Chapter 6: Retaliation

“And so a great host came to stand before the Sererian Walls, led by four kings and three queens who meant to raise Aslam Isbili as king over Wolof. Their envoys were scorned by High Lady Akua of the Sahelians, and so in great anger did they storm her walls. Seven times and one was the army driven back, broken by sorcery until corpses stood tall as hills. Only then did High Lady Akua answer the envoys, speaking thus: ‘Have you come to win a crown, or lose seven?’”

– Extract from the Scroll of Ruin, twenty-fifth of the Secret Histories of Praes

There were eleven different secret passages into the city of Wolof and all of them were traps.

Akua had told me that one of her distant ancestors, after discovering several made by disloyal vassals aiming to overthrow the Sahelians, had decided instead of walling them up to make several more. High Lord Kofi had then seeded rumours about their existence, fake traitors and secret scrolls, and sat back waiting for all his enemies to come at him by where he’d see them coming. The number of passages had grown over the years as people outwitted Sahelians for a time, but in the wake of those victories the family always reclaimed the fresh weakness and added it to their centuries-old ploy. I’d been halfway to admiring High Lord Kofi, until Akua noted he was also famous for his habit of throwing one of his cousins in a maze every summer solstice. Along with starved lions. It kept everyone on their toes, he’d claimed.

Praesi.

If there were no secret passages to use and storming the walls was too costly for us, then that left us few options to enter the city. Sneaking in as part of a delegation had been considered, but we’d be watched like hawks and likely kept under wards the whole time. Assuming we weren’t just betrayed. Pickler had narrowed in on the aqueduct that fed the city as our way in, but her suggestion had been… overly bold. She’d wanted us to cut the water and send in goblins with munitions through the stone channel. They’d blow their way through the wards at the end and we’d funnel troops into that foothold by the dry aqueduct, taking enough of the city by surprise that Sargon was forced to either negotiate or suffer a sack. Problem was, I had my doubts that we could secure that foothold.

The aqueduct whose source was deep in the Jinon Hills was squatted over by the fortress of the same name, then whipped across the valley in straight line, but welcoming it into Wolof was yet another set of fortifications. The Sahelians weren’t fools, they’d known the running water was the weakness in their wards. The place was fortified thoroughly and garrisoned through day and night: even if we did take the soldiers there by surprise, I figured it was a toss up whether we’d win the fight. And if we lost it, well, that’d get bloody. So a somewhat quieter way in was needed, which had led me to our current scheme. Namely, my old Everdark crew resurrected for one more jaunt: a more subtle infiltration of the city through the same weakness Pickler had identified.

I’d needed the Concocter to make it feasible, since without the ability to breathe in water that was a very long swim, but those vials and ransacking through the remains of the old Sudden Abjuration project had gotten me the right tools. Cordelia had been the one to most benefit from the emptying of the Arsenal, since she’d been able to take all the half-finished projects and throw them at the Dead King on various fronts, but taking the Concocter east had paid dividends for me. I knew the First Prince appreciated me not drawing too heavy on the pool of heavy hitters among Named, too. She’d not be so grateful if she knew I’d not shortchanged myself in the slightest, simply picking mine for stories instead of raw war potential. The Barrow Sword so that I could tie him up with the Blood, all of Ranger’s surviving pupils for when it inevitably came to blows with her, two kids approaching the time of their transition into a more settled Named – hanging swords I could bring down, pulling at the right strings. It was a pretty little arsenal, though it would not be of use here in Wolof.

No, here it was an older company that’d be taking the field again.

“I’d always imagined that if I crossed the Sererian Walls again it would either be as Empress or as bones,” Akua said, eyeing the shape of the city in the distance.

“Well, you’re slightly bones,” Indrani mused. “You know, in a poetic sense.”

“Ah, bones,” the woman who had once been the heiress to Wolof drawled. “Those famously incorporeal body parts.”

She made her shape turn shadowy for a moment to hammer the point home before returning to her usual guise.

“Poetry’s all about metaphors, Heirloom Haunt,” Indrani sneered. “It’s a mark of your inferior education you don’t know that.”

Akua’s face creased with what appeared to be genuine outrage.

“You were raised in the woods,” she replied.

“I guess it must just be the gap between our natural talents, then,” Indrani airily replied.

“There was a time where I would have had had you drowned for that sentence,” Akua noted.

“Well,” Indrani said, eyeing the aqueduct. “Day’s young. Give it a shot.”

Idly, I wondered if it was too late to replace one of them by Hakram. Sure, given how much metal he wore these days he’d swim about as well as a rock but I was having to weigh the prospect of dragging him along the bottom the whole time against at least a day of this.

Convenience narrowly won out.

“All right, let’s get this going,” I said. “The timing will get tricky if we linger.”

I got a mocking salute from Archer and a graceful nod of acknowledgement from Akua, sparing one last look for the distant shape of Wolof before I left. The ramparts up here did have an amazing view during the day. We headed down into the belly of the beast, and I split from them to have a short conversation with the commander leading the garrison. He confirmed that Hierophant was already getting started on his ritual, which meant we needed to get going. I ordered him to get the gears moving and followed my companions below, to the source feeding the aqueduct.

It was bare-bones, for such a crucial location, a cube of stone split in the middle by a rectangular ‘river’ that fed into the channel that would lead all the way to Wolof. The water actually came from further out, an underground spring deep in the hills, and this room had been raised for maintenance purposes. The stone conduct on raised steles – Pickler had commented unkindly on the way the Sahelians had been forced to fortify the stone with enchantments to compensate for not using arches the way the Miezans had – was dotted with warded “hatches” on the ceiling through which mages-engineers could enter to have a look at any blockage or foulness, but it wouldn’t help the three of us: there wasn’t enough space between the top of the channel and the water for anyone to be able to breathe reliably.

I would have been able to get around that with Night, probably by making a bubble around myself that let in air but not water, but the garrison would have seen us coming if we did. It would have tripped half a dozen wards on the aqueduct and destroying those would have tripped further defences. No, to go in quietly the solution was the water breathing potion. The three of us did a last check on our equipment before going into the water, professionalism finally shining through. Archer had been forced to abandon her usual bow, as it would be too large as well as enchanted, so she had a simple waxed shortbow with the backup strings stashed in a watertight bag along with her arrows. I’d shed the Mantle of Woe for this, settling for a simple grey cloak over my usual sword and armour.

Akua’s clothes were sedate, and what she carried was not equipment meant for herself. The Concocter had finished the last of the ten bags of evanescent powder I’d requested half a bell ago, and they’d been brought straight here. The shade had them all, held in segmented bags held by complicated knots. One pull at the right place and they’d spread out while the bags opened, which was our way in. Sudden Abjuration had been the Arsenal project to create an alchemical substance capable of mimicking the effects of holy water. We’d never managed to make one that’d make it affordable to go through with the plan behind the project, turning all the lakes between us and the Dead King into holy water, but we’d had some successes nonetheless.

The evanescent powder, for one, would wash out active sorcery on contact. Like wards and enchantments trying to keep us out of Wolof.

“Everyone ready?” I asked.

“Bit of a swim without the potion, Cat,” Archer grinned.

I rolled my eye, then glanced at Akua.

“At your disposal, my heart,” she said.

“You should be more like her,” I told Indrani.

She let a deeply insulted gasp, as I’d known she would, and I shoved a small glass vial into her hand. I’d thought about throwing it, but I was not going to roll the dice on this entire operation just to be flippant. It’d taken the Concocter long enough to make four doses – two to enter, two to leave – that I was not going to risk it all just before we left. I took out my own vial, glancing at the pale blue liquid inside. It looked almost milk-like, which was not appetizing in the slightest given the hue. I uncorked it and raised the vial in a toast that Indrani met, and it was bottoms up for the both of us. The entire thing tasted foul, like chalk cut with refuse, but I forced myself to swallow. I breathed in a few times, trying to get myself used to it.

On the surface it didn’t feel like anything changed, but my lungs felt… heavier. Like something had grown.

“We only have an hour,” I said. “Let’s not waste it.”

I want first, even though I wasn’t the strongest swimmer – Indrani – as I saw best in the dark. And it was only moments before it was all pitch black, all the worst parts of swimming and crawling in a tunnel put together. A few strokes forward and already my lungs were burning, and I find myself fighting breathing in the water even though in principle I knew that I’d survive it. I ended up swallowing it all in a gulp, but the water didn’t go any further than my mouth: a thin membrane had sprouted and it served as a filter, letting through air and not water. It was uncomfortable, unnatural even, but it worked so I grit my teeth and kept swimming forward. I could feel Akua right behind me, patiently waiting.

Shades didn’t need to breathe, which at the moment I felt to be somewhat unfair.

Like most adventures, it didn’t feel all that exciting as we did it. It was work, tiresome swimming through a tunnel-like channel of fresh water. I was wet and cold and my arms quickly grew tired. Now and then we encountered small lights as we passed under maintenance hatches in the stone, which were warded instead of sealed tight, but aside from that it was swimming forward in a gentle, almost unnoticeable slope. It was hard to tell how long it took us. We’d estimated half an hour at a brisk pace, maybe three quarters of an hour in practice, and my finely detailed sixth sense telling me how close I was to dawn and dusk helped measure how long we were taking.

We were slower than anticipated, so we had about a quarter hour left before the potion ran when we finally arrived at the gatehouse. I gestured for the other two to stop, studying the steel grid in front of us. The builders of this gatehouse had been faced with a problem when raising it, namely that you couldn’t actually raise wards over running water. There were wards on both sides of the channel I could see going into the gatehouse, a large stone room where I could glimpse torchlight through the water’s surface. In the water itself, though, the Sahelians had been forced to instead use three enchanted metal grids to prevent infiltrators going through.

That was our opening, actually. As with all fortresses, its true weakness was not in the walls or the gates but in the petty demands of maintenance. In this case, should debris large enough to go through the bars of one grid got stuck on the bars of another grid there needed to actually be a way for someone to get it out. Preferably without, you know, this turning into a major undertaking involving knocking down walls or parts of the aqueduct. So the builders had put ‘doors’ in the grids, large enough for a small person to swim through if they held themselves horizontally. Those doors were held fast with very physical steel padlocks and more eldritch keyed enchantments, and they were our way into the city of Wolof.

Archer swam forward, elbowing me in our narrow confines, and had a close look at the pair of padlocks on the door. She offered me a nod, which was a relief. She believed she’d bee physically strong to pry those open using her Name, then. Tempting as it would have been for her to try it, we couldn’t afford to right now: the damn things were enchanted to glow if anyone touched them. Sahelian paranoia was truly inspiring. The two of us awkwardly made room for Akua to swim past us, which she did with unearthly elegance in the middle of this cramped hellhole, and golden eyes met mine to ask for the permission to begin. I nodded and the shade turned her back to the grids before pulling at the right rope, releasing all the knots holding closed the bags of evanescent powder.

It wasn’t all that flashy a sight: the pale powders spread out in great clouds that faded quickly, and then the only sign they’d been used was that the water looked slightly thicker. The current guided it down, past all three grids and then beyond. Akua withdrew without a word, making room for Archer, and I clenched my fists as I watched her dart forward. After an agonizing moment she closed her fingers around the padlock and nothing happened at all. No glow, no alarm. I grinned. It’d worked. Indrani ripped open the padlocks methodically and swam through the door to get working on the second grid. Even after the unpleasantly long swim, I now felt full of energy: I took my sword off my belt, pulling it close so it wouldn’t get in my way when I swam through.

Ahead, Indrani broke the last padlocks and I was gesturing for Akua to go ahead when I caught sight of shapes moving above the water. Hissing in dismay I flattened myself against the side of the channel, Akua doing the same behind me, but it was Archer in danger of being discovered. If she’d been in the dark she would have been fine, but moments later a long wooden staff was plunged into the waters and I saw that at its head was a stone enchanted to glow with light. Indrani had moved before she could be seen, hiding on the side of the wall in the dead angle, but the grid… I started with surprise. Oh, that canny wench. While I’d been panicking, she’d put the padlocks she’d broken on the last door back. They were still busted, but she’d hung them at an angle where it was hard to see.

There was the indistinct sound of people talking, at least three voices, and one seemed to be mocking another. The staff was suddenly withdrawn and I sagged in relief. If it’d come to a fight here, it might have gotten ugly. We waited as long as I dared, far after the voices had gotten distant. Our last quarter hour was thinning out dangerously and there was still more swimming ahead of us, so reluctantly I gave the signal again. Archer opened us the path through and we got moving, myself last and hanging the padlocks behind me as I closed the doors so that it would be hard to tell we’d passed. We had an even better cover for our tracks coming, but best not to get sloppy.

Hugging the bottom of the channel we went past the open channel in the torchlit room, into a squeezing tight tunnel that dropped downwards precipitously. Barely swimming at that point, I let myself be dragged forward and then swam up when we ended up where we’d meant to: the first of the three great reservoirs where the water from the aqueduct would be kept before going out into the city itself. The reservoir, little more than a large cistern, wasn’t entirely full: I breached the surface to moist air, finding Akua and Archer already climbing up towards the hatch at the top.

“Fuck me,” I muttered, “it actually-”

I bit my tongue at the last moment. I refused to tempt Fate like that.

“You’ll be all right climbing?” Archer asked in a murmur.

I glanced at the handholds they were using, little more than indents into the side of the wall – people had to be able to come down to check for leaks or trash – and grimaced before I nodded. The herbs I’d taken for the pain in my leg were beginning to fade, but I’d make it up. It just wouldn’t be pleasant, during or after. Indrani tried to push open the stone hatch but it didn’t move. I cursed under my breath. Breaking that open wouldn’t go unnoticed. Akua, however, had a solution. Her arm turning to mist, it slithered through a crack and I heard her work on the hatch from the outside. Moments later it was hoisted open, Archer catching it and popping her head out to look.

She gave us a nod and a grin: the way was clear.

Indrani went out first, leaping down soundlessly, and Akua followed as I climbed up. My bad leg was burning, but only dimly. I closed the hatch behind us, twisting it into some sort of rough lock, and just like that we were in the city. Well, a fortress within Wolof anyway, but as far as I was concerned it counted. We were dripping all over the floor, save for Akua, who covered out tracks: she passed a mist-like hand over us and we found ourselves mostly dry. She pulled the same trick with the trails of wetness we’d left, and though we were still damp at least we wouldn’t be leaving tracks.

“You remember the way out from here?” I softly asked.

“I’ve never been in this part of the fortress,” Akua admitted, “but I have memorized the plans, same as you. It will be enough.”

I nodded. It’d have to be. We were in a closed off section inside the fortress, but one that was relatively close to a way out. There ought to be a hall outside the reservoir room that’d go straight to a crossroads. Taking a left there would lead us straight to a bastion, and from there it was possible for us to leap down three levels into a large courtyard whose gate would lead us out in the city streets. The issue was that we hadn’t known the guard schedules, so there was no telling if there were people in that bastion or not. And we couldn’t afford to take our time here, because soon the Army of Callow was going to ‘attack’ the city.

“Take the lead, then,” I ordered.

She nodded, her form rippling into that of a young Soninke soldier in Sahelian livery. Archer and I wouldn’t be half as inconspicuous, unfortunately, so she’d be going ahead alone. The two of us hid behind the reservoirs, waiting for what seemed like an hour. She returned, footsteps silent and with a grave expression on her face.

“Only three in the bastion, but one is a mage,” Akua said. “I would like Archer to kill him, I am at… risk otherwise. If he’s a skilled enough caster, he could tap into the fortress wards.”

“Indrani, you’re up,” I said.

“Ah, that ought to be bracing,” she grinned. “See you in a bit, Your Graceful Regaliness.”

“I hope you get caught,” I sweetly replied, “so I can consciously choose to leave you behind.”

She flipped me off, a sure sign of surrender if I’d ever seen one. The two of them disappeared into the hallway, eerily silent, and I was left to bite my thumbs. It’d been a while since I’d had to rely on others to do the dirty work, hadn’t it? In Wolof, though, I would have to. In the city proper I’d be able to use Night again, in small doses, but in the heavily warded parts like the fortress it’d be like sending up a flare. I’d forgotten how boring actually doing things the right way tended to be, I thought with half a smile. I was considering how to dispose of the corpses – if we dragged them out of the wards, we could stash them in my shadow – when I heard the sound.

Someone was tuning a lute.

My hand dropped to the grip of my sword. The sounds of strings being plucked at methodically continued to echo in the room, and though I was tempted to remain hidden there was no point to it. The Intercessor already knew I was here, else why would she be? Pushing off the wall of the reservoir I’d been hiding behind, I loosened my cloak around my shoulders and took my hand off my sword. What would a blade do against the likes of the Wandering Bard? Putting a lazy smile on my face, forcing the tension out of my shoulders, I strolled out of hiding. She was not difficult to find. The Intercessor was seated on top of a reservoir, legs dangling as she finished tuning that shoddy lute. Fair-haired, this time, with deeply tanned skin and starry blue eyes. She was barely taller than I was, if at all, though she had curves I could only envy. And when I came out she raised a finger, putting that old silver flask to her lips and drinking deep. I waited, but the finger stayed up and she kept drinking. I cocked an eyebrow.

After an insulting amount of time, she pulled away the flask and smacked her lips before letting out a pleased sigh.

“Alavan pear brandy, Catherine,” the Intercessor revealed. “Gotta drink while it’s still the good stuff, you get me?”

“Never took to brandy,” I idly replied. “Though I once knew a man more than passingly fond of that particular drink.”

It’d been a barb, a test, and for it I got a pained grimace.

“I actually thought of him as a friend, you know,” the Intercessor said. “Tariq was one in a thousand, even for Named. Even when every part of him was worn down to the bone, he never lost that thing. The spark. The part that makes a man take the lash so someone else doesn’t have to. I don’t think any of you ever appreciated how staggeringly rare that is.”

“He probably would have kept kicking around a few years more, if you hadn’t given our plans in Hainaut to the Dead King,” I harshly said. “How many graveyards’ worth of friends have you buried, Intercessor?”

She pulled at a string, smiling at the broken side.

“More than you’ve had meals, Catherine Foundling,” the Intercessor said, not denying or admitting a thing.

And the horror of it was that I believed her, believed her with bone-deep certainty. How many people you loved could you bury, before the only human thing about you was the guise you were? A hundred, a thousand, ten thousand? In that smiling woman’s shadow was an empire’s worth of graves.

“I’m a little disappointed the Arsenal only bought me a year without you,” I said.

More or less, leaning on less.

“Praes is where the fun’s at, these days,” the Intercessor shrugged. “All those fires full of irons, all those old wounds never closed. It’s in the air here, you know? The… sincerity. The Tower’s the closest thing Below has to a smile. If you wanted me out of your hair, you should have kept away.”

“Had a thing or two to get done hereabouts,” I replied. “What – actually, have you got a name for me to use nowadays?”

She plucked at a string.

“Yara,” the Intercessor smiled.

“Of?” I pressed.

“Oh,” she shrugged, “nowhere in particular.”

Well, wasn’t that just fucking ominous.

“So what are you dropping in for, Yara?” I asked. “You got a horse in this race?”

For a moment her face was split between wonder and surprise. I hid my confusion, and like a firefly’s flicker in the night her expression was wiped clean. Almost quick enough to make me wonder if I’d really seen anything at all.

“Eh, you could say that,” the Intercessor said.

“Malicia or Sepulchral?” I asked, tone forcefully nonchalant.

It wouldn’t be my father, if he became Dread Emperor he’d put an entire division of mages on figuring out how to permanently kill her. Captain’s death was not something he would ever forgive.

“Oh,” the Bard smiled. “That’s cute. You think I give a shit about who’s screaming their lungs out from the top of the Tower. I really, really don’t.”

“Come for the weather?” I drawled. “I suppose they do have a bit of everything, if you stand in the Wasteland long enough.”

“You know, this is usually where I get cryptic,” the Intercessor mused. “Give out a few hints – most of them lies, just enough truth I don’t get bitten for it – and send you chasing ghosts while I line up the knife.”

“But not this time?” I pressed.

“There’s really no point,” the Wandering Bard smiled, strumming the lute. “See, when you drop two starving hounds in a pit the time for subtlety is past. Now is the hour of tooth and claw.”

“I killed you last year,” I said. “Crows be my witness, next time I’ll make it stick.”

“That’s the stuff,” Yara of Nowhere laughed. “Come at me, Foundling. You want to know why I dragged my carcass to Praes?”

My answer was the whisper of my sword leaving its scabbard. Lute tuned at last, the Wandering Bard played the first few notes of an air I recognized, the beginning of ‘Stars From the Sky’.

“The only reason I’m here is to kill you, Catherine Foundling,” the Intercessor grinned. “We’re done fucking around, now. There’s no more room in this game for the likes of you.”

And though I had never seen her wield a blade, never seen her do a single thing other than speak words and drink, in that moment I felt a shiver go up my spine. She had always been my foe, but this was… different. This was war, without pretence otherwise. Yet I would not be cowed, not today and not by the likes of her. I met her eyes, brown to blue.

“Take a swing,” I smiled back, all teeth and malice. “See where it gets you.”

She laughed, loudly, and then swept into a drunken bow. She fell forward, off the reservoir, and as she did she screamed out at the top of her lungs. I struck out at her, blade aimed for the neck, but before she could touch the ground she was gone.

A heartbeat later, the alarm wards triggered with a loud screech.

96 thoughts on “Chapter 6: Retaliation

    1. Darkening

      The *Bard’s* MO? Because our last sight of her was her being super pissed she wasn’t dead and declaring she was going to go to extremes over it. I suspect she’s going off script here. If you mean the gods disapprove of *Cat’s* MO, well, again, the bard is going off script.

      Liked by 12 people

      1. I’m no longer convinced that we read that scene correctly.
        I think she might have been super pissed that Catherine didn’t fall into a rivalry story with her, despite her playing everything correctly.
        Even right up until knifing her Cat was still pursuing conflict with the bard, and though interrupting their proxy conflict to knife her was at attempt at winning despite the rules rather than within them, Cat was still acting like she was an opponent and opposite of the Bard. Yet no connection or pattern formed.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. For ease of discussion:

          > She breathed out and opened her eyes, a starry sky sprawled above her.
          >
          > In and out, slowly. Unmistakably. She was still alive, though no longer Marguerite de Baillons. The Wandering Bard, the Keeper of Stories, closed her eyes and repressed the urge to scream until her voice went hoarse.
          >
          > “I did it all right,” she said. “And still? Still?”
          >
          > Her nails dug into her palms until they bled.
          >
          > “Fine,” she whispered. “Fine. The hard way it is, then, and on your heads be it.”

          I’d say the immediate sequence of “She was still alive, though no longer Marguerite de Baillons. The Wandering Bard, the Keeper of Stories, closed her eyes and repressed the urge to scream until her voice went hoarse.” is pretty expressive

          Liked by 3 people

      2. Crash

        Still think Bard’s only personal objective is to actually die. She does the rest of it because it’s her Role and her job but she doesn’t care, I don’t think.

        Always read her talks with Cat in the Arsenal as her being optimistic. Maybe she could be free, one last chance.

        Now she’s just dropped right back into hopelessness and anger, cause not only is Catherine Foundling not a part of her plans she couldn’t even grant her the mercy of freedom.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Her entire shtick is telling stories, and is suspect that she was stringing them along when she had a conversation with the drow twins as well. Honestly at this point I’m paranoidly worried that everything she says is a lie.
        And worried that she’s done things like being the one to write the two hundred heroic axioms or the book of all things.

        Liked by 5 people

        1. Insanenoodlyguy

          Nah, this doesn’t work if she is just trying to comit suicide. That’s a surefire way to get a “cursed to live” kind of bad end. No, she’s gotta actually be trying to have any chance of being taken down. But what she is doing is bringing out the big guns. She’s being as active as she can, which is still passive but not comparatively. And that leaves her vulnerable. The boss is strongest in it’s final form, but that’s the form you have to get it in to kill it.

          Liked by 6 people

  1. Two thoughts:

    > “Tariq was one in a thousand, even for Named. Even when every part of him was worn down to the bone, he never lost that thing. The spark. The part that makes a man take the lash so someone else doesn’t have to. I don’t think any of you ever appreciated how staggeringly rare that is.”

    LOL LMAO LMFAO ROFL

    I wonder why personally Catherine and people who know her would underappreciate that about a person.

    I really do!

    Aaaand…

    So, here’s the thing: Bard lies as she breathes. She also tells the truth a lot – I bet all the small talk facts were true – but what she said about why she was here? Well.

    The thing is, there’s one specific way in which words can’t be lies: namely, when they are actually actions. You cannot lie “please come over here” and you cannot lie “fuck you sideways”. These things aren’t statements with truth value, they’re direct levers on reality. They might imply things in context and be lies in that way, same way any action can, but there’s a core to them that just… can’t be a lie because it’s not a truth statement.

    What Bard did here is actually one of those. Oh there was also a statement there, but what she DID was declare war on Catherine.

    This is the truth of it: what Bard did was show up and challenge Catherine to a fight to the death.

    (Instead, notably, of setting up an assassination behind the scenes. Arthur is RIGHT THERE and Cat with her tsundere mentor shtick is this close to offing herself against him.)

    Unless there are some obscure chivalry-style story requirements that we don’t know of, “Bard kills Catherine” is not the outcome that is made more likely by Bard declaring war to Catherine’s face. “Catherine kills Bard” is.

    Liked by 21 people

    1. dadycoool

      Considering she’s been trying to die since, maybe even before she met Nessie, it could be that she’s pounding the Start button for that as hard as she possibly can, having found someone who might possibly do it. Cat doesn’t see her as a Worthy Opponent, nor does she see her as a nuisance, or necessarily as a danger, and certainly not as a friend/frenemy. She sees the Bard as someone who Needs to die. Bard went and found someone with the strength and will to kill her, even in cold blood, put a gun in her hand, put her forehead against it, and is saying “kill me” in a very obscure way, hoping beyond all hope that this bullet will pierce.

      Liked by 14 people

    2. What if a serial killer aims a gun at you and says “If you don’t say “Please come over here” I’ll kill you and your entire family”? The, ugh, point is, yes, even something like “Please come over here” or “Fuck you sideways” can be a lie, if it’s against your intentions and is forced on you against your will. Unless, of course, you want to argue that saying something like this out of fear makes it true.

      Like

      1. You are reading it as a statement of “I want you to come here”, but I’m just talking about it as an operant – a button that does something to reality.

        The truth or falsity of your intentions is not the truth or falsity of the statement. The true fact is that you have said it. The reason may be implied and the implication might be false, but it’s not a part of the actual statement.

        Liked by 6 people

      2. ohJohN

        Unless, of course, you want to argue that saying something like this out of fear makes it true.

        I think you’re slightly missing the point: “please come here” *has no truth value*, regardless of whether the words are voluntary or coerced, because it’s not a statement of fact, it’s a command. Same with questions: it’s meaningless to say that “how are you?” is true or false, because there’s no explicit assertion about the state of the world.

        Sure, the related statement “I want you to come over here” can have a truth value, and thus being coerced into saying it when it’s not true would qualify as a lie. You could argue the statement is *implied* by the command, even. But the defining feature of a lie is that it’s a false statement, not something you don’t want to/are forced to do.

        Liked by 6 people

          1. shikkarasu

            While I agree 100% with your actual point and I love your example, my first thought is of Bard saying “Boo, villains, boo” when she was in fact hoping for Akua to succeed against Cat. The irony is tickling me.

            Liked by 4 people

    3. Insanenoodlyguy

      I said this a bit above, but it only works if it’s real though. It’s the gamble Bard is normally too smart to take: this active intent gives her a lot more latittude to act then she usually has… but it also leave her more vulnerable. Oh, if Cat misses a step she’s dead. But that’s the “final form” Bard takes, using her full power but also is likely going to actually die if she reaches 0 HP this time (

      Liked by 3 people

    4. Kage Lupus

      Catherine asks the Bard why she is there, and the Bard is genuinely surprised for a second. Why? Because she sees Catherine as an actual rival, someone who could potentially take over her Role in creation as the story-savvy Named who directs people on a meta level.

      That is why she is able to directly interfere with Cat right now even though there aren’t any other Named directly involved. Normally the Wandering Bard only gets to act around other Named, nudging stories and pushing people into specific narratives that advance her unknown goals. Cat isn’t in a direct fight with Named right now, and WB has already said that she doesn’t care about the fight for the Tower. So the only reason she can act is because Cat is actually in conflict with the Bard herself.

      Something about Cat’s blooming Name is enough of a threat to Wandering Bard that WB is allowed to interfere with her directly. Which makes sense, since we know that Cat’s new Name is something related to authority over other Named, to the point that she was able to affect the Grey Pilgrim and White Knight when Speaking. The Bard is surprised that Cat doesn’t catch on because she is normally so aware of things on a meta level that I think the Bard assumed Cat was actively working to replace her. If Cat is doing it on accident, or even subconsciously, then it is both more impressive and harder to counter.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Darkening

        Ehhhh. Malicia’s got a proxy in town and this entire struggle is between her and Cat. Bard showed up to talk to Saint a couple times when there was no imminent conflict with a specific named, too. She’s not as restricted as you seem to think, I’m sure she could show up to put her thumb on the scale between Cat and Malicia in this fight with zero issues even if it wasn’t for Cat being a rival to Bard.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. And that provokes WONDER? The word means a positive emotion. It means Bard loves something about what Catheirne said.

        “She’s kind of not catching on” really doesn’t qualify for the kind of wonder Bard’d actually let slip onto her face.

        Liked by 5 people

      3. I think she was surprised at the “do you have a horse in this race?” comment. Because for a second there she thought that Cat had figured out that the conflict for who was going to end up Warlock was taking place here, and she didn’t know how Cat could have learned that.

        This is an important hint to the easiest path to defeating the Bard here. The bard intends to repeatedly trip up Cat’s plan right as she’s at the most delicate points, using Sargon’s forces/the warlock to kill her.
        But ‘those who prefer soft power are weak to direct confrontation’ according to Black, so if Cat wants to halt the Bard all she needs to do is repeatedly enact plans that will put her in vulnerable situations to bait the bard out, kill her three times, then commit to her actual plan to achieve her actual goal, this time without the bard present to interfere, and hopefully without Sargon or Malicia realizing what her actual goal is before the bard is removed.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. nick012000

    >“How many graveyards’ worth of friends have you buried, Intercessor?”

    >She pulled at a string, smiling at the broken side.

    >“More than you’ve had meals, Catherine Foundling,” the Intercessor said, not denying or admitting a thing.

    Is this a Jojo reference? I know people asking that’s a bit of a meme in its own right, but the Bard’s line there is very similar to a famous one by the vampire Dio Brando.

    As for the twist at the end, well, villains are only guaranteed to have the first step of their plan successful. Let’s see how Cat manages to improvise from here!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Lord Haart

      I had totally forgotten the whole “first stage of a villains plan is guaranteed to succeed”… By making this the case here, is Bard trying to push Cat back into a clear Villain role vs. the greyish one she’s been adopting?

      Like

  3. ArkhonIX

    First things first, longtime reader first time commenter. Hi! Hello! How do you do?

    Second thing. My main comment:

    I know we have a well justified hatred of the Intercessor, but the fact that she’s finally declaring her goal of killing Catherine exposes what I think is at the core of the Bard’s character. She is literally the good equivalent of the Dead King. Not just because they are as old as they are, and have played such a long time role, but because, at the core, the deepest part of their being, both of them are motivated by the fact that they DO NOT WANT TO DIE. They don’t care about the consequences, they just care that they keep existing.

    Now, Bard differs from the Dead king in that she does die, but the thing with the bard is that she also always comes back. She’s been Aidee of Nicae, Marguerite of Bailions, and numerous other “Names” from “Places”. She destroys some poor persons life, like most “good” things do in this universe, and that has always been her M.O.. But now we maybe see the pattern broken, as we meet the newest? Incarnation of the Bard, Yalda of Nowhere. What’s changed? Why is this time different?

    My personal theory as to why Bard has popped up as “Yalda of Nowhere” is this is her original form. This is the anchor that she uses to keep reincarnating. Why has she exposed herself like this then? Simplest answer is probably that this is her at her most powerful form. But why break out the big guns? Because Catherine is heralding the end of an age, and that threatens the Bard’s immortality. Now, this might be because of Catherine’s burgeoning name. It might be because she is the closest to killing the dead king. It might be because of what Catherine can build. It may be what she can destroy. Whatever it is that Catherine is on the cusp of doing, that will be what kills the Bard. Not the war that the Bard has started. If anything, that is the Bard’s biggest weapon against Catherine. The war between Cat and the Bard is what the Intercessor is using as a weapon, because the bard knows that Catherine hates her, and that this is the easiest way to distract her and prevent her from becoming what she will become.

    Again, some of this is fairly obvious. I doubt I’m reinventing the wheel with my analysis, but I wanted to put my idea out there and see what response I got. If people thought I was way off base, or if maybe I could be on to something. Who knows? I sure don’t. But I look forward to finding out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. agumentic

      >both of them are motivated by the fact that they DO NOT WANT TO DIE
      What? Bard was literally on the verge of screaming herself hoarse because she didn’t die last book. “Does not want to die” can’t be further from her motivation if you tried.

      Liked by 14 people

      1. To be fair, all we got is a vague “Why didn’t IT work”, everything else is just a theory. And while that’s a nice theory, there is no direct evidence for it. Maybe she was screaming at heavens because her cake was burned in the oven, AGAIN.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. agumentic

          True enough, we didn’t get an explicit statement. But “She was still alive, [The Bard] closed her eyes and repressed the urge to scream until her voice went hoarse.” after that whole series of Interludes is rather indicative.

          Liked by 9 people

    2. It’s, ugh, Yara. And yeah, it’s pretty obvious it’s her true name, if not her true form. But I don’t think it has anything to do with power or anything like that. It’s not a bloody Dragon Ball. I think it’s a human thing. The story is coming to a climax, and out of dust only one will climb. The herald of an age past, or a harbringer of new. And whatever the outcome is, this one time, WB wants to face it without masks and lies, but as who she truly is.

      Also, of her plan is to actually kill herself, throwing out her trye name in the ring raises the stakes. It brings the feeling of finality, the feeling of an ending being near. The Villain takes of his masks and fights the Hero, it’s a classic stuff, and there is no walking back from that.

      Liked by 10 people

      1. She doesn’t get to pick her faces. Though I guess there IS nothing stopping her from saying her real name regardless of what her face is… but really, I think the “she was really fucking short” thing is a hint that it’s her very old real body (through the “people were shorter earlier in history” association) and it’s just a sign of what the story is this time.

        Liked by 2 people

    3. Bard was deeply disappointed to not get killed by Cat last time Cat tried (in the Arsenal). And formally issuing your opponent a challenge is a means of getting THEM to attack YOU, not a means of attacking them.

      That Bard is trying to die actually and has been antagonizing Catherine targetedly for that purpose is the most common theory right now.

      Come to discord and theorize with us!!!!

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Don’t forget that whole thing about how she must flee her greatest desire. The only thing we’ve seen that makes the Bard go away is a murder attempt. I think it is a curse for her that she cannot allow herself to die. But if she sets up exactly the story beats that end in a True Rival killing her, well, it’s not like she is able to stop that death.

        Liked by 5 people

        1. > She breathed out and opened her eyes, a starry sky sprawled above her.
          >
          > In and out, slowly. Unmistakably. She was still alive, though no longer Marguerite de Baillons. The Wandering Bard, the Keeper of Stories, closed her eyes and repressed the urge to scream until her voice went hoarse.
          >
          > “I did it all right,” she said. “And still? Still?”
          >
          > Her nails dug into her palms until they bled.
          >
          > “Fine,” she whispered. “Fine. The hard way it is, then, and on your heads be it.”

          https://practicalguidetoevil.wordpress.com/2020/04/24/interlude-knock-them-down/

          Liked by 6 people

  4. Soronel Haetir

    I have a lot of problems with Bard being able to do anything direct like this chapter provides (tripping wards). Everything we’ve seen of her leading up to this says that she doesn’t have a lot of choice about where she appears and when she isn’t in Creation she simply doesn’t exist.

    Actually, I’m surprised that just her coming into existence wasn’t enough to trip the wards (given that apparently drawing on Night would do it, yet that is a power the Sahelians should not have practice against).

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Maybe her appearing works in a way that “she has always been there”. So her appearance would not trigger the wards, but drawing on some other aspect (or just leaving) may, which is how she triggers the wards.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Bard coming into existence is not a… ripple of power. She just pops up. It’s not sorcery, it’s not Light or Night or anything in that vein. It’s undetectable because it doens’t play by those rules.

      And I figure screaming to trip the wards counds as a subtle touch here because in theory it could have been someone local stumbling onto Cat, too. It’s not IMPLAUSIBLE without her there.

      Liked by 7 people

      1. shikkarasu

        It definitely isn’t as much interference as, say, coaching a Hero on how to kill a certain villain, warning a hero not to drink that poison, or giving detailed instructions to a Fae. I think it’s less about subtlety (although that probably helps) and more about being indirect. She would be well within her rights to just walk up to any Named on Wolof’s side and flat out say “Cat’s in the Aqueduct, have fun,” but she wanted to declare war.

        Bard is Named and no matter how savvy she is, she plays by Name rules. If she’s gong to take the gloves off? She has to do it loud.

        Liked by 4 people

    3. ohJohN

      I took it as “literally all she is allowed to do is drink and talk, and screaming is a kind of talking, so screaming to trigger noise-sensitive wards is technically allowed.”

      Liked by 3 people

            1. Shveiran

              Maybe it’s just me, and I’ve never been a Praesi guard, but I reckon if I worked in an execution-including environment, I’d probably figure life is too short not to have a tryst, so executing the co-workers that are up for it would bring my morale down.

              Liked by 2 people

    4. Tenthyr

      The Bard isn’t using magic to move about. It’s her Name. Names work literally by bending the nature of reality itself. Normal wards won’t cut it.

      And the bard just explained why this happened: she wants to kill Catherine. She isn’t playing the old game anymore, this is direct war. The Bard has almaot definitely been limiting the nature of her interactions with Named and scenarios specifically to choose a useful moment to ‘break’ her rules.

      Liked by 3 people

    5. Insanenoodlyguy

      That’s because this is her “final/true form.” She can do things she normally can’t because she’s actually being Yara for once. Who is almost certainly the original name she had in her very fist life. More vulnerability (which she’s counting on) but also more oomph in the meantime.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Insanenoodlyguy

          Between named. Only one named side here, the other has mundanes she just called in to do her dirty work. that’s a new one for her.

          Like

  5. edrey

    that is a lie or a half true a least, the bard is going for her but that means cat would be focusing on her and not the tower, to make her see the wrong fires and make her too paranoid in the wrong way. it will end with a draw, and to finish the pattern of three in Keter. a draw is the true reason i believe. after all, the bard should know the Dk must be prepared for face that angel as worst case scenario. so her plan shouldnt be so simple.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    let a deeply > let out a deeply
    I find myself > I found myself
    potion ran when > potion ran out when
    got stuck > get stuck
    she’d bee physically > she’d be physically
    Archer in danger > Archer who was in danger
    out tracks > our tracks

    Like

    1. therealgridlock

      Typo thread!

      “I want first, even though I wasn’t the strongest swimmer”

      >”I went first”

      “out in the city streets”

      >”Out into the”

      Like

  7. RoflCat

    As much as the chapter ended on a ‘crisis’, considering the chapter’s epigraph (and main character plot armor) we know Akua is going to be instated as High Lady or there’s ANOTHER Akua in the past…

    But the way she said that line definitely had a touch of this Akua to it…

    Which would make that Scroll of Ruin possibly something containing more future events…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ohJohN

      Seeing as how the entire Isbili line was recently wiped from the face of Creation, I’m assuming the epigraph is about some ancient Sahelian ancestor Akua was named for, in the time after Triumphant’s fall when Praes was divvied up and ruled as crusader kingdoms (except, notably, Wolof).

      Liked by 5 people

  8. Earl of Purple

    I wonder what alerted the chaps with the magic glowstick to check the gates. The alchemical holy water should have thwarted any alarm enchantments, so unless they have to check every hour or something they shouldn’t have known to stick it in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. therealgridlock

      My guess is that the “destroys all magic” dust also destroyed the magic flow-meter, or some magically mundane monitoring equipment, so the lackey that reads the meter saw the flow go to “0” or some magical equivalent, freaked out, and got his boss or buddy to check it with him, in case something is trying to get in.

      That’s the trope in heist movies, it’s not the sophisticated laser grid that goes off, it’s the mundane voltage regulator that suddenly is drawing no power and some guard happens to notice the lasers aren’t drawing power any more.

      But, conveniently Indrani put the lock back in a way that lets them think “must be nothing” and go back to regular AI patterns, and it also fulfils that heist trope as well, the guard checks it, sees the lasers operating normally (because the sneaky heisters turned it back on after they got inside) and assumes the meter was wrong or they’re wrong.

      It’s one of those things where it’s impossible to have a trope discussion about a world with trope magic without immediately becoming meta about them all.

      The drow were almost the inverse ninja, but not quite, though we do have quite a few other tropes.

      Liked by 9 people

    1. Darkening

      I dunno about that, last chapter while directing the encounter against the Black Knight her name was quite active and making noise, while we didn’t get a single offhand mention of it this chapter. Sure, maybe it’ll crop up in the moment that she delivers Bard the Final Death, but her story’s always been about Praes and Callow, and the Bard’s just butting in.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Lord Haart

        TBF, as Black had discovered, the issues with Praes and Callow go back to at least the Titans, so she at least has to go to the lower ‘g’ god level to fully rectify things.

        I wonder if the Titan messups and the Drakoi predated Bard or if she’s bigger than just an Age of Wonders thing. There seems to be some parallel between the Upper case Gods and human development here – playing with dragons and giants (young kids just want special effects), then with simple, patternistic stories, and now Cat’s way, which seems more intricate if possibly also more boring. I think maybe Kairos paved the way here though that politics and trope reversals can be very entertaining indeed, so Cat might have that going for her.

        Like

  9. beleester

    Cat’s plan doesn’t rely on them going undetected for the whole operation, right? I mean, she must have known that wasn’t going to happen if she was participating.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Darkening

      Thankfully, Cat’s been more into contingencies than improvising these days, so she definitely has a plan for what to do if the alarm gets raised. Not necessarily a *good* plan, but she’s got an idea of what to do about it at least.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. That Other Guy

        Cat’s plan probably runs along the lines of “punch them in the face”. At least that’s how it starts. As she’s currently toting a satchel of goblin munitions things don’t bode well for the local garrison.

        Or the building they’re in.

        Like

    1. Sinead

      I wonder if she could possess/inhabit Sargon and ward him against soulbox incantations? It could easily be a bargain of Sargon pitching in to be ‘on the ground floor’ of Cardinal’s school of magic and to get protection from Malicia. It’s not like Akua has no practice at this (see Battle of the Camps).

      Especially since I suspect that conservation of detail means that Sargon is the Warlock claimant.

      Like

  10. Shveiran

    So, you know how I was all “Malicia is screwed because she has no Named powerhouse and no story-fu so Cat is going to play her like a fiddle?”

    Well, admittedly, with the Bard to stab her in the story and the Emerald Blades around as possible powerhouses for Yara to redirect… yeah, this is an actual fight.

    Catherine vs the Bard, Malicia and the Elves seems kind of fair.

    And isn’t it funny how the High Lords have been just background noise ever since book 3?

    Liked by 2 people

  11. That Other Guy

    WB’s plans around Cat keep unravelling because Cat isn’t taking her assigned role. Sometimes it’s been deliberate, but clearly WB was hoping for a grand declaration of undying enmity ‘to the pain’ or some such.

    When someone doesn’t assume their role in a story, the story loses impetus and fizzles out.

    Maybe that’s what happens Below. You’re forced to live out the stories you were supposed to be in but failed out of

    Like

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