Chapter 46: Vestibule

“I make it a habit to kill all the people at court who do not want to usurp me, as they are principled fellows and so eminently more dangerous than your average conspirators.”

– Dread Emperor Iniquitous, first of the ‘Mayfly Emperors’

As of dawn there were eleven villains in Hainaut, if I was considered to stand among their number even with my Name not yet fully formed.

We didn’t even make up half the Named currently in the principality, though at least we did count for more than a third, yet I honestly couldn’t think of many occasions were so many villainous Named had gathered together in the same place at the same time – much less while being on the same side. Not unless Revenants counted, anyway, which in my opinion they did not. It was a lot easier to herd cats when they were dead. This was not the sort of thing to approach half-cocked, but I found there was a remarkable scarcity of knowledge on affairs this: even more than heroes, Below’s lot clutched their secrets tightly.

Fortunately for me, I had to the former heiress to Wolof in my service. And considering that Akua had once intended to rule all of Calernia, she’d paid even closer attention to the underlying currents of villainy that your average Sahelian scion would have. She’d wanted to avoid the mistakes of her predecessors, after all. Her ambition itself might have been foolish, but I had to concede she’d not gone about pursuing it foolishly. Save for one or two exceptions. When I brought up the subject in my tent early in the morning, over my breakfast, I found her almost eager to talk about it. It was subject of long-standing fascination for her, as it turned out.

“Alliances between villains have not been studied in great depth outside of Praes,” Akua told me, still sounding pleased by the line of inquiry. “And aside from the Tower itself, there are none who can rival the records of Wolof on the subject. It was of great interest to my predecessors, as you might imagine.”

Wasn’t hard to. I’d seen enough corpses I barely needed to try.

“I recall hearing the Sahelians haven’t raised the most tyrants, among the old families,” I noted a tad more diplomatically. “Though you’re up there for Warlocks, right?”

“The Mirembe of Aksum are not far behind us on the latter count,” Akua said. “Six less, I believe, though it might have changed since I absented myself.  They raised very different practitioners from my family, however, and their arts have not well adapted to modern warmaking.”

I cocked an eyebrow, curious as to what Praesi highborn might consider sorcery aging poorly. Devils didn’t exactly get dusty.

“Impractical?” I asked.

“Aksum was once known as the Cauldron of Beasts,” she said. “The Mirembe have long been known for their interest in the crafting and alteration of life.”

Monster-making, she meant. Charming.

“They dabbled in heredity as well, and created the first known stable breeding program,” Akua continued. “The practices have since shifted, of course, but their work remains foundational.”

I could see why their specialties had not aged well. In the old stories the Praesi always came at Callow with a few horrifying monsters that one of our heroes ended up killing, and the stories about the orcs that could breathe under water and the sentient tigers were infamous even out west. Not a lot of those had been successes in a more than marginal sense, though, and the Reforms would have been the final nail in their coffin – especially so after the Conquest proved that the Legions as envisioned by Grem One-Eye and my father were highly effective. And since every High Seat and more than a few lesser lords now ran their own breeding programs, it’d not given the Mirembe a lasting advantage.

“That aside, I would caution you to think of raising too many tyrants as a crown worth contending for in the eyes of the High Seats,” Akua said. “The Yeboah of Nok once succeeded at claiming the Tower three generations in a row, but none of the oldfamilies were willing to allow rule of Praes to be clutched too tightly. Their lines was exterminated to the last, and the Sesay were installed to rule the city.”

“I get your point,” I drily said. “It wasn’t in the interest of the Sahelians to win too much, even when they could.”

“Exactly,” Akua smiled. “Though even over periods of relative humility my ancestors were not the kind of people to suffer lack of influence. As the Empire often boasts the largest concentration of allied villains on Calernia in any generation, grasping the nature of such alliances was a necessity.”

“Allied might be a bit of a stretch,” I snorted.

Back in the old days Praes had usually counted more Named than the kingdom, but they’d so frequently lost in part because they were as interested in backstabbing each other as actually stabbing Callow.

“Perhaps not to the extent of the Calamites,” Akua noted, “but you would be surprised. The most famous example would be the Black Knight and Chancellor of Malignant the Second, who all histories agree loved him deeply. It is why the man reigned a full decade and a half while his handling of the Empire can most charitably be describe as occasionally benign ineptitude.”

There’d been a sprinkling of occasions like these throughout imperial history, she told me, but the pattern that emerged to my ear was that the bonds were usually between smaller groups: a pair or maybe three Named, often who’d come up through a transitional Name together. About half of the time they ended up offing the ruling tyrant and putting one of them up on the seat instead. Being a tightly bound band of five, and one essentially loyal to the ruling Empress to boot, was where the Calamities had broken fresh grounds.

“The Empire usually waxes and wanes between three and eight villains at any time,” Akua said. “Though only four Names are considered to be part of the fabric of Praes.”

I didn’t need her to tell me which. Dread Emperor, Chancellor, Warlock and Black Knight. The four roles that’d been at the core of the Empire’s way of life for centuries, Yet I was now learning that there were much more nuances to those roles than I’d believed. For one, not all Names came with every generation. Praesi highborn usually saw which had had come and which had not as an indication of what should be expected from a reign.

“It is usually seen as the mark of a weak tyrant to have a Chancellor but no Black Knight,” she told me. “On the other hand, one who claimed the Tower with both a Black Knight and a Warlock but no Chancellor will be expected to aggressively contest influence with the High Seats – often with a measure of success, historically speaking.”

“But you get other Named as well,” I said. “There’s been other Assassins – in other places too, but more in Praes – and old Callowan histories speak of Necromancers too.”

Unfortunately the skill of Praesi in that branch of sorcery paired with the relative magical ignorance of my countrymen meant that old records could often only guess at if they’d been dealing with a necromancer or a Necromancer.

“Indeed,” Akua nodded. “Before the Wars of the Dead it was common for a Lich to exist, and since the heyday of fighting arenas in Maleficent the Second’s reign we’ve had recurring Gladiators. The latter is even more common in Stygia, however, and so somewhat looked down.”

“Of course it is,” I sighed “I take it Names without much precedent are also considered pedestrian?”

“The Captain and the Scribe were once underestimated for this very reason,” Akua said, then looked chagrined. “I was not immune to some shade of that foolishness, I’ll admit. I once thought very little of the Scribe.”

“She cultivates that impression actively,” I said with a kernel of sympathy, though it really had been a mistake.

The Scribe’s spies had been instrumental in keeping her contained, back when she’d been Governess of Liesse, and that was just a drop in the bucket of the quiet work done to hasten her downfall. The bloody coup against Hasenbach in Salia was a good example of what Scribe could when let off the leash, and its aftermath was still haunting the First Prince even years later.

“So I’ve head,” Akua neutrally said. “Regardless, the Empire’s traditional position as the leading light of villainy-“

Did that count as blasphemy, I wondered? Probably not unless she was talking about Light.

“- has meant that foreign villains whose defeats were not mortal have often fled to Praes for refuge. Treatment varied according to who held the Tower, but some rose quite high when the Dread Empire was expanding and looking for champions. Sorcerous, in particular, opened his court to many and gave them great authority.”

My brow rose.

“I don’t recall hearing of any foreign villains in Praes during my lifetime,” I said. “Which surprises me, considering the Grey Pilgrim has been terrorizing villains out west and south. There were bound to have been a few who wanted to get out before either he or the Saint strolled into town.”

“The end of the last two gave pause to any possible takers, I expect,” Akua drily said.

A beat passed.

“Black killed them, didn’t he?” I bluntly said.

“They came in the decades preceding our births – the Reaver from Penthesand the Blue Mage form Ashur, to be specific – but they were brought in as helpers for the Purebloods,” Akua elaborated. “Naturally the Carrion Lord brutally murdered them at the first halfway decent excuse and extended the purge to anyone associated with them. An entire branch family of the Niri of Okoro was forced to eat until their stomachs burst in what he called a warning about ‘overly ambitious appetite’.”

I coughed to hide the way my lips were treacherously twitching upwards. She noticed.

“It’s considered one of the reasons for the later succession crisis in Okoro,” Akua reproached.

“Very sad,” I got out soberly. “Not at all ironic, or in any way cathartic to hear about.”

I changed the subject before that woeful look she was giving me could lead to a reproach about the importance of not killing Wasteland aristocrats in amusing ways. Talk about not knowing your audience.

“Praes isn’t the only place to have had villain alliances, though,” I said. “We had the Sable Order, in Callow, and the Free Cities were whipped by the League of Rogues for a while.”

The Sable Order had been a chivalric order led by four fallen heroes who’d gathered a lot of disaffected knights, bandits and penniless soldiers in an army and brought the kingdom to its knees. They’d had the run of the countryside for years, until the Albans managed to finally beat them on the field. The League of Rogues – although they’d never called themselves that, and the name had come with later histories – has been even more successful, the seven villains having occupied half the Free Cities for over a decade and cowed even Ashur for a time. About two centuries back, I figured?

I remembered them in part because they’d surprised me, as a kid. They’d been unusually steadfast allies even when they began losing ground, supposedly because they’d taken oaths of mutual loyalty to each other guaranteed by devils. I’d wondered why every villain do that for two months, until I got my hands on the second volume of Wicked Deeds and learned about the very ugly way the last two had died when the devils came to collect.

“The Iron Kingdoms are arguably a greater success story than either of these,” Akua replied.

I blinked in surprise.

“Those collapsed almost immediately,” I slowly said. “And they were a refuge for villains, but hardly led by them.”

It’d been one of the history lessons from the orphanage tutors instead of one of my private forays, but I distinctly remembered being told this.

“That is what Proceran histories insist, yes,” she amusedly told me. “And so most everyone believes. Fortunately one of my ancestors, Elimu Sahelian, served as court mage to ‘Queen’ Alandra so we reliably know otherwise from his memoirs.”

“He served aswhat now?” I flatly asked.

“Court mage,” she repeated. “It is an old practice of my family, dearest. We’ve gathered many secrets and artefacts this way, leaving with them when the cause collapse. We did the same thing with Theodosius the Unconquered himself, and a dozen other lesser hegemons.”

I was quite itching to get my hands on the memoirs of whoever the Sahelians had sent to advise the man that was arguably the greatest military mind in Calernian history, but that could wait until later.

“So the Iron Kingdoms were a villain alliance?” I frowned.

These days some scholars even argued that the name ‘Iron Kingdoms’ was meaningless, that it’d simply been a very chaotic period in Proceran and Levantine history where rule of law had frayed nearly beyond repair in a certain region, but that wasn’t yet the traditional view. Properly speaking, the words referred to a bunch of bandit fiefdoms that’d briefly seized control of most of current Valencis as well as the adjourning Brocelian Forest and Cusp.

“It was led by nine bandit and raider Named,” Akua agreed, “the remembered kings and queens of iron. And while three of the ‘kingdoms’ collapsed swiftly, as you said, others fared much better. It was nearly nine years before Valencis was fully reclaimed, and it took over two decades before the five kingdoms in the Brocelian were brought down by heroes.”

I let out a thoughtful noise. Yeah, I could see why Procer in particular would have wanted to keep that story quiet. These days the Principate went all Damned this and Damned that when Named got inconvenient, but it’d been a lot younger back then. It would have been a bad blow to its prestige if a pack of villains had been able to seize one of its principalities. The kind of blow that made fresh conquests consider rebellion and borderlands mull independence. The histories I’d been taught would be a lot more palatable to the Highest Assembly, and safer to own up to.

“Neither Praes or these alliances really fit what we have as a precedent,” I finally decided.

“This is true,” Akua easily said, “but attempting to establish direct precedents when multiple Named are involved is foten a fool’s errand regardless. Valuable insight can still gained from observing what led to the victories and the failures of these arrangements.”

“Infighting,” I drolly said. “And heroes. Occasionally armies paired with the previous too.”

“Yes, very clever,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “About what I might have expected, given your terrible essay on the Licerian Wars.”

I gaped at her. Wait, what? Shit, no, it atcually made sense that she might have read that at some point. Sure, it was a piece of homework I’d written half-drunk in the backroom of the Rat’s Nest, but Malicia’s spymistress had gotten her hands on it back in the day – she’d even mentioned it, when we’d first spoken in the Tower. The Sahelians had infiltrated the Eyes and the Tower, back in the day, though I was never sure to quite what extent. Merciless Gods, though, was this the only piece of writing that I was ever going to be known by?

“At least Hasenbach won’t know about it,” I mused.

“Mother sold quite a bit of imperial intelligence through Mercantis when her coffers ran low, so she actually might,” Akua amusedly replied.

Goddamn Sahelians, I uncharitably thought. Given my luck, that fucking thing was going to end up my only written work to be passed down the ages.

“Regardless, my heart, you are correct that infighting is recurring pattern,” the shade mused. “Arguably the most important. It has been the end of a many a skillful reign in Ater, and certainly precipitated the fall of the Iron Kingdoms.”

“That’s the nature of villainy, to an extent,” I said. “You don’t become one without being hard-headed, and unlike heroes we tend to see each other as potential threats instead of potential allies. That’s a recipe for blood on the floor at the first disagreement.”

Heroes did kill each other on occasion too, I wouldn’t ignore that, but it was significantly rarer.

“Ah, but there lies the area of interest,” she smiled, golden eyes alight with pleasure. “What aspect of villainy in particular drives us to conflict amongst ourselves? I have pondered this long, Catherine, as when I dreamed of empire still I believed that the governors of my Calernian empire must be villains. It was imperative that I understand how to keep them from turning on each other as well as myself.”

I drummed my fingers against the table absent-mindedly as I thought. Villains tended to be more prone to violence, broadly speaking. They also tended to just be worse people than heroes, but that was a weak argument. Most people on Calernia were worse than heroes, by the same measure, and they weren’t as prone to infighting as villains. Names did tend to magnify your flaws as well as your virtues, but that was a weak argument as well. Villains weren’t all cut from some universal cloth, in either personality or objectives, so the consistent infighting of their alliances couldn’t really be traced back to some universal flaw we all shared.

But then that was looking at the individual, when one of my first lessons had been that the system often had the greater impact.

“Villain stories tend to reward conflict and acting decisively,” I finally said. “It’s an incentive. If it makes you stronger, helps you to win, most people will lean into the traits. When unchecked and become reflexive, that tendency results in poor decisions like backstabbing a nominal ally while heroes are at the gate.”

“Squire to the end, I see,” Akua murmured, sounding thoughtful. “An interesting answer, and not one I necessarily disagree with. Yet I arrived to a different conclusion myself. I believe that ambition is the keystone.”

“Not all villains are ambitious,” I pointed out. “It’s not like every Black Knight eventually made a play for the Tower.”

“Ambition can be a nuanced thing,” she replied, leaning forward in animation. “A Black Knight’s ambition could be to stand the greatest hero-killer of the age, or to lead the Empire to military victory. Rule need not be the driving force of them. Ambition is, to my eye, the seeking of excellence. The nature of that excellence varies with every Named.”

There was a refrain of old Praesi pride in there, I thought.  The old guard of tyrants had often claimed that they were seekers of excellence, that their philosophy was one of advancement while the Gods Above were enemy of all change. Like most philosophical arguments preached by people who practiced mass human sacrifice and casual assassination, I tended to be skeptical of their claims. If anything it was the Praesi circular circus of usurpation and civil war that was stagnant, whatever the adherents of ‘iron sharpens iron’ might claim. I didn’t entirely disagree with her assertions, though.

“I’ll agree that Named tend to be driven people,” I conceded. “But I don’t buy the rest of that. There’s outliers, sure, like the Tyrant of the Hierarch. But someone like the Harrowed Witch isn’t trying to be the best anything – she’s trying to not get eaten by the brother she murdered and bound, and maybe trying to move up in the world when there’s nothing more pressing.”

“She improvised the spell that bound her brother’s spirit, highly advanced necromancy, with few resources at hand and no margin of error or time to spare,” Akua stated in reply. “One might argue that her ambition is survival in difficult times, and that she has proved highly able in pursuing it.”

“Or she was already skilled, and just got desperate and inspired,” I replied. “But fine, for the sake of argument let’s say I agree with you. Where is this headed?”

“Conflicting excellences are the cause of strife between villains,” she said. “Unlike Above’s champions, who seek not excellence but a particular outcome, rivalry is natural between us. And given the rewards of violence, as you have put it, villains are more prone to disposing of rivals and obstacles than reach peaceful accords even when these might be more practical. It is why Procer can be the region that has the most villains on Calernia, by simple numbers, but alliances between them are nearly unheard of.”

I took me a while to place the expression on her face. She was enjoying this, I realized. The discussion, the debates. I did not let it distract me, or allow my thoughts to meander down the path of who she might have been if she were not the Doom of Liesse.

“Without a common framework keeping us bound,” Akua continued, “like the Dread Empire or a greater common ambition in the vein of the League of Rogues and the Iron Kingdoms, villains will nearly always default into competition.”

Mhm. The argument somewhat held even when looked at closely, I decided. The infighting in villain alliances tended to crop up when the shared ambition was collapsing, not in the initial string of victories that most villains got to taste before their comeuppance.

“And how did your great Calernian empire propose to get around that flaw?” I asked.

It’d been idle curiosity that made me ask, but suddenly there was a weight to the tent. To this conversation. We had not often talked of the Doom of Liesse, of her plans when she had been the Diabolist. And never this explicitly. She did not openly show hesitation, but her silence and calm face made it plain to me anyway. The golden-eyed shade knew me well, these days, but that blade cut both ways.

“By making more of you,” Akua eventually replied. “Client queens and kings that were genuinely invested in the rule of their province, and capable of dominating Named within their realm. So long as my fortress stood, fear of Greater Breaches being opened in retaliation to treachery would have prevented most forms of rebellion – and I believed myself capable of triumphing in the inevitable ensuing shadow wars.”

“It was a shit plan,” I frankly replied. “You gave yourself a single point of failure and left each of your ‘clients’ a powerbase to consolidate. The moment the fortress was out, your entire empire would immediately collapse.”

“Which was why I intended to build several more,” Akua admitted, “once I had the resources of Callow and Praes at my disposal.”

I breathed out. Shit. I’d never actually considered that. Would it have worked? No, I eventually decided. The moment she got Malicia and I to surrender, Diabolist would have stood as a beacon for every hero on the continent. I’d had to bend over backwards to avoid that, and she wouldn’t have been able to manage while standing atop a fucking doomsday weapon. She’d not last long enough to make a second fortress, or it’d get destroyed while still incomplete. The Diabolist would still have made a horrid mess on the way out, though, possibly afflicting several parts of Calernia with permanent Hellgates before dying. Gods, Second Liesse had been a nightmare but it was still better than… this. I forced myself to think of something else.

“A framework,” I evenly said. “The Truce and Terms are one of those, arguably. As is the war against the Dead King.”

“The Truce and Terms are and should be considered a construct to help  to wage war against Keter,” Akua said.

It was quiet, but I could hear the muted relief to her voice. Like we’d both stepped away from a ledge.

“It is the war that has gathered Named,” she continued, “and in my opinion it should be considered the ‘alliance’ within which villains will be jostling for position.”

“Jostling only to an extent,” I reminded her. “I’ve avoided a lot of fights by having such a strong position that potential rivals didn’t want to take the risk of a challenge.”

More than a few villains coveted my seat as our representative under the Truce and Terms but they were also aware that I had an army, Named allies and the Kingdom of Callow’s power backing me. It wasn’t full-proof, of course. Some had tried to take that swing anyway, unable to deal with being the second in anything. The Red Reaver had been one, and I’d made an example of him. Others, like the Barrow Sword, had picked a fight to test my strength and then fallen in line almost amicably when I’d proven I was not to be trifled with.

“Several sources of your current influence are temporary,” Akua pointed out. “Your position as representative, your queenship over Callow, your positional advantage within the Grand Alliance. They can serve as a defensive asset, prevent others from striking at you, but they should not be confused for a way to make people listen to you. If you want obedience of the villains you have gathered here, and for them to bind themselves to your Accords, you must find a way to help their own ambitions within the frame of your own greater one.”

I did not immediately reply. As it happened, I was not under the illusion that my current influence among my kind would carry beyond the war against Keter. I was in a unique position at the moment but sooner or later the stars would fall out of alignment and my authority would wane. For now, though, I still had it. And I fully intended to use it as much to carry out the war as to prepare the peace that’d follow it. Akua was still thinking of this as a warlord would, though or perhaps a Dread Empress – like a centerpiece binding important assets to her by giving them what they wanted, and pairing that fulfillment to service.

But I couldn’t think like that, not if I wanted my work to survive me. If I wanted villains to embrace the Liesse Accords, that meant convincing them that submitting to some rules was worth the benefits the submission would earn them.

“Turning wolves into wolfhounds,” I mused.

“One piece of meat at a time,” Akua Sahelian softly agreed.

The morning’s war council yielded no surprises. The Iron Prince and I would hold command of the two offensives, and General Pallas broad authority but not actual command over the reserves. I’d wasted no time in politely requesting of Princess Beatrice of Hainaut, freshly under my command, that she ‘make suggestions’ about the fantassins companies that would best suit our needs. I made it clear I wasn’t trying to leave Klaus Papenheim with only dregs, but that she shouldn’t feel shy about taking the better cut either. She was amenable to the request, and gave the impression she amenable to my being in command period. I had hopes of a good working relationship.

Mind you, she was an Alamans of royal blood. I fully expected she’d be able to put a smile on surrendering to Malicia.

With that settled, I turned to the looming matter of the council of villains. The hill Akua had told me of turned out to be more than serviceable, and so we went ahead with using it. The firepit was cleaned and deepened, then ten high seats brought out in a broad circle – Hakram would not need one, bringing his own. Seating would be assigned, I’d decided, to avoid chaos breaking out immediately instead of eventually. I considered the known tapestry of grudges in silence, looking at the seats. The Barrow Sword and Headhunter couldn’t be too close without fingers being lost so I put the fire between them, and leaving the Summoner by either the Beastmaster or the Berserker was a recipe for a snide comment preceding bloodspill so they’d have to be split up.

Hakram on my left and Indrani on my right was only to be expected, but the seat to their sides would be taken as signs of favour so I had to be careful who got them. The Rapacious Troubadour would have to get the seat by Archer, I thought. I’d left him to handle Named-finding out here with little prior warning and he’d done well, so it was owed. It would be the Berserker by Adjutant’s side, though, I eventually decided. She was fresh to Hainaut, and I’d only met her the once before leaving – just long enough to send her beyond the trenches to hunt with the Silver Huntress – but during my absence she’d apparently killed a Revenant and wounded another, which merited encouragement.

That made five seats settled, and I leaned on my staff as I worried my lip and considered the rest.

“Where do you intend to place the Headhunter?” Akua asked.

I did not glance back, having known she wasn’t far. I would have brought Hakram as well, but he wasn’t exactly in a state to make the trip quickly. Indrani was currently sleeping, having travelled a full day and night over the last stretch to get here in time, so of my inner circle it was only the two of us here.

“Between Berserker and Beastmaster, I think,” I said.

The Levantine villain wouldn’t be able to easily mess with either, considering neither was a slouch up close or a stranger to violence. She nodded, eyes pensive.

“Barrow Sword by the Rapacious Troubadour?” she suggested.

I hummed. Ishaq tended to get along with people who weren’t of the Blood – or whose savagery he did not consider to be damaging his own chances of becoming one of the Blood, namely the Headhunter – so I was actually wary of placing him too early. He was valuable because of that relative lack of enmities. Still, he had to sit somewhere.

“Then Concocter by him,” I said.

‘Cocky’ was both sharp-tongued and not physically powerful, so I had to be wary of where I placed her. If she mouthed off to the Berserker she was liable to lose a few teeth, not to mention the bloody scalp the Headhunter would be after. The Concocter would likely have pockets full of poison, I further considered, so if she retaliated the escalation would be steep and immediate. Best to avoid the trouble entirely by giving her mild-mannered neighbours.

“Summoner by her,” Akua said. “He will enjoy word of the Arsenal, no?”

The man was still miffed he’d been assigned as a combat sorcerer instead of a researcher, as I recalled, but he’d never hidden his continuing fascination for the Arsenal. It was a good pick. With a little luck he might even be too busy talking to her to insult anyone else for at least part of this council.

“Agreed,” I grunted. “Which would leave the Harrowed Witch between Summoner and Beastmaster.”

“She was in Archer’s service for some time,” Akua noted. “That should ensure civility of the Beastmaster.”

Or encourage him to lash out at the Witch as indirect vengeance on Indrani, I thought, since her connections made her very risky to take swing at these days. It’d not escaped me that Archer’s fellow pupils under the Lady of the Lake did not have the fondest memories of their time together, though Beastmaster had always struck me as indifferent where the Silver Huntress and the Concocter had been venomous. It was a measured risk, I decided. The worst the Summoner would send the Witch’s way was likely to be a few snide words about hedge wizardry, and I trusted her to be able to ignore that. She’d struck me as being steady of temperament, back in the Arsenal.

“It will do,” I said.

My gaze swept over the seats. It would have to. Soon enough we would be going to war, and I wanted every sac of venom emptied before we were on the march.

89 thoughts on “Chapter 46: Vestibule

  1. Darkening

    Huh, new formatting on the quotes? Interesting. Gotta admit, I really enjoy these humanizing scenes with Akua. Need to get us and Cat really invested before Cat has to brutally murder her for the second time.

    Liked by 14 people

    1. Akua is a fucking nerd.

      IMHO, if you want to see who she would have been if she wasn’t a villain, look no further than Blessed Artificer. Not because they’re cousins, though that’s a nice narrative move, but the actual similarities: they both focus on building things, they both devote themselves fully to a cause they utilize that focus for, they both… well, Akua used to be about as arrogant and short-sighted without actually being stupid in any sense of the word.

      I honestly want to see them in the same room / on the same team for a prolonged amount of time. That’s gotta be delicious, because I’m pretty sure Akua would in fact be actually jealous.

      Liked by 18 people

    2. Evgeny Permyakov

      > before Cat has to brutally murder her for the second time.

      First, it needs to be excessively cruel and elaborate, so brutal is out of question.
      Second, she still can dodge the bullet on technicality. The wording Vivienne used leaves some place. Take out pieces of Akua’s soul one by one and assemble again – Akua would still be snuffed out with full understanding what is taken from, but still continue existing. Could even be a repeat performance.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. shikkarasu

        I’m hoping for Akua to willingly sacrifice herself for someone else. It would be the destruction of her mind, soul, and her personal values. If that isn’t victory over your nemesis we need to redefine terms.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. agumentic

        Cat is no longer Fae, there is no need to dodge oaths on technicalities. She could break it if she really wanted to – she just won’t, at least in spirit, both because Vivienne matters to her and because she is a Callowan herself, her long price will come. I doubt it would be anything so crass as murder, and it might hurt Cat more than Akua, in truth, but it will happen.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Bellower

    who knew villainous seating arrangements could be so fascinating.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the Harrowed Witches ghost brother doesn’t throw something to start a fight in hopes of getting his sister killed.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. LarsBlitzer

      I agree he’d likely take a swing at it, but the Summoner is right beside her and would be in a position to wrangle him back under control for practicality if nothing else. The Witch would be in his debt, and being able to showcase his power in front of his peers, to prove he’s more than “just a battlemage” and therefore worthy of contributing to the research at the Arsenal. The benefit outweighs the drawback of letting her be dragged to Hell or wherever.

      Liked by 7 people

  3. Xinci

    I am so happy Cat and Akua finally got a talk about Villain frameworks. It makes sense if Below truly did have a bet against Above that a sufficiently constructed framework could support multiple Named for multiple functions just like Heroes serve specific functions( even if the source of them being willing to serve differs).

    Liked by 6 people

  4. Cat’s right, Akua would never have been able to last long enough to establish redundant summoning installations.
    Even ignoring Malicia’s plan to steal it from her, and there were probably contingency plans for Malicia’s retaking of Liesse (and the artifact) that didn’t involve Amadeus capturing it for her.

    Villain seating charts. Good to see Cat is putting more thought into preparing for this meeting than Hanno did into the Hero meeting.

    Liked by 16 people

      1. Salt

        Eh, let’s be real, the Heroes squabble was just that – a squabble that was pretty unfitting of the title “Hero”. No need to dress it up as anything but the massive disappointment that it was

        It’s just that, the reason the Heroes /single/ attempted coup nearly unraveled the truce and terms while no one batted an eyelash at the Villains /multiple/ attempted coups – at least one of which cat made a gruesome public example of – is because Heroes are usually rather decent people who are expected to be rather decent. Villains are generally giant assholes who are expected to be giant assholes.

        The part he’s wrong about is that Hanno wasn’t wrong for not expecting that level of incivility out of the Heroes – the brawl was a big deal precisely because it was a thus far *unprecedented* case of Heroes falling so far below their namesake during the Terms.

        The Villains? No one is under enough illusions to be surprised at backstabbing and general stupidity, and no one really cares as long as they’re (at the end of the day) still under the heel of rather reasonable and more-or-less sane Black Queen – because what more can you really expect out of Villains?

        Catherine takes those precautions because while Hanno is herding cats, she’s herding cats doused in goblinfire. Her job is just more demanding in that area to begin with, and it’s only smart of her to realize that she has to tailor her approach after having already ultra-violence’d her way past several attempted insurrections in the past.

        Liked by 10 people

        1. Yep, aaaaaall of that. That’s why I’m pointing out that Hanno didn’t take this kind of who-hates-who precaution because HE DIDN’T NEED TO. There were no foreseeable-solvable-with-seating-preparation-type problems among heroes.

          Also, I don’t think the heroes’ brawl nearly unraveled the Terms – the tension from Hanno’s POV was whether he’d need to execute Christophe over this or manage to salvage the dumbass.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. The Hero fight didn’t unravel the Truce and Terms only because Mirror Knight and his faction lost outright.

            If Mirror Knight had won, or even just been taken down after killing Hanno … things would have gone to hell.
            If he successfully killed Hanno, he likely would have either taken it as a sign from Above of his rightness and Hanno being in the wrong, or he would have been in shock, which would likely either allow him to be taken down or kill the Hero trying to take him down as combat reflexes took over (thus confirming his rightness in his mind). That’s if Mirroe Knight killed Hanno inside the meeting room.
            Out in the hallways where most of the fight between the two of them took place? If Mirror Knight killed Hanno, again, he’d either see it as proof of his rightness or be in shock … resulting him either surrendering or fighting being taken down … and remember who Hanno saw next, immediately after beating down Mirror Knight? Cat and a bunch of soldiers … and Mirror Knight would not surrender to Cat, which means he’d either run again (and thus need to be hunted) or he’d fight, breaking the Truce and Terms, and he’d probably only be stopped by killing him at that point. And Hanno would be dead, and unable to work to preserve things from the Hero side, and there’d probably be a Hero killed by Cat and soldiers under her command. Or worse, Mirror Knight doesn’t go down (dead or unconscious) at all, or at least, not before he successfully kills or severely injures Cat with the sword.

            Things would probably not have gone particularly well at that point.

            Liked by 4 people

            1. OK, yeah, Hanno just didn’t take the possibility of him killing him seriously.

              Mostly because he believed that unless he attacked first or drew a weapon, he’d be unwilling to.

              Which brings us back to the heroes vs villains comparison.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Shveiran

                … And Hanno was wrong? MK did draw his weapon and came fairly close to killing a hero, even if it wasn’t Hanno. He was also ready to use the Severance to “defeat” the Wk, but that weapon is kind of like a lightsaber. It doesn’t really do “non – lethal”. At best, you can permanently maim someone in a way that allows them to keep living if they are immediately healed bry pros.

                Any assumption on heroes defaulting to keeping it nonlethal because they were Heroes was… kind of misplaced.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. True, someone else came pretty close to being killed. In which case it would be the headsman’s axe for Christophe, too. Which is what Hanno was worried about.

                  Hanno himself was secure enough to never draw his weapon.


          2. Mirror Night

            Also its not like seating arrangements would have stopped that fight. Since Blacksmith flips the table to open the brawl. MK was not sitting next to Blacksmith, Roland or Frederic. Also Hanno used self seating to help figure out who was friends and on good terms with who. So its not like self seating didn’t have it uses.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. Salt

              It’s actually kind of an unintentional burn on the Villains that Cat actually thinks they might break out into violence, for absolutely no reason other than sitting next to each other

              Liked by 1 person

  5. NerfGlaistigUaine

    I deeply empathize with Catherine’s horror about being known for her old essay. I wrote a paper on purple giraffes for AP Lang in high school and I’d rather commit suicide by undead goat than have it shared.

    Liked by 11 people

    1. shikkarasu

      Fortunately we know that she writes a holy book for the Drow, even if future Drow Priests consider it heretical. I give even odds that she writes it purely to distract from The Essay.

      Liked by 10 people

      1. Salt

        If she’s actively a dick to the crows in said holy book, and the holy book is understood to be the word of the crows, does that mean that they’re going to get a reputation for being self-depreciating?

        Liked by 6 people

  6. I’m wondering if the Barrow Sword might not take being denied one of the perceived seats of honor as a slight, considering he has a track record of success against the Revenants, and the Berserker seems like new blood. Hopefully he’s smart enough to read that Cat’s extending something akin to trust in his direction by having act as a buffer.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    occasions were > occasions where
    affairs this: even> affairs like this; even
    had to the > had the
    caution you to think of raising too many tyrants as a crown (maybe “caution you against thinking that raising too many tyrants is a crown”)
    oldfamilies > old families
    “Exactly,” Akua > “Exactly.” Akua
    had had come > had come
    I sighed “I (missing fullstop)
    could when > could do when
    I’ve head,” > I’ve heard,”
    Penthesand > Penthes and
    form Ashur > from Ashur
    has been even > had been even
    every villain do that > every villain didn’t do that
    aswhat > as what
    cause collapse > cause collapses
    foten > often
    still gained > still be gained
    atcually > actually
    is recurring > is a recurring
    a many a > many a
    interest,” she > interest.” She
    Tyrant of > Tyrant or
    reach peaceful > reaching peaceful
    I took me > It took me
    to help to wage > to help wage
    prepare the peace > prepare for the peace
    fantassins companies > fantassin companies
    she amenable > she was amenable
    board circle > broad circle
    bloodspil > bloodspill
    take swing > take a swing

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “It was a shit plan,” I frankly replied. “You gave yourself a single point of failure and left each of your ‘clients’ a powerbase to consolidate. The moment the fortress was out, your entire empire would immediately collapse.”

    Barring the prequels, it feels like this is most Star Wars movies.

    Liked by 13 people

      1. thearpox23

        As someone who was always lukewarm on the Star Wars, it seems odd to me for it to be the originator of the “flying fortress of doom” trope. Perhaps it popularized the concept, but the thing seems too archetypal for it to have a proper origin.

        Liked by 5 people

          1. thearpox23

            Yes yes, that is obvious. Still don’t see the connected to Star Wars. If anything, the concept of a flying fortress is obviously a progression on the ancient myths of flying islands/flying cities meets post-enlightenment magic system. Because magic output = expensive workhours + exotic materials the thing has got to be expensive, and once you have a flying base it seems a shame not to drop heavy exploding things from it. The other uses of your antigrav construct can come naturally once you start considering how to apply the above-mentioned post-enlightenment magic system.

            The whole thing seems too natural to need inspiration from pop fiction. Of course, Erra could pop in here himself and tell me wrong, but needing to tie in every naturally occurring concept to some pop culture classic seems unnecessary to me.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. “Flying fortress as a mobile weapon system” is a different trope from simply “floating island where adventures happen.” I think the first person to do “Drop heavy things from it” was Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.

              Liked by 3 people

              1. thearpox23

                You might be right on that, though I wouldn’t be surprised if some Indian myths had a precursor to that. Either way, as expected of the enlightenment period writer to have to go “how would this thing function?” when making his setting.

                Liked by 2 people

            2. Salt

              I mean honestly, the concept of a complex anything with a single point of critical vulnerability has been considered impractical as far back as you care to look.

              If you’re considering modern influence and pop culture though – and story tropes are just that, writers-world pop culture as far as current common trends in writing go – the Death Star is almost certainly the first thing anyone thinks of nowadays when describing the trope of some complex monstrosity brought down by being poked in the weak spot.

              So while you can’t exactly consider it the originator for a set of concepts centuries old, it makes little sense to chastise people for conflating it with the concept, since it’s arguably the most iconic and well-known modern example of the trope, and one that played a pretty major role in popularizing it in modern culture.

              I doubt the concept of “never going to give you up” was invented by Rick Astley either, but you’d hardly criticize someone nowadays for conflating it with Rick Astley when discussing how I’m never gonna let you down.

              Liked by 7 people

            3. I agree very much with your last sentiment. I don’t think a star wars type flying fortress inevitably attracting heroes to find and exploit its weak spot is all that naturally occuring a concept, but it’s possible I just don’t know stuff.

              Liked by 2 people

          1. thearpox23

            I think the hypothetical question here is whether you think flying fortresses/cities would exist in fiction today if Gulliver’s Travel’s weren’t written. To me, the thing seems natural enough that it’d get invented and popularized in fiction guaranteed, just like how Irem wasn’t the only lost city to be conceived of in the ages prior.

            Liked by 4 people

            1. I had never heard of Irem, but mention of Atlantis precedes it by a millennium (which I guess illustrates your point). However, I would caution against assuming ideas that are obvious in hindsight were so before they were invented.

              Liked by 4 people

      2. caoimhinh

        That trope is actually something that was popularised by Japanese videogames.
        Literal flying fortresses of doom are a setting we can see in the early RPGs from SNES, especially for the last stand against the main villain.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. thearpox23

          That… seems to have much more of a connection to what we have in the story than Star Wars. I haven’t played those early SNES games, so I suppose one could make the argument that they themselves drew from those movies, but that’s two degrees of separation already, so eh. Always an interesting reminder of how much of an influence on our fiction there was from those obscure niche games. I chalk it to a new medium allowing for different perspectives discovering for us new low-hanging fruit.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Jago

            It was used by Japanese in anime well before the SNES games. Zambot 3 is a 1977 anime, the same year of Star Wars, and the aliens have a space fortress base. From what I recall besides deploying mechas they did orbital bombardment of Earth.
            Probably there are even earlier examples, I would bet than that Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon comics had one or tried to build one.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. caoimhinh

              Definitely, I’m sure there are earlier examples.
              It’s just that those are what comes to mind for me when I think about that trope. Because “flying fortress of doom” invokes in me a sense of Fantasy rather than Sci-fi, so I imagine a dark castle flying in the sky rather than a spaceship in orbit.

              Liked by 1 person

          2. caoimhinh

            Yeah, when I see the term “Flying Fortress of Doom”, my mind instantly goes to things like Dracula’s castle from Castlevania, the Sinistrals’… well, fortress of doom, from “Lufia & the Fortress of Doom”, even some floating islands and stuff from the Zelda games, Breath of Fire, and other games from that time that must have been a huge influence for the popularization of the trope in anime and manga for the coming years.

            It became a popular trend that you would have to face the main villain in their castle near the end of the game, and the confrontation would commonly cause the destruction of the fortress, it is a concept that became widely popular in games and fantasy stories, especially in Japan as they are the biggest market for that.

            It’s come to the point that nowadays in mangas/anime it is expected that the “Demon Lord” must have some sort of dark castle or flying fortress where the Heroes must have their final clash against him.

            Personally, I think that my mind goes to those types of stories rather than Star Wars because the term “Flying Fortress of Doom” invokes Fantasy for me rather than Science Fiction.

            Some people will immediately think of the Death Star when the term comes up, but I seriously can’t. My mind will almost immediately imagine something like Dracula’s Castle coming out of a dark cloud in the night sky with a blood-red moon on the background.

            Liked by 4 people

            1. Jago

              In fantasy, there are thousands of examples of fortresses of doom that are destroyed by the end of the book, but generally, they aren’t flying fortresses. The flying ones are more common in SF. Probably because the Jurney that makes the Hero Grow is more a fantasy trope than an SF trope and journeying to a flying fortress is somewhat different.

              Liked by 1 person

  9. Daniel E

    Only 10 Villains? I thought there would be a lot more. Wasn’t there mention of there being something like 80+ Named assembled? Cat’s mention of a third here should put the Villains at least firmly above 20.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Miles

    It occurs to me that Akua is the Bard’s villain counterpart.

    They have a lot of similar qualities and even where they’re different it’s in a way that pairs well like the whole antihero/antivillain thing they have going on.


  11. ByVectron!

    Between Akua selecting the site, and her being part of the ordering of villains, I have a bad itch that she is up to something. Like, she is all about the long game, and I wouldn’t put it past her to have figured out a way to create enough strife or the proper conditions to break out or take control or…something.

    I dunno, but I want it on the record that my hackles are up. Hakram? Write that down.


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