Five Stories

“Fate is as a towering tree: we see only the branches and the leaves, never guessing at the roots that tangle us all together.”

Eudokia the Oft-Abducted, Basilea of Nicae

There is a tale, in Levante, about vengeance.

Once, long ago, an aging lord with three daughters ruled over a castle. This lord was a kind man, a just man, but also a weak man. And so when a cruel warrior grew hungry for his lands, the kind lord was slain by the warband and his castle taken as a prize. The three daughters were made into servants, and treated little better than slaves.

The eldest daughter was brave, and so one day she took up the sword and claimed the right of duel in honour. Bravely she died, for the warrior was cruel but he was a killer without peer. The second daughter was clever, and so one night she tipped poison into the warrior’s wine. Cleverly she died, for the poison was not swifter than the healer and the warrior knew no mercy.

The youngest daughter was patient. She swore to the warrior she would never seek to take his life, and to prove this she took up neither iron nor the pouring of wine. She became instead a painter of hues and her skill was great, so she was praised and forgiven the trespasses of her kin. And patiently, every day, she painted a hidden knife within the work she gave the warrior.

And so the warrior grew wary, for from the corner of his eye everywhere he saw knives. Then he grew fearful, for the longer he sat on the lord’s seat he had taken in blood the more knives were pointed at him. The warrior grew irate and capricious, his warband grew unruly for the mistreatment. Until one day the knives were not painted, for the warband rebelled and slew the warrior.

The youngest daughter stole his corpse, as the warriors fought for the lord’s seat, and took him not to a barrow. Instead she painted a red knife across his throat, and left him for the wild dogs to tear at.

This was a well-known tale, fondly told by mothers to their daughters when blood grew heated and patience called for. It was not a grand tale, no Anthem of Smoke or Odes of Honour, but it was known. And so when Kallia of Levante burned her father’s corpse and stirred the ashes into paint, when she traced a red knife on the door of the cruel Lady Abril, her declaration of war was heard across the entire city.

Helike was a city like a spinning coin, Rhodon had been taught as a child.

Every time a Theodosian came to rule, the Gods gave that coin a toss. Sometimes it led to a good king, a powerful king, and Helike thrived. Sometimes it led to a bad king, a weak king, and Helike was buried by its rivals. But sometimes, oh so rarely, the coin landed on the side and the whole of Calernia shivered as it whispered the word tyrant. It was all very poetic, Rhodon thought now that he was a man, but these days he was rather inclined to believe the Gods didn’t even bother with a toss.

Mediocrity was the stuff of men, not divinely ordained. And such mediocrity did he behold! Rhodon Kabasilas was a young man of ancient lineage, a lord in his own right and descended from Theodosius the Unconquered’s favourite mage, so his skill with sorcery had ensured he would have a prominent place at the court of King Peithon Theodosian. Old Peithon then started a war with Atalante, kept it going long enough to lose a major battle to their mercenaries and then inconveniently choked on a mouthful of olives.

Half the palace screamed of assassination, the other half began plotting a coup. When Rhodon was asked to examine the corpse the dead king’s brother, Lord Timaios, heard his verdict that this had been a genuine accident and smiled before suggesting he reconsider. Perhaps it had been poison, Lord Timaios suggested. Perhaps the evidence even pointed to the king’s young son and heir, Prince Amyntas.

Rhodon was interested in keeping his throat from being slit, so he politely agreed, but he discreetly sent warning to the young prince to hedge his bets. He decided he’d made the right choice when Amyntas escaped the city – helped, it was said, by a stranger in grey – and began gathering an army in the country. Lord Timaios fatally blundered when he struck a very unpopular peace deal with Atalante, ceding farmlands, and within the year Timaios was dead and Amyntas on the throne.

King Amyntas’ very second act when he took the crown, just after offering amnesty to a few powerful nobles, was naming the loyal sorcerer who’d saved his life to the highest mage title of the court.

And just like that, Rhodon Kabalisas became the Royal Conjurer.

Alain considered his father to be an inspiration.

Magistrate Thibault Monduc was known as a fair and learned man, and this had been known far as far as the capital: Prince Amadis of Iserre had called Alain’s father there, so that he might surrender his elected charge and instead become a royal magistrate of the Prince of Iserre. It was a great honour, Alain’s father told his family, and they must live up to it in all things. They might be highborn but they held no lands and little wealth, and so their armour must be strict adherence to the law.

And so Alain set out to live up to his father’s words. He took to his lessons with discipline, never lied nor cheated nor disgraced himself in any way, and he revelled in the pride he found on his father’s face when he announced he wanted to be a magistrate as well. His father asked a favour, and Alain went to study under another magistrate as a scribe and attendant. Royal Magistrate Cristina was cold, but she was also experienced and willing to teach. He thrived as one of her attendants, and left her service with a commendation.

Not yet a man, Alain Monduc found that his family had fared very well in his absence. They now lived in a manse in a better part of the capital, and both his sisters were in talks for very advantageous marriages with young men of noble blood. His mother told him his father had bought into a fresh trading company, and struck gold. His sisters told him that their father had made friends at court who’d tipped him off to opportunities. His father chided him for speaking of coin, for it was crass trader talk, before simply saying he had made lucky investments.

And all the while, the lessons Alain had learned under Royal Magistrate Crisitina ticked in the back of his head.

The investigation itself was hardly difficult. The trading company existed, but traded no goods, and the other owners were all nobles and men with commands in the city guard. It was a smuggling ring, and his break-in into the warehouse revealed to Alain that the goods were largely Taghreb silverwork – illegal, the Dread Empire had been under embargo for over a century – and Ashuran spices. The spices were heavily taxed, so that would be the lucrative part.

The jewelry would be the difficult part, as there was precedent for the breaking of an embargo decreed by the Highest Assembly to be taken as treason. He wrestled with the decision for days. His father’s guild was not in doubt, but he could truly condemn the man to certain disgrace and possible death? And yet Alain knew he must:  adherence to the law was not negotiable. This was wrong.

His father hanged, four courtiers were whipped out of the city and an alleged member of the Eyes of the Empire was caught. Alain Monduc was made a royal magistrate for his honesty, hollow as the title and praise felt. Our most relentless magistrate, Prince Amadis had apparently named him in court. It was an honour but also fetters, but he would not be the second Monduc to disgrace the name in this lifetime.

Alain still considered his father to be an inspiration, in a way.

Angelique hadn’t meant to end up a poisoner.

It had been a very measured act, in her opinion. That little prick Henri was humiliating her brother – his lawful husband! – by running around with other men, getting drunk and fucking them in taverns like he was some sort of lord whose name would make him beyond reproach. Henri’s family was very rich, it was true, and Angelique’s had been bakers for as long as the family tree went back. Perhaps he’d thought he would get away with it.

So Angelique, chubby little Angelique with her rosy cheeks, who everyone always talked down to because she was a plump baker with a cutesy name – and didn’t that mean she was a sugary idiot who could do no harm? – had slipped a few coppers to a man in the right tavern and arranged for a little something to be added to Henri’s wine. He’d get a scare, learn no to go tramping around when he had a perfectly lovely husband waiting at home, and it would all be settled instead.

Henri got dead instead, which to Angelique’s surprise turned out rather well for everyone else.

Her brother Jacques inherited Henri’s wealth, the tavern was closed down after being accused of having had diseased wooden barrels and no one ever suspected a thing. Well, save the man she’d paid to slip a little arsenic in the ale and who had very clearly put the whole vial in there instead of the mere drops she’d told him to use. He tried to blackmail her, to get at Jacques’ newfound wealth, so Angelique appeased him with baked goods fresh from the oven and told him she’d speak with her brother.

The idiot ate two pastries full of nightshade before even leaving the shop, which left with Angelique with no loose ends save a fresh body to get rid of. Still, even as she debated the respective virtues of using the oven or dragging the corpse to Old Julie’s pig pen after dark, it occurred to her that there might just be a great deal of coin to be had in being a poisoner.

More than in baking, anyway, so why not?

Teresa became a veteran when she was thirteen.

The Princess of Segovia had, in her deep wisdom, realized that the towns and cities in the plains of Laranta should be paying taxes to her and sending the silver of the mines to her coffers. Alas the Prince of Orense has failed to share this opinion, and so a polite disagreement involving armies had ensued. Teresa herself was from Salamans and so cared not a white for the squabble, but she did care about not being married off to the farrier’s only son.

So she’d signed on with the Ten Thousand Blades and developed a burning enthusiasm for the cause of Princess Luisa of Segovia, Gods preserve her. The ambitiously named ‘Ten Thousand Blades’ had numbered three hundred fantassins when she signed on, but after participating in a battle in southern Laranta they were forty-four. Captain Leonte had been dismissive of pikes, much as the cavalry of the Prince of Orense had been dismissive of the notion of not trampling Captain Leonte. Teresa made a kill, took a wound and played dead for the rest of the battle.

She rose a decently wealthy woman, as Princess Luisa gallantly paid wages even after the disastrous defeat, and after taking her cut promptly moved on to a company slightly less likely to get her killed. The Iron Brotherhood had a good reputation, and a good captain: she served a full two years there. Officer’s rank was kept within a circle of Cantal families, though, so she signed on with the Glorious Lions and was a serjeant when the company disbanded a year later after the captain bought a noble husband and retired.

 She made lieutenant under the Grey Banners, deserting when the Prince of Tenerife refused to pay and the captains decided to turn bandit, and served two years as Captain Julie’s second in the Folies Rouges. Things were looking up, she decided. Teresa then went bankrupt after founding her own company, the Salamanders, and immediately getting stiffed by Atalante – the priests had made sudden peace with Helike, and were not inclined to pay for mercenaries they wouldn’t be using no matter what the contracts said.

She had to spend a year under a merchant lord in Mercantis training city guards until she was able to gut the bastard, rob his vault and blame it on one of his rivals. When Teresa returned to Procer, now twenty-two, she realized that most of the fantassins she’d come up with were dead or retired.

Youngbloods were now looking at her the same way she’d looked at grizzled fantassins, once upon a time.

First, Kallia came for them.

The guards wouldn’t help, and the Old Palace didn’t care. Lady Jibril was of the Blood, however meagre the line and its deeds. But Kallia was her father’s daughter, quick and sure-footed and very good with a knife – it had taken four men to kill him, she remembered with hard pride, and one of them had still died – so she sought vengeance through the deeds of her own hand. She was told names, for in Levant the avenging of one’s blood was a sacred thing, and she went on the hunt.

The first one was a boaster and a drinker, so he was easy to find leaving a tavern. And still she almost died. Kallia had never taken a life before, and found that her hand hesitated when the moment came. A scar on her side taught her never to repeat that mistake. The second she slew coming back from a brothel, smoothly and from behind. By the third she had grown bold enough to slice open his stomach in a crowded marketplace, feigning an embrace as she silenced him.

Each time she traced a red knife, a painted knife. There were some who might have ended the vengeance here, who would have counted it even with the death of her father’s killers, but not she. The lips that had spoken the order still drew breath, and there would be no peace until Lady Jibril of the Slinger’s Blood lay dead. But Kallia had forgot the lessons of her story. She had been brave and clever, like the sisters told. But it was not enough, she learned when she returned to see her home burning.

Second, they came for Kallia.

As the years passed, Rhodon found that he was not a patriot.

Not in the sense that orators used, those brave lads and lasses read to sacrifice life and fortune for the sake of Helike. Yet he’d been named the Royal Conjurer of a young king’s court, and King Amyntas did have ambitions the mage respected. More importantly the young man had a practical bent, enough to know that if he was to ever curb the nobles he would need to marry into a strong alliance. The king’s marriage to Lady Roxana was unhappy, and did not yield a child for years, but it did yield coin and steel.

Rhodon leant his skills to the cause of reform, weaving sorceries to spies on Amyntas’ enemies and crush the spellcraft of their pet sorcerers. The king found victories at court, and his Royal Conjurer the same in the halls behind those of power: where men like him plied their dark tricks, and the battles were of subtler cast. His reputation rose and he found magic came… easier. Especially when in service of the king. So when Amyntas first asked him to make a bastard child of his disappear, Rhodon did.

Lady Roxana had not yet given birth to a child, and Helike’s successions tended to the bloody even when there were no such complications. It all went wrong: a rebellious noble found the boy and had him seized, so Amyntas was unable to simply put him on a boat to Ashur to be forgotten abroad. It got messy, and the Royal Conjurer unleashed his power without a thought to finesse – seventeen died, and the boy himself took a curse meant for another. He died on the way to the palace.

“You did what you had to, Rhodon,” King Amyntas murmured into his ear. “Your loyalty to Helike is beyond question.”

No, the Royal Conjurer was not a patriot. What was there to love? Under the gilding everything in Helike was rotten, not the least himself.

Relentless, they called Alain.

Some meant it as a compliment, others as an insult. None denied the truth of it, not even Royal Magistrate Alain Monduc. He must be relentless, tireless, or else what had he sent his own father to the noose for? He’d killed the man for the principles the same man had instilled in him, and it would kill him in an entirely different way if he now failed to lived up to them. Alain had caught Prince Amadis’ eye, with that act, and now the Prince of Iserre considered him a curiosity of sorts.

One he meant to make use of, however, and this Alain embraced. In his first month he unearthed a ring of servant-burglars who’d been robbing the nobility for years, and discreetly enough few had even noticed. At the border with Cantal he caught fantassins under a false flag, pretending to be bandits, and even seized one of them to bring back to the court. He hunted deserters and thieves, killers and spies, and always he brought them to stand before the law. Every single time.

His fellow magistrates called him mad for the risks he took, the hours he kept, but they did not understand that if Alain failed in this then he was already dead. So when murders began to crop up around the capital, it was only natural for the prince’s favourite hound to be called in. Yet this one was different, Alain realized. The killer slew for pleasure, and did it through impossible means: it was as if they could walk unseen and swift as the wind, as if they could bend steel with their strength.

And the killer knew of him, relentless Alain Monduc learned, when the first victim was dropped on his doorstep.

As it turned out, Angelique was very good at murder.

It was trifling easy to use her savings to buy a wagon, especially now that her brother had recently come into money, and she was hardly unusual in deciding to take to the road as a baker. It was a trade that saw her travel between cities quite a bit and meet all sorts of people, which in turn allowed her to find individuals whose life would be distinctly improved by a spot of murder. Assassin was a bit of a misnomer, really, as she preferred to use intermediaries or simply provide the means to the more entire enterprising sort. Still, it could not be denied she as very much a poisoner.

A rich poisoner, however, and one with many grateful patrons. In certain circles her reputation grew, and she began outright buying shops in certain cities as the means of her patrons – some of which now sought her out themselves! – grew along the reputation. She’d yet to kill royalty, though several people had approached her over the life of the First Prince, but she suspected it was only a matter of time.

Angelique studied the art and found she had knack for making her own poisons, even those written of on no pages. She was… unnaturally good at it, really. It was as if there was something guiding her hand, and it was the same when she was attempting to find servants and kinsmen who would turn on a target. Her instincts had always been good, and her demeanour did not invite suspicion, but these days success came easy.

Which is why it was a particularly unpleasant surprise, when one evening she found a kindly stranger awaiting her in her shop. An old man in faded grey robes, with soft words and smiles but eyes like death.

“You are nearing a crossroads, dear girl,” he said. “Consider retirement, before someone less restrained takes notice.”

It was not a suggestion, though he was polite enough to pretend otherwise.

The Great War did not come unbidden.

All the fancy scholars said it did, but Teresa knew otherwise as did many fantassins – though few as grizzled as her. The wars came easier than they had when she’d been girl, the princes were growing restless. Some talked of striking out east, against Helike’s young king, but the First Prince would not hear of wars against the League. So instead the princes fought with words in the Assembly, and with companies on the field.

Iserre fought Cantal for rule of a river too shallow to bear fish. Aisne and Bayeux had three wars in nine months, each ending in brotherly peace. Brus, Lyonis and Lange tussled over a single silver mine. Teresa lost friends in each of those pissant wars, to nothing causes for feckless crowns, but was this not the trade? She marched under one banner after another across the span of Procer, learning all that there was to learn about dying.

Blood was in the air, Teresa could smell it.  Even away from battle, passing through towns and wheat fields. The princes had grown hungry for more than the thin strictures of just war could give them. The aging fantassin was not surprised when the First Prince’s sudden death was like a struck match, armies sprouting across the land like green shots after rain. This war would not be like the others, she could feel it in her bones.

She warned the others, but when had youngbloods ever listened to a grizzled old fool like her?

They took her, falling on her as she watched her home burn with the last of her family, and then Kallia knew only darkness. She woke in a dank and silent place, behind an iron-banded door. Once a day a pair of warriors came in and hurt her. She was not bound, and so she fought, but she was only healed enough not to die between the fights. After the pain, when she could no longer move, Lady Jibril always came to visit.

“Ask me to die,” the cruel woman always demanded.

And instead Kallia traced her face with red, with her own blood.

“One day the painted knife will bite,” she always replied, fingers coming away still-

-red, Gods there was so much blood on Rhodon’s hands it was never going to wash off.

His king had finally fathered a son on his wife, a boy named Nicanor, but his reforms were stalling and so he turned to his Royal Conjurer to grease the wheels with red. Rhodon strangled with shadows and drove men mad with devil-dreams, but it was not enough. King Amyntas’ fires weakened with every setback, until he was but a spent shadow of himself. He took to drinking dallying with dancing girls, sinking into pleasures.

When Lady Roxana tried to kill her husband and seize the throne for Nicanor, it was Rhodon who caught it. At the last moment, and the knife was already in her hand so there was no time for delicacy. Fire and air in a tight orb caught her shoulder and Lady Roxana’s torso burst like an overripe peach. Amyntas wept into his arms, the both of them covered in red and flesh.

“You are the only man I can trust,” the king bawled. “That I will always trust.”

The man that had once been Rhodon Kabalisas was dead, he thought as he patted the other monster’s back. There was only the Royal Conjurer left.

The office left room for –

– nothing else. Nothing else could claim even a sliver of Alain’s attention as the royal magistrate hunted the killer that was taunting him. He burned bridges at court when he force a search of nobles’ quarters but got only a cooling corpse for it, the ambush he tried by the river got a dozen of the prince’s men killed and all he learned was that he was facing one of the Damned. It was not enough. Noises were being made about taking him off this hunt at the court, now, so his hand was forced.

Alain took risks. He arrested a smuggler, claimed him to be the killer, and stashed him away in a cell in a guardhouse. And then he waited for the real monster to come, the Cutthroat he’d been hunting all this time. But the killer had been hunting him just as relentlessly all this time, he had not grasped. It was not for the bait the Damned came, but for him. The window opened without a sound, and all he caught was a glint of –

– steel. Teresa caught the glint of steel in the noonday sun as the great armies moved into place like lumbering beasts. On the plains of Brabant proud princes and princesses had gathered to pressed claims to the greatest throne of Calernia, a most deadly affair. Teresa was a lieutenant for the Belles Lucioles now, in the service of Prince Etienne of Brabant, but she frowned as she realized the glinting of steel came from the wrong way.

There were horsemen coming towards the company, and so she roused the men to raise theirs spears and stand in ranks instead of mill about, but not enough listened. It was the pennants of allies that were seen in the wind, even if the horsemen were riding hard. When the riding did not slow, panic came, but by then it was too late. The battle would be called the Waltz of Fools, Teresa did not yet know, for this had been incompetence and not treachery.

Yet as the grizzled fantassin watched splendidly-clad horsemen break through an uneven row of spears, she could not help but ask herself why she was-

-still doing this. Angelique asked herself the question again, even as she considered how the poison might best be administered. Why was she still doing this? She was already wealthier than she’d ever dreamed she would be, connected to some very powerful individuals and courted by a great many pretty men. Interested more in her coin than her smile, perhaps, but it was still a pleasant diversion. It was a good life, a comfortably life.

So why was she risking it all by taking this contract by a mere country lord’s second son, a nobody trying to claim his sister’s inheritance by a drop of poison? Yet she’d not been able to refuse, even deathly afraid as she was of the old man with the blue eyes who’d smiled and warned her off the trade. It was not for profit, she was being forced to face that. Neither was it of a taste for killing, for the murder was largely a matter of indifference to her.

Angelique looked at her own face in the mirror. Red and plump cheeks, watery eyes. Titters came easy to her, and always would. There was nothing of herself she disliked, she’d admit to herself. But how it made people react to her… the dismissals, the condescension, the patronizing tones. These she could not stand.

“I am a poisoner,” Angelique tried out, meeting the eyes of her reflection. “I am a poisoner, and I will not stop because I am-“

“-good at it,” the Cutthroat smilingly said. “Do I need a deeper justification than this, my good magistrate?”

Alain struggled against the woman, the Damned, but her grip was unnaturally strong. Slowly the knife in her hand was coming close to his throat, but they both knew she was taking her time. Gloating, savouring his impotence and fear.

“You won’t win,” Alain hissed. “Even if I die. All you are is a child flailing in the dark. I am a royal magistrate of Procer, there are a hundreds who can take my place. Continue the work. You do not fight a man, you fight the law. And the law does not relent.”

The blade pricked his skin, drawing a bead of blood as his teeth clenched in pain, and the Damned chuckled.

“There,” she said. “For all your talk, so very-“

– mortal,” Lady Jibril mocked. “Day after day you swear vengeance on me, and nothing happens. Do you not worry that I will lose patience, Kallia? That I will simply kill you?”

Kallia laughed in the other woman’s face. All these days here in the dark, tasting pain and left alone with her thoughts, but she had not gone mad yet. Because there was a sister left, in the story. Because sometimes patience bore fruit, because sometimes the Ashen Gods answered. And these days, when she dreamt down here, she dreamt of a painted knife and the way she held it.

“Then I will win,” Kallia said, and believed every word of it.

Lady Jibril frowned.

“Mad, then,” she said. “That is disappointing, but the Peregrine has returned to Levant so we must cut this short. I’ll not risk his attention for a diversion.”

Kallia’s enemy came forward, a curved knife in hand, intent on death. She could feel it in the air. Her limbs were broken, her breath weak, so she did not resist when Lady Jibril dragged her up to sit against the wall and set the knife against her throat. Kallia rasped out a wet laugh.

“There is a tale, in Levante, about vengeance,” she whispered.

“Mad,” Lady Jibril repeated with a sigh, and slit her throat.

And yet it was Jibril who bled, a line drawn in red across her throat by the Painted Knife.

Sometimes the Heavens-

– smiled on you, Teresa thought as she woke up. Why else would she still be alive? Her company lay around her as a carpet of corpses, swept through by a friendly cavalry charge and then by a brutal and chaotic melee where friend and foe had been indistinguishable. Half a day thebutchery had lasted, until soldiers collapsed in exhaustion, and now the crows picked at them all. Teresa, her leg broken, crawled around a dying horse and gasped as she looked up at the sky.

Eventually, she bound her leg and dragged herself up with a hoarse scream. Still alive. She’d lost her sword so she took another from a corpse, and stole boots to replace her own slashed-up ones. Teresa breathed out, and grasped that she was perhaps the only living person for a mile. There was fighting in the distance, but her entire company lay dead around her. And she saw, in that moment, the future that lay ahead of her through this great war and those beyond.

She would survive, again and again and again. Teresa would survive until she the only old hand left in this fucking trade, and she was not simply a grizzled fantassin but the grizzled fantassin. And when the thought came to her, she knew it to be true in a way beyond her understanding. Shivering, exhausted, the Grizzled Fantassin began limping towards the nearest town.

The business wasn’t over yet, and she was still under-

– contract. It was regrettable that Angelique would have to leave town and break it, but she’d heard rumours of an old woman with a sword having come from the country and begun asking questions about a poisoner. An old woman who’d casually snapped the arm of a guard, when he’d tried to force her out of town for having come in without paying at the gates. That was not the kind of enemy Angelique fancied confronting, so flight would serve.

And yet, even as she planned her escape, the poisoner found she felt… excited. Alive. It might be that the authorities would hunt her and the Chosen with them, but even if she feared this it also pleased her. It was like discarding a mask and finally revealing her face to the world. She’d held back for so long, hadn’t she? Clutched wealth and comfort at the expense of what she truly desired, who she truly was.

Angelique’s blood stirred more at the thought of finally attempting to poison First Prince Cordelia than it did at the thought of buying a another shop, so why had she so long clung to the latter at the expense of the former? No, she was not a baker or a trader or a socialite.

She was a Poisoner, and when she finally admitted it to herself the world shivered to the sound of her damnation.

What a relief, to look the truth of what she was-

– in the eye. Rhodon found that admitting he was a monster had made him a worse man, but one more at peace with himself. And that peace seeped into every part of him, even as with an indifferent eye he watched Helike decay. The king’s son Nicanor eventually fathered a son of his own, another boy named Dorian, but Prince Nicanor was as fond of revels as his neglectful father and snapped his neck in a drunken accident.

King Amyntas’s grief startled some vigor back into him for a few years, until he fell in love with a dancing girl by the name of Thais and got it into his head to marry her after having gotten her pregnant. She died giving birth to some misshapen little creature the king was too disgusted to name – Rhodon stepped in, whispering Kairos to the scribes – and Amyntas promptly sunk back into his old vices with a vengeance.

By then, Rhodon had been the Royal Conjurer for decades. He’d been a staple of the court for so long it did not remember the times before him, and that had… weight. The mage was not unschooled in such matters, and so he realized the pull when it came. Becoming Named, he found, was not some grand turn of fate. He’d simply settled in the groove, slowly but surely, over decades of being who he was. One day, when he thought of himself as the Royal Conjurer, the world simply thought it with him.

Sometimes that was all-

– it took. Keep faith with the world, and the world kept faith with you. Alain’s fingers closed around the wrist of the Cutthroat and he began pushing her back. The knife left his throat. Her face darkened in anger and surprise.

“You struggle in vain,” she sneered. “I need only take this seriously and-“

She pushed, but his strength matched hers. There was something in Alain, something that burned.

“It was always serious,” the royal magistrate said. “It was never a game.”

“Fuck you, prince’s dog,” the Cutthroat snarled, “your moralizing means nothing. You’re the servant of a man just as bad as-“

“I serve the law,” Magistrate Alain Monduc interrupted, snarling back, “I serve the people of Procer. And until I see justice done by them-“

His strength, for the slightest moment, overpowered hers. It would have been child’s play to take the knife, he somehow knew. To seize it and slit her throat in the same smooth stroke. And the thought called to him, it did, for he was just a man. But Alain was still inspired by his father, both by the man who’d taught him and the man who’d failed him. So he took the knife, but it was his fist that struck the Damned.

“- I will not relent,” the Relentless Magistrate swore, and placed the Cutthroat under arrest.

Many years later, five people stood in the same room and were sent on an important task by a black-clad queen and a white-clad knight.

It was an ending but it was also a beginning, for stories never truly end.

85 thoughts on “Five Stories

  1. Ninestrings

    It’s interesting seeing people coming into their Name without evoking an aspect.

    Cat was often forced into her role, coming into it in sudden violence and action but it seems some people are just slowly eased into their name over time.

    Also seeing the similarities between such wildly different people is fascinating.

    Liked by 28 people

    1. Miles

      Cat was also on that path I think, but them Black stabbed her to hurry the process along.

      These 5 have an interesting set of motivations. It seems the distinction between Hero and Villain isn’t which gods they serve but whether the reasons for their actions is selfish or in service of some ideal. Even if the ideal is revenge it’s fine as long as they don’t think of it in terms of me, me, me. On the flip side, the Royal Conjurer does everything he does for his king, but always justifies it in selfish terms so he’s a villain.

      This puts some more meaning to Cat’s first Name dream, right after Amadeus stabbed her. If she’d gone about it in the slow way she would have had to answer some hard questions about why she’s following him. Is it for a better Callow? Or is it for a better personal situation? With the way she’s been acting in the story it’s about a better Callow but she didn’t get that question, she just got “which mook do you kill harder?” and became a villain instead. Black must have faced the same shortcut because he is similarly about a better Praes, and not just a personal power grab.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. I think there’s a lot of various ways to be a villain.

        See, Above’s choosy. You have to be not-selfish, not worship Below, conditions conditions conditions.

        Below, on the other hand, takes all comers. They’re the “misc” bin. Roads paved with good intentions, cultural traditions, good old bloodlust, everyone’s welcome!

        (There’s also Neutral but there’s only a handful of Neutral stories and politics of the world will try to push you one way or another even if you fit one, so if anything that’s the choosiest category)

        Liked by 4 people

        1. Miles

          There is no neutral. Ranger is a name that can be either one, but Ranger is an individual who is firmly on the side of villain.

          It was demonstrated better with squire. The name swings both ways, the person doesn’t get to.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. List of people in-universe who have said being Neutral is a thing:
            – Black, about Ranger not being quite a villain despite running with the Calamities;
            – Indrani, about herself, at Marchford, when Catherine presumed she was a hero and she clarified that “not all Roles are so clear-cut”;
            – Catherine, about Indrani not being a villain, circa Summer after the observation of her saying hubristic things without fearing ironic retribution;
            – Hanno, also about Indrani, at the end of Book 5, as a comment about her periodically being built into Providence’s plans in a heroic savior role when she’s passing by conveniently (as a contrast to Masego, who would only be built into one if it can really only be just him);
            – Catherine again, in Book 6, about Beastmaster in particular but also Named like him in general, who can choose which representative they stick with as they like;

            – somewhat separately, Bard, indirectly, about Hierarch, in Epilogue 3:

            > “See, that’s where you’re raising questions,” she said. “’cause Kairos forged you, and Kairos is in deep with the folks Below. But you let the White Knight and the Champion go, sparing me a deal that would have been… costly. Your people like a bit of sulphur on the altar, it’s true, but their idea of worship does little more than keep those in a fresh coat of red. And I’m sorry to say, but you’re what we call a mumbler. You speak the words when the right stars are out but there’s no real meat to the faith, you get me?”

            …as apparently he was indeed stuck solidly in the middle between hero and villain without being firmly in either camp (until the end of that conversation presumably, when he banished Bard and picked his path – defiance of Gods, which missed him straight past both Neutral and Above and landed right in Below’s Misc. camp).

            (She also insisted he couldn’t do that, but clearly evidence shows he could right up until that moment. He wasn’t ALLOWED to, by her personally, but that’s a somewhat different song)

            An example of a Name that is even more neutral than Squire (as Catherine got blowback from not acting out a villain story properly as one) is Thief. Vivienne changed sides without her Role giving a single shit, presumably because it’s genuinely unconnected to alignment. She could be Neutral like Archer and Ranger (and Beastmaster, and once Hierarch, and presumably Grizzled Fantassin) but she wasn’t, as an individual, at any point.

            That’s an example of what I am talking about: a genuinely Neutral story that allows for literally any shenanigans regarding alignment without budging. So far most of these we’ve seen have been tied to extraordinary skill/ability – we’ve also seen plenty heroes and villains distinguished by those, but they’re not a strict requirement to be one, while they very much are for a Neutral Role.

            Liked by 6 people

        2. Miles

          That said, I don’t think we have evidence of worship habits being a thing that affects someone’s side.

          You’re either in it for #1, or you’re in it for an ideal. And if you’re on the fence the name drags its way along until you fall off that fence.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. As per WoG, it’s impossible to be a hero while paying dues to Below. So a hero-by-all-external-criteria who follows Wasteland’s traditional rites will be a villain no matter how selfless they are.

            It’ll also steeply increase their odds of going mad and push them towards worse and bloodier paths through both providence and immediate geopolitical circumstances, meaning the pattern very much self-reinforces towards villains being villains, but Catherine’s a case study in how that can be worked against.

            Like

          2. (Amadeus is an idealist through and through, and cares about the Dread Empire’s future far far more than he does about his personal achievements – as his entire mentorship of Catherine illustrates. He was out for results, not status, by Akua’s classification)

            Like

          3. Cpt. Obvious

            I think Adjutant shows that theory doesn’t hold water. Hakram got dragged into the Name game by what you call an ideal, serving and enabling Catherine to achieve her goals. He doesn’t care for Callow. He cares about Catherine. If she woke up one day, converted to the side of the above and declared war on the below the Adjutant would do his best to help her succeed. And yet he’s a villain. As the Name is new it’s probably not bound to a side. So either Adjutant became a villain because Hakram holds to the gods below or it is because Catherine is a villain.
            To me the former seems most plausible.

            There are as I see it two likely explanations.

            Liked by 1 person

    2. Figerally

      As I understand it Cat was a tagged as a probable candidate for a hero name before Black stepped in and made her his Apprentice.

      Like

  2. Frivolous

    Beautiful, beautiful, five times beautiful. Love Five Stories in tesseract.

    I particularly admire the Poisoner for having survived both Tariq and Laurence. Astonishing.

    Liked by 19 people

    1. erebus42

      It probably helped that she was a relatively minor named who did most of her work in the shadows. They probably thought of her as something of a side quest. It also doesn’t hurt that the people who others are willing to pay good money to have killed often aren’t particularly good people anyway and as such there probably wasn’t too much will or pull to have her killed.

      Liked by 13 people

      1. It definitely helped that she was not going around poisoning people indiscriminately or for giggles because she could.

        Both of them would have considered her a target, but even Saint probably wouldn’t have put a particularly high priority on hunting her down, especially if Saint had no idea who the poisoner she was hunting actually was. And there were likely more blatant Villains and problems to deal with that kept bumping Poisoner off the top of their to do lists. Plus, Poisoner just ran, avoiding an actual confrontation with Saint.

        Liked by 11 people

        1. Frivolous

          From Portents:

          …since I wasn’t sending anyone hunting for old secrets without a dedicated mage I’d reluctantly parted with the Royal Conjurer. The Helikean mage was an escapee from Kairos’ rise to power…

          It does not explicitly state that the RC fled to avoid being killed by Kairos, but that’s my interpretation.

          Liked by 17 people

    1. First mentioned or first on page?
      The first time they were actually all present was during the Arsenal. They showed up to report on their investigation and told us that Bard has a disturbing amount of influence/control over Angelic manifestations. They’d been mentioned as a Band of Five earlier.

      IIRC, the Painted Knife was one of the Heroes with the Crusaders in Callow.

      The Silver Huntress was probably mentioned one of the times that Indrani was talking about Refuge.

      I think Poisoner, Grizzled Fantassin, and Royal Conjurer had not been mentioned prior to their mention as part of the mixed Hero/Villain Band of Five.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. ruduen

        Their first appearance as a band is in Chapter 35. The full set is the Painted Knife, the Royal Conjurer, the Relentless Magistrate, the Poisoner, and the Grizzled Fantassin.

        I’m fairly sure the only one who appeared prior to that was the Painted Knife.

        Liked by 13 people

      2. Edward Kim

        It’s interesting that the Painted Knife seems to be praying to the Ashen Gods in this chapter then, because I thought the Ashen Gods were also the Gods of Below. You know, of the Damneds and Villians.

        Liked by 4 people

          1. Isi Arnott-Campbell

            Isn’t the Book of All Things considered heretical or something in Levant? Pretty sure the Poet who turned traitor and died mentioned as much prior to blowing his cover.

            Liked by 1 person

              1. Isi Arnott-Campbell

                With my memory of the details refreshed, he probably meant that using a passage from the Book of All Things as an excuse for murdering Lanterns was blasphemy, which is fair.

                https://practicalguidetoevil.wordpress.com/2020/03/27/chapter-21-line/

                “I heard rumours,” the Exalted Poet said, a little too casually to be casual, “that around this time, several lodges of Lanterns disappeared after venturing into the Brocelian.”

                The Fallen Monk smiled, friendly as a beloved brother, but there was something about him… there was nothing comical about his weight then, his size and lumbering demeanour. It was like looking at a predator that’d gotten large and slow by devouring, feeding again and again until it weighed him down.

                “Does the Book of All Things not preach that the righteous must answer kindness with kindness and wickedness with wroth?” the Monk pleasantly said.

                The Poet stiffened.

                “That is blasphemy,” he hissed.

                “To quote the Book of All Things?” the Monk chuckled. “What interesting practices the Dominion keeps to, if that is indeed true.”

                Liked by 3 people

              2. I think the implication is that he kept to the book of all things, he dealt kindness with kindness and wickedness with wroth. So he decided the lanterns were being wicked, or chose or interpret it that way. The deliberate misinterpretation was the heresy.

                Liked by 2 people

        1. Raved Thrad

          I take that to be because Kallia wanted revenge, and Above is about justice, not revenge. Ironic, then, that she appears to have been empowered by Above instead of Below.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Morgenstern

          According to at least Cat’s own thoughts, there’s always some doubt with any Named of the Blood / from Levant, though. I don’t remember the exact place/chapter she was reminiscing about that, but there was a spot where she was wondering how many of the old Villains had been dubbed Heroes of the Blood in their scrolls.

          Liked by 5 people

      1. WuseMajor

        His Grace, The Duke of Anhk, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, who was also blackboard monitor at school, is the head of the city watch of Anhk-Morpork, a very….unique city on the Discworld. He is also a particularly relentless lawman, but compassionate and devoted to justice. His exploits have been chronicled by Sir Terry Pratchett, who is dearly missed.

        Sam Vimes always reads “Where’s My Cow” to his son at 5. He’s very relentless about that too,

        Liked by 7 people

  3. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    far as far as > far as
    but he could truly > but could he truly
    no to go > not to go
    with Angelique with > Angelique with
    has failed > had failed
    not a white > not a whit
    She made lieutenant (extra space in the front)
    to spies on > to spy on
    trifling > triflingly
    entire enterprising (is this intentional?)
    she as very > she was very
    had knack > had a knack
    of on no > on no
    been girl > been a girl
    green shots > green shoots
    drinking dallying > drinking, dallying
    pressed claims > press claims
    thebutchery (missing space)
    she the only > she was the only
    Fist Prince > First Prince
    a another > another

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Bellower

    “Which is why it was a particularly unpleasant surprise, when one evening she found a kindly stranger awaiting her in her shop. An old man in faded grey robes, with soft words and smiles but eyes like death.”

    Gods damn, why can’t these nasty heroes just leave these young enterprising villains alone?

    This chapter really reminds why I love the guide. Heroes might be the ones who inspire us, But villains will always be the ones who fascinate us.

    Liked by 9 people

    1. Brakham

      I don’t really think so. I believe it’s more like, in RPG terms, a “base” class.
      For example a Paladin, you could have a Glorious Paladin, a Stalwart Paladin, Forlorn Paladin. They all have the same skillset but different areas on which they focus, without neccecarily being more powerful than the base class/Name.

      Liked by 8 people

    2. Frivolous

      I’ve long had an interest in whether a one-word Name was stronger or more primal than a two-word Name, which is with an adjective.

      For instance, how does the Thief compare to the Thief of Stars, power-wise, or even conviction-wise?

      It’s a puzzle, and I’m not sure there can be a solid answer.

      Liked by 7 people

    3. dadycoool

      Maybe having a “Base class” like Brakham mentioned gives you a bit more jack-of-all-trades status? I mean sure, like in Frivolous’ comment, the Thief of Stars might be able to snag the night sky or jewels that resemble it, but can they pick your pocket? Viv was able to steal a fleet of barges, fortunes, and was even able to *YOINK* the fucking Sun from the sky. Sure she was burned a lot worse than the Thief of Stars would’ve been, but I think primal/unrefined is a good adjective for one-word Names.

      In this case, because Angelique is simply “The Poisoner”, she doesn’t HAVE to kill you. Her first step was her trying to simply make her brother in law sick. Everything she did in that instance would’ve kept him in bed for a while, if it weren’t for the idiot she hired. Sure, she might not be the best, but she’s the most versatile.

      Liked by 6 people

    4. Miles

      I think it’s more to do with what they think of themselves as being. She doesn’t think she’s a particularly special poisoner, so she’s just poisoner.

      There’s probably a Callowan name of “Knight” but ther just hasn’t been one that was significant enough recently for it to be mentioned.

      Makes you think. Does Cat’s name feature in a bunch of throwaway lines sprinkled throughout the last few books too, and we haven’t realized it yet?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. N Che

        I don’t think there is a solid answer.

        Look at someone like the Grey Pilgrim. He is a generational hero. There’s no questioning the strength of his name.

        But for single-word Names, look at Adjutant–although his Name makes him an assistant, his will and strength are also unquestionable. The Hierophant is similarly a generational talent.

        Our dear late Tyrant, another one-word Named, may have been relatively weak but his brief time in the spotlight sent ripples across the entire world, and potentially is the only reason anyone at all has a chance against our bardic antagonist.

        I think the will, and the role behind the Name are much more a reliable indicator than whether it is one or two words. To me, the adjective is present when necessary as a descriptor: Malicia isn’t just an Empress, she is the Dread Empress. Black’s old Name would make no sense if he was just the Knight. Etc.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. Aside from The Poisoner, it seems like the rest of the party is of Lawful alignment, by tabletop terms. And when your most chaotic member is a very personable and naturally adorable baker, it’s easy to see why this party of five meshed well.

    The most surprising element is The Poisoner and The Relentless Magistrate seemingly becoming *very* close, given what’s just been revealed about their origins and motivations.

    Liked by 9 people

    1. Burnsy

      I’m guessing it’s similar to the Cat & Akua situation. RM may absolutely despise the Poisoner’s morals (or lack thereof) and her past actions… but she’s just so personable and those little pastries she makes are so fluffy and sweet, and its not like he can do anything while under the Terms so, might as well accept your kind of friend’s now!

      Liked by 15 people

    2. …and the Poisoner is somewhere between poster child for Neutral Evil and dabbling into Lawful Evil, too. Note that after the first one-two blunder she only killed under contract and actually cared about keeping to it, even if she ended up fleeing breaking one.

      I’d argue Kallia is the closest to Chaotic, but Chaotic Goods are actually notorious for getting along with whoever if they want to.

      Liked by 10 people

      1. shikkarasu

        I wouldn’t call her Lawful. There’s just too little motivation. She goes off to kill the First Prince not because she had a buyer, but because “why not?” A L/E would have taken the first offer, maybe haggled it up, and then been all Grizzled Fantassin about it. She might kill under contract, but that strikes me as just a means to make money. Why kill randos for no reason when you could get rich?

        I agree she’s the poster-child for N/E, but I would call her leaning C/E, if leaning at all.

        Liked by 3 people

    3. Jarl Zarl

      I’d argue the GF is stolidly Neutral as far as Law/Chaos goes. She’s not above breaking her contracts if it’s what’s best for her (which isn’t to say she’s actively dishonorable, just that she doesn’t think honor is worth dying for)

      Liked by 3 people

    4. Darkening

      I mean, the Grizzled Fantassin robbed and murdered a merchant she was working for. That’s not exactly Lawful. And she doesn’t really seem to have any code or cause besides keeping herself alive. Sure, she gets pissed about people stiffing her on contracts, but that’s just business.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It was in mercantis, between that and how she describes it (and her character from what we can see) he was most likely an asshole, maybe even 1 of the slavers that suposedly don’t exist so maybe her action were more of a karma thing.

        All in all she seens more lawful neutral or true neutral than almost all other names so far.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. RanVor

    So when murders began to crop up around the capital, it was only natural for the prince’s favourite hound to be called in. Yet this one was different, Alain realized. The killer slew for pleasure, and did it through impossible means: it was as if they could walk unseen and swift as the wind, as if they could bend steel with their strength.

    Legit had Kira’s theme from Death Note on my headphones while reading this.

    Liked by 10 people

  7. dadycoool

    Wow. So this is the story of the first Five of the New Age. I feel like sometimes we forget that the main characters aren’t the only ones with Stories like these. Every Named is special because their life went a certain way and they made certain kinds of choices, leading them to become the embodiment of a certain Ideal, like a Poisoner who is the best source of poisons anywhere or a veteran Fantassin that has accrued experience over a very hard life as a soldier, even in her early twenties.

    Can we all just appreciate Angelique’s reaction to Saint of Swords looking for her? “The most feared slayer of Damned is looking for me and is in the same city as me. SQEE!!! This is so much fun!”

    Liked by 7 people

  8. Captain Amazing

    I think the Grizzled Fantassin is the least “heroic” hero in the story so far. I mean, the Lone Swordsman was very much worse, what with being a racial supremacist who threw firebombs in crowded cities, tortured people to death as part of a terror campaign, and tried to summon an eldritch god to brainwash a city, but he had a heroic narrative. Keeping to a contract is not really a heroic principle. Not really even in a cultural perspective like the Thief or Painted Knife. The Fantassin’s story is deeply cynical and I didn’t think Above did that.

    For the other guys, the Magistrate -definitely- murdered his father, the Royal Conjurer has a real anti-villain thing going on, the moment where I figured out it was the Painted Knife was pretty great, and the Poisoner is basically the Fantassin who murders for less principled reasons.

    Liked by 5 people

        1. Sam

          There’s a bit somewhere in the Arsenal section about people who aren’t clearly one way or the other having the option to choose which representative they prefer.

          Like

          1. Captain Amazing

            Yes, but those are basicly just Ranger and some of her pupils. The Bard said she doesn’t tolerate fence-sitters except for ones she created herself, when trying to prod the Hierarch into action. The Grizzled Fantassin became Named 20 years ago and never once is the Bard mentioned. She has to be a hero. She argued that the old undead mercenary deserves to rest for keeping to their contract, and I believe she was unnerved when Catherine complimented her team’s work. The Fantassin thinks keeping to a contract is a higher calling and it’s weird.

            Liked by 2 people

            1. The Bard doesn’t tolerate fence-sitters on the big chessboard of nations. Grizzled Fantassin is a non-entity on that.

              Neutrals are a known thing, GF is just the first non-Refuge one we meet.

              Like

    1. Well, my prediction was specifically that there would be a series of chapters with names that are each the first word of a well-known phrase, and then the following chapters would complete the phrases in reverse order, so I’d say we were both off. A pity, as I would love to have some denari 😄

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Black Spiral Dancer

    “It was an ending but it was also a beginning, for stories never truly end.”

    …The Neverending Story . My favorite still (NOT the films, mind).

    But your tale comes close. And that’s as great as a compliment as I could ever give.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Black Spiral Dancer

    “[…] found that admitting he was a monster had made him a worse man, but one more at peace with himself. And that peace seeped into every part of him […]”

    That’s what I found as well. And sometimes peace with yourself is just the best you can do.

    Like

  11. Really curious what these people’s aspects are.

    It seems surprising how well the Magistrate can fight considering their non-martial name, analogous to Scribe.

    Apparently the Painted Knife can redirect injuries to the attacker?

    Like

    1. Earl of Purple

      From what I got, ‘Magistrate’ functions in Procer like a police officer- and not a city guardsman. He’s the guy who hunts down the people who assassinated a Prince and bring them to justice, the man who cracks open smuggling rings and finds their hidden depot. He’s not a martial name, except he kind-of is; he’s a bounty hunter, except he’s not hunting bounties, he’s hunting criminals.

      Like

  12. Someperson

    I like how as the five stories progressed the transituons gradually became more seamless. Just like how their stories eventually converged as they became a band of five working seamlessly together.

    Like

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