chatty the results they brought more than justified it.
It was tempting. Gods, but it was damned tempting. If we took back Hainaut all the way to the shore and behind that wave the Gigantes came in to raise wards rivalling the quality of those beneath the Red Snake Wall, the nature of this war would change. The heavily fortified Lycaonese lands would become the main path of invasion for Keter, and the lakeside fronts would stabilize almost overnight. Enough that it might be possible for us to take a stab at the Crown of the Dead itself, should Masego come through with Quartered Seasons.
“Gigantes do not bargain,” the White Knight told us. “This is the only offer there will be, and I ask you consider it seriously.”
Hasenbach thanked him, and it was agreed that we would reconvene tomorrow after having ‘considered’ matters, but everyone in the room knew how this was going to end. It was just a matter of how long we’d delay before accepting so we wouldn’t be looking too desperate.
There were still a few days left to my stay in the Arsenal, but it was swiftly coming to an end.
As soon as the treaty was the Gigantes was wrapped up and my own few affairs settled, I’d be returning to Hainaut to begin arranging the campaign from there. Indrani would be coming with me, and perhaps eventually Masego as well – it depended on how the Quartered Seasons project was looking – but there were others I would be leaving behind. I was looking at one that’d sting the most, once more settled in the same old infirmary seat that’d become as a second bed for me. The only sign that Hakram was healing was that the healing mages had removed the breathing spell, trusting his lungs to carry him without the help now. Otherwise, his sleeping form had not changed.
“I’m going to have leave you behind,” I quietly said. “’Drani’s right. I could stretch out my stay by doing some planning from here, but it’d just be delaying the inevitable.”
It still sickened me to think that I’d be abandoning him to this little bed in this little room, when the only reason he was wounded at all was that he’d fought for me. A knock on the door jolted me out of my thoughts, though it also irked me more than a little. I’d instructed my people not to disturb me.
“Come in,” I said, tone forcefully even.
I’d give whoever had the come the benefit of the doubt, if they were willing to interrupt against my clear instructions. It was not some nervous messenger who came in, though, but Vivienne Dartwick. I immediately bit down on the sharp words already on the tip of my tongue. Vivienne did not look nervous, not exactly. It’d take more than our current disagreements to make a woman who’d faced down a Princess of Summer feel nervous. But she did look… cautious. Hesitant. And she’d noticeably dressed down.
In Salia she’d gotten into the habit of wearer nice dresses. Nothing extravagant – she was Callowan, and we were at war – but there’d been a distinct noble tinge to it. It made sense. Her father had been a noble, if one stripped of his lands after the Conquest, and she must have worn clothes not unlike those when she’d been younger. I’d never occurred to me how different it made her look until just now, when I saw her for the first time in ages in something closer to the leathers she’d worn as the Thief. There were still skirts and leggings beneath the long shirt, but this was a notable departure from usual.
“Cat,” she greeted me. “Do you have a moment?”
She had a bottle in hand, I noted. The glass was of poor quality, so it was probably Callowan. Vale summer wine? She’d come prepared. Or trying to bribe me, like I was a drunk that could be bought with a favourite poison.
“I asked for-” I began, and saw something in her face close.
I bit down on the sentence. The hesitance, the dressing down, the wine. Gods but she was trying, wasn’t she? When it wasn’t even her fault. And there was something about the change clothes that left me a sour taste in the mouth. It felt a little like abasement, and I did not like what it said about either of us that she’d thought it might work. Poor timing was no reason to bite her head off.
“Never mind,” I said. “Come in, close the door behind you.”
She nodded, but the wariness did not leave. She looked a little at a loss as to what she should say, even as she sat down at my side in the same chair Indrani usually did.
“I was saying my goodbyes,” I told her. “Or maybe warning him they were coming, I suppose.”
I wasn’t going to leave tomorrow, after all, even if the date was not far in the future either.
“I still can’t believe he was wounded this badly,” she admitted. “He was never our finest fighter, but he always seemed so… solid.”
I grunted in agreement.
“Nobody’s solid against demons,” I said. “At least the Mirror Knight cut him before the taint could spread.”
Otherwise… I thought of Nephele’s pleading eyes, and my staff coming down. I closed my eyes for a moment and breathed steadily, in and out, until the cold fear that’d seized me ebbed low. Gods. Even just the thought of having to do the same to Hakram…
“It’s been a long few years, hasn’t it?” Vivienne said, tone almost thoughtful.
She was looking at me with an expression that was hard to read. My jaw clenched in embarrassment.
“For everyone,” I said.
“For you more than me,” she said. “We’re both tired, Cat, but it’s a different kind of tired.”
“A hollow excuse,” I said.
The heights where I now stood had been reached through a pile of corpses. I would not spit on those deaths by moaning about the burdens of authority. Vivienne said nothing for some time. It did not mind, though the silence was not exactly comfortable.
“I have been putting together a census of Callow,” she suddenly said.
My brow rose in surprise. I’d not actually heard about that.
“The Fairfaxes only held them infrequently and by unreliable methods, but under the Carrion Lord the Empire gathered a great deal of trustworthy information,” Vivienne continued.
Black had probably been most interested in population numbers and what the local trades were, I thought, since that information would allow him to follow the flow of coin. Lack of gold where there should be plenty would have told him which nobles were trying to raise troops to rebel.
“What do you intend to do with it?” I asked.
“I want to fund workshops and guilds to foster certain trades,” she said. “We have the materials to make dyes and the manners of cloths that have enriched Mercantis. Royal coin could help our people enter the trade. And we could organize much, through guilds: the lumber from Holden and what was once Liesse would be worth a fortune out east, where they so sorely lack it. Trading cattle with the Clans upriver for amber and fur would not only enrich us, it would give the orcs a reason never to resume raiding.”
“You need peace for that,” I gently reminded her.
For there to be any trade with the east, to have the coin to make any of this at all.
“I know,” she assured me. “I really do. I understand that the war with the Dead King is what matters right now.”
She met my eyes, the blue-grey of them grown pale under the glow of the magelights.
“But I need you to know that I won’t be a… parasite,” she said. “I won’t just coast to the throne on your reputation and then do nothing with this. You put trust in me, Cat. And I know some of it is because I learned to see what you see – how much more we could be, if we stop seeing greenskins as the enemy – but I want to believe you saw in me the makings of a good queen.”
Her voice had grown raw. I held my breath, somehow afraid it would be enough to interrupt.
“I want to live up to it,” Vivienne said, eyes gone hard as stone. “I will live up to it.”
Slowly, I breathed out. She did not speak a word more, only searching my face with something like desperation.
“I know,” I quietly said. “I never saw you as a…”
I did not stay parasite, though the word echoed in the silence anyway. I passed a hand through my hair, mulling over my words. However inarticulate my first words had been, I saw on Vivienne’s face they had at least taken the edge off of the apprehension. With clumsy hands I ended up reaching for my pipe, that old gift from Masego that had become so dear to me, and filled it. Moments later, a touch of Night was enough for me to breathe out a long stream of wakeleaf. Vivienne had been patient, and so I talked.
“I believe you’ll be a good queen,” I said. “I genuinely do. And while I have been an able warlord, I don’t think the talents that helped me there would suit peace times.”
I’d grown too used to having my orders obeyed without questioning. I’d grown too used to resorting to violence to get my way, to schemes and assassinations and all the bastard ways to see your will done. Those methods had their place for any queen, but they’d come to be just a little too close to my hand. Too easily grasped. I liked to think I had done the best I could for my people, but I would not deny I had done it as a tyrant. Vivienne was not weak, but even as a heroine she’d disliked killing. It would not be her first resort. And the plans she was already making only reinforced my belief I’d made the right choice of successor.
“That’s part of what makes me angry, I think,” I admitted. “I know my name will make it onto the pages of history books, Vivienne. But back home, I can’t help but suspect I’ll be remembered as the dark days before you took up the crown.”
I smiled, a tad bitterly.
“Necessary days, most will agree,” I murmured. “They were savage times and so Callow required a savage queen. But we were well rid of them and her, afterwards, so that a more enlightened era might take their place.”
That enlightened era, I thought, was sitting next to me with something like grief on her face.
“It won’t be like that,” Vivienne fiercely said. “You know I wouldn’t let them…”
I took her hand for a moment, clenched it in a gesture too hard to be gratitude but too grateful to be anger.
“I can already see the current,” I gently told her. “And its inevitable end.”
It wasn’t without reason it was happening. This had not sprouted from thin air as if by divine intervention. Deciding to keep Akua in my service had cost me much esteem among even my most loyal, and back home sending Callowans to die on foreign fields against the Dead King had become increasingly unpopular as the soldiers stayed abroad and the taxes stayed high. I wouldn’t face revolt over this, I suspected at least in part because anyone who might feasibly lead one was either dead or part of my armies. But I’d turned Callow into a cradle of armies, and only that. My only legacy among my people would be the victories and defeat I had led my soldiers through.
It was not an enjoyable thought.
“Archer chewed me out,” I admitted, “in that way she does when she pretends it’s not what she’s doing.”
“Because Indrani is much too tough and aloof to care about it when her friends quarrel, naturally,” Vivienne amusedly said. “It would be beneath her to ever meddle in such things.”
I grinned, though it faded after a moment.
“She was right, though,” I said, “when she castigated me for clutching to my pride when I like to claim I have none. I’ve said for years I was ready to abdicate, Vivienne, and I thought I meant it. But then I had to deal with genuinely sharing power – not just delegating it – and it got stuck in my throat. It matters more to me than I like to admit, the authority.”
“It’s all right, you know,” she said. “To be hurt that after all you’ve sacrificed, the gratitude passed so quickly.”
I breathed in sharply. That was perhaps, I thought, the closest anyone had come to actually reading me right when it came to this.
“Maybe it is,” I said. “But all these years, I’ve always told myself I was taking that next step because it needed to be done. That I’d surrender it all the moment I was no longer necessary. And maybe that’s half a lie, always was.”
The words came out in a stumble, perhaps more honest than I would have liked.
“But I’d like to live up to it, Vivienne,” I softly said. “I’d like to be the kind of woman who genuinely believes that.”
I gathered myself, after a moment.
“I’m sorry I took it out on you,” I said. “It’s not your fault, and it was ill-done of me.”
“I’m sorry too,” Vivienne replied. “For what this will do to you, before it’s all over.”
A knot I’d not known was in my shoulders loosened. I smiled, and she smiled back. Sometimes, I thought, the things that mattered could still be fixed. Sometimes you got to them in time. A hoarse breath sounded, which I realized a heartbeat later that was neither mine nor Vivienne’s. I hurriedly rose to my feet, wincing in pain at my bad knee, and arrived just in time to see Hakram’s eyes flutter open.
“Cat?” he groaned.
“I’m here,” I told him.
It’d been a hard few years, there was no denying that.
But sometimes, just sometimes, we got lucky.