Chapter 12: String

“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.”

I nodded.

“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.

Please.”

The moon glared down at us, a full circle wreathing us both in pale.

“I won’t,” I swore.

98 thoughts on “Chapter 12: String

  1. burnsh

    Ranger has been such a monumental shadow hanging over the story. She’s like that one optional endgame level boss thats specifically built to fuck you over in the most unfair way possible.

    I really cannot wait to see Cat finally go head to head with her, in whatever form that takes.

    Liked by 12 people

    1. It’s worse then that, she is by far the single most OP character in the story even over the Bard. Remember back when the elven courts still had Winter and Summer, she would go into the Winter Court every time the seasons turned to it and pluck out the eye of the second most powerful Winter elf. She periodically would bust through all the defenses of Keter, just to keep the rust from forming and she fought the single most powerful Court Elf, the Summer Queen, to a draw and that being is rated “god tier” level.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Zach

        Keep in mind that Ranger’s ability is specifically geared towards learning how to adapt to people in fights, and the Fey can’t learn. So once she manages to beat someone like the Prince of Nightfall, it’ll be easy each subsequent time.

        Ranger also excels the most at beating people in direct combat, so someone who fights like Catherine is well suited towards potentially defeating her.

        Liked by 7 people

        1. Deworld

          Plus you always need to consider the possible story. In this universe, even the most powerful beings won’t survive if the narrative itself sets them up to death. And that’s exactly what Cat got all Ranger’s pupils for – if not to outright kill her, then to defeat her in some way if it comes to this.

          Liked by 3 people

  2. ruduen

    Oof. The biggest problem with Cat admitting it’s a mess is that it means options and plans are limited this early on, and that narratively it’s going to turn out as an even bigger mess since a few twists are going to be involved. Black and Ranger might not be at complete odds, but it sounds like there’s going to be some fighting between groups before the tower’s crashing into the ground. Still, we’ve gotten the seeds for a few different lines of potential catastrophe and potential plots, like just what Vivienne’s up to.

    It sounds like there are at least 5 groups in play (Callow, Malicia’s Army, Rebels, Sepulchral, and Amadeus). I think the past, it’s mentioned that even armies or campaigns can have stories guiding them, so I wonder if we’ll get a clearer look at any of the ones that are out and about now.

    Liked by 12 people

      1. The Wandering Bard still isn’t just a piece on the board, she’s a player competing with Cat — and except perhaps for the Dead King, I don’t think there’s a third player on their level of Story manipulation.

        Like

        1. Shveiran

          Eh. I mean, you are right, but several of the contenders are a month or more away, and the envoys from the Clans left some time ago.
          I wouldn’t count them out, especially if another player pulls some strings. All it would really take is Masego opening the Ways for them, after all.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Sinead

            Why I find the interest in having the solution to this conflict to be talking instead of a battle is because if the Clans show up, they become a very convenient Big Stick when it comes to having people sit at the table. Plus, that table is carved over with the legend of The Woe, so it’s a symbolic pointed reminder.

            Plus I wonder how long the talks would be for the Orcs, since Hakram would have started working on the envoys as soon as they set out, and then sitting down with them and other parties that are nominally his allies.

            I really want a Hakram Interlude (probably North I?) soon. Though perhaps it’ll be a Hakram and Ivah Interlude.

            I just like the idea of a peace conference in the Wasteland being held by the factions that are likely all sick of this war.

            Liked by 2 people

          1. Deworld

            Not sure if Bard can come to a claimant. We have no reference for this. Claimants aren’t Named yet.

            Plus, main Bard’s objective as of now is to kill Cat (or at least she says so). I’m not sure how siding with Sepulchral can help with it.

            Liked by 1 person

              1. Deworld

                Not very much. That Bard wants to die was established a long time ago.

                However, as I said, killing Cat is what Bard herself says she wants to do. What her actual motivations are can only be speculations.

                Liked by 2 people

            1. Bard can certainly come to Claimants. One interesting question is whether Sepulchral is a genuine Claimant. Wouldn’t it be interesting if it turns out she’s never actually heard The Song?

              Like

  3. PapaBrogundy

    Cat just swore a solemn oath under moonlight to use Ranger as a whetstone for her name and we’re all here for it. When that confrontation occurs (I’m guessing Ater) it should be cataclysmic.

    Liked by 16 people

    1. RoflCat

      Personally, I’d like to see Black actually NOT get involved in the fight.

      To play the Story game he should be avoiding all these ‘it’ll happen’ Story setups, because them being expected means Bard/Catherine will know about it and make their plans accordingly.

      So if Black know what they expect to happen, he can make his own ‘plot twist’.

      Liked by 11 people

  4. Cicero

    Interesting, this has the feel of a story developing, but a story different from the ones Cat usually plays. That final line feels like a very important hinge too.

    Does Cat even realize she’s walked into this story?

    Liked by 10 people

          1. shikkarasu

            Walking into dangerous Narratives on purpose? Putting her back to the wall and rolling the bones against Fate itself? Yep, sounds like Cat. That said I agree, she’s not doing any of this blind. One might even go so far as to say she lost an eye and gained Wisdom, but I could not possibly comment.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Too sleepy to said more than 1 thing: Alexis the Ardent just won my respect in this chapter, she too in a way is trying as much as Indrani even if she doesn’t realizes it.

    Incredible how raw that please at the end feels.

    Liked by 20 people

  6. Above are the implied patrons of Squire, and it may be that they’re seeking to make a new enforcer, given the Saint’s demise, Mirror Knight’s unreliable nature, and Hanno’s waning grip on White Knight. That said, the method Above appears to be endorsing is remarkably accepting of the aid of Below’s champions. Given that the particular brand of Story Arthur is enmeshed within is the kind that would seem fated to force him into the role of a Knight, I once again have to wonder exactly what word will serve in the first position of that Name.

    Liked by 9 people

    1. Linnus42

      Eh I would say its more of matter of having a chicken in every pot. Squire is aimed at Cat and VIv sure but less so when Cat moves from being Callow Centric then he is Viv’s issue. But primarily he is Callow Focused. Mirror Knight is Procer focused with the Drow soon to be on the border so he is setup to oppose them. Hanno though is far more internationally focused though not National. at all. As for the Name could be Knight or Paladin though the difference between Knight and Paladin is unclear cause Knights can basically do anything.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Snappy

        Knights are great warriors, while paladins are usually military leaders. A knight could be one with a name like knight-commander, but unlikely. The white knight usually only leads names not troops, so there could be an opening for a Good paladin.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. He will be Callowan as a Knight.
          They are a Good people, who have developed a Cynical and Vengeful attitude towards both Evil and Good countries who border them.
          Black Knights invaded them. White Knights ignored Good countries invasions.
          He will be a Dark Knight (Batman), or a Shining Knight, or mebbe a Grey Knight?

          Liked by 2 people

      2. shikkarasu

        I think Arthur is placed to remove Catherine once she’s no longer the lesser evil. Placing her in a mentor position is perfect for this, since it keeps Arthur from trying to kill her early like Mirror Knight would. Even if she does abdicate, she can’t meddle in Callow too much without getting in Arthur’s way. The Gods Above might even see this as a compromise: “Get out of Callow before he finds a way to re-forge the Penitent’s Blade and we won’t have a problem. Stick around and you’ll have to face another prodigy duellist without any of the exploits you used on Saint or Lone.”

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Cotillion

      She’s squiring the successor to the Lone Swordsman, to all appearances. Learn as a martial aspect seems indicative, as are dreams of the feather. I don’t think he’s likely to be a “Lone” Swordsman though. Too much collaboration from too many names and resources going into training him. He’s going to wind up being a sort of inversion imo.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Shveiran

        Whether or not Arthur is embraced by Contrition, I really think he doesn’t fit the Lone Swordsman Name.
        Not unless he is brutally betrayed and gets a very edgy phase.
        The guy is all about being part of a group and has established multiple meaningful relationships, for Crows’ sake.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    made the junior > made her the junior
    that’s you worry > that’s your worry
    I actually believe > I actually believed
    that easy questions > that easy question (or those easy questions)
    arms are making > arms and making
    to ever to > to ever
    pleased surprise > pleasant surprise
    wasIndrani’s (missing space)
    stillhave (missing space)
    he thought he thought > he thought

    Liked by 3 people

  8. WuseMajor

    Hmmm…. I wonder if Amadeus’s main dispute with Cat is that he doesn’t want to become Dread Emperor at the end?

    Alternately, maybe he’s staying under the radar to evade Bard and Malicia together, not because he necessarily has a dispute with Cat.

    Or maybe he thinks he’s being “kind” by letting her do this on her own?

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Definitely not that last one, Amadeus 1) knows full well how much Cat loves him and has never believed love to be weakness so this is super not his style, 2) would never prioritize kindness over practicality.

      The former two are very plausible tho.

      Liked by 7 people

  9. Joats

    Cat just called a straight victory in the first instance of interference by the Bard. And she’s heading into another situation where the Bard can act against her even more directly than setting off an alarm. Who wants to bet there will be a draw of some sort centered around Catherine after the Bard makes some sort of appearance?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. AAAAA REFUGEE SISTERS

    I love Alexis the Argent and I love so much that she cares about Indrani too ❤ ❤ ❤ and that she sees, she sees that she's trying!!!

    Arthur with Learn ❤ ❤ ❤ I love how Amadeus definitely textually aimed Cat's own Learn the way he did deliberately and what this says about her story as a whole ❤

    RIP the mess )=

    Liked by 10 people

    1. Darkening

      Huh. I guess it does make sense that amadeus may have steered learn to help her be more knowledgable rather than make her a better fighter, given his disdain for villains that lean on power rather than wits. It’s interesting that we’ve seen learn 4 times in entirely different styles. Cat absorbing knowledge from books rapidly, Arthur learning swordsmanship, the hedge witch having some kind of active scan ability with it, and of course ranger’s ridiculous synergy.

      Liked by 5 people

    2. Kage Lupus

      It gives a very good idea of what Black thinks is most important for a new Squire to have. Cat learned all of her fighting skills via hard work and practice, but she Learned language and history and military theory because that was a much broader category that she needed much sooner. Remember, it was while going over old ledgers that Cat discovered Black’s master plan, of breaking the cycle of Praes being the Evil foil to the rest of the continent. It would have taken her years of studying without Learn to have gotten to the point where she could recognize the pattern otherwise.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. TBF, Cat did know a lot of history, her education was good.

        But yeah, Amadeus had very specific things she wanted from her.

        (And it wasn’t random ledgers Cat was going over, it was the specific journal Amadeus gave her when she asked what he wanted, and she didn’t even figure it out, she had to ask Hakram)

        Liked by 5 people

  11. Deworld

    Nice to see more of Silver Huntress. She always was interesting for me, but we have seen almost none of her. Unless I forgot something, it’s only the second scene showing her character in some way – the first being fight with Indrani after Beastmaster’s death. Any other time she was just standing somewhere in the background. We had more on Concocter and even on Beastmaster himself.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. We did have her described and talked about quite a bit in the background, but yeah this is the second time we see her on-screen and talking.

      (I’m clarifying “and talking” bc there was that one raid she and Indrani went on with Cat, early in the Hainaut campaign)

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Deworld

        That’s what I meant. “Show, not tell”, you know? She was talked about a lot, but we have never seen anything about her. Cat talks about how well they come along, but it’s the first time we actually see it. Hell, as I understand it, Huntress is the third closest Hero to Cat, after Arthur and Hanno. Maybe she competes for this place with Apprentice and Roland, but still, she’s in top-5 for sure. And still, this is the first time we see them actually interact on a personal level.

        Let’s hope that this conversation is EE noticing this issue and trying to fix it.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Darkening

          I dunno, she let kingfisher prince pretty close to her :p. And yeah, roland is definitely top 3 material. With Tariq alive I doubt she’d have made top 5 but she might be edging in these days.

          Liked by 2 people

        2. Yepppp. I’ve noticed how little we’ve seen of her, considering repeated assurances that Cat gets along with her super well, too. I think it was to keep the tension in the Refugee plot – what kind of person was Indrani trying to reconcile with? Would it even work? And this is the payoff – her own damage, her own caring, the “please” and Cat’s promise.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Lord Haart

      Yeah I feel like if there’s one particular gripe I have with this book, it’s the lack of mentioning that SHE LOST AN EYE. It’s hardly a small thing (well, emotionally) and it hasn’t come up nearly enough IMO. We heard much more about the limp, and she can basically cancel that out at need.

      You could put this down to PTSD but then I think there should be other signs of trouble too. As it is, it minimizes the loss and makes it less impactful.

      Like

  12. Earl of Purple

    Learning how to use a sword from the Barrow Blade should be interesting. He’s got the sword in his Name, so theoretically he’s a good swordsman. Learning from him exclusively would be a good way to become a duelist, however. I think, at least. Although… isn’t Ishaq’s sword two handed? Or am I misremembering?

    Liked by 6 people

  13. “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.”

    “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.”

    Yeah, really Catherine, what is it?

    Liked by 9 people

    1. Darkening

      For all that the everdark arc wasn’t the best part of the series, the conversation she had with archer about how maddening it is to watch every word and action to control your story was a great moment.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Lord Haart

        Personally liked that part a lot – the Drow were interesting and I loved the end with Sve Nov. The arc felt a lot like Moria and that’s a very good thing as far as building mood goes. The only real trouble I had with it was the suspension of disbelief that she’d really leave Callow behind out of contact for so long.

        Like

    2. Issues Catherine got as inheritance from Amadeus:

      – self-sacrificial tendencies in the vein of “well I’m a bad person anyway, and you can’t make omelette without breaking at least one egg so better me than anyone else. I’m a selfish and terrible person anyway so no big loss”

      – mentor story PTSD. There’s being careful and then there’s fully mentally equating mentorship with promised death to the degree you can find yourself falling into an actually more dangerous story though sheer denial

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Sinead

        I think Cat will stay just shy of the cliff edge here, since in lieu of herself, she’s piling on a whole lot of resources on Arthur. It’ll still burn her, but I don’t think it will be catastrophic.

        I mentioned on Reddit, but I wonder if Cat’s gonna be a fly on the wall with Vivienne talking to Arthur about ‘why the knightly orders did not return under Cat’ (there are some general points there that can extend out to why Cat operates the way she does that doesn’t overstep).

        Plus that would serve as a good precursor for Cat and Vivienne to talk.

        Liked by 5 people

          1. Sinead

            I want it both because I genuinely want to see this conversation (especially since a Knightly order could be folded into the war machine as an extension of the Army doctrine since they do not have Ogres that were part of Legion doctrine, so the issue is all the other issues around the knightly order. Arthur is an orphan, he doesn’t have the same connection of the knightly orders to nobility and the issues with it. Plus it would be interesting to have the Heir Apparent be the ‘person who understands Callowan politics’ to point out to Arthur how dangerous he is to Cat’s legacy.

            I don’t know if it would be overstepping for Vivienne to point out that Cat’s legacy is forging Callow into a sharp, brittle knife (will cut all on the wrong side, but can be broken if poorly handled). How having a military symbol as a threat will break everything more than external threats (how will the goblins in Marchford feel about this? The Praesi refugees? Any orcs that may have moved into Callow? Traditional Callow was fucking brutal about ‘foreigners’ . In trying to bring back ‘traditional Callow’ will Arthur be willing to deal with everything else?

            I also really want this conversation to happen, and the more I think about, the more Vivienne is better to have it. She is the face of Callow rising, and her handling this potential future threat to her and Cat’s plans for Callow would be a feather in her cap that it wouldn’t otherwise be.

            If this results in an Adjutant scene, that may be akward for Cat to sit and witness, but it’s also her seeing how Vivienne operates.

            ….Dammit, I’ve thought too much about this. I hope EE surprises me.

            Liked by 4 people

    3. Hakram’s Dead Hand

      That’s what I was thinking. She inherited the Amadeus’s machine; the ever present gears behind his eyes. Because of this, she can never truly live without seeing the world as it is, and will always keep everyone around her at arms length. Sure, this gives them power, but also locks them into the calculating creature role forever. What a beautiful story.

      Like

      1. Shveiran

        Neither she nor Amadeus keep everyone at arms length.
        Both have real, meaningful relationships to which they are not afraid to show their vulnerabilities. This ain’t Code Geass; they can be calculating and still, you know, a person.

        Liked by 4 people

  14. Xinci

    It is interesting to look at Rangers life with further confirmation on her intended methodology. It really doed read as a long lived being who has had limited attachment due to pressure(ie. Hunted by the Emerald Swords), attempting to mitigate future loss through selection. So her attempts to toughen them up to what could be, let them experience struggle, etc make sense in coming from someone like her. In the long view it can be a mercy to do so if the connection is all you have. Too bad she didn’t quite take own experiences with the Calamities to know how to balance out the pressure better through cooperation.
    Understandable though honestly if ones perspective is more on how to survive eternitys worth of conflict.
    Overall though I think Alexis gave a good underview of why Ranger acted like she did. She reminds me of that Dead King in some ways when he was mentoring Cat. A unsurprising similarity given both are fighting to live a long time.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. “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.”

    Huh, they seem to have a concept of Westphalian sovereignty. Which is weird given that the continent is still fairly feudal.
    But I guess not so weird given that there’s very strong regional cultural identities and very little permanently successful conquest of areas with differing cultural identities to muddle up question of legitimacy of one cultural group holding primacy over their territories.
    Also not that weird given that Praes and Procer have to have tried these kinds of tricks before, yet been pushed back by the general conservation of cultural patterns and state of relative stasis the continent tends to fall into.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. caoimhinh

      What I’m wondering now is this:
      If the Rebel Legions are in agreement that Malicia has to go, and they want to crush Sepulchral, but they don’t want to support Amadeus’s claim of the Tower unless Nim refuses them… who do they want to take the Tower?

      Are they just saying “not any of these” and hope someone better rises afterward?
      It really seems like these guys aren’t looking much ahead. No wonder Cat showed such disdain on them, as they really seem to be just going there to be opportunistic and flex on whoever wins, but that’s really just gonna earn them the disdain of the winner, it’s like those Orcs initially saying to Cat that they wouldn’t join her as the Tower still stands. If the Tower has already fallen or been taken without your help, you can’t come later to get rewards, you are just gonna be pushed aside for not siding with the winner.

      Also, they are betting their all on Nim taking their offer and turn on Malicia and then go crush Sepulchral. But surely they aren’t betting on Nim becoming Dread Empress, so who will they support? Or do they expect to turn Praes into something else that is not an Empire?

      It’s weird that Catherine didn’t point this out to them, or asked them about this, since it seems like a logical question after they told her that they didn’t support any of the claimants of the tower, and only would go to Amadeus if Nim rejects their offer.

      Liked by 5 people

  16. Daniel E

    Anyone else find it weird that Juniper is just suddenly here? Like, no mention at all since coming to Praes, and suddenly ‘Hellhound is back’.

    Like

      1. john

        Ranger seems like exactly the kind of person who could score an Olympic-qualitying time on the hundred yard dash, over broken ground, while carrying something heavy and sharp AND holding her breath.

        Liked by 8 people

  17. Lord Haart

    Yeah there is Story here, yet another hero asking a Boon of the Black Queen.

    Ranger has been a bit of an enigma every since she absconded during the prologue. One can imagine that if she had raised Cat rather than Black, Cat world be even more like her than Indrani, who is a bit more lackadaisical with Wander. Cat is no doubt thinking of how she can beat her with story fu, but I hope she learned from Arsenal that there is a cost to such tactics.

    Also, of all the armies, Cat can least afford a fight, she needs soldiers and mages to take back to Hainut.

    Like

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