“Villains often try to get clever, to stump me with philosophical questions like ‘what is evil?’ To which I answer ‘generally, people asking me that question’, which somehow they never see coming.”– Aldred Alban of Callow, the Prince Errant
The moon hung above us like a nasty grin, the drop was precipitously close and past the lights of the stronghold below there was only a dark and desolate stretch: a proper backdrop for ominous talks with a woman that was neither a friend nor an enemy. The Scribe had picked her moment and her place with care, I decided, to frame this conversation in the way she preferred. And what did we do, when an opponent expressed a preference?
“Eudokia,” I warmly smiled. “How lovely to see you, it’s been much too long. How have you been?”
That’s right: slit open its throat and set the corpse aflame. Scribe showed no visible sign of surprise and what little I could see of her from the corner of my eye, ink-stained hands and/
/Gods Below and Everburning but I hated that fucking aspect. Even knowing about it the best I could do was work around the effect. Trying to remember anything about her was like clutching sand, with the same few grains left behind every time. Still, even though I might as well try to read emotion into a puff of mist the beat of silence that followed smacked of surprise to me.
“I have been well,” Scribe said, then paused. “… and you?”
“Oh, you know, doing this and that,” I drawled. “Been thinking about getting another pair of boots, since mine are a getting worn, but I like the leather better soft.”
Befuddled silence in the face of my boot-talk – a real decision in need of making, actually, and one I’d be willing to hear her advice on – followed and I swallowed a grin. When I’d been a girl the Calamities had seemed like all powerful figures of legend, and by the time I’d learned better most of them had died. It was deeply satisfying for the kid I’d once been that the woman I now was could afford to screw with one of them like this.
“I approached you to speak on matters of grave import,” Scribe said.
“It better not be the Dead King, then,” I idly said. “I won’t stand for puns, Eudokia. Debated making them illegal once, you know, but it was a little too Sanguinia the Second.”
What a brave soul, that one. I too would outlaw being taller than me, if it wasn’t certain to lead to the rebellion of an insultingly large portion of Callow. Aside from the deep satisfaction inherent to pulling the leg of someone I was on less than decent terms with, I did have a purpose to this. Scribe had spent a very long time in Black’s shadow, hidden by its span but also protected. She’d been the monster in the night, or at least on its side, for so long she’d no longer be used to being toyed with.
That was going to piss her off, I was betting, and anger always made you sloppy. If she was running a game on me, why shouldn’t I run one on her right back?
“Lack of discipline was always your greatest flaw,” Scribe curtly replied. “I came in good faith-“
I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth.
“You came here to use me,” I easily corrected. “And that’s fine, so long as I also have a use for you. But don’t pretend you’re doing me favours, Eudokia. We both know coming here isn’t your first choice.”
A shot in the dark but one I was confident about. Black had decisively cut her loose from his service after learning she’d acted behind his back to ensure he would be forced to fight Malicia, and while I’d not forgotten the low he’d hit that night he wasn’t one to walk back a decision so severe. At a guess, she’d tried to mend the bridge with him and been rebuffed. What interested me was what else she might have been up to in the meanwhile: it’d been two years since the Salian Peace.
If I’d been right about her relationship with my father remaining a wreck she didn’t show it. With her first approach – the one lending her importance, I now grasped, making her seem if not like an equal then at least someone of power and influence – having stumbled, she smoothly pivoted to another.
“If you are not interested in the information I have to bring, then you need simply say so,” Scribe said. “I can depart.”
Transparent, but a ploy didn’t have to be subtle to be effective. Likely she was well aware that the most I’d gotten out of the Wasteland was wild rumours and some of the ups and downs of the civil war between Malicia and Sepulchral. I was thirsting for news there, and she knew it. But she was after something too, wasn’t she? Her first tack tonight had been one that leant her presence, weight, but that wasn’t something she’d need if this was a simple transaction.
She wanted something from me, something that perhaps I wouldn’t want to give. So she’d puffed up like a bird trying to look bigger for a predator and hoped it’d give me pause. That made it clear what my answer needed to be to her challenge.
“The closest gate is that way,” I replied without hesitating, jutting a thumb west. “If you hurry you’ll have enough of a head start the Pilgrim won’t bother to pursue.”
Tension hung in the air in the moment that followed. It’d been a tactical mistake to make a bluff I was willing to call so early in the game. Now there was no recovering her position. I turned a sharp, toothy grin onto the Scribe.
“Yeah,” I murmured. “I didn’t think so. So why you don’t you tell me what you came here to say, only without all the empty posturing.”
Anger. I could hardly even look at her, much less read her, but I felt anger wafting off Scribe’s silhouette like smoke. Whether it was at me for being bluntly high-handed or at herself for the missteps I didn’t know, and probably didn’t matter. The gesture stiff, she reached into her robes and removed three small letters. She handed me the first and I opened the fold, scanning the contents. It was tradertalk – the eastern dialect of it, peppered with Aenian terms – excerpts with translations into Lower Miezan.
“Leo Trakas is dead and half Nicae a ruin,” I frowned. “The undead mentioned there, from Malicia’s fleet?”
Originally the war fleet of Nicae, but use of Still Waters had seen to that.
“To an extent,” Scribe replied. “Supporters of Strategos Zenobia opened a gate in the night and let in her troops as well as a contingent of Helikeans under General Basilia herself. The conspirators promised them a bloodless victory, so when the wights attacked the Helikeans claimed treachery. In the chaos parts of the city were torched and sacked until Basilia restored order personally.”
I hummed thoughtfully. The First Prince’s diplomacy had borne fruit, then. I’d thought it drastic to condemn Leo Trakas as an ally of the Dead King, and only reluctantly voted in favour when the moment came, but Hasenbach had been right: it’d moved enough people to turn on him for the stalemate to turn in our favour without troops needing to be sent. Nicae falling wasn’t only good news, though. Stygia had been quietly meddling to keep the wars within the League going, but with one of them settled the Magisterium might just come out swinging.
“So Zenobia’s crowning herself a princess?” I snorted, reading the last excerpt. “That’s new.”
That came an intercepted Nicaean courier, so it probably reliable. It was also noted that several of the Trakas from lesser branches had escaped Zenobia’s attempted purge of the family after the fall of the city, which was a Name in the making if I’d ever seen one. I found it mildly amusing that she’d discarded the title of Strategos for something more royal, but it wasn’t of great import: the office had essentially ruled Nicae like a royal house for decades, and I had doubts she’d make bloodline inheritance stick. Royalty wasn’t unknown in the Free Cities, Kairos himself had been king of-
I paused, then frowned.
“Basilia still hasn’t crowned herself queen, has she?” I asked.
“She has not,” Scribe confirmed.
Was she really that ambitious? Zenobia had been backed to the throne by General Basilia, but when she’d given herself a royal title it had only been that of princess. Why not queen, if she had royal ambitions?
“Fuck me,” I murmured. “That’s why Basilia doesn’t care Stygia’s an enemy, why she sent me all the letters making clear they’re the provocative ones. She doesn’t want to avoid that war at all, and she’s not a queen only because she wants to be a bloody empress.”
Empress Basilia the First, with her vassal Princess Zenobia of Nicae and whoever she’d end up installing as puppets after she toppled the Magisterium and finished off Penthes. I was impressed but also skeptical. She’d managed the politics of this well, since no one in the Free Cities could really ally with her enemies without siding with either Stygian aggression or Malicia’s southern meddling, but the Spears of Stygia were a fine army and the Helikean host bloodied.
“If we survive Keter,” I sighed, “the next great war will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Free Cities.”
I took the second letter when it was offered to me. Tradertalk again, but this time towards the Ashuran end of the stick. I couldn’t parse the High Tyrian any better than the Aenian, but at least I got the Mtethwa loanwords. We’d known for some time that Magon Hadast, the ruler of the Thalassocracy was dead, that was old news. Killed by Assassin, if the Augur was to be believed. Bitter disagreements had since kept Ashur from recovering from its defeats at League and Praesi hands, but the nature of those had been opaque to even Cordelia’s spies abroad, the Circle of Thorns. Not so for Scribe’s people, it seemed.
“So it’s a glorified inheritance dispute,” I bluntly said.
“The dignitaries in the two camps often divide their allegiances by provenance from Arwad or Smyrna,” Scribe noted. “It speaks to a deeper divide in Ashuran society.”
The Arwad committees mentioned tended to be from slightly lower tiers, I noted, and many sounded mercantile in nature. They were backing a distant relative of Magon Hadast for ascension to their highest citizenship tier by virtue of blood, since the main Hadast line had been extinguished. The man in question had married a noblewoman from Levant, though, which disqualified him in the eyes of the Smyrna crowd. They wanted instead to send a ship across the Tyrian Sea to import a ruler from Ashur’s nominal overlord, the Baalite Hegemony.
So far the conflict had seen no battles, only skirmishing in streets and countryside, but by the looks of it positions were hardening on both sides. I could not help but note that by the sounds of it an awful lot of people with the last name Hadast had died not too long after good ol’ Magon himself.
“Assassin’s work?” I asked.
“Evidently, without orders he went… somewhat overboard,” Scribe said. “He was caught and slain by the Blue Mage last year.”
I rolled my eyes.
“And I’m sure this time it took,” I drawled. “Pull the other one. Where is he?”
“I’ve not been in contact since he set out for Ashur,” Scribe replied.
I eyed her skeptically but let it go. If I was to start digging at that particular secret, it wouldn’t be in so haphazard a manner. Without a word I was handed the third letter. This time it was Lower Miezan, and a simple phrase ‘the crown was obtained’ along with a bell and day noted. I mastered my surprise, slowly folding the paper back. Fuck. I’d hoped we would keep the Eyes, if not entirely out of the Arsenal, then at least out of the most critical projects. I now had evidence otherwise.
“It went well?” I calmly said, as if this was not an unpleasant turn.
“I had no eyes at the location,” Scribe said, “It was a scried report that was intercepted, and I expect it is making its way towards you as we speak. The ritual appears to have been a success and the nearby gate is still functional.”
I pushed down the urge to snatch her by the throat and dangle her above the drop until I got names. It wouldn’t accomplish anything, I reminded myself. Angering her was one thing, but an attack was another. I had no need to cement an enmity tonight. Not yet, anyway.
“You’ve made your point,” I noted. “You know our allies better than we do, your people have access places where we don’t and you have eyes even in the Grand Alliance’s most guarded sanctum. Now that you’ve proved you have something to bargain with, what is it you want to bargain for?”
Scribe went silent for a moment.
“I wish to sign onto the Truce and Terms,” she said.
I snorted, ignoring what I suspected was an unfriendly look my derision earned.
“There was no need for the song and dance to get that,” I said. “And we both know signing won’t open many doors for you.”
The First Prince had not put a bounty on her head, but according to Vivienne she’d also put the matter of forbidding such a thing to the Highest Assembly and purposefully lost the vote. Both the Proceran House of Light and more than a few highborn wanted Scribe’s head on a pike for the mess in Salia, and the Principate wouldn’t stand for her gaining access to Grand Alliance secrets even as a signatory were I inclined to push for it. I was not.
“You picked a fight tonight aiming for something, Scribe,” I continued. “So out with it.”
“I was not picking a fight,” the Webweaver replied. “I was making a bid for a position.”
My brow rose and I almost laughed until I realized she was deadly serious. Gods Below, I thought, how badly had it gone with Black for her to come to me? We weren’t exactly bosom friends, Eudokia and I. My reflex was to refuse her, and not politely, but I tamped down on it.
“I have questions,” I mildly said.
Interrogating one of the most skillful living spymistresses of Calernia would require skill and subtlety, I mused. Unfortunately I lacked those, so best swing the other way around entirely.
“What have you been doing for two years?” I bluntly asked.
“Fighting for control of the Eyes of the Empire,” she frankly admitted. “I knew Ime would overtake me closer to Praes, so I concentrated on taking over the edges of the network and damaging records in the Wasteland so she wouldn’t know what was lost. My agents were purged or suborned most places east of the Whitecaps, but elsewhere I have established control.”
Fuck, I thought. That meant Malicia was firmly back in control of the Eyes in Callow, not exactly great news. Still, at least I’d gotten a list of imperial agents in my kingdom from Scribe as reparations during the negotiations for the Salian Peace. Duchess Kegan had sent the Watch to purge everyone on it when I’d passed it on, so at least the foothold of the Empire would be damaged. It also meant that the leader of the largest spy network on Calernia not directly in service of a crown was standing next to me. Worth a second look, that.
“If you’re going to try to sell me you didn’t reach out to Black, you’ll need a better pitch,” I noted.
I felt her breathe in even if I didn’t see it.
“How casually you pick at the wounds of others,” Scribe said. “Of course I sought him out, Catherine. I still have the scar from where Ranger’s arrow took me. Half an inch to the side of the heart. She likes to think she’s funny, you see.”
I shared a moment of silent appreciation with her about just how much of an asshole the Lady of the Lake was. I suspected she didn’t even have to try, it just came naturally to her.
“He was quite apologetic about the arrow,” Scribe sighed. “But there would be no making amends.”
I frowned. That… did not sound like Black. It was a half-done job, and he abhorred those. She was leaving things out. I said nothing, only cocking an eyebrow. Eudokia sighed again.
“He said he had done me wrong, by taking me into his service,” Scribe murmured. “That his ambitions had devoured mine, and we’d both suffered for it.”
I almost winced. That sounded more like my father, admittedly: genuine care, but handed out along with brutal honesty.
“He won’t have left it at that,” I encouraged.
“You must find your own way,” Eudokia softly quoted, “your own ambition. And I hope that, when you have, one day our paths will lead us to standing side by side again.”
I breathed out in surprise. That walked the fine line between kindness and cruelty. And now, having eked out as much of a victory as she could in the war for the rule of the Eyes, Scribe had come here. A colder part of me noted she’d missed Black’s point entirely, if she’d come looking for another master to follow. But cold wasn’t always right, was it? My Winter days had made that much exceedingly clear. And my father could preach whatever he wanted, but he wasn’t the one making decisions for Scribe.
“You think we’re going to head east, don’t you?” I said.
I felt her smile.
“Or the east will come to you,” she shrugged. “It makes no difference.”
I thoughtfully hummed. I glanced down at the drop, leaning forward, and felt my stomach clench. There was a weight to the air tonight. Not a pivot, no. It wasn’t enough for that. But this would… matter. Reverberate. I let the fear of the fall sink into me, clear away all idle thoughts. It was refreshing, in a way. And it made how the choice needed to be made crystal clear.
“Would you betray me to him, if the call came?” I asked.
“Probably,” Scribe replied without batting an eye.
“Ah,” I said, “but would you betray me to anyone else?”
“What would they have to offer me?” the Webweaver asked.
“Good,” I said.
I withdrew from the edge.
“I expect you in my tent at Morning Bell,” I said. “I’ll want a full report on the Praesi situation then. See Adjutant about signing onto the Terms and your assigned lodgings.”
Her control wavered for a moment, overtaken by shock.
“You do not jest,” Eudokia stated, sounding surprised.
I turned to her and gently smiled.
“I’m not seventeen anymore, Scribe,” I said. “I’m already using people a lot more dangerous than you.”
I turned my gaze back the night sky, the dismissal clear, and she quietly withdrew.
An hour before Morning Bell, my effective royal council these days sat around the sculpted table in my tent with steaming mugs in everyone’s hands. It was early, so Indrani looked haggard even as she sipped at her Nicean blackleaf tea, liberally flavoured with honey. She’d been out drinking late, and though not hungover she was a little ragged. Hakram’s own mug was filled with a fragrant gift of the First Prince – Hasenbach had noticed he enjoyed her abominably spicy brews and sent him a small coffer full of assorted leaves – and he’d deigned to share with Akua, who these days took more pleasure in scent than taste.
I’d stood on a rooftop like an ass for an hour last night, so unsurprisingly I was now drinking Masego’s personal brew for pain and hoping my leg wouldn’t swell too much.
“The Crows are keeping an eye out,” I said, “so we can feel free to talk.”
“Ominous,” Indrani grunted. “What are we on about, Cat?”
“Hakram already knows some of it,” I said, nodding at the orc. “Last night I was approached by Scribe.”
Akua leaned back into her seat, looking interested,
“News from the Wasteland at last?” she said. “I had wondered at the continued silence from the Carrion Lord.”
“Not exactly,” I said.
“The Scribe has signed onto the Truce and Terms,” Hakram said. “Or she would have, if I’d then passed on the parchments properly. They were mislaid.”
No one here bothered to comment how unlikely it was for someone with Adjutant’s quite literally supernatural organisational abilities to lose anything this important.
“You want to open her throat?” Indrani asked, sounding surprised. “Thought you were keeping a light touch with the east.”
More like I couldn’t afford to take a hard stance with the east, considering that most of Callow’s armies were abroad and wouldn’t be returning anytime soon. Vivienne and I had been clear with Kegan: there’d be no rolling over for the Tower, but neither should she go on the offensive. Considering the largest military force still in the kingdom was the Duchess of Daoine’s own army, she’d not been hard to sell on that.
“Scribe requested a position under me,” I informed them, though Hakram had already known. “No word was spoken of Callow in particular, and I suspect that she is a great deal more interested by my position in the Grand Alliance than my crown.”
“So you want our advice on whether to accept?” Indrani mused.
Akua’s golden eyes narrowed.
“She already has,” dark-skinned shade said. “She is simply uncertain as to whether or not she meant it.”
I raised my mug in a toast.
“In an hour, the Scribe will enter this tent to give us a report on the state of the Dread Empire,” I said. “I want your opinion on, when she finishes, whether I should give her a position or slit her throat.”
That got me some surprise, but I thought more at the bluntness of the statement than the morality inherent. I wasn’t a fool, so there’d be no talk of keeping Scribe prisoner and extracting information out of her – she’d escape, sure as night, and be out for revenge. If I could not use her, could not employ her within the frame of the Terms, then she needed to die. Quickly, cleanly and without fuss. I let my words sink in for a moment, then glanced at Indrani with a cocked brow. She sipped at her tea a little longer, then snorted.
“Slice her,” Archer frankly said. “She’s too dangerous, and she’ll never be loyal to you or anything you make. We can deal with that when it’s a nobody villain, but she ain’t one of those. She’s got spies and gold and skeletons in people’s closets – best she’s taken off the board before you found your Cardinal. We don’t really need her, anyway.”
“One can never have too many spies, Indrani,” Akua chided her.
“Come off it, Dressing Ghoul,” Archer replied, rolling her eyes. “I’m not going to pretend the Jacks are the sharpest operation out there or that it’s not awkward to rely on Procer for the goods, but what does more sneaks really do for us? It’s useful, sure but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table.”
“According to the first reports she’s fed us,” Adjutant said, “she has eyes in Ashur. We yet lack those, and it is the same for the First Prince.”
“Look,” Indrani said, “I’m not trying to be an asshole here. I’ve got nothing against Scribe. But Ashur, really? When the fuck was the last time those guys mattered? It scratches our nosy itches to learn what happens there, but the poor bastards are out of the war. Who cares what goes on there? On the other hand, she’s the godsdamned Scribe. You let her into something like the Terms and she’ll be handling half our villains’ money by the end of the year and reading the letters of the rest.”
That was a fair point, I mentally noted. Scribe would take to the Terms and their intended successor, the Accords, much like a fish to water. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Archer as underselling her value as an asset, though, in my opinion. Still, I’d decided before starting this talk that I’d hold my piece until I’d gotten the advice I asked for.
“The Carrion Lord ruled Callow for two decades without ever having a formal capital,” Akua said. “I have been heiress to a High Seat and Imperial Governess, so believe me when I say that is deranged. That such a nomadic bureaucracy was even attempted is absurd, but that it worked is testament to the sheer use that can be had from someone like the Scribe.”
“So she’s real good at paperwork,” Indrani said, sounding skeptical. “Hooray. We get us a shitty, untrustworthy Hakram. There’s a coup worth the trouble, Gauzy Ghost.”
“We have not yet identified through what agent the Wandering Bard managed to incite the Mirror Knight and his allies to head for the Arsenal,” Akua pointed out. “The Jacks don’t have the formation to attempt an investigation like this, and the heroes have produced no results on their own. That is already a use for the Scribe, and hardly the only one there is.”
“She’s expressed enmity for the Intercessor before,” Hakram gravelled. “I’d agree we can rely on her against a common enemy, at least.”
“Look,” Indrani sighed, “I’m not going to argue for an hour we need to open her throat. It’s starting to feel like I’m going after her, when I don’t particularly want her dead. You wanted my opinion, Cat, and you got it: she’s a risk, and I don’t see what she brings to the table that warrants taking it.”
I slowly nodded, drinking of my herbal brew, then turned an expectant gaze onto Akua.
“Killing her would be unwise,” Akua said. “For one, it would have consequences: villains would hesitate to sign onto the Terms, if they knew being snuffed out was a possibility should they be judged unfit.”
“The Scribe attempted to infiltrate our camp before the offensive and resisted when caught,” Adjutant mildly said. “We had no choice but to kill her. In can have every written evidence otherwise burned within a quarter hour and she’s only dealt in person with the adjunct secretariat. Secrecy is possible.”
“Hasenbach isn’t going to argue with her corpse, that’s for sure,” Indrani snorted. “She’s dreamed of seeing it often enough. The Highest Assembly might even throw us a parade.”
“The Dominion has no reason to care,” Hakram added. “And even less to investigate. Praesi villainy is largely seen as our backyard, and ours to deal with as we see fit.”
“The Terms are a covenant of Named, not nations,” Akua replied. “Belief in it has already been undermined by the second trial of the Red Axe and the prior wave of betrayals in the Arsenal. Further fraying the fabric of it without a decent motive, which I have yet to hear, would be irresponsible.”
“She has a significant portion of the Eyes, Akua,” Adjutant calmly said. “And we have no real understanding of what she wants, or what loyalties she keeps. Her Name will thrive in the environment of both the Terms and the Accords – practically speaking, she represents an immediate threat because she is a way for villains to gain and consolidate power that we have no control over.”
“She did not approach as a contender for influence, Hakram,” Akua said. “She requested a position under Catherine. Scribe can and should be considered a potential threat, but those are thin grounds to kill on. Even more so when those very same qualities that make her a threat also make her a potential asset of great worth.”
Which wasn’t wrong. Unlike Akua, I’d actually ruled Callow. She significantly underestimated how difficult it had been for Black to rule the kingdom on the move, even with the imperial governors handling most local matters. It was telling that our most comprehensive record of Callowan laws and noble privileges wasn’t the old Fairfax records that’d survived the Conquest but a neat set of manuscripts titled with the numbers I to VI in Scribe’s personal handwriting. She’d put together the records of half a hundred families and the House of Light so well that even Kegan, who despised everything Praesi, was in favour of having the books copied and used to govern.
“Thought you’d be all about strangling the viper before it could bite, Akua, I’m not gonna lie,” Archer frowned. “This isn’t about how we picked you up, is it? Because that’s not the same at all. Look, you were a bloody horror back in the day and our resident Callowans are still going to scrape you raw for it – but you’re not like Scribe.”
She leaned forward, earnest.
“We wouldn’t off you like that,” Indrani assured her. “It’s been a few years since we got past that. Hells, I’d probably miss you some if you got your ass exorcised.”
Coming from Indrani that was actually a pretty warm endorsement.
“While I am touched, Archer,” Akua drily replied, “I am not so confused or sentimental.”
“Refraining from killing her out of fear of it being outed is acting on sentiment,” Adjutant gravelled. “If not in the sense you implied.”
“So is acting to kill Scribe out fear of what she might do,” she replied without batting an eye. “We do not know her desires, what of it? Few allies are so helpful as to tell us these outright, and we have other Named just as dangerous in our menagerie of the damned.”
“If we come in conflict with the Carrion Lord, or he is made hostage-” Hakram began.
“- would we not act in accord with the man regardless, or seek to free him?” Akua interrupted. “Let us not pretend we seek enmity with the Carrion Lord, or that in his own way he is not a reasonable man. Was he not our candidate for the Tower, once upon a time? The scheme might have faltered, but the underpinnings of it remain unchanged.”
Which was a solid point, and a reason I’d been willing to consider taking on Scribe in the first place: what did I care if she’d betray me to Black, if I never got in conflict with him? Eudokia wanted nothing to do with either the Dead King or Malicia, my two most prominent enemies, which was a major point in her favour. Unfortunately while I agreed with Akua that she was a very capable woman, that only made it worse that I also agreed with Hakram: we knew fuck all about what Scribe wanted, and with that in mind I was very wary of letting her loose into the Truce and Terms.
I wasn’t worried about sabotage, if so she’d already be dead. But I was letting a fox into the henhouse, there were no two ways about it.
“Let’s not pretend we can take her in and not use her,” Indrani pointed out. “We take her, she’s not going to be a messenger girl: it’d be dangerous to use her like that, spit on what her Name’s worth. I don’t think it’s much, but it’s definitely more than that.”
“Her resources could be used in Mercantis to combat Malicia’s influence,” Akua said, speaking directly to me. “To hunt the Intercessor’s agents, to help provide the Arsenal with exotic assets, and that is only the use of what she leads. As a Named, she can smooth essentially any task she is assigned to. Are we not ever drowning in disasters?”
Archer eyed her with surprise, as if she couldn’t believe would care enough about this to speak this vehemently. I was a little surprised myself, to be honest. The Calamities had long been her enemies, and she had no reason to love Scribe,
“If she does become what was described as a threat,” Akua continued, “That is, a banker and facilitator for villains, imagine how useful she would be as such a broker yet in your service! It would be wasteful to kill her, Catherine. Consider whether the Accords you envision, the Cardinal you would build, can really thrive if you are afraid of letting in talent.”
That… was another good point, actually. The counter-argument came easy, that the Accords were years in the future while taking in Scribe was a risk in the present, but that last tirade should have weight on the scales. I’d heard from the other two, so my gaze moved on to Hakram. He’d already served as a goad for the other two, so he was due to actually speak his own mind.
“On purely practical grounds we should kill her,” Adjutant calmly said. “Her death would leave a large segment of the Eyes leaderless and easy to pick off for the Circle of Thorns. She would undeniably be useful if properly employed, but that would involve giving her access to our inner workings while she’s not been proved to be trustworthy.”
I’d argue it was debatable how much access she really needed to be given, if she’d learned about some details of godsdamned Quartered Seasons on her own, but otherwise his points stood. I cocked an eyebrow, as we both knew he wasn’t done.
“No one here is a saint, Cat,” Hakram said. “I won’t pretend we’re above slitting her throat and disposing of the body, or that showing kindness will make her one of us – she already has a home, a cause. But I hear us talk, sometimes, and wonder how often our words have been spoken.”
He bared a hint of fangs, teeth like white knives.
“If Dread Empresses have not sat with their Chancellors and Knights, with their Warlocks, they too deciding that someone needed to die just so they could rest a little easier,” Adjutant gravelled. “Did we fight all these years, Warlord, so that we could be just another spoke in the same old wheel?”
I’d been an idealist as a girl, hadn’t I? In my own way. Gods, I hardly remembered what that felt like. Too many compromises since, too many ugly choices, and I knew deep down that following principle once would mean nothing. Change nothing. But I looked at Hakram of the Howling Wolves, crippled in his wheelchair because of an ugly choice I had made, and found I could not argue with him. Not for guilt, though that would stay with me until I died, but because he was a reminder of a simple truth: this had to be about more than just winning.
If it wasn’t, it would all end as I stood victorious in the ruins of the world.
And so when Scribe stood before us, come Morning Bell, I tossed her a small painted iron pin, in the shape of a curled skeletal hand pointing a finger.
“Congratulations, Scribe,” I said. “You are now officially a member of the adjunct secretariat.”
Slowly she nodded.
“Good,” I smiled. “Now report.”