“At the end, there will be more than the Gods.
With the Last Dusk will come the passing of Creation, discording turning to concord as the wager of Fate is resolved. Yet it shall not be the end of everything, for though all came of the emptiness of Void to create is to make something from nothing. That is our gift, and so the sum of the choices we have made will echo beyond the bounds of time.
In the end, we are told, they will all have mattered.”– Last page of the Book of All Things
The valley, they told Catherine, was called the Knightsgrave.
It was a pretty sight, tall grass split by a burbling mountain spring whose banks grew thick with red flowers. That was not unusual, in the Red Flower Vales – which in these parts the native Procerans called the Vermillion Valleys – but the mage tower surrounded by a few cottages was. Half a dozen wizard families and twice that in simple students had made their home in the Knightsgrave, a small hidden school of wizardry in the mountains. The temple built by the cottages made it plain that the House of Light was keeping on them, but both the brother there and the magistrate in nearby Beaumarais knew and approved of the school.
Neither recognized that they were being visited by the Warden and the White Knight until they were told, and quickly acceded to silence when it was asked of them. Borders were still being drawn, after all, but Beaumarais might well be part of the lands ceded to Cardinal before the year was out.
The burial of the Rogue Sorcerer, Roland de Beaumarais, attracted something of a crowd. Magistrate Alisanne handled the early arrangements, but then turned the affair over to Brother Albert. Catherine Foundling had known many a shade of grief over her years, both hers and that of others, so she did not ask why the beautiful grey-eyed woman could not stand to look at the coffin. Roland had said there would be a woman in Beaumarais and there was no need to ask who she might be.
It was a simple but heartfelt service. Brother Albert did not take up too much of the talking, ceding the place instead to Roland’s father – his last living parent, after his mother’s death two years past from the green fever – who spoke of the light there had been in his son since he’d been a child, of how proud he was that he had gone out into the world to chase the murderer of his brother Olivier. Roland the Beaumarais, it seemed, was something of a local hero. He’d fought off an evil wizard as a teenager, rumoured to be a Praesi warlock, and founded the small wizard school.
Magistrate Alisanne’s eyes were hard as flint all through the service. Eyes turned to her several times, expectant, but she never spoke a word.
Hanno spoke instead, of the good he had seen Roland do and the love others yet bore for him. The eyes of the young wizards shone, when they heard of the company a man who’d once been a boy here had risen to keep. Of the people he had helped, the evils he had defeated. Catherine Foundling, when her turn came, spoke only two sentences.
“He took an arrow meant for me,” she quietly said. “The debt I owe him is greater than words can convey.”
Roland was buried by the banks of the spring among a bed of red flowers. A stele of stone was left to remember him by, simply reading: Roland de Beaumarais, the Rogue Sorcerer. A life spent for another is never wasted. As dusk approached the crowd dispersed, heading back into town for the funerary banquet. The White Knight took a single look at the magistrate and the once-queen standing among red flowers before taking his leave with them, leaving them to the privacy of their grief.
“None of the people who came knew him,” Magistrate Alisanne quietly said. “Most came to Beaumarais after he left, attracted by rumours of the school.”
“Not even his father?” the Warden asked.
A bitter smile answered.
“Especially not him,” the magistrate replied.
Catherine Foundling was the keeper of many secrets, and so she did not ask why the other woman had insisted on a closed casket funeral when the body was well-preserved and had allowed none to gaze at the body. Roland had been a friend, one of the finest she’d ever had. She would not pry at his secrets while standing over his grave.
“I meant it,” the Warden said, “when I said I owed him a debt. He spoke of you while dying.”
The grey-eyed woman’s face twisted with grief before she mastered herself. Only then did she answer the implicit offer.
“The rumours say that Cardinal grows by the day,” she said.
“We’re still laying the foundations,” the Warden admitted. “Though houses have been raised for workers and officials.”
It had been a year and a half since the fall of Keter, but work had only begun six months past. The Principate was dragging its feet recognizing the borders despite Cordelia’s best efforts, though she had assured Catherine that it was not malfeasance. Part of the lands currently belonged to Orne, who had effectively declared independence during the Principate’s collapse and had only loosely been brought back into the fold. First Princess Rozala could have pushed harder on the matter, but she already had too many demands on her time between the campaigns to recover the north and the negotiations with the secessionists in the south. Cardinal was at no risk of pulling blades and so very much down the list.
“Then perhaps I should go north,” Magistrate Alisanne mused. “Our prince has called for officials to join the resettling of Brabant now that the verdant companies drove the dead from it.”
“If that is your choice, I can put in a word for you,” the Warden said. “Princess Beatrice is an old acquaintance; she would do me a small favour without thinking twice.”
Princess Beatrice Volignac, who had formally abdicated all claim over Hainaut and pledged her army to the reconquest in exchange for the Highest Assembly granting her the principality of Brabant, was also in dire need of skilled officials. The ruling line of Brabant and its capital had both been wiped out, leaving the land in such brutal anarchy that the commoners were begging the orc mercenaries who’d driven back the dead to stay and settle in empty villages. Some were accepting, the Silver Letters had sent in their latest report to Cardinal, and there was already talk in Beatrice’s court of inviting a goblin tribe to try to cut down on the costs of reconstructions. The roaring success of that gamble in Brus under the Kingfisher Princes was inviting imitation.
“And Iserre?” the magistrate idly said, tone gone teasing.
“Rozala Malanza’s less likely to do me favours freely,” the Warden drily replied, “but I could arrange something there too. I wouldn’t advise heading there unless you want to see some fighting, though.”
The grey-eyed woman’s brow rose in surprise.
“Would it truly come to war so soon after the last?”
“Salamans is backing their own Milenan to contest Malanza’s and they’re not backing down,” Catherine Foundling said. “They’ll want to avoid open war with the Highest Assembly, but they want to use a civil war Iserre to break its southern ambitions.”
Much of the south yet refuse to recognize Rozala Malanza as the legitimate First Princess, alleging in a fit of irony that she had usurped the good and rightful ruler of Procer – First Prince Cordelia Hasenbach. Using that pretext they were resisting being brough back into the Principate, though the real reasons were rather more pragmatic. Not only had the First Princess sworn to unseat every royal who had not sent armies to Keter but the Arlesite principalities had been the least hurt by the war and would be the first to recover. Few of them were enthusiastic at the prospect of being heavily taxed for the next fifty tears to pay for the recovery of Procer’s heartlands, the same Alamans princes that had been their rivals for power in Salia for centuries.
Only the swing of public opinion in favour of the First Princess since the victory in Keter had stopped war from erupting, but that would not last. Rozala Malanza was not as skilled a diplomat as her predecessor, for all that she was significantly more beloved of the people of Procer.
“I’ve never had a taste for war,” Magistrate Alisanne finally said. “And that was before I lost him to it.”
The grey-eyed woman shook her head, smiling at the grave.
“I should see, I think, what dream it is that he gave his life for,” she decided. “Let it be Cardinal.”
The opening of Cardinal College drew the greats of all Calernia.
Even after four years and fortunes spent Cardinal still looked like it was only half-done, but what had been done was spectacular. At the narrowing of the pass between Procer and Callow there had once been a fortress called the Bloody Twins, but the fighting of the Tenth Crusade – the duel between two dead legends, the Sovereign of Red Skies and Antigone Drakonslayer – had broken it and masses of stone been dropped from a Hell. Using the old fortress as a foundation and the fallen stone as materials, an army of stonemasons from the signatories to the Liesse Accords had begun to build the city.
Now two great square towers of grey stone rose as tall as the mountain they ate into, a great plaza passing between though they connected by a massive arched bridge – Concord Bridge, it was called – that stood half a league above the ground. From a distance the entire College looked like a gargantuan arch curving towards the clouds, and radiating outwards from it the bones of a city had been raised. Large avenues split the grounds like the lines on a sundial, districts swallowing the northern and southern valleys as tunnels were being carved through the mountains to bind the mountain-city together. Great swaths were still empty, but already a trading town on the Callowan side that heavy grain imports had driven demand had been founded and the districts around the College filled up.
The rest was yet as villages dotting the empty belly of a great city, workers come from abroad and migrants drawn by rumours of work taking up residence in clumps, but in time the city would fill itself. It might never be as large as Salia or Ater, the mountains would forbid such heedless growth, but in time it might become one of the great cities of Calernia regardless. Finishing to would be the work of decades yet, but already Cardinal had begun to pay for itself in part by collecting taxes in coin and food from its territories on both sides of the Whitecaps. It was a long way from no longer needing foreign coin to continue growing, but it would be provided for some years yet.
Besides, Chancellor Alaya and Empress Basilia had proved willing to sink a great deal more gold into the city than the Accords mandated. Not without concessions to show for it, of course, but negotiations with the seneschal of the city had not yielded as much as they might have hoped. Lady Cordelia was yet one of the finest diplomats on the continent.
Guests had begun arriving a month before the ceremony was due, but the grand names only in the sennight before. The incoming tide of crowned heads excited even the already infamously blithe Cardinalians, who had seen so many great works of magic used to mundane building purposes that very little could yet shock them. Formal reception only took place when the last of the delegations arrived, in the grand plaza between the two towers of the College. It was a long, ceremonious affair where the delegations marched up the avenue one after another to be welcomed and only made less dull to behold for the crowds by how richly dressed the delegations were.
The Warden, head of the still mostly empty ruling council of Cardinal, gave out those welcomes with the other three sitting members. Lady Cordelia Hasenbach, seneschal of the city, who had also taken on diplomatic and judicial duties that would in time be beyond the office’s remit when they could be distinguished from the administrative ones. Lady Pickler, intendant of works, who had already fallen into the habit of rarely attending any meeting that did not involve allocation of funds. And lastly General Grem One-Eye, the famous Praesi general who had quietly retired at the end of the War on Keter and taken the offer of commanding Cardinal’s fledgling army.
The Lord Hierophant having adamantly refused the office of Rector of Cardinal College in favour of remaining a permanent Senior Lecturer, he had gotten out of attending. First Princess Rozala and her consort Louis Rohanon were welcomed first, a panoply of princes trailing behind them.
“They tell she might be pregnant with a second,” the Warden muttered.
“It was only a matter of time,” Lady Cordelia replied in a murmur. “She was trying as early as last year.”
Catherine Foundling let out a low whistle.
“During that mess in Salamans?” she said. “Bold.”
It had been a tense time, and if not for their intervention the situation might well have devolved into open war between the League and the Principate. In the wake of the First Princess’ decisive victories in Iserre, Salamans had broken into civil war only for its south to be invaded by the Prince of Tenerife in a lightning march. He had then formally applied to join the League of Free Cities, throwing lit matches into tinder. Valencis had immediately pulled out of its negotiations with the Highest Assembly, making a marriage alliance with Tenerife instead, and when the First Princess had directly intervened in Salamans she’d run into Tenerifan forces in the south that refused to cede the ground. An accidental skirmish turned into battle then drew Empress Basilia into the conflict, for though Tenerife could not be welcomed into the League in the Hierarch’s absence it had status enough as an applicant to ask help of the Protector of the League.
With League armies camped a mere ten miles away from the Principate’s in southern Salamans, there had been the scent of steel in the air.
The Warden’s arbitration and a great deal of bargaining behind closed doors had helped tensions return to a simmer, but the miracle that put it to rest came in the form of Anaxares the Hierarch. Emerging from the Hells in the city of Orense, which even after being returned to the Proceran fold was holding out, he collapsed the siege and led the citizenry into declaring the independent Republic of Orense before the White Knight chased him off. With another fire in her backyard as the insurrection spread across the principality, the First Princess agreed to a partition of Salamans, ceding the northern half the Principate kept between Iserre and her own Aequitan.
In return she received an open guarantee that Valencis would never receive help from Tenerife or be allowed to apply to join the League, a diplomatic coup that forced the rulers of Valencis to return to the negotiating table with a much weaker hand and a ruined reputation.
“If her south didn’t keep setting itself on fire, she’d have most of the north back by now,” General Grem opined in a growl.
Brabant and southern Lyonis had been reclaimed, but beyond that little else. Prince Otto Redcrown had led the return of the Lycaonese exodus, helping in the reconquest of Brus as he went, but though Neustria had been reclaimed and Rhenia relieved the rest remained in the hands of the dead. A push had seized the Morgentor and closed Twilight’s Pass, but otherwise the great prince of the north seemed content to slowly reclaim old Lycaonese lands by pushing a little further every summer. He had done this with little help from any southerner save the Kingfisher Prince, who himself had been forced to essentially occupy southern Lyonis so the dead would not spill back through it into Brus after royal forces withdrew.
There was talk of a marriage with Sophie Louvroy, abdicated princess of Lyonis and last survivor of the main branch of the House of Louvroy, to formalize the arrangement.
After the Procerans came and went the rulers of Levant replaced them, riding with their lords of the Blood. King Razin and Queen Aquiline advanced under the star-studded banner of the Thuraya, the name they had adopted upon being crowned by the Majilis. The young queen’s obvious pregnancy drew even more eyes than the appearance of the rather famous Lord Ishaq Rabia, first of the Barrow’s Blood, whose town on the southern edge of the Brocelian was said to be growing fast.
“That succession is going to be a headache even if they have a kid,” the Warden grunted. “Mark my words.”
“The Circle of Thorns believe they want three children,” Lady Cordelia noted. “One to inherit Levante and the crown after them, the other two for Malaga and Tartessos.”
“The Majilis isn’t toothless enough to allow that,” Catherine Foundling replied. “They surrendered veto power, but it doesn’t make them pushovers.”
“Vaccei and Alava will threaten revolt, I agree,” Lady Cordelia mused. “They will have to water their wine, pass the cities to kinsmen. It is doing them a favour in the long term, I would think.”
“Three royal branches all with their own cities?” Lady Pickler snorted. “Because that’s not a civil war in thirty years. I thought you said they were smart kids, Cat.”
“They’re still Blood,” the Warden sighed, “it comes with some blinders. They’ve done well otherwise.”
With the Levantines come and gone, the Callowan royal procession approached. Queen Vivienne of Callow led it, her recent husband prince-consort Cathal Iarsmai close behind. Though rumours had spread that marrying Grand Duchess Kegan’s eldest grandson had been her price to keep Daoine in the Kingdom of Callow, the couple seemed happy enough. Cathal was only some years younger than the queen, after all, and handsome in the Deoraithe way.
“How much younger is he?” Lady Pickler asked.
“Just turned twenty,” the Warden said.
“And divorced last year,” Lady Cordelia said, sounding like she enjoyed the scandal. “A stroke of luck for Kegan, that, the second closest grandson is still twelve.”
“If she’d been willing to settle for a nephew it could have been done years ago,” the Warden noted, “but she wanted her own blood in the royal line.”
House Foundling would inherit the same as any other, in the end, save that if it turned unworthy there would be a great many orphans ready to restore dignity to the crown. The decision had been contentious in the early years, but Queen Vivienne’s reign had been peaceful and prosperous. Plenty had a way of silencing doubts, and the kingdom’s rising trade guilds paired with the resettling of Liesse had occupied energies that might otherwise have turned to mischief.
After Callow came the League of Free Cities, Empress Basilia her vassal rulers of Nicae and Stygia arriving first. Formal diplomats from the other cities followed, as though Anaxares the Hierarch had kept his Name he had spurned invitations to return to the League when invited during his reappearance in Orense. It had been considered a surrender of the title, even by Bellerophon, which had allowed the League cities to resume foreign affairs and vote on joining the Liesse Accords.
“They’ll have another Hierarch within the decade,” the Warden said. “Basilia’s getting too powerful, they’ll want something to balance her influence.”
And should she refuse, it might well come to civil war within the League. Which she could not afford, given that she was still trying to get Tenerife accepted as a member-state.
“She will pare down the powers of the office and get Tenerife brought into the fold as a trade,” Lady Cordelia predicted.
“Don’t say that in front of Ikaroi,” Genera Grem grunted in amusement. “He’ll send it home.”
The head archivist of Cardinal College, Nestor Ikaroi, was not longer formally of the Secretariat but was still rather openly and amiably spying for Delos. He was so useful none of them particularly minded. The humour that had touched them at that retreated when the following delegation arrived.
Chancellor Alaya did not come in person, which only strengthened the rumours she was not far from stepping down – and that the Warden would kill her should they meet in person – but both High Marshal Nim and one of Lord Councillors had been sent, a strong showing. Especially so considering that Lord Councillor Sargon Sahelian being increasingly charged with foreign diplomacy was speculated to be a sign that the chancellor wanted him to succeed her.
“Queen Vivienne will be miffed,” Cordelia predicted. “She would prefer High Lady Abreha to be in his place.”
“Of course she would,” Catherine Foundling snorted, “the old fox’s promised to sell Callow the Blessed Isle if she’s elected chancellor.”
The border between the Confederation of Praes and the Kingdom of Callow had been a matter of some debate after the end of the War on Keter. The Blessed Isle was in Praesi hands and the Fields of Streges in Callowan ones, but the land had never been formally ceded and there had never been a declaration of war between either realms since the secession of Callow. Chancellor Alaya had traded the disarmament of the Isle to the Callowan crown in exchange for a lasting treaty that allowed the Confederation to buy a fixed quantity of grain at a fixed price every year, bolstering her position and securing food for Ater, but the borders had yet to be formally fixed.
“Sargon Sahelian’s trade policies are sounder,” Cordelia firmly said. “And his support for Cardinal College significantly stronger.”
“You just want to edge Mercantis entirely out of the spice trade, you cutthroat bitch,” the Warden fondly said. “At least own it.”
“Their position as the perennial middleman is a loss to all of Calernia,” Lady Cordelia righteously replied, but her lips twitched.
The northern realms came in swift succession. First the Herald of the Deeps, formally recognized as king of Kishar when he’d signed the Accords two years past, who’d come with a small retinue whose splendid armour was still eclipsed by the colourful parade of fire spirits that flocked to him like birds.
“Good call renaming Keter something that starts with a K,” Lady Pickler said. “It’ll make it stick sooner.”
“I am sure that is the only reason the name was chosen,” Lady Cordelia drawled. “Well spotted, my lady.”
“I’m not taking that lip from someone who giggles at being called Cordy when she’s drunk,” the goblin bit back.
Following the dwarves came the representatives from burgeoning Zemebreg, the Firstborn colony that dwelled in the city once called Cleves. Mighty Rumena itself led it accompanied by a pack of the wandering riddle-priests endemic to its city that had become famous in the Principate. With them came the envoys from Serolen itself, eldest and greatest of the spreading drow cities, came greater names. Mighty Radegast led the group, now famous for the terrifying mercenary army it had led in Nesutria and Rhenia on Prince Otto’s behalf. Then Ivah of the Losara, First Under the Night and Lord of Silent Steps. The priest was perhaps the best-known of the Firstborn, nowadays, for it had spent several years in the Principate after the end of the War on Keter. The bargains it had struck with the First Princess for mercenary sigils had been instrumental in clawing back control of the western coast, allowing Segovian shipping to resume to Prince Otto’s realm.
“I’m glad Malanza didn’t bring any of the Most Holy or we’d have a brawl on our hands,” the Warden said, and it was not entirely a jest.
There were many names for the worship of Sve Noc, these days. The Tenets of Night remained most common, but the Faith of Crows and the House of Night were spreading as well. In Callow mostly through the Army, and aside from a scuffle over an order of knights that had insisted on being allowed anointment in Night to outrage from the House Constant there had been little trouble. It was seen as a soldier’s cult, little more. In Procer and the Grey Eyries, however, things had taken a different turn. The Matrons had banned the worship, only for the measure to be backfire by spreading word and then be overturned by Chancellor Alaya besides, and now they were said to be wrestling with a great deal of unrest.
In Procer it had grown beyond that, however. Night was simply too tempting a power for a realm where banditry and roving bands of undead were still a real threat even all these years later. The House of Light’s campaign of words to denounce the heresy had taken strong root in the south, but it had rung hollow north in the heartlands and north where drow sigils and wandering riddle-priests looking for worthy foes had saved many a life. Though yet frowned upon, the Faith of Crows was spreading and the Liesse Accords prevented the Highest Assembly from making this illegal. Hostility between the Proceran House and the Losara – considered a priest-caste in the Principate, and not without reason – in particular had risen to dangerous heights.
“Be glad we did not invite Tenerife,” Lady Cordelia grimly replied. “They gave back their House the right to raise troops.”
The last delegation to arrive, and not by happenstance, was that from Thalassocracy of Ashur. It was the last realm of Calernia not to have signed the Liesse Accords, and its envoys were the reason so many great names had come to the opening of Cardinal College. It would have been an important moment on its own, but the last signatory joining the Accord added great weight. Seven years after the fall of Keter, the Ashuran civil war had finally been brough to an end and the results had been expected by few. Instead of the Hadast claimant pushed by Arwad or Smyrna’s insistence a Tyrian from overseas must be sent for, a fourth-tier citizen from Smyrna by the name of Baltsar Aderbal had taken control.
He’d been a middle-aged man with few allies when he’d declared the Committee of Government with the backing of only citizens of lower tiers tired of the fighting, but the reason he was now ruler of Ashur was the same two people standing behind he as he approached: the Blessed Artificer and the Archmage. Sapan the Apprentice had become Sapan the Mage and reportedly lost her temper when returning to Ashur after the war. After crushing the Blue Mage and half a school’s worth of practitioners in a spectacular blowout when the other Named backed the Hadast claimant and attempted assassination of Baltsar Aderbal, she had transitioned into the Archmage and ended the civil war through sheer fear of angering her further.
She had, after all, blown up most of a mountain.
“Baltsar isn’t the real power there,” Lady Pickler said. “I don’t care if he’s called the head of their governing committee, either of those women could take his seat in a moment.”
“Not Lady Adanna,” Cordelia said. “She was born there but her looks are Soninke. Smyrnan elites rose up over having to back a Hadast relative married to a Levantine, they would go quite mad over her.”
“Sapan’s like Masego in some ways,” the Warden said. “She wants to pursue her studies more than mingle. Mind you, she’s a little more involved than Zeze’s ever been.”
“The decision to sever ties with the Baalite Hegemony is entirely hers,” Cordelia agreed. “As has been reaching out to Praes in friendship to balance a resurgent League.”
“Malicia’s old dream come true,” Catherine Foundling smiled, just a little too tightly.
“Boring,” Pickler frankly said. “Can’t believe I have to be here and Hanno got out of it. He’s Ashuran, he should be here more than me.”
“His having a look up north is more important,” the Warden said. “If the word Hakram has sent is true, we have reason to be worried.”
“There are records of elves being active outside the Bloom, if ancient ones,” Cordelia said. “It is this talk of ratlings wandering the steppes that worry me. They could not have reached there without the Forever King’s tacit allow.”
The Warlord had been called in by far clans only loosely under his banner, tales of entire clans disappearing reaching his court, and duly informed Cardinal even as he moved north to investigate. The White Knight had gone alone, as the finest sword the Warden had to wield. General Grem cleared his throat.
“The Ashurans are getting close,” he said. “They’ll hear.”
They fell into silence, the Warden allowing her gaze to fall onto the last delegation. The last great realm of the surface that had yet to sign the Liesse Accords, come here on the day where the great school she had dreamed with Hakram would open its gates to students. The sky above them was an endless sunny blue, cut only by the great towers of Cardinal College, and she let the warmth of the sun seep into her bones.
It was a good day, she thought, and there were better ones yet ahead.
The lecture hall was a large spread of stone with comfortable seats behind writing desks, built to easily fit a hundred, and it had been filled to the brim. Cardinal College allowed students to enroll in elective classes from their second year onwards, after the basics had been taught, and now that the first batch had reached the milestone near every mage in attendance had hurried to sign up for General Theory of Magic. Some had learned Lower Miezan specifically to be able to attend this particular set of lectures out of the three of, for they would be given by the most famous mage of the age. Without warning the door burst open and the Lord Hierophant strode into the hall and it went quiet as a grave, save for the tinkle of the trinkets woven into his hair. He looked, many noted, in a foul mood.
A flick of the wrist had chalk rising and writing General Theory of Magic on the large grey slate, the odd-eyed man turning to face the silent class.
“Before the month is over,” he said, “half or you will be gone.”
Several students swallowed.
“No dead,” the Hierophant clarified. “The College has rules about that.”
The words were not as reassuring as he had clearly meant them to be.
“You will be expected to take notes and study on your own,” he continued, “and I will not slow the pace for the slower students. Should you struggle, you are free to attend the Senior Lecturer Beaumont’s lectures instead – they are also given in Lower Miezan.”
A pause, waiting for volunteers. There were none.
“Then we proceed,” the Hierophant said. “Before we begin, I have been informed I am to give you the opportunity to ask questions. Raise your hand if you wish to do so, you will be called on.”
A dark-skinned young woman in elaborate red and black robes was the first to raise her hand and so the first to earn the right to speak.
“You,” Hierophant said.
“My lord,” she said, “may I ask why you are giving what could be considered an introductory lecture instead of something more befitting your talents?”
The Hierophant’s flesh eye narrowed.
“Sahelian, are you?” he asked.
She proudly nodded.
“Not interested,” the Hierophant noted. “I knew Akua Sahelian, still consider her a friend. Lesser variants are of little interest. As for your question, it’s because the contents of my Deicide and Applied Blasphemy lecture are currently locked into a vault after eating the soul of the warlock that tried to steal them.”
A great many students breathed in sharply. Some second thoughts were had.
“And Hasenbach insists I have to teach something if I want my funding for the experiment,” he continued. “Which is ridiculous, given the obvious benefits.”
Though it had taken barely two years for Masego to accept Cordelia’s invitation to refer to her by her first name, monthly funding debates saw her inevitably relegated to be being ‘Hasenbach’ for a few days. A boy in the front, blond-haired and blue-eyed with stocky Callowan look, was the next called on.
“What’s your experiment?” he eagerly asked.
“The technicalities are beyond any of you,” Hierophant said, “but on the submission scroll I summed it up as ‘forcing apotheosis onto a pig’.”
Half the students paled. About a dozen leaned forward eagerly. Another boy, Ashuran by the looks of him, was next.
“Is it true you taught the Archmage?” he excitedly asked.
“Sapan learned from me,” the Hierophant noted, “but I cannot claim to have taught her.”
“If you believe attending my lectures will turn you into her, abandon the idea,” he cautioned. “She is a once in a generation talent and I have no reason to believe ant of you are.”
Several winces but few arguments. Even in the College, where already two Named were in attendance, few had the arrogance to compare themselves to the Archmage of Ashur. Next was a dark-haired girl, Arlesite in looks, and her accent was thick when she spoke up.
“Why should we attend your lectures instead of the others?” she asked. “What do they bring us?”
The Hierophant beamed.
“The first good question today,” he praised.
The girl looked surprised, perhaps having expected irritation out of the infamously impatient mage. He glanced at her a second time, finding that she was young to be here. Eight, nine years old at most? And vaguely reminiscent of someone he likely should have paid more attention to at some point, an unfortunately broad list.
“The other Senior Lecturers,” he told the class, “will teach you general theory with an accent on the manner of magic they practice themselves. I will not.”
Under the eye cloth, an orb of glass shone with the light of miracles crafted and stolen both.
“I will be teaching you of the rules,” the Hierophant smiled, “only to best explain how to break them.”
Half the class was gone by the moon’s turn, as he had predicted. The rest signed up to every single lecture the Lord Hierophant gave at Cardinal College.
Ater had recovered from the Battle of the Spiders.
It had been years since then, almost nine, and in the wake of the War on Keter the newly founded Confederation of Praes had thrived. With a willing if wary Callow as a trading partner, Chancellor Alaya had gathered a like-minded few to her council and undertaken reforms. Taxation of territories was reorganized to be handled directly by Ater, cutting out the middleman collector of the the High Seats. It tripled the revenue of the chancellorship over the span of a year while she appeased the same great with exemptions tailored to ensure they would remain the wealthiest of the aristocracy. With the ardent support of the High Lady of Kahtan, a young woman of strong reformist bent whose life had once been saved by the White Knight in Keter, the Taghreb aristocracy Hungering Sands made bereft of an overlord by the end of Thalassina and goblin rule in Foramen were reorganized into districts patterned on the past imperial governorships of Callow.
High Lady Rana Muraqib’s rumoured marriage proposal to the White Knight in the wake of this was the subject of excited gossip for years.
Meticulously negotiated treaties with the Warlord solidified the vassal state status of the Clans and the rights of all greenskins in Praes, including confirming the cession of the fortress of Chagoro and attendant territories. Hakram Deadhand set his court there and began raising his capital, deepening trade ties as orc mercenary companies – verdant companies, they were called in Procer – were sent west to fight under Procer to bleed out the old urge to raid. Besides, the northern clans were occupied with the growing ratling infestation in the Lesser Steppes. There was plenty of war and meat to go around these days.
But only outside, for within there was order. Permanent Legions of Terror fortresses in all regions to ensure order did not collapse in the wake of the disbanding of the old armies. Negotiations with the rebels of the Green Stretch ended in the region being assigned a governor by Ater but receiving an electoral vote in return.
Only in the Grey Eyries did peace wane, as the Tribes had eaten themselves alive over the matter of Night. After a panicked ban of worship that ended in disaster the Matrons attempted to pivot into priesthood but found Sve Noc lukewarm to the approaches. Several tribes collapsed into infighting, males or lesser females using Night to overthrow their superiors, but wiser Matrons instead raised the status of those who could use Night as being above those others. Even the males. It avoided widespread civil war, but with every season as more left for the greener pastures of Foramen, Callow and Procer their authority ebbed. Perhaps in time it would shatter entirely.
And as the years had passed, as peace kept and Praes entered an age of prosperity, Catherine Foundling counted the days. Until one night, just before dawn, the Warden slipped into a palace at the heart of Ater. It was not Tower, not mountain of horror and hubris, but it was opulent nonetheless. Nestled at the heart was a great garden with the stars for a roof, kept pristine by gardeners and enchantments both. At this hour of the night, with dawn approaching, there was no one there.
No one save for Alaya of Satus and the Warden who’d come for her.
The chancellor sat alone in a copper garden chair, leaning back into silk cushions and looking at the starlit sky as she sipped a cup of wine. The bottle was on the table, empty. It was of rough make, cheap glass for a cheap wine that some might have said tasted of mud. The dark-skinned beauty was pleasantly drunk, by the look of her, but even so her face betrayed no surprise when the Warden slid out of shadow as if she had come into being from nothing at all. Alaya only smiled and invited Catherine Foundling to sit.
“Warden,” she said.
“Chancellor,” the other replied.
“Congratulations are in order, I believe,” Alaya said. “The ealamal was successfully put to use.”
“Adanna does good work,” the Warden agreed. “The poison clouds are already dispersing and it will reverse the blight on the Kingdom of the Dead fully over the next thirteen months. Or so the latest word out of Kishar goes.”
“The Herald will be pleased,” the chancellor mused. “He has been chafing to expand on the surface as he has been doing below.”
The collapse of the Kingdom Under into half a hundred squabbling fiefdoms had only continued, allowing the Herald of the Deeps to seize the lands beneath most of what had once been the Kingdom of the Dead. There were few cities and farms there, however, mostly fortresses and forges. Farmland would be a blessing for an expanding realm swelling with refugees from the brutal strife of the dwarven heartlands.
“The Archmage’s theorem was impressive work,” Catherine Foundling said. “Even Masego was impressed.”
“A rising name as well as a rising Name,” Alaya commented. “Her proposal of lending Baalite mages to help ours create irrigation canals in the Hungering Sands is the talk of Praes. I believe my successor will take her up on it.”
“And you know who that’ll be?” the Warden idly asked.
The chancellor smiled.
“Sargon Sahelian, unless I am much mistaken,” she said. “I have allowed him to expand his influence unchecked, far beyond the gains I conceded to Abreha.”
“Hakram tells me he’s popular with the Clans,” the other woman agreed. “The help he offered in Chagoro – Hagaz now, sorry – went over well with the chiefs.”
“He can be quite charming,” Alaya said, “and his utter disinterest in territorial expansion is exactly what we need. He would much rather spend the treasury on rebuilding Praes than consider adventures abroad.”
The Warden slowly nodded.
“You will leave him a Confederation on the rise,” she acknowledged. “Ater has been rebuilt, trade with Callow is the highest it has ever been and all of Praes is on the path to recovery from the Uncivil Wars.”
“I walked the city, before coming here,” the Warden said. “They love you again, the people in the streets.”
“Mobs have short memories,” the chancellor sighed.
“Maybe,” Catherine Foundling said. “But they’re not wrong either. I gave you eight years, and you have used them to rule ably and justly.”
The dark-skinned beauty smiled.
“Sentiment, Catherine?” she drawled. “So late in the game?”
“I’ve been known to indulge,” the Warden shrugged.
She was no longer a young woman, to be offended by something she had long made peace with.
“Is that why you have been sending casual letters to Marshal Juniper and her wife?” Alaya smiled.
“Aisha’s the Governess-General, that’s as high a position as Marshal,” the other chided. “And I’m being practical with that too. Grem has been talking about retiring down the line, living out his last years in the Steppes, and I’ll need someone to command Cardinal’s forces then.”
Queen Vivienne would stringently object at losing Aisha and Juniper would not relish leaving the Army of Callow behind, but the Warden suspected the two of them would bet swayed by the prospect of living in the same city enough to accept after Grem retired.
“A large army, for a young city-state,” the chancellor said. “However important is has grown to be.”
“If we were just handling the defence of our territory, suppressing banditry and the like, it’d be too large,” the Warden freely conceded. “But the Black Legion is meant to be used against Named running wild and other threats to the Accords.”
A moment of silence between them.
“He would have enjoyed the name, I think,” Alaya quietly said. “He was always a little vainer than he allowed himself to believe he was.”
“I figured,” Catherine Foundling quietly replied. “Besides, it’s his tactics we’re teaching them.”
Their gazes moved away, drawn by the night sky that did not yet betray the coming of dawn.
“How was it?”
“Eight years of choking down ash and dust,” Alaya honestly said. “But it is done, Catherine. I laid both our sins to rest. I made Praes into what we wanted it to be.”
The other woman considered that, for a moment.
“I’m glad,” she said, and found she meant it.
Neither of them broke the silence for a long time. And as dawn approached, Catherine Foundling rose to her feet.
“It won’t be painful,” the Warden said.
That had never been the point. The chancellor of Praes drained the last of her cup, setting it down, and smiled the smile of a woman who had spent most of her life one step ahead of everyone else in the room.
“It wasn’t,” Alaya of Satus softly agreed, “when I drank the poison an hour ago.”
She would die as she had lived, holding her fate in her own hands. Her body was cold when dawn found it, sitting alone in her beautiful garden and staring at the sky through dead eyes.
So passed Alaya of Satus, once known as Dread Empress Malicia and last of that dreadful line.
It had been ten years from the fall of Keter and a debt was owed.
Hye Su waited in the clearing where Refuge had once stood, greenery having since clawed back the grounds. She was sitting on a stone, honing the edge of her blades with a whetting stone. When the Warden arrived, near the coming of dusk, she displayed no surprise.
“So you came alone,” Hye Su said, tone giving faint praise. “I wondered if you’d try to drag one of your little leagues into it.”
It had not been so long since the Guild and the Society were founded, but Hye Su had kept her ear to the ground. The founding of both had led to a great deal of talk, for it was not everyday that companies of Named. The differences were not so great, even though the Guild stood for Below and the Society for Above. Behind all the details, the essence was the same: they were both ways for Named to make enforced bargains with one another and other entities. Be they with kingdoms or vagrants, the deals brokered by Guild and Society were made with the strength of Cardinal behind them. All at the simple price of those who joined the ranks agreeing to simple rules of conduct.
Named flocked to Cardinal for a reason.
“It’s not what they’re for,” the Warden shrugged.
The other woman laughed.
“I suppose not,” she conceded. “They’re to corral the herd you let loose.”
The Warden cocked her head to the side.
“So you noticed it,” she said. “I wondered how obvious it was to those without our resources.”
“Names are popping up like weeds,” Hye Su said. “You don’t need spies to see it. It used to be that there was one every few years, Foundling, but now?”
“I hear there’s three Apprentices running around and your Knight Errant has already picked up a Squire,” she said. “It’s only been ten years since Keter and you’ve already made back every Name you lost and change.”
“Too many people know stories, know about how Names work,” the Warden said. “There’d never been so many Named in the same place as there were in the Arsenal or Keter, or a place like Cardinal. We made it easier for them to come into being.”
“Made them weaker, too,” Hye Su scathingly said. “Power spread around is thinned.”
“It makes for a better world, I think,” the Warden said.
“You would say that,” Hye Su replied, “having made it.”
She rose to her feet, blades in hand, and though she was one of the most dangerous women alive Catherine Foundling was not worried. She had learned tricks from friends and foes over the last decade, but her certainty did not come from them. She had made the world of today, her enemy had said, and there was truth to that. And it was just as true that Hye Su had been left behind by that world. It has passed her by.
And so this could only end one way.
There were only four students in the circular hall, which was deep below the College and so heavily warded the magic could be tasted in the air. Torchlight did not light up every shadowed stretch, but the sculpted ritual circle in the middle glowed faintly red and tinged even the dark. Many would have balked at such a sight, but these nine wore the silver stripe on their robes that denoted students in their last year who had distinguished themselves enough to be allowed into restricted classes.
“Welcome,” the Lord Hierophant said, “to Nature of Divinity and Practical Applications.”
There was a snort from a dark-skinned girl. Taiwo Sahelian cocked an eyebrow.
“Sir, you do know every still calls it Deicide and Applied Blasphemy right?” she said.
“As they should,” Hierophant muttered, “it is a much better name.”
“Seneschal Hasenbach is threatening to cut the lunacy fund again, isn’t she?” fair-haired Anthony Fletcher grinned.
“It’s Catherine this time,” Hierophant sighed. “She says that feeding the Swine King to the fae wasn’t enough to get the House of Light to drop the matter so we need to ‘tread carefully for a bit’.”
“It wasn’t even a real god,” Isabel Malanza complained. “We only got halfway there.”
Occasionally First Princess Rozala’s eldest daughter showed her age, the lowest of them all at twelve. None of them had dared to underestimate her since the time she’d made the Apprentice float atop Concord Bridge for half a day after the Taghreb condescended to her about Olowe’s Theorem. Rumour had it the Warden had ordered to leave him up there as an object lesson.
“It was the village that did it, I think,” Hiram of Arwad mildly said. “Upright pigs tilling the land and building houses was a mite disturbing, I’ll admit.”
Hiram was not the most talented of them, and by far, but solid common sense and a facility with language meant he had already been approached to serve as a Junior Lecturer after graduation.
“No matter,” Hierophant dismissed. “Now, all of you should have read on Dumisai’s Theorem over the last week.”
A chorus of agreements.
“Good,” Masego grinned. “Now the interesting part. If fae are fundamentally the stuff of Arcadia given form, then what happens if that stuff is used to try to make a devil?”
The circle glowed ominously as the four students leaned in eagerly.
It was fifteen years after the fall of Keter that the first true challenge to the Liesse Accords came.
“You know,” the Warden said, “I really did think it would be the ratlings that made the other shoe drop.”
“It’s only a matter of time until the elves find a Horned Lord,” the White Knight said. “But you know my thoughts on that already.”
“And you mine,” the Warden replied. “The Golden Bloom’s not an Accords signatory and no one wants to try invading that wasp’s nest when the elves aren’t directly acting.”
It had not been proved that the Forever King was using the shards of the Twilight Ways to ferry the Chain of Hunger east, though the leading mages of Calernia all agreed it was the most likely explanation. There were already suspicions that the same was being done to the Brocelian and the Waning Woods, the elves seeking to break apart human realms as a prelude for resuming expansion. The success of the Spring Crown ritual had ignited in them a thirst for intervention beyond their borders that had not been heard of in millennia.
“Passivity now will cost us in years to come,” Hanno said.
“I don’t disagree,” Catherine grunted. “I just don’t see a solution. Besides, let’s start by putting out the fire in front of us.”
Atalante was on fire. The Preacher’s seizure of power through a coup had not been a breach of the Accords, no matter how heated the man’s rhetoric, but after transitioning into the Philosopher King he’d ceased all pretence that he intended to respect the rules. Prescription of the worship of Night and execution of all suspected sympathizers of Below had been only the beginning of the bloodshed, but it was the King’s use of angelic influence to raise an army of fanatics out of towns and villages that’d guaranteed there would be war.
The armies under Empress Basilia were facing the Host of Light and its fearsome general further south, but riots in Atalante had proved an opening for the Black Legion to risk a decapitating strike on the tyrant himself. The Archmage had blown open the gates and now black-armoured soldiers were putting down the Philosopher King’s fanatic soldiers, and now the man himself was holed up in the Temple of Manifold Truths.
And he was, by the looks of the distant glow lighting up the night sky, calling on a Choir once more.
“Let us end it before more died needlessly,” the White Knight agreed.
The two of them tore through the Philosopher King’s personal guard like a storm. Numbers meant little to the likes of them, at the summit of their power, and it was not long before they entered the chamber where the Philosopher King himself awaited. The ragged, wild-eyed man sat in his pale robes and clutched the many prayer beads on his wrists and neck as he hollered his prayers.
“You’re too late,” the Philosopher King laughed, “Contrition comes and-”
“Silence,” the Warden said.
Catherine Foundling, it was said, had defied angels many a time. And won more often than not. The story held true that night, Contrition’s light winking out.
“Cassander of Atalante,” the White Knight said. “For breach of the Liesse Accords on counts of unfair proscription, malicious use of non-creational influence and mass murder by means of Name you are to receive judgement by the Warden.”
“Never,” the Philosopher King hissed. “Don’t you see, Knight, how Below is winning? Spreading everywhere, villains growing like weeds to strangle all the world? They must be stopped now, purged while we still can and-”
“Cassander of Atalante,” the Warden said, “I Sentence you to die.”
And though angels screamed, though Light flared like a sun and the Philosopher King unleashed the last of his power, the White Knight’s sword found his neck. As if it had been fated to be cut. The two of them stood over the cooling corpse, tired.
“He’s only the first,” the White Knight said. “There will be others.”
“Below will unleash the next,” the Warden softly agreed. “It’ll get uglier, before it gets better.”
“Isn’t that always the way?” the other man smiled.
It was rare for them to take the field together, these days, but whenever they did the easy complicity of their youth always returned.
“I’ll leave the corpse to you,” the White Knight said. “General Grem might yet need aid securing the city.”
She nodded. He had taken a wound today, an arrow to the belly, and though his life was in no danger she suspected it would only hurry the old orc’s retirement. Aisha had been making noise in their letters about wanting more time to spend on finishing her memoirs. A hint that, now that Juniper was satisfied with General Abigail as successor, she might consider leaving the Army of Callow behind. Said Lady Abigail Tanner had retired thrice already, but the flooding of her first mansion and then going bankrupt twice had returned her to service every time. It was a fond tale in Callow that she could not be out of the army for longer than three months without calamity striking.
The Gods themselves wanted Abigail Tanner to be Marshal of Callow one day.
The Warden felt the presence before she heard it. The way Creation shivered as someone who had not been came to be. And when she turned, her breath caught in her throat as she beheld Akua Sahelian. Lovely beyond words in a splendid red dress, golden eyes smiling as she touched the copper bracelet at her wrist. The cuffs of her dress were ornate lace, hearts woven into the pattern. Her two marks were these: red and a heart. No matter what she wore Calamity had a splash of red on it, and always a heart was hidden somewhere in it. Time had little changed her, the Warden saw.
Such a thing as time held much of a grip on either of them, she supposed. The gift of the Sister for one and eternity bound for the other kept age at bay.
“Catherine,” Akua smiled.
“Akua,” Catherine softly replied.
The wounds suffered in Keter were gone. As were Providence’s, rumour had it, whose flask and lute had returned along with her arm. The faces of Yara of Nowhere and Akua Sahelian also remained, neither changing through the years.
“I though you might show up,” the Warden said. “Your stars are out tonight.”
Two bright shards of light in the sea of darkness. Fortune and Misfortune, some had taken to calling them. Providence and Calamity, others used instead.
“We bargained,” Akua said. “She will get her way in Levant for the night, but I have the freedom of my own.”
“And what,” Catherine Foundling croaked, “would you do with it?”
Akua Sahelian took a hesitant step forward. It had been fifteen years since they saw each other last. It might be that long, or even longer before they saw each other again. Yet she still reached out to the other woman, fingers brushing against hers, a question asked. Neither of them were sure which reached out, not until they were kissing ardently and stumbling away from the throne and the corpse that lay on it.
They had only until dawn, so they must make the most of the time
Cordelia Hasenbach was drinking.
This was not as rare an occasion as when she had ruled Procer, but that it would venture past the first bottle of wine was. She was in a maudlin mood, however, and took no pains to hide it. Catherine found her in one of the private salons atop what Cardinalians had taken to calling the Warden’s Tower, the northern of the two great towers that made up Cardinal College and the ruling seat of the city.
“I see you’ve heard,” the Warden said.
“I have,” Cordelia said, and poured her companion a drink without asking.
Catherine cocked a brow but sat, taking the implicit invitation and the cup with it.
“A lot of it stays,” the Warden says. “Most of the trade clauses and part of the alliance.”
“The Grand Alliance had ended,” Cordelia calmly said. “You need not coddle me over it.”
Procer and Callow still held a defensive alliance, but Levant had ended their own given the rising tensions at the border with the vassal Republic of Orense. Keeping the treaties alive had been increasingly unpopular, given that few still saw a need for it. Some argued such stringent alliances were more likely to create war than prevent it, these days.
“It was made to foster peace,” Catherine said. “And it worked, Cordelia.”
There had not been major strife since the Philosopher’s War, and though skirmishes at borders were hardly uncommon the balance of Calernia was holding.
“I achieved what I set out to,” Cordelia Hasenbach agreed. “But the great work of my life has still ended. I am, I think, allowed sentiment over that. And a drink.”
The Warden drank of her cup.
“I can’t argue with that,” she said.
The other woman sent her sly look.
“I would expect not,” she said, “given what happened last time I opened a second bottle.”
News of Prince Otto’s wedding to a Neustrian noblewoman a few years back had sent her into a fit of nostalgia. Not regret, but perhaps wonder at the life she might have lived. After all Otto Reitzenberg, born the third son of a friendly royal line, had once been considered as a potential consort for Prince Cordelia of Rhenia. Catherine Foundling coughed, cheeks flushing in a way that still amused the other woman even after nearly two decades of acquaintance.
“I thought we didn’t talk about that,” Catherine said, tone careful.
“It seemed an unnecessary complication at the time,” Cordelia said. “Besides, you are something of a cad.”
“Hey now,” Catherine weakly protested.
The once-princess idly traced the rim of her cup with a finger.
“Not only do you have a lover in Indrani whenever she visits,” Cordelia said, “but you have taken others to bed.”
“When the mood took me,” she replied. “And not that many.”
Which was true. The Ranger, who returned to Cardinal every year between the adventures across Calernia that made her the stuff of legends all over the continent, made up most of the dalliances. Cordelia had never felt jealous, not when Indrani was still so very obviously in love with Masego. Who reciprocated, she had seen, in his own way. Besides, the Ranger only blew in for a fortnight or so and the blew back out with a handful of Named students in two for one of her infamous ‘field classes’. As a way to earn silver stripes of distinction, they had proved most useful.
“That is not untrue,” Cordelia conceded.
“Then what?” Catherine frowned.
The former princess decided on honesty.
“I did not want to become involved with someone who was still in love with another,” Cordelia admitted. “Akua Sahelian’s shadow is yet cast on all your affections, I think.”
The Warden drank deep of her cup, then set it down.
“I think I’ll always be a little in love with her,” Catherine Foundling admitted. “And I’m not sure I want to surrender that part of me. It shaped who I’ve become.”
Cordelia waited. The but, though unspoken, had resonated loudly.
“It’s not something that eats me day to day, though,” Catherine said. “I don’t go to sleep thinking of what might have been. It’s just something about me, like the colour of my hair or the lines on my face.”
Not that she had anywhere as many of those as Cordelia. The Warden still looked in her late twenties, and likely would for centuries yet.
“Sometimes you do have a touch of romance about you,” Cordelia mused, “though it seems largely accidental.”
“I am who I am,” Catherine Foundling half-smiled. “I don’t pretend otherwise.”
And that was, Cordelia admitted to herself, true. In these affairs, the other woman was an open book. And though it still felt like there was too much of an encroachment, too much of Catherine already shared, looking upon that open book she found that she liked what she saw.
“Mhm,” Cordelia said. “You truly do have luck with wine, my dear.”
Catherine’s eye sharpened.
“Do I?” she said, leaning back into her seat. “I wonder what that might mean.”
The fair-haired woman drained her cup, then rose to her feet.
“It means,” Cordelia Hasenbach gracefully smiled, “that we will get to find out how long you might keep my interest, Catherine.”
She got no argument. She had not expected one.
Common Thaumaturgic Theory had existed in research scrolls and private correspondences for the better part of a decade now, but its formal unveiling was still something of a ceremony.
Though the Lord Hierophant’s involvement made it a subject of interest to even rulers, it was ultimately a matter of scholarship and so none attended in person save for Chancellor Sargon – whose unflagging support for Cardinal College and the magical wing of it in particular was well-known. Even the growing commercial rivalry between the city and the Confederation over the artefact trade had done nothing to cool the relations.
Diplomats only politely listened to the impatient explanation given by the infamous Senior Lecturer, some of them disappointed by the plain speech given. Last year’s juicy scandal of the man being revealed as the deity of an Ashuran love cult he had been a member of for many years had raised hopes for some scurrilousness. The scholars that accompanied the diplomats, however, were riveted. In the wake of the speech ending, Lecturer Hiram stepped forward to handle the divide between the learned and the uninitiated.
“Though it may seem abstract that the existence of a universally common most basic denominator has been proven, there are practical applications,” he explained. “It might be best to think of it as the basic building block of all magic having been discovered.”
He paused for effect.
“To accomplish this, it was necessary to be able to measure such a thing,” Lecturer Hiram continued. “We have created artefacts capable of this, and in doing so created the necessity for a new unit of measurement that shall be named the ‘thaum’.”
The cleverest of the diplomats grasped the implications, but the young man spelled out the implications for the rest.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Lecturer Hiram said, “we have made magic quantifiable for all existing branches of sorcery. Enchantment and artefact crafting will now be no more difficult than smithing or weaving. A new age of sorcery has come upon us.”
Cordelia Hasenbach, standing in the back, smiled as she considered how foreign sales of the measuring artefacts – certain to continue until national mages figured out how to reproduce them – would be yet another source of coin for Cardinal’s treasury. Common Thaumaturgic Theory would remain the formal name, in the years to come, but as these things always went a shorter name stuck.
The Masegan theory of magic.
Twenty-four years after the fall of Keter, Lady Intendant Pickler died.
The Intendant of Works did not die young, as far as goblins counted things, but neither did she die as old as some of Matron lines did. Years of hard living and a collection of wounds had taken their toll, hastening her passing. Her funeral was well-attended by some of the great names of the continent, though not as part of any diplomatic effort. She has simply been loved by many of them. That evening twin stars shone in the sky, and the Warden stayed alone on Concord Bridge to overlook the great city sprawled below.
Providence and Calamity came calling, as she had thought they might.
“I thought you two only came at turning points,” the Warden idly said, leaning against the balustrade.
Enchantments prevented the wind from crossing the threshold, leaving only a beautiful view.
“We do,” Yara of Nowhere shrugged. “But then you’re thinking of retiring, aren’t you?”
The Warden did not deny it. The lack of a clear successor was a mark against the idea, but Cardinal and the Accords could be run without a Warden. It was the reason its ruling council existed, as there was no guarantee the Name would always be held.
“It’s too early,” Akua Sahelian said. “None of those might succeed you are ready.”
“I’m not sure that’s an argument against it,” the Warden admitted.
“The Accords have to be able to hold without her holding their hands,” Providence agreed. “Otherwise they’re not really rules – just her authority made manifest.”
“The Accords are not yet worn deep enough,” Calamity disagreed. “A generation was raised knowing them but they are still fresh to Calernia’s memory. She must stay until they are a bedrock.”
The Warden almost laughed.
“The angel and the devil on my shoulder,” she said. “Only you’re neither and a little bit of both.”
And she made her choice, looking down at the city she had seen grow from nothing. A little further yet, she thought. It was still too early to rest. When she turned they were both still there and her eyes found the woman she had once known as the Intercessor.
“You seem better,” the Warden said.
“It has proved more interesting than I’d thought,” Yara of Nowhere admitted. “Having someone else changes things.”
“But you don’t think it’ll last,” Catherine Foundling said.
“It will,” Providence said. “For decades or centuries or a millennium. But it won’t last, Catherine. Nothing is forever.”
“Then take heart, Yara,” the Warden said. “You are not nothing.”
Providence’s answering smile was mocking, a hatchet that would never be more than half buried. But when she vanished, Akua remained behind. That could not have been done without agreement, for that was the nature of the Fetters.
“Seven years,” Akua Sahelian said.
“Felt like more than that,” Catherine admitted.
“I understand,” the golden-eyed woman said, “that you have taken a lover.”
“Listening to rumours?” the Warden half-smiled.
She did not deny it. Neither did Akua.
“I still have evenings with Indrani sometimes, when she visits,” Catherine said. “Not as often but still. We have an understanding over that.”
Lycaonese mores were not flexible, but Cordelia had spent many a year among Alamans and in private their ways allowed much. Her lover had permission of her own, though she rarely used it. The lack of jealousy had been refreshing.
“And if I were to tell you I have bargained for a night?” Akua slowly said.
“I would tell you I bargained for one as well,” Catherine smiled.
The tension in the air thickened even though neither of them had moved.
“It might be the last time we see each other,” Akua said. “The opportunities are… rare.”
“I figured,” Catherine softly replied. “So let me say goodbye properly.”
It was a long night but still felt all too short.
Thirty years after the fall of Keter, Hakram Deadhand came to Cardinal.
It was no longer the half-finished creature of its infancy, now turned into a rising city-state whose place at the crossroads of Calernia drew throngs of hopeful to. Already near twenty thousand dwelled there, and the number would only grow. He had changed no less than the city, for it was Hakram who had come to Cardinal and not the Warlord. He was no longer that, having passed down the mantle to his successor Anker Bluemane. Troke’s daughter would do well as Warlord, having turned her clan’s reputation around and tightened the alliance with the Red Shields and the Howling Wolves.
For all that he was thousands of miles away from the Steppes, in some ways going to Cardinal felt like coming home. It was, he thought, the people that waited for him there. Aisha and Juniper, settled there a decade ago with their pair of adopted boys – one Taghreb, the other an orc. Masego, the perennial Senior Lecturer whose longstanding relationship with the famous wandering Ranger was scandalously scandalous. And Catherine Foundling most of all, who welcomed him with a warm embrace.
“Finally decided to retire, have you?” she teased.
“I could use something to keep my hands busy,” Hakram admitted.
“I’m sure Cordelia will find something,” the Warden amusedly replied. “She has a way with that.”
“I’m sure,” he gravelled, cocking an eyebrow suggestively.
Speculation of the true nature of the relationship between the Warden and her seneschal had been ongoing for many a year now, varying from simply very affectionate to them being secretly wed. Lady Cordelia seemed, if anything, to enjoying encouraging wildly different rumours.
“I don’t want to hear that from you,” she snorted. “How many kids have you got now?”
“Seventeen,” Hakram shrugged.
He had raised few of them himself, as many had been born to strengthen alliances and not out of any particular affection. His three by the only lover he had never ended his time with were the only ones he was truly close to.
“My youngest by Sigvin’s a student at the College,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to look in on him.”
“You’ll have the time, I imagine,” his friend smiled.
“Nothing but, Catherine,” Hakram Deadhand smiled back.
Forty-three years after the fall of Keter, Hanno of Arwad died.
The Eater had risen, the ancient Horned Lord leading the Chain of Hunger through shard of Twilight to ravage the Free Cities even as Anaxares the Hierarch appeared in Nok and stirred rebellion against its hard-handed High Lord. The horde of ratlings overran the great walls of Delos, but for the second time in his life the White Knight came to the city’s defence. He died slaying the Horned Lord, saving the better part of a hundred thousand people from certain death.
Hanno of Arwad died smiling, regretting little of the life he had lived.
His passing was mourned by as many souls as there were grains of sand.
Forty-eight years after the fall of Keter, Queen Vivienne Foundling’s funeral was held.
It was, all agreed, the end of an era. The greats of Calernia gathered in Laure to pay their respect, even old Chancellor Sargon who was finishing up his second mandate. Vivienne the Wise had been the last survivor of the Woe, most agreed, though some insisted that since no new Ranger had risen Lady Indrani was still out there somewhere. Whatever the truth of that, the passing of the queen felt to many like the end of the revered generation that had won the War on Keter. The crown prince of Callow, Edmund Foundling, had insisted on his mother receiving full honours before his own coronation and so remained a prince as he welcomed the dignitaries.
It did nothing to weaken his authority, to the displeasure of the northern barons. Marshal Abigail, returned from her ninth retirement after her vineyard was burned down by an unseasonable lightning storm, stood firmly behind him and the Army of Callow behind her. Neither could there be question of disloyalty from the two great Callowan orders, not when the prince had served for years in the Broken Bells under old Grandmaster Talbot. And should that not have been enough, or even the enduring popularity of House Foundling across the kingdom, then the Knight Errant’s presence as his former page’s side would have even the most ambitious too wary to try anything.
Arthur Foundling, perhaps the most famous knight since Hanno of Arwad, rarely returned home but word of his deeds regularly trickled back. The Order Errant’s acceptance of orcs into its ranks in the wake of the campaigns against the Half-Horn Lord in the marches had enraged some, but who could argue with the triumphs of the knights that had slain the three Necromancer Princes of Hainaut and crushed the riders of the Brocelian’s infamous Fae Chevalier?
The procession carrying the queen’s bier passed through the streets on the way to the palace, the people of Laure coming in droves to bid their farewell to the only ruler most of them could remember. Only Foundlings, royals and orphans both, held up the bier save for a single exception. The Warden herself, Sapan the Archmage. The queen was said to have been fond of Catherine Foundling’s successor, in their few shared years as rulers. Prince Edmund’s eulogy was heard by half the city, royal mages trained in Cardinal spreading his voice through clever spellwork.
“My mother,” Edmund Foundling said, “will cast a long shadow.”
He sadly laughed.
“The Woe all did, in their own way, but it is my mother’s all of Callow will live in for centuries to come.”
He was a skilled speaker, Edmund, but it was the sincerity of it that reached the people.
“There are few left who remember the days before the Black Queen, when we lived under Praes – now our closest ally, for all our squabbles over trade.”
Laughter, some jostling, and none denying something that would have sounded sheer madness half a century ago.
“More remember the days after it, when a kingdom had to be rustled up out of thin air as enemies beset us all on our sides.”
Old soldier gave grim nods, the elders of wars now passed into legend. How quickly the world moved on.
“Yet it is the days that came after the wars that made us who we are today. The peace, the struggle to stand in the world as more than an army and a cause. To rebuild villages burned, to uphold fair laws and punish the unjust. To bring prosperity to all, not only nobles.”
The prince’s voice grew quiet.
“It was those days of peace that decided our place in Calernia, and my mother was queen’s own peace.”
He shook himself, as if gathering strength.
“Today we come to bury Vivienne Foundling, but she goes to rest knowing our place was found. That we stand as proudly in peace as we did in war, that Callow is a land who need envy none other.”
Edmund Foundling swallowed.
“There is much I could say of the woman who raised me, but that is a son’s grief and it is a prince that speaks to you today. So instead I will bury a great queen, and hope that wherever she is she can hear me when I say this-”
The prince smiled.
“It is our turn carry your torch,” he said. “And I promise you it will burn even brighter when we pass it to our children.
Laure filled with the sound of cheers and weeping, as Callow marked the death of a queen and the rise of a king. And as the noise crested, in a dingy old tavern Dockside a barkeep who’d closed her tavern for the afternoon let out a low whistle.
“He’s a pretty good speaker, your boy,” Catherine Foundling admired.
“Audrey’s better, but she gets too clever sometimes,” Vivienne Foundling replied. “I’m glad he was born first.”
Her back ached. Even with Hierophant arranging a corpse that would pass for hers she’d had to sneak out of the palace, and these days she was an old woman. More so than Catherine bloody Foundling, who barely looked forty even that because she’d spread her gift around.
“Fill my tankard, wench,” the former Queen of Callow ordered. “The beer is terrible, but what else should I expect from a dive like this?”
“Eh, get it yourself,” the other former Queen of Callow replied. “And this is a respectable establishment, I’ll have you know. The drinks are imported.”
“From where, a mud pit?” Vivienne skeptically replied.
“Well, the Green Stretch so you’re not actually that far off,” Catherine admitted.
She was saved from a further verbal flaying by the arrival of the others. Indrani had barely changed over the years, only her face and figure maturing, and Masego had not changed at all since Keter. The one that stood out, though, was Hakram. Who had begun to age after putting down the Name of Warlord, enough that he had been as old as her until he ‘died’, but now looked much as he had in his prime.
“Are we drinking?” Indrani grinned.
“We are Dockside,” Masego flatly said. “I refuse to sit down.”
“The beer is bad enough I’m surprised she was able to sell this place,” Hakram gravelled.
And the familiarity of it had her tearing up, silly old woman that she’d become. Catherine her took her hand gently.
“It’ll be all right, Viv,” she said. “If you’re not ready to go…”
“I am,” Vivienne said. “It’s not that. My children are grown and my husband dead. Edmund doesn’t need me looking over his shoulder as he grows into a king. It just…”
“Feels like coming home,” Hakram softly said.
Even after all these years, the depth of their understanding still surprised her.
“That’s because you are,” Catherine Foundling smiled, and Night roiled.
A gift had been given Catherine once by goddesses that had, in their own way, grown to lover her. A Mighty’s lifespan, centuries ahead of her and more. And after many years of studying the Night, she had learned to share that gift. Night flowed into Vivienne’s veins, cool but pleasant, and she felt herself change. Years return to her, time’s ravages turning back until she was in her prime again. As Hakram had been, when Catherine shared a third of her gift with him.
“There,” her friend smiled, like it was nothing.
Like she’d not just given back her youth, thrown away a third of her lifespan so that Vivienne might live it out instead. When the tears came this time she did not fight them. None mocked her, though, and instead she found arms going around her as the Woe reunited at last.
It was good to be home.
They bought a boat in Arwad and first boarded it in the early hours after dawn, which naturally was the moment it all went awry: in other words, at the very beginning. As the years had proved, this was a sadly typical turn of events.
“It’s a ship,” Masego heatedly objected. “A ship, not a boat.”
Papers signed by the shipwright attesting to that, legal property and the name of the Heady Wind being changed to the Inevitable Doom were waved in the face of the others. A sudden but comprehensive bout of blindness preventing anyone from acknowledging this in any way.
“It floats,” Indrani insisted. “It’s a boat.”
“The words do rhyme,” Vivienne noted. “It checks out.”
Motherhood had not softened Vivienne Dartwick. It had, if anything, added some spikes.
“I feel like I ought to have asked before getting on,” Hakram gravelled, “but one of us knows how to sail this boat, right?”
“I know you did that on purpose, Hakram,” Masego bit out.
He gestured sharply at the sky, wind gutting out and stranding them less than thirty feet away from Arwad’s foreign docks. Not a single one of them paid attention to the increasingly angry people on said docks gesturing at them.
“I’m sure Cat could offer us a wise ruling over it,” Indrani slyly suggested.
She then tugged at her collar to reveal her collarbone and offered the woman in question an exaggerated wink. Nearly five decades of occasionally sleeping with Catherine had changed Indrani from a terrible seductress to a proficiently terrible seductress, something only people with appalling taste could possibly enjoy. Catherine Foundling was such a creature, sadly, but in this case her friend’s highly shoddy feminine wiles were to be of no avail.
“I don’t do rulings anymore,” Catherine informed them. “I’m retired, let go of the reins and all that.”
Four skeptical gazes were turned onto her.
“Is that so?” Vivienne doubtfully said.
“Don’t give me that tone,” Catherine said, wagging a finger at her. “You know what? Wherever we go, I don’t even want to be in charge. Someone else can do it this time.”
The others conferred.
“She’ll crack before the day is out,” Indrani said. “I’ll put coin on it.”
“The day?” Vivienne snorted. “She won’t last all the way out the harbour. Ten ducals on that.”
“I’ll take that,” Hakram mused. “Pride will make her stick it out at least that long.”
“I can hear you, you know,” Catherine peevishly said.
“Five denarii she becomes captain before nightfall,” Indrani offered.
“I will take that bet,” Masego proudly said. “It is my name on the papers, you have been had.”
“Mutiny has been the doom of many a boat, Zeze,” Hakram told him.
Masego’s flesh eye narrowed.
“Have you forgotten I can make your own hand hit you?” he said.
“They used to call it tyranny when I said things like that,” Vivienne said, sounding happy. “Now I get to threaten people again. I’ve been looking forward to that.”
“Come on,” Catherine loudly complained. “You’re all sure I’ll go mad with power but she says stuff like that and no one bats an eye?”
On the docks behind them a company of armed guards arrived on the dock, escorting a bearded mage. The Ashuran gestured at the boat, but whatever the spell had been meant to accomplish it ended up setting his beard on fire instead. Masego turned and fixed the mage with a steady look. He began to back away slowly.
“Catherine’s insatiable hunger for power aside,” Hakram idly said, “I have to ask again because I am getting somewhat worried by the lack of answer. Someone does know how to sail the boat, right?”
His bone hand started slapping him on the back of the head, making the tall orc yelp and as he tried to wrestle it down.
“As captain of this ship,” Masego proudly said, “I order you to your stations.”
Indrani raised her hand.
“Question,” she said.
“Yes,” Masego allowed.
“Do we have assigned bunks?” Indrani asked.
“Yes,” he happily told them. “And designated seats for meals. I have also brought assigned readings. Most of them are things you should know but are inexplicably still ignorant about, but I understand that is not always enough.”
He gave them all a confident look that the students attending General Theory of Magic had learned to live in terror of and those few who took Deicide & Applied Blasphemy had learned to look forward to. It was most commonly known as ‘Lord Hierophant Trying To Help’.
“So I have obtained recreational books,” Masego said. “Which I will also be expecting reports about.”
There was pause.
“Some of them,” he confided, “are of nautical theme. I thought it would fit our journey thematically.”
There was another pause. In the distance behind them, a squad of mages in blue robes formed up on the docks. Archers were lined up behind them and a guard officer was shouting at the boat, not that it made a difference for anyone on it.
“I’m sorry, Masego,” Catherine sighed. “I’m going to have to usurp the captaincy of this ship.”
“Yes,” Vivienne cheered. “That’s ten ducals for me.”
“I should have known your insatiable hunger for power would get the best of you,” he sadly said.
A tone that would have had greater effect had he not spent the last several decades using it whenever he was denied a funding increase or permission to make the laws of Creation wince.
“We can still do the assigned readings,” she told him, and he perked up.
“Vivienne can,” Catherine specified. “Because she fucking crossed me.”
“Hey,” Vivienne protested. “Do you think I’ll just-”
“Indrani,” Catherine called out, “if you bully Vivienne into obeying me, I’ll pay you five ducals.”
She fully intended to get these out of ten that had been bet against her. The long acquaintance of Cordelia Hasenbach had added a touch of biting irony to natural Callowan spite.
“I’ve done worse for less,” Indrani cheerfully agreed.
“-agree you should be in charge?” Vivienne adjusted without batting an eye. “Because I do. Good to have you back, Catherine.”
That left only the one. Hakram was still struggling not to his own head, as Masego had forgot to end the spell, so Catherine laid a gentle hand on his arm.
“I’ll make it stop,” she said.
“Please do,” he grunted, wrestling down his wrist.
“I’ll make it stop,” she continued, “if you stop pretending you don’t know how to sail this boat.”
“I was pulling Indrani’s chain,” Hakram said. “She wasn’t sure whether she was the one supposed to learn or not because she spilled beer over her letter.”
“Hakram, you gossipy bitch,” Indrani protested. “I told you that in coincidence.”
“You’d think they would have learned by now,” he mused.
Catherine, magnanimous in victory, got Masego to end the spell and Hakram to move the steering wheel. The wind was released not long after, Indrani climbing up the rigging to the crow’s nest, beginning an inevitable countdown before she got bored and shot a seagull under the thing pretence of acquiring fresh meat. Vivienne disappeared under the deck to hide her assigned readings before she could be made to read them, while Masego chased away the blue-robed mages on the docks by bespelling them to start kicking each other whenever they tried to use magic. Years of exposure to Indrani had, sadly, eroded his sense of humour into a strange and violent creature.
Hakram and Catherine moved to the back of the quarterdeck. Hakram too the steering wheel while she stood back, finding wakeleaf to fill her pipe with. Moments later she was puffing away at it, the acrid smoke rising up in curls.
“We’re a little late for the tide,” Hakram noted. “We might not make it out of harbour before it turns.”
“Oh,” Catherine Foundling smiled, looking at the sky where a star lay unseen, “I think luck might end up on our side.”
It had been many years since she had last seen Akua Sahelian, but never so many as to forget.
“I suppose we’re due some,” Hakram chuckled.
Wind picked up, a warm breeze carrying the salty taste of the sea with it. It tasted like a promise long overdue.
“So where to?” Hakram asked, hand on the steering wheel.
Catherine considered that for a moment. They would cross the Tyrian Sea in time, on that they had all agreed. But there was no need to hurry, was there? They had earned a little time before they sailed away into the unknown. So as she leaned back against the side of the ship, Catherine Foundling offered her oldest friend a smile.
“Surprise me,” she asked, and into the rising sun they sailed.