“I am only seen when blind
And dawn always kills me
My omens can be divined
But my gifts are all empty.”
– Taghreb riddle
Neustal had been little more than a tower by the road, once upon a time.
It had since become the end of the grounds held by the living in the war for Hainaut, that little crumbling watchtower raised into a stout keep by the sappers of the Army of Callow. From it the fortifications of the Grand Alliance spread out like spiderweb, filled with steel and people and wood. Hainaut was too large for a wall to be raised across its entire lowlands, at least by human hands, but we’d done the next best thing: a series of trenches to defend in depth, as deep as we could dig them. The defensive line was not straight, no single stroke of the quill on a map, but instead just as chaotic as a coastline. The trenches bent and twisted to reach fortifications already standing or avoid swamps, or hard stone or hills.
Even if we’d raised a wall across all this land, we wouldn’t have been able to defend it. It’d simply too long to be manned with the numbers we’d need to turn back a proper attack by the dead, our forces spread thin where Keter would concentrate as will. Instead we had the trenches and the knots, the strongholds along the line where troops were massed and kept vigilant. Patrolling along the desolate length of the trenches companies went with carts carrying along an ingenious Lycaonese invention, what they called the holzburgen: the parts of a small wooden fortress made easy to assemble with nothing more than nails and sweat, cleverly using the carts themselves as walls.
When too badly outnumbered by raiding undead the patrols would fort up and send up signals should scrying be scrambled, bringing in the second line of defence. Further south, along scrying relays, we had established large mobile reserves that could be mobilized without prior warning. Each counted a vanguard of horsemen and kept several mages capable of opening a gate into the Twilight Ways, which meant most of the time our people arrived in time to relieve the patrolmen. We rotated which soldiers were assigned to the reserve as well as the location of said reserves, lest the Dead King be able to map out our ability to respond to his attacks.
The reserves had been half-emptied when I’d had to hastily assemble an army to deal with the undead plague that’d emerged behind us, but they had since been filled anew. Not for long, though. We would be moving into the lands held by the dead, soon, and to get the knockout blow we wanted we would need as many soldiers as we could field. Already many were here, and the stronghold splayed out below felt like a living, breathing creature: a great beast of old with a thousand hands and feet, twisting and turning and bleeding out fires from its skin.
As the wind passed through my hair, I let the thoughts pass through me. Neustal’s roof was lead, and sharply angled so that rain would slide off, but there was just enough room for someone to stand at the edge of the ledge. It’d rained the night before, and the tiles were still slippery, but my footing was sure. It was not my first time standing here.
The moon was nearly full and glaring down at us all through the cover of dark clouds, and there was a cloying humidity to the air that told me more rain was coming. It was enough to frizzle my hair as it was blown forward in strands – the wind was at my back – and have sweat bead the back of my neck. The sensation was not unpleasant, feeling the wind flow around the Mantle of Woe as I closed my eyes and slowly breathed in and out. Try as I might, I could not reach it again: that elusive moment in the Arsenal when my Name had stirred awake, when I’d felt my hold friend bare his fangs again. I suddenly opened my eye. My ears did not tell me she was here, though they did not need to: we were bound by something altogether more intimate.
I said nothing, only taking in the sight of the dark plain and the shifting moonlight that stretched out beyond the bustling walls of the stronghold. Eerie as they were, the lowlands of Hainaut were beautiful to behold.
“It is a strange habit you’ve picked up of late, dear heart,” Akua Sahelian said.
“Is it?” I softly laughed. “I’ve had stranger, I assure you.”
The shade stood at my side, undaunted by the heights. They weren’t something that could kill either of us, although… I put my weight in my good foot the slightest bet, felt the tile begin to slip, and my stomach tightened. And in that moment before the drop, in that instinctive fear that was ingrained in our hindbrain, I felt like I could almost touch my Name. Almost.
“You told me you feared heights, once,” Akua said.
“I did,” I acknowledged.
“Yet you confronted that fear,” she said. “Mastered it.”
“Mastery is a bold claim,” I smiled into the dark.
I’d stood on the edge of the orphanage’s roof, night after night, until I could stand through the trembling. Until I no longer felt like throwing up. And I’d beaten back the fear, eventually. And yet even after all these years, in that blind moment before the drop, still my stomach clenched. No, mastery was much too bold a claim.
“A strange habit, and a strange mood to match it,” Akua softly said. “I do wonder, Catherine, what fear it is that brings you to the ledge this time?”
I did love it, against my better judgement, that sometimes she just got it without needing to be told a single thing. I hated it as well, of course. It was like being naked, and while I was not shy about my skin my thoughts were a different matter. I’d been warned not to let Akua in, of course. Not to let her slither into my inner circle, else I find I had made a nest of my bones for this most beautiful of snakes. It was too late for that now, though. I’d already made my choice as to how this would end, and there would be no turning back. Too many prices had already been paid.
“I’ve been having this dream,” I idly said, closing my eyes.
I extended my arms to the sides, like a Levantine ropewalker preparing to cross above the pit, and without a sound found that the shade had moved out of the way.
“I always stand on the edge,” I said. “But it’s rarely the same. Sometimes it’s that roof from when I was a girl, but more often something else.”
My arms had opened my cloak and so the wind traced slow fingers against the hem, setting it aflutter.
“It’s been that glacier at the heart of the Fields of Wend, with the dark waters below,” I said. “It’s been that drop into the tunnel to Liesse, during the Doom. The walls of Keter. The end of the Laure docks, on a moonless night. There’s always a drop, and darkness below.”
I was awake. My eyes were closed, but I was awake.
“Then how do you know you’re not asleep, right now?” she murmured into my ear.
The hair on the back of my neck raised. I smiled, slowly breathed out and opened my eyes. I leaned forward, arms still extended, and risked the edge of the ledge. My stomach clenched with that familiar streak of ice, but still there I stood.
“In the dream,” I confessed, “I always fall.”
My feet grew numb as lead, and down into the dark I went. And never did a scream leave my throat as I tumbled into the quiet stillness, the cool peace of utter night.
“Not tonight, then,” Akua murmured.
Damn her, I fondly thought, for understanding every part of it. She was standing at my side, now that I’d brought back my arms to my chest, pretending she had never gone behind me and spoken into my ear just the way she used to when she was still but a spirit bound to the Mantle. We both knew otherwise, but we left that truth untouched.
“Not tonight,” I agreed.
Tonight my feet did not slip. My leg throbbed with pain but still I looked up at the half-veiled moon, breathing out. In and out, calm. My Name did not stir, though it felt frustratingly close.
“There is a place outside the walls of Wolof,” Akua eventually said, “where old stone were raised in a circle for some long-forgotten ritual. Water flows beneath the earth, so great clusters of Wasaliti lilies – purple and pale – grow there among the grass.”
She looked out into the night, faintly smiling.
“When the moon is at its highest,” she said, “you can lie among the lilies and grass like a bed, and the shadows they cast look like the great ribs of a giant.”
I studied her for a long moment.
“It’s not a place of power,” I said.
“No,” she quietly said. “I found it, as a child, and shared it with no one. I have not been there in many years.”
A secret for a secret, I grasped. Had she known I’d spoken to no one else of the dreams, or simply suspected? No matter. A secret for a secret, I thought once more. It sounded like the way a Praesi would think of… well, that word was best left out of this. Too dangerous for all sorts of reasons, the least of which the stories it brought with it. The silence we kept clung heavy to the air, carrying with it an offer. She had made it to me before, though rarely in too explicit a manner, but it’d been a while since I’d been genuinely tempted. Killian had taught me to value trust over the press of flesh, bittersweet as the lesson had been to learn. If I turned my head to meet Akua’s eyes, it would be accepting the offer. Falling off the ledge, just a little bit.
I leaned forward. The fear came, and I did not fall.
“We are who we are,” I said without turning.
I was many things but a Callowan most of all, and she was the Doom of Liesse. Forgiveness was not the stuff my bones were made of, and a hundred thousand souls were still waiting for their long price.
“So we are,” Akua Sahelian agreed.
Her tone I could not read. Disappointment? Frustration? Even long gone form the Wasteland, she was still a daughter from that circle of Creation’s finest liars.
“Why did you come?” I asked.
Safer grounds. Like a slap on a butterfly, my words tore through the last remnants of what had been hanging in the air.
“One of the patrols came back mauled,” she said.
I cocked a brow. Hardly unusual. Keter had gotten bolder in prodding out defences over the last month – the Iron Prince believed we were being tested to see if we were building up to an offensive, and I tended to agree – so it was not the first time blood ended up on the ground. We’d already begun to raise the numbers on the patrols, it was a good way to blood our conscripts before the looming battles.
“Razin Tanja was on one of them,” Akua said.
Not wounded, I decided, or she would have told me immediately.
“Hard losses?” I asked.
“Near half,” she said. “The dead got to them before they put together their wooden fortress.”
“It shook him,” I said.
“So Adjutant’s watchful eyes reported,” Akua agreed. “I believed it might be of interest to you.”
“You were right,” I said, taking a last look down.
Not tonight, I thought. There would be a night, sooner or later. Everyone got one. But it would not be tonight.
We’d see about tomorrow.
The Lord of Malaga was in his quarters, they told me.
We’d held Neustal long enough that what had once been a sea of tents with palisades had become closer to a fortress-camp, barracks being raised in stone and timber while smaller houses were raised in a sort of separate officer’s district. In those muddy ‘streets’ nobles and career soldiers from places spanning half of Calernia were made to rub elbows, which had been fascinating to watch when it didn’t end up involving loud arguments. It would have been an exaggeration to say that the timber house where Razin Tanja lived was part of a ‘Levantine quarter’ within the district, I reflected, but not a a claim entirely without foundation.
For practical reasons – being able to find officers easily, ease of supply and security – we’d gone along with the natural tendency of people to stick to their own, so it was no surprise that warriors in the colours of the Binder and Slayer’s Bloods were all over the street when I limped my way to Lord Razin’s abode. A Binder asked me to present my wrist before I was allowed in, so that she might ascertain I truly was who I appeared to be. The Levantine mages might be rubbish at illusions, but Binders dealt with blood from the moment they began in their trade: what flowed through my veins was proof enough of my identity, as far as they were concerned.
I was not announced in, though neither did I catch the young lord by surprise. I’d half-wondered if he would be drunk by the time I arrived, but he didn’t look it – morose, sure, but then I’d be the same if I’d had to watch half my patrol get butchered by undead. He was seated and did not rise when I entered, though he offered a nod.
“Black Queen,” Razin of the Binder’s Blood greeted me.
“Lord Razin,” I replied, brow pulling into a frown.
He was bruised on the cheek, a purple shiner crusting around the edges. It made him look younger, and more beaten down than one of the five most powerful nobles in Levant should ever feel.
“Did your watchers not mention I am unharmed?” he drily asked.
“Not wounded is what I got,” I admitted without batting an eye. “Though that hit on your face will het nasty if you don’t attend to it.”
“It has been cleaned,” he dismissed.
“You have healers,” I pointed out.
And even if somehow none of the Dominions could be stirred to heal one of the head of the greatest lineages of the Blood, he could have borrowed some from another army. The aristocrat smiled bleakly at me, and I was once more reminded of how few battles he’d seen before our first meeting in Iserre. There’d been an arrogance in him then that’d been cut down to size since, I thought, though the remnants of it lingered. Funny things, people. So fragile in so many ways, and yet even the starkest of lessons found it difficult to change what lay at the heart of us. Like hardy weeds in a garden, the worst of us was often the most deeply entrenched.
“I am aware, Your Majesty,” he said. “This is a choice. The bruise will fade, but the ache will be… a useful reminder.”
I wanted to chide him for that indulgence, but how could I when my leg still ached from standing atop the keep? Hypocrisy and I were not unacquainted, but I tried not to seek her company. I claimed a seat at his table, since it was clear he was not going to invite me, and it was telling that a tired grunt was the most objection he was able to muster.
“What happened?” I asked.
“That poor orc you strapped to a wheelchair will have the report by now,” he acidly replied.
He probably would. Hakram was doing his best to replace his missing limbs with those of a hundred busy attendants, and Hakram’s best tended to see things through.
“And I’ll read it,” I said. “But that’s not what I’m asking. What happened, Tanja?”
The young lord looked aside. Not to a window, for we had not made those – too dangerous, given the risks of infiltration – but to a tapestry-covered wall. It was a while before he answered me, voice exhausted and raw.
“We didn’t see them until it was too late,” the Lord of Malaga said. “The skeletons were far and slow, so we took our time. Even considered duels.”
My brow rose. He knew I disapproved of those.
“My cousin Alis was with us, fresh from home,” Razin said. “We were close, as children.”
His fingers tightened, almost imperceptibly.
“She is also without the Talent.”
A sting that’d followed him all his life, I knew, as the descendant of the most famous mage lineage in Levant. Blood were raised to try to emulate their ancestors in all things, so that they too might prove worthy of the same Bestowal. It would have been hard on a youth, understanding that even if he did everything right an accident of birth meant he’d never be fully able to live up to his legacy. Someone sharing that hardship would have been a dear friend.
“One of our riders saw our line’s colours on the armour of one of the skeletons,” he said. “Enamelled scale. The pattern was an old one but undeniably Tanja, One of our own, snatched up during some crusade and now fielded as a footsoldier!”
His smile spread, and grew bleaker.
“Alis has – had – no deeds to her name, Black Queen,” Razin Tanja told me. “Levant is united against Keter, our people no longer fight honour wars. She lost her finest warring years in obscurity. And so I thought I could do this for her, give her…”
“A duel that’d make her reputation,” I quietly finished.
To Blood, honour and reputation often mattered more than gold. A grand gift for an old friend.
“The skeletons were barely more numerous than us,” Razin said, “and they would not have engaged wooden walls. I delayed to bait them, sent out our horse to take the flanks at a distance to prevent them from retreating when they got close.”
“It was a trap,” I said.
“Ghouls had burrowed beneath the earth,” the Lord of Malaga said. “So when the skeletons were close and we began to make the walls, they rose in ambush.”
I let out a long breath. Shit. Yeah, that was classic Keteran tactics. The ghouls would have done some damage, surprising the Levantines like that, but there couldn’t have been too many of them or the digging would have been easy to notice. No, they’d been a unit sacrificed to prevent the holzburg from being raised before the skeletons closed the distance. With numbers like that, the dead had never been going to win the skirmish. The Dead King had just traded corpses for corpses, knowing he could afford to bury us one patrol at a time. Rough night, going through that. Especially if it got your favourite cousin killed, which by the look on his face I was guessing it had.
“Alis?” I asked.
“She died after having slain three ghouls single-handedly,” Razin said. “Her deed was deemed worthy of being added to the Rolls.”
I remained silent. I’d not known her, so even commiserating with his loss seemed like a lie.
“Go on,” Razin bitterly said. “Have you not warned us again and again that there is no honour to be found in this war, Catherine Foundling? That our ways are that of fools, when kept to in the shadow of the Crown of the Dead, and that we must discard them or suffer loss.”
His teeth gritted.
“As I have,” he said. “As I might again.”
I could have excused him, I thought, spoken of good intentions and everyone making mistakes. But I was not his mother, or his friend, and what he had done should not be excused. So instead I leaned back into my chair and sighed.
“I was sixteen,” I quietly said, “the first time I made a decision that got people killed.”
His stiffened, dark eyes narrowing in on me.
“I’d killed before,” I noted. “But this was different. I didn’t swing a blade at them, it was just… consequences.”
“What happened?” Razin Tanja rasped out.
“I spared a man,” I said. “Not out of mercy, but because I needed him to escape and cause great troubles. It’s not only your people who make their reputations by putting down lions on the loose, Razin. I spared him when I could have taken his life, and because of that people died.”
“It could be said they hanged because they chose to scheme rebellion,” I said. “Or that they hanged because the Carrion Lord ordered they would. The choice I made wasn’t the only one that led us there.”
I traced the wooden surface with my fingers.
“But when I was made to look at those corpses hanging from the gallows,” I said, “I knew it was on me. That the decision I’d made had its hooks in all the others, that maybe I wasn’t guilty but that I was at least responsible.”
God, there’d been a barmaid who’d flirted with me. The look in her eyes, before the drop… For the life of me I could not remember her name, and it made me feel oddly ashamed.
“So what did you do, after?” the Lord of Malaga asked.
I’d wept, that was the truth of it. Wept in an alley where no one would see me, afraid and alone and a long way from home. And in the weeks that’d followed I’d come close to abandoning my path, until my confrontation with Akua had the Blessed Isle granted me… perspective of a kind.
“There is not panacea to this, Razin,” I told him. “You grow number to the losses, eventually, but it never entirely goes away.”
“Some wisdom, this,” the younger man scoffed.
“Remember tonight,” I told him quietly. “Beyond the bruise. Remember the mistake, how it felt as it rippled out into the world and took something dear from you. And use that to never make the same mistake again, Razin.”
His jaw set, and slowly he nodded.
“There will be other mistakes,” I said. “Other defeats. Own them too, Razin Tanja, use them to rise – or you’ll be mourning a great deal more than a cousin.”
He chuckled, though the sound was mirthless.
“The more I gain, Black Queen, the more I am afraid,” he said. “What was there to fear losing, when I had nothing?”
You and me both, kid, I thought. Yet I had said all that I had to say, and if there was someone who would ease his grief it was not me. The most kindness I could offer was to leave and make room for them to step into the space I was occupying. I rose to my feet, feeling my leg throb and offered him a nod. He did not object to my departure.
“Black Queen,” Razin of the Binder’s Blood said, sending me off with a sharp nod.
I hesitated, fingers lingering against the table.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I finally said.
The silence followed me out.
Hakram’s people found me before I’d even made it out of the officer district, before my feet had found a destination – I felt too restless for sleep, even this late – and the news were whispered directly into my ear. I thanked the messenger absent-mindedly, my thoughts already racing ahead of me. Finally. It was about time he arrived. That they’d not caught sight of him before he was already deep in the stronghold was not unexpected, if hardly pleasant to hear, but his destination at least was predictable. It was always the first part of any camp he visited, unless prior demands on his time had been made. Night settled on me as a veil as I limped out, not to make me invisible to eyes but to mask my presence.
It was a weave taught to me by Andronike herself, a use of Night inspired by a spell that’d once been a favourite of the Twilight Sages: I would be seen as unremarkable, and details of me would be difficult to remember. Adjutant had called it a poor man’s Scribe, which had the benefit of being both amusing and pretty accurate. In the soldierly parts of the stronghold I would not have bothered, for my face – or more accurately my mantle and staff – was a key that opened gates and lowered wards. But no stronghold as large as Neustal, whose span occupied several tortured miles, could be filled entirely by soldiers. We had cooks, launderers, sutlers and peddlers.
A few brothels as well, though after a few incidents were laundresses were harassed by soldiers we’d confined them all to a particular district. That way there could be no confusion as to what services were by offered by whom, and there would be no qualms about flogging anyone who didn’t understand what ‘no’ meant.
The Legions of Terror and the Army of Callow both forbade camp followers, which these people effectively were, as they slowed marches and drained as much resources as they provided. Here it would have been a fool’s errand to try the same, though, considering Proceran armies had them in spades. I’d first believed the Lycaonese didn’t, but it turned out they just armed them like they did essentially everyone they could afford to. These helfer and helferin only fought under specific circumstances, and otherwise essentially served the same purposes. The Levantines had brought few aside from warriors up north, but their rank and file had been eager enough to partake of the creature comforts.
If the civilians were to stay then there could be no question of them staying outside the walls where they might would be vulnerable to raids by the dead, so Neustal had whelped civilian quarters to stash them away in. It was towards these I headed, limp and all. In particular towards the long loghouse that was the busiest brothel in the stronghold, though I did not take the entrance a patron would. I went to the back, and slipped past the hired toughs guarding the entrance. The man who was arguably the most famous hero of our age was smiling and laughing with the brothel girls and boys as he deftly wove Light to heal their pains and sicknesses.
The Grey Pilgrim looked utterly at ease around them, and more surprisingly they around him. I’d started near enough the bottom of the ladder to know that just because some smiling highborn was comfortable around you didn’t mean the feeling was reciprocated. Peregrine was the name they used for him, so they knew who he was, but for all that they did not seem intimidated. And they really had no reason to be, didn’t they? Unlike kings and Named, they were not of that small slice of the world that Tariq Fleetfoot kept a wary eye on. They really did have nothing to fear from him.
Not unless their deaths would prevent a greater evil, anyway.
I waited until he was done. Unlike soldiers, these people wouldn’t have the benefits of priests and mages to call on for healing – not by right, anyway. If the Pilgrim wanted to do a little good here, far be it from me to stand in his way. The night was long, and I was not yet tired. They pressed a cup of wine on him before he left, which he only half-drank, and when the Peregrine wandered back onto the streets I was but a step behind him. There was no question that he had not known of my presence, for even if he’d somehow missed the Ophanim would not have. He did not turn or look at me, but something in his bearing acknowledged my presence.
“There are others in need of healing,” Tariq said.
“There’s always people in need of healing,” I replied. “Hurt is tireless.”
“Too often it is those who offer comfort, north of Levant,” he said. “It is shameful how the occupation is treated by some.”
“We’re not targeting the brothels, Pilgrim,” I sharply said. “Or even civilians. But I won’t assign healers to these districts that would instead be with patrols or manning our infirmaries.”
We already had too few, be they priests or mages. I’d not forbid any volunteering their hours, so long as it did not result in exhaustion, but I’d not command the death of soldiers fighting Keter to accommodate people who’d come here knowing this was a war front. We were a stronghold, not a town. I was not unreasonable for denying something they had no right to ask for.
“Then do not deny me my works, Catherine,” the Peregrine replied. “If I can allay suffering, I will.”
“No lack of that going around, these days,” I grunted.
“Denial or suffering?” he asked.
“No danger of either running out, I reckon,” I shrugged. “But they’re not why I sought you out. We’re overdue a talk.”
He cast a searching look on me, and I was unsurprised to realize that my veils of Night were nothing more than puffs of smoke to those eyes.
“You have held to your word when it comes to young Razin and Aquiline,” he said. “I take it you now want them removed from your care.”
“That’d be nice,” I said. “Though on occasion they forget to be a pain in my ass, so I don’t mind lending the equally occasional hand.”
“Headstrong youths can be troublesome, it is true,” the Peregrine said.
I eyed him, almost amused. How many decades had it taken him to get the art down of saying something like that without even the faintest hint of irony?
“So I’ve heard,” I said. “But your headstrong lordlings aren’t why I’m here.”
“Ah,” the old man calmly said. “It’s to be that talk, is it?”
“Yeah,” I grimly replied, baring my teeth. “Let’s talk about the Wandering Bard, Tariq.”