Chapter 76: Rapt

“Princes dream of victory, farmers dream of peace.”

– Proceran saying

There would be no hiding the departure of the White Knight, so there was no point in even trying. We did the opposite instead: all but threw a godsdamned parade for his band, gallantly going into the unknown as they were. We rustled up a crowd drawing from all armies, got them cheering with a few speeches about heroism and how of course we were going to win, just look at how Evil that fucker the Dead King was. Paraphrasing as I might be, I liked to believed I’d seized upon the essence of the oration. If you filled the belly of soldiers and opened up casks of booze they’d cheer at pretty much anything, in my experience, so I had it arranged. Because the cheering was what mattered, you see. It was what would stick in their heads when they thought back about this.

The White Knight and four other heroes were leaving in broad daylight and the streets were half a festival, so of course it was a good thing. Not something to get angry about, or afraid. Hanno and the Witch of the Woods were both major losses from the perspective of defending this city, and soldiers would know it deep down, but so long as we set the tone on how they should think of their departure it shouldn’t result in a morale loss.  I supposed it would be in poor taste of me to hope that the Valiant Champion got herself killed during the adventure, you know in a magnificent sacrifice for the sake of the world and all that good stuff.

Thankfully I’d never been above bad taste, so I hoped my petty little heart out.

We had fresher cats to skin, though, so I did not spare much thought for the matter as I had no doubt that Hanno would smash that bridge to pieces. Besides, perhaps removing himself from the turbulence of politics for a while would help the White Knight settle his doubts. There was nothing like a straightforward, hard-earned win to help the world make sense again. The defence of the capital would not be as straightforward an effort, and there was no doubt that a defence would soon be needed: the dead were gathering in the plains below. Like rivers coming down the hills circling the great valley at the heart of Hainaut, undead came flowing at our feet.

We conducted sorties, at first. Every day or so we sent a few thousand horse through the Twilight Ways and attacked some of the smaller packs of undead, striking quick and hard before withdrawing into the Ways before the enemy could gather in sufficient numbers to force a melee. Even a run-in with the Archmage wasn’t enough to get us to stop: the Blessed Artificer and myself took to accompanying the sorties, and we were usually enough to stalemate him. But after a week, we were forced to admit that sorties were no longer really feasible. Adanna took an arrow from the Hawk about half an inch to the left of her heart, which was an unpleasant wakeup call, but beyond that the tactic itself was no longer viable.

There were just too many of the dead.

I’d never really seen it put to us so starkly, how much more of the enemy there were. Yet the city of Hainaut stood atop a tall plateau, and it made the truth impossible to deny: the capital was like a rock surrounded by the tides, a sea of death gathering below us. We couldn’t pick at the enemy because there wasn’t anything like enemy formations to pick at. Just a mass of walking corpses that covered the land like a carpet of iron and bone, standing terrifyingly still. The sight of it was… not good for morale. It was one thing to know that we would have to defend the city against at least fourfold our number, it was another to see that fourfold standing silent on the field. Waiting, watching, dreaming of that final stillness. As was so typical of the Dead King, he’d drawn first blood before the battle even started and no cost to himself.

Shaping our mundane defences was not difficult, or at least not complicated. There were four stretches of wall to defend, the four cardinal directions, and a fifth force would have to be kept back as a reserve. The Alamans, now consolidated behind Princess Beatrice Volignac – who was the least powerful of them in truth, but remained the ruler of these lands in principle – tried to push for the ‘honour’ of defending the northern stretch, the great gate, but were refused. That task would go to the Fourth Army, as the Army of Callow’s siegecraft was superior to that of any other force here. We gave them the west, instead, since the dead were certain to try to use the butte known as the Veilleuse to take a proper crack at overwhelming that rampart. The Levantines got the east and the south, as the latter was little more than a sheer drop and so would be easier to defend.

The Lycaonese and the Second Army were kept back as the reserve, in deference the casualties they’d already taken in the campaign. As for the Firstborn, though on parchment they belonged to the reserve as well we had particular duties for them. We were not blind to the Enemy’s favourite ploys, or above turning them to our own advantage.

It had been in the air for days now, but it was the Crows coming that told me we had reached the knife’s edge. The Sisters had first come to me in my dreams, always perched on my shoulders as I stood on the edge of a hundred different drops and flying away as I fell. Then one fateful dusk it was all with eyes who were able to see them circling the skies above the capital. Sve Noc had come to Hainaut in the… flesh, for lack of better term. Though I was First Under the Night, it was the Firstborn they’d come here to tend to – as was only natural, considering near every drow south of Serolen was currently quartered within the walls of the capital. The Firstborn were largely holed up along the eastern shore of the Bassin Gris, the broadly oval pool of water at the heart of the city and feeding the waterfall at its southern tip.

Rumena had pushed for it, mentioning that most drow had once lived in cities or towns that’d been near underground lakes or rivers in the Everdark. It’d been a risk putting them near the Levantines, considering the Dominion folk were just as touchy and prone to duelling, but putting them with the Alamans near the western shore would have been even worse. Alamans reputation among the Firstborn had taken a sharp dive downwards after it became broadly known that the Langevins of Cleves had planned to backstab them over territorial gains even while they were fighting to defend the lands of that family. Not that the Firstborn were usually above a spot of backstabbing, famously, but even by their standards that’d been a tad egregious.

The cohabitation with the Levantines had actually gone rather smoothly so far. It probably helped that they mostly came out at night, taking up the majority of the watches during the dark, and so the hours spent out and about only partially overlapped. The relative peace there was a relief, as there always seemed to be a hundred things in dire need of getting done and I was ever moving from one to the next. Hakram and Vivienne did what they could to lighten the burdens, but I still felt like I was being pulled a dozen ways at any moment. Still, I could justify setting aside time for a meal with the Woe at least once a day on the basis of needing to prepare stratagems against the Archmage and I embraced the justification wholeheartedly. How much planning was actually done varied between some and none, but it was still a balm on my day to spend at least an hour talking with people I actually liked. But there had also been… changes recently, and though Akua had not acted on them immediately – or even shown much of a change at all – eventually it came to a head.

“Your patronesses have offered me power for fealty, did you know?” Akua asked me one evening.

We’d already polished off dessert and both Indrani and Masego had wandered off – they had shared quarters, but neither of them actually slept there regularly – after Hakram went to solve a jurisdiction dispute between Princess Mathilda Greensteel and the Fourth Army over a Lycaonese soldier in her service who’d palmed some of our supplies. Vivienne had excused herself after I opened a second bottle of wine, noting she still had correspondence to see to, and that’d left me alone with Akua Sahelian.

“I figured they might,” I noted. “They tried the same with Masego.”

And I expected Akua to decline for much the same reasons he had. Praesi had no issue with gaining power through contracts and sacrifices, but submission was another thing entirely.

“Alas, I am not so eager to surrender my soul anew,” Akua said. “Though given my current straits the offer was more tempting than it would have been once upon a time.”

I half-smiled, sipping at my wine. Some pale Proceran thing, from somewhere in their south.

“Is it really that hard?” I asked. “Power always comes with strings. I always thought it’d be restful, to be without them for a while.”

She dressed, I had noticed, somewhat more modestly now. Still with an eye to grandeur, she’d always had that much, but the red and white gown she wore tonight was high-necked even if it was closely cut. I’d been somewhat surprised she could still change her shape even without Night, but Masego had been all too willing to tell me that was actually a consequence of her nature as ‘shade’ rather than anything born of Winter or Night. In most circumstances a soul split from a body, which was what Akua was, would either pass into the world beyond or be remain as either some sort of diminished apparition. Those rules, though, applied largely to people who hadn’t cut out their own soul the way Akua had when she’d been a teenager.

She was stable, and even somewhat in control of her own nature – her appearance and movement at least – because the split had not been accident. She had taken a knife to her soul long before I put a bloody hand through her chest.

“Hypocrite,” Akua chided, though with more amusement than anger. “You have clawed desperately for power ever since your first taste of it, Catherine. Your only doubts were I finding a form of it that was not personally distasteful to you. You rhapsodize on powerlessness like a queen lauds the virtues of the common farmer – but without, I notice, ever retiring to live on a farm.”

I flipped her off, earning a smug smile, but did not outright deny her words. While I might be intending to abdicate queenship over Callow, I didn’t exactly intend to make my sword into a ploughshare afterwards. I still had a few decades in me handling the rise of Cardinal and the steadying of the Accords. I drank of my wine, leaning back into the seat I’d years ago stolen from Arcadia, and cocked a brow at her.

“So what are you going to do?” I asked.

She went still, as if surprised. In that moment, it struck me that I’d not seen Akua wear any jewels since that night on the rooftops. A riot of elegant clothes yes, and the occasional veil, but never once adornments of silver and gold. Golden eyes watched me, hooded, and I stopped to wonder at the fact that even dressed in a simple gown she still looked as much royalty as any woman bearing a crown I had known.

“You do not offer words of caution?” she asked. “Warnings about the price of seeking power?”

Thin veil that they would have been, covering up the fear of what she might do should she gain strength again.

“It’s not another cage, Akua,” I said. “Only larger and with bars harder to see. I meant it.”

“And should I desire to leave, here and now?” she harshly asked.

“You are,” I simply said, “not my prisoner.”

Her hands clenched, those long and deft fingers you saw so often on mages.

“Would you have spoken the words,” Akua bitterly said, “if you thought I might leave?”

You will, I thought. Before it’s all over, you will. Because that’s what fate is, Akua Sahelian: the recognition that, no matter how many doors there are, there was only ever one you were going to take.

“If it is my blessing to leave you want,” I said, “then you have it.”

Without another word, she rose from her seat. I met her eyes in silence, not moving a finger, and she left the room without a single look back. I poured my glass full again and waited, but she did not return. I wasn’t sure how long passed as I stayed there, seated and silent. I wondered, for a moment, if she’d truly left Hainaut. No, I eventually decided. She’d not yet the crossroads in her story. I finished my glass and hoisted myself up, wandering under moonlight. I could have gone to have a look at Adjutant’s arbitration, but why bother? It was Vivienne I sought instead. She wasn’t far, considering she was quartered in the same guildhall as I was: easier to guard, if we were both there, and it wasn’t like we were lacking room. It might have been for letters that she left, but it wasn’t what I found her doing.

Magelights lit up the salon she’d claimed as her work room, but instead of being seated at a desk she was on her feet. A thick plank of wood with targets painted on it, circles and squares of various sizes, was propped up against an empty bookcase and I watched with a cocked eyebrow as the heiress-designate to Callow palmed a knife and threw it. It spun with a sharp sound, the tip tearing in the middle of a painted red circle at least half an inch deep. I clapped and she turned to roll her eyes at me.

“It’s a knife trick, that’s all,” she said.

I shrugged. I was a decent hand with a throwing knife myself, but not as good as her – not without relying on the unnatural dexterity and senses a Name could lend you.

“I didn’t know you were keeping your skills sharp,” I said.

I’d known she still carried knives, obviously, but that was just plain good sense.

“Knives are easiest to practice,” Vivienne admitted. “Henrietta Morley has been on me about learning to use a sword passably, but I’ve only kept at it long enough to avoid skewering myself.”

“I still have sword spars with my guards on occasion, but I’m not as keen on it as I used to be,” I admitted. “I don’t fight the way I used to when I was seventeen.”

“Knives always came easiest to me, back when I was the Thief,” she said. “Mind you, I learned more out of a month of regular lessons on that with Robber during the Iserre campaign than out of several years of kicking around as Named.”

I stared at her. She’d picked up lessons from Robber? Well, she wasn’t going to be winning any prizes for chivalry anytime soon but I figured she’d probably be quite good as slitting throats if she were ever in a bind.

“What’d you even bribe him with?” I curiously asked.

“Two months of knowing where Hakram kept his aragh stash,” she grinned.

“That would have done it,” I snorted.

I limped across the panelled floor until I could run a finger against the knife stuck in the plank, easing it out and testing its weight. Well-made, and if it wasn’t goblin steel I’d eat my own hand. I flicked it at her, and to my pleasure she snatched it out of the air.

“So why’d you start?” I asked.

More than once I’d tried to push her into picking up a weapon, back when she’d been the Thief, but she’d always been reluctant. Even back when she’d despised the Legions, she’d been less than sanguine about killing us. I honestly couldn’t remember her ever seeing her take a life outside of a battle.

“The same reason I started learning Mthethwa,” Vivienne said, sitting against the edge of her desk. “I used to be envious of how the rest of you got it spoonfed, did you know? Masego was raised by the Warlock and ‘Drani by the Ranger, you got the Carrion Lord as a tutor and Hakram had an entire aspect prodding him so he’d always know what you needed him to.”

She smiled mirthlessly.

“Me, all I got what the scare of my life from the Assassin and a few years of running, making sure never to stay anywhere long enough the Eyes would be able to find me easily,” Vivienne said. “Gods, Indrani was raised in the middle of the fucking woods and somehow she still knew four languages and her classics in Old Miezan. So I was a little bitter about it, but mostly I used it as an excuse for why I was dragging behind.”

I hid my surprise. I’d known she’d had some issues with how she felt different from the Woe, but honestly I’d figured it came more from her late arrival and well, to be blunt, being used to siding with people that were just better than us. Morally speaking, at least.

“But then Masego kept devouring books,” Vivienne smiled. “Indrani started spying on woodworkers in Laure, you and Hakram started studying Chantant. And what did I do?”

“You essentially put the Jacks together from the ground up,” I pointed out.

Courtesy of Aisha and Ratface we’d long had some contacts in Callow and Praes, but we’d been hopelessly outmatched by the Eyes and the Circle until Vivienne folded the Guild of Thieves and the Guild of Assassins into her Jacks and began turning our old mess into a proper network of spies.

“And I did good work,” she agreed. “But you were all improving yourselves, and I was spending more time on excuses about why I wasn’t than figuring out how I could do the same.”

I wouldn’t throw stones there. I might not have enjoyed learning Chantant, but part of the reason I’d been able to force myself to was that the other most arguably useful thing I could teach myself was basic magical theory and I would have preferred eating a ball of goblinfire. If Akua hadn’t been particularly skilled at keeping the lessons I requested of her interesting, I’d probably still have some major swaths of ignorance there.

“After Hakram got through to me, I guess it was harder to swallow the excuses,” Vivienne continued. “So I started looking at doors I’d left closed. This was one, so was Mthethwa. It’s also when I set to thinking about what good could be brought to Callow, instead of lingering on all the evils still needing to be cut out.”

I slowly nodded, clenching my fingers and unclenching them.

“I’m sorry, Vivienne,” I quietly said. “I had no idea.”

“I’d hope so,” she smiled, “you were the last person I wanted to know, Cat. You’d just taken me in, I didn’t want to be the dead weight.”

“You never have been,” I frankly told her.

The smile turned fond, but it was nothing more than that. It was, I thought, a devil she’d already faced. There was no uncertainty left there.

“It was hard to be angry with you about it, when you shared secrets so readily,” Vivienne said. “I’d been with a band before, and even among heroes tricks are not often simply given when asked. It was one of the first things I liked about you, that you didn’t hoard your knowledge.”

“They weren’t my tricks to start with,” I shrugged.

She shook her head, as if amused.

“It’s one of the reasons follow you, Cat,” Vivienne said. “You don’t think of it as cheapening you, when you help others get stronger.”

I cleared my throat, almost embarrassed.

“And to think I’m the one who’s been drinking,” I teased.

She chuckled.

“Get the bottle, then,” Vivienne said. “I’ve got a letter to Duchess Kegan to finish, but when I do it occurs to me it’s been ages since we’ve played shatranj.”

Gods, I was definitely finishing the bottle then. I’d take away from the sting of defeat. And still, as I limped out of the room, I found I was smiling.

I did not see Akua the following day.

Much as the thought dug at me from the side, I let it pass. Thankfully, there was quite enough to busy myself with. We’d sent a few outrider companies far in the valley through the Ways to have a look at the situation there, and the answers were not promising: the dead were almost finished gathering. We’d be facing an assault soon. I delegated more and more to generals and commanders, instead focusing on the Woe. If we wanted to kill the Archmage without losing one of ours in the process, we needed a solid plan. Thankfully I’d had a few ideas, and there was a reason that even now he’d finished working on the new gates Masego barely bothered to sleep. I’d asked him to make anew a breed of artefacts his father had once made for the Calamities, and later on once for myself at the Camps, and he’d taken to the request with a grief-tinged fervour.

“The spellcraft behind these is fundamentally akin to scrying,” Masego said. “Which means they won’t work outside the walls.”

Proper scrying didn’t even work within the walls, even behind the cover of the city wards, but as I understood it the ‘paired stones’ worked just differently enough the interference would be minimal.

“The Lady mentioned the Carrion Lord liked to use these,” Indrani mentioned, chin resting on her palm.

On the table were four pairs of polished, smooth stones. One was meant to be kept inside the mouth and the other in the ear, the former to speak and the latter to hear.

“Father made them at Uncle Amadeus’ request,” Masego agreed. “Though he found them an interesting challenge, he always said. Their limitation as an artefact was that there was a single ‘master’ pair, which was the sole that could both receive and send sound to every other pair.”

Which Black wouldn’t have minded, since his core strategy when the Calamities fought was typically to keep Warlock out of sight and call him down like some sort of magical artillery. The master set went to the Sovereign of the Red Skies, and there was really no need for anything more complicated. My father had always been wary of complexity, when Named fought. Fragility was to be avoided at all costs in his tactics.

“Yet you’ve improved the design,” Hakram said.

Masego clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

“I have changed it, certainly,” Hierophant said. “Improved is a premature assessment.”

The other object on the table was, I suspected not by coincidence, something that rather looked like a legionary’s backpack. The resemblance was only a surface one, however, as though there was straps to make it easier to carry the artefact itself was mostly wood and copper. A sort of large rectangular box, it was covered with neat sets of runes set around incrusted stones. By the box a flat stone with carved Miezan numerals from one to four was waiting, and what looked like the mouth-stone from a paired set. The Warlock Wekesa had preferred a simple, smooth design to his artefacts as that fit the tactics and philosophy of the Calamities. Masego, at my behest, had created something a little more sophisticated. Aware of the fragility of such designs, we’d acted accordingly and focused it all in one place: this master box, until someone found a better name for it.

“So this lets us talk to each other instead of simply to the master set,” I mused, eyeing the box.

“Inaccurate,” Masego sighed. “Which is why we will require Hakram to field it.”

Adjutant had been studying the box all the while, eyes narrowed.

“The incrusted stones each pair with one of the ear ones for you?” the orc asked.

Zeze smiled, visibly pleased.

“Correct.”

“The box is relay of sorts, then,” Hakram mused. “Only there will be a complication, one that requires active administration.”

“Isoka’s third principle of scarcity,” Indrani drawled. “Can’t use two spells that use the same parts of Creation in the same place at the same time.”

Masego beamed at her and she preened.

“So the spells that transmit the sounds can’t be used simultaneously,” Adjutant said. “You will need me to either serve as a relay for planning, or establish a connection between two sets of stones.”

“That’ll be one part,” I said. “Our great trouble with the Archmage so far has been that it’s fucking impossible to get at it. When it knows Named are close it puts up a storm around itself, and then it usually falls into a certain pattern.”

“One major offensive spell at a time, keeping an eye on the opposition in case it can breach its defences,” Adjutant slowly said.

“We’ll be coming at it from different angles, simultaneously,” I said. “That means we need someone who can actually figure out what it’s preparing to hit us with, and where. That will be you.”

As additional prizes, it would also significantly lower collateral damage – if we could catch large-scale spells before they wrecked the inside of the city, we could counter them – and keep him out of the direct fighting. Hakram wasn’t a fool, he was aware that he was in no shape for a scrap with Named, but this approach meant that he was still fulfilling a role and an important one to boot. I’d not invented this for him, I’d just told Masego that we were in a position to have someone dedicated to handling the core artefact if it improved its uses. Adjutant looked at me for a long time, then slowly nodded.

“My Name seems to approve,” he gravelled, then shook his head and changed the subject. “Have we decided on a final roster for the combat?”

“Everyone in this room,” I said, “and one more.”

“Akua?” Indrani asked. “Viv’s not in a place to brawl with a Scourge these days.”

 “I was considering the Squire,” I admitted.

“No,” Hakram said, without missing a beat.

“Look,” I said, “I know-”

No,” Indrani flatly said.

I scowled.

“No,” Masego snickered.

“I didn’t even say anything,” I protested.

“The kid’s not ready for a fight of that calibre, even if he wasn’t a replacement the Heavens are trying to line up for you,” Archer said. “It’s not happening, Cat, let it go.”

I grit my teeth, but found no takers at the table. Fine. I’d find another use for him.

“The either we bring in Ishaq or Akua,” I said.

“Akua’s a stronger hitter,” Indrani frowned. “And muscle’s useful, sure, but the Barrow Sword’s not used to working with us the way she is.”

“I cut Akua loose from the Night,” I said. “Along every other binding I had on her.”

A flicker of surprise form Archer, but that was all.

“Good,” she simply said. “About time.”

Tense, I studied the other two. Masego looked puzzled but largely indifferent, while Hakram… thoughtful, but not angry or disappointed. Either of those would have stung. He gave me a look that made it clear we’d be discussing this at some point, but did not otherwise pursue the matter.

“I’d still prefer Akua either way,” Indrani added. “That’s why she’s not been around, isn’t it? She went to find some fangs.”

“Good odds,” I agreed. “Though she didn’t tell me before going. She could just have left.”

Indrani rolled her eyes.

“Sure she did,” Archer said. “Zeze?”

“I would prefer her to the Barrow Sword as well,” Hierophant said after a moment. “Even if she regains only middling power, her state as a shade means she can ignore a great many traditional magical defences.”

My gaze moved to Hakram.

“I prefer Ishaq in the abstract,” Adjutant said. “You already have spells, steel is what you lack. But in practice, he’ll be more useful as the chief for a band of five.”

I breathed out. Well, that was a rather strong endorsement for her.

If she returned.

Dusk found me on the ramparts, looking down onto the plains below with company.

“The Dead King’s making a mistake,” I said.

Tariq stood at my side, rheumy eyes on the sea of death below.

“Is he?” the Grey Pilgrim mused.

“It’s a pivotal battle with our backs up against the wall,” I said. “We’re surrounded and outnumbered. I know I warned your lot about getting cocky, Pilgrim, but I expect that they’ll cut through the lesser chaff of Revenants likes knives through butter.”

That was the way those stories went, wasn’t it? The lone company of paladins on the hill, scattering the faceless evil hordes. The few stubborn souls on the wall, keeping dawn from failing one more time. Creation loved a last stand, loved to turn them into victories – ruinous ones, often, but victories nonetheless.

“I am not so certain, Black Queen,” Tariq said. “You knocked a gate into the wall we have our backs against.”

I cast a look at him, found his face solemn.

“You think the gate tips the scales the other way?” I frowned. “It shouldn’t. We could flee through those, sure, but we’re not getting reinforcements. What we have is what’s here, and we’re severely outnumbered.”

“It is not as simple as that,” the Peregrine murmured. “It is not about what the gate brings as much as its existence. The stands we make, Catherine, they are not… strategic. Measures. That is what brings them power, you see. It is not a scheme, a trick.”

An empty prayer, I thought.

“So you’re saying that the gate muddles that,” I tried.

“Is the Dead King trying to take Hainaut to destroy us and blow out the last candles of hope,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “or because a twilight gate is a great war prize?”

I took a moment to let that sink in, reaching for my pipe and stuffing it. I had to turn around, as the wind blew back the first mouthful of smoke into my face, and I leaned against the crenelated rampart as Tariq kept looking below.

“If it’s the candles, we win it,” I finally said. “But a prize? He gets to win those. He has won them before.”

I pulled at the wakeleaf, troubled. It was not an angle I’d considered.

“Creation is a fickle mistress,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “It can be hard to tell what yarn it is she will spin. We are not without a tale of our own, I reckon. One about how a defeat here is the end of the Principate, the first step to the ruin of Calernia. Such stakes bring attention, and attention here is to our advantage I would think.”

He glanced at me, arching a white brow.

“It’s been hinted to me that Below’s less than fond of the Dead King,” I acknowledged. “Mind you, he’s one of their greats. If they put the finger to the scales here, which I’m not sure they will, I don’t think it’ll be in his favour.”

He nodded, as if he’d expected every word. Considering the angels whispering in his ear, he might have.

“And so it is not a mistake, I do not think,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “It is a gamble, instead. A roll of the dice. And even in defeat, he loses nothing here he cannot afford to lose.”

I almost objected that if we deal him grievous losses defending the city we’d be able to roll up and expel him from the entire principality of Hainaut, hopefully as a prelude to the Gigantes warding up the shore, but I got what Tariq actually meant. There was nothing down on the plains below that wasn’t ultimately expendable to Keter, because everything but the Dead King was expendable to Keter. If this war ended with every undead made ash save for Neshamah himself but all his opposition buried, that was still a victory for the King of Death. His empire of death could always be rebuilt. He had all the time in the world. Us? Not so much. Even a sufficiently costly victory for us here played to his advantage. Every veteran soldier we lost here was one more conscript in the ranks when we came for Keter, every trick and artefact used here one fewer up our sleeve.

Attrition had always been the Dead King’s favourite trick, that slow and insidious poison for which there was no cure.

“It still feels like a mistake,” I murmured. “I don’t know why, Tariq, but it does.”

Like I was standing on the edge again, cold fear in my stomach as I looked down at the drop.

“He trains it in us,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Finding the shadow of our defeat in every action we take. It must be fought, Black Queen, else the war will be lost in our heads long before he wins it on the field.”

I breathed in deep of the smoke, blew out a long stream of smoke that the wind curled away into nothingness. Tariq was not wrong. I knew that, agreed with it even.

And still it felt like the damned dreams, right before I fell.

84 thoughts on “Chapter 76: Rapt

    1. 308924810a

      At this point the only unengaged forces are the Elves, Dwarves, and possibly the potential to spare some more Drow from the northern front if they start marching south right this instant.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. And Amadeus and Ranger, if Ranger finds the Scourges worth hunting. I don’t think the Dwarves will bother losing any of theirs in a battle where a decisive defeat for Keter is off the table. The drow are more likely, through the Twilight Ways. And MAYBE some contingent of tribal Orcs bribed to act as some kind of mercenaries.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. 308924810a

          The only mentions I’ve found of why people don’t wake up the Horned Lords more often is that they tend to wake up hungry, being the personification of that trope where someone wakes or unseals an ancient evil, expecting them to be grateful, then has that ancient evil turn on them.

          Truth of the matter is that I can’t figure out how anyone on our side of the conflict would even contact the Horned Lords, and whether doing so would create a coherent force with any chance of coordinating with any of the other forces in the field.
          There’s certainly a chance that the right Horned Lord could convince the ratlings to fall on either the rear of the Dead King’s position or the rear of the Drow position, but it’s uncertain how valuable that would actually be -we’re not sure if they can break through the veil of Night(or coordinate with any force that can), and the Dead King can probably just poison his corpses/ outfight the ratlings with the extra forces he might still be holding back/retreat from that front and leave the ratlings to assault the remaining Lycaonese, to counter the whole approach.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. nimelennar

      White Knight & co. are the obvious candidates, so let’s eliminate them.

      It won’t be reinforcements from Callow, because Viv already brought those. Ditto for the Firstborn; if Sve Noc were going to summon help, they would have arrived with it.

      Akua is definitely being set up for a Han Solo style moment, but I think that’s more of a personal turning point and not a story turning point (although it could be both).

      If I had to guess, I would say that now is the perfect time for this magnificent bastard to ride in:

      “May we meet again, my queen, before the end,” [he] said. “For every gift you gave you took fair measure, and I can pay no higher compliment.”

      “And what will you do?” I asked.

      “Whatever we wish, my queen,” the one-eyed fox said. “For be it wicked or righteous, it will be entirely ours.”

      Liked by 27 people

      1. Tom

        TBH I’m not expecting to see the dwarves until next book, if we see them above ground at all. There’s been so little mention of them in this book that it would feel kind of out of place, plus what we’ve seen of them makes them seem better at wrecking cities than breaking sieges (though presumably they have some capacities for the latter too).

        Liked by 1 person

  1. RubberBandMan

    The fact that everyone is absolutely sure that Akua is going to stick with them in this hell trap when she’s weakened and free to leave is starting to make me twitchy.

    Sure, they’re probably right. But the fact that they’re so sure is … Worrying. There’s betting on someone pulling through because you want to believe in them, even if it hurts you when they fail, and there’s not even considering that you might not know them entirety. What if Akua was trying to help, but fucked it up somehow? What if she’s planning a long game and won’t be around for this particular battle?

    What if she’s lost and alone and confused and scared and hurt and there’s no Woe for her to be sardonic to?!?

    Liked by 14 people

    1. Insanenoodlyguy

      It’s not just that, it’s them feeling it coming together. Namely, that the Woe is about to include Akua as a band of five. All three of the other Named Woe probably feel it stronger then Cat, who’s name is not fully formed again. She’s gonna show up, with some “fangs” as Archer put it. Perhaps at the last second, or even during the fight, but she’s there because how would a member of the Woe not be there for a fight that requires the Woe?

      Liked by 11 people

      1. Sinead

        Akua’s appearance will probably make or break my theory on her becoming sponsored by Compassion. Might as well doup in everything here I can think of.

        I can argue it either way (Discussion on patronage, the presumption that she is going to look for “fangs” when she may actually become even more limited (though undead are probably a loophole). This means that Akua could possibly be someone that does the last minute arrival for Hanno (thinking of Tariq finding Laurence for example) and then comes back to the siege at it’s low point. She could be the final snowflake on the avalanche that causes Hanno’s crisis to resolve itself (there has been great discussions by Lillet and others on “Akua may never be able to balance the scales, but there is no reason not to try anyway) which may help resolve Hanno’s issues around Judgement and actually draw out Hierarch.

        Hell, Akua arriving as a healer that starts at healing Arthur has some awesome Morganna Le Fay similarities as well.

        …I think that ties together all of my theories over this past book into one interdependent pile. Let’s now see how well it stands.

        Liked by 3 people

      1. Rob

        Dead king doesn’t share power. Chancellor is the name meant to replace a Dread Emperor/Empress.
        So highly doubtful
        Turning to DK for a chance of rebirth from her “shade” state is possible though.

        Am of the opinion she will stay with the Woe though.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. 308924810a

    So Catherine is developing an intuition that the Twilight Gate is somehow a mistake, even though it’s a necessity for their capacity to undertake this campaign and battle plan.

    I’m vaguely inclined to trust that intuition, but I don’t think it’s an insurmountable problem.
    They have plenty of opportunity to take on supplies now, so what happens if she DESTROYS that gate, acting at the moment that they successfully divine Keter’s plans around the thing and potentially turning the situation into another completely surrounded final stand partway through the siege?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. caoimhinh

      No, it’s the opposite. Her intuition is that Neshamah is makng a mistake.
      It was Pilgrim who thought it wasn’t that, and convinced Cat that it was a gamble, yet Catherine still feels deep in her that Neshamah is making a mistake, somehow. Which is interesting.

      Look at their conversation:

      “The Dead King’s making a mistake,” I said.

      “Is he?” the Grey Pilgrim mused.

      “It’s a pivotal battle with our backs up against the wall,” I said.

      “I am not so certain, Black Queen,” Tariq said. “You knocked a gate into the wall we have our backs against.”

      “You think the gate tips the scales the other way?” I frowned. “It shouldn’t.”

      “It is not as simple as that,” the Peregrine murmured. “It is not about what the gate brings as much as its existence. The stands we make, Catherine, they are not… strategic. Measures. That is what brings them power, you see. It is not a scheme, a trick.”

      That made Catherine worry, as it was an angle she hadn’t considered, but the conversation moved on, and then came this:

      “And so it is not a mistake, I do not think,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “It is a gamble, instead. A roll of the dice. And even in defeat, he loses nothing here he cannot afford to lose.”

      “It still feels like a mistake,” I murmured. “I don’t know why, Tariq, but it does.”

      Like I was standing on the edge again, cold fear in my stomach as I looked down at the drop.

      “He trains it in us,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Finding the shadow of our defeat in every action we take. It must be fought, Black Queen, else the war will be lost in our heads long before he wins it on the field.”

      I breathed in deep of the smoke, blew out a long stream of smoke that the wind curled away into nothingness. Tariq was not wrong. I knew that, agreed with it even.

      And still it felt like the damned dreams, right before I fell.

      Conclusion: Catherine is not talking about her side making a mistake. It’s just that she can actually feel that the Dead King is making a mistake, but doesn’t know how she knows or what the mistake is.
      So I’m guessing there are Name shenanigans at play here. Or maybe whatever it was that she got from the Bard’s echo back then.

      Liked by 14 people

        1. Specifically, in between these two statements:

          > “And so it is not a mistake, I do not think,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “It is a gamble, instead. A roll of the dice. And even in defeat, he loses nothing here he cannot afford to lose.”

          > “It still feels like a mistake,” I murmured. “I don’t know why, Tariq, but it does.”

          caoimnh quoted these together so it’s easy to follow: yep, this is not an easy to follow switch from the outside XD but Cat knew Pilgrim would know what she’s talking about! The first refers to Neshamah making a mistake (a very “wait, that can’t be right” paranoia fuel), the second to Catherine making a mistake by failing to see his REAL angle.

          Liked by 6 people

      1. ninegardens

        My guess is that *what she can see* looks like a mistake, but also… Dead king doesn’t make mistakes.
        Therefore there must be something she can not see.

        That’s what’s bothering her.
        If she can feel Nessie making a mistake, but she knows that isn’t true, then it means her intuition is off.

        And if I had to guess…. the prophecy of “Giants do something critical in the twighlight ways” is part of that. a CRITICAL part of that.

        … Has Nessie figured out how to send troops through twighlight? They keep emphasizing that he can’t, and by that logic….

        Liked by 11 people

      2. I think it’s both. Catherine started talking about Neshamah making a mistake because it seemed implausible to her and made her feel like she was missing something. Pilgrim provided the missing pieces, but Catherine still feels like something’s wrong. Might be she’s right, might be it’s what Pilgrim said – paranoia carefully nurtured to trip her up and rip defeat out of the jaws of victory.

        Liked by 7 people

      3. > And still it felt like the damned dreams, right before I fell.

        Here is what Neil Gaiman had to say about falling dreams, in “Fear of Falling”: “Sometimes you wake up, and sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly.”

        Liked by 6 people

  3. Burnsy

    I have a theory, based on basically no evidence but the general sense that the Dead King is going to pull a fast one:

    1) Kairos told Cat that the Ways can lead to other places than creation, a gun thats yet to be fired. Places like, possibly, the Serenity.
    2) We know TDK has living human agents raised in the Serenity, a realm of unknown size.
    3) the Twilight Ways are the Coalitions trump card because they actively destroy any of the undead that try to enter them

    Theory: The Dead King is going to send a strike force of living soldiers via the Serenity, through the Twilight Ways and hit them in the back in the middle of the battle, simultaneously cutting off their escape route.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. Jason Ispwitch

      I can see it happening… but could that possibly be the mistake Cat is sensing?

      He’s the Dead King, after all, not the King of Lots of Undead and Lots of Brainwashed Living People Too. My intuition is that violating his Name like that would have Consequences.

      On the mundane level, it offers the opportunity for lots of things not in his favor. Morale boost for Good Guys “the Dead King couldn’t touch us with all his undead because we’re so good, so he had to send living troops”. An unmatched chance for more intel, from his living forces. The chance to seed doubt back into Serenity.

      He still could do it, but I’m guessing it won’t work out well in the end for him if he does.

      Liked by 8 people

    2. 308924810a

      Y’see that would make more sense than my paranoia.
      I’ve been worrying that he was going to draw things out for as long as possible, then ask his ally Malicia to send a force into the Twilight Ways to make a permanent gate from there into one of the more dangerous parts of the Hells.
      Then you’ve got devils bursting out of every permanent gate the Grand Alliance has made, and maybe some of them having the senses to manage sidling getting out at random to terrorize the countryside.

      Liked by 4 people

        1. Crash

          Side note, is Malicia even allowed there? I don’t recall.

          The Ways are finnicky against undead because Tariq really didn’t want them there. Can’t imagine he had a much better optnion about the Dread Empress.

          Or would that be too specific to take effect?

          Like

          1. Zombie III was undead and the Ways didn’t give as hit. It was specifically Dead King’s work.

            I suspect covering two opponents like that would be spreading the weight too thin, so Malicia’s in the clear.

            Liked by 2 people

            1. Well, Zombie III was Winter undead (that is, actually a fae construct), and Cat’s Winter undead weren’t affected by Light. But Malicia is just a human Named, no barrier for her, any more than for Amdaeus and Ranger. Obviously, trying to raise undead in the Ways would be bad, but I suspect even her extra bodies probably wouldn’t have a problem — by all accounts, those are sorcerous constructs but not undead.

              Liked by 1 person

    3. In addition to the other replies — the Alliance *holds* their gate, certainly on the creation side and perhaps even on the Twilight side. Any hostiles coming out of it will be coming through a single portal into the heart of an alert and active army.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Insanenoodlyguy

      He’s stagnation. Unchanging, unlearning. The gods want their creations to DO stuff. And he’s really only able to be useful in this way by making others who can still grow and learn do stuff in response to him. So him actually winning, and then making the continent go into effective stasis isn’t their preferred outcome.

      Liked by 15 people

      1. Frivolous

        I believe the DK is a bit of a dead weight as far as Below is concerned. He represents an enormous mass of Evil that does little or nothing to serve the cause of Evil in the wider world. This gives Good an advantage so long as Good doesn’t go after Keter, because Good can bestow more heroes to balance out Keter.

        Sometimes I think that heroes have an advantage in their capacity to age. Villains are unaging and can stagnate even without becoming undead. Heroes can’t, because they die off eventually.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. > Villains are unaging and can stagnate even without becoming undead. Heroes can’t, because they die off eventually.

          That is roughly science’s best answer to the question of “why do we (“we” being nearly all multicellular life!) get old and die?” If a population doesn’t change, then sooner or later, either a changing environment, or a new innovation from another species, will wipe out the whole population. Aging forces turnover and gives new variations a chance to shine.

          Liked by 3 people

          1. Frivolous

            Mental Mouse: Good thought. Astute, incisive.

            Villains don’t age, but they do attract violence. So despite their lack of aging, they are forced to evolve, because if they don’t they get killed.

            In further thought regarding the Dead King: I think one reason Below dislikes him is his primary motive: He’s a coward, and everything he does is in service of his cowardice. He isn’t curious, and he’s not particularly experimental or exploratory. He took his ball and went home, and now no one can play because he guards his ball ferociously.

            Neshamah just sits there like a block of ice that refuses to melt, whereas Below wants him to be water, flowing and pushing.

            There have been other undead Named rulers before, like Dread Emperor Revenant, but Revenant wasn’t a coward.

            I think one reason why Below favors Cat is she is the very opposite of a coward. She’s vibrant and active and transformative in ways that further the Great Experiment that is Creation.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. > He isn’t curious, and he’s not particularly experimental or exploratory.
              Which probably has a lot to do with being undead. I dunno about Below “wants him to be like water”, but certainly they have to be getting bored with him. The rest of the continent mostly learned not to open the box on him, and Crusades against Keter had decayed into a routine.

              Cat has chained the routine big-time, and indeed is rewriting rules almost across the board… and she even shares the fun with Above’s crew. Much more interesting….

              Liked by 1 person

          1. Wait, what? Who prefers what? What’s the distinction between emoji and emoticon here?

            My entire problem here is that I want the straightforward keyboard symbol smileys, and evil platforms convert them into whatever stupid images they think line up with them )=

            Like

            1. > Wait, what? Who prefers what?
              Okay, fair cop.

              “Emoticon” wasas the “fancy name” for text smileys, “emoji” took hold for the graphical form.

              The problem with text smilies was and still is, that for all the lists of them that got passed around on USENET, once you got past the first half-dozen at most, people stop agreeing on what they mean. — e.g., does an “x” mouth mean kissing or cursing? Does it matter if it’s uppercase? What about an asterisk? That was an issue 40 years ago (well before the Web existed!), and it hasn’t gone away.

              The little graphical cartoons that are emojis, some of them enshrined by UNICODE, aren’t completely without ambiguity, but they’re a lot better. And note that a UNICODE character is defined by its numeric value and official description, not by its graphical representation.

              So, some software tries automatically converting one way or the other. This works okay on, say, Discord where you get rapid feedback. Not so well on WordPress, where you don’t get to see the program’s interpretation until after it’s too late to edit.

              Note that my E-mail client Thunderbird actually mechanizes that disaster, for the worst of both worlds! It lets you choose graphics such as “foot-in-mouth” or “embarrassed”, and shows them to you as graphics, but it then converts them to text on send. Good luck if your reader is using a different client, that might interpret them differently or not at all.

              Liked by 3 people

              1. Valid. And thanks for the explanation!

                Anyway, I’m going to keep using emoticons and inventing combinations that platforms I use haven’t caught yet. Fuck them, I’m gonna keep running this race.

                Holy shit Thunderbird. I’m so glad I haven’t used that function in it, I DID wonder how the FUCK it would have worked.

                (Note: the reason I use )= and (= and ^^ at all is bc of races long past…)

                Liked by 2 people

  4. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    liked to believed > liked to believe
    and no cost > at no cost
    deference the > deference to the
    and feeding > feeding (or which fed)
    be remain > remain
    as either some > as some
    It’s not another (shouldn’t this be “just another”)
    yet the crossroads > yet reached the crossroads
    quite good as > quite good at
    her ever seeing her > ever seeing her
    what the scare > was the scare
    reasons follow > reasons I follow
    I’d take away > It’d take away
    the sole that > the sole one that
    “I was considering (extra space at the start)
    “The either > “Then either
    surprise form > surprise from
    likes knives > like knives
    we deal him > we dealt him

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Konstantin von Karstein

      There’s zero chance of that. The DK doesn’t make alliances, exceptwith powerful Villains. The Gigantes know he will betray them and kill/raise them. They also know that after Procer they’re next.

      Liked by 6 people

  5. Heh, everyone on the same page that bringing the Squire along would be a terrible idea is very satisfying.

    I’m with Pilgrim here: this coming fight is not going to be a last stand. This is a grand brawl over a strategic asset. In many ways, that’s actually a good thing, as it actually puts more story weight behind the gate if they can secure it (see my prediction of the gate story-locking the area for the Alliance for decades or centuries), but it also means a defeat for the Grand Alliance has weight as a plot device in a more powerful story (see another of my predictions that if Cat didn’t have a solid Name by now, she’d earn it amidst the corpses of her army). Neither is certain, and unless there’s an angle I’m not seeing, I don’t think this story gets a heroic charge from reinforcements.

    That said, the shipper in me is totally rooting for Kingfisher deciding to abandon his post in an attempt to woo Cat by being a heroic badass. The high military commander would totally go for that sort of thing, right? (half /s)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanatoss

      Remember that Cat never lost any big/significant battle. It is basically one of the most important parts of her story.
      This is why I have strong feeling about her getting some big connection with Trumphant:
      -it was hinted few chapters ago that she can “feel” giant’s magic and if Trumphant foght vs them what monster she was,
      -Cat and Trumphant got the same room in Keter
      -Trumphant killed Judgement Angel, and Cat gives pause to Angels
      This is big pattern, i have no idea what comes from it but damn

      Liked by 4 people

    2. As has been brought up in their conversation, an actual *defeat* here is endgame, end of story, Neshamah wins. That won’t happen.

      There are a lot of shades of *costly* victory remaining available though…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Sinead

        ALL HAIL DREAD EMPRESS VICTORIOUS!!!

        New crack theory: Cat climbs the Tower and becomes the last Dread Empress of Praes, as she literally _never dies_/holds the reigns long enough that she forces the legend to fade.

        (Hey, Callow’s based on Great Britain. Of course the last great Queen of an Empire is Queen Victoria…..)

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Reader in The Night

    I wonder what was that with the Fate stuff? Cat seems to be actively anticipating an Akua betrayal because her Fate is inescapable, but I thought she was more the type to say “Fuck Fate, I make my own Destiny”.

    Also, how does her actively anticipating Akua’s Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal equate with her setting up a punishment for Akua? Did she somehow set up a way for Akua to self-destruct when she (inevitably) turn Evil again, just to drive home the point that Akua was never a better person and could never have been a better person, no matter how much she tried? That seems a little… Harsh, and against the themes of the story being told so far.

    I suppose I could see something like the ending of Portrait of Dorian Gray, but that doesn’t seem all that satisfying.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sinead

      Huh. I read it as the fact that while Akua now has her freedom, she feels bound to stick around, even though everything she has been taught says to flee.

      I don’t expect a betrayal, I just see that Akua’s return won’t be a form of overwhelming firepower, but something different,

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Everyone *thinks* they can be like “screw fate, I make my own path”, but not many people actually do. Here’s how I read that exchange, more or less.

      Akua: Ha! You were doing that heroic “if you love something, set it free” thing, weren’t you? Well screw that, I make my own fate. I’m leaving.

      Cat: I totally knew she’d do that. She’ll be back.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Well, it was more like:

        Akua: What bullshit! How dare you make me stay willingly!

        Cat: I’m not making you stay.

        Akua: Oh come on! You want me to stay and are hypnotizing me into it with your evil heroic viles!

        Cat: I’m literally giving you my blessing to leave right now.

        Akua: …

        Cat: …I have no idea if she’ll be back.

        …I might be a little confused about what Cat’s trying to do here.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. Christian Oaks

          Cats punishment for akua has always been to show her everything she did was wrong, she could have had friends and happiness and power all along or something along those lines. She does that by being her friend, and the logical step in that is not forcing a friend into something dangerous

          Liked by 3 people

  7. Daniel E

    Yes yes, drama and tense action, blah blah. You know what could allow breaking that bridge from safe distance while keeping White Knight & company behind to defend? A flying horse 😥 (never letting this one go)

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Crash

    If Cat said those words near one of their augurs I’m fairly certain they’d just drop dead instantly.

    Foresight isn’t working, the White Knight has just left on a quest and the Black Queen is saying the Dead King is making a mistake? (Insert obligatory this is all part of Bard’s scheme here)

    Oh boy.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Frivolous

    I believe that this chapter gives new information on Vivienne’s past quandary as Thief, and why she eventually lost her Name.

    It’s interesting, this new anecdote from her perspective, in that she was finding excuses not to learn and improve, in contrast to all the other Woe, and also in contrast to heroes like Hanno and Roland.

    The Name of Thief would not, I think, have been so brittle in someone other than Vivienne. Being a hero and Thief, compelled to rob the wicked, to take, should not in itself have prevented Viv from learning and growing. I think another Thief could have been more constructive and creative about it.

    Examples in fiction include Roark, the male protagonist of J D Robb aka Nora Roberts’ In Death series, who started out a pickpocket and branched out to computer science because he had to defeat sophisticated technological security systems, and eventually became a business billionaire who merely stole art and jewels as a hobby, for fun.

    I think Vivienne’s problem was she robbed out of anger. She didn’t take any real joy in being the Thief. It didn’t make her happy. So maybe that caused her to coast along, relying on her Name.

    I wonder if and suspect that all this talk about how Vivienne lost or left behind her Name could be important later on, because studying how a Name is lost without that Named dying can be useful in predicting how a Name is gained.

    It might also be relevant to the Intercessor. Surely that is someone whom Catherine would like to see lose her Name.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. > “Is the Dead King trying to take Hainaut to destroy us and blow out the last candles of hope,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “or because a twilight gate is a great war prize?”

    > I took a moment to let that sink in, reaching for my pipe and stuffing it. I had to turn around, as the wind blew back the first mouthful of smoke into my face, and I leaned against the crenelated rampart as Tariq kept looking below.

    Okay, I think we’ve got a hint that Tariq’s just right here. Notice how the moment after he comes out with that, Cat’s smoke gets blown into her own face? Have we ever seen that in text before?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sinead

      …That is a very solid point. It’s a frustrating point, because it runs in the face of strategy. But then again, that final stand is for “after strategy fails”.

      I wonder if this shows the difference between Above and Below. Above gives a “last stand” boon to it’s champions, who sacrifice themselves to overthrow their foes, while Below gives a curse with their dying breath.

      In the end, is there a mechanical difference in effects, or is it just the mindset on how they are implemented?

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Sinead

          Exactly! Though the death of all players means you have Preservation and Destruction without oversight on the After. The first leads to rigidness of thought, with no desire to change, while the second uncaringly strips away the good and the bad. The end result puts them back in the issue of the Garden: cyclical thought that never really changes.

          Hence Amadeus’ curse on all martyrs of the First Step of Change.

          Liked by 2 people

            1. Sinead

              Hah! I hadn’t noticed the name similarities

              I don’t know about you, but I sort of wish that the series “growth through the ranks” made a point that Stories are not actually what are at play within the dynamics of the world (they switch so quickly – look at Karios and Saint’s interactions) Rather, stories are how mortals track it akin to High Arcana. Perhaps that is what we are building up to with Cat more fully stepping on the level of Bard and Nemeshah. She isn’t there yet because she balances so many hats. I suspect that the end of the book sees Cat shedding the Crown of Callow, and mantle of First Under Night, and stepping into her emerging Role. That is her Fall into the Abyss. The Crows do not reject her, she just will have outgrown the Role, and they her. Although I do hope she keeps some relationship with the Sisters. They are so entertaining.

              Granted, this might be me reading my own biases into the setting, since “Narrative” as an objective force is something that I find frustrating since you do end up with a lot of the issues that were called out by this series over and over again. But the fact that the system can be “played” to me means that the base premise of “narrative” is fundamentally flawed.

              A side note: When Cat abdicates, part of me wants there to be a pomp and circumstance scene between her and Vivienne of passing the torch akin to Cat’s and Edward VII. While Callow may ultimately sour on Cat’s reign, the scene between Edward and Cat reads to me as the seal of legitimacy of the Crown (independent of Above and Below).

              But I am biased there too as I go back and re read that scene every so often.

              Like

              1. I’m pretty sure it’s actually very much about narrative. People’s perception and “collective subconscious” actively warps reality, and that’s something I absolutely adore as a concept, so there’s my bias in the opposite direction from yours 😛

                Like, issues? No shit there are issues in how people process things, in how the same event can be interpreted multiple times, in how this interacts with the agency of people it’s actually happening to, etc. That’s the fun part!

                (I mean, we’ve had WoG explicitly confirm that a particular Name coming into existence or not depends on cultural prerequisites… That’s such a fun concept???)

                And of course you can play the narrative. Stories are what the storyteller makes them, it’s just that in this universe you’re telling the story with your entire existence and not just out loud. Of course you get to manipulate other people’s perception, that’s how other people’s perception works 😀

                ALSO I VERY MUCH THINK EDWARD VII GAVE CAT’S REIGN A SEAL OF LEGITIMACY AND I KIND OF WANT THAT TO COME UP TBH ALONGSIDE THE SWORD IN THE STONE ANGELIC RESURRECTION THING
                there are few legitimate rulers as legitimate as Catherine is ;u;

                Liked by 1 person

  11. Matthew Wells

    So I’ve been thinking, what will the titles be when PTGE gets published?

    Two possibilities I’ve thought of:
    1: Squire
    2: Adjutant
    3: Thief
    4: Archer
    5: Hierophant
    6: Shade
    7: Judge (or whatever Cat is becoming)

    Or maybe:
    1: Squire
    2: Lady
    3: Sovereign
    4: Priestess
    5: Queen
    6: Judge (idem)
    7: Peacemaker?

    Liked by 1 person

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