“It is not the grand choices of our lives that determine who we are. It is the small acts of small days, the quiet kindnesses and cruelties, that shape us like a smith’s hammer. And when those grand choices come calling we are already formed, already shaped, and we understand that it was never really a choice at all.”– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand
I’d returned to the cheesemonger guildhall with what I believed to be pretty sensible hopes.
By now Adjutant ought to have gotten the first set of wards anchored around the property and the watches set up, so I’d be able to steal a few seats and drag my friends into the solar for our first homecoming in much, much too long. A quiet evening before the storm blew in would do us all some good. Instead as I limped my way down the cobblestone road leading to the hall, cloaked under a veil of Night, I found that the place was swarming with activity. Wagons were being dragged by oxen into the estate, some filled with live chickens and the occasional goat while others were crammed fit to burst with barrels bearing the seal of my army’s ale rations.
Soldiers and officers from both armies that’d come to the capital were all over the grounds, seated at tables or on dead grass, talking and drinking and eating their fill. A few pits had been dug and pigs were roasting as well as a few birds, while sergeants stood by open ale barrels and marked tankards with red stripes after filling them – making sure no one emptied a keg on the own, I figured. Magelights had been put up, hanging from ropes crisscrossing the grounds, and braziers had been spread around to beat back the coolness of the night. It looked like a festival, honestly, and pretty rowdy one.
Some fighting circles were already emerging, greenskins and humans brawling under the eager shouts and bets of their fellows, and some mages had set up a pair of tables for an old Wasteland sparring game called achoma – kettleburn, in Lower Miezan. It was a Legion favourite, since all you needed to play it was six small cauldrons and five marbles. Two teams of three mages were trying to shoot the marbles into the cauldrons of the other side, using only low-grade fireball spells to both attack and defend. Anyone whose cauldron got scored on had to take a drink, which meant games tended to end with a need for healing by a still-sober practitioner.
To my amusement, I saw that some boys and girls from the House Insurgent had dragged up tables of their own and were trying to mimic the game using Light tricks instead. Mind you, what drew the crowds wasn’t any of those but the unholy melding of my own people’s proclivity for open-air plays and puppet shows during fairs and the goblin tradition of takha. A Taghreb word, that, since the Tribes had unsurprisingly never shared their own for it. It meant ‘jeer’ and stood for the way goblins tended to put on farces making fun of other people’s traditions, typically stealing the structure of an already existing play or story and then twisting it into a parody of itself.
Blending my people’s tendency for spite and the typical goblin fearlessness in mockery had birthed shows like the one I was currently looking at. They were called trick plays, or sometimes ‘Barber and Edward’ plays after the two characters that were a recurring motif in every show: the cunning goblin sergeant Barber, whose beauty always caused suitors to swarm after her, and morose young squire Edward, who always ended up winning and then losing a fortune before the end of the show because of his need to settle every slight. The two of them always ended up triumphing over the damned foreigners, usually by getting one of Barber’s suitors killed and Edward sacrificing his latest gain to screw over his latest enemy.
And so, surrounded by a drunk and cheering crowd, half a dozen Callowans and goblins were putting up a play on a table that, by the sounds of it, claimed to be a recreation of the Princes’ Graveyard. Gods, I really hoped there weren’t any Procerans or Levantines around. Trick plays did tend to be harsher on nobles than soldiers, but they weren’t kind on anybody. Not even me. In at least one of them, set after the Folly, Barber stumbled onto ‘me’ having nicked the standards of the Sixth Legion and painting them blue to use them for the Army of Callow, hoping no one would notice.
Which, you know, fair.
“- so we should just cut them!” a goblin wearing a tabard shouted.
Half the audience shouted it with her, as it was apparently a recurrent line, and I realized with a start that she was supposed to be the Saint of Swords. The real laughter came when the ‘Saint’ turned towards the ‘Pilgrim’ and found him asleep again, though, having failed to notice Edward stealing his staff with the intention of pawning it off to some Procerans. It uh, wasn’t an interpretation of the Graveyard real flattering to anyone who wasn’t part of the Army of Callow. There was a swift scene change, with a mage tainting the magelight green instead of blue to signify it, and I was treated to the sight of the Tyrant of Helike – played by a young Liessen girl – duelling one of his own gargoyles as played by a grizzled sapper.
The both of them, I grasped from context, sought Sergeant Barber’s hand in marriage. I smothered a laugh, still under my veil. The wretch would actually have gotten a kick out of that, I figured. I lingered long enough for the Tyrant and the gargoyle to defeat each other in a draw and was about to leave when the scene was changed once more and Edward ran into a cloaked shape, dropping the staff and when picking it up accidentally taking up the other person’s instead when he scampered off. Wait, that was a patchwork cloak even if the colours were faded. And a staff?
“I swear I’ve seen this somewhere before,” the Black Queen on the stage observed as she looked at the Pilgrim’s staff, to the hooting laughter of the crowd.
My character then proceeded to go through an overlarge laundry list of foes real and imagined it could belong to, always with a second line dismissing why it couldn’t be them. I couldn’t help but smile when it came to the Lone Swordsman and the line went ‘alas, ‘tis too long a stick to have been the one up his arse’. Meanwhile Edward, on the other side of the stage, lost ‘my’ staff while in a panic and began deploring his upcoming executions by various methods in between foe couplets declaimed by the Black Queen. It ended with him imploring whatever Gods might be listening to bring the staff back, which a goblin with hands painted black making crow noises seemed about to answer.
On a whim, I drew on Night and wove two shades of darkness into crows. I passed them my staff of yew and let them fly, dropping it on Edward’s head. The crowd went utterly silent.
“And don’t lose it this time,” I sternly spoke through the Night, before unmaking the crows.
Half the actors looked like they weren’t sure whether they should be awed or terrified, but the crowd was not so ambivalent: there was a deafening roar of approval, followed by cheering. The play was waylaid for a bit, and with a satisfied smirk I left them to it. I’d send someone to get the staff back later, but there was no harm in it serving as a prop for a bit. Drifting away from the crowd, my attention was caught by a figure at the outskirts of it. Wearing a hooded cloak, it was lingering at the edges and sniffing about as if looking for someone – but never actually looking at people, as far as I could tell. The silhouette was hard to make out under the cloak, but those careful steps I knew well. I extended the Night veil to cover the both of us after hobbling close, which was nit immediately noticed.
“Taking a walk, Vivienne?” I idly asked.
She didn’t start, or even look particularly surprised, which kind of took the fun out of it. Bringing down her hood, she shot me a put-upon look.
“I had people waiting for you on the road, but you never showed up,” she accused.
“Got curious,” I said, and gestured at the festivities around us. “Your doing, I take it?”
“It’s been a long war,” Vivienne said. “And it’ll get dangerous to cut loose when the dead start arriving.”
Fair enough. I wouldn’t begrudge my people a night of rejoicing, even if I’d not been the one to order it. With the supply wagons coming in through the Ways, we could afford to bite into our reserves a bit.
“It’s a good call,” I said. “Maillac’s Boot was rough on the Third, and the Fourth has known little but Twilight and battle for a month.”
“Hakram described that one as a little more than just rough,” she grimaced. “And General Hune dying’s a blow. I know you weren’t close, but…”
My fingers clenched. It wasn’t always about closeness or friendship. If people stuck with you through long hardships, sometimes that alone was enough to be a bond. I’d trusted Hune, even while aware her allegiance was not deep, because I’d known her in ways I now knew the leading figures of the Army of Callow less and less. The circle that’d come up with me through the ranks was dying off.
“If we look back, all there is to find is ghosts,” I quietly said. “Forward we go, lest they catch up.”
The sounds and lights of the feast reached us through the veil of Night, muted as if belonging to another realm entirely. I sighed.
“I need a drink,” I said.
“That I can provide,” Vivienne amusedly said. “Brought a crate of Vale summer wine, too.”
“You give the best bribes,” I praised.
“You’re just a cheap date,” she snorted, linking her arm with mine. “Even the wakeleaf’s not that expensive, for a royal vice.”
I smiled, both at the repartee and the subtle way she’d made herself into a support for my bad leg now what that I’d leant out my staff.
“You’ve seen the treasury, Viv,” I drawled, “if I were an expensive drunk, Mercantis would own the country by now.”
“I like to think that, as a kingdom, we could afford to help you drown yourself in at least second-rate wines,” Vivienne solemnly replied. “That it what it means to be a patriot, Catherine.”
My lips quirked. I’d missed this more than I’d realized. Even after we’d settled some of the tensions between us at the Arsenal, there’d not been much time to spend together. And while most of the Woe had been with the army since the campaign began, I’d spent most of my hours in war councils, fighting or scheming – with a lot less of a reprieve for sleeping than was probably healthy. It was Hakram I’d seen the most, and over the last few months that relationship had grown… complicated in ways it’d not been when we were younger. From the corner of my eye I noted we were drawing away from the lights, past the guildhall itself and into the adjoining property.
“So where is it you’re taking me?” I asked.
“We made a fire,” she easily said. “Indrani found a good place and Hakram gathered everyone.”
My steps stuttered. Even leaning against her arm that led to a painful twinge, so I pull Night from the veil to smooth the sensation away as I gathered myself.
“Cat, are you all right?” Vivienne asked.
I nodded jerkily, righting myself up. I couldn’t quite grasp why that had blindsided me so much. It was the first night in ages we were all in the same place, it was only natural we’d have a fire. If I’d not been busy speaking the White Knight and the Pilgrim, I would likely have arranged one myself. Maybe that was it, I thought. Had we ever had one of these without my arranging it before? I couldn’t recall a single instance. It wasn’t like I should feel insulted by this, and I didn’t, it was just… I breathed out, somehow gladdened and saddened at the same time.
“You don’t usually keep your thoughts to yourself like this,” Vivienne said.
She tried to make the tone a teasing one, but it did not seep all the way through. I was smelling smoke and our steps had brought out as the edge of a cove of dead trees and skeletal bushes, so we couldn’t be far. I could almost see the fire’s light, the shadows it cast against the darkness.
“You ever feel like the world’s passing you by?” I quietly asked.
Our steps slowed, and she slid her arm out of mine. Smoke came on the wind, and the distant sound of talk and laughter. I could see the edges of the warm light, licking at the dark we were still cloaked in. It touched the side of Vivienne’s face, framing its shape. The dainty nose and heart-shaped chin, the cheeks that had lost some of the hollowness they’d born when she was still the Thief. And those piercing blue-grey eyes, considering me in silence.
“I used to,” she said, leaning back against the tree. “After joining the Woe. I didn’t know it, at first, because there were always so many things to learn, to do, to see. But it sunk, in eventually.”
“Not anymore, though?”
“I figured out what I want to do,” Vivienne said. “It was easier, before we met. I didn’t need to think, not really – I knew the Lone Swordsman was a hero, so his cause was just. If I fought for that cause then, I would be just as well. There was no need to look further.”
“A lot of the things he wanted were good,” I softly admitted. “I just didn’t think his way of getting them would work.”
“That’s always the trouble, isn’t?” Vivienne ruefully smiled. “The means. Everyone likes the dream, but no one can agree on how to get there.”
“Didn’t you?” I asked.
She snorted, shook her head.
“I know I want to see our home safe and happy and prosperous,” Vivienne said. “And I figured out, before it was too late, that being the Thief wasn’t going to help me with any of it. Once I knew who I wasn’t, it just… didn’t seem to matter as much that I didn’t know who I was.”
She leaned her head back, against the bark, looking up at the night sky.
“I wasn’t going against the current anymore,” she murmured. “I wasn’t drowning.”
Though her lips quirked into a smile, it was mirthless.
“Hakram saved my life, that night where he cut off his hand,” Vivienne said. “He shocked me out the nightmare. And every time I felt the urge to go back, to dismiss it, I saw the blood again. The bone and the flesh. And words can lie, Cat, but not those.”
We let the silence lie between us for a moment, almost comfortable.
“I don’t think I can do this for strangers,” I quietly admitted. “Maybe when I was young and it still burned in me, the knowledge that I was right and I was going to fix it… maybe back then it was enough, just the principles. The ideal. But now it’s the people that bear me through it, and with every year there’s a few less.”
My fingers clenched.
“You are bearing me through this,” I said, “and it is breaking your backs.”
And at the end of the road, what will I find? I did not voice did, did not dare to, but terror coiled in my guts like a snake as the thought came unbidden. A world of strangers, and a graveyard where everyone I ever loved lies sleeping the dreamless sleep. Vivienne learned forward and slowly reached up her hand. I froze, wondering if she was going to cup my cheek, but instead she flicked my nose. I started in surprise and outrage, wrinkling it.
“Don’t be so arrogant,” Vivienne Dartwick chided me. “Do you think the banner’s yours just because you raised it, Catherine?”
My mouth closed. I was taken aback enough to be speechless, for once.
“We’ve all stayed with you for our own reasons,” she said. “For oaths or causes, because we believe in the woman or the dream, because we have our own pride. You don’t get to take that from us, Cat. It never belonged to you.”
“It’ll get you killed,” I hoarsely replied.
“There are things worth dying for,” she calmly said. “It’s not all on your shoulders, Cat.”
She looked at the light of the campfire in the distance, the drifting sounds of what seemed to be Indrani loudly singing. I followed her gaze.
“Sometimes other people can light the fire,” Vivienne gently told me. “You’re not the only one it keeps warm.”
She offered up her hand, slowly, and like a lost child I took it. She tugged me along, and as the veil of Night fell I let her take me home.
“- you take that back,” Robber said, tone deadly serious. “Sallastus?Really, Sallastus?”
Akua Sahelian, somehow making a fallen log look like a sofa to lounge on, cocked an imperious eyebrow.
“His comedies were among the finest Miezan works that remain to us,” she replied.
“Oh Gods,” Indrani said, grinning like a loon, “you actually sound defensive.”
I pulled at my bottle – like most evenings whose bounty was arranged by Archer, it was heavy on bottles but low on cups – and shared a look with Pickler, who was rolling her eyes. It was always unsettling on a goblin face, especially at night when their eyes got somewhat luminous.
“I hate it when they talk theatre,” I told my Sapper-General. “I don’t know half the names.”
“My mother made me read some plays so I wouldn’t look like a fool if I participated in a takha,” Pickler admitted, “but I always despised the stuff. I might as well have spent the time clipping my nails, at least it’d have improved my life somewhat.”
She was drinking from a tankard of dark beer that was about as large as human head, and so a significant chunk of her chest, which someone had painted the side of with a very nice, if threadbare, rendition of a human being set on fire. There were also notches around the rim, which I decided not to think too much about. There were a lot more than I’d anticipated.
“Neither of you have a speck of culture in you,” Hakram mourned, seated to my side. “It’s sad what this army has come to.”
“You read Proceran bodice rippers,” I sneered. “I take no commentary on taste from you at all, buddy.”
“Gobbler, Hakram, why?” Pickler asked him, sounding genuinely puzzled. “It’d be like reading about mountain goats mating, only with pretensions of sentiment.”
“Hey,” I objected.
“No, she has a point,” Masego noted.
“- Augustina?” Akua hissed, sounding outraged. “Perhaps if you want to hear Aulius Blandus’ verses as butchered by a second rate-”
A heartbeat passed, eyes moving towards the irritated-looking orc.
“Hierophant’s a member of an Ashuran love cult,” Hakram revealed, shamelessly betraying a comrade.
“I am?” Masego asked, sounding surprised.
Vivienne coughed, sounding a little embarrassed.
“It is possible as fee was paid in your name so you might be added to the rolls of the Covenant of Gasping Ecstasy,” she admitted.
Indrani, leaning her head backwards over Vivienne’s shoulder, wiggled her eyebrows.
“All right, you now have my undivided attention,” Archer announced. “Continue.”
“Tell me you didn’t use treasury funds for that,” I begged.
There was a beat of silence.
“It was from Indrani’s pay, she’s still stealing it,” Hakram said.
“Hakram, you treacherous whore,” Vivienne cursed, as I began laughing convulsively. “I knew it was a mistake to bring you into this.”
Indrani, not unexpectedly, was more amused than offended by the fact that Vivienne had continued robbing her for years. It wasn’t like she usually touched the coin I had kept in her name, anyways. Masego cleared his throat, cutting though my snickers and Vivienne’s continued tongue lashing. Indrani flopped gracelessly over Vivienne, landing on the dark-haired lady’s lap and then extending an empty hand – only for Masego to fill it with her bottle without even turning to look.
“Are there obligations attached?” he seriously asked. “I do not want to be a feckless associate.”
“He’s right,” Archer approved. “What did I even pay for? There better be naked parts.”
“I don’t believe participation in the yearly pleasure festival is mandatory,” Vivienne said.
“Are you quite sure?” Indrani hopefully asked.
“The priests have their sermons compiled every few years,” Adjutant told Zeze. “I’ll try to get you one of the scrolls.”
“That is very kind of you,” Masego beamed, but then his expression turned shifty. “Though am I to understand that as a trick this is an acceptable specimen?”
“For a human, maybe,” Robber said. “Not enough blood.”
“I am human,” Zeze helpfully reminded him. “Good, then. How might I go about making Adanna of Smyrna a member?”
Indrani, useless as always, began belly laughing and even Vivienne couldn’t hide a smirk. Neither of the goblins were inclined to intervene and I’d recently been informed that Hakram was a treacherous whore, so that left either me or Akua. I glanced at her, finding her looking mightily amused and very much disinclined to help.
“Zeze,” I said. “That, er, might be misinterpreted.”
He looked at me in surprise.
“You’d be trying to make her part of a love cult of which you are also part,” I slowly said.
Indrani contributed a gestured that, while accurately representing what I was getting at, was very much less than helpful.
“This is why I call you a wench,” I told her.
“Ugh,” Masego said, wrinkling his nose. “How could anyone make that mistake? She is terrible. And she must know she is, as I frequently tell her so.”
Yeah, I had no trouble believing that. The frequent screaming matches were something of a hint.
“I do believe it is possible for Ashuran citizens to become parts of a prestigious ship’s crew in an honorary manner,” Akua idly said. “On occasion even ships that have sunk. Perhaps that might make a more fitting present, Hierophant.”
“Oh,” Masego muttered, “it would be as if I were telling her to go to the bottom of the sea. That is clever.”
He actually seemed pretty enthusiastic at the prospect of trying to get one over the Blessed Artificer, which was kind of heartwarming in a very Praesi way. The conversation drifted towards some of the more elaborate slights we’d seen dealt out over the years, something Robber was quite interested in arguing with the rest of us, and Vivienne eventually got tired of Archer being sprawled over her so she pushed her to the ground. Pickler had moved to sit on the other side of Hakram to discuss something about a fellow War College student I’d never known who’d recently gotten promoted back in Praes, so Vivienne slid into the spot by my side with a bottle of her own in hand. I offered up mine and we toasted, drinking down.
“I’m surprised we’re all here,” I said afterwards, eyes flicking on the other side of the fire.
Akua was telling a story about some ancestor of hers who’d drowned a Stygian slaver in melted slave chains, to the vocal approval of some around our circle.
“It’s out of my hands,” Vivienne murmured. “And I have made my peace with it.”
I hid my surprise. Forgiveness was not something either of us would ever offer over the Doom of Liesse, so I was not sure of her meaning. She must have sensed my uncertainty.
“I don’t deal in absolution,” she said. “Not for me, not for you, and certainly not for her. The Folly must and will have an answer. But it’s not for me to decide what it will be.”
She half-smiled at me.
“You’ve trusted me with a lot, Catherine,” Vivienne said. “And it’s not a tie that goes only one way. I trust you with this – I believe you’ll see justice done, in the end, or something like it.”
“I have you an oath, once,” I quietly said.
“I relieve you of it,” she said, without a speck of hesitation.
I went still with surprise, which had her smiling.
“What good would it to, for me to demand her suffering?” Vivienne murmured. “Would it unmake the tears of a single orphan, mend a single inch of blighted land? Liesse was lost, and all who dwelled within it, but I’ll not chase vengeance of healing.”
“I have not forgotten the Doom,” I said.
“I don’t expect you will,” she said. “It lingers in your dreams more than mine. Worry not of me, Catherine, when you see to this. I would be quite the fool, to need twice to learn the lesson that no amount of taking can ever set things right.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to answer to that. It felt like getting her blessing, somehow, but also like she was… washing her hands of it. As if it no longer concerned her. Troubled and yet dimly relieved, I sunk back into the warmth of the conversation instead. It was not long before my bottle was empty and the smile back on my face, the ebb and flow of conversation with old friends filling me whole. The hours passed, long into the night, and most of us stayed around the fire instead of returning to the guildhall. Indrani had brought blankets, and though Robber disappeared into the dark it was only after tucking in a very drunk Pickler affectionately. I drifted into sleep easily, but woke while it was still dark. There were still hours left until dawn, Sve Noc’s first gift told me.
I tried to stay under the blankets, by the dying embers of the fire, but I got restless. Taking care not to wake anyone I snuck away, finding my staff propped up against a tree not far. I couldn’t remember if I’d actually asked Hakram to see to that, but I suspected that even if I had not the dead yew would have turned up on its own. It was not an artefact, not exactly, but it was not a simple staff either. With the moon hung in the sky above us and a cool wind beginning to blow, I found my steps leading me to the guildhall. Not to find a bed, no, but to seek another old friend: the roof. It was flat atop, easy to tread, and easier still to limp to the edge.
I could not see the great valley that’d be spread out below around the plateau, but I could fix it in my mind’s eye. I breathed out and learned forward, as if tempting the fall. The streak of ice, that fear I would never entirely master, came as bidden. Like an old friend. Not the only one, though friend was not the right word for her.
“Do you still have the dream?” Akua softly asked.
I’d not heard her come, but I had known it. We were bound, she and I, had been since I ripped her heart out of her chest and stole her soul. Though she was next to me, I did not turn.
“Yes,” I murmured. “Though I came here, I think, because I am curious.”
“If you stand at the edge of the cliff a hundred times, or a hundred times that,” I said. “Does the fear ever go away?”
I felt her gaze on me.
“Does it?” Akua asked.
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “Maybe it’s something that can be taught, with time and will. Maybe it’s just nature, Akua, and the best we can ever do is put a bridle on it and hope it doesn’t pull too hard.”
“Then why do you keep coming here, dearest?”
“Because I don’t know the answer,” I said, and turned to meet her eyes.
Lovely in the gloom, as she was lovely everywhere. And I felt it my clenching stomach, the fear of the drop, but it did not rule me. Not tonight. So I reached out, slowly, and as her gaze widened in surprise as I cupped her cheek. It was not a loud thing, or one requiring much power. Just will and knowledge. My fingers withdrew, having barely grazed her skin, and she went still.
“What have you done?” Akua Sahelian asked.
“I no longer have power over you,” I said. “You are bound to neither my mantle or my power, and Sve Noc has no purchase over your soul save what you give them.”
“You are mad,” she faintly said. “I could leave, right now. Even without Night, I know such tricks that…”
“I know,” I agreed.
“Then why?” she hissed.
“Because I don’t know the answer,” I said and turned away, closing my eyes.
For a long time I stayed there, the wind in my hair, and let silence keep the night. When I opened them, Akua was still at my side. I almost smiled. Wasn’t that something?
In the valley below, far from my sight, the dead began to gather.