“There are three decisions that can only be mistakes: trusting a peace in the Free Cities, intervening in an Alamans succession and campaigning in the Wasteland.”– Queen Matilda the Elder of Callow
It was General Sacker I’d wanted to talk to, as her informal patroness, but instead I found all three of the leaders of the Rebel Legions sitting on the other side of the scrying bowl.
That made an amusingly odd trio to look at, I must admit. Sacker was still the same old sack of wrinkles that looked deceptively half asleep, but General Mok was even larger than Hune had been on top of having half his face severely burned with spellfire. The difference in size between them somehow made the last of three stand out even more: General Jaiyana Seket of the Second Legion, a dark-haired and grey-eyed Taghreb in her late fifties. She’d been the only general already in the Wasteland to desert Malicia after the empress pulled her mind control trick a few years back. Only a little over half her legion had followed her, though, the rest sticking with the Tower.
That made the junior of the three generals in their informal hierarchy, considering that Sacker had filled her legion’s depleted ranks from deserters and the Jacks had reported that Mok’s own Third Legion now fielded six thousand soldiers instead of the standard four. Being the one with the relationship with Callow – and therefore its forges and foodstuffs – had put Sacker more or less on equal footing with Mok, however, so it wasn’t quite as straightforward a balance of power as one might think. General Seket tended to be the kingmaker in contested decisions, after all, which was a form of influence as well. It’d all worked out as being surprisingly communal for a military hierarchy, no one making a push for primacy.
Which unfortunately meant that I wasn’t negotiating with one person but three.
“I understand that the Grand Alliance has interests in Praes,” General Mok said, voice rumbling, “but it doesn’t get to impose terms here. Who rules in Ater is not to be determined in Salia or Laure.”
I wasn’t sure whether not mentioning Levante – the Dominion’s capital – reflected good intel about the fate of the Pilgrim’s Blood or simple dismissal of Levant, but either way he wasn’t wrong. These days the Blood wasn’t agreeing on much of anything, except fighting the war to the end.
“That ship sailed the moment Malicia began actively warring on us through proxies and attacking our diplomatic efforts,” I curtly replied. “She is, even now, the ally of the Dead King. Sovereignty’s all well and good, but it doesn’t buy you the rest of the world pretending nothing’s happened when you piss on the common table.”
General Seket looked amused at the turn of phrase – not a noble flower, this one, but a former bandit who’d chosen the Legions over the noose – and Sacker continued looking at me through those half-lidded eyes. Mok was getting angrier, though. I got the impression that out of them he most believed in the Dread Empire that’d been sold to the Legions after the Reforms: a place of order and rough fairness, where peoples that’d once been left out in the cold were slowly brought into the fold instead. It’d been the mind control he objected to on a fundamental level, not necessarily Malicia calling the Rebel Legions to heel. Sacker stepped in before Mok could speak again, perhaps sensing my irritation with the ogre was rising. I had little patience for people who let their ideals get in the way of looking at what was actually happening around them.
“No one is denying that you have a right to retaliate for attacks on the Grand Alliance,” Sacker said. “Our concern is that it seems few of the decisions relating to the empire’s future will be made by Praesi.”
“That Malicia has to go isn’t even something even worth arguing about,” I bluntly replied. “I will cheerfully massacre anything and anyone who gets in the way of that. If your issues are with the details of Malicia’s succession, however, then we have a lot more room for compromise.”
“We did not leave the empress’ service to now defend her,” General Seket said. “The matter my colleagues are tiptoeing around is different: to be frank, none of us want to raise a sword to win Dread Empress Foundling the Tower.”
I almost laughed in their faces, fighting that down to a snort with great effort.
“If that’s you worry, then we have no issue,” I said. “I have no interest whatsoever in climbing the Tower.”
“Akua Sahelian would not be a more acceptable candidate,” General Mok plainly said.
Huh. First Sargon had guessed that, now the Rebel Legions. The High Lord of Wolof I could forgive, but some of these people had served in Callow over the years. Did none of them realize that if I were known to have backed the Doom of Liesse for rule over the Wasteland I’d get strung up in the streets by my own people? It wasn’t like the Folly was some old wound barely remembered. Almost everyone in Callow had lost at least a distant relative when a city the size of Liesse got murdered.
“I’ve no interest in backing her claim either, assuming she makes one,” I replied just as plainly. “If I am to support anyone’s claim, it will be that of Amadeus of the Green Stretch.”
“You have been talking with Sepulchral for years,” Sacker pointed out.
“And we already discussed all this years ago,” I waspishly replied. “Why are we revisiting these grounds now?”
“Years ago you were not leading an army invading Praes,” General Mok replied. “We require different assurances now that battle is on the horizon.”
A little rich to say that, considering that they were at least three weeks behind Sepulchral’s army on the march and she was herself at least a week behind Marshal Nim. Maybe closer to two.
“I’m not interested in putting Abreha Mirembe on the throne,” I explicitly spelled out. “I see no need to make war on her, however, and she was a convenient ally against Malicia. Should she surrender to whoever claims the Tower peacefully I’ll even argue for leniency on her behalf.”
I actually believe she might take that deal, and so did Scribe. Sepulchral had rebelled because Malicia had cornered her, not because she’d intended to make a play for the Tower. That attack from Malicia had come because High Lady Abreha had been muscling in on the empress in the first place, of course, but that was Praesi politics for you. It was Malicia that Sepulchral couldn’t afford to surrender to, she wouldn’t be so constrained if someone else held the Tower. And someone who hadn’t been rebelled against could afford to offer her amnesty without taking a major hit to their reputation with the nobility. Looking closely at the three, I could see that General Seket was leaning the way of taking the bargain I’d offered: joining our armies to defeat the Loyalist Legions together, guaranteeing them a seat at the table in the aftermath. Mok was still very much against, and Sacker hard to read as she’d ever been.
“I cannot agree to putting imperial forces under the authority of a foreign nation,” General Mok finally said. “Not even in this manner.”
Sacker did not contradict him, a silence that rang loudly. I eyed the three of them coolly.
“Then it’s my turn to ask questions,” I said. “If not to reinforce my expedition, why is your army marching north?”
“You are not owed an answer,” the ogre general flatly replied.
“You weren’t owed food and steel,” I sharply said. “You still got it. Careful about what bridges you burn, Mok. There are no second chances at this game.”
“No offence was meant, I’m sure,” General Seket intervened. “We set out to march, Queen Catherine, because if we do not the civil war will end without our having ever raised a sword.”
I eyed her, distinctly unimpressed.
“So you’re either foolish enough to march an army without a campaign plan or baldly opportunistic enough to want to sit out the fight and leverage your numbers for concessions afterwards,” I said. “Which is it?”
“You put a hard slant on trying to avoid fratricide, Black Queen,” Sacker curtly replied. “You blame us for not being eager to fight legions still filled with friends and kin, comrades we have fought with for decades. With the situation on the knife’s edge, we will first attempt diplomacy.”
My fingers clenched, then unclenched. I did not like the sound of that.
“Elaborate,” I said.
“We will speak directly with the Black Knight,” General Mok said. “And offer simple terms: should Dread Empress Malicia abdicate, we will return to the fold and crush Sepulchral together.”
“Malicia will never take that deal,” I replied without batting an eye. “Or if she does, it’ll be as a trick to get you to dispose of her enemy before getting around to you.”
“It’s not her we’re offering the deal to,” General Seket said. “Nim is as good as her word. If the last legions turn on the Tower, Malicia will have to abdicate. All she has left in Ater are the First and the Fourth, which went skeletal from desertions.”
“And should the Black Knight refuse you?” I asked.
“She won’t,” Mok confidently said.
Ah, so that was it. Sacker genuinely had been on the fence, I just hadn’t offered enough to convince her. Mok had been against our armies joining from the start, though, because he’d already had a plan that was more palatable to him: cutting a deal with Marshal Nim.
“But if she does?” I pressed.
“Then you get your way, Black Queen,” General Sacker said, showing pale needle-like teeth. “Long live Dread Emperor Amadeus. In the defence of his cause, we will seek friendship with the same Grand Alliance that recognized him in Salia.”
I drummed my fingers on the table. The tremor had the water rippling, their faces rippling with it. And with that easy questions settled there was only one left to ask.
“And if the Black Knight does takes your deal,” I asked, “where would that leave us?”
“The Legions of Terror are the sword and shield of Praes,” General Seket said, tone conciliating, “but it doesn’t need to come to blows between us.”
“What it means is that there’ll be no more talk of you dictating anything, Queen of Callow,” General Mok rumbled.
Huh, I thought. This might just be the first time I’d been the hand that fed instead of the biter.
I wasn’t enjoying the change of pace.
There was need of a fresh war council after that. Yet I found that, in practice, learning that there was a chance the Rebel Legions might turn on us did not affect our plans much.
“Being generous,” Juniper said, “the rebels are a month behind the battle unless either we or Marshal Nim start wasting time. It’ll be settled by the time they get there.”
“If they can take the Twilight Ways they could cut ahead of Sepulchral, at least,” I pointed out.
Dread Empress Sepulchral’s army could not practically use the Ways, according to our spies. Some of its mages could access them, but they couldn’t yet make stable portals. The Rebel Legions were another story. I glanced at Vivienne questioningly, getting an uncertain palm wiggle.
“The Jacks aren’t sure either way,” she said. “They have enough mages in the ranks for it to be possible, but it’s not knowledge that grows on trees. I’d tend to err on the side of caution and assume they have some capacity with the Ways but not enough for their entire army.”
“That could still be trouble,” Grandmaster Talbot said. “Should we defeat the Black Knight in battle only for her to retreat in good order, a sudden swell of reinforcements could tip the balance against us. How large are their numbers, now that they’re finally marching?”
“Thirteen thousand legionaries,” I said. “They should have little to no goblin munitions, at least, unlike the Loyalist Legions.”
For the same reason the Army of Callow had finally filled its own stocks: I’d bought theirs.
“I do not understand this hesitation on your parts,” Lady Aquiline admitted. “We are yet sixteen thousand, or close, and the Black Knight commands only twenty-three thousand soldiers. I have seen the Army of Callow triumph against steeper odds than this.”
“You haven’t,” Juniper bluntly informed her. “You’ve seen us beat inferior or borderline peer armies, Lady Aquiline. You have never seen us fight a force that is at least our equal and possibly our superior.”
She wasn’t wrong, even if she was being pessimistic. We did have some advantages going for us. There were five legions marching with the Black Knight – the Eight, the Eleventh, the Thirteen, the Fourteenth and Nim’s own Seventh – but the Legions of Terror didn’t typically field cavalry. The Thirteenth did, having been raised from Callowan bandits and rebels, but only six hundred horsemen or so. The vast majority of Nim’s three thousand and change cavalry was auxiliaries. Taghreb and Soninke light horse sent by nobles, which my Order of the Broken Bells could shred if they engaged in melee. My entire army was made up of veterans, while the Legions would have fresher recruits, and we also had a decisive Named advantage.
On the other hand, the officer corps of the Legions would be flatly better than ours and we’d be down on mage firepower as well as general numbers. It was still very much a winnable battle, in my opinion, but there would be no repeat of the Third at Sarcella or the ridiculous odds against undead my soldiers had frequently taken on. We were facing the same army that’d held the Vales against the greater strength of Procer, and I had no reason to believe it’d lost a step since then. Throwing another thirteen thousand veteran infantry down on the Black Knight’s side of the scale would make for… hard odds, to say the least. At a minimum, it’d take field battles off the table.
To minimize the risks, we had to finish it before the Rebel Legions got there.
“Perhaps we should seek allies,” Lord Razin suggested. “Would Dread Empress Sepulchral not be amenable to helping us against her rival?”
“It was my instinct as well,” I told him, “but she’s broken off talks with us. At our best guess, she’s hoping we’ll clash with the Black Knight before she gets there and she can pick off the weakened Loyalist Legions.”
It would have been damned useful to string Abreha Mirembe along, but the trouble when dealing with people who’d survived at the top of the Wasteland for decades was that they tended to be rather hard to fool. Sepulchral had correctly assessed I wasn’t going to help put her on the throne, so she’d decided to use me to weaken her enemy and finish climbing the Tower on her own. Odds were she figured I wouldn’t actually fight a war to keep her off the throne, especially if I’d first taken losses casting Malicia down from it. To my distaste, she was fairly accurate in that judgement. I didn’t want to march west again until my father held the Tower, but if Sepulchral dug in and offered good terms I might not have a choice.
How large a portion of Procer was I willing to sacrifice to get my chosen candidate on the throne? Abreha wasn’t just a cutthroat snake: she was an old cutthroat snake. In Praes those were rare for a reason. She knew how to survive when the storms came calling.
“That’s another twenty thousand we have no certainties about,” Aisha noted. “We need to have a good grasp on the pace those force march at at before engaging, else we will be taking risks.”
“Half of Sepulchral’s army is levies that’ll break under steady munitions fire,” Juniper grunted. “But the other half is dangerous enough, I’ll grant.”
Like my Marshal of Callow, I could admit that I wasn’t worried about fighting Sepulchral’s army on the field. She had a little over six thousand household troops, which would be tough customers as that breed always was, but we had twice her horse in better quality. The thousand wavemen her allies in Nok had sent might be some trouble, true. They were supposed to be the finest archers in Praes, using great horn bows and honing their trade defending the ships of the House of Sahel. We were fighting the former High Lady of Aksum so naturally there’d be monsters too. It was what the city was famous for. But after having faced the Hidden Horror’s own menagerie of nightmares, I did not expect Aksum’s to impress me much.
“Unless the enemy tempo changes, it looks like our best shot at solving this cleanly remains a decisive victory against Marshal Nim,” I finally said.
If we forced the Black Knight’s army to surrender, the Rebel Legions would sink back into irrelevance. And Sepulchral couldn’t take a swing at us lightly: it’d put her at war against the Grand Alliance. Much more likely she’d march straight on Ater instead, and I had no real issue with that. I was skeptical she’d be able to take the City of Gates, but more than willing for her to soften up the capital some before the Army of Callow took a crack at it.
“Agreed,” the Hellhound replied. “I’ll want reports from the Jacks about the pace of every army to ensure we give battle with the best margin possible, but in around three weeks seems to be that window of opportunity.”
I nodded in agreement.
“Well,” I said, “council’s done, it seems. Get your affairs in order, ladies and gentlemen, because come dawn we begin our march south.”
Even in Hakram’s absence his phalanges were functioning like a well-oiled machine.
That left me in the odd position of, well, not actually having anything to do. It would be a week at least before I next spoke to Cordelia Hasenbach, Indrani was spending the evening with Masego and Vivienne was busy twisting arms are making promises through the Observatory to secure names for a plan she’d come up with that might kneecap the Black Knight in the field. Feeling restless, I took to the night and the dirt streets of our camp. Whenever I stopped moving it felt like I was losing ground: even when I stayed still, the world kept moving around me. The first act of my Praesi campaign had been an unequivocal victory, for all that Malicia and her Black Knight had scored blood of their own, but from now on things would get… complicated.
The number of moving pieces had increased and this wouldn’t be the Graveyard all over again. I wouldn’t be able to predict the whole array of leadership I was fighting the way I’d been able to read the Tyrant, Pilgrim and First Prince. Too many people, not enough of them Named. Legions rebel and loyalist, Sepulchral’s would-be army of conquest and hidden behind them all whatever my father’s scheme for this fight would be. I knew better than to believe he wouldn’t be putting a finger on the scale of the battle that would determine the fate of Praes for the coming decades. That he had yet to truly come out of the woodworks worried me more than I cared to admit. He wasn’t proud, as a man, at least not in ways that got in the way of him achieving his goals.
So if he’d not reached out to me, made common cause, it was because some of our objectives were at odds. I was not so arrogant as to pretend that the prospect of the fighting the man who’d taught me did not inspire in me a… healthy amount of caution.
The sound of steel on steel drew my attention as I drifted close to drilling grounds. There shouldn’t be any legionaries out at this hour, and a few steps confirmed there weren’t. The two people moving swiftly back and forth across the dusty ground weren’t my soldiers. The Silver Huntress deftly flicked her spear, barbed tip tickling at the Squire’s shield, and as Arthur Foundling took a cautious step back she circled around him to probe his flank. I approached quietly, laying my staff against the side of the fence before resting my elbows atop it. The Squire was being careful, keeping his shield up and only venturing out of his shell to try to rush her and leverage his advantage close up, but on open grounds like this the tactic was a mistake.
I winced as I saw him try a charge, banking on the Huntress being slow to retreat her spear after a feint, only to find out that Alexis was quite light-footed of maintaining their distance. She feinted his leg, then darted back up to slap the side of his helm hard when he lowered his shield to cover himself. The boy winced at the pain but did not complain. As well he shouldn’t: if that blow had come from someone out to kill him, it would have gone right through his throat instead. If Arthur was to ever to score a blow, I thought, he needed to pressure her from the start. Push forward steadily, learn to tell apart the feints from the real attacks and close the distance while she was committed to striking him.
I watched in silence as the two continued to move across the dust, the Mantle of Woe’s hood warm over my head, and to my pleased surprise I saw that the Squire was learning. No more bull rushing out of him, though he wasted a lot of time trying to figure out how to parry a spear with a sword. You couldn’t, really, not reliably. From Named to not, sure, but not between peer opponents. The Huntress worked him through a pretty straightforward sequence – shield edges the spear to the side, sword lunge for the throat as you dart forward – and he began trying it out. He took to it quickly. Unnaturally quickly, really, I decided as my brow rose.
His reflexes weren’t getting sharper or his footing more flexible, but with every try he moved a little faster through the sequence. A little smoother. By the eighth attempt his execution was impressive enough I would have thought he’d spent months drilling it. Name, I thought. Has to be. The spar ended after Arthur finally scored a blow on the Silver Huntress’ breastplate, though I suspected she’d actually allow him to land it. He was a quick lad, but Alexis the Argent wasIndrani’s superior in close combat. The two of them seemed surprised when they noticed I was there. Night was a friend to me in all sorts of ways. I clapped politely, to the older heroine’s amusement, but Arthur looked embarrassed.
They had water and cloths on a stone near the fence, so when they came to quench their thirst and get ride of the worst of the sweat it was only natural that we chat a bit.
“I’m rather ashamed you saw that, Your Majesty,” Arthur said. “I have been meaning to expand my experience fighting Named, but it is slow going.”
“In terms of pure swordsmanship you’re actually better than I was at your age,” I noted. “Not as good as the Lone Swordsman was, maybe, but there’s a reason I relied on tricks to kill the man.”
“It’s empty whining on his part,” the Huntress scoffed. “He improves daily. The Lady’s the only person I’ve ever seen pick up drills that fast.”
“The Ranger?” Arthur breathed out. “That’s… I’ve always admired what I heard of her in stories, truth be told.”
Oh dear. I shared a look with Alexis, the two of us silently agreeing it would be for the best if he never met the woman in question. The Silver Huntress had a much harsher opinion of the Lady of the Lake than Archer. I’d learned as much because she was not shy in expressing it even to strangers. It’d made for pleasant common ground over the months of campaigning. Still, I couldn’t let myself get distracted by this little detour. I’d had a nugget of information I wanted to dig for.
“Were you always this quick to catch on?” I casually asked. “It seems like the sort of thing the Order would have reported on.”
He ruefully smiled.
“No,” Arthur admitted. “It was after the fight with the puppet of the Black Knight, Your Majesty. The way it handled Sapan and I, then the way you stepped in and took care of it…”
His gauntlets clenched tight around his sword.
“I had believed myself a fine blade, but after that I couldn’t deny I stillhave so much to Learn,” the Squire said.
Ah, an old friend had returned. Was he leaning on that to improve his fighting? I’d not been able to do the same, back when I had the same aspect. Fighting had been the one thing it didn’t help me with.
“Aspect,” I noted, seeing no point in further subtlety. “Have you seen the same kind of leap forward in your studies?”
He looked baffled.
“No,” he said. “Should I have?”
I hummed, shaking my head.
“It’s somewhat reassuring that you did not,” I said. “There’s a balance to these things, Squire.”
The Silver Huntress grunted in agreement.
“No power comes without a hook,” Alexis the Argent said. “Beware of anything that pretends otherwise.”
Still, the Gods Above liked their nasty surprises, didn’t they? The Squire had gotten a flavour of the aspect attuned to martial pursuits after a defeat against the Black Knight, while being guaranteed weeks if not months of a relatively safe environment filled with veteran Named to train with. By the time Nim encountered the boy again for the continuation of their pattern, he was going to be a regular fucking monster. In an abstract sense my sympathies lay with Marshal Nim, because this all felt very much like the Heavens hooking an Evil fish and reeling her in, but in a practical sense our little Squire had my backing to the hilt. I’d put Indrani on training him too, maybe see if the Barrow Sword was amenable to pitching in.
“I know to be wary of shortcuts,” Arthur promised, then sent me an almost shy look. “Perhaps we may spar one day, Your Majesty? Many consider you among the finest swords in Callow.”
“My tricks are best kept up my sleeve,” I drily said. “We’ll see about getting you a few sessions with Archer, though. She tends to be my better close up.”
The boy did not quite manage to hide his disappointment but I quashed the pang I felt at the sight. I already walked the line perhaps a little too finely when it came to teaching Arthur Foundling. An occasional distant instructor tossing a few lessons his way shouldn’t be too prone to ending up story fodder, I figured, but considering he had a draw with the Black Knight coming up the last thing I wanted was stepping into a formal teacher’s role. That was a good way to stumble into buying his draw with my death. The Squire retired after chatting a little longer, but to my surprise the Silver Huntress did not. Had I offended her by mentioning Indrani training someone she was already training?
No, I decided, looking at her tense face. That wasn’t the tension of someone keeping a lid on their anger but the gritted teeth of someone forcing themselves to venture into uncomfortable grounds.
“I want to talk,” Alexis the Argent said, then bit her cheek. “Please.”
My hand found the staff of dead yew never too far from my hand, closing around the rough wood. I’d gotten used to the contrast between the Huntress’ startlingly girlish high-pitched voice and her rough appearance – broken nose and plain face, the messy bun of red hair and calloused hands – but I’d noticed she tended to speak slowly and curtly to take the edge off it. No doubt she’d been mercilessly mocked for the contrast as a child: it was the kind of thing even my fellow orphanage girls would have narrowed in on, much less children as skilled at cruelty as the Refuge kids had been. This time, though, the curtness was not an affection on her part. She was fighting the words as they came out.
I couldn’t think of many things I had a hand in that’d get this much emotion out of her.
“I’m listening,” I said.
Her lips pressed tight, like she was trying to clench them.
“The Lady’s in Praes,” she said. “With the Carrion Lord. Your spies said so.”
“You think we’re going to fight her?” the Huntress asked.
“I’d prefer not to,” I admitted. “But I don’t think she’s going to give us a choice.”
At some point, my father and I would clash. His continued silence spoke to that. And when that moment came, I did not believe it would be armies that marched. It would be a war of knives, not battalions, and the Ranger was the finest knife at his disposal. On my end of things, it was not a coincidence that all the surviving children of Refuge were with my host. I had planned for this eventuality in my own way.
“She won’t,” Alexis roughly said. “That’s not how she…”
She hesitated, stumbling over words before abandoning the sentence entirely.
“I hate her,” the Silver Huntress candidly admitted. “I honestly do. But I won’t lie. She didn’t think she was being cruel when she worked us. She thought she was toughening us up for the real world, so we could live like she does.”
“But you don’t buy that,” I murmured.
“We came out of Refuge fine killers, Black Queen,” Alexis said. “For that I’m thankful. But she was also trying to make us all into these… she has this idea, this ideal, of ‘full’ persons that need no one else. That bind with others only because they want to, not because they ever need to.”
She spat to the side.
“And that fucked us,” the Huntress bluntly said. “Cocky still hasn’t told a living soul her name. John got himself killed because he thought he thought he needed to prove he was our equal. Lysander once spent most a year learning how to make shoes, when we were kids, because he thought just buying them would mean he was weak.”
I watched her silently, waiting for the last two names. Named. The last of the band of five that had never formed.
“I fight when I shouldn’t,” Alexis the Argent reluctantly admitted. “Because it feels like backing down if I don’t. But Indrani’s the worst off, because of all of us she’s the one that bought into it.”
“I think the woman you knew,” I gently said, “only shares so much with the woman I know.”
She didn’t like that.
“I know,” the Huntress bit out angrily, slamming a fist on the groaning fence. “I know, fuck.”
I let it go, this once, but my eye narrowed. It did not go unnoticed.
“She’s not the same as she was when she left to pick up John,” Alexis forced out. “She tries. I can see it, Black Queen, that sometimes the urge is there but she fucking bites down on it.”
“You don’t have to forgive her,” I quietly said. “She’s not owed that.”
The Silver Huntress faintly smiled.
“Sometimes I still wonder if Lysander got killed because Indrani went soft from her years with the Woe,” she confessed. “Whether it’d have gone down different, if she’d not turned into the kind of person who tries.”
Sometimes, looking at what Ranger had left in the children she’d raised, I wondered what it was Amadeus of the Green Stretch had left in me. What curse, what scar. That there would be one I had no doubt: one did not learn from a madman without learning some manner of madness with it.
“She got to us deep, the Lady,” Alexis tiredly said. “Even where we think she didn’t. But maybe that’s what we have – scars from the same fang. That’s for us to handle, anyway. It’s not what I came to you for.”
“Then what did you come for?” I asked.
“When Ranger comes for us, and she will,” Alexis the Argent said, voice eerily calm, “she’ll strike at every weakness. As hard as she can. She’ll try to break us.”
My fingers clenched.
“It’s how she believes love works, I think,” the Huntress quietly said. “To make someone stronger, even if it hurts them. So she will come for us, Catherine Foundling, with loving cruelty. To crown us, welcome us as women. Peers.”
Peers, the way she’d treated the Calamities in my Name dreams as the Squire. The way she treated those, I thought, that had not needed her hand to come into strength. There were people, I thought, that Ranger might be lovely to. My father was one of them, because there were things about him she admired. It excused none of it, as far as I was concerned.
“She is not my peer,” I coldly said. “And I’ll teach her why, should she come for any of you.”
“I can take care of myself,” Alexis brusquely dismissed. “But Indrani…”
The Silver Huntress bit her lip.
“That’s what I want from you, Black Queen,” she finally said. “Don’t let the Lady turn her back into who she used to be. That’s all I ask.”
A moment, as she choked on the word.
The moon glared down at us, a full circle wreathing us both in pale.
“I won’t,” I swore.