“Empires die to wars, emperors to knives.”– Free Cities saying
General Abigail of Summerholm, I’d noticed, always entered a tent like she expected it was going to be filled with a pack of hungry wolves. Or maybe just mine, I mused. She’d never quite managed to hide that she was rather terrified of me, which made toying with her something of a guilty pleasure – kind of like ringing bell near a particularly twitchy rabbit. With the seemingly permanently sunburnt cheek and watery blue eyes, the first Callowan general since the Conquest didn’t look like much. That delicate little nose made her look almost dainty, and the messy hair was seemingly match with dark rings around her eyes that over the years I’d seen thin but never entirely go away.
She was also one of the sharper field commanders in the Army of Callow, though I doubted she’d agree if asked. I’d not bet on her against Hune, not for a few years yet, but General Bagram of the Fourth had some bad habits from his Legion days – too prone to being defensive, too fond of using his heavies as a hammer to smash everything – to match the experience those years had given him, so that fight would be a much closer one. Mind you, it had to be said that this was true in part because the Army was horribly thin on senior officers. Hells, it’d been thin on those even after it’d cannibalized two full legions in the wake of the Folly and we’d taken considerable losses since then.
If Juniper and I had been able to spare a few years between wars to build off a proper officer corps she’d merely be one of the finer youngbloods, marked for advancement but still needing seasoning. As things stood, though, the decision to appoint her as the head of the force that’d hit the Cigelin Sisters wasn’t me playing favourites with a fellow Callowan: I was genuinely putting the person in charge I believed was the finest pick. Hune herself might have been even better, but I’d need the Second with me. Though the sapper corps was now nominally separate from the rest of the Army of Callow, in practice the largest part of it had been lodged with the Second Army for years.
General Abigail saluted, biting the inside of her cheek, and approached my personal desk. At my side I felt Hakram shift in his wheelchair, trying to hide his amusement at the sight. The phalanges regularly seeded flattering rumours about Abigail to facilitate my long-term intentions for her – I’d need someone with an unimpeachable reputation and absolutely no ambition to hold the Army of Callow for Vivienne, when she became queen – and I knew for a fact that he’d indulged some of his gossipy tendencies by crafting a few himself. I was pretty sure that delightful yarn about the good general having impaled a Revenant with the standard of the Third was his work, for one.
“Your Majesty,” Abigail of Summerholm said. “I came as summoned.”
I leaned back into my seat, regarding her gravely, and drummed my fingers against the desk. The general visibly wilted.
“That is cruel,” Hakram said in Kharsum, tone appreciative.
“You’re right, Adjutant,” I somberly said, “it’s best to get this over with.”
The rabbit whimpered and I was a bad, bad woman. I wasn’t going to stop, this was much too entertaining, but dues where they were due.
“Ma’am?” Abigail squeaked out.
“You know why you’re here, general,” I severely said.
The other woman twitched, like nervousness made into a body spasm, and out the stream came.
“I’m sorry,” General Abigail stammered, “I know it’s Proceran wine, and that makes me unpatriotic, but it’s just so good-“
I sat back in my chair, smothering a grin.
“- I didn’t even know they were loaded die, I got them from this goblin sergeant in the Second and-“
Oh Crows, she was still talking.
“- I wasn’t sure if they were really flirting, I mean they’re Blood and they’re engaged-“
Had I broken one of my most valuable officers? Had I finally taken this too far?
“- in my defence Brotel is a very confusing name for a town, especially with Alamans pronunciation, and I didn’t know he was an actual lord-“
Nah, I decided. This was just my reward for suffering through the last few weeks of soul-grinding warfare. It was like having a good smoke, only better because it came at someone else’s expense. It occurred to me, after that thought, that perhaps the company I had kept over the last few years had not done wonders for my moral character. It was probably Black’s fault if you went back far enough, I reassured myself. Not at all something I’d picked up all on my own.
“- I didn’t really mean that we should eat all Proceran children, I mean how would we actually do that – okay, so maybe if we did like another sort of magistrate dedicated solely to baby-eating, but that would be really expensive and I don’t think the House of Light would-“
Hakram cleared his throat, which silenced her in a heartbeat.
“You know what must be done now, I think,” I solemnly said.
“You’ll send me back home, where I will officially be a general but in reality stripped of all authority,” General Abigail hopefully said.
“Even better,” I said. “Adjutant?”
He wheeled up to her, passing her a folded parchment which she opened warily. Her eyes widened when she caught sight of the royal seal at the bottom.
“Congratulations, Lady Abigail,” I said. “You’ll have to pick a last name, now that you’re a noble in the formal peerage of the Kingdom of Callow.”
“What,” Abigail weakly said.
“Quite right,” I agreed. “It’s not a landed title, mind you, but I’ve made my stance clear on handing those out.”
I’d largely inherited a nobility with its back broken from my father, but Gods knew I would have gotten rid of even my last few northern barons if I could. I had no issue with court titles and even knighthoods, but the notion of legitimate rulers whose only talent was having the luck of being born to the right womb still rubbed me wrong. The governorships weren’t a perfect system, but they were a damned sight better than the labyrinth of noble laws and privileges that’d preceded them.
“I don’t understand,” Abigail tried again.
“In recognition of your bold and heroic charge at the Second Battle of Lauzon’s Hollow,” Adjutant said, visibly enjoying every moment of this, “you have been made a noble of the Kingdom of Callow. The crown rewards exceptional service, General Abigail, and yours has not disappointed.”
It also cut off any avenue of retreat if she tried to retire. Being a noble war heroine would make her one of the most eligible women in Callow after the war – she’d be dragged into the kingdom’s affairs whether she wanted it or not.
“I,” General Abigail hesitantly said, “thank you?”
“It was my pleasure,” I grinned.
I meant every word, if not necessarily in the sense she might expect. It looked like she was trying to convince herself she was out of the woods, so immediately I hit her with the second announcement.
“It was also my pleasure to name you as the leading commander of the force that will continue with the assault on the Cigelin Sisters,” I casually added.
“I don’t mean to question your judgement, Your Majesty,” the general delicately said.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever told me that without adding ‘but’ afterwards,” I noted, and cocked an eyebrow.
“However,” General Abigail gallantly tried, “would General Hune not be a better fit for this appointment?”
“I’ve got other uses for her,” I dismissed.
“It is only natural the command should fall to you, general,” Hakram gravelled. “You are, after all, a member of the formal Callowan peerage.”
I hid a grin behind my hand, admiring the sheer bastardry involved in that sentence. He hadn’t lost his touch, evidently. General Abigail glared at the parchment that’d turned her into a noble as if the sheer depths of her hatred would be enough to set it aflame, though sadly for her Creation did not deign to indulge her.
“Surely Princess Beatrice-“
“Coming with me,” I idly said, “you’re getting the fantassins, though.”
She paused a moment, considering the odds of my agreeing to pass overall command to mercenaries before rightfully dismissing the notion.
“Grandmaster Talbot?” she attempted, with remarkable tenacity.
I looked at her steadily and she deflated. The Summerholm girl gathered her courage though, and back into the breach she went.
“Perhaps the Dominion should-” she began.
I watched the wheels turn as she weighed whether Razin or Aquiline being in charge was more or less likely to get her killed.
“- leave a few companies of scouts behind, to compensate for the departure of the goblins,” she hastily adjusted midsentence.
“Poor lordlings,” Hakram amusedly said in Kharsum. “That’d sting, if they ever got wind of it.”
“Quite right, Adjutant,” I happily said. “She should get Firstborn instead. Ten thousand under Mighty Sudone and Lord Soln will do the trick, I would think.”
She stared at me woefully.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” General Abigail said, in the tone of someone who’d just been asked to kiss the axe about to take their neck on the chopping block.
“I understand I’ll be putting something a burden on you, as you’ll still be commanding the Third while leading this part of the campaign,” I said. “For that reason, I’ve assigned you an assistant you should find helpful in many regards.”
With impeccable timing the guard outside my tent parted the flap to introduce the newest arrival, the young orc announcing the entrance of ‘Secretary Elene’. Scribe had objected to our using her true name, if ‘Eudokia’ truly was that. It’d been the name she used as a Calamity, at least, which counted for something. I found it fascinating that though Scribe’s aspect – Fade, she’d eventually told me, though it could be a lie – was pulsing as it always did and Abigail was in no way proof for it, the general’s perpetual wariness meant she kept noticing that she wasn’t noticing much about Scribe every few heartbeats.
A fascinating demonstration of the virtues of paranoia when you… oh Gods I was starting to sound like my father wasn’t I? I cleared my throat, addressing both women.
“General Abigail, allow me to introduce you to Secretary Elene,” I said. “She is a member of the adjunct secretariat.”
Which was true, she even had a salary. I’d already ordered her pay docked twice for ‘indecorous skulking’, which was an official breach of regulations in the Legions of Terror because it was an institution that’d had goblins in its ranks for over two decades.
“I mean no offence, Your Majesty,” General Abigail said, “but is she perhaps a magical assassin meant to kill me if I displease you?”
I choked on a startled burst of laughter. My lack of immediate denial had those sunburnt cheeks turning pale.
“For shame, general,” Adjutant chided. “We don’t enroll our magical assassins in the phalanges, it’s the first place people would look. We’re not amateurs.”
“That makes sense,” the dark-haired woman muttered, actually brightening some. “So this whole magical whammy I’m feeling is, uh, accidental?”
“Secretary Elene is Named,” I said. “But I’m speaking for her too much already. Why don’t you introduce yourself, secretary?”
“I am Secretary Elene of the adjunct secretariat,” Scribe told Abigail in a tone so dry it rivalled the Hungering Sands. “Pleased to meet you.”
“And you,” the general replied, seemingly by reflex.
There was a pregnant pause.
“She’s shy,” I confided. “You might know her better as the Scribe.”
General Abigail blinked in surprise.
“The old one’s finally dead?” she asked.
“There’s no need to be insulting,” Scribe mildly said, “I assure you I am still quite spry.”
“You’re a Calamity?” Abigail wailed.
“Retired,” Scribe noted. “I am now gainfully employed by the Kingdom of Callow. Which has my adequately remunerated loyalty.”
“You conquered the Kingdom of Callow,” the general said, voice gone shrill with dismay.
“It’s a fair point,” I admitted.
“She has you there,” Adjutant agreed.
Scribe shot us a look that was deeply put-upon, though I’d met the godsdamned Calamities so if she was going to try to sell me she was used to less fucking around she was going to have to do better than that.
“I promise not to do it again,” Scribe tried.
“See,” I beamed, “already we’re all getting along. I’m sure the two of you will both bloom from the cooperation.”
“Of course,” she said. “I’m sure you’re right, Your Majesty.”
“I’m glad of your support for the notion,” I said, “I wouldn’t have forced it on you otherwise.”
I’d never seen someone die a little inside before, it was quite riveting. I dismissed them both afterwards, and by the time they were walking out already Scribe was asking questions about the supply situation that the general was clearly lying her way through answering. A promising pair, I decided. Abigail of Summerholm was too used to scraping by when the danger wasn’t immediate, which having Scribe keeping her on track should fix, while Scribe was too used to being the enabler of someone’s grand design: it would be a genuine challenge for her to assist someone as inclined to improvisation as General Abigail.
Named liked a challenge, deep down, and I suspected that having one would do more to keep Scribe bound to us than everything else I’d done so far.
With them leaving Hakram and I were left alone, though only momentarily – within moments one of his helping hands drifted in, bringing a report. He looked through it and dismissed the man, wheeling up to the desk where I was pouring myself a finger of brandy. I raised an eyebrow questioningly and he nodded, so I rustled up a cup to pour another.
“Roland’s band has killed the last creatures previously bound to Beastmaster,” he said. “Casualties among the companies that accompanied them were light, mostly caused when the manticore went berserk.”
The least dangerous of the creatures the man had mastered had either fled or grieved, but those who preyed on humans had instead gone violently rabid. Fortunately standing orders had been for Beastmaster to keep his menagerie far from where the Dead King could weaponize it, so it’d not turned into a costly rampage. Not that the hunts had been bloodless, for all that the Vagrant Spear had been wildly enthusiastic and the Blood had treated it like the social event of the decade.
“Burn the corpses and go through the standard measures to ensure none of it ends up in the Dead King’s ranks,” I said. “Anything else?”
“Archer’s drinking,” Hakram said. “Heavily. The Concocter joined her not long ago.”
I grimaced, considering what heavily would mean when it was Indrani doing the drinking. I’d have to dip a toe there later and see if my presence was welcome. I’d not been light-handed while handing down discipline, so it might be that even though grieving she genuinely would not want to see me. Still, that she’d broken out the strong stuff before night even fell was not a good sign.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said. “But it seems delicate situation to step into.”
He hummed in agreement, offering up his cup. We knocked them and drank, the gesture smooth and practiced from years of repetition.
“She rarely talks about Refuge,” Hakram said afterwards, “it’s not shame, I think, but perhaps the absence of pride.”
“She talks about Ranger all the time,” I grunted.
“She mentions the Lady of the Lake,” Adjutant corrected. “When does she ever speak of the woman beyond a few words? Even Vivienne shares more easily.”
It had admittedly occurred to me in the past that Vivienne had been the Thief – a sneak and keep of secrets – and my enemy for years, and yet I’d still known her name before Indrani’s. For someone so outwardly rambunctious Archer actually kept her card pretty close to the chest.
“It’s how she is,” I eventually said. “We’re not all built for deep talks and scrutiny, Hakram. Some people prefer their dark corners without lights shined on them.”
“I’m not sure that is truly the case,” he gravelled. “Maybe a few years back, but now?”
“Since the Everdark,” Hakram specified. “And I don’t mean because you two started sharing a bed down there.”
“Great Strycht,” I murmured.
Where I had died and risen again, First Under the Night. Where Archer had fought in my name against Mighty by the battalion, only to end up drowned in ice when my arrogance saw me eviscerated by the Sisters and Winter’s power spill out like a sea. That near-death, one that she’d admitted she would not have been able to avoid even if she’d known it was coming, had shaken her greatly. She’d grown past it, past the fear, but it had changed her nonetheless. Sometimes just seeing what lay past the door was enough, even if you managed to close it after.
“She’d never have admitted a thing to Masego, before that,” Hakram said. “She would have figured there was time enough later, and eventually that it was too late. No more, though. And I think it will be the same with Refuge, if the right person asks.”
“That might not be me,” I bluntly said.
The orc shook his head.
“It’s different, what she has with Masego,” Adjutant said. “He wouldn’t judge, it’s why she wouldn’t mind speaking. But you’re the one she confesses to, Catherine. Not me, not Vivienne, not the ties she’s made since she became a captain of Named.”
I leaned back, passing a hand through my hair.
“We’ll see,” I finally said. “I had to bring down the hammer on her yesterday, Hakram. It won’t have gone over well.”
The trouble was that, the way I figured, Indrani had joined the Truce and Terms largely because she was already part of the Woe and it was what we were doing. But the way I’d run the Woe wasn’t the way I had to behave as an officer of the Grand Alliance, and even if it was tempting I couldn’t just mark ‘the Woe’ as a different category within the Named I had authority over. It would undermine all I was trying to do if I treated them differently when it came to my duties. I wasn’t sure, though, how much Indran actually cared about the Terms – or even the Accords, in the long view. She’d not take the lash for a cause she was indifferent to, that much I knew.
It just wasn’t in her nature.
“You do her disservice, I think,” Hakram thoughtfully said, “but I understand why you would. Sometimes it’s more comforting to pick at a wound than have it healed.”
My lips thinned in irritation. It was not a charitable interpretation of this, and it would have earned more than a scowl for anyone else.
“I’m not sure what wound you’re supposed to be talking about,” I said.
“That she’s going to leave, eventually,” Adjutant calmly said. “That she made that choice long before she made the one to love you.”
I almost cursed – and not amusedly, not in poor humour. I almost cursed because that was the reflex, when something suddenly pricked you. I’d forgotten how sharp Hakram’s truths had a way of being.
“Figured it all out, did you?” I said, tone a tad bitter.
It was not a pleasant part of me he’d dragged up to the light of day. There’d been a reason I’d pushed it in a corner where the day didn’t reach.
“It was not insight, Catherine, but recognition,” he said.
His licked his chops then stayed silent for a moment.
“I have done the same,” Adjutant abruptly said. “With… this.”
He gestured all around us, encompassing everything as I went still. We’d not even come to close to addressing the subject since I’d refused the proposal to support the Clans in rebellion against the Tower as it currently said.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I carefully said.
“I needed to know,” Hakram quietly said, “if it was trust in principle or in truth. If you’d make a mistake simply because I asked you to, out of pity. More than anything else, that would have been intolerable.”
My eyes narrowed.
“Your proposal,” I said, “you botched it on purpose. It was never meant to be accepted.”
“I hacked away what might make it feasible,” he admitted. “And had them present you with what was left.”
My fingers clenched, but I forced myself to breathe out.
“I don’t think you understand how difficult the position you put me in was,” I said, tone forcefully calm.
“I do,” Hakram replied. “But I will not apologize for it, no more than you will apologize for barring from the battlefield and saddling me with a Named bodyguard.”
“That’s different,” I hissed.
He bared his fangs the slightest bit, but his neck remained straight – not bent to the side, which would imply apology or submission. He was unmoved.
“You did it so you’d sleep soundly at night,” Adjutant said. “So did I. And I will forgive you your shade of selfishness, if you forgive me mine.”
It wasn’t the same. I knew it stung, that I was keeping him away from the blades and saddling with what someone might consider a minder, but I was doing it so he wouldn’t get killed. What he’d done… But he doesn’t want to stay in the chair, Catherine, I reminded myself. He wants to risk the steel. And it was a decision I considered stupid and unreasonable, more a spasm of empty pride than anything with sense to it, but it wasn’t mine to make. Not really. He’d bent his neck because it would help me sleep at night, and now he was asking me to do the same. It tasted like ash, but I would not deny he was not asking more of me than I had asked of him.
Perhaps less, even. That tended to be the way with us.
“It stings,” I finally said. “That you didn’t trust me.”
He slowly nodded. I sighed and looked way.
“But maybe you’re not wrong, about picking at wounds,” I admitted. “Half the anger is fear that I could have failed the test.”
It was simply said, without frills or false promises. It did not reassure me as much as I would have thought it would, for all that.
“It’s not going to be the same, is it?” I quietly asked. “Even when time passes. When it’s not so fresh.”
“Things change, Catherine,” the orc replied. “We are not the same people we were when this all began.”
Grief seized me by throat, as much for what had been done as who we’d once been. It had my eyes burning, for the first time in years.
“It’s not a failure, Cat,” Hakram gently said, taking my hand. “It’s what we were after from the start. We can’t change the world without changing with it.”
“Yet it feels like a failure,” I murmured, “doesn’t it?”
Like I’d broken something. Those days in the Arsenal had cost us all more than I’d first understood. As all things touched by the Intercessor, they were poison in every way.
“We pay our prices,” Adjutant simply said. “That’s what victory is, even at its finest.”
I blinked and rubbed at my eyes, parting my hand from his. My throat felt raw, like I’d swallowed glass and some had stayed lodged.
“So it is,” I breathed out.
He patted my leg, then took his wheels in hand and began to make his way out of the tent. He paused, though, after a few armfuls.
“One last thing,” Adjutant said, turning just enough to meet my eyes.
I waited in silence.
“If you ever speak to me of debt, Catherine,” Hakram of the Howling Wolves evenly said, “I will leave and never come back.”
It felt like a gut punch and I took it about as well, fingers clenching as he wheeled himself out of the tent without turning back. Gods. He’d said that and meant every word, hadn’t he? The fear that flowed through my veins at that realization was almost paralyzing, and it was with trembling hands I reached for my pipe and lit up a packet of wakeleaf. Fuck. I’d known that nothing was absolute, that everything had a breaking point, but for him to just say it outright… I stayed alone on my tent, eyes closed and seeking calm that would not come.
After most of an hour passed I gave it up for the lost cause it was, and forced myself to seek out Indrani. Just because I felt like someone had yanked out the ground from under me didn’t mean I could afford to stop moving.
I’d not been sure what to expect, exactly, when I entering the tent where I’d been told Indrani and the Concocter were drinking together. The two empty bottles of Creusens red abandoned on the ground were hardly a surprise, but I’d figured they would at least be seated. Instead the two women were leaning back against a flipped table, toppled chairs around them, and between the two of them a large glass bottle containing what looked like boiling water – though inexplicably the inside of the tent reeked of cherries – and half a dozen shoddily-made clay cups that were chipped from use.
Indrani, out of her armour and in a rough linen tunic with little usual scarf hanging loose around her neck, was very sloppily pouring herself some of the transparent boiling liquor and spilling more than she realized. The Concocter, on the other side of the flipped table, took a moment for me to recognize: every hair on her body was now coal black, and her eyes the darkest I had ever seen. She was seemingly a lot more invested in mocking Archer’s pouring skills than noticing there was a third person in the tent, so it was Indrani who noticed me.
“Cat,” she breathed out. “You’re here.”
She started, then scowled.
“Cocky’s a villain,” Indrani said. “I didn’t break your rule.”
“I’m not here for that,” I assured her, then glanced at the other woman. “Concocter, always a pleasure.”
“The very same,” she replied, in the slow and careful tone of someone trying to seem less drunk than they actually were. “Would you like to sit, Your Majesty?”
“She hates nobles,” Indrani confessed to her. “It’s hilarious, she can never resist stepping on them even if she’s the big noble now.”
“Nobles are always big,” Concocter solemnly replied. “Fat. Fucking Consortium pricks, they always gouge me on prices. S’why I sell them mostly poisons.”
“We’ve been drinking, I see,” I said, reluctantly amused. “Thank you, Concocter, I will.”
I grabbed a chair, though instead of setting it aright I kept it on the side and pulled back my cloak as I sat down on the ground and leaned back against the legs. My leg twinged with pain, but it passed.
“See,” Indrani slurred. “I told you she’s not prissy.”
“I never said she was,” Concocter said, sounding irritated. “You always put words in my mouth.”
I felt a pang of envy. Much as they seemed to genuinely rub each other wrong, there was an underlying closeness that I’d never really had the likes of. I’d made my own family, when I got older, but those two looked nothing all and yet in that moment of familiar irritation they’d seemed like sisters.
“So what are we drinking?” I asked. “Smells strong.”
“Orchard Elixir,” Concocter proudly said. “My own creation.”
“Kickin’ Cherries,” Archer snickered. “You gotta call it that, I keep telling you.”
“I would rather kiss John,” Concocter replied.
A heartbeat passed, and then laughing drunkenly they loudly shouted ‘and he’s dead’ together.
“Gods rest his soul,” Concocter added. “So pretty. So dumb.”
“Ah, Tinkles,” Indrani breathed out, still laughing a bit. “At least he went out like a champion. It was a good scrap, Marchford.”
“If you’re going to keep laughing that loud, I’ll require a glass of that elixir,” I said.
I ignored Indrani’s accusations of treachery and leaned forward after Concocter poured me a glass more deftly than I would have expected. When she took the clay cup in hand and began to pass it to me, though, she froze. So did Archer. They were both looking at the cup, the laughter gone.
“Fuck,” Archer sighed.
“I’m missing something,” I noted.
“Lysander made those,” Concocter said. “We must have been what, twelve?”
“He was a little older, but yeah,” Indrani sighed. “He needed help for his first shot at a pack of stryxes, so he made these little gifts for everyone.”
“It’s tradition when you’re asking a favour, in some parts of the Free Cities,” Concocter told me. “Shows goodwill. He was from there – outskirts of Atalante, he figured, but he was never sure. His family were hunters, moved around a lot.”
“I got a leather bracelet with stones sowed on,” Indrani said, half-smiling. “It was shittily made, like the cups, but…”
“He’d put in effort,” Concocter echoed. “It was hard to say no after that. We weren’t as hard with each other, back then.”
“I don’t have to drink from it if you don’t want me to,” I gently said.
“No,” Concocter softly said after a moment, pressing it into my hand. “It should be used. It’s what it’s for.”
I took it up and nodded thanks, taking an experimental sip from the transparent liquor – which was, even now, popping small bubbles like faintly boiling water – and immediately choked. The taste, Gods, the taste. It was exactly as strong as it smelled, and kicked just as strongly as aragh.
“Sisters,” I cursed. “That is abominable.”
They both cackled with laughter.
“I usually cut it with fruit juice,” Concocter smirked. “I could always fetch something lighter if you’d prefer, Your Majesty.”
“Call me Catherine,” I snorted, waving dismissively. “And I’ve drunk worse for worse reasons, Concocter. I pretty much switched exclusively to aragh after I ate Winter, and I think it might burn even worse.”
“She pretends she’s all tough, but you should see her guzzle that Vale summer wine,” Indrani said.
The traitorous wench. I drank from the cup again, and it wasn’t as bad. Presumably the first sip had killed everything inside my mouth capable of feeling taste, so this was just flogging a dead horse.
“I should have let the Prince of Nightfall have you when we first got to Skade,” I said. “It would have saved me heaps of trouble.”
“I’ll toast to that,” Concocter drily said, raising her cup.
Even Indrani drink, because evidently it was that kind of a night. Well, afternoon anyway.
“This is our wake for Lysander,” Indrani told me afterwards. “Such as it is.”
“Never drank much, Beastmaster,” Concocter said. “Didn’t like the loss of control. He was that kind of a prick.”
“I’ll toast to that,” Archer said, and again we drank.
I didn’t actually talk that much over the following hours. I didn’t need to: they were, I grasped almost eager to tell their stories to someone who’d not heard them before. I suspected that the Concocter was a lot lonelier than she seemed, for all that she proud as a cat. On occasion I used the power of being less drunk than the others to steer away from squabbles, but the two of them proved surprisingly amiable with each other. Eventually the Concocter fell into a drowse, slumping against the table, and Indrani rested her head against it as well. She closed her eyes, and I almost figured she’d fallen asleep as well until she spoke.
“I’m glad you came,” Indrani quietly said.
“So am I,” I replied, just as quietly. “Almost didn’t.”
“Figured you might not want me there, after yesterday,” I admitted.
“Silly,” Archer said. “Not angry about that. You were fighting for your way.”
“Not yours,” I said. “And I had to rap your knuckles.”
“It’s just what happens, in those situations,” Indrani said.
The well of gratefulness I felt at her words did not quite silence the curiosity.
“Thought you’d be angry,” I said. “You don’t really care for the Truce and Terms.”
“I don’t,” Archer easily said. “Don’t mind them either, they’re not likely to get in my way. But they’re your way, Cat. Your mark, what you want to get done. I stepped on that, even if I didn’t mean to. I’d do the same if it was the other way around, if clapped chains around my feet.”
I slowly nodded. Hakram did have, I thought, that nasty habit of being right.
“You going to be all right?” I softly asked.
Silence followed for a long moment.
“Yeah,” Archer finally said. “I just… I thought there was still time, Cat. To make something new.”
She smiled bitterly.
“Stupid,” Indrani said. “Should have learned better, after Great Strycht.”
“I get it,” I said. “Nauk wasn’t what he used to be to me, not at the end, but when I heard he’d died at Sarcella…”
We shared a comfortable silence after that.
“He wouldn’t have been as easy to live with as the image in my head,” Indrani smiled. “I know that. Probably wouldn’t even have worked. So I guess it’s just having the possibility that I’m really grieving.”
“It’s still something, ‘Drani,” I replied.
“I guess it is,” she murmured. “I guess it is.”
After a moment her breath evened out, and I realized she’d fallen asleep. Reluctant to wake her so soon, I stayed seated even if my leg was beginning to ache and polished off the last of that atrocious Orchard Elixir. I was keeping an ear out for breathing, which was how I realized that the Concocter was no longer asleep almost immediately.
“It’s a nice thing you did,” Concocter whispered. “Coming here. Taking here of her.”
“She’s one of mine,” I simply said.
“She used to be one of ours,” the dark-haired villainess said, “but nice was never our game of choice. It’s done well by her.”
“You’ve done well by her,” Concocter said. “The Woe.”
“She’s done well by us,” I said. “Miss her?”
The other woman snorted.
“No,” Concocter said. “She was fucking horrible, you know? To all of us. And we were horrible right back, but she had this need to win and…”
She shook her head.
“But it was us, at the start,” she murmured. “The five of us. Other students came and went, but it was us and the Lady. It counts for something, even if we don’t want it to. Lysander was a vicious shit of a man, Catherine. Selfish and brutal. But I miss it too, just like her. The… possibility.”
“You weren’t asleep,” I said.
“Only half,” she shrugged. “Drifted in and out. But I don’t miss her, no. Maybe I’ll see her again in the years to come, and maybe I won’t. I’m not sure if I forgive her, or if there’s anything to forgive. But I like…”
She softly laughed.
“I like that I have the possibility, now,” Concocter said. “So thank you for that, Catherine Foundling. Because she wouldn’t have gotten there alone.”
“She would have,” I replied, meaning every word.
“And believe that, I figure, is what made her want it in the first place,” Concocter murmured.
I wasn’t going to argue the point, not with a grieving woman whose history with Archer was even more complicated than my own, so I stayed silent.
“The Huntress,” I said, “will she be all right?”
“Alexis never learned to cope with anything but her fists,” Concocter said. “It does her no favours, when tragedy strikes. But she’ll get better, if you keep them separate. They’ve always brought out the worst in each other.”
“Thought you might go see her instead if Indrani, at first,” I said.
“She’s with her friends right now,” the dark-haired Named shrugged, “people she actually likes. I’ll look in on her tomorrow. I don’t expect much to come out of it.”
“I thought you two were closer,” I frowned.
“You measure us all by your band,” Concocter murmured. “You shouldn’t. It’s rare, what you have. I’ve seen the other side lives, Catherine, and they don’t get it handed to them either. It’s rare, and it’s precious. Don’t let it go easy.”
“I won’t,” I quietly said.
She nodded, and made herself comfortable against the table. I waited until her breath was even again, then slowly pushed myself up to my feet. Night had fallen, and with it the time I could spend here. I would soon be needed. Still a little drunk, I limped out into the dark. The time agreed upon was soon, very soon. I wasn’t surprised when a grey-clad wanderer crept out of the shade, falling in at my side as I headed to the edge of the camp.
“Do you even know why you’re here?” I curiously asked.
“Not yet,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
I snorted. Fucking heroes.
“You asked me what my contingencies were, once,” I said. “You’re about to see one.”
And at the edge of the wards, the two of us stood in the dark until Creation was opened with a slice and a dark-clad man strode through the opening. He smiled at seeing me. I smiled back.
“Welcome back, Hierophant,” I said.