“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.