“And so Dread Emperor Irritant did shout thus: ‘Leave him to me!’ And then he did ignore the Knight Errant, and brawled with a common soldier instead, and triumphed over him.”Extract from Volume IX of the official Imperial Chronicles
He’d been among the first few to arrive after the Black Queen and her attending pair, so the high seats were still largely empty, yet he was not disappointed in the slightest. Instead Lucien Travers, who some knew as the Rapacious Troubadour – though he personally left the epithet out of the introduction unless pressed – studied those empty seats circling the crown of the hill with great interest.
Many of his fellow Damned would not spare a look for the arrangements beyond learning where their seat had been placed, but Lucien would not make that mistake. The Rapacious Troubadour knew himself a feeble enough sort compared to many among his kind, and so it behooved him to always consider the undercurrents of the situations he involved himself in. Lucien was all too aware that his skill with the sword was no match for the likes of the Red Knight, or his dabbling in sorcery more than a pittance compared to the arcane powers of a man like the Hierophant. He’d always been a man of scattered interests, and so while his learning was broad it might be said to be comparatively shallow.
It was his eyes he’d paid for with his travels, his ability to read a room and the underpinnings of it.
Some arrangements were only to be expected. The mark of favour he’d earned through his labours in Hainaut, the seat by the Archer’s own, was one such. The Black Queen was not shy in offering honours to those that served her purposes well, so long as they played by her rules as well. The rumoured red hate between the Headhunter and the Barrow Sword had led to them being split apart, and the Troubadour was amused to see that the Summoner had been neatly contained between two scholarly sorts. Dear Cedric did have a sharp tongue, it must be admitted. That his Callowan ancestry had failed to bring about favoritism at his advantage remained a frustration to the wizard.
It was the layer beyond the obvious that was interesting. Once it was grasped who their common shepherd saw as the individuals in need of containment, from their surroundings it could be deduced who she saw as reliable – the true favoured, not those merely honoured in public. The Concocter and the Harrowed Witch, it seemed. Both of which had ties to the Archer. Ah, how he admired the Black Queen’s cleverness in expanding her influence: if she’d gathered attendants herself it would have had the Chosen up in arms, but who would suspect the Archer? The Beastmaster was still out of favour, which was pleasing, but the Berserker’s placement was what drew his attention.
She was fresh blood, and her seat of honour not unexpected given her record against Revenants, but that was mere window dressed. She has been seated by the Adjutant, who was now a mere crippled shadow of his old self. A test of restraint, perhaps, of attitude? It would pair nicely with having given her the notoriously unpleasant Headhunter as a neighbour on the other side. The Berserker might just be undergoing an audition for greater trust and responsibility, Lucien mused. That made her someone worth keeping an eye on.
The Rapacious Troubadour strolled to the highest of seats, the Black Queen’s own, approaching under the calm, cool stare of the greatest villain of the age. Two great crows were perched above her shoulders, their feathers as if woven from shadow. The slight tension at the knowledge he was occupying the full attention of the same woman who’d been the architect of both the Princes’ Graveyard and the Salian Peace was delicious, for all that the fear behind it was genuine. Lucien was not a man who’d been born for dull times, for pedestrian appetites or the safety of righteous choices. What worth was life, if not lived on the razor’s edge? He swept back his long hair as he offered a deep bow.
“Your Majesty,” the Troubadour smiled. “It is ever a pleasure to be in your presence.”
“Rapacious Troubadour,” the Black Queen replied as she cocked her head to the side, her Chantant easy and lightly accented. “You seem in a pleasant mood. Finally back in familiar waters, yes?”
Seen through already? He’d been in too fine a mood, it seemed. Gods but how delicious it would be to have but the slightest taste of such a soul, barely more than a nibble really – Lucien felt the attention on him, and turned to meet the Archer’s unblinking gaze. The sharp-faced woman offered him a lazy grin, all the while idly tapping the side of a knife against a finger. He doubted that grin would waver in the slightest as she slit his throat. Ah, he’d ben forgetting himself.
“Who would dare claim familiarity as such a gathering, Black Queen?” Lucien smiled. “I am simply looking forward to the night’s festivities.”
The Berserker did not know how to read. Had the servants not told her where her seat was she wouldn’t have known, and she thought she saw a mocking glint in the man’s eye. Her fist was already clenching when she remembered who was looking at her, that small woman on the seat with the huge dark crows and the dead wood staff. Temper, Zoe reminded herself. There would be better fights to pick tonight than some mouthy nobody. She dropped into her seat, sending for ale. The sooner they got to grievances, the sooner she could crack her knuckles on some fucker’s jaw.
The Summoner’s lips thinned in anger. He was not late, he wasn’t, but everyone else had come early and so he’d been made to look in the wrong. Again. Just another injustice in the long line of them forced onto Cedric Ackland. He never got his dues, always got cheated of what was rightfully his. He gathered his robes and hastened up the hill onto the last empty seat, between a disturbingly silver-haired woman and that idiot peasant who’d cursed herself with her own brother’s ghost.
“Is he always that slow?”
The Summoner turned a glare onto the person who’d spoken. Some ruffian in cuirass and cloth, with knotted brown hair freed from an ornate spiked helmet and three leathery heads hanging from their belt. The Headhunter, he realized with distaste. Their reputation preceded them.
“Silence is preferable to empty words,” the Summoner sneered back. “A lesson you ought to learn.”
The savage – only now did he realize the brown lines sliding down the edge of their hair were brown paint and not dirt – laughed, reaching for one of the dozen knives and hatchets at their side.
“Insult was given twice, once for lateness and once by wagging tongue,” the Headhunter said. “I will collect on your behalf, Black Queen.”
Cedric’s magic roiled at his fingertips. The things he was going to unleash to discipline that wretch would… his anger was interrupted by a slight sound, fingers being drummed on a wooden seat’s arm. The Black Queen was studying the Headhunter was a mildly bored and irritated look on her face, as if displeased by the noise someone’s dog was making.
“And who are you to me, Headhunter, to be collecting anything on my behalf?” the Queen of Callow softly asked.
The savage’s cheeks reddened and the Summoner grinned. Finally he got the support he was due by virtue of his Callowan blood. Has his own father not once been a lord under the Fairfaxes? Cedric should have a seat at her inner circle and his pick of assignments, not this mere pittance, but it was a start.
“I only meant-“
“We know exactly what you meant to do, Headhunter,” the Archer smiled. “So shut the fuck up, yeah? Before we decide it’s worth taking issue with.”
The Levantine prick rose in anger, baring a long knife and reaching for a rope.
“I will not be threatened by the likes of you,” the Headhunter barked. “A hound gone tame-“
“Sit down,” the Black Queen said.
The Headhunter turned their gaze to her and hesitated.
“Sit down,” Catherine Foundling mildly said, “before I make you sit down.”
They swallowed their pride and did.
Perhaps there had been advantages to have arrived last after all, Cedric decided as he smugly settled into his seat.
The Barrow Sword silently cursed.
The Headhunter hadn’t been enough of an idiot to get himself – for the shape of the face paint told Ishaq they were a him, at the moment – killed to make an example, or at least crippled, which was a damned shame. It meant the old dogs in the Majilis would still be able to point at the Headhunter and then wag their finger disapprovingly at the bloodlust of those Bestowed by Below, helpfully ignoring anything the Barrow Sword himself had ever done in favour of tossing them all in the same cauldron to boil. There just weren’t enough of them that weren’t head-cutting lunatics for the Blood to hesitate at crossing them, to his continuing frustration.
The Marauder was a lot more careful than her Bestowal would imply but she’d still killed an Osena – on behalf of the Bandit’s Blood, she said, but it couldn’t be proven – so she was easy to dismiss, and the Grave Binder was both reasonable and amenable but also… less than personable.The smell of living rot could be off-putting, not that Ishaq was one to judge for the consequences of going barrow-raiding.The closeness of the Bestowal to that of the Binder’s Blood had also triggered harsh enmity from the Tanja, who considered it a desecration of sorts, but they’d not dared push the enmity too far when their young lord was so close to the Black Queen.
The Foundling Queen was known for keeping to a hard sort of honour, after all, and she was not one to lightly cross. She was also beginning to speak, so Ishaq set aside the thoughts and pricked his ear.
“There’s only been a few times in the history of Calernia,” the Black Queen said, “where so many of our kind have gathered. Consider that, before we begin addressing grievances. Remember that the last time so many villains were gathered around the same firepit, nations trembled.”
Ishaq grinned, watching the dark-haired queen closely as she spoke. All knew that the Queen of Callow had been the one to tame the lord and the princes, to force the hand of the Peregrine and the Sword of Judgement, and so the achievement she called eyes on reflected glory onto her. You sit here fat and safe instead of hunted because of me, she was reminding them. That dangerous little bastard the Rapacious Troubadour was leaning forward on his seat to Ishaq’s right, as if getting closer would let him get his paws on the soul of the villainess, but he was hardly alone in that. The Black Queen had a fine speaking voice, and a reputation that demanded attention.
“There’s enough skill and power assembled here tonight to topple a kingdom,” the Black Queen said, a hard smile touching her lips. “That it has been not been enough to break the Dead King over our knee should serve as a reminder of what still lies ahead of us.”
“War on Keter,” the Archer called out, baring her teeth.
Ishaq laughed and joined his call to hers, as did half a dozen more. The shouting would buy him time enough to figure out how to bury the Headhunter all the way to his neck instead of merely his knees.
The Beastmaster eyed the great shadow-crows again, biting his cheek in irritation.
Their form, the power he could feel pulsing within them, it all called to him. Yet Lysander had found that he could not Master them, not even the slightest bit. His power was no immediate yoke, taking time and skill to settle properly into the beasts of his menagerie, but when he used it there was always a… bite. Not here, though. He had heard it said that the crows were shards of drow goddesses, not true living creatures, but he’d not truly believed it until now. Wild gods sometimes touched animals with their power, remaking them into something more without fundamentally changing their essence, so he’d expected this to be case here.
Not so, it turned out, and now the shadowy things had turned their black eyes on him. Had they noticed? He could not tell, but caution was in order. This was not the Woods, where he knew the paths and dangers. Boldness had to be measured, lest it cost him more than he was willing to give. The Beastmaster drank from the ale horn the servants had passed him, wiping his mouth afterwards and listening without much interest as the parade of grievances began.
“- deferred to her even though she is fresh to the front, and I was in command,” the Summoner whined. “There must be punishment for this.”
Gods, Lysander thought, what a useless prick. His dislike for the man had grown stronger with every comparison between them. The Beastmaster brought servants to the fight as well, but unlike the mageling he wasn’t useless if someone got to him – he fought with his menagerie, not behind it.
“Are you,” the Barrow Sword said, tone slightly disbelieving, “complaining about Dominion warriors deferring to the Valiant Champion?”
The Beastmaster grunted in amusement. Ishaq had a good head and a better swordhand, a respectable man. Too close to the Black Queen’s party for comfort, but without having turned into a minion.
“I held command,” the Summoner insisted.
“No one who has to say that holds anything,” the Headhunter dismissed.
There was a murmur of agreement around the fire. The Headhunter wasn’t liked – no one wanted to ally with someone who’d stick you in the back for your head and a shadow of your power – but he wasn’t wrong. Lysander glanced at the Black Queen, who was lounging on her throne and idly sipping at a cup of wine. She seemed less than impressed.
“What’s your exact grievance under the Terms?” the Queen of Callow asked.
“It was disrespect,” the Summoner angrily replied. “Against the Terms.”
“Disrespect is not against our laws,” the Black Queen said. “Were your orders disobeyed or contradicted?”
The Beastmaster chuckled under his breath, as all here knew the answer to that. The Summoner went on to bluster for a bit before it became clear the villainess patience had been exhausted. She glanced at Indrani, who cleared her throat loudly and called for the next grievance to be spoken. Lysander’s eyes narrowed at the sight. He wasn’t Alexis, to rage at the sight of that or even Indrani at all, but it was still hard to believe Archer had bound herself to others in such a way. The Beastmaster had long believed that Alexis might have inherited the Lady’s thirst for challenges but that it was Indrani who’d learned their teacher’s restlessness, her wanderlust. It was a belief difficult to pair with the reality of her serving as the Black Queen’s enforced, and it had done much to unravel the respect he’d once held for Indrani.
“I have a grievance,” the Concocter spoke up.
Lysander’s brow rose in interest. Cocky was not one to dip her toe into these things without reason, so this ought to be interesting at last.
“Did you lose a cauldron?” the Headhunter jeered. “It’s not like you know how to use anything else.”
The Beastmaster’s knife came down on the arm of his chair, blade biting into wood with a hard thunk, and the Levantine’s own hand twitched towards his blade as he turned to match eyes. Lysander shrugged.
“My hand slipped,” the Beastmaster shrugged.
Fucking Dominion shithead. Lysander wasn’t some sentimental pissant, but there were lines. Cocky was a lot more useful to have around than a second-rate tracker who used an aspect to make up for lack of skill.
The Harrowed Witch winced.
Merciless Gods, why did all these people have to be so violent? Julien’s shade muttered angrily in her ear, his half-heard imprecations rather distracting, but she focused. If this turned into a brawl, she’d throw herself backwards and flee under cover of illusion – the latter part of which would take some concentration. Although, she thought, it was not the Archer who led here but her own mistress. Unlike Lady Indrani, who enjoyed a spot of mayhem between ‘comrades’, the Black Queen was known for her stern disposition and sharp tongue. Perhaps she’d take this all in hand.
“Your grievance, Concocter?” the Queen of Callow asked.
That bear of a man, the Beastmaster, ceased glaring at the Headhunter and they returned the favour. Both pretended nothing had ever taken place between them. Sweet Providence but Aspasie had lucked out with her seat, having the rough woodsman between her and the Headhunter. Even Julien’s shade avoided getting too close to that one.
“I have had supplies brought in from the Arsenal,” the Concocter said. “And twice now the crates have been opened and inspected by Proceran soldiers before being passed on to me.”
Aspasie felt it more than she saw it. Like the weight in the air before a storm, a pressure had gathered atop the hill. The fire dimmed and breaths came shorter as the Black Queen straightened from a lazy sprawl to sharp-eyed alertness. The Witch had seen it once before in the Arsenal, the subtle metamorphosis that turned a mouthy young woman into the Arch-heretic of the East. It was all in the way she held herself, in the intensity of her. The roiling power around them that had them all shuffling uncomfortably in their seats, those dark eyes – almost black, in the evening light – growing cold with displeasure at what she had heard.
“Those crates, had they been inspected and sealed in the Arsenal?” the Black Queen asked in a clipped tone.
“Yes,” the Concocter replied, tone admirably steady.
“You will pass on descriptions of those soldiers to Adjutant,” the dark-eyed queen said, drumming her fingers against the arm of her seat. “They will be swinging from gallows by dawn, and your supplies will never be touched again.”
Aspasie shivered, for she did not doubt the other woman’s word in the slightest.
The Rapacious Troubadour weighed his options.
While he’d be most pleased by a greater monthly supply of Binds to take from – their souls were ancient but worn, tasteless and colourless – he doubted that the Black Queen would be amenable to the request. She’d never hidden her distaste for his inclinations, and she’d been quite blunt in warning him of the costs of returning to his old practices. A restriction that he chafed under, even knowing it was only temporary. Still, Lucien was not an unreasonable man and he knew that the Terms and their looming successor, the Liesse Accords, were much to his advantage.
He thrived in society, when navigating hierarchies, and the Black Queen’s ambitions would herald the creation of a society of the Damned. The sheer potential of that had him giddy, sometimes. So long as he was able to limit his predations to victims deemed acceptable under the rules, heroes would have no real call to hunt him and he’d even be able to move through the civilized world without fear of being hunted. No, the prize was well worth a few years of lean and tasteless pickings. He ate more than enough to avoid desiccation, and he’d begun to pick out the people that would be of use after the war.
Gluttony would not help him here. It’d be much more useful to earn a favour or two from his fellows, and he had just the trick for that. One need not be brilliant to realize that the Berserker was itching for a fight, and she was not so thuggish as to fail to understand when she was being helped. It’d give him an in with the Barrow Sword as well, if he played it well.
“I have a grievance as well, if we are to clear the air,” Lucien drawled.
Rather obvious bait, but given the precedents…
“A bard insists on speaking,” the Headhunter snorted. “There’s a surprise.”
Like a fish on a hook.
“This,” the Troubadour airily said. “This is my issue, Black Queen. The constant pricking from the prick, so to speak. Can they not be disciplined into a semblance of politeness?”
The Foundling Queen eyed him for a moment, and Lucien felt naked. As if seen through once more. It was exhilarating, in a terrifying sort of way.
“I’m not here to hold your hands,” the Black Queen acidly said. “Petty disputes are not breaches of the Terms, they are yours to resolve.”
“Ha!” the Headhunter sneered, “You-“
Lucien discreetly winked at the Berserker, whose flat face and broken nose split into a brutally gleeful grin as she grasped the chance she’d just been given. A heartbeat later the Headhunter’s jaw popped with a beautiful sound as the Berserker’s knuckles smashed into it, the seats of the two warriors toppling as they brawled.
That Troubadour was a useful sort for a fucking singer, Zoe approvingly thought as she let out a hoarse shout and smashed the Headhunter’s head through the seat even as they slipped a knife into her ribs. She’d remember the good turn and return it in kind. As she was thrown off by the Headhunter the Berserker felt her back begin to crack as the Haze seeped into her, shuddering into her limbs as the strength and anger hardened her muscles.
The Headhunter got to their feet again, as did she, and Zoe ripped out the knife in her side before letting out a blood-curling scream. Finally she could cut loose and just Rage.
The Barrow Sword turned to study the man sitting by his side, a dark-haired sort with insolent good looks and slightly crooked fingers. The cithern strapped to his back seemed as natural to him as the sword on his hip, and though the Rapacious Troubadour did not have the reputation of a great swordsman, there were many kinds of battles. The way the Berserker was spasming wildly and turning red even as the Headhunter stuck her full of knives and hatches to little avail made the point plainly enough.
“Have you ever been to the Dominion, Lucien?” Ishaq casually asked.
“I’ve not had the pleasure,” the other man replied with a slender smile.
“You should visit, one of these days,” the Barrow Sword said. “I’m sure you’d find much there to your liking.”
If he could not find enough allies within Bestowed of Levant, Ishaq thought, then perhaps it was time to broaden his horizons.
The Summoner laughed at the brawling fools, voice high and mocking. The Headhunter had been thoroughly obnoxious and the Berserker was a rude thug, so he had no horse in this race. Let them smash each other to pieces, for all he cared. His mood significantly improved, he offered a charming smile to the silver-haired woman at his side. The Concocter, she was called. She’d taken his rightful place in the Arsenal – her or one of her colleagues – but Cedric was willing to set that aside for the sake of polite conversation.
“I am told you have spent much of your time in the Arsenal,” the Summoner said.
Her eyes, he only noticed then, were not of the same colour. One was silver, the other blue. It was disturbing to behold, though he was well-bred enough not to comment on this.
“I have,” the Concocter said. “And I am told you sought admission there yourself?”
He grit his teeth.
“Mere rumours,” Cedric dismissed. “My talents as a war mage are too precious to squander, I’ve always known this.”
“Are they?” the Concocter said. “I have not been told of the shape of your Gift in any detail.”
Was she doubting him? Cedric scowled. A demonstration was in order, then. Hand rising, he seized the threads of his sorcery and pulled out one of his lesser summons. He might as well force apart the two brawling idiots while he was at it, and establish his skills for all to see.
“Come forth,” the Summoner intoned.
Merde, Aspasie thought.
Magic to her right and a violent death match to her left: the Harrowed Witch had no intention of staying in the middle of this. She tipped back her seat until it fell and crouched behind it, just in time to see some sort of leonine creature in a shimmering ghostly glow leap out of blue circle hanging in the air. The summon would have tackled the Berserker – now red-veined, hulking and screaming – from the back if a sinuous thing had not suddenly struck at it in midair, sinking fangs into its flank. It shimmered out of existence. A snake, Aspasie realized. The Beastmaster had hidden the largest snaked she’d ever seen under his furs, and it’d attacked the leaping summon without hesitation.
“You trifling sneak,” the Summoner snarled.
The snake, striped and sinuous and looking all too smart for such a creature, retreated and loosely coiled around the Beastmaster’s neck.
“Say that again,” the large man challenged. “See what happens.”
At the bottom of the hill, Aspasie felt creatures begin to stir. The Harrowed Witch began to weave the strands around her, ignoring the furious wails of her brother’s shade even as she drew on the essence of his death to hide her existence. The two who’d begun brawling, the Headhunter and the Berserker, had almost tumbled off the edge of the hill. Though the Berserker had clearly hurt the other villain, punching in a rib, the Headhunter had sunk over a dozen blades in their opponent’s flesh. Even now they were trying to tie the villainess limbs with some sort of rope, though the Berserker’s strange spams made it difficult to achieve.
Something was slithering along the grass atop the hill and for a moment Aspasie thought it was yet another snaked, but in the heartbeat that followed strings of shadow shot up. They latched onto the Headhunter, who jerked in surprise and tried to rip away their hand only to find that the string moved with them. Yet it tightened, after, almost like toffee. Within heartbeats the Dominion prick was covered in shadowy strings and vainly struggling on the ground, mouth covered. The Berserker milled about uncertainly, then let out a furious scream and turned towards the nearest target: the Adjutant. The crippled orc in his wheelchair did not so much as bat an eye while on the ground under the Berserker a shimmer passed. The Witch caught a glimpse of something and the Berserker was gone. As if fallen into the ground.
Dusk had arrived, Aspasie saw. The world was dimming. And nowhere was it darker than around the Black Queen on her throne, looking bored as she rested her chin on her palm and watched them all.
“Summoner,” the Black Queen idly said. “Beastmaster. The two of you appear to have left your seats, no doubt by mistake.”
The magic that had been sharpening the air with the smell of ozone winked out. The creeping creatures that had been making their way up the hill froze, then withdrew. The Beastmaster offered a jerky nod and slumped back onto his seat: the snake disappeared under his furs, as if it’d never been there at all.
“Your Majesty-” the Summoner began.
There was a sound like a rope being tightened, and the Headhunter hoarsely screamed.
“I dislike,” Catherine Foundling said, “repeating myself.”
The Summoner sat down. The Harrowed Witch dragged her seat back up and sat down on it, hoping no one had taken notice.
The Black Queen had seen through him.
The thought struck the Rapacious Troubadour and would not leave him even as he studied the Headhunter’s futile struggles against the shadow bindings. Her putdowns had been too smooth, too perfect. The gate beneath the Berserker had already been woven, just left dormant. She’d known Lucien was going to incite a brawl and let him, so that she might use the erupting chaos to her own purposes. What these purposes were he did not know, but he was hungry to find out. If she’d planned it all ahead this far… A dangerous woman, this orphan queen. She’d played the oldest living hero of Calernia like a fiddle, it was said, and so far they were faring no better against her wiles.
A dragonbone pipe in hand, she leaned to the side so that the Adjutant might strike a match and light it for her. Taking a deep breath, silence falling among them as she did, the Queen of Callow spat out a long stream of smoke. She flicked a wrist. A slit opened in the air to the side of the hill and the Berserker came out screaming, hitting the ground as if she’d been thrown down from a cliff instead. There was a crack of broken bones and the villainess ceased moving. Not dead, he thought, but her legs had broken even with all the power of her rage strengthening her.
“Archer,” the Black Queen said, “drag that enthusiastic young woman back to her seat. I still have a use for her.”
The tall villainess rose to her feet with a lazy grin.
“Nothing like two broken legs to put things into perspective, I’ve found,” the Archer mused.
The Berserker was dragged by the crook of her neck, hair gone wild and looking in a great deal of pain but not entirely displeased with the way her evening had gone regardless. Shadow strings dragged the Headhunter back onto the wreck of their seat, and only then left withdrew. The armoured villain cast wild-eyed looks all around, as if trying to find where the strings had gone, and their breathing was unsteady. It’d escaped absolutely no one’s notice that it would have been trivial for the Black Queen to snap their neck, if she’d felt like it.
“I find myself disappointed in you all,” the Queen of Callow slowly said, trails of smoke curling up above her. “The information’s there to be found, I made sure of it, so it must mean that not a single one of you thought to look.”
The Archer leaned back in her seat, looking amused. The Adjutant remained the same mirror he always was, unreadable. Lucien watched the others, but found only puzzlement and veiled faces. No one was quite sure what she meant, then. Good, he’d not been left behind.
“How many villains have signed onto the Truce and Terms?” the Black Queen asked. “Does a single one of you know?”
Lucien hid a frown, counting silently. At least twenty, he thought, but he was uncertain of the numbers in Cleves so it was likely higher. Besides, had the First Prince not taken one of the Damned as an adviser? She had kept this quiet, but not so quiet the likes of the Troubadour could not find word of it.
“Twenty eight,” the Adjutant said, his voice like rough gravel.
The Troubadour blinked in surprise. Was this true? It seemed…
“Some of you are putting it together, I see,” the Black Queen thinly smiled, eyes passing over him and then to his surprise onto the Headhunter. “There are seventy-four Named who have signed onto the Terms, you see.”
Less than half. Lucien would admit he was surprised. He’d expected, if not quite even halves, then at least something close to it. This was sharply imbalanced in their disfavour.
“And what is that to us, Black Queen?” the Beastmaster replied.
“Look around you,” she replied. “Then think of the heroes and their own firepit. How, unlike you, they are making allies.”
“Let them hold hands,” the Headhunter dismissed. “It will not save them when the night gets dark.”
The Barrow Sword almost laughed, for as usual Saidi was missing the point. All that power, all that skill, but not a bushel of wits to go with them. When the war on Keter ended, things would not return to what they had once been. That was what the Queen of Callow was telling them. How many of these Bestowed by Above would have met, if not for this war? Now they knew names and faces, had struck friendships and alliances. When the war ended, when the truce came at an end, the heroes would prowl in packs. Magelings from Ashur allied with duellists from Procer, priests from the Free Cities with the Blood of Levant. They would be fighting an enemy that had learned, that had grown, that was ready for them.
“You warn us of annihilation,” Ishaq bluntly said.
“Petty alarmism,” the Summoner said. “They cannot turn on us after we carried the war against Procer. It would be dishonourable.”
The Harrowed Witch swallowed a hysterical giggle. They were going to bet their lives on honour? The man was blind. She’d not thought it before, but the Black Queen was right. They must come to terms with the Chosen, or perhaps band with a few others for protection. If they were too many to be easily slain, or perhaps hidden…
“The Grey Pilgrim would poison every single one of you and lose not a wink of sleep over it,” the Barrow Sword flatly replied. “We all know what the years before the Uncivil Wars were like. The Peregrine and the Saint, picking every flower before it could bloom. They’ll do the same now, only with bands and training and coin.”
“There’s no need to fight them,” the Beastmaster said.
And meant it, too. Lysander saw no need to spill hero blood, or have his own spilled by them. What did they have to fight over? Let them keep their cities and their temples, his own home was far beyond their reach.
“We can keep to our places, and they to theirs,” the Beastmaster said.
“And so we go back living in a fucking hovel in the woods?” Cocky said.
He blinked in surprised. Had her years in the Arsenal truly softened her so much, weakened her so much?
“They’ll keep it all,” the Concocter warned. “The Arsenal, the secrets and the libraries and the wonders we made. If we disperse back into the wilds, after the war, then they keep the world and we exile ourselves to the fringes.”
“The Accords ensure they cannot simply hunt us,” Lysander sharply reminded her.
“You depend on ink for safety, now?” Cocky replied just as sharply.
“The Accords don’t say we can’t fight,” the Berserker said. “They only say how we can’t. They’ll come for us, Beastmaster.”
Zoe would never have considered signing them, if they did. It was a pack of rules about how violence could be done, and much about magic, but the only parts that concerned her were no different from duelling rules. She could stomach that.
“She’s right,” the Headhunter said, to her surprise. “There are some among them who will want to hunt. They’ll follow us, wait for an excuse.”
“And they’ll have backers in the courts,” the Rapacious Troubadour added. “Nobles behind them, soldiers and safe places. We all know the Mirror Knight was in bed with the House of Langevin, and he won’t be the last.”
Fucking nobles, Zoe thought, anger welling up. With their tricks and their lies and their… biting into her lips, she forced herself to push down the rage. The Black Queen was likely to do more than just break her legs, next time.
“They know who we are, now,” Ishaq said. “Don’t forget that. They know our names, where we rose to power. They will know where to look for us.”
That struck home with more than a few, he saw on their faces. It was a dreadful thing that’d been revealed to them, the Barrow Sword thought, but it was also an opportunity. There were some here who would make useful allies, and to who he would be of use in turn. Bargains could be had, favours traded.
“It’s worse than that,” the Concocter flatly said, pushing back her silver hair. “Think of the weapons the Arsenal has been able to make in just a few years. They have the numbers and the coin to keep making such things, greater ones. What do we have, a handful of forges and libraries dispersed across half the continent? How many of us even have a roof to sleep under?”
Ashen Gods, Ishaq thought. A grim truth, that. He had territory in the Brocelian, but it was only his so long as no other Bestowed came to take it from him. He looked at the three on the other side of the fire, the dark-eyed queen and her hands on each side – the fang and the steel, waiting and silent and expectant. They had known all this from the start. Where this would lead them. The Black Queen was waiting for them at the end of this road.
“You have shown us a doom, Black Queen,” Ishaq said. “Will you also show us how to avert it?”
Lucien leaned forward, eyes alight. Now was the time for the reveal, he thought.
“After the war, under my auspices a hall will be founded in Cardinal,” the Black Queen idly said. “It will have workshops and armories, libraries and artefacts. Its doors will be open to any of Below’s who sign the Liesse Accords and agree to a few additional… rules of engagement.”
The Summoner began to speak, but the Archer’s black glare silence him.
“This hall will also offer its services as intermediary between all who belong to it,” the Queen of Callow said. “Should they seek allies within our kind, or to trade favours. It would serve as guarantor of any such deal made, naturally.”
And so enable the making of alliances through the threat of the Black Queen herself taking offence at the breaking of a pact made under her auspices, the Troubadour thought. He could not resist, letting out a soft peal of laughter. This would not disappear all their troubles, but it would give them the tools to solve them by their own hands. And all it would require of them was to follow the Black Queen’s rules, to heed her Accords so that they might all reap the benefits of her peace.
All hail the queen, Lucien Travers amusedly thought.
“I might be interested in such an arrangement,” the Troubadour said.
It could be of use, the Summoner thought. Since the Arsenal was barred to him, and likely to remain so…
If nothing else it would make the trading of favours a more reliable thing, Lysander admitted to himself.
Word of who to hunt, and who to avoid, the Headhunter thought. Always the hardest of knowledge to gather. It would depend on these rules, but as things stood…
The Concocter would have opened a newborn for what was being offered, what were a few damned rules to her?
The Berserker frowned. More rules. Not pleasant to hear, but if this let her avoid being hunted by the White Knight after the war she would have to consider it.
It would let her find another band, the Harrowed Witch realized with a sigh of relief. Safety in numbers, with a powerful patroness behind them.
“Oh yes,” the Barrow Sword grinned, all sharp teeth bared. “This would be of interest to me as well.”
As the pieces fell into place Catherine Foundling blew out a stream of grey smoke, and smiled a devil’s smile.