There’s nothing impressive about oracles, Chancellor. All that’s needed to foretell the future is a fool and a tiger pit.”– Dread Emperor Malignant III
I’d never seen Vivienne in armour before.
Mind you, she wasn’t exactly barded for war and wearing full plate. She’d put on a blue riding dress, then accentuated that with a good steel breastplate topped by matching spaulders and a loose gorget. She’d not bothered with a tasset to cover thighs, preferring only a broad belt, and the lack of greaves and gauntlets softened the look. It was a good choice, I’d decided. Playing the warrior queen outright would not have suited her, but a martial touch that added to her increasingly regal manners would toe the line just right. It was a reminder that she might not be a soldier, but that she’d ridden out some of the worst scraps the Woe had ever been in without being dead weight. Considering Vivienne had spent most of her adult life wearing loose leathers and treading rooftops without ever developing an interest in fashion that I’d noticed, I could only praise whoever it was in her service that’d made the suggestion.
“Too much?” Vivienne asked, taking off her riding gloves.
Dry as the tone had been, I suspected that the slight undertone of abashment I’d picked up there wasn’t just me looking for pearls in a pigsty.
“It suits,” I replied, shaking my head. “And I notice you made sure you’d be able to fight if you had to.”
The riding dress wouldn’t mess up her footing too much, and she was a nimble one even without a Name to heighten the talent. I did not hide my approbation. There was no call to ever feel safe north of Salia, no matter what we liked to pretend.
“It’s the classic Summerholm cut,” she told me, sounding amused at my ignorance.
I snorted. Yeah, if there was one city in Callow where there’d it’s be a fashion staple to be able to fight in your dress it’d be the Gate of the East. I probably would have had to learn about this stuff if I’d ever held a proper court, with all the attached feasts and festivals and formal receptions that involved, but my kingdom had half on fire and on permanent war footing from pretty much the moment the crown was set on my brow. Mind, you as the daughter of a minor baron who’d held the title mostly in name since the Conquest it wasn’t like Vivienne would have been swimming in new dresses. It’d been a wealthy of upbringing, but that wealth had begun dwindling before she was ever born and the noble title had, as determined by Tower law after the Conquest, died with her father. There was a reason I’d had to raise her back to the formal Callowan peerage.
Black had preferred leaving my people’s nobility to wither on the vine with their titles intact rather than strip those outright, you see. It was less likely to lead to conspiracies, with all those suddenly landless knights and barons instead worrying about how they were going to pay for the upkeep of those mansions my father had so mercifully left them to own.
“The cloak goes with everything,” I shrugged. “What more do I need to know?”
“I still remember when you avoided wearing black like the plague,” Vivienne smiled. “How the times have changed.”
I grimaced, as this was a bit of a sore spot. I’d gotten used to the darker colours, in truth, but I did still have the occasional craving for a pretty sundress or a tunic in a tone you’d seen on a rainbow that’d not been cursed by some fucking warlock. The trouble was that the ‘Black Queen’ couldn’t be seen wearing those things, it’d take a bite into a reputation that’d come in too useful too many times for me to be able to justify wearing a dress that’d not been rolled in a barrel of soot beforehand.
“When I retire,” I told her feelingly, “I will wear nothing but pastels for a year. I solemnly swear.”
“I’ll look forward to the Mirror Knight expounding on how the pink dress is really a hint of your many perfidies to come,” she snickered.
We shared a moment of quiet amusement at the thought. I’d seen precious little of ol’ Christophe, as it happened. The White Knight had not been softhanded in making it clear that he’d disgraced himself, which had seen his popularity dry out some. Even those who would have been inclined to still lean his way had been kept away by the neat trick of there being no one really willing to argue with the Peregrine when he told you to go away. Tariq was proving a finer check on the Mirror Knight than I’d anticipated, though I still had to wonder if even the Grey Pilgrim was going to be enough to set that man straight. The chuckles faded, though, and I did not resume banter. It was Vivs here, not an officer or a ally, so I didn’t bother with subtlety.
“Why are you here, Vivienne?” I bluntly asked.
“Always a pleasure to see you too, Catherine,” she replied.
The way she tucked in that perfectly fine milkmaid’s braid told me that, once more, she was a little more nervous than her tone and face would imply.
“Don’t give me that,” I dismissed. “You know well that the only reason I could even spare you from your duties in Salia was because we need you with some battle honours to your name before you succeed me. I’m happy to see you, Vivs, but we’re not really in a time and place where happy’s what takes the day.”
“I know,” she admitted with a grimace. “And the truth is, my reasons for coming are thinner than I’d like. I take it this is just going to be the two of us?”
She gestured at the solar around us, situated in the same guildhall that Robber had found me hours earlier. Adjutant had accurately deduced that I’d want this solar – nice windows but not too large, sun-facing and with room enough inside for multiple desks and chairs – for my own and made warding it with our usual suite of protection a priority. He was still arranging the last details for the rest of my new lodgings and headquarters, but he’d be on his way soon.
“Hakram’s coming as soon as he can,” I told her. “Zeze’s got duties for a while still, and I left word for Indrani but I’ve no idea where she is in the city.”
Hunting for undead, I suspected. It was all a little too cat and mouse for my own tastes, but Archer had always liked a hunt and Keter’s last infiltrators made for interesting – if not overly dangerous to a Named – quarry.
“I was asking whether you wanted to bring in allied commanders, actually,” Vivienne said, “but I suppose you answered the question regardless.”
I shrugged. I wasn’t going to keep anything from them unless there was a call for it but I felt no need to include them into what was, on the surface, a purely Callowan matter. Both the Fourth Army and Vivienne herself were of my lot, it was to myself they answered first and foremost. Being in the room for this conversation was not a courtesy I felt I owed them.
“You were meant to command the troops at the defensive line down south,” I noted. “If General Abigail did take the Cigelin Sisters-”
“She did,” Vivienne confirmed. “It was a rout. The Tyrant’s Own under General Pallas baited the dead out of the defences with a feigned retreat, and when the battle was engaged the fantassins under her command found a way through the hills the dead hadn’t. They were struck in the sides as well, and their lines collapsed. Some five thousand withdrew, and the relief force the Dead King sent decided not to risk taking back the Sisters from her.”
Huh, fancy that. My nervy little general had come through once more. I’d expected a victory out of her, but this was more decisive than I’d anticipated.
“Good, then we should be establishing contact soon,” I grunted. “Doesn’t explain why you’re here and not commanding the Deoraithe and levies that we funnelled up to hold the defensive line.”
The Daoine troops I trusted to handle themselves, but Proceran levies had a nasty tendency to run when things got rough. Wasn’t some deep moral flaw, even if some of my soldiers like to pretend otherwise, but more or less what you should expect when you put a spear in a shoemaker’s hands and told him to fight something like beorn.
“The Augur believed that if I was not here by the moon’s turn, and the Fourth with me, then Procer would fall within the year,” Vivienne bluntly said. “The Astrologer wasn’t quite so sure, but she agreed that the storm about to come for Hainaut is going to be a horror and the signs are largely against us.”
“The Augur can’t see the Dead King,” I pointed out. “Or myself, for that matter.”
She could also be outmanoeuvered, as Black had proved during his ill-advised Proceran campaign. Her long-term predictions tended to be vague and her shot-term ones only mattered when they got where they needed to be in time for them to be useful.
“The First Prince saw fit to reveal that the Augur been working with the Forgetful Librarian to find a way around her blind spots,” Vivienne said. “It’s a process of elimination, or at least Hasenbach hinted as much. Every time I’m not here before the whiteout, after it the Hainaut front collapses.”
“All our prophets encountered something similar,” Vivienne said. “Trying to peer into what happens during the coming battle here is somehow blinding for oracles. They’ve theorized it’s because there are too many entities involved who resist or outright muddle foretelling.”
Huh. I supposed we had gathered a significant amount of Named, which would pretty much twist Fate into a knot. On top of that there were Choirs involved – at least Mercy, possibly Judgement if it triumphed over the Hierarch at a critical moment – here on the Dead King and my own’s ability to screw with predictions. That was a lot of moving parts for a mortal oracle, maybe more than they would be able to physically comprehend all at once.
“The Astrologer insists that the stars indicate the Gigantes will be critical in what is to come,” Vivienne added, “but that one might be muddled. She’s also sure they’ll be crucial to something in Twilight’s Pass, and there’s barely any of them there.”
I cocked an eyebrow.
“I wasn’t aware there were any at all,” I said.
“Hasenbach wrangled further concessions out of them through the Dominion,” Vivienne said. “She had to first get the Highest Assembly to vote a formal apology to the Titanomachy for the Humbling of Titans, though, which cost her some support in the south. Among her prizes is that the Gigantes sent a group to fortify the Morgentor, with an eye to doing the same to the rest of the fortresses in the pass.”
Well worth some Arlesite grumbling, in my opinion, but then I wasn’t the one that had to keep the shitshow known as the Highest Assembly in a semblance of functioning order. Somehow I suspected that if we’d not cooperated to let that same Assembly try the Red Axe for attempted regicide Hasenbach would have had a harder time getting that vote passed. It was easier to get princes to bend their proud necks when you’d proved you were willing to cross Named to protect their lives.
“We do have Gigantes in the city,” I said, “mind you, at the moment they should-”
The air shuddered, and for a moment it was as if all the world had gone still. As if I was a fly caught in amber, as if all the empty spaces of Creation had chillingly filled. And when that power released me, as primordially indifferent as the wave that could guide the sailor ashore or drown him, I found myself gasping as I leaned against the table. Vivienne was looking at me in a panic, already on her feet.
“Cat, are you all right?” she asked, taking my arm and supporting me.
I closed my eyes, focusing on breathing in and out. The urge to empty my stomach passed.
“I’m fine,” I got out.
“You’re not fine,” Vivienne bit back angrily.
I gently pushed her away, still leaning against the table slightly.
“I’m not being stubborn, it passed,” I said. “And it won’t happen again.”
Blue-grey eyes examined me, as if looking for a lie.
“You didn’t feel that?” I asked her.
Slowly she shook her hand.
“I’m guessing,” I sighed, “that was my first taste of what Gigantes spellsinging feels like for someone… attuned to the parts of Creation I am.”
“Bad?” Vivienne quietly asked.
“What the Witch of the Woods does is a pale imitation,” I ruefully said. “They tap into something larger, Vivienne. It was like standing next to Sve Noc if they were losing their temper, but less… targeted.”
Masego has once called the godhead a trick of perspective, as the Hierophant’s eyes had always seen further than those of other men. I’d once been such a trick, when I had scavenged my way to rule over Winter, but it’d been blind flailing. It was not without reason that the Dead King had described my apotheosis as ‘accidental’ when we’d first met in Keter. These days I could touch those deeper rules on occasion, as I had at the Second Battle of Lauzon’s Hollow, but my understanding was limited and the use was rough on me. What the Gigantes had just done – and it must be them, for no one else in the city should be capable of this – had… ridden such rules, for lack of a better term. Like a ship on the tide, using the sea without mastering it. It was not they way I did it at all, but that I had the capacity in the first place must have been enough to make me… sensitive.
Hierophant would have been as well, I figured, but no one else in Hainaut.
“I’ll be ready next time,” I told Vivienne. “It was the surprise that left me vulnerable.”
Like a sucker punch in the gut, though they’d probably not meant it to be.
“Perhaps they could be prevailed upon to give warning, next time,” she mildly said.
“Yeah, I’ll ask the White Knight to pass the request along,” I softly laughed. “Shit, it’s been a while since something took me this badly by surprise.”
An overdue reminder, perhaps. It was a big world, and I’d not seen all there was to see in even my little corner of it. We resumed the conversation until Hakram joined us, but there really wasn’t much to add to what she’d already said. Vivienne had come to the capital with the Fourth largely on the word of the Augur and the Astrologer, and though she had freshers news than we about the going-ons in the south she truthfully didn’t have much to add. She was just as lost as we were, only now in addition to our uncertainties about the defence of Hainaut there was a hanging sword above our head to remind us that oracles were pretty sure if we lost here the entire war was lost. Lovely.
At least we had Vivienne with us, so even at the bottom of this freshly dug pit things were looking up.
There was need for a war council, as there so often was these days, but we went about it briskly. General Bagram, a large and aging orc who’d been the right hand of Juniper’s mother for decades before becoming a general in his own right under the Army of Callow, was added to that ever-expanding roster of people with a seat at the table along with my designated heiress, Lady Vivienne Dartwick. Discussions were without frills, as we all felt the invisible noose of Keter’s advance tightening around our necks, and there were few arguments. Given the very real possibility that we were going to lose either the gates or the walls at some point, Princess Beatrice gave formal permission to my sappers to prepare the streets to repel invasion. Pickler was still busy replacing the Ivory Gates, but no doubt she’d be delighted when informed.
Quartering was revised to accommodate the addition of the Fourth Army, which had blessedly come with an overfill of supplies that’d allow us to avoid rationing before the first supply wagons arrived through the Ways. I’d been right twofold, as it turned out: it’d been the Gigantes that had startled me, and the gate they’d helped the Blessed Artificer make was already technically finished. It was recommended it still go unused until dark, though, as apparently the parts where they had melted the veil between the Twilight Ways and Creation were still ‘cooling off’. Fucking Hells, the more I learned about Ligurian sorcery the more it fucking terrified me. And Triumphant had gone toe to toe with those people at their peak? Gods, what an utter monster that one must have been.
By sundown we all left the palace that Beatrice Volignac seemed so deeply happy to have reclaimed, most of the practicalities of our defence hammered out into a working shape. It was the Pilgrim and the White Knight who reached out to me afterwards, though, to arrange a formal council of Named as well.
“It can be considered a given that every Revenant in the principality, including the Scourges, is now headed our way,” Tariq said. “We need to prepare accordingly.”
“Agreed,” I said. “We need to divide our people into bands. And more importantly-”
“Your insistence that a band of five needs to be sent after the bridge immediately,” Hanno frowned. “Yes, I was told of it.”
“A heroic band of five,” I said. “Given the steep odds and how it’ll be impossible to really prepare, it’s the only setup with a chance of getting it done. And if Tariq told you about that, then he told you I’d like for you to lead it.”
It’d be a loss, because the White Knight took to most Revenants like a sickle to wheat, but I had doubts about any band led by a lesser hero succeeding. The Grey Pilgrim might make it as well, maybe, but Tariq always shone most when he was in a supporting role and that would muddle things up some.
“To clarify,” the White Knight mildly said, “on the eve of a battle prophesized to be decisive for this entire war, you request that I leave.”
“Yes,” I bluntly said, “and the Witch as well, you’ll need her.”
A light touch on my arm interrupted me, and I turned to find Vivienne cocking an eyebrow.
“I will leave the three of you to your conversation,” she easily said, “but if I might make a suggestion?”
She gestured at our surroundings, namely the now dead gardens leading up to the front gates of the Volignac family palace.
“There are perhaps more appropriate venues for you all to talk,” Vivienne finished.
“Common sense,” Tariq ruefully murmured. “Such a rare, precious thing. My thanks, Lady Dartwick.”
“I still feel the urge to take to rooftops on moonlit nights,” she replied, “so do not bestow upon me a surfeit of honours, Peregrine. Lord White, Catherine, a pleasant evening to you.”
Hanno returned the courtesy, while I cocked an eyebrow at her. She had a deft hand with heroes, as she’d just reminded me. I sometimes forgot she’d been part of William’s band, back in the day, and had been a decent fit there from what little I knew. Heroes tended to be split between those who considered her a fallen heroine, just punished by Above in the form of losing her Name, or those who essentially considered her a retired heroine who’d embraced other duties. Tariq tended to lean that way, though I’d never quite been able to pin down Hanno on the subject.
“I’ll see you later,” I told her. “It’s been too long.”
“Agreed,” she feelingly replied. “I’ll try to see if I can rustle up Indrani from whatever winesink she’ll have stumbled into by now.”
“Don’t bribe her with my liquor cabinet this time,” I warned, “it’s impossible to get the good stuff this far out, and…”
I suddenly coughed, feeling the distinctly amused gazes of two of the most prominent heroes of the age as I argued with the heiress to Callow about the fate of my booze stash.
“Carry on,” I said, vainly trying to claw back a bit of gravitas.
It, er, might take a while. Vivienne took her leave and I went for a walk through a garden of dead things with the Pilgrim and the Knight. To my surprise, I found the sight oddly troubling. I’d thought myself well acquainted with death, for how could I not be? I’d waded through it on too many battlefields to count, and thrice I’d come close to staying in those cold arms forever. I’d deal it out and suffered it, used it as a tool and flinched from it. If my throne had been set upon a foundation of anything, death was it. And still, limping through the garden, some part of me was dismayed. It was all dead. Ever tree gone grey, ever flower wilted every blade of grass frayed. Black earth had gone fallow, covered by dead leaves and insects forever still. This wasn’t the coming of winter or even some black tragedy. Intent had done this. Thorough, patient intent to kill every living thing there was to kill.
There was bare, graven beauty to the garden that felt like a knot in my throat. Was this the world the Dead King wanted? A field of grey from shore to shore, so utterly barren that even the sea grew lifeless lapping at it. I forced myself to set aside the thought. Stroking the thought of failure instead of tending to the needs of the moment was as good a way to see them turn true as any.
“It has to be you,” I said, standing in the shade of a leafless tree.
“I am not certain we need to send a band at all,” the White Knight calmly replied. “It would strip the defence of much-needed strength, and there will be time enough to attend the bridge after victory is secured here.”
“If victory is secured here,” I pointed out.
“In this, I believe the Black Queen to be correct,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “We should not bet the fate of all Calernia on our ability to win in battle against the hordes of Keter. It would be dangerously irresponsible.”
I nodded in appreciation at the old man’s words. Not that he was speaking them for my sake – Tariq had never been shy about disagreeing with me on anything at all, to my occasional displeasure.
“It weakens our ability to win that battle to send Named away,” Hanno flatly said. “In particular fighters as apt as Queen Catherine seems intent on assigning, in all humility.”
“Smashing that bridge isn’t going to be a pleasant autumn stroll, White,” I said. “I mentioned you and the Witch of the Woods because the job needs a captain and the power to collapse a bridge. To add survivability, I’d throw in the Forsworn Healer and pack the rest of the five with one set of muscles and a specialized killer.”
The kind that’d be able to kill something that couldn’t be killed conventionally, like the Painted Knife or the Rogue Sorcerer.
“There I must disagree,” Tariq said. “Not with the necessity of power, but with the White Knight’s presence being required. His role would be better suited to a situation like the approaching battle.”
Fuck, I silently thought. Part of me wanted to get snippy that the Heavens got to have two people around for this talk, but honesty compelled me to admit that there really wasn’t anyone else who would have made a difference. Hanno took advice from many parts, but it was my understanding that people who could make him actually reconsider a decision were few. The Pilgrim was as close to a peer as I’d be able to rustle up in Hainaut.
“You genuinely believe in the wisdom of thinning our forces before a major engagement?” Hanno asked Tariq, frowning.
“Empty prayers birth no miracles,” the Grey Pilgrim replied.
I cocked my head to the side. Huh. Yeah, that was solid namelore even if he was coming at it from the other way. He meant, I gathered, that for a prayer to be answered it would need to be sincere. In this case, that meant sending Named even when it would be costly. Black would have phrased it more along the lines of Creation being a machine that gave out according to what you gave it, while I myself preferred to think of it in terms of weight: you couldn’t topple a wall with a pebble. If you wanted a trebuchet stone, you needed to use a trebuchet in the first place.
“That only reinforces that we do need to send him,” I insisted. “We can’t half-ass this, it’ll backfire on us.”
“This isn’t a ritual field and we’re not bleeding prisoners to make a tower fly, Your Majesty,” the Pilgrim flatly replied. “There is no need to open our own throats to make this work.”
I bit out the very unflattering answer I had on the tip of my tongue, as I was pretty sure he knew the Kharsum words for both mother and goat.
“I remain unconvinced this should be attempted at all,” the White Knight said, frown deepening, “but when the two of you are in agreement you are rarely incorrect. I’ll concede to sending a band, and a heroic one.”
That was a start.
“I appreciate that,” I said.
“But I am horrendously wrong, and you must now tell me why,” Hanno drily replied, and I remembered why I liked him in the first place.
“I wouldn’t go quite that far,” I said, since the truthteller couldn’t read me. “Look, I’ve seen you ride this horse before. Picking out traps with the Fortunate Fool, picking fights specifically because they put you at a disadvantage.”
“Heroes placed in situations where it is possible but unlikely for them to triumph buck the odds more than they should,” Hanno agreed. “It is the way of stories, and stories have power.”
“But that’s the thing,” I said, “in those stories, you don’t send some nobody to kill the dragon and win the princess’ hand. Sure the guy seems like a nobody, but we know he’s not because the story is about him. He’s really a prince, or a knight, or fated in some way.”
“Your argument is that we must look for a specific manner of fate, then?” Hanno curiously asked,
“No,” the Grey Pilgrim quietly said. “It is that the dragon’s lair is full of skeletons whose mishap was being… insufficiently fated, yes?”
“Weight,” I said. “See, the bridge looks wide open right now: all armies are accounted for and far, we know where it’s being built and where most of the Scourges are. But it won’t actually be open.”
They were both looking at me like was belabouring something very obvious, which I supposed for heroes I was. Villain lairs were always trapped and vicious, while heroes didn’t really have those.
“So there’s going to be a fight,” I continued. “Which you figure you can win sending some solid heroes while keeping here our finest. That’s a mistake, though, because that bridge is something that could lose us this entire war. It’s the reason we began this campaign in the first place.”
Hanno’s eyes narrowed.
“Weight,” he repeated. “You imply that if we do not send shoulders capable of bearing the burden of this entire campaign, all they will be is… skeletons in a dragon lair.”
“I do,” I said. “And that means it has to be you. Because pretty much the only other person in your camp with that kind of pull on the war is the Grey Pilgrim, and no offence Tariq but-”
“No, I agree I would be ill-suited to the task,” the Pilgrim murmured. “Perhaps if Laurence was still with us it would have been different, two of us ancients with three younger, but as things stand the forces within the band would not be in harmony.”
“So you agree,” I pressed.
“I don’t,” Tariq replied. “You see this weight as a scale that must evened, when instead it should be seen as a crucible to help the rise of another great character. We should be discussing who among the servants of Above in the city could benefit from this opportunity, not entertaining sending away the White Knight before a pivotal point of a crusade.”
Godsdamned heroes. There was a point where optimism became delusion, and thinking every test was some sort of ladder was well past it. Sometimes you just failed, because you hadn’t been prepared enough and you’d underestimated the foe.
“This isn’t a fucking crusade, Tariq,” I said, exasperated. “I know it’s more comfortable for you to think about it that way, but my side of the fence is here too and we count. The role of a White Knight isn’t the same it would be in-”
“Enough,” Hanno said. “I understand the need for a swift decision, but I will not let myself be strongarmed before considering this properly.”
“We can’t afford to wait long,” I bluntly said.
“The discussion can be resumed tomorrow, after our council of Named,” the White Knight said. “I will sleep on this, at the very least, and consult with others I trust.”
Not what I’d wanted to hear, but I could already see that pushing any further now would just burn goodwill for no gain. I suppressed a wince, looking back on how I’d gotten drawn into an argument about ‘the role of a White Knight’ with the Pilgrim while said White Knight was right in front of me. Hanno was remarkably even-keeled, but that probably hadn’t done me any favours. It’d been a mistake, too, since the man I actually needed to convince hadn’t been the one I was arguing with. I snuck a look at Tariq. Had that been on purpose? Getting my thoughts out so the White Knight could see them splayed out without having been drawn into the thick of it.
“By all means,” I said. “We can continue this when everyone’s rested.”
“A good evening to you, then,” Hanno said, inclining his head,
I returned it, and he bade a significantly less formal goodbye to the Pilgrim. Who stayed behind, as I’d hoped he would. The two of us continued the walk towards the opposite end of the garden, his slow gait and my limp evenly matched. Neither of us pretended this was about anything but continuing the conversation that’d just abruptly ended.
“He is in a pivotal moment of his journey as one of the Bestowed, Queen Catherine,” Tariq said. “Sending him away from the battle could have deleterious effects.”
“Or it could be exactly what he needs, Pilgrim,” I replied. “We don’t know, either way.”
“His own leanings-”
“Are a consequence of his character, not some arcane working of fate,” I bluntly interrupted. “If he had some instinct niggling at him that this was a mistake I’d reconsider, but he argued based on logic. He thinks his place is here in the thick of it, herding heroes, so that’s where he figures he should be.”
“Because that is his place,” Tariq just as bluntly replied. “He is the White Knight, and the hordes of Evil has come.”
“Maybe that was true a century ago,” I said, “but you gave me a whole speech about how he has to find a new way, Peregrine. What you’re describing is more of the same.”
“This new way you argue for is also your way, Black Queen,” the old man said. “Not his. If this were his own notion I too would reconsider, but it is not.”
I grimaced. Yeah, I could see that from his perspective this was meddling on my part.
“It’s a strategic decision I’m pushing, not a personal or even a story one beyond my understanding of forces that need to be addressed for the operation to be a success,” I said.
It wasn’t exactly an apology or a justification, but it flirted enough with both he should be able to understand I wasn’t unaware of where I was treading.
“I believe you to be acting in good faith,” the Pilgrim acknowledged, “but that does not mean it would not lead to error.”
I breathed out.
“All right,” I said. “Then I’ll back off and stop pushing, if you do the same.”
He cocked an eyebrow, clearly less than inclined to agree. I clenched my fingers, then unclenched them. I was going to have to pay for the goods.
“I’m calling in my favour,” I said.
I’d not agreed to keep an eye out for Razin and Aquiline without putting a price on it. The old man’s face remained calm, but he studied me for a long moment.
“I will not argue for something I believe to be a mistake,” Tariq Fleetfoot said.
“I’m only bargaining for silence,” I replied.
He didn’t look happy about it, but then favours weren’t supposed to be things you were inclined to give in the first place.
“Then the bargain is struck,” the Grey Pilgrim reluctantly said.
We shook on it, wrists clasped, and broke off the grip as we reached the end of the path.
Leaving the garden of death behind, we went into the city and instead saw to the living.