“- one might then wonder if a kingdom’s sufferance of a tyrant for a decade is not worth the inevitable successful uprising by an usurped relative and the golden age it will usher. Given the frequent petty cruelty and mediocrity of kings, might it not be worth inducing a great tyrant so that a great ruler will follow them?”
– Extract from the controversial treatise ‘Ethics of Fate’ by Kalchas the Gadfly, Atalantian philosopher
The tavern had closed hours ago, as it was the middle of the night, but the Peregrine had a knack for getting into places he shouldn’t and I had a Night-trick decent with locks. I snapped my fingers and a few streaks of black flame sputtered to life in hanging lanterns, revealing a dirt floor to the large room. Just like the one we’d had in the Rat’s Nest. Feeling just a tad nostalgic, I limped up behind the bar – a nice large oaken piece – and went looking through the bottles after leaning my staff against the sude. Whoever ran this place kept a cudgel under the counter, I noted with approval. Good form.
I snatched up a bottle of what looked like genuine Neustrian schnaps, pulling the cork and taking a sniff. Apple, maybe? It’d do. Klaus Papenheim loved the stuff, and he’d offered it to me enough I’d acquired a taste for it. I took up one of the wooden cups and filled it, cocking an eyebrow at Tariq when he sat himself on the other side of the counter.
“What’s your poison, Pilgrim?” I asked.
“I don’t suppose there’s a pear brandy lying around?” the old man asked. “Alavan, if possible.”
I looked through the stock but there wasn’t, sadly enough.
“Closest they’ve got is some sort of berry brandy,” I told him, “and it looks Arlesite, though Gods only know from where beyond that.”
“Now you have me curious, I’ll admit,” the Pilgrim said. “If you don’t mind?”
I deftly set the cup down on the counter without turning as I took the bottle – some things never quite went, huh – and poured him a finger. I sniffed the bottle discreetly afterwards and almost gagged. It smelled like a whole bush had died in there along the promised berries. This might be the Grand Alliance’s camp but I wasn’t a robber queen, so I placed two golden crowns where the bottle I’d taken had stood. I cast a look at Tariq, who looked faintly embarrassed.
“I have been travelling light,” he admitted.
He wasn’t so crass as to actually outright request I pay for his drink, though, I noted with amusement.
“Heroes,” I sighed, teasing.
I was actually out of crowns by I had a Praesi aurelius and a Proceran gran, which should more or less cover the costs. The gran was less pure, and so worth less, but some places refused imperial coinage as they believed it to be cursed. I vaguely remembered that one of the Dread Emperors had in fact tried to drive a chunk of Callowan nobility mad by cursing coinage a few centuries back so I couldn’t even blame them.
“You’re covered for the bottle,” I said, and raised my cup.
He matched it with his, and the drink went down. I laughed after it went down, my throat aflame. Damn, but the Lycaonese liked it with a kick. Orcs would actually enjoy drinking this, which was a standard rarely met.
“Business, then,” I said.
“Business,” Tariq agreed.
I said nothing, only cocking an eyebrow as I leaned against the counter.
“I will assume,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “that your intent is not to gloat.”
“I like to think I’m above such things,” I lied.
“Naturally,” the Peregrine seriously agreed.
A beat of silence passed.
“That said,” I thinly smiled, “I fucking told you so.”
He sighed, but did not disagree. That was already promising. I’d not been sure exactly what to expect, as the silence and eventual assent from the Dominion when I’d gotten the Wandering Bard to be designated as formal enemy of the Grand Alliance had only told me he’d abstained from getting involved. His actual thoughts remained unknown to me.
“It is possible that the attack on the Arsenal was meant to aid in the long term,” Tariq said, then grimaced and poured himself another finger of brandy. “But that is irrelevant. She has forced us to take her as an enemy through her actions, regardless of whatever intent might lie behind them.”
“There’s precious few acts you can’t justify by saying they’ll help down the line,” I flatly replied. “That does tend to be the convenient thing about using the future for proof.”
“Peace, Black Queen. I am not attempting to justify the Wandering Bard’s offences against us,” Tariq tiredly said. “Merely struggling to reconcile the woman I have known for a very long time with the one who is now my foe.”
Much as I hated it’d taken him this long to get here, it was starting to look he actually was there so I swallowed the many barbs still on the tip of my tongue. Rubbing salt in the wound would get me nothing save a fleeting moment of satisfaction.
“Then we’re in agreement that she’s kill-on-sight,” I said. “And that an order ensuring as much comes down on both your side and mine.”
“You are unlikely to actually kill her, using such means,” Tariq said. “But I do not disagree with the principle: her power comes from access to and influence over Bestowed, stripping her from these strengths is sensible.”
“Sensible,” I slowly repeated. “Yes, I believe so. Another sensible thing would be, for example, how you came to be so certain she won’t die. I know why I think that, Peregrine, but you’ve been less than forthcoming about your ties with her.”
“Should I complain to my representative under the Terms and being so clandestinely approached?” the Pilgrim drily said.
I filled my glass, conspicuously.
“This is just two old friends having a drink and a chat, Tariq,” I toothily smiled. “Not an interrogation. Skirt around the letter of the law, me? Perish the thought.”
He cocked a brow.
“Perish is the right word,” the old man said. “How does the Red Axe fare, these days?”
“I believe they went with decapitation,” I said. “’twas a little late to boil her alive, admittedly, and a brisk hanging would have been good fun but little else.”
I suspected that Hasenbach had been amused, in that discreet way of hers, that from now when the execution by sword of the Red Axe was spoken of there would be a great deal of trouble over the nomenclature. Mind you, that it would add a dash of confusion to any rumours about the execution in the Arsenal was a more likely culprit for why she might have arranged that.
“You lost trust when you arranged that,” Tariq said. “Some with our Bestowed, more with the man who leads them.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” I replied, almost rolling my eyes. “You disapprove, I take it?”
“No,” the Grey Pilgrim finally said. “It helped stave off the collapse of Procer at otherwise minor costs. I only wish it had not forced a distancing between yourself and young Hanno, though perhaps it is for the best.”
I drank of my cup, silently inviting him to elaborate.
“The cordiality of the relationship between you two has much been commented on,” he said.
“If this is going to turn into another polite request I don’t sleep with him, I’m going to get miffed at having to repeat I’m not interested,” I warned him.
“I believe you,” Tariq replied, sounding like he meant it. “But friendship is already seen as dangerous enough. You represent interests, the both of you, and those interests are often at odds. Friendship complicates that.”
I waved him down.
“Bullshit,” I frankly said. “If anything liking him made dealing with him significantly easier. But it’s no longer an issue anyway. Let those fears be buried, and instead of dealing with fish market gossip we can perhaps deal with the endless undead armies trying to kill us all.”
“I have yet to witness any power in this world or the next that quell gossip,” Tariq amusedly said, “but your point is taken.”
“Good,” I said. “I believe we were talking about the Bard?”
The Grey Pilgrim conceded with a nod.
“We first met in the Free Cities, when I intervened in a spot of trouble within the Helikean royal family,” he said. “I took her for a simple Bard, that first time, but recognizing her under a different face a few years later put paid to that notion.”
Yeah, that’d do it. I still wasn’t sure what his reading aspect exactly was, but it was frighteningly sharp even when the Ophanim weren’t actively whispering secrets into his ear.
“And you knew she wasn’t strictly one of Above’s,” I pointed out. “You weren’t surprised when I told you I’d seen her work on Below’s behalf.”
Blue eyes sad, he nodded.
“That much became beyond dispute when she disrupted my pursuit of a villain in Lange within a decade of our first meeting,” Tariq said, “forcing me to retreat from the Principality entirely and so lose the trail.”
“And you didn’t, you know,” I delicately said, slicing a finger across my throat, “try to Mercy her afterwards, so to speak.”
I glanced atop the hero’s sparse crown of white hair apologetically.
“No offence meant, fellows,” I added.
I didn’t get smote, so I decided to ascribe a passable sense of humor to the Choir of Mercy. The things you learned, huh?
“None was taken,” the Pilgrim informed me. “Though after your… colourful conversations with Contrition and Endurance, that could be seen as favoritism.”
I winked above his head.
“Don’t spread it around,” I loudly whispered.
Long-suffering, he sipped at his drink and sighed.
“I did, in fact, try to kill her,” Tariq said. “It did not take, evidently, and the misgivings of my patrons in pursuing her demise gave me pause. As did the eventual realization that the young villain she’d helped escape me had within the year died fighting another villainess, in the process exposing her schemes in Penthes.”
Ah, I thought. There it was, the first of the missing pieces. Tariq trusted the Ophanim, and we’d already established that the Intercessor could affect angels.
“You thought she was another like you,” I realized. “Only subtler and older.”
“It was my belief that she was not a willing servant to Below, and so that she ensured all the victories arranged in their name would lead to starker defeats down the line,” the Pilgrim admitted. “I suspected her forced service to be a consequence of the nature of her Bestowal, a storyteller’s duty to attend to the foe as well as the hero.”
“She’s not like us, Pilgrim,” I said. “Named, sure, but I get the feeling there’s a lot less between her and the Gods than there is for the rest of us.”
“The sufferings she attended to are on a scale we can hardly imagine,” Tariq softly agreed. “And so I did not judge, Catherine, to borrow another man’s words. Even with the wisdom of the Ophanim close to me, I cannot begin to understand the crushing burden of her purpose. Weighing the suffering of a century knowing it might spare another, patching and bleeding nations to prevent greater horrors – a millennia of ugly choices, one after another.”
He looked grieved.
“And still she did good whenever she could, I have seen this,” the Pilgrim said. “It was she who led me to heal Laurence after her duel with the Ranger, did you know?”
“I had no idea,” I said.
I’d known about the duel between a younger Saint of Swords and Ranger, since Indrani had told me what she knew, but I’d never known the Pilgrim to be involved.
“I trusted her,” Tariq admitted, “to see a path out of the dark even when I did not.”
I’d never really had that kind of trust in me, but then I supposed there was a reason I’d become a villain and not a heroine.
“I still believe she seeks a better future for Calernia,” the Grey Pilgrim admitted. “But that is not enough. I have seen the world we would make, through the Alliance and the Accords, and I am willing to fight for it. If she seeks to darken that path, then she is my enemy regardless of her intent.”
Not exactly the ringing endorsement of killing the Intercessor first change we got I’d kind of been hoping for, but life was all about tempering your expectations. I’d settle for a grief-stricken fight between past comrades if that was all he had it in him to summon up.
“More will be asked of you,” I bluntly said. “I know there are dangers, but by the White Knight’s sentencing you’ve gained a pupil in Christophe de Pavanie.”
“I am aware,” Tariq frowned.
“What you’re not aware of is how he’s tied to that mess in Cleves,” I said. “You know, the House of Langevin being made to eat crow.”
“He’s the reason Prince Gaspard abdicated in favour of his son?” the Pilgrim asked, sounding surprised.
Hasenbach had wasted no time spending the political capital she’d gained through the trial, though at least she’d been subtle about it. Gaspard Langevin had, officially, taken a bad wound and passed the burden of leadership to his younger and more vital son. It’d been an unpopular move in Cleves, where the man was respected, but Hasenbach had privately marshaled the Highest Assembly using his ties to the Mirror Knight as an anchor around his neck instead of the trump card Gaspard had likely seen them as. The army under General Rumena then leaving regardless of protests had made it very clear to him that he’d made more enemies than his house could afford, driving the final nail in the coffin.
“Not exactly,” I said. “But he was involved.”
I elaborated quickly, laying out the concerns Sve Noc had brought to me along with the plot and the difficulties the situation had represented for the First Prince: stark consequences to acting, worse if she did not.
“I’m assuming Hanno will speak to you as well when he arrives with the Mirror Knight,” I said. “But I wanted you to know the nature of what’s being dropped on your lap. He needs to be straightened up before he blunders into another mess like this, Pilgrim.”
“He’s still the best match we have with the Severance,” I reluctantly admitted. “And I’d be a lot more comfortable trusting him with that power if you were able to first look me in the eye and promise be he wasn’t going to shit the bed with it.”
If anyone could do it, mind you, it was the Peregrine. As far as heroes were concerned, he was the mentor. To Tariq’s honour, he did not balk or try to pass the responsibility to another.
“How long would I have with him?” the Pilgrim asked.
“If things go well, we want to try Keter next summer,” I said. “I know it’s not long, but…”
“I will do all I can,” Tariq simply promised.
“Hells,” I grimly said, “that’s all I can ask, isn’t it?”
And on that we toasted, cups rising in accord and going down with the same.
It was probably a good thing that our attendants were far enough behind they couldn’t hear us speak as watched over the entrance of the reinforcements into the stronghold with threadbare ceremony.
“I don’t know what my niece has been bribing the Levantines with, but I hope we have more in stock,” Prince Klaus Papenheim appreciatively said.
The older man was eyeing the rows of heavy Alavan foot with an almost hungry look. I snorted at the sight. I’d found it difficult not to like the grizzled Prince of Hannoven from the start, even knowing he’d almost been one of the leading generals in the invasion of Callow. He was from a mould I was familiar with, that I’d spent most my life around: an old soldier, a veteran who’d spent almost as much time on the saddle as reigning in his capital. My reputation with Lycaonese tended to be decent, for a servant of wicked power, but I’d not expected the old prince to take to me as well.
“Having infantry envy, are we?” I mused. “That ought to be a familiar feeling by now.”
More a tease than a truth. An open ground exercises my army tended to trounce his own, but the moment the terrain got difficult the balance tended to swing harshly the other way. It’d been about as I expected, given the difficult of using classic Legion tactics in the mountains when they’d been designed to win wars on the plains of Callow. On those plains, though, Black’s war machine still reigned queen despite the best efforts of the opposition. The Lycaonese were good, but they hadn’t mastered the tactics of the Reform yet.
They’d find it difficult to catch up there, since their lack of mage was even worse than my own. Unfortunately for them, they wouldn’t have the workaround of having stolen a Legion or two as I’d done when founding the Army of Callow.
“Talk to me when your lot use a goat path without waking up all of Ashur,” the one-armed prince scathingly replied.
The obligatory trading of insults having been seen to, I took a better look at the six thousand troops Lord Yannu Marave had sent our way. Most of them Alavan, by the colours on the shields and faces, but I was hardly complaining about that: the Champion’s Blood coughed up to arm its heavies in good mail and plate, and they fought ferociously with their swords and shields. Two thousand of the Levantines were lesser captains sworn to the Holy Seljun instead of Alava, though the pattern for why they’d been chosen was neither the size of their warband nor their origins. Instead they were all, in majority, made up of slingers. Less a boon than the heavies, these, but still very much a boon.
The Dominion’s armies were inferior to those of Procer and Callow in several regards, but they were also the only standing force that still fielded slingers – whose thrown stones had proved to have a great deal of bite against the undead than arrows.
“That was the last major force we were waiting on,” I said. “The White Knight will arrive with Named and the latest from the Arsenal in a few days, which has us almost ready to begin the push.”
“Weren’t you waiting on some sort of Levantine bounty hunter?” the older man asked. “I was warned she might be trouble by the Silver Huntress.”
“The Headhunter’s a prick,” I conceded. “But they’re a prick with the finest tracking chops in the Grand Alliance. Archer went to fetch them, and they should both be here by dawn.”
The Prince of Hannoven cocked a brow.
“They?” he asked.
“Fluid,” I explained.
He grunted in understanding.
“I want to split the Dominion forces between the armies when we move out,” Prince Klaus said, “You know their discipline holds better when they’re kept apart.”
“I also know it’ll be a cold day in Ater before you get Tanja and Aquiline to split,” I snorted.
“They listen to you,” the older man said.
“When it suits them,” I shrugged.
“Then take them both with you,” the Prince of Hannoven said. “And leave me the Alavans.”
“Fat chance,” I replied. “I’d get both a guaranteed headache and fuck all slingers, Papenheim. Aren’t your people supposed to be all about giving people a fair shake?”
“And yours are supposed to spend their days trampling Praesi out in Streges, but it’s a strange new world,” he grunted back. “I’ll take the larger slice of fantassins and give you with Princess Beatrice if you agree.”
Now that was a tempting offer. My officers just didn’t have the knack for dealing with Proceran mercenaries without it going badly – falsifying a report in the Army got you caned and demoted, when it was considered common practice among those fantassin companies who even bothered with reports. Some poor Arlesite bastard had even tried to bribe an orc lieutenant, which got him his throat ripped out and ten more people hanged in the aftermath of the vicious brawl that ensued.
“Gods, you must really hate dealing with the Blood,” I said. “That leaves you who to run the Alamans, Prince Arsene? The man’s got all the boldness of a wet towel and I’ve never seen him send out his soldiers when he could pass the fight to others.”
Never to the extent that it was insubordination or harmful to the war effort, but the Prince of Bayeux was very clearly trying to make sure his forces suffered as few casualties as possible even if that meant other forces would suffer instead.
“I’ll have Mathilda breathing on his neck and fill his days with petty mercenary squabbles, it’ll keep him too twitchy to be a load,” the Prince of Hannoven said. “I can’t do either those things with your lordlings.”
I hummed pensively, the two of us watching the brightly painted ranks of Dominion soldiers streaming in. I’d theoretically be leading the Second and Third Army on my prong of the offensive along with the lion’s share of the Firstborn, so in truth I wasn’t badly in need of more heavy foot. If I got the army of Hainaut I’d get what I considered to be the cream of the Alamans forces in the region as well as their finest cavalry captain, which gave me a solid force to work with.
“If I were selected to lead one of the offensives,” I said. “That might be a tempting offer.”
The older man spat to the side.
“You’ll get one prong and me the other,” Prince Klaus said. “It’s a done deal, and I won’t hear it otherwise. The lordlings are still too green and the only other one I’d trust with a large force is Volignac.”
Prince Beatrice Volignac wouldn’t be getting a command that size, though. Not only was most of her principality already occupied by the dead, the appointment of two Proceran commanders would go over… poorly with the coalition forces in Hainaut.
“You didn’t agree outright,” he said. “So out with it. What more do you want in the stew?”
“I want first pick of the fantassin companies,” I said. “If my flanks are held by Levantines, I can’t afford runners in the mercenaries.”
“You’re a cold one, Foundling,” the grey-haired man said. “Sticking me with both the company dross and the Brabant conscripts?”
“I’ll cede General Rumena in return,” I offered. “It’ll keep your sigils in good order.”
Unlike the Prince of Hannoven, I could handle the Firstborn just fine on my own. Mighty Jindrich could hold field command and I’d handle the rest. Offering General Rumena was not a small concession to make, given its known power and its standing as the finest commander among the drow, and I could see the older man was tempted.
“Agreed,” Prince Klaus said, and spat into his palm.
I did the same and clasped his hand.
“May the Heavens strike a liar,” the Prince if Hannoven said.
“Crows take the oathbreaker,” I replied, and we shook on it.
I could feel he was just as eager as me to get started on his planning, but to our common frustration there’d be no going anywhere. The Levantines had yet to finish coming into the stronghold, and it’d be poor politics to slight them by leaving early.
Gods if it wasn’t boring as all Hells, though.
“Glaring won’t add lines to the report,” Hakram said. “Though I praise the quality of the effort.”
I sighed and dropped back into my chair, blowing at an errant strand of hair that’d slipped out of my loose ponytail and gotten into my face. Sinfully comfortable as the seat liberate from Arcadia was, it did not improve my mood.
“It’s ridiculous that we still have so little reliable information on the fantassins,” I complained. “I know we’re thin on Jacks, up here, but this isn’t even bare bones. It’s bare bone, maybe, and even then I’d argue it’s not a full one.”
I’d sent for all we had on the fantassin companies of the Hainaut front after returning to my tent – which I still used for work, if not always to sleep in – and even as the parchments flooded in my despair at what little we actually knew increased. Half of this was rumours – many reported by our soldiers, sure, but that didn’t magically make them more than rumours – while the solid information was… sparse. Company names, captains and numbers. A few records, including who had gotten commendations for bravery, and a few bits about which companies were known to hate each other or to have bad blood with the Army of Callow. The three largest of the companies had a little more on them, a bit about the leading officers and their reputations, but I had to admit this was largely a pile of nothing.
“I fucked myself negotiating with Papenheim,” I noted. “I might have first pick of companies, but I can’t even be sure what companies I should pick.”
“Neither would the Iron Prince, dearest,” Akua said.
Where Hakram had claimed a corner of the tent with several smaller tables set around his wooden wheelchair – though it was not all wood, and Masego had laid so many enchantments on the thing that wards sometimes confused it for a mage – Akua had instead claimed a seat around the table Indrani was still carving for me, and was lounging on it with a cup of wine in hand.
“Useless consolation,” I replied in an irritated tone. “My favourite, how did you know?”
“I shall endeavour keep this revelation in mind, my heart,” Akua silkily replied, “though it has nothing to do with the point I was making.”
“Ah,” Hakram exclaimed. “Beatrice Volignac. Clever.”
I frowned. What did the Princess of Hainaut have to do with – oh. Shit, I hated it when Akua was right just after I’d gotten snippy with her. The Lycaonese weren’t that much better at dealing with Alamans than my own officers, so the Iron Prince usually delegated that sort of thing to his most trusted among the Alamans royals, the Princess of Hainaut. The Prince of Hannoven wouldn’t be able to pick the companies any better than I, but Beatrice Volignac very likely could. She’d be assigned to my part of the offensive, too, so she’d have motivation not to be half-hearted about this.
“Set up a meeting with her, Adjutant,” I said. “It’s the kind of thing that needs to be asked in person. Tomorrow morning – wait, no, early afternoon.”
It’d break one of those unspoken Alamans rules to ask her to do me that favour before she was officially folded under my command by our morning war council, even if the matter was effectively already settled.
“I’ll see to it,” Hakram said, his long and skeletal fingers jotting notes down on parchment. “You still need to decide where you’ll be addressing the villains, Catherine. The earlier we settle that the better.”
I grimaced. I’d wanted to wait until the White Knight was here to hold that, to ward off the perception that we might be plotting, but now that the last two of my lot were arriving with dawn the Named I represented under the Terms were due a proper council. Some were getting restless, too, so I was wary of delaying further. So far I’d put them off by saying all was best addressed after the war council settled broader affairs, but that excuse would be expiring tomorrow morning as well. That meant I’d be meeting with the villains assembled in Hainaut before sundown, like it or not.
“I would suggest far from anything expensive,” Adjutant dryly suggested, a peek of fangs revealing his amusement.
His face hadn’t changed much, I thought. So when he was seated, when the fold of his clothes hid the missing arm and leg and meat, it was almost possible to forget. Almost.
“Outside would be best,” I agreed. “Though I don’t want eavesdropping, which limits our options. There’s not a lot of places here warded up right for that.”
Most of them were war rooms, personal quarters or other places of import. None of which I particularly wanted to shove a bunch of rowdy villains into.
“Make a request to borrow wardstones from the Gigantes,” Hakram suggested. “This is Terms business, not personal, so you would be within your rights.”
“There any left so spare?” I asked. “I know we restricted who can make requests, but they still go fast.”
“I’ll know within the hour,” Adjutant promised. “If it is feasible?”
“Then do it,” I ordered.
Which handled the privacy issues nicely. Leaving actual location as the last hurdle.
“In the country will have to do,” I finally said. “I’d rather not do this in the stronghold proper, if I have a choice.”
Obviously we wouldn’t be doing this on the Dead King’s side of the trenches, so it’d have to be south.
“Akua?” I asked. “You’ve flown over the region often enough.”
“There’s a large hill with a fire pit perhaps an hour away from Neustal,” she noted. “Formerly used by shepherds, I believe. No other larger significance.”
Mhm. Using somewhere with a little more weight to it would please those who liked to feel important – the Rapacious Troubadour and the Summoner came to mind – but I didn’t necessarily want to encourage the perception that this was a council momentous in any way. It was a relatively large assembly of Named, but it should be nothing more than that.
“It’ll do,” I said, then sighed. “All right, what’s next?”
The night was still young, and so there was still work to be done.