Interlude: Reprobates

“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.

151 thoughts on “Interlude: Reprobates

    1. Zggt

      Nothing like a threat of extinction and the hope of having anything permanent to motivate people to gather up and defend themselves. This is literally how nations are born. And of course Cat is the only possible queen here. Black might just shed a tear of pride at that.

      Liked by 23 people

      1. RoflCat

        There’s an…ideal? for the women of a certain region in another series I’ve read (it’s not translated that far yet) that sum down roughly to “Get what you want while making everyone happy while at it”

        In that region, the ideal of men are the courageous knights that triumph over anything thrown at them, while the women are the cunning schemer.

        Then again one of their proposal method is to literally pin down their target and ask for his conditions to accept the marriage.

        Liked by 10 people

    2. caoimhinh

      This chapter was utterly delicious. The Villains have much more interesting personalities and way more dynamic in their interactions than the Heroes.
      It had me grinning and enjoying throughout the whole reading.
      The quirks of personalities, motivations, and ideologies simply flowed much smoothly and feel much more fleshed out than the Heroes, despite how much exposure we’d had to the Heroes.

      This was a gathering of rogues with marked personalities and ambitions, misfits with their own agendas working together, and the resulting dynamic is much more entertaining than when we have seen the Heroes’ gatherings, where they feel more like a bunch of self-righteous pricks and immature kids.
      Oh, these guys would be at each other’s throats and die due to falling in the mistakes of classic villainy at the drop of a hat without Cat herding them, but the reading was really way more enjoyable.

      I’m really hoping for more chapters like this one. Also, reading from their POV how they have this sort of admiration-fear relationship with Cat is exquisite.

      Liked by 18 people

    1. erebus42

      Honestly if you signed up to serve under Irritant, you really should have had a plan in place on the off chance you ever had to bash your boss’s brains in in self defense.

      Liked by 11 people

      1. Darkening

        Honestly I was thinking an enemy soldier, but it’s even more funny if it was one of his. Man, I’ve been a Traitorous loyalist from day 1, but irritant makes a strong case for himself.

        Liked by 25 people

        1. Sir Nil

          If both of them existed in the same era, it would’ve been entirely likely, nay, periodic that they try to dump the throne on the other while the other pursues a career in shoemaking.

          Liked by 12 people

          1. nimelennar

            And periodically you’d find out that the current reign of Dread Emperor Irritant was really the reign of Dread Emperor Traitorous in disguise all along, you fools!

            And maybe vice versa.

            Liked by 5 people

                  1. Sir Nil

                    This is a secret but in truth, my greatest betrayal to the Dread Emperor is that I never betray him at all! Hah! He’ll never suspect that it was I all along!

                    Liked by 1 person

  1. Heh.

    Villains will buy into the Accords and then more because they realize the advantages of organizing under the Accords, for their own protection, comfort, and support.

    Berserker (and Troubadour) are lucky that Cat saw this coming, and so never got close to Hakram. Cat would not have been so mild in her response if Hakram had been subject to collateral damage in the fighting.

    Also, Cat prepared well. Everything in the meeting has gone more or less as she anticipated and planned for.

    It’s always nice to see how other people see Cat.

    Liked by 22 people

        1. Honestly, that one I think Cat can breathe in, breathe out and let go. Not easily, but she can. She IS aware of what he did throughout his life.

          Of course, it does depend on WHO did it…

          Liked by 1 person

      1. Axel Rafael

        Even if Catherine didn’t do a thing, they wouldn’t have been able to touch Hakram… Not with his Masegoed Up wheelchair!

        Like

    1. caoimhinh

      Although, they didn’t exactly realize that, Catherine had to point it out to them.
      But the pieces were already there, so the moment they even considered the issue, they were all like “oh, shit. How did I not see this?”

      Liked by 14 people

      1. LarsBlitzer

        I think the main reason they hadn’t foreseen this is because they simply hadn’t had the advantage of perspective. Cat, Hakram, and Indrani have. It’s been pointed out here that Peregrine, Saint and many others have made it their mission to strangle any and all of Below’s nascent Chosen in the cradle, sometimes literally. Above’s entirely too well-acquainted with “The ends justify the means” and “It’s for the Greater Good” to excuse entire rolls of butcher’s bills and atrocities by the literal boatload. It’s a minor Infernal miracle that there as many as they have. Add to that being signed up to fight a war against the literal antithesis of life, and I’m not surprised they hadn’t pondered the question of what happens after the Big Bad is Dead dead.

        Liked by 15 people

    2. nick012000

      I don’t think that Hakram would have been in any danger, even if he’s in a wheelchair. Remember, two of his Aspects are Stand and Rampage. If he has to fight, I expect that he’d be able to weave replacement limbs out of shadow easily enough, even if it would tire him a lot more rapidly than he would have tired had he been whole.

      Liked by 7 people

      1. Mennolt van Alten

        > Stand

        Oh god, I hadn’t realised this yet, but that aspect until now has always been ‘hold my ground in a battle’ but I wouldn’t be surprised if it repurposed itself / augmented itself into growing Hakram temporary legs. Until now the aspect has basically always given him magic strength and resilience to hold the line, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the aspect realised ‘he needs legs to do so too’ and just gave them.

        Liked by 5 people

        1. Agent J

          He’s also grown strange, ethereal claws before. I fully expect to see him get out of his wheelchair to straight up wreck shit in a fight before Book’s end.

          Liked by 4 people

    3. Let’s be honest, even down three and a half limbs Hakram still doesn’t need Cat to fight his battles for him. The Beserker was fool enough to loose situational awareness and I’d pit Hakram’s Rampage against her Rage any day.

      That fight probably would have ended with Hakram’s wrestling her to the ground with stumps and one working prosthetic hand, and then fastening his teeth on her throat.

      Liked by 6 people

  2. erebus42

    A berserker in the style of Cú Chulainn and a delightful soul eating silvertongue, truly wonderful additions to the tale.
    The Witch and Abigail need to get a drink one of these days, I’m sure they’d get along swimmingly.
    The Summoner is lucky he’s useful. He seems like the sort Cat would love to gut on general principle and who no one would get too upset over.

    Liked by 22 people

  3. Xinci

    Well, it was once again, useful to see the palpable of the effects of having a lot of narrative weight, truly a lovely demonstration. As is her seeming to now have a bigger reason to get an enforcement branch for Cardinal. I originally suspected she might rotate in Cabals from the Drow for that, as a way for them to expand the Night in a cooperative fashion. Her goal has been for things to run on their own after all, so I am quite curious about what met methods she will use to help supply those of a darker shade.

    Rapacious indeed, I am sure he is a lovely font of data on all these new developments, for the Gods, one way or another. I am honestly fascinated by how he might function and how his soul consumption works. He found older souls tasteless and colorless so he seems to desire new essence like a devil/demon. Presumably, he is adding their souls to his when he “feeds”, which is quite natural but it seems that he isn’t fully retaining them. Fitting for a rapacious being to have unending hunger, I wonder if Masego will ever not anything about him, he is rather similar to a devil…
    I am rather curious if the Head Hunter is using those heads to bind souls or is just taking some form of copy that is bound to the heads. I do wonder if they can take on the forms of those they kill, I mean we do have a Skinwalker already but mimicking things with souls seems to vary a bit. Like Summoner may be doing something similar to the Binders, or perhaps its just Diabolism? Though the difference there seems a matter of perspective or origin of whats being summoned.

    Liked by 10 people

    1. Black Spiral Dancer

      I always read the Headhunter as the old movies, haven’t you watched… the guys who used swords and fought battles, immortals until someone CUT THEIR NECKS and so let the other one collect their power and memories…?

      Highlander, anyone?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ok i think this may be my new favorite chapter, the look into all the villains heads and how they see Cat was great, plus the whole thing was fun. And the clever way Cat united them was superb.

    Now who was that villain Cordelia took in? I can’t remember if it was that duelist (or even if he was danmed) but even if so i thought he was more of a bodyguard.

    Liked by 8 people

      1. Earl of Purple

        The Pilfering Dicer is in Cleves, I think. A pity, I wonder how he and the Rapacious Troubadour get on. Both small villains who need to blend into society rather than stand truly outside it. One steals luck, the other souls. They either get on well due to the similarities between them or hate each other as rivals.

        Or both.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Black Spiral Dancer

          I seem to remember another great one of… these kind of chapters, so to speak. The one where the Seer and the Bard kept talking to one another while in the end Cordelia rejected her name of Warden of the West but for a slightly change in timing and the possibility of choice where before wouldn’t have been.

          That was also a Great chapter, with capital G.

          Like

  5. Bellower

    this was a beautiful chapter. I loved seeing all these different takes on villainy and how they react to the accords and Catherine. From the stupid arrogant, The blood thirsty and the ambitious social climbers to the little witch who just wants to survive. It was a ton of fun.

    Also…. ALL HAIL EMPEROR IRRITANT!!!

    Liked by 11 people

  6. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    his eyes he’d paid for (should this be “his eyes that had paid for”)
    at his advantage > to his advantage
    he’d ben > he’d been
    as such a > at such a
    was a mildly > with a mildly
    Has his own > Had his own
    personable.The (missing space)
    barrow-raiding.The (missing space)
    villainess patience > villainess’ patience
    enforced > enforcer
    hatches > hatchets
    of blue circle > of a blue circle
    snaked > snake (occurs twice)
    villainess limbs > villainess’ limbs
    spams > spasms
    in surprised > in surprise
    to who he > to whom he
    silence him > silenced him

    Liked by 2 people

  7. dadycoool

    And thus we behold the Black Queen BREAK half the Villains west of Praes and TAKE their souls for her own. As both the White Knight and Mirror Knight once prophesied, those who find themselves within her area of influence find themselves drawn to her like moths to a flame, unknowingly allowing themselves to be chained to her will until they are like dogs called to their master’s heel. Even the Concoctor and Beastmaster, who see the effect she has on one of their own, the one who would never settle down with anyone, are unable to escape the allure of the Devil’s Grin. Even the Berserker, an unstoppable force of RAGE, found herself reigning in her temper for fear of the Queen’s displeasure.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. Black Spiral Dancer

      That might have be EXACTLY the reason our steemed Author decided to create Bards surpassing such antiquated and, frankly, monochromatic view of what a Bard truly is. No matter what Order of the Stick made you believe, bards can be a soul of any team, like in Looking for Group, where there’s that Minotaur bard – and I don’t remember if the Elf was a bard or a ranger initially, but he COULD have been a bard. Also, the anti-team Stick has a bard for Team Leader AND the father of Stick’s Bard still IS the team leader of a strong and ancient band of villains that have settled down.

      Catherine seems like she’s letting go of the Fighter Mantle and accept a more varied position of a True Mastermind she always was, and Bard fits her much more now – exactly for how multifaceted Bards always are (kinda like the Gemini sign, my own Moon sign, that has the same properties).

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Big I

    I found a lot to unpack in this chapter.

    First, the Barrow Sword. If/when Cat steps aside, he’s the logical replacement for leader of Team Villain. He’s got the most respect and the least grudges. He also struck me, if he were Praesi, to be most likely to be Dread Emperor in a Villainous band. He forges alliances and keeps his eye on politics.

    The Summoner, funnily enough, also struck me as a classic would be Tyrant. One of the useless, ineffectual ones. More Cobra Commander than Emperor Palpatine.

    The Rapacious Troubadour is classic Chancellor material. I can’t help but wonder what he and the Barrow Sword would be able to get up to in Levant, especially with the Grave Binder and the Maurauder (Dominion version of Warlock and Black Knight maybe?).

    And finally, what stuck me most about this chapter is how Cat turned the whole “meta-narrative” of the Villain stories on its head. Now THEY’RE the ones banding together for safety, worried about the implacable, ruthless, well resourced enemy out to kill them. Now THEY’RE the underdogs. It’s a total role reversal.

    Oh, and it also struck me how this meeting resembled a Bond Villain meeting with their minions, e.g. Blofeld or Dr Evil. Cat even trap doors someone who displeased her! Classic.

    Liked by 27 people

    1. Sinead

      Do you ever refer to someone’s possessions as “their possession”?

      It is usually seen as dehumanising (and is probably why drow culture uses “it”.)

      Context is always required when using pronouns, gendered or not. And it pays to be respectful, even if you are not dealing with a divinely empowered serial killer.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Big I

      No. My understanding is that “it” is an offensive term for non-binary people IRL. The preferred pronoun is “they” (again, so far as I understand).

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Sinead

        Preferred pronouns vary (in Headhunter’s case, note how Ishaq can read contextual clues to be specific about pronouns, while everyone else defaults to they. Interestingly, Lysander (Beastmaster) also seems to be able to pick up on the Headhunter’s gender presentation. EE’s yet to write anyone as a bigot when it comes to gender or sexual orientation, so Beastmaster referring to Headhunter as “he” is either a typo or a demonstration on how Lysander can read people.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. RandomIntenetStranger

          Imo it must be hard being a bigot about anything when a divinely empowered murderer may take offense, add to it a few hundred years of it on repeat and it would get beaten out of any culture, besides if we are to make parallels the main reason queer people get the treatment they do in our society can be reduced to the way religion (any) is ingrained in it, so again it becomes difficult to acuse anyone of being blasphemous when that person or someone like them are endorsed by the gods.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Black Spiral Dancer

            True enough. And that’s why religion is cracking slowly, like an Iceberg melting, and it’s gonna melt down in a few centuries, max. There’s just nowhere for it to grow, only to DIVIDE.

            Liked by 1 person

    3. Using “they” in the singular has been recognized in professional literary circles for coming on 2 years now, and been acceptable in most less than formal instances for centuries. “It” is typically used for inanimate things or as a form of derision, which is why the Drow preference for “it” is so unusual.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. solid point.
        additionally, if one needs a form of direct address that is non-binary, ‘Sia’ takes the place of ‘Sir’, or ‘Ma’am’.
        This is definitely one of the best chapters in the whole saga, for sure.
        Beautiful.

        Like

    4. Morgenstern

      “They” has been used for centuries in real life in cases of “gender unknown” when speaking about people. Also, for mixed groups.

      Never trust (old) grammar books on spoken language and gender issues. 😉

      Speaking as one who has studied linguistics and done some research in this specific field: Historically, grammar books have been written by old white males, though, who can (by their own letters at the time) be PROVEN to have *consciously* put in terms that “will probably be offensive to women” – but who cares, as well as left out usages of centuries before them that were (and still *are*) very much in use when it comes to spoken language.

      Like

      1. Morgenstern

        Ugh… how I hate hitting “post” too fast and not being able to edit comments. As well as other posters’ comments being randomly hidden from view, even when they are literal days older… -.-

        Like

        1. Morgenstern

          I would so love to scratch that about ‘mixed groups’… no idea where that came from *lulz* I was thinking of the gender being given as “mixed”, “undefined” etc. … Sometimes my brain does strange things.

          Like

    5. Abrakadabra

      Sadly, english has this kind of strange tendency for gendered words, which some of us WHO are not native speakers cannot get used to easily. For example in my native there is a Word for ‘it’ and there is also a Word for he/she which can be either male or female cause it is undefined.

      Like

  9. I’m finding myself liking the Barrow Sword more and more with each of his appearances. He’s obviously fully team Evil, but he seems more on the rebellious faction of Evil over the malicious side of Evil. Obviously he’s got a bit more darkness than the Woe if he’s willing and eager to work closely with the likes of the Rapacious Troubadour, but he’s most dangerous in the fact that he knows how and when to pick his battles, and even accept his defeats.

    Liked by 11 people

    1. mamm0nn

      True, though they were good character designs I was missing some notable and terrifying characters. I like Cat, but making all the other Villains come off as second-rate or greenhorns doesn’t quite endear me further. Where are the Old Monsters that have been around for hundreds of years even if they are not nation-shattering, the Villains that could beat Cat or at least make her get up from her chair, the ones smart enough that a whisper can spell doom ten chapters from now? I hope there were more present than the handful we saw here who were just quiet because they knew better, or that the Villains elsewhere have a few superior specimens.

      Like

      1. Earl of Purple

        Saint of Swords spent what, seventy years running around Calernia killing any villain she could find. The ones she missed are either young, weak or excessively subtle. Or Praesi, since she left them alone. Any powerful old monsters she didn’t tackle are ones that stayed hidden long enough to get missed, or Horned Lords.

        Villains don’t age, but they don’t get to live long either. Most are slain by heroes, other villains or their own hubris long before they reach a point they would die of old age. The Calamities are an exception- pretty much *the* exception, at that.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. mamm0nn

          One hero cannot resolve everything when we’ve just heard that there’s at least 75 Named around right now not including the ones we know aren’t in the Accords like Ranger and Malicia, and there probably being another fifty Villains around on top of that. And that’s at a time when all the focus is on the war with the Dead King, when I assume that new Named with their own tale are unlikely to rise because it’d simply be overshadowed. By taxes stifling opportunity and growth alone, if nothing else. More likely, right now Named either rise in relation to the war or not at all, and the war already has all it’s main players in place. So it’s probable that there’s usually actually more Named running around even if of a lesser quality.

          As Pilgrim said way back, Saint was the one sent if Evil festered too long and too wide (presumably also limited to Good lands). Not necessarily if a Villain appeared at all or if they hit only one of those two conditions. She’s Above’s answer to either Cat or Akua riding too high and succeeding once too many or sticking around too long in the Good Callow, but not for Squire fighting her first Hero.

          She seemed to have a clear and narrow Role for her foes and application, straying from it would still work by brawn but she wouldn’t have Providence on her side. So her hunting Villains and her finding them without Creation’s handholding are two different things, though she may stumble into a Villain from time to time the latter she probably only gets when the Villain hits her criteria.

          In this, Pilgrim would’ve been much more devastating thanks to having a narrow Role but one that supports a great many Heroes to stack the odds in their favour in the early stages. Him, I can see a trend of Above having more champions than Below coming to be. But not by that much, as many a Named may start with a mentor or doesn’t have a story where Providence notices correct danger early enough for him to step in and save the Hero in the nick of time. Providence isn’t all-knowing with future-sense and Named still retain a semblance of free will, so if it sees a pattern where the Hero needs a last minute mentor a week in advance when Pilgrim is two weeks off, they have to use another mentor or see the Hero die.

          All in all, I don’t see ‘Because Saint of Swords’ or even ‘Because Pilgrim’ as a good example of why there would be fewer Villains. The gods Above and Below are still in a balancing act where Below too gets their Due, and Above already has a lot of advantages so they must have limitations. We haven’t seen many of Below’s boons because Cat hasn’t gotten the chance to use them or doesn’t realise them as everyone in the Interludes does, but Below gets more than just the successful first act. They’d have to, given Above’s many advantages.

          On your second paragraph, that’s an assumption and trend, but definitely not the rule. If what you were saying is true, people wouldn’t even have known of that boon until the Calamities did it, which wasn’t the case. Most villains don’t live for long, but that hardly means that they all do. And the very point of this boon is that the ones that survive stay at their peak and never disappear by old age.

          If even just 1% of all the Villains survive long enough to really make their immortality work, and those odds are probably higher because we’re still talking about Named, that still means that if there’s 100 villains over 30 years one will stick around for a while. And that tends to accumulate over time, even if their average lifespan is only a century. There should be more old monsters, even if we’re not talking city-busters, on Below’s side than just the Dead King.

          Like

          1. Pilgrim probably did more of the cutting down any new Villains that arose than Saint did, at least, once he wasn’t tied so tightly to Levant.
            But it has been explicitly established that between the two of them, plus the other Heroes, they kept a boot firmly stomped on the neck of Villainous Named outside of Callow and Praes for the past several decades.

            However, those “old monsters” you say should be around? Those are exactly the kind of people Saint would be cutting down in droves.
            Also, they are far more likely to decline to become involved, even if they’re around.
            Villains tend to have shorter life expectancies than Heroes, despite the Villainous immunity to aging. That is, most Villains never see any actual benefit from their immunity to aging.

            Most Villains usually lose to the first Hero or Heroes that they run into, while the Hero(es) usually survive. Maybe not right away, of course, depending upon the Story(ies) they’re in.

            It’s also worth keeping in mind that Villains usually only arise in the singular, while their story can contribute to spawning multiple Heroes, and is nigh guaranteed to spawn at least one Hero. While Heroes can also arise in the absence of active interaction with a Villain’s Story.

            Also, as regards the balance of power between Above and Below and the Names that they empower … the Dead King counts … but he is usually dead weight on the side of Below.
            In addition, there is the nature of each – Above can be a lot more proactive in distributing Names, even if the recipients haven’t actually done anything to warrant getting a Name, in addition to giving Names to people who earned them based on the merits of their actions. Below doesn’t just hand Names out, Below only gives out Names when somebody actively does things to warrant getting a Name.

            Villains outlasting multiple Heroic entanglements is an exception, and extraordinarily rare.
            Just think about how many Heroic bands took a run at Cat between the Doom of Liesse and the Crusade being declared. Five Heroic bands … in less than a year.
            Villains have to survive every encounter with a Hero in order to continue surviving. The Heroes only need to get lucky once in order to end a Villain … and Heroes tend to get lucky in that manner. Remember, there’s Narrative weight swinging just about every Story in favor of the Heroes against the Villain – “Good always wins over Evil in the end” after all.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. mamm0nn

              There are a couple of misconceptions here, and the most erroneous one is that you’re forgetting that Above and Below are equal and that the one intervening allows the other to intervene equally without retribution.

              We see this story from Cat’s perspective where she’s usually on the receiving end of the stick and well out of her league, but remember that her perspective is very much unreliable when it comes to herself. We see that in every interlude that involves her. As much as she may see the deck stacked in the heroes’ favour, we don’t know what the balance truly is and it’s quite likely not as much in the Heroes favour as she thinks it is.

              But that’s of course the question, and one we cannot answer ourselves. Only EE knows the answer there, while we are left with the perspective of the woman and her mentor who howl against the heavens about this very topic of unfairness.

              Yet in the end, when Above does anything then Below gets its due. That’s the way it works as has been explicitly stated. This already counters that there would be more Heroes than Villains, I don’t even know where you got that notion from. Villains might create a Hero, but a Hero is just as likely to create Villains to oppose them.

              On the Dead King, it’s been explicitly stated before that one side’s due isn’t continuous but once paid always gained. See “Villainous interlude Cadenza”: Black and Scribe ponder that the Wandering Bard might’ve been Heaven’s due in response of Triumphant or vice versa, meaning that as far as these Name-experts know one can die while the other persists. Thus the Dead King too is a once paid all yours deal.

              Which is, of course, assuming that a Named doing things themselves counts as Due to the gods at all. Though there is the due of his Name, the Dead King didn’t get the power from Below rather he performed the ritual himself. He might’ve even not had much of a due for Above to use. Meanwhile Providence and all those hero-helping tricks are directly from the gods Above, so they accumulate and should come with an equal but opposite reaction from Below somewhere.

              No telling what that balance is, but as the rules of this story have stated there has to be such a balance. More Villains but lower quality perhaps, the gods Below using more champions and see what sticks? Maybe? Or something else. No telling what that would be, though, once again only EE can know.

              On the comment that Saint would’ve killed those Old Monsters, seems you didn’t properly read what I said. Those Villains have to be both old and active, probably in Good lands too. Saint didn’t go to the Underdark either, despite its many potent Evil monsters, because it’s not bothering the Good lands. If such an old monster is in hiding or more subtle, she might have no providence backing her to find that Villain at all, turning things in a wild goose chase probably. And some of those old monsters may have considered what Cat is trying to do for them and came to see if it would come to fruition.

              Not sure where you got your ideas about Heaven being able to dish out Names willy nilly while Below demands them to be earned. I don’t recall Black and Cat earning their Names, nor Archer and Masego earned his at most earned through study and talent.

              No, it’s been established that being already extraordinary in what you are and can do is a big factor of getting a Name on either side, none of the things you’re suggesting here.

              However, that aside you should really take the most important point from this: This story is told from a heavily biased point of view in this very regard. More likely the Heroes aren’t actually as overpowered when not in the context of “How will Creation screw over Cat today?”, and you are adding several additional powers to them that the story never mentioned.

              Things that have been properly established though:

              -Cat, Black and many of our known friendly Villains are actively weaker than what they could be because they go against the grains. Black isn’t a powerhouse like the previous Knights because he doesn’t act the Villain, while Warlock was very potent because he very much was acting the Villain as intended. This has been explicitly stated by several people, including Black and the Wandering Bard.

              Cat too works against the grain, so she too is less powerful than she should be if she were a cackling madwoman. Where she has a lot of power to slug around with and probably fits the grooves better than Black, Creation likely screws her in other departments. Meanwhile most Villains probably don’t nearly have the kind of trouble she goes through, and perfect Villains like Tyrant could easily go toe to toe with a full and fully fletched band of Five still winning.

              -Most of the Heroes we’ve seen Cat go up against are the higher class ones. Just like how the Villains introduced here are more second-tier, many a Hero will be more one-note and weaker. We just don’t remember the Heroes that are easily beaten in one chapter as well, because they’ve only been around for one chapter before Cat moves on.

              -Evil can win. If Good goes about it wrong and doesn’t force one of their Stories by attrition, or if Evil is simply too powerful, then the whole ‘Good wins in the end’ is just a hopeful tune by the Heroes. If the Villain kills the Hero before a Story even forms, doesn’t let it all come down to a pivot point, or doesn’t want to play with their food, they can win. Again, we see this from the perspective of Cat who’s always defending and reactionary, never from the perspective of a real Villain. For all we know, even the lesser Villains like the Headhunter can get three heroic heads on their belt before the fourth gets a Story able to make that willpower attrition schtick work against someone that hunts and goes for the kill.

              Like

  10. Frivolous

    I found it interesting that the non-Woe villains all overlooked how dangerous Concocter was. Not one of them thought, as Cat did in the previous chapter, that Cocky is a poisoner and her poisons are instantly lethal.

    I suspect that, in the end, the villains will be more powerfully organized than the heroes. The heroes have to be virtuous and respect each other and individual liberty. The villains, on the other hand, might marshal together more ably simply because violence is a respectable option among them.

    For instance, Hanno couldn’t have forced his companions to behave during the hero meeting the way Cat did at this villain conclave. He had to use moral suasion, at least until the brawl broke out, and then he and the other heroes lost a lot of extra-group face and intra-group respect.

    The fact that there are many more heroes than villains is mostly due to Tariq and Laurence, right?

    I agree with Burlyraven that Ishaq is one of the more easily liked villains. He has ambition and a clear and non-self-destructive idea of how to achieve his goals.

    I’m guessing Cat’s “additional rules of engagement” probably involves agreeing not to destroy Cardinal’s facilities or buildings or attack anyone on its grounds.

    Liked by 10 people

    1. > I’m guessing Cat’s “additional rules of engagement” probably involves agreeing not to destroy Cardinal’s facilities or buildings or attack anyone on its grounds.

      Also something to the effect of “don’t make us look bad…” — that is, an all-purpose restraint on anything that would mess with Cardinal’s reputation.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Frivolous

        I wonder if Cat will make one of the rules, “No honor duels. Ever.”

        Ishaq might balk at that, but Cat has zero liking for that Levantine practice, and she might tell Ishaq that it’s one of the easiest ways for him to get himself killed, and she won’t bother to help someone who won’t agree not to avoid such a suicidal practice. It would make him a rotten investment of her time and energy.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Konstantin von Karstein

          Yeah, it would be « arrogant Villain challenge righteous Hero ». Even if it’s a non-combined Hero, if he manage to kill him another martial one will definitely avenge him

          Like

        2. The thing is,”no honor duels” is a tough sell exactly because honor duels are already serving to channel and limit fights that could easily involve whole families; that is, their purpose is to short-circuit vendettas.

          Like

  11. letouriste

    welp, it was fun.

    ” for the shape of the face paint told Ishaq they were a him, at the moment”

    interesting. so the headhunter could be collecting heads for changing his face?
    the “at the moment” tend to say it, right?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Shveiran

      It is certainly possible, though I read that as “the face paint carries gender-related implications. The Headhunter wears different face-painting depending on how he perceives himself in a given moment.”

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I would tend to agree with this line of thought.

        That is, I interpreted it as indicating that there are gender-identity-specific patterns and/or color combinations in the Levantine face painting practices.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. Shveiran

    You know what’s better than an Interlude where we get to see how a different character perceives Cat’s actions?

    An Interlude where we get to see how a shitton of characters perceive Cat’s actions and eachother.

    Heck, it was even conveniently broken up in multiple, small sections I could read as a brief interlude (pun inintended) between the various parts of a depressing day at work.

    A marvelous chapter, even more than usual.
    Thank you kindly.

    Liked by 7 people

  13. Frivolous

    It occurred to me just now that Cat has a trove of knowledge on how the most notable living heroes think and operate.

    Most people, maybe not even most heroes, don’t have a clue as to the Grey Pilgrim’s aspects, or how much information Behold and the Ophanim give him. But Cat does. She even knows how to block it, or at least, she can probably broker a deal between a villain and Sve Noc for that gift.

    Most people don’t know how Hanno of Arwad thinks. But Cat does.

    Cat is also the only living villain the Choirs tread warily around. She is the only living villain to outwit and thwart angels.

    Cat has basically an expertise when it comes to heroes and heroism, and also angels and their powers, and she has demonstrated she can defeat them all. This would be is a priceless survival tool for the villains after the war. And Cat will only teach those villains that she likes and trusts.

    Cat can thus mold villainous behavior by offering to them yet another carrot: the carrot of information and influence over the greatest threats to their survival.

    Liked by 9 people

  14. KageLupus

    “The Concocter would have opened a newborn for what was being offered, what were a few damned rules to her?”
    Rule number 1: Don’t do that thing you just said

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Black Spiral Dancer

      Haven’t see the link for a while… always forgot to vote. Thanks for the reminder, specially after a TASTY chapter like this. Although I’m not sure if the listing provides monetary benefits for our author or just bragging rights.

      Either, she got my vote, as always.

      Like

  15. Daniel E

    This chapter is officially tied for my favorite of the entire series. Reading about the continuous shenanigans of everybody’s favorite Dread Emperor just makes it all the better.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Frivolous

    Some more notes:

    I believe the constant mentions of Berserker’s spasming is meant to allude to Cuchulainn’s warp spasm.

    I am skeptical and surprised that Summoner thinks that he’s entitled to anything from Catherine because his father was a Callowan lord. Doesn’t he talk to anyone else from Callow? Cat’s famous, and surely most people by this time know that she’s anti-aristocrat. How can a Callowan not know this?

    Concocter talks about being shut out of the Arsenal. It brings to mind a question: If the alliance wins the war vs Keter, what happens to the Arsenal? Who gets it, who gets to keep using it?

    Given Cat’s tendency to make plans well in advance of needing them, and given that Masego was one of the primary people who made the Arsenal, I suspect that the Woe has a way of shutting everyone else out of the Arsenal, if there was need. I suspect that Cat would never allow the heroes or Procer or anyone else to take over the Arsenal. Cat thinks like a soldier, Masego is more brilliant than anyone else, and it’s too powerful and useful a stronghold.

    For all we know, Cat has a way to instantaneously evict everyone else from the Arsenal at a moment’s notice.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Frivolous

        First, I guess it depends on how politically powerful Catherine sees herself in the Age of Order.

        Concocter thinks the heroes and the nobles and the Good nations will hunt the villains. Will Cat be one of those hunted? Cat already knows Rozala said that most heroes think she won’t survive the war. If she survives, the heroes might think to rectify that.

        I believe Cat has planned for most obvious contingencies, including that the Good will try to drive the Evil out of the Arsenal. Having a button that will kill or evict everyone else from the Arsenal in case of treachery seems like a really obvious contingency.

        Cat has to know that Procer and Cordelia won’t remain very grateful once the Dead King no longer poses a threat. She remembers being threatened by Procer and Levant. She’s the Arch-heretic of the East. The Liesse Accords won’t prevent heroes from dueling her, or heroes or nobles using political or legal maneuvers to limit or weaken her.

        I don’t believe she has any trust at all in the honor of others outside the Woe.

        Second, I don’t believe the Arsenal can be absorbed per se. It’s not even in Creation. How do you absorb a place that is so difficult to get to?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Break the existing entrances and put a new one where Cardinal gets built.
          Also, I was speaking in more of a figurative sense than a literal one. The Arsenal and its assets are almost certainly going to belong to Cardinal, once Cardinal is founded.

          That said, while Proceran gratitude is notoriously shortlived, I expect that it will last more than long enough for the negotiation and establishment of the Accords and Cardinal, as long as Cordelia or someone similarly minded is in charge.
          Also, Procer literally won’t be able to afford anything other than rebuilding and recovery efforts for years.

          And while some of the Heroes (especially if Mirror Knight survives and Tariq doesn’t successfully reform him) might want to go after Cat after the war, I think more of them are going to buy into the Accords, Cardinal, and letting Cat contain the Villains in the Accords and Praes.

          Also, there’s the Drow to consider, most of whom would likely consider it a signal honor to hunt down and kill anyone going after the First Under the Night. And free entertainment. And free powerups.

          Plus, the Dominion, judging by Yannu, is not going to approve of going after Cat, Callow, or many of the Villains who have signed on, until/unless they do something specific to warrant it after the War.

          Most of the Heroes will probably accept the Accords, however grudgingly, and Cardinal because it puts fewer explicit limitations on Heroes than on Villains and the Villains that don’t abide by the limitations are not protected, and nobody wants around.
          Especially if the theory about the consequences of successful suppression of Villains by Tariq and the Saint of Swords for decades gets shared. If it’s impossible to eradicate Villains on a lasting or prolonged basis without a major backlash, it’s a helluva lot better for everyone if the Villains that exist are not the mass casualty lunatics and instead are more restrained.

          Point is, Cat is planning both for the war effort and for the post-war reshaping. And as much as possible, activities to support the war effort are also designed either to directly or indirectly support or lay groundwork for the Accords, Cardinal, and the post-war era.
          She also has at least some buy in in this effort by Cordelia, the Dominion, and several major Heroes.

          Liked by 3 people

          1. Frivolous

            We don’t know what the Accords say about property. Cat seemed most concerned about issues like weapons of mass destruction and angels and demons, not theft via declarations.

            Procer being poor in the post-war era only increases the chances that Cordelia will attempt to seize, whether by force or by lawsuits, the assets at the Arsenal, because those can be sold for coin.

            Like

            1. Cordelia isn’t that stupid. Or ungrateful. Or suicidal.
              She knows full well that seizing the Arsenal and/or its assets for Procer would backfire horribly and end in a lot of bloodshed.

              I’m certain that the Arsenal and its assets will belong to Cardinal, and I’m confident that there’s an agreement to that effect, however unofficial it may be at this point, given that it is somewhat premature to be officially negotiating the Accords.
              Worst case scenario is that there’s an agreement that any Arsenal assets get returned to their prior possessor after the War, pending negotiations for their contribution to Cardinal.
              More likely, everything stays in the Arsenal until negotiations are finished and everything gets turned over to Cardinal.

              Liked by 4 people

        2. Konstantin von Karstein

          Cordelia will definitely remain grateful, she’s trying to stop that habit the Principate has to backstab their allies. And Rozala swore her entire line to prevent Proceran treason.

          Anyway, Procer will be in no shape to attack anyone for a long time after the war. Or at least not without being spanked hard.

          Liked by 3 people

          1. Frivolous

            Konstantin, could you pls remind me again where Rozala swore that? I vaguely remember her doing so but no exactly when.

            I really hope Javvies is correct about Cordelia being worthy of trust, and that her love of Duty won’t make her rethink her priorities when Keter isn’t huffing and puffing to blow her house down anymore.

            Liked by 2 people

            1. Rozala’s Oath was made after the Prince’s Graveyard. After Cat and company returned from the creation of Twilight.

              As for Cordelia and duty … she sees part of her duty as rehabilitating Procer’s reputation. Part of that involves putting an end to the Proceran habit of backstabbing people and betraying its agreements made with other countries.

              Remember, Cordelia is Lycaonese first. The Lycaonese Principalities are also known as the Proceran Callow.
              The Lycaonese have traditionally stayed out of Proceran politics, imperialism, and adventurism abroad. They are culturally focused on defending the against the Chain of Hunger on one border and the Dead King on the second, while keeping a cautious eye on the rest of the Proceran Principalities, specifically and especially their immediate neighbors, to watch against being stabbed in the back.
              Cordelia’s upbringing ensures that her priority is to maintain the defenses of Procer, and one of those defenses is not being viewed as an enemy by as much of the rest of Calernia as possible.
              Betraying the rest of the Grand Alliance for the sake of seizing the Arsenal and its assets would be far more trouble than it is worth.
              Sure, a lot of the materials are rare and expensive … but there probably aren’t that many places they could actually be sold. And there are only so many possible buyers … most of whom would either be not a good idea to sell magical texts and supplies to (the Praesi) or members of the Grand Alliance/Truce and Terms/Accords.
              Plus, most of the Named inside the Arsenal? They would not accept Procer taking over. Actually, I don’t think any of them would, even the Proceran-origin Heroes. Okay, maybe one or two of the Proceran Heroes assigned to the Arsenal wouldn’t fight it much, but they wouldn’t be helping a Proceran takeover either.

              One of the reasons Cordelia is not happy with Mirror Knight or his girlfriend’s family? It wasn’t just that they were planning to depose her as First Prince of Procer, though that would be plenty on its own. It was also that they were planning on betraying the agreement made with Cat and the Drow about Drow settling in the lands north.
              Cordelia knows how Yannu reacted when he found out about the plot, and the rest of the Dominion, at least most of the rest of the Dominion and the Blood, would react similarly to such behaviour. Actually seizing the Arsenal would be even worse than just plotting (but not carrying out) a betrayal of a third party – after all, part of the Arsenal’s assets come from the Dominion.
              In addition, Cordelia knows that Sve Noc knew and informed Cat about the plot to betray the Drow. Cordelia would have to assume that the Sisterd would know and inform Cat about any plot to seize the Arsenal, unless perhaps Bard was running interference for it.
              Cat is reasonable, yes, but she also has an earned reputation for ruthlessness and brutality as a Villain – betraying Cat is not something that Cordelia could possibly conceive of as ending well.

              No, there’s no real upside and massive amounts of negatives, involved in Procer seizing the Arsenal to try to cover its debts after the war. Cordelia isn’t foolish enough to try something like that, though I will grant that the dumbasses who were plotting to depose her and betray the Drow might also have tried to lay claim to the Arsenal while they were at it.

              The Mirror Knight might be dumb enough to try to claim the Arsenal for Procer as well, but he’d get no help from any other Heroes, and there’d be no way for Hanno to avoid needing to execute him, assuming there was anything left to be executed. And Mirror Knight would have no sanction or political cover either.

              Liked by 1 person

  17. Ben Serreau-Raskin

    Rereading this chapter today it strikes me as ironic, considering how last chapter Cat was specifically thinking she wasn’t going to follow Akua’s advice in setting herself up as Queen of the Damned.

    Obviously she wants her ‘hall’ and it’s effects to be a long term thing, to give villains an additional incentive to keep to the Accords, but also as long as she lives to manage this hall she’s set herself up as arbiter for their affairs, which is basically Queen of the Damned with a different coat of paint.

    In the end, Cat’s story is that she ends up in charge and her followers benefit. No changes here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sinead

      What I am wondering is if this Hall will see The Crows grow in influence outside the Drow. It would be interesting if First Under Night ends up becoming the figurehead of the Below’s Coalition. How different is Cat’s plan for the Villains any different to her work with the Drow (turning “the worthy take, the worthy rise” into something actually stable)

      Liked by 4 people

    2. nightedge

      In many ways it a blessing if she gets a Villianous Name, given that she’ll then be immortal. That is if she isn’t already. Means that unless she’s killed or fucks off, the threat of her reprisal to a slight will always be good.

      Though this does of course run counter to her intentions, I find it difficult to believe given the story that she’ll accomplish her every goal in the end.

      Like

  18. mamm0nn

    During the second heroic gathering:
    Tariq: I’ve just seen the discrepancy between Heroes and Villains in the Accords realised that once this war is over, we’ll have several packs of well-acquainted Heroes hunting lone Villains.

    Now I wish I wouldn’t have to but know I need to tell you all this; that’s a terrifying prospect and it will be very bad if this comes to pass. We currently hang on a thin balance between Good and Evil where we can stop the Villains and preserve the peace and status quo, with things stacked in our favour to win most of the time. Providence and winning the third act are on our side.

    But when we Heroes have such a massive advantage over the Villains for a generation, it will leave grooves that shall screw us over for centuries.

    The tale of the lone Villain hunted down by a band of Five without sufficient provocation slaying them all. Of Heroes unrelated to the story being told getting slaughtered without a hint of Providence protecting them. Of the Heroes with society and numbers on their side making Villains the underdog requiring the Heroes to truly have superior strength, wits and cunning to prevail instead of just willpower. That is what I see over the horizon.

    This one generation of bullying Villains shall see the scales bend to our side too much and Below rectify it with a Long Price. For that is how the game between Above and Below is played, and if we do not prevent it Below shall see the Story turn a hint further in their favour.

    Like

    1. A villain is traditionally opposed by a band of five, so a 2-to-1 ratio of heroes to villains is actually better than historical levels. Which makes sense, since villains are currently enjoying an unprecedented amount of legal protection.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Frivolous

    ErraticErrata – I noticed just now that there is a discrepancy in the name of the Harrowed Witch’s brother.

    Here, in Reprobates, he is named Julien. In Spectral, he is referred to as Timothee.

    Hope this helps you avoid further continuity errors.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Hakram’s Dead Hand

    Haha, yes! I just wanted to heap onto the pile saying that I love seeing Cat be badass from others perspective. It’s so cool to see the power that we’ve seen her work for flexed on the other characters of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

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