Chapter 50: Mores

“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.”

She sighed.

“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.

“Understandable.”

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.

I smiled.

“Ah,” I said, “but would you betray me to anyone else?”

She chuckled.

“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.”

93 thoughts on “Chapter 50: Mores

  1. That’s a terrifying level of penetration into the Arsenal.
    Hopefully Scribe is correct in best belief in the completeness of her control over the Eyes outside the sections still in control of the Tower.

    Heh, Scribe signing onto the Truce and Terms and taking a job with Cat and Hakram is going ruffle some feathers in Salia and among the Heroes.
    On the other hand … there may be carry on effects to Hakram’s Name.

    And, yeah, Hakram’s got a point – they started out wanting to be better, and killing Scribe over what she might do or to make things easier/more convenient for them is very much the kind of thing they* didn’t want to continue.
    *Meaning the Woe, maybe not Akua.

    Liked by 22 people

    1. I’ll note Akua argued vehemently in favor of letting Scribe stay, with some of the arguments bordering on principle – “what are we even doing if we’re not taking in talent”.

      It’s very much possible that Akua feels it too, even if she’s far from articulating the sentiment and standing by it.

      Liked by 12 people

      1. It gives Akua a chance to play off of a colleague- someone under Hakram instead of Cat directly. Matching wits with the Webweaver is very much in line with “Iron sharpens Iron”, and Akua might be feeling a little blunted after having the the Good Guys put her down.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. Akua has told both Cat and Ivah on separate occasions that ‘iron is brittle’ and ‘she has grown tired of iron’.

          It’s up in the air how much of her old habits is covered by that, but I genuinely think that wasn’t one of the motives involved here. Cat even noted she was unusually passionate about this.

          Liked by 4 people

    1. RoflCat

      Doubtful, since Night was able to pick up her sneaking aspect and Cat was able to notice the Shiraori (I’m A Spider, So What?) power of blocking recognition.

      And now we have the Sisters making sure nobody could eavesdrop on the conversation.

      That said it’s probably within her expectations that Cat might just kill her, and despite all that Scribe was still desperate enough to find the ‘answer’ to returning to Black’s side to come here.

      Liked by 9 people

          1. RoflCat

            In the series mentioned, the character Shiraori, an arachne btw, weave a magic around herself that prevent people from noticing details about her and generally just think of her as ‘white’ (her hair/clothing color, and yes her cloth are made via her own threads)

            Since it’s akin to how Scribe’s aspect work, I made the reference.

            Liked by 3 people

    1. caoimhinh

      I didn’t get that reference, but that’s cool.

      For me, it was an echo of Catherine’s conversation with Amadeus back in Procer when she was making her sales pitch for the Accords. She outright admitted to him that she expected the Grand Alliance to be at war with the Free Cities in the coming decade or two. This is just one more piece on the scales leaning towards that future.

      Liked by 5 people

  2. ninegardens

    Huh….

    That was well played.
    Having all the arguing about the usefulness or danger of Scribe, and then cleanly cutting it off: Her usefulness was never the point. She’s a living person, killing her in cold blood would be wrong.

    Liked by 16 people

      1. 'Ladi Williams

        That’s exactly what hakram was going for. It doesn’t matter what use she can be put to. She has done us no immediate wrong and she came I supposedly good faith. It is wrong to kill her and we should be better than this.

        Liked by 7 people

    1. KageLupus

      Close, but I do disagree. I don’t think the problem is killing her in cold blood. Cat and the Woe would do that without blinking an eye if it were truly necessary. The point I think Hakram is making is that in this case it isn’t truly necessary.

      Killing someone because you have to to make the world a better place is Cat’s MO. Killing someone because it would be slightly more convenient for you is the stuff of Dread Empresses. Cat has already decided she isn’t walking that path so why go through their motions?

      Liked by 7 people

  3. IDKWhoitis

    For the new young bloods, hearing a Calamity signed the Truce is going to invoke one of three reactions.

    1. Shit, things are getting serious
    2. I wonder what I can trade for a favor…
    3. Are they weakened? Can I up my cred by picking a fight?

    I’m now imagining the next villain meeting. Cat at the head of the table, ‘Rani on her right, Scribe to her left, and the poor villains wondering which one of the two would be the least awful to piss off… Because while Archer can beat some sense into someone, the whole prospect of getting disappeared and waking up in a casket is a different level of horror.

    Liked by 11 people

    1. Scribe isn’t going to be at Catherine’s left hand, she’s explicitly subordinated to Hakram, that’s his place.

      Scribe is going to be taking notes at a separate table, and no-one will notice that.

      Liked by 12 people

    2. Salt

      I don’t think most Named outside of Praes even fully understand how dangerous she is, tbh. She wasn’t an official member of the Calamities, and when Catherine met her for the first time she didn’t even realize Scribe was Named until Black gave it away.

      Most likely it’ll be a small fuss, quickly followed by Scribe being mostly forgotten about, after appearing to do absolutely nothing noteworthy at all and holding no publicly visible position, especially with Hainaut looming over the horizon to distract everyone.

      Most of her actual achievements will probably get attributed to Hakram, by operating as a member of the secretariat, so she can effectively act as an invisible walking sucker punch.

      Liked by 12 people

  4. dadycoool

    Oh, boy. Now she’s got the secretary to end all other secretaries under her authority. Technically that could be Harkram, but he’d have to find out about them first. Scribe would already know about them all.

    Liked by 8 people

  5. Tolack

    Thanks for the chapter. I’m glad Hakram reminded Cat that there’s an idealist somewhere inside her that doesn’t want to kill people on a maybe. More so when I agree that the chance of conflict with Black is so insignificant that the bonuses from recruiting Scribe will be so very worthwhile.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Konstantin von Karstein

    This is a mistake, she should have kill Scribe. They know nothing about what she want, and it’s the woman who would have destroy the Principate in the middle of a war against the DK.

    On another subject, Ashur seems to have a Silver Mage, a Blue Mage and a Red Mage. I see a pattern there… From last chapter we know Silver is a healer, so is Blue an hydromancer?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. RoflCat

      I don’t think it’s that hard to guess though?

      It’s Black, or rather to return to ‘the place she belongs’ by his side.
      Losing her place hit her HARD, even so when it was Black himself who cut the tie.

      But her last talk with Black have given her…something.
      On one hand, he clearly said that it’s possible for them to be side by side again.
      On the other hand, he’s quite clear that who she is right now is NOT the one he will stand with.

      But after having basically removed all her other desires, working towards the ideal ‘machine’ to run with his (that’s likely what Black meant by his ambitions devoured hers), Scribe have no idea how to be a ‘person’ again, or at least one that Black will accept back.

      So I think Scribe’s intention of being under Catherine is probably after both Catherine and Hakram.
      Catherine for being the one who…’humanized’ Akua from the Praesi she was.
      And Hakram for being a near mirror to who she is, but clearly with his own ambitions.

      Liked by 7 people

      1. ninegardens

        That’s also the fact that Cat stabbed Black and said “Come back when you you are a better person”
        If Scribe blames Cat for this change… she may also credit her with being capable of making HER a better person in Black’s eyes.

        Liked by 9 people

            1. Scribe didn’t know a lot of things, judging by her behavior towards Catherine.

              Scribe has NOT been in top ten of “characters most able at reaching their actual ultimate goals through their actions” of PGTE, I’m just saying. Not even top twenty.

              Liked by 2 people

    2. caoimhinh

      Hmm, I would argue that they know exactly what she wants: be with Amadeus again. And let’s not forget that the mess in Salia started as a countermeasure to save Amadeus. She is a member of a Band of Named, willing to go any distance for her leader, just like Hakram would do anything for Catherine or Indrani would have caused a slaughter and ruin the Grand Alliance if Pilgrim killed Masego.
      I would say that so long as Catherine doesn’t act against Amadeus, they have a strong, loyal(ish) and extremely useful asset, we all know that Amadeus would rather die than go against Catherine, since he loves her as a daughter and sees his legacy on her, trusting her to make a better world than the one he was building. And Catherine won’t go against Amadeus because she loves him as a father and sees him as the man that can put order in the East, the model of reasonable villains of great power, and the man who set the foundations for the new era by being a paragon of Pragmatic Villainy.

      As for the Blue Mage, I was thinking of rather than a Hydromancer, more of a Final Fantasy type of Blue Mage: Sort of “spell thief” that adopts abilities from a wide range of monsters that they fight against. A Blue Mage in Final Fantasy will be able to copy the Skills of monsters/enemies either by witnessing them used or by receiving the attack. In the game, they are very useful because they can use abilities that are otherwise exclusive to enemies.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. A Hydromancer sounds very much like an Ashuran kind of Name though.

        And yeah, Catherine and Amadeus are very close to the same entity politically. They have both taken turns aiming to put each other in charge of the stuff they don’t want to deal with personally. Catherine is Amadeus’s greatest success, and Scribe should understand that by now.

        I think she does, and that is why she came.

        Liked by 6 people

      2. Konstantin von Karstein

        We already have 2 spell thieves with Roland and Masego, so a third would be much. Also, the Red (associated with fire) Mage was a pyromancer, so I think it’s likely the Blue one is an hydromancer.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. caoimhinh

          It’s not necessarily much, since the way their powers work are different and the way they use their magic is way different. Roland and Masego are completely different styles of practitioners, and the way they steal magic (and then re-use it) is completely different too.

          The theft of power is also not exclusive to mage Named. For example, Catherine can loot Aspects from corpses through Night, could do so as Squire through Take, and implied that she could through the use of Winter as Sovereign of Moonless Nights, while both the Rapacious Troubadour and the Headhunter can steal power from their killed victims.

          We also have White Knight, Black Knight, and Red Knight; but that doesn’t make it too much, at least in my opinion.
          Blue Mage could be a Hydromancer, but we shouldn’t rule out any possibility, right? I just meant that a FF-type of Blue Mage was what came to my mind when I read the Name, and I think that given the variety of abilities such a practitioner would have, it would help them to beat Assassin, who is by definition a very sneaky fellow.

          Liked by 4 people

      1. That’s just one interpretation of “Blue Magic”.
        And “copying monster abilities” doesn’t really fit the Guideverse, IMO.

        Another, equally valid one is that Blue Magic is primarily mental magics, various forms of illusions and similar magics.
        Which is probably more consistent with the established setting.

        Or something along the lines of Magic: The Gathering’s Blue Magic, which is a lot … broader. Though would likely fit into the guideverse reasonably well.

        Liked by 2 people

    3. Zach

      The point Hakram was making is that it’s a slippery slope once you start justifying killing people on the basis of them possibly being a threat later. It would be one thing if it were in response to Scribe being hostile to them, but that hasn’t been the case since the war started.

      Also, I would be willing to wager that, if they killed her, the truth of the situation would get out somehow (and be a huge threat to the Truce and Terms if it did).

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Honestly, as much as I’m usually in favor of giving everyone a chance in stories (if just to see what chaos follows), I was on team cutthroat, consequences be damned. Scribe was too much of a wildcard before being abandoned by her master, and now she’s a wounded beast trying to get back in his graces by any means necessary.

    Plus, it sets up redundancy on Hakram, putting Scribe this close to things. He’s already weakened and losing half his power, so — intentionally or not — Scribe’s presence is going to eat away at what’s left. The fact that Hakram spoke in her defense has me wondering if he might be trying to commit suicide by story.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Tirielle

      I actually wonder at the story logic here – I agree that Scribe makes Hakram rather redundant, but maybe that’s what he’s aiming for. His role is to be what Cat needs – if she no longer needs him as a scribe, maybe he can ride that into standing by her side in battle again.

      Liked by 7 people

    2. Thorium

      While they are both administrators and secretaries, Hakram’s main Role was always Cat’s trusted second. Scribe won’t be interfering with what is at the core of his Name by being a spymistress for Cat.

      Liked by 7 people

    3. Vivienne was the spymaster, not Hakram. That was never his role.

      Ratface, then Vivienne, then still Vivienne because they didn’t have anyone else even though Vivienne was also the heiress.

      This is Scribe filling in a convenient vacuum right under Vivi, not making a bid for anyone’s place.

      Liked by 8 people

      1. Cicero

        It’s also preparation for when Cat abdicates, as the Jacks will remain Callow’s intelligence agency.

        Scribe can become part of Cardinal’s power structure instead.

        Liked by 7 people

    4. Morgenstern

      .. and if it were different bc. of Hakram’s role as spymaster in Cat’s future plans for Cardinal, then this plays right into what we learned about Hakram’s actual own wishes only one chapter ago: He wants his Name to give him back his *battle* ability to STAND besides Cat, not be that spymaster he only became because she needed *someone* to fill that position and he just scoops up *any* function she needs as her Adjutant. But what he wants to be is NOT a glorified secretary, obviously, no matter how much he seems capable enough to do the job of one.
      He just asked Cat to stop thinking of his future with her as the man behind the desk, start thinking of him as her shield again.

      Liked by 6 people

  8. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    are a getting > are getting
    presence, weight, > presence weight,
    That came an > That came from an
    it probably > it was probably
    said, “It > said. “It
    access places > access to places
    back the night > back to the night
    has,” dark > has,” the dark
    Archer as > Archer was
    the formation (is this correct?)
    In can have > I can have
    believe would > believe Akua would

    Liked by 4 people

    1. caoimhinh

      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.

      Should be: Whether it was at me for being bluntly high-handed or at herself for the missteps, I didn’t know and it probably didn’t matter.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hakram’s Dead Hand

    I think it would be hilarious if Assassin truly was dead this time, and both the people in the story and us keep pointing at corpses and being like “Could Assassin have done this???” When he’s been dead for years.

    Liked by 8 people

  10. HELL YEAH

    This is the best reason to take her. The best tiebreaker: ultimately, it’s just not what they DO, killing people after agreeing to take them in. It’s not a habit they’ll be getting into.

    Also, she’s one of the few people left that Amadeus cares about, that’s also a thing. Nobody mentioned that explicitly as an argument, but Cat would feel like shit afterwards if she’d ignored that.

    But that can be secondary to the tiebreaker of “let’s just not”.

    Also, also, also.

    I CALLED THIS AT THE END OF LAST BOOK.

    I said coming to Catherine would be Scribe’s reasonable next move, and taking her in would be Catherine’s reasonable next move!

    Scribe took two years to get her house in order first, and Catherine deliberated first, but ultimately, I CALLED THIS HELL YEAH I LOVE THIS

    I just really love the consolidation of forces :3

    Liked by 11 people

    1. Scribe isn’t really an idea kind of person. That’s kind of the entire problem with her and Black.

      There’s potential there, though. It can be Cat at first but then if she gets into it Cat probably can eventually, in Cardinal, leave increasingly more issues to her personal discretion…

      Liked by 4 people

  11. Zengar

    “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.”

    Okay, Cat’s level of genre savyness is reaching some frankly terrifying levels. Admittedly, it is being honed by playing games with the Wandering Bard who is DEFINED by genre savyness, but being able to SENSE the flow of the story directly rather than having to reason it out? And being able to do it deliberately, so that she may one day be able to do it at will?

    I think I need to revise where I think where _I_ think this story is going….

    Liked by 10 people

  12. mamm0nn

    I’ve mentioned old monsters in the comments of the last interlude, and it never really let me go. And now that they properly put Scribe just next to the spotlight again (we tried to beam it directly onto her but somehow she’s always in the features-obscuring shadows just next to it despite her not visibly moving), I can’t help but wonder how old she might be.

    We know how old Black, Captain and Warlock are/were, and Assassin was always someone either from their generation or a generation or two older than that at most. But Scribe? She might’ve been Scribing for decades when Black was still in diapers.

    So, taking all bets! Who wants to play the Guess Scribe’s Age Game?

    Liked by 4 people

  13. James Felling

    Morality and Ethics aside Cat et al made the wisest choice.

    Who here doesn’t believe that Scribe would not have some sort of contingency set to blow up in their face should things go badly for her, and a reasonable plan for an escape. The Scribe is not unbeatable, but in a time and place of her own choosing, even on hostile ground I for one would be fairly certain that offing her would be at best a roll of the dice, and likey leave lasting scars on her opposition. Maybe not physical scars, but she’d make them pay in blood and treasure.

    Liked by 8 people

  14. ohJohN

    I suspect Akua has ulterior motives for fighting this hard for Scribe — maybe related to whatever redemption story she’s secretly planning for herself? — but I do agree that it would be awfully wasteful not to utilize her.

    > “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!”

    I get that there’s the issue of trust, but if Cat had someone “handling half our villains’ money […] and reading the letters of the rest,” managing her faction would be a breeze with the leverage she’d gain. She’s already planning her Office of Villain Relations (or whatever) with a similar function, and Scribe could just… make that happen, quickly, quietly, and effectively, leaving Cat free to work on other problems (as a bonus, her access to ALL THE INFO would make adjudicating contracts guaranteed by the office a breeze).

    Liked by 5 people

  15. Jack

    >“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.”

    Oh? We’re just going to sit here and pretend that she’s not already in the room?
    Cmon.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. jamesc9

        Under all normal circumstances, I’m not sure it’s even jam; more like bread and butter, and the jam is using that knowledge to manipulate people into killing each other for her. That said, it has been covered in the text, so if the focus characters are wrong, then there needs to be an explanation of how they made a non-stupid mistake.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Darkening

          They explicitly said the Crows were watching for Scribe, and while she is impressive at going unnoticed, I doubt she can completely conceal her presence from a pair of goddesses.

          Liked by 3 people

  16. I have a theory on how Hakram will develop from here: working alongside Scribe, he will grow more and more content operating in a purely administrative capacity with no front-line combat involved; meanwhile, the other Named will develop more and more awareness of his importance to the war effort, and respond with ever-increasing amounts of praise. Eventually, when the war is over, Hakram will take his place at Cardinal alongside Cat, and transition into a new name: Glorified Secretary.

    Thank you, thank you; you’re a great crowd 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Yeah, it’s not a fucking confidence that now that Hakram is crippled, fate throws Catherine a discount Hakram for a price of both.

    The main problem I see with it is simple. Having a Scribe will shift Hakram’s Role even more away from combat, both in reality, and in the perceptions of others. And so his fears and woes will come true, nay, already has: fate itself had judged that he will not stand by the side of his Warlord in the battlefield ever again.

    I expect that actually hurts him even more. How his nature shifts away slowly and inexorably from who he once was. Somehow I think that also can be a sort of a death flag. Hakram has a choice, to die in the fight as an Adjutant (with Scribe there to pick up after himself) or shift into something else.

    It would be a choice between selfishness and selflessness, and we all know what he picked out time and time again between the two. So now, we will see, what choice he has to make one last time.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah, it’s especially hard for Hakram because he’s an orc and their culture very much values combat, strength, war, etc. Obviously the other orcs won’t give him shit since he’s the first Named in forever but I imagine it’s very much a core part of his identity.

      It suggests to me that maybe overcoming this difficulty will reflect on the orcs in general. Whereas the Reforms transformed orcs from warring tribes into disciplined soldiery proficient in war, Adjutant and Callow might transform them from soldiery into builders, administrators and poets – a cultural step bringing them closer to what they were before Miezan’s enslaved them.

      Liked by 5 people

    1. ninegardens

      Huh… that might be an interesting way to Neuter Praes; Arrange for a number of their most powerful names to be filled by people IN OTHER PLACES.
      And then, presumably, force them to have names from far off lands.
      Empress Basilia anyone?

      Liked by 3 people

      1. jamesc9

        So, fleshing that out, the High Seats can’t lobby the Chancellor without travelling to Callow, which offends them enough that the won’t, except at great need.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Zach

      This doesn’t make any sense, because Catherine wants to eliminate (or at least reduce as much as possible) the role of Named in leading nations.

      I don’t think there’s been a single time when the comments of this story have speculated about Name transitions and it hasn’t been completely wrong (which I’m thankful for, because people have a lot of really bad ideas).

      Liked by 2 people

  18. Decius

    Does anyone really believe that Scribe would be unaware of the movement of paperwork, or lack thereof?

    Of course, nobody really believes that Scribe wasn’t aware that the discussion about whether or not to murder them happened.

    Like

  19. Honestly it would not surprise me if Scribe had asked Assassin to impersonate her for that meeting, so that if they had decided to kill her they just would have failed to kill it instead.

    Like

  20. Isi Arnott-Campbell

    For everyone speculating here about Adjutant’s eventual demise and/or retirement, when he got his Name the narration said something like “And so it ended. And so it began.” I suspect this will prove to be one half of a pair of bookends, meaning that he’ll end the story kneeling to her as he did that night. I’d be more confident of this if it’d be the literal starting point of the story, but it could happen.

    Liked by 1 person

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