Epilogue

“By hook and crook we will all hang, High Lords, from a noose woven of our many loose ends. But cheer up: none are beyond salvation, not even the likes of. Let us see, at long last, if we can turn back the tyranny of the sun.”
– Extract from the coronation speech of Dread Emperor Benevolent the First

Anaxares pricked his hand and cursed.

Damn needle. It must have been made in Penthes, as wantonly treacherous as the rest of those Wicked Foreign Oligarchs. He wiped off the droplet of blood and got back to the work of sewing back on the bottom of his shoe. Servants kept offering him increasingly perfidious boots, and he was certain the pair made of solid gold had been the result of what passed for the Tyrant’s sense of humour, but he’d continued pretending blindness long enough they’d eventually desisted. He would have preferred to go without shoes at all, if he could, as he’d not been granted the right to use the foreign product by a proper committee, but three days of bleeding feet had eventually dissuaded him. He’d bought an old pair with the last silvers from his begging bowl, but the march was using them sorely. Anaxares had grown to hate walking a great deal lately. He’d never done so much of it during his years as a diplomat, and never in a locale so insistently hostile. He’d heard a bush had eaten a soldier, last night, swallowed the man whole when he went to relieve himself. There was hardly a piece of the Waning Woods that was not out to kill everything it saw.

The Hierarch of the League of Free Cities finished sowing his shoes back together at the cost of only minor wounds, which sadly he could not even consider had been taken in service to the Republic. The People had cut him off, sent him adrift. Worse yet, their elected representatives sometimes requested his advice. His advice. As if he were not some wretched despot. He’d immediately reported the people involved to the nearest kanenas for treason against the Will Of The People, their horrid attempts to involve a duplicitous Named into the affairs of Glorious Bellerophon marking a dark day. Advice, Gods. A dark day indeed. He slipped on his shoes and began looking for an acceptable spot to dig a hole to sleep in. League dignitaries had alleged there was a tent he was meant to sleep in, but he’d closed his eyes and hummed until they went away. Sadly straying too far from the camp would see him encircled by heavily-armed soldiers keeping a vigil, so he’d have to stay within the bounds even though the very notion made his skin crawl. There was a patch of tepid, mostly dry earth far enough from a fire he wouldn’t be implicitly agreeing with its existence, and there Anaxares knelt and drew back his sleeves. He was out of silvers and so could not trade for a shovel, meaning he’d have to dig by hand.

It shouldn’t take more than a few hours, he thought.

“O Mighty Hierarch, Peerless Ruler of all the League and its people-”

“How dare you,” Anaxares snarled.

The Tyrant of Helike grinned, draped over a Proceran fainting couch held up by a gaggle of chittering gargoyles.

“I come bearing tribute to your greatness, O Sublime One,” Kairos Theodosian said, and ordered one of the gargoyles forward.

It presented Anaxares with a shovel. It was, he could not help but notice, made entirely of rubies. That monster.

“I will report this flagrant attempt of bribery to the proper authorities,” Hierarch said.

“Which are?” Tyrant said, leaning forward with interest.

“The Tyrant of Helike,” Anaxares reluctantly admitted.

“I expect he will he chide me most thoroughly,” the boy mused. “Rumour is he’s a real stickler about these things.”

“Why do you torment me so, Tyrant?” he sighed.

“Mostly habit, at this point,” Kairos confessed. “It’s like picking at a wound, once you start it’s nigh impossible to stop.”

“I will rise above this nonsense,” Hierarch said. “I must see to my bedding.”

“Did you notice that half the Bellerophan army is standing guard every night?” Tyrant cheerfully asked. “I think they mistook the Tolesian term for ten with the one meaning a thousand in their manual and they’ve been standing by the mistranslation ever since.”

Anaxares’ lips thinned, deeply offended at the insinuation that the Republic could ever make such a mistake. Even if they had, which they had not, it would have been a superior interpretation of the original text and inherently better by virtue of having been voted upon by the People. Naturally, as with all matters related to military texts, knowledge of what was voted upon would not have been held by the People as it was illegal for said knowledge to be held by any not having drawn the lot of soldiers. This was only right and proper. But he would not correct the Tyrant’s blatantly false assertions, it would only encourage the boy.

“Huh,” Kairos said. “I thought for sure that would do it. I suppose all that’s left is helping you dig your hole.”

Anaxares frowned.

“That would taint the work,” he gravely said.

Relying upon foreign labour – which was, by definition, the product of tyranny – without official sanction was treason.

“Then I’d pick up the pace then, if I were you,” the Tyrant grinned. “We’re about to hold a war council and at this point nobody still believes they’ll be able to get you into an actual tent.”

The Gods were fickle, and so when the other dignitaries arrived the hole was only ankle-deep. Anaxares sat in in regardless, threadbare cloak pooling around him. The usual despots had crawled out of their ivory towers, it seemed. A two-striped askretis from Delos’ Secretariat, a preached from Atalante laden with beads, the young Basileus of Nicae and his former colleague Magister Zoe of Stygia. The two grasping Exarchs of Penthes – they had not succeeded at assassinating or disgracing the other, and so now uneasily shared the mantle of Wanton Tyranny – and finally the dignified figure of Bellerophon’s senior, and incidentally only, general. Flanked by kanenas ready to execute him at the first sign of treasonous ambition, he noted with approval. The Delosi askretis broke the silence first, sending one of his scribes for ink and parchment.

“The meaning of your metaphor escapes me, Hierarch,” he said, eyeing the barely-visible hole curiously. “Could I trouble you to clarify it for the records?”

“It was not as wet as the ground further out,” Anaxares explained.

“Ah,” the askretis said, sounding enlightened. “And what does the ground stand for? The wetness?”

“Impiety, clearly,” the Atalantian preacher said, clutching her beads. “The Hierarch reminds us of the virtue of humility, chiding us for this vainglorious enterprise.”

“It is a hole,” Magister Zoe mildly said. “That he is going to sleep in. Like he has every other night so far.”

“How like a Stygian to grasp the obvious and only that,” the Delosi dignitary scathingly dismissed.

“And so I do declare this session of the war council of the League of Free Cities to have formally begun,” the Tyrant cheerfully said.

The crazed boy enjoyed these councils so much, Anaxares thought, largely because no one else did. He’d insisted they be held regularly with the full roster of League dignitaries.

“The Glorious Republic of Bellerophon,” the general started, and Hierarch murmured ‘First and Greatest of the Free Cities, May She Reign Forever’ along with him, “would like to formally protest the opening of hostilities in the Samite Gulf.”

“The record will show this,” the askretis promised with religious fervour.

“I’ll start bothering to listen to your people on the subject of fleets when you actually learn how to swim,” the Basileus of Nicae retorted.

Anaxares’ back straightened with indignation. This was calumny. The knowledge of how to swim had not been restricted in decades – has never been restricted or not, he immediately mentally corrected – though with good reason showing too much eagerness in learning the skill was considered suspicious.

“I’ve been led to believe this protest comes too late, regardless,” the Tyrant of Helike said.

The young ruler of Nicae grit his teeth.

“Allies,” he began, “do not spy on each other, Tyrant.”

“Spy?” Kairos said, putting a trembling hand over his heart. “Gods, I would never. We merely helped your messengers carry their messages.”

“Like anyone believes that,” the Basileus sneered.

“Anyhow,” Tyrant said, “as I was saying – my spies in the Nicaean ranks tell me the Ashuran fleet was taken by surprise while docked in Arwad and torched before the city itself was sacked.”

The ruler of Nicae scoffed.

“Our ships withdrew afterwards,” he added. “And are now blockading Smyrna. With the loss of their other fleet in the assault on Thalassina, the Ashurans are now effectively taken out of the war.”

“Would the Republic care to protest the blockade a well?” the Delosi dignitary asked.

“Instructions will be sought from the People,” the Bellerophan general stoutly replied.

And would be received, Anaxares thought, within the next six months after vote was held. Perhaps along with a suggested order of battle, if the message arrived when they’d entered the lands claimed by the Principate.

“That’s all well and good, but the Thalassocracy was never our true worry,” Magister Zoe opined. “Last we heard the armies of Levant were marching up Procer, in pursuit of the Carrion Lord. They’re the ones we’re at risk of encountering.”

“This was a glorious victory,” the Basileus insisted. “Simply because the Magisterium hardly contributed any ships you would-”

“You kicked the Ashurans while they were down, boy,” one of the Penthesian Exarchs said, rolling her eyes. “If the Praesi hadn’t slapped them around first we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“The foul empress Malicia struck a blow at all children of the Heavens, that day,” the Atalantian preacher said. “Let us not celebrate the death of those taken while serving holy purpose.”

“Bead-clutcher,” Magister Zoe mocked. “Where was this ambivalence when we planned the invasion of Procer?”

“There is no invasion,” Hierarch stated.

There was a moment of silence as all their gazes turned to him. Most of them, he realized, had forgotten he was even there.

“As the Principate of Procer is an assembly of grasping despots having forcefully seized land and authority from its inhabitants, legally speaking there can be no such thing as invasion of it,” he clarified.

“Hear hear,” the Tyrant grinned. “We are liberators, my friends. We undertake the gentle – kindly, even – business of liberating all those pretty Proceran cities. Certainly nothing so uncouth as invasion.”

Even true words sounded incorrect coming from the boy’s mouth, Anaxares thought. After that the council descended into the usual squabbles. The Penthesians wanted the armies of the League to march swifter through the Waning Woods, shaving days off the week remaining until they entered Iserre. Most other commanders disagreed on basis of such haste opening the soldiers to ambush by the creatures haunting the woods, though Magister Zoe was in agreement with the Exarchs and offered the slave phalanxes as vanguard. As usual, it came to nothing and the dignitaries retreated stewing in the same irritation they had brought with them. The Tyrant made a production of leaving the ruby shovel behind, but eventually followed suit. Anaxares remained in his hole, eyes closed. The visions came to his eyes and ears on the wind, unbidden and unwanted. He could only Receive them.

A blind boy treading through a dead city, carrying the deaths with him – lash and ladder, into ever deeper darkness. Armies gathering under mountains, a sea of banners snarling like wolves in the wind. The Augur sitting alone in a frosted garden, spoken whispers still echoing in her ears like a coiling snake. Death marching under water, darkening the sky in flocks, spreading like poison in a legion unending. A grinning woman in the dark smoking a pipe and gathering an army, seen only until pale blue eyes forced the vision to end. Bands of green things crawling out of tunnels swords in hands, silent in the night. A one-eyed orc and a woman dappled with ink, leading an army in flight. But most importantly of all, on some barren shore, a knight in white stood with his sword high. A killer who had taken lives, but never at his own behest. Behind him, looking through a coin, something unfathomable loomed. The Seraphim, Anaxares thought. The Choir of Judgement. The angels who had judged and slain people of the League.

The Hierarch smiled.

For that, they would be judged in turn.

Amadeus was bemused.

Upon realizing the depth of his mistake he’d expected swift death to follow, delivered by as many heroes as the opposition could scrape together for a spot of killing on the lake. Part of that had been correct. A band of Named had come after him, girded with Light and wearing the grim rictuses of individuals carrying out a necessary evil – always without the capital, of course, and preferably phrased as the ‘greater good’ instead. To his continued bafflement, however, they had yet to cut his throat. On one of the rare occasions where he was not put under enchantment to remain inert, mainly when it was deemed necessary that he be fed and allowed to relieve himself, he’d politely inquired to his captors about what kind of second-rate outfit they were running. Really, keeping him prisoner? It was asking for this story to be turned on them, considering the amount of loved ones he still had out there. Unless the Saint of Swords was intent on confessing her deep affections for him – unlikely, since she took great relish in punching him unconscious before enchantments were laid – it was likely someone in the opposition had decided to get clever about this.

Hearing out whatever funeral pyre of a plan was behind this ought to be good for a chuckle or two. He was awakened long enough for half-stale bread to be pressed into his hand, and he was left to eat it with the Saint of Swords standing behind him sword unsheathed. Though damnably hungry, Amadeus threw over his shoulder the stickiest crumbs he could find and smilingly excused it as an ancient Wasteland custom he could not eat without. Everyone knew Duni were an ignorant and superstitious lot, after all. Laurence de Montfort replied by clouting him over the ear, which he took as a moral victory. By the looks of their surroundings, they were still keeping to the countryside and avoiding roads and cities. The temperature had significantly cooled, though that could be the result of the turning season just as northwards travel.

“Drink,” the Grey Pilgrim said, pressing the gourd to his lips.

Amadeus did. He’d inhabited this body as Named for so long he’d lost the sense of how long it would take for him to become this thirsty under more natural circumstances, but he suspected at least six hours. After, though, he pursued his curiosity.

“You appear to be carrying me north,” he said. “And have been for… a fortnight, at least, likely more.”

“That is none of your concern,” the Pilgrim said, the Levantine roots subtly affecting his pronunciation of Lower Miezan.

Amadeus raised an eyebrow.

“Are you quite certain,” he said, “that you would not prefer to extol your plan to me in great detail?”

He didn’t even hear the blow coming. The Saint, he mused when they woke him the following day, did not have much of a sense of humour. He told her as much while picking at his daily bread.

“Think you’re funny, do you?” Laurence de Montfort sneered.

He was not, in fact, certain she was sneering. He was facing the wrong way and quite tightly bound, save for his forearms. But given the tone, he would allow himself to presume.

“I have my moments,” Amadeus mused. “I did hear this funny jest, from someone very dear to me. It was about this very arrogant woman who had her belly opened and crawled away holding in her guts.”

He paused.

“The punchline is that you’ll grow old and die, while Hye won’t,” he helpfully added.

He did not get to finish his bread that evening, by dint of being knocked unconscious. To his amusement, the following night it was another hero standing behind him. The Rogue Sorcerer, he thought, if the old reports of the Eyes had any accuracy to them. Likely the author of the enchantment that kept him slumbering as the others journeyed.

“I’ve been instructed to put you under spell of silence if you attempt to engage me in conversation,” the hero quietly told him.

“That seems unnecessary,” Amadeus said. “I am, after all, entirely at your power.”

“Pilgrim’s orders,” the Rogue Sorcerer said.

“That is unfortunate,” the dark-haired man said. “It is not too late to save your parents.”

No reply was given. Amadeus frowned, then yelled as loudly as he could. None of the heroes breaking their fast so much as glanced in his direction. Ah, already under the spell. He had neither heard nor felt the man cast. Interesting. He truly was bereft of even the smallest trace of his Name. He flicked a miffed glance at the ground.

“Before my last stand, truly?” he said. “I could have slain a few on my way down, you cheapskates.”

Four more evenings, and not once did the Grey Pilgrim do him the courtesy of a morality debate by the fireside. He could respect the professionalism involved, but it was really quite irksome. Three more after that, and once: the last awakening, to his surprise, was in the middle of the night. Someone had botched their enchantment, it seemed. Amadeus found himself quite tightly constrained: manacles on his feet, ropes on his legs, another set of manacles keeping his hands behind his back and what looked like an enchanted band of middle around his chest. Well, they wouldn’t take themselves off on their own. He quietly rolled around until his fingers clasped around a somewhat sharp rock, and he considered the manner in which this should be approached. He’d need to dislocate at least one of his arms, and likely a wrist as well. To slip the manacle he’d need blood to ease the way, and that meant cutting open a vein – though he’d need to be careful not to nick an artery, as he was rather troublingly fragile at the moment. Wound first, he decided. It’d be harder to be accurate with the stone if his arm was already dislocated. Shifting his fingers, be began digging the sharp edge into his skin.

“I’m curious,” the Wandering Bard said. “After you slip loose, assuming you can, then what?”

Amadeus sighed.

“Debate is still taking place,” he replied, “as to whether I should attempt to steal a horse or shove this humble stone through a hero’s eye socket.”

“Pretty sure Laurence can outrun a horse,” the Bard mused.

I can’t,” he quite reasonably pointed out. “Small steps… what happens to be your name, at the moment?”

“Marguerite of Baillons,” the Bard replied.

He snorted.

“Alamans, truly?” he said. “Were all the other bodies taken?”

“Hey, if I could pick I’d be a seven foot tall blonde with a miraculous rack and thighs like trees every single time,” the Bard said. “Now that was a spin of the wheel. They don’t make them like that in Levant anymore.”

He moved around, trying to sit, but found himself stuck on the ground. Most unpleasant. The Wandering Bard lent a helping hand, dragging him up, and he found himself looking at the abomination’s latest form. Slender and dark-haired, loose and going down her back. Smiling blue eyes and heart-shaped lips. A convincing facsimile of life, he would concede. The flask in her hand was already open, and her shoddy lute laying further down in the grass.

“Drink?” she offered.

“Most kind of you,” he agreed.

She poured the liquor down his throat until he raised his hand, swallowing a cough.

“Gods,” Amadeus got out. “Is that the horrid fermented cherry extract from Atalante?”

“It’s just the foulest thing, isn’t it?” she grinned. “It’s like it can’t decide whether it wants to be sweets or poison.”

“And to think they call me a monster,” he muttered. “I’ve never fed such torment to prisoners.”

“Another?” Marguerite offered.

“Might as well,” Amadeus said. “I’m not looking forward to opening that vein, this ought to take the edge off.”

Another spot of torture later his belly and throat had warmed, at the mere price of the taste of a violently misused orchard taking over his palate.

“So, you might be wondering why I’m here,” the Bard said.

“I’m rather more curious as to why none of your fellows have awakened,” he said. “Their senses should be sharper than that.”

“If they were going to wake, I wouldn’t be here,” Marguerite shrugged.

“Convenient,” Amadeus said.

“Eh,” she hedged. “I don’t need to tell you how tetchy providence can get. Even with loaded dice you have to roll.”

“I take it this a visit in your official capacity, then,” he said.

“Surprised, are we?” she grinned, revealing slightly crooked teeth.

“It was my theory that you could only work through Named,” Amadeus said. “I find it rather horrifying that you are evidently not so restricted.”

While the dark-haired main currently believed himself to be without power – and would comport himself as such – it remained only a theory. There were likely no greater expert on namelore alive than the Wandering Bard, insofar as she was that, and so her confirmation or denial would hold some weight. No overmuch, of course, as she was still a hostile entity. But it would be a useful entry to this running mental tally.

“Still fishing, huh?” Marguerite smiled. “That’s not Name so much as it is nature, I think. Needing a plan, always a plan, even if you’re screaming inside.”

“You praise me overmuch,” Amadeus said. “You have, after all, defeated –”

“Warlock’s dead,” the Wandering Bard said.

He paused. She might be lying. To hurt him, to cloud his… Amadeus breathed in, breathed out. It was set aside.

“Blew up a fleet going out, but that’s more than a fair trade,” Marguerite said. “Empire’s a real mess at the moment, since he vaporized the better part of Thalassina with his last hurrah. Your little friend up high’s going spare trying to keep it all together.”

“Yet you are here,” Amadeus said. “And not there, stoking the fires.”

“Catherine got herself killed again,” the Bard casually said. “And let me tell you, now that was a show. You don’t often see that calibre of foolishness slugging it out no holds barred.”

His fingers tightened. Breathe in, breathe out. Control. The moment he lost control, the creature would make use of him for whatever purpose she needed. It might be time to consider smashing his head into the ground until he fell unconscious.

“It’s fascinating, watching you take that paternal feeling by the throat and just…” Marguerite snapped her fingers, “There goes the neck. Back into the box it goes.”

The taunts were immaterial. Useful information could still be had. Amadeus put a tremor to his voice.

“She wouldn’t die that easily,” he said, making himself look away.

“Glancing away is the part Malicia taught you, isn’t it?” the Bard mused. “She’s good. Must have guessed the eyes would give up the game, it’s always the hardest part to master.”

The frightful depths of that thing’s perception were not to be underestimated, he mentally conceded. She was, after all, entirely right. Cold green eyes flicked back to study her face.

“You’re headed for Salia, in case you were wondering,” Marguerite said. “They’re keeping you in the countryside because Hasenbach knows they have you. She sent half a hundred companies out with orders to take you into custody.”

“Did she now?” Amadeus said.

“Second order is to cut off your head the moment they have you,” the Bard continued amusedly. “She’s not best pleased you’re not already decorating a pike. Tariq’s going to get an earful.”

He’d known there was a reason he liked the woman. She had a good head on her shoulders, to wish the opposite of him.

“I am to be paraded before the crowds, then,” he said.

“Nah, they’ll get a hero under illusion for that,” Marguerite said. “Saint’s gonna cut out your soul and have it bound to something, she insisted. They want bait, not to risk a rescue.”

Implying that, to the best of the Pilgrim’s knowledge, there were still villains in the East he could be considered bait for. He could not know whether or not Eudokia was still with the legions. If she’d judged it feasible he could be reacquired she would have left without a second thought, but in the absence of that Scribe would remain with Grem. Assassin was still in Ashur, presumably, and impossible to contact. That much had been necessary to ensure the Augur could not interfere. That left Catherine – allegedly dead, though that was admittedly not always enough to stop her – and perhaps Masego. Unless what the Bard has told me is false, he thought. Or what she has shared is true, and the Pilgrim does not know it.

Too many unknowns for a solid strategic assessment, and no real way to acquire the information he needed through reliable sources. If he had the means, if he could lead a message, if. What a bastard word to be curtailed by. Pushing aside the frustration, Amadeus forced himself to consider the conversation through broader perspective. It should not be taking place at all, he thought. He held no Name, commanded no armies and if she had spoken true the Calamities had largely ended as threat. Neither Eudokia nor Assassin could be counted on for independent action, and held highly limited direct martial value besides. His sole remaining worth was as a hostage, and that was not the Wandering Bard’s game.

Why, then, was she here?

“There’s one part of you that I actually like, did you know?” Marguerite said. “It’s also what I hate the most, but it does tend to be that way with villains.”

“I make a very good lentil soup,” Amadeus suggested.

Behind the pithy words he observed her carefully. Now they entered the field of revelations, the most dangerous part of this dangerous conversation.

“You don’t digest defeat,” the Bard said. “It doesn’t fill your belly, weigh you down. You dissect it, read the entrails like an augury, and then ask yourself – if I could do it again, how would I do it better?”

He watched her in silence.

“Even now,” she murmured, “behind the eyes there’s a few cogs turning. What can I do? How should I do it? And they’ll only stop when you die.”

“Which,” Amadeus said, “looks to be rather soon.”

“Nah,” the Wandering Bard. “You don’t get to be a rallying cry. See, you paid your dues.”

His eyes narrowed.

“You’re no favourite son, it’s true,” she mused. “You never played the game the way you’re meant to. But you did kill the opposition and tip the scales. They wouldn’t cut you loose after that, it’s now how they do things.”

“I am,” Amadeus said, “no longer the Black Knight.”

“You don’t fit that groove anymore,” Marguerite said. “Powerless you ain’t, Maddie. You know what you are, deep down, you just think it’s beneath you.”

His fingers tightened under the knuckles were white.

“Claimant,” the Wandering Bard said. “You can have your second shot at it, you’re owed that. But if you really want it?”

She drank deep, then wiped her mouth.

“Well, there’s always a price isn’t there?” she shrugged. “So tell me, Amadeus of the Green Stretch…”

She smiled, crooked and wide under moonlight.

“What do you think is right?” she asked.

She leaned forward.

“How far are you willing to go, to see it done?”

He closed his eyes. She was gone a moment later when he opened them, without so much as a whisper. He was silent and still, for a very long time.

Mistake, he thought.

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Interlude: Triptych

“Only one kind of war is ever just, that which is waged on the Enemy.”
– Extract from ‘ The Faith of Crowns’, by Sister Salienta

Harbour duty was the worst, always had been.

Ines had blown three months’ pay on the warmest cloak that could be found at market and still she was shivering like a dying calf. The prince had spread talk through the city that with the Kingdom of the Dead stirring awake those soldiers who guarded the harbour would see better pay, but like most princely promises it had come to nothing. Rumour had it the coin had gone into buying the service of every fantassin company left in the north instead, and much as she hated freezing by the docks Ines had to admit it might have been better investment. The Princess of Hainaut was doing the same, it was said, and the mercenary leanings of the fantassins had turned the whole affair into some sordid bidding war. Still, better to be here at home than to have gone south as some of the prince’s soldiers had. What word had come back from the crusade’s foray into the Kingdom of Callow was the stuff of nightmares. Strange devils riding to slaughter in the night, an endless horde of orcs and heretics that at the corpses of the fallen. Some more fanciful tales as well, of the Black Queen bringing down the sky on the head of the crusaders and making a lake of their blood. Whatever the truth of it, none of those who’d gone south had returned.

For once, she thought, being fresh to the prince’s service had been of some use. It also meant Ines was inevitably handed down the shit duties by her careerist noble officers, but cold fingers were better than the grave. She put a spring to her step after clearing Gertrude’s Tongue, hurrying towards the bonfire that awaited near the customs house. There she took off her leather gloves and pressed her palms close to the bronze bowl holding the flames, sighing at the warmth seeping into her bones. The pike she’d left to lean against her should had never seen use out of the training yard, and if the Heavens smiled on her it never would. Still, the silence of the night unsettled her. The winds that’d turned her earlier round into a ghastly affair had since died, leaving behind only eerie stillness. Cleves Harbour was lethargic on the best of days, the sporadic ship trade with Bremen and Lyonis the affair only of the prince and the very rich, but now even the fishermen had left. That lot had better read on what took place beneath the waters of the Tomb than anyone else, it was said. Those among them that did not learn to listen to the sound of danger were dragged into the depths by the foul creatures that were the only true rulers of the lake.

Some nights, Ines wondered why the prince even bothered to assign guards to the harbour. Empty as it was, even if some dead mean took it that would be no great loss. The royals who’d founded Cleves had been a farsighted lot: the harbour was not connected to the capital proper. The thin stripe of docks and shore was walled with an eye at keeping the enemy inside, not out, an unspoken admission that if the Dead King raided past the lake there would be no holding it against the Hidden Horror’s armies. The slope descending to the shore meant Ines could not even catch a glimpse of Cleves itself from where she now stood, not behind those tall walls, but that part she hardly minded. It would be the hour-long walk back to the barrack of the capital she was not looking forward to, especially since some enterprising noble lad had decided that the length of that trip should no longer be counted as part of guard duty’s duration. Ines’ only comfort was that if the fucking dead actually showed up, that prick was bound to end up on the bad side of an unfortunate crossbow accident. The lad should have worried less about getting commendations from up high and more about the many people in charge of sharp objects he’d made enemies of.

With an aggrieved sigh Ines put her gloves back on. She’d lingered around the fire as much as she could justify, if the next guard came up while she was still here she’d end up with another black mark on her record. Merciful Gods, though, it was a cold night. And not even winter solstice yet, it’d only get worse. She glanced to the side and upwards, at the slender tower overlooking the waters. She didn’t know who Mikhail had paid off to get that particular cushy duty – the guard tower had a bonfire up top, and a seat – but the man could certainly afford it. The Lycaonese immigrant ran a little business on the side, providing hard drink warming the bones to the guards that could afford it. Ines had always disdained the practice, but the thought of the long walk back to the city after her duty had her reconsidering for tonight. Once wasn’t going to hurt anyone, was it?

“You still up here, you filthy Bremen throwback?” she called out.

No answer. He must have been indulging in his own wares, which was bold of him. There were only so many times he could bribe his way out of the trouble that’d come down on his head if he was caught. Taking her pike in hand, Ines decided against taking the lack of answer as a sign from Above. The thought of a warm belly had grown on her with the consideration. She strode to the bottom of the tower, finding the door ajar. Sloppy of him, she frowned, even if he was drunk. The twisting stairs leading up to the top were just a brisk walk, but when she came there a cold seized her that the fire could do nothing about. Sergeant Mikhail was there: throat opened, blood all over his mail. Oh Gods, she thought. We’re under attack. She would have rung the bell the tower had been equipped with for this very reason, but the bloody thing was gone. Ripped off the metal hinges that had held it up. She leaned over the edge, casting her voice.

“Attack,” she screamed. “We’re under attack!”

There was no answer. She wasn’t loud enough, that was why they had the damned bells in the first place. For all she knew, she was the only soldier in the harbour left alive. That would make it her duty to run back to the city, wouldn’t it? So that they were warned. It wasn’t abandoning her fellows, it was doing her duty. Her hands trembled around the shaft of the pike.

“Damn it,” she whispered. “Damn it.”

She ran back down the stairs, heading for the nearest tower. There were ten in the harbour, they couldn’t have castrated all of them unseen. Her old boots slipped against the frost and she fell, but she grit her teeth and picked up her pike before picking herself up with it. Dodderer’s Height wasn’t far, and as the largest of the towers it’d have fielded more than a single sentinel. Old, fat ones one the edge of retiring from service but there was strength in numbers. She made it past the jutting empty warehouse that was the Prince of Cleves’ personal property and cleared the corner before she saw it. Five corpses, tossed down from the tower onto the pavement below. She glanced up, eyes squinting in the dark, but thank the Gods the bell was still there. Whoever’d done this had not yet ripped it out. Whoever had done this was likely still here, she then thought. Gloved fingers tightened around her pike, she grit her teeth and ran once more. Her attention had been on the tower, though. That was why she missed it.

The undead climbed out of the lakewater, glistening wet under starlight. Rivulets dripped down the bare skull under the ancient helm and it advanced without a word. Ines yelled out in fear, but she’d trained. Feet wide but steady, she struck out with her pike. It pierced through the rusty mail, going straight into the body, and for a moment she tasted triumph. Then the dead thing began pushing towards her through, embracing the impalement. She dropped the pike in ear, immediately cursing herself for it. But it was slower than her, she realized, so she ran for the tower instead of fighting. All she needed was to ring the bell. The door was ajar, she saw, and she slowed to avoid slipping on a patch of ice. Just in time to watch a pair of armoured skeletons walk out of the tower, swords in hand. Blocking the entrance.

No,” she hissed.

What could she do? She didn’t even have a – the two undead were smashed to pieces by the same swing of a silvery sword. There was a man, tanned and wearing plate, who casually brought down a steel-clad boot to smash one of the skulls. The undead she’d fled from was tossed back into the lake by some giant shadow moving quick as lightning. For a moment Ines thought she glimpsed fur and fangs, but what wolf could possibly be so large?

“Ring the bell, soldier,” the man in plate said.

His eyes were wreathed with light, she saw as she faced him. No, with Light.

“Chosen,” she croaked out.

“Go,” he said. “Your courage tonight did not go unnoticed.”

“They’re all over the place,” Ines said. “If they’re here-”

“Cleves,” a woman’s voice said, “does not stand alone.”

A face of painted stone over a cloak, long tresses swinging behind. Another favoured child of the Heavens, she would put her hand to fire over it.

“It will be a long night,” the first Chosen said. “A long month after it, until Malanza arrives. But we will hold.”

“Ring the bell, soldier,” the masked Chosen said. “We will guard you. Tonight, the Dead King learns that dawn is not so easily snuffed out.”

Ines straightened her back. She was no proud Lycaonese, to find glory in dying spitting in the Enemy’s eye. Just some fool girl someone had shoved a pike in the hands of. But she’d been born in Cleves. The principality of her birth was a bloody mess, and she thought little of the man who ruled it, but that wasn’t the point. It was her home. This was Procer. They could lose to princes and princesses, they could lose to Arlesites and Lycaonese, but she’d be damned before a fucking undead abomination flew its banner over the city.

She took up a sword from a corpse and climbed to ring the bell.

Balasi was allowed into the tent by the sentinels without so much as a second glance.

It still surprised him, this. Had he tried the same with his lover’s rooms in Nenli he would have been met at sword point and taken to the city square for a public flogging. Here, though, the campaign had made the king’s laws grow lax. He might not be consort in name, but he was in deed and the soldiers acted accordingly. The seeker of deeds had since grown to suspect that this was one of the reason why Sargon had come forward to claim command over the Fourteenth Expansion. Back home their love would always be an illegal mismatch, but so far away from the Kingdom Under the rules had thinned. Sargon was not sleeping, as it happened. The Herald of the Deeps sat still as stone with his eyes closed as he sought council with the spirits bound to his staff. The Souls of Fire were known to hold wisdom, though a kind narrow in scope. Were they too clever the Kings Under the Mountains would have slaughtered them all, not bound them to the great forges. There would be need to dig deep again, after this land was claimed, to feed the fresh forges being raised. Many spirits would still lie asleep in their beds of molten rock, unknown to the kraksun.

“Delein,” Balasi quietly said. “There is need of you.”

Sargon’s eyes fluttered open.

“Balasi,” he murmured. “I was far gone, this time. What ails you?”

“Not me,” he replied. “All of us. And if that vein is true or hollow has yet to be known.”

“Speak,” the Herald of the Deeps frowned.

“Our borrowed knife has returned,” the dwarf said. “And would now speak with you.”

Sargon’s beard twitched in surprise.

“The Gloom still stands,” he said. “She cannot have been victorious. Are we certain it is the human, and not simply a Night-thing wearing her?”

“I laid eyes on her myself,” Balasi said. “She was stripped of power, but it is her. Unmistakeably.”

“And the cold spirit?” Sargon asked, leaning forward.

The seeker of deeds resisted the urge to roll his eyes. His lover had fancied the thing since their first meeting, considering adding it to his staff should the human queen be broken. Sargon had mastered the Greed in most aspects of his life, but not this: any interesting creature he encountered he desired for his staff of office.

“Changed, yet still existing,” he replied. “You can look upon it yourself when speaking with the human.”

“She is not that,” the Herald of the Deeps said. “You know this.”

“Was not, perhaps,” Balasi conceded. “I am no longer certain of that old truth.”

That piqued his lover’s interest, as he’d intended, and Sargon merely put on a coat before they made their way out. Officer had been ordered to settle the human and her spirit until they were ready to be met, and the two dwarves found them awaiting patiently by a low table. Black kasi had been served, and the Queen of Callow was drinking from her cup with a broad grin. Hairless of the face like so many of her kind, some feeble thing grown even feebler since their last meeting. It had not escaped his notice that she sat in a way that took the weight off one of her legs, as if it were wounded. Or that she’d limped visibly when coming to the camp. The spirit stood behind her, dark and silent. Its face had changed, grown more human. Scarlet eyes had become golden, though no less watchful for it. Sargon’s eyes lingered on it with interest, ever eager to get his hands on fresh curiosities.

“Herald,” the human said, inclining her head in shallow respect. “Seeker. Good to see you again.”

Balasi stood as Sargon sat across the table, only then doing the same. A mere seeker of deeds could not be seated at the same time as the Herald of the Deeps, he thought, bitterness so old and worn it was hardly even that anymore.

“You surprise me, Queen Catherine,” Sargon said. “I had not thought we would meet again until our bargain was fulfilled.”

And such an advantageous one it had been, Balasi thought. A paltry quantity of gold and a temporary cessation of arms sales to a few human nations, in exchange for a sword pointed at the heart of the Night. Sargon had struck it most willingly, knowing that even if defeated the human would drag many kraksun down with her.

“That still holds,” the human idly replied. “I’m here to settle some details, as it happens. The Gloom could be gone by the end of this conversation, if it is fruitful.”

The dwarf’s brow twitched. A bold claim, this. Sve Noc still lived, this was known. Was the human claiming she had bound the old monster to her will?

“Details,” Sargon repeated. “Such as?”

“An offer might be more accurate,” the human mused. “Sve Noc is willing to cede her current territory to the Kingdom Under, but concessions will have to be made.”

Balasi smoothly reached for the blade at his side. He’d let down his guard, when sensing the queen had been stripped of her power. Where before she had been an oppressive presence without even moving a finger, she now felt light as a feather. Nothing more than a mortal, he’d thought. So why do you feel more dangerous now than you did before, human?

“You were turned,” he said. “Made into their creature.”

The queen made that strange human sound of derision, all nose and doubt.

“I’m really more of an advisor,” she said. “We came to an arrangement, that’s all. Trust was extended, and part of that is letting me speak for them when it comes to you fine folk.”

“You no longer hold power,” the Herald of the Deeps said.

“I wield it instead,” the human said. “That’s quite enough, as far as I’m concerned.”

“You fed your purpose to them,” Sargon said, openly appalled.

“Purpose was shared,” Queen Catherine corrected. “As I would now share a proposition with you.”

“There can be no truce with the Night,” Balasi said.

“The Night is dead,” the human said. “At least the way you knew it. And I am here to speak diplomacy, not theology.”

“And what terms,” Sargon scoffed, “would Sve Noc speak?”

She took out her pipe, taking her time to fill it with herbs. Snapping her wrist, she produced dark flames from the tip of her fingers to light it. It did not feel like sorcery to Balasi’s senses, and this was worrying. She puffed at the dragonbone – what a waste, he still thought, to make a pipe of that – and blew out a stream of smoke.

“Would you like,” Catherine Foundling cheerfully asked, “to make your two biggest problems go at war with each other?”

There was a moment of silence.

“I am listening,” the Herald of the Deeps said.

Friedrich Papenheim might have been a prince, in another life.

Of those who had both the name and the blood, he was the closest relation to the Iron Prince. He’d served as a trusted lieutenant to Klaus Papenheim for decades as a steward and commander, and few others were as high in the man’s council as he. But Old Klaus had made it known he intended to pass on Hannoven to his niece when he died, to make the principality as one with her own. Friedrich had resented this, on occasion, though always half-heartedly. It was hard to be truly bitter when one lost one’s inheritance to the likes of Cordelia Hasenbach. The first Lycaonese to ever rise as First Prince of Procer, the iron-willed daughter of the ancient lines of Papenheim and Hasenbach who’d made the entire south submit to her rule. No, if he was to be royalty but not prince there was none other he’d rather lose the throne to. It would be in good hands, when the time came. Tonight, though? Tonight Hannoven was in his own hands, and it was burning.

He’d kept to the old ways. As soon as it was known that the Dead King was stirring he’d expelled every southerner from the city and hung those that refused the order. Every village and town in sight of the waters had been emptied, the spring armories had been opened and the war horns sounded. Every man and woman of fighting age in the principality had been called to serve, to uphold the old oaths. The whispers had passed from mouth to ear, spreading across all of Hannoven. The dead are coming. Belt your swords, put on your armour, send your children south. The dead are coming. He’d never been half as proud to be Lycaonese as when he’d watched the full muster of his people spread out like a sea of steel beneath the walls of the city. The watchtowers by the Grave had found the Dead King’s host as it crossed, marching under the dark waters with the inevitability of an arrow in flight, but he was no fool to give the horde battle on open field. There could be no victory when every one of your dead turned to the service of the Enemy.

He’d sent riders to the other principalities, Rhenia and Bremen and Neustria. He trusted no sorcery to carry the word when the Hidden Horror itself strode the field. The allies of Hannoven were of the old blood too, and they’d smelled the death on the wind: they would not be caught with their trousers around their ankles like some goat-fucking Alamans. Their armies would already be assembled, and the moment the message arrived they’d sound their war horns to send for full service. But it would be weeks, months before the first reinforcements arrived. The city of his birth was a fortress like few others, but it would not hold forever. And so he’d made the cold choice, as he had been taught from the cradle. Those unfit to fight had begun the march for Bremen with everything they could carry. With them had gone half the muster of Hannoven. He’d sent the young, the skilled, the promising. The future of his principality. With him Friedrich had kept old soldiers past their prime, the greybeards and whitehairs who did not know whether it was winter cold or ratling fang that would slay them. And with those he had fought for Hannoven.

Fifteen thousand against the legions dark and darkly led. They taught the Dead King what kind of people got to grow old in these lands. The first wall they lost on the first day, and retreated after setting the houses aflame. They held the second wall for a week, until the dead sent a flock of winged drakes aflight. Wall by wall they have ground, but never without making the Enemy pay for it. The longer they held the longer the rest of the Lycaonese had to gather their armies, the longer the people of Hannoven could flee without pursuit. They fought for a month and seven nights, dying in the snow as a sea of dead lapped at the walls. Hundreds of thousands, centuries of corpses marching to bring death to all the world. In the end it came down to the Old Fortress, the solitary mountain that had been turned into a castle jutting out from the plains. The dead never paused in the assault, never tired: day and night they came in silent assault, the banner of the Dead King flying tall behind them. It mattered not, for behind Friedrich the banner of Hannoven flew. A single soldier on the wall, grey on blue. Beneath was writ the words thrown in the Enemy’s teeth since time immemorial: And Yet We Stand.

So they stood, and so they died.

Ground away into nothing by numbers and sorcery their few mages could not match. Dead things that had once been Chosen climbed the walls, the sky grew dark with falling of arrows and behind them drakes stolen from the grave spewed out clouds of poison that burned lungs and skin. Less than a thousand of them left now, and most of them wounded. They’d retreated to the Crown, the very highest point of the fortress that could only be accessed by a few narrow paths filled with murderholes. The dead had been met with streams of burning coals and thrown oil, dwarven engines roaring destruction down passages where there could be had no cover. The Chosen dead pushed through, after the horde withdrew, but they found the passages collapsing beneath them and spiked grids of steel awaiting them when they leapt. Now sorcerers that were little more than grinning skulls pounded away at the defences with foul magics, forcing the defenders to stay behind cover until the next wave of dead was ready for assault. Friedrich passed through the throng of wounded, clasping shoulders and trading grim boasts with what soldiers her had left.

Old men, old women. The last gasps of their generation, dying sword in hand. His eyes grew cloudy with pride. Death came to all, but tonight they would meet it as Lycaonese should. Holding the wall in the face of the Enemy, for the sake of all the world. Friedrich beard was already flecked with blood, and he dipped out of sight when he felt the cough came. It would not do for his soldiers to know he was dying. The wound he’d taken hammering a spike through the head of that last drake had only gotten worse. Poison, he suspected, though it made no difference. None of them would live to see dawn, poisoned or not. He wiped his lips clean of blood and returned to the battlements after the cough had passed. The pounding had stopped, he immediately noticed. The assault was coming. Captain Heiserech sought him out, her worn face seemingly amused.

“Commander,” she saluted. “The skulls want to talk. They sent some kind of giant dead. Think it might be ‘Ol Bones himself come to pay us a visit.”

“Has he now?” Friedrich grinned. “Well, let us see what the Dead King has to say.”

Maybe he’d ask for surrender. His people could certainly use the laugh. He wasn’t sure who started. It could have been anyone, or half a dozen at the same time. Only a few voices, at first, but more joined until the stone shook with sound.

“The moon rose, midnight eye
Serenaded by the owl’s cry
In Hannoven the arrows fly.”

The refrain came as a roar of defiance.

“Hold the wall, lest dawn fail.”

Friedrich Papenheim strode to the very edge of the battlements, where the passages had been broken, and found a horror awaiting on the other side of the drop. It was large as three men, wearing plate of bronze and steel that had been nailed to its frame. Its face could not be glimpsed behind the great helm, but the eyes could. Sunken yellow things, glinting with power. That might be the old bastard himself in the flesh, Friedrich thought. The song echoes from behind him, slipping into the wind.

No southern song for your ear
No pretty lass or merry cheer
For you only night and spear.”

“A Papenheim,” the Dead King mildly said. “I should have known. Your entire line is like a nail that refuses to be hammered.”

Friedrich could not deny the sliver of pride he felt at that. He was dying, but he would stand straight in the face of the Enemy. Even if his lungs throbbed with pain.

“In the name of Her Most Serene Highness Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer and Warden of the West, I bid you to crawl back into the hole that spawned you,” Friedrich said. “And to take your horde of damned with you, old thing.”

“I rather missed this city,” the Dead King said. “You make it harder to take every time, it keeps things interesting.”

“And when we chase you back into the dark, claiming it back, we’ll raise an eight wall,” the Lycaonese replied with bared teeth. “On it will be written: here lie those who broke the back of the Enemy and stand those who will again.”

Come rats and king of dead
Legions dark, and darkly led
What is a grave if not a bed?”

“You fought well,” the Hidden Horror said. “And so were owed the courtesy of this conversation. Should your soldiers wish to take their own lives instead of having them taken, I will allow them the right.”

“So that we may rise whole in your service?” he laughed. “I think not. We’ll burn, and you with us.”

“Once wolves,” the Dead King said, almost fondly, “always wolves. What soldiers you would have made, under my banner. Die proud, then, Papenheim. You were an irritation.”

Quell the tremor in your hand
Keep to no fear of the damned
They came ere, and yet we stand.”

The aging soldier smiled.

“We’ll be waiting for you at the passes, Dead King,” he promised. “With a proper Lycaonese welcome.”

“I would expect no less,” the Hidden Horror said.

He turned his back on the Enemy and returned to stand with the last of his soldiers, the words in the wind guiding him home.

So we’ll hold the wall, 
Lest dawn fail.”

When the light of day found Hannoven, not a single living soul remained.

Chapter 82: Thrice Dead

“Now, luck it always turns. Nothing you can do about that. But that’s the trick, you see – wait long enough, and it turns all the way around.”
– Dread Emperor Irritant I, the Oddly Successful

The matron would be asleep by now, she’d hit the brandy pretty hard at dinner: this was as good an opportunity I’d get. I closed the book and snuffed out the stolen candle, ignoring Lydia’s theatrical sigh of vindication. I wasn’t sure whether she really had so delicate a constitution she couldn’t handle a bit of light when she was trying to sleep or whether it was just our shared dislike coming to the fore, but I could hardly care less. She’d leaned not to rat me out after I smeared her sheets with fish guts, if all I had to deal with was a little attitude I’d cope. I passed an affectionate hand over the worn cover of Serapin’s ‘The Licerian Wars’ and shoved it under my pillow, brushing away the few wax droppings on my sheets from the candle before stowing it away under my bed. One of my predecessors at the Laure House for Tragically Orphaned Girls had pried open room between the straw mattress and the wooden frame that was just large enough for it to fit. I slipped on my shoes and snuck out of the room, careful to close the door slowly enough the hinge wouldn’t squeak.

The orphanage was dark – every lantern and candle snuffed out the moment the matron went to sleep, to cut on costs – but I knew my way well. It wasn’t the first time I snuck out after curfew, though technically speaking I wouldn’t even been leaving the House for long. The front door was locked, but only the youngest girls in here didn’t know you could force the lock if you pushed at the right angle. I slipped into the street quiet as a mouse, closing the door behind me. I’d taken me a while to figure out how to get up to the roof, though it’d been made much easier after some stall merchant began putting up her folded stall next to the wall. She paid the matron coppers for it, which was a good deal as far as everyone was concerned. I suspected she might be less sanguine about the whole thing if she knew I regularly used her stall as a makeshift ladder. The tricky part was the leap to the left, where I had to catch the jutting masonry or hit the pavement after a hard fall. I turned out lucky tonight, catching it on first try even if my sweaty palms threatened to have me slip loose.

I hoisted myself over the edge of the roof with desperate haste, moist fingers scrabbling over the rough tiles as I rolled like a sack of cabbage until I was no longer at risk of falling. I remained there a moment, heart beating all too quickly, until I wiped my palms on my trousers and rose into a crouch. No point in standing tall – well, relatively speaking – until it was time. I headed towards the back of the orphanage, since that street wasn’t as busy. Not that Laure was after dark, these days. The city guard in this part of the city had started grabbing people out after sunset and putting them in a cell overnight for their own ‘safety’. It was an open secret a few silvers would get you out of the situation, which made the whole affair yet another tax in everything but name.  Angry as the thought made me, Mazus and his cronies were far beyond my reach. And not why I was out tonight, regardless. I made it to the edge and stood up, clenching my fists. Gods, I was already shaking. I felt sick in my stomach and my legs were jelly. It wasn’t even that tall a drop, I knew, and still somehow it felt like a knife at my throat.

“Your hands are trembling.”

I yelped and jumped, would have fallen if the woman who’d spoken hadn’t caught my wrist at the last moment. Whoever she was she was tall and slender, though in the dark I couldn’t make out much of her face. Nothing, really, save for the eyes. A pale blue, almost silvery.

“I’m not a thief,” I hastily told the stranger. “I live here!”

“So I assumed,” the woman replied, and dragged me out of danger before withdrawing a few steps.

Shit, if this got out to the matron I was going to get it. Already I’d been caught trading essays with Julie, two strikes the same week would have my buttocks tanned for an hour.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to be up here either,” I said. “So let’s just call this a wash for the both us, right? I’ll go, you’ll go. Ships in the night.”

“More ironic an offer than you know,” the stranger replied. “Sate my curiosity first. You are obviously terrified of heights. Why do you seek out the edge?”

I grimaced.

“Look, it’s not exactly illegal to do this,” I defensively replied.

Maybe. I wasn’t sure, and asking would have raised suspicions.

“I care little for such things,” the woman said. “You were asked a question, Catherine Foundling.”

Oh, this was bad. She knew my fucking name. It wasn’t like there were a lot of Deoraithe bastards in the House if she’d been intending on tattling, but that she actually knew my name was a bad sign all around. My teeth clenched and I reluctantly gave ground.

“It’s not about standing,” I said. “It’s about how long I can make myself stay.”

“Yet your fear has not ended, has it?”

I shook my head.

“Maybe I’ll always be afraid of it,” I said. “But that’s not what matters. Every time I come, I stay a little longer.”

“It gets easier?” the woman curiously asked.

“No,” I murmured. “But I get better at handling it. And one day I’ll get good enough it won’t matter if I’m afraid.”

There was a long moment of silence between us.

“Nature is not so easily overcome,” the stranger finally said.

I snorted.

“We’re people, aren’t we?” I said. “Not beasts. We can learn. It’s just hard and unpleasant and never as clear-cut as we’d like.”

“But will you?” the stranger asked.

Kilian was asleep. The public celebration after the Battle of Liesse had been subdued: there were too many dead people in the city for it to be otherwise. Heiress’ devils had slain hundreds before a shouted technicality had turned them irrelevant. Still, in the camps outside the city the Fifteenth had raucously feasted its latest victory. My evening with my lover had been a different sort of celebration, though. I’d died today, and that had lent an urgency to our bedplay that was harsher than our usual fare. She’d understood, though, that it was as much about being alive as it was about pleasure. Kilian knew me better than most, and in ways not even my closest friends did. Still, after she fell asleep I’d remained restless. I padded barefoot away from our bed and poured myself a cup of Vale summer wine, the sweet taste filling my mouth. I nursed the same glass for the better part of an hour, seated by the window. The night was warm, for this time of the year, and in the distance I could see the campfires of my legion. The candles lit suddenly, and that was my only warning Kilian had awakened. She sat up in the bed, face shrouded by shadows and her body only half-covered by the sheets.

“Still awake?” she asked.

“Can’t seem to close my eyes,” I admitted. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“These things happen,” she languidly shrugged.

For a moment, in the penumbra of the room, I thought her eyes were pale blue. It must have been a trick of the light.

“You died today,” Kilian continued quietly. “A little restlessness is to be expected.”

“All part of the plan,” I ruefully said. “Try as I might, I couldn’t find another way through.”

“There were risks,” she said. “If you had not succeeded as taking your resurrection from the Choir, there would have been no salvation.”

“But I did,” I replied, uneasily.

It had occurred to me that I’d not so much gamble with my life as thrown it away and then gambled on a resurrection. Recklessness ran in my veins, and in the heat of the moment it had all felt right, but in the cold light of the aftermath I was beginning to grasp how close I’d come to disaster.

“If you hadn’t,” Kilian softly asked, “would it have been worth it?”

I looked at her, blinking in surprise.

“If I’d failed?” I mused. “William would have turned us into Hashmallim puppets or Heiress would have killed everyone in the city. There was no room for mistakes.”

“I misspoke,” my lover said. “If it had all worked save for the resurrection, would that have been a fair price?”

It was, I thought, a sharp question but not an unworthy one. I’d schemed this with the notion in mind that I should be breathing by the end of it, but there would be fights ahead where I might not have that luxury. If the price for this had been that I’d disappear or return as some undead abomination, would I still have taken the bargain?

“There’s about a hundred thousand people in Liesse,” I eventually said. “More, with the soldiers that came to defend it. They’d be dead or worse, if I didn’t take the bargain anyway.”

“Cities can be rebuilt,” Kilian said. “Fresh children are born with every heartbeat.”

“But I only live once, is that it?” I smiled, looking out the window. “I appreciate the sentiment, I really do, but if all I wanted was to live I’d be a tradeswoman in Laure. Not the Squire.”

“There is a middle ground,” my lover chided, “between sacrifice and obscurity.”

“By taking up the knife, I signed away that kind of thinking,” I honestly replied. “The power’s not the point, Kilian, it’s just a way to handle the responsibilities. To take it but ignore why I did in the first place would make all of this meaningless.”

“A fair price, then,” Kilian mused, eyes hooded.

“Oh, the opposite of fair,” I softly disagreed. “One life against a hundred thousand? That’s a steal, by any account.”

“I do wonder,” she said, and I caught the glimmer of silver in her eyes, “how many times a blade can go through the crucible before breaking.”

“Victory should taste better than this,” I said.

Akua’s Folly lay before us in all its raging horror. Masego had warded the surroundings, but there was no hiding the mass of wights still haunting the ruins of Liesse. The bottle of aragh in my hand was no comfort, but at least it was something. Anything was better than stillness of the cold I’d used to forge myself anew. I held it up for Hakram to take, but he shook his head. He was impossibly hard to make it out in the dark of night, shrouded in a way my fae sight should have ignored. I was still new to this, though. There might be a trick to it. That I sometimes thought his eyes to be blue was evidence enough either the liquor had struck deep or I was using my not-eyes wrong.

“Two bottles are enough, I think,” the orc mildly said.

“A hundred wouldn’t be,” I shrugged. “But two will have to do. Ratface only has so many on hand, and it will be weeks before we reach a city.”

“We lingered here longer than I expected,” Hakram agreed. “I would have thought the morning after your conversation with the Carrion Lord would see us march.”

“There are still so many things to do,” I said. “And it’s only the start, isn’t it?”

“You have the power to make changes now,” the orc said. “Real changes. Necessary ones.”

“Do I?” I said. “I could drown bastion in ice with a snap of my fingers, but what does that accomplish? So few of our problems can be solved with strength.”

“Yet without it, we would have no right to change anything at all,” Adjutant said.

“It’s a pretty song,” I said. “But it rings false. Having a mantle isn’t power, Hakram. It’s just a bigger hammer. Gods, I was taught by a man claiming only a speck of what I hold and he terrorized half the continent for decades.”

“You are not him,” the orc shrugged.

“No,” I agreed in a murmur. “No I am not. He would have been appalled by the amount of shortcuts we’re going to take.”

“Results-”

“Will have diminishing returns,” I interrupted. “We don’t have the foundation. That’s the part that will fuck us. And it’s too late to raise it, so we’ll have to rely on strength to keep it all together. That makes us fragile in a way I can do nothing about.”

“I do not understand your meaning,” the orc admitted.

I passed a hand through my hair, except Masego had told me it wasn’t really hair anymore.

“The east and the west,” I said. “Procer and Praes. The people at the top, they’re not there just because they can swing a sword real hard, are they? Malicia and Black won their civil war, but they haven’t been knifed since because they have support. That’s where their power springs from. Cordelia Hasenbach has troubles with her princes, sure, but she’s also got a coalition behind her. The weight of customs and laws. Legitimacy, in a word. They all rose up the hard way.”

“So did we,” Adjutant replied, cocking his head to the side with eerie grace.

I snorted.

“Who’s behind us, Hakram?” I said “A handful of Callowan nobles, half-heartedly and for lack of better options. Our army. Malicia will turn on us son enough, and Black’s in the wind. We took too many shortcuts.”

“Your reputation has weight with the people,” the orc said.

“That’s not stable,” I said. “Because if a Fairfax makes an unpopular decision, they’re still a Fairfax. There’s unrest, but it holds together. I’m a godsdamned warlord. I mean, Hasenbach outright told me didn’t she? No one wants to deal with me because I’m essentially a Callowan Dread Empress in their eyes. This is the very thing that’ll come around to bite us after the Battle of the Camps: if fear and force and reputation are the pillars of my reign, the moment one of them comes tumbling down it all follows. And instead of recognizing that, admitting my limitations, I’ll double down and head for Keter of all places.”

“Tyrants are rulers as well, Catherine,” Hakram reminded me.

“And tyranny is the best I can manage, isn’t it?” I said. “Well-meaning, but still that. The thing is, by now I know I’m not good at this. I could barely handle the Ruling Council when it was stacked in my favour with Black standing behind me. And still a month from now I’m going to put on a crown.”

Hakram looked surprised at my words, for some reason.

“You would surrender authority entirely, then?” he asked.

“I should never have been queen,” I said. “At most a temporary regent while looking for a better candidate. There are things I’m good at, but ruling isn’t one of them. I should have put my effort to those instead and left the crown to someone suited for it.”

“And what it is that you’re good at, if not this?” Hakram pressed.

“Breaking things,” I said. “Facing the monsters so that the real work can take place behind me. I should have talked with Cordelia, I-”

My fingers clenched around the bottle.

“- I haven’t talked with Cordelia at all,” I said. “Not yet.”

“No,” Hakram said in someone else’s voice, “you had not.”

There were some who might have called this a triumph.

It’d been a victory beyond my rights to expect, anyway. Legions of enemy drow, some of the finest Mighty in the Everdark and even the two-faced goddess herself: they had come, and they had died. Great Strycht had died with them, along with too many drow to count. How many of the corpses down below belonged to nisi, I wondered? There were too many dead for most of them to be Mighty, or even dzulu. The way I’d killed Sve Noc… I frowned, unable to remember the details. I must still be digesting the Night, it would take some time before my mind was in order again. Still, the aftermath was clear enough. Streaks of Winter still running wild through a city older than the kingdom of my birth, warbands of roving blue-eyed dead led by my expanded Peerage stamping down the last of the resistance. I had exactly what I’d come for, didn’t I? An entire race made into an army, or close enough. All it had taken was massacre upon massacre upon massacre. If there was any justice in the world my hands would dyed scarlet red, but when had justice last made itself heard? No, down here there was only us – and justice was whatever we said it was.

Archer’s steps were light, but not so light that I did not hear or recognize them. Her gait was well-known to me. She stood at the edge by my side, not deigning to sit with her legs dangling in the void like I did. To think I’d been afraid of heights, once. Now I could grow wings with the slightest exertion of will – and there would be more tricks, when the whole of the Night was known to me. Millennia of slaughter in the dark, every ugly parcel made my own. I’d gained more than mere troops by coming to the Everdark.

“Still brooding, I see,” Indrani said.

I did not turn to meet her gaze.

“Contemplating consequences,” I said. “This was no small thing we did today.”

“That’s always the way,” Indrani dismissed. “There’s only one question that matters – now what?”

“Now they take the oaths,” I said. “The Mighty, anyway. I’m still debating how many of the dzulu should.”

“And we go home,” she wistfully said.

“No,” I replied, shaking my head. “I made them my responsibility, ‘Drani. All of them. I can’t just take my army and leave the rest to die by dwarf.”

“They can’t go to Callow, Catherine,” Indrani said. “It would end the kingdom to have that many foreign settlers.”

“That was never the plan,” I snorted. “Gods, Callow? It can barely even tolerate Praesi and greenskins that fought three campaigns to defend it. No, they need a home of their own.”

“Where?” Archer asked, and I raised an eyebrow at her voice.

It had echoed strangely. There were old magics in this place I had barely begun to understand – and perhaps never would.

“If we leave them in the mountains above this, they’ll starve,” I said. “You saw how they feed themselves – they need lakes, they need fields.”

“The Principate of Pracer,” Indrani said. “That’ll be difficult. How much of it could you even take, reasonably?”

“Are you drunk already?” I frowned. “Procer, you tart. And that’s a recipe for disaster, anyway. They’d be in constant war with the surviving princes, assuming the additional chaos doesn’t just collapse the place and allow the Dead King to roll through it. No, there’s only one place that can really work. If we play it right, we can even get most the continent to back us in the war.”

“Praes,” Archer guessed.

“Keter,” I contradicted. “The Kingdom of the Dead.”

There was a heartbeat of silence.

“That was in poor taste,” Indrani said.

“Think for a moment,” I said. “Neshamah just declared war on every Good nation on this continent. Even if the Grand Alliance could beat him – which, to be honest, I have my doubts about – Procer pretty much ends as a nation from the beating it’ll take in the process. And even if they do drive him back, as long as he’s not permanently dead what was accomplished? He’ll have lost a few dead heroes, a few undead armies. Nothing he can’t grow back given long enough. But this? It offers Cordelia another way. A long-term solution.”

I breathed out slowly.

“If the drow settle in the Kingdom of the Dead, they can be the lid on the bottle of awful that is the Dead King,” I said. “With the oaths, Procer doesn’t have to worry about invasion from the fresh Evil nation at its northern border. And if the drow thrive? All the better. A stronger cork means Neshamah will never be able to get out. Sold like this, if we come to the Grand Alliance when they’ve grown desperate? They’ll sign. Or they’ll split, because I don’t see the First Prince throwing away half her country no matter what her allies say.”

“It is a blighted, poisonous wasteland,” Indrani said.

“We have Hierophant,” I flatly said. “And the same mages that burned a fucking pass through the Whitecaps. The whole priesthood of the west, too. Hells, we do this the right way we might even get most the heroes on board. There have to be a few of them that aren’t useless at everything but killing. We can make the place livable, there’s no doubt. Besides, we camped up north and the land there was fine. It’s mostly the south and centre that are poisonous. ”

“But first we go to war,” Archer said.

“As little as we can,” I said. “We gate in, bring Black home no matter what he’s up to or wants – this is too delicate a situation to let him meddle. Then I go to Hasenbach with the Accords and the settlement plan. I’d rather not twist her arm if I can avoid, but I’ll sack cities if I have to. And after that, we make war on the King of Death. All the continent, if we can manage it, against Neshamah.”

“Ambitious,” Indrani mused.

I paused and turned.

“You’re not Archer,” I said. “She would have gotten bored halfway through that.”

“No,” Andronike said. “We are not.”

The two of them were standing at the edge, looking down at my… dream? Was I dreaming? I couldn’t remember going to sleep. The last thing I could remember, actually, was – Ibreathedmydesperatelastbreathclawingatthedark. I shivered. Night had fallen.

“Am I dead?” I softly asked.

“At the threshold,” Komena said. “Not quite through.”

“Then this was my last conversation,” I said. “Would have mouthed off more if I’d known.”

“Are you not going to beg?” Andronike said.

I laughed.

“Again?” I said. “The first time didn’t work, why would the second?”

“The nerezim are on the march,” Komena said. “You struck bargain with them.”

“I did,” I agreed. “Not that the oath would hold me anymore. We saw to that.”

“They cannot be defeated in battle,” the younger Sve Noc said. “We have seen this. They have… grown in the years since our last wars. Beyond even our ability.”

“Scary talk, coming from a goddess,” I murmured.

“And how would you meet this threat, Catherine Foundling?” Andronike asked.

I blinked.

“Me?” I said. “Who would you care what I think? You two rapscallions eviscerate me and took my stuff without too much trouble, give or take a few pleas.”

“You have proved to possess a form of low cunning,” Komena said.

“I’m dying, you know,” I chided. “You could at least be nice about it.”

“You evade,” Andronike said. “Cease.”

I waved a careless hand.

“Send an envoy to them,” I said. “My read on their whole invasion thing is that they’re not really interested in your holdings so much as they are in you not being there to trouble their backs. It’s the Dead King they want bottled up.”

Two pairs of silvery blue eyes remained fixed on me.

“Make a pact,” I said. “They give you long enough to evacuate, supplies to survive upstairs for a few months, and in exchange you go after the Kingdom of the Dead. Given that kind of an opportunity, they might even make a grab for the underground of Keter.”

“They have not proved amenable to peace offerings before,” Andronike said. “Attempts were made, I assure you.”

“Because they can’t settle the entire rim around the Kingdom of the Dead if there’s a chance their lines will collapse because you hit their back,” I pointed out. “If you go upstairs and southwest, not only is that threat gone but you’ve become their first line of defence against the Serenity. I don’t care how much they hate you, they’ll want to take that deal.”

They kept staring at me in silence.

“Dangerous,” Andronike said.

“Bold,” Komena disagreed. “Unorthodox. She was right, heart of my heart. We have grown stiff.”

“And it will get worse,” her sister murmured.

I rose to my feet.

“I take it this the end, then,” I said, looking up at the darkness above us. “Will you make it painless?”

“You should know better by now,” Komena idly said, circling around me.

“We have a use for you, Catherine Foundling,” Andronike continued, from the other side.

“If we are to return to the Burning Lands, we will need a guide.”

“A herald.”

“An anchor.”

“You offered an act of faith, Losara,” Sve Noc smiled. “It did not go unheard.”

Their eyes burned pale blue, almost silver.

“Rise, first among the priesthood of Night, and wake up.”

I opened my eyes, shivering with pain and gloriously mortal.

Chapter 81: Only To The Just

“Thus the Gods granted us the second boon: beyond the veil of death lies a land of always plenty, which will only be open to the just.”
– The Book of All Things, fifth verse of the second hymn

Why was a trial taking place at all?

I kept my face expressionless even as the question consumed me. I knew why Akua would want one: given long enough, she could probably convince a circle it was actually a square. I also knew why Komena wanted one, or rather didn’t. She simply didn’t have the power to do anything about it at the moment. What was tripping me up, though, was why Andronike had boarded this ship. She’d already implied Diabolist might be troublesome if allowed to continue whatever folly she’d been up to out there, but that couldn’t possibly be enough of a reason to indulge this farce. I gave it better than even odds that Akua had come in here with an exit strategy, a way to flee if this turned sour on her, but why not simply hang me on a crook and temporarily devote their energies to taking care of the Diabolist issue before resuming? There was, I decided, a deeper game afoot. True to form, I was the only player involved unaware of the stakes and the rules. Could I feel out the shape of it by figuring out what the older sister was after? No, I decided after a short beat. Even now she was too hard to figure out. On the other hand, I knew Akua like few others. Her I might be able to use for the purpose. So, Diabolist, I thought. What are you actually up to?

“You claimed the role of defender,” Andronike said, silver eyes unblinking. “Proceed, shade.”

“As a titled noble of the Dread Empire of Praes, Catherine Foundling is owed trial before a jury of her peers,” Akua mused. “Yet I suppose you will have to do.”

The insult I immediately discarded as unimportant. She’d never been quite as above trash talk as she liked to pretend, a tendency that exposure to the Woe had only worsened. She was establishing my stature as a Praesi noblewoman – which technically was true, since Malicia had years ago titled me Lady of Marchford even though greater titles had since eclipsed that grant – but also recognizing that the older half of Sve Noc had right of judgement over me. One or both parts of that were useful to her purposes, I decided.

“There is no empire here save ours,” Komena denied bluntly. “Your laws and dues are of no worth.”

Thrust and parry, I frowned. Had it simply been an attempt to make Praesi laws apply to whatever the Hells this was turning into? She’d certainly be more familiar with them than anyone else here, and that opened the door to a multitude of exploitable technicalities. But it should have been fairly predictable that wouldn’t work, we had nowhere near enough leverage in this to make that hold. My eyes flicked to Andronike’s calm face. Arguably no leverage at all, I thought. And yet here we were. She was getting something out of this, something separate from the offer I’d extended. What? The answer to that question was the key to surviving this.

“Then you stand here in your role as shared rulers of the Everdark,” Diabolist said. “With all attendant duties and privileges.”

I knew that faintly indifferent tone of voice all too well. It was the same she’d used every time she was making sport of me before an audience of fellow Wasteland vultures. She’d laid a trap and Komena had fallen for it. Establishing stakes? If the sisters were here as rulers of their kind, the outcome of this might apply to all drow. Which meant that the outcome of this bad play mattered somehow, there’d be no point in pushing for this if it didn’t. I bit my lip. Why would it? We had no way of enforcing anything, the power disparity was to the point of the absurd. It would take something-

“Oh fuck me,” I murmured.

-something even stronger to do that. Like a story. Akua was trying to screw them the exact same way I’d screwed her at First Liesse. Except this time I was theoretically on her side and essentially blind as to the specifics of what she was trying to accomplish. The moment I opened my mouth to say anything I might very well be striking a match in a munitions warehouse.

“That is so,” Andronike replied without hesitation. “I stand in judgement over an invader.”

Think, Catherine. What does ‘Nike get out of this? Why does she play along? This ended either in my acquittal, which I suspected was what Akua might be going for, or in my conviction. Somehow I doubted Diabolist and Andronike were after the same outcome, which meant ‘Ol Silver was aiming for the noose. What would she get from it that choking me out earlier wouldn’t have accomplished?

“Good,” Diabolist smiled. “Now, I believe that assertion was made pride has been her sole master all these years. I would bring evidence to the contrary. Catherine, if I may?”

“Try not to make a mess,” I sighed.

“But that’s not why I’m making this decision. There are eight thousand innocents in Marchford, Juniper. I refuse to abandon them.”

Her grip was lighter, I’d give her that much. Maybe as a consequence the memory didn’t feel nearly as vivid, and it took me a moment to place it. War council of the Fifteenth, after the demon had slipped the leash in the hills south of Marchford. When my officers had been arguing for retreat west and abandonment of the city. I had not forgot, though, exactly who it was that’d loosed the demon in question. Hard to, when she was the same woman currently speaking in my defence.

“The Battle of Marchford,” Akua said. “A choice between pragmatic retreat and principled stand. This too, Sve Noc, is a pattern that must be recognized: holding to loyalties in the face of danger, even when inconvenient.”

I chewed on the inside of my cheek. Yeah, she was definitely going for acquittal here. Which I supposed might mean being worthy of allying with? At least half of Sve Noc seemed aware there was a story in the works here, and so she might step carefully if Diabolist pulled this off, but even then I didn’t see the ‘wrong’ verdict holding up afterwards. Which might be what Akua is actually after, I frowned. Putting at our back a story of the sisters breaking their word, even if it was only implicitly given. It’d been a mistake in thinking to assume that the shade would be after the same thing I was, namely making allies with the pair. Akua Sahelian was a creature who only ever sought absolute endings, be they victories or defeats. And that meant, unfortunately, that putting all my coin on the madwoman trying to fool living gods wasn’t an option. I couldn’t just lie there like a dead fish and await salvation. Even if she managed to win, it would be the wrong damned sort of victory. Shit. That meant I’d have to handle her, Andronike and Komena at the same time. Each of them after something different and in at least one case what exactly remaining unclear to me. This was going to get trickier than I was equipped to handle.

“Laughable,” Komena said. “Is there a single teacher or benefactor she has not turned on?”

I gasped as she riffled through my memories none too gently. The images flickered in quick succession: putting a knife in Black, after the dust had settled on Second Liesse. Coronation in Laure, as good as open rebellion against Malicia. Standing before the Queen of Summer and the King of Winter, unmaking them both by giving them exactly what they wanted.

“All of which betrayed her first, in one manner or another,” Diabolist shrugged. “Can you show me a single instance where she was first to wield the knife?”

“And so she is indecisive as well as untrustworthy,” Komena mocked. “You dig ever deeper.”

“Now now,” Akua chided. “Personal attacks are the mark of failed argument. If you’ve no counterpoint to offer, such flailing only serves to shed further light on your incompetence.”

“A single instance taking place prior to the acquisition of her mantle,” Andronike said. “Your argument stands, shade, yet not as tall as you would wish. I require more recent decisions. You were yourself instrumental in the enslavement of many of my kind. The matter must be addressed.”

I drummed my fingers against my leg. There it was, the hint as to what she was after. Like I’d thought it, was conviction she wanted. So she was on her sister’s side. Whatever hesitation I’d sown was gone, they were back to riding the same horse. No, I suddenly thought. They aren’t. Komena might be serving as the attack hound, at the moment, but that wasn’t what she actually wanted. If given the power she’d strike us both down in an instant. Andronike’s road still ended in my death, presumably, but she wanted to carry out the full farce first. Make it about my being judged and then annihilated. The semblance of justice had some use to her. The whole thing still had the smell of sacrifice to it, but there was a difference between simple victory by strength and the hanging of a villain. The latter had a narrative behind it, and I could only see one use for that: she wanted to ride it against Winter. That was the only reason she’d humoured Diabolist, she wanted Fate to back her claim on my former mantle. And so finally I knew what everyone was after: Akua wanted to trick the sisters to their death, Komena wanted heads for her spikes and Andronike wanted me to walk to the altar willingly.

And I needed to outmanoeuver the three of them simultaneously, while prone and having my mind ransacked.

“Oaths were taken, this is true,” Diabolist said. “Yet willingly, in fair bargain.”

“Death or kneeling is no bargain,” Komena said. “It is conquest by another name. Most damningly of all, it is failed conquest. There is no victory to redeem the outrage.”

“Can one be made a slave twice over?” Akua denied. “Were the Firstborn not already owned?”

“Then the offence of theft is to be added to insult,” the younger sister replied.

“You concede, then, that the drow were and remain slaves,” Diabolist pressed.

Komena hesitated, smelling the trap. I could have taken the moment to try to unfold Akua’s latest trick, but there was no point to that. I wouldn’t get through this by following her lead. Two outcomes to a trial, conviction or acquittal. That it was rigged from the start mattered little, I thought, it was only playacting to strengthen a story. Could I break this, then? Refuse to recognize the authority of my judge? No, that’d only give Komena what she wanted. Heads, spikes, the usual. It irked me that the proceedings themselves were largely meaningless: it was all  just squabbling for the right position in the eyes of the story. Diabolist and Andronike were fighting over the knife they both wanted to wield, the ‘being in the right’, but I suspected the moment it was clear Sve Noc would not get what she was after she’d discard the pretence and turn to violence. You’re still trying to win according to the rules, I remembered, when you should be trying to win despite them. Gods, it would be so much easier to be rid of him if his lessons were not so useful. Even now, years later and hundreds of miles away from anything he’d ever seen. As in so many things, Black had the right of it.

Nowhere this ‘trial’ would lead to suited me, and so there was no need for me to play along with it.

I closed my eyes and the talk washed over me. Komena walked back her first claim, terming her people as servants instead, and Akua argued that servants finding other employment was no crime. They went around in a circle, Sve Noc claiming the service was to Below and so meddling in the matter was blasphemy, Akua arguing that as a villain I was equally in Below’s service and so no blasphemy was had. The shade was better at this: they’d put up their soldier against my schemer. And while we were fresh off our wars with Above, they’d been stewing in a hole of their own making for millennia. We had the edge, by the slightest of margins. That edge just wasn’t being used for what I wanted. I croaked out a laugh, opening my eyes.

“Do you hear the sound, Andronike?” I said.

There was a pause in the argument.

“Catherine-” Akua began, but I shook my head.

I met her gaze. Trust me, I silently asked. I have taken us from one mess to another, and twice you’ve had to save my life tonight. Trust me anyway. Slowly the shade nodded. She had been my nemesis, once. There had been understanding in that as well as hatred.

“I hear a trial,” Andronike replied.

“Not me,” I mused. “It’s just this awful patter I can make out. Click click click. Claws and feet. Four crabs in a bucket.”

She eyed me in confusion.

“Ah, not familiar with those I take it,” I said. “They’re these-”

“I know what a crab is, Catherine Foundling,” Sve Noc flatly replied.

“They trap those, in the city I was born,” I said. “In cages, then they take them out and put them in buckets. Went swimming a few times when I was a kid, and once I came across this crabber. He’d taken them out of his cage and put them in one of those very buckets. I was surprised when I saw it was just a regular old one – no trick to it, not even a lid. So I went up to the man and asked why they didn’t just escape. You know what he said?”

The drow did not reply.

“A single crab would escape,” I smiled. “But when you have more than one? The moment it’s about to get out, the others will drag it back down.”

“This again,” Komena sneered. “Is there-”

“Now, all that’s left of this one is hunger and hubris,” I casually interrupted, jamming a thumb towards the younger drow. “I forgive her for it. And Akua, well, she was raised in a bucket even more vicious than this one. She’s still learning to let go of those blinders. You, though? I’m disappointed that at no point you figured out you could simply ask.”

“Would you like to confess?” Andronike calmly said.

“Click click click,” I replied. “You’re still acting like the only way you can win is if I lose. We both know that’s not true.”

“Apotheosis,” she said, “cannot be partitioned.”

“So that’s the pebble in your boot,” I snorted. “Gods, you think I want to be Queen Bitch of Night? There’s not a lot things I’m afraid of, but going back to the mantle is one. It was like having a sieve between me and Creation with only the ugly stuff going through.”

“It’s a trap, sister,” Komena said. “The shade will have its jaws unhinged, lurking behind us.”

“Akua Sahelian,” I said. “I order you to discard whatever you have wrought.”

“We can still triumph,” Diabolist quietly said, facing me in full.

“And that’s the kind of victory we all prefer, isn’t it?” I pensively said. “Complete. Mistress of the field, every opponent ground to dust.”

I flicked a glanced at where I’d ripped out her hear, then at the halves of Sve Noc.

“Look where it’s gotten us, thinking of compromise as weakness,” I said. “A shade and half a corpse. The two cannibal goddesses of an endless butcher’s yard.”

“We are nothing like you,” Komena hissed.

“Look at us, you fucking fool,” I hissed back. “Actually look at us. Is there a single one of us that isn’t a monumental failure? I carved open like a pig the only thing I’ve ever tried to save, again and again. Akua watched every single belief she held to burn to the ground around her before I ripped out her beating heart. And you two, Komena, Merciless Gods – even a monstrous thing like Wandering Bard pitied you for this.”

“And who are you to lecture us?” Andronike said. “Who are you, that your advice should be heeded? By your own lips an admitted derelict.”

“I’m not better than you,” I said. “That’s not what this is about. We could all debate body counts and ruins until the Last Dusk but what would that accomplish? One of us being the worst of the lot doesn’t change what’s on all our shoulders. Nothing does.”

“Desperate,” Komena scathingly said. “Running scared. This is no offer, it is terror gilded with false sentiment.”

“This is absurd,” I laughed. “We’re holding a trial over what, my worthiness? I am a funeral procession of mistakes and horrors. We all are. Plunder my memories all you like for justifications or blemishes, it doesn’t make this any less of a sham. Sure, I’m a monster. What do you care?”

“And you would have us clasp hands in alliance with a monster,” Andronike said. “A strange argument you make.”

“Like you give a shit about humans dying,” I snorted. “Or even about my character, such as it is. I’m not asking you on a moonlit walk for a spot of kissing, Sve Noc, I’m offering you a power stolen through murder to help you cheat the death of your entire race. Again. Why are we still pretending my regrets or principles have any weight on these scales?”

“We would have no guarantees on their end,” Akua said, voice blanked of emotion. “No means to ensure they hold up their part.”

“It’s always the need for control that fucks us, isn’t it?” I mused. “It killed the very partnership that dug Praes out of the pit. You and me too, Diabolist. How much could we have avoided if instead of clawing at each other we’d sat down and talked? How many tragedies would have never come to pass if we’d just bent our proud necks the slightest bit?”

I looked at the sisters.

“You think I’m a fool,” I said. “Fine. My record holds to it. But ask yourselves this: a century from now, while you watch the essence of Winter turn your people into animals despite your best efforts, will you not regret this even a little? That one moment where you could have done it differently?”

“Different is not better,” Komena said.

“It could be worse,” I agreed. “I won’t deny that. Devouring Winter is an agony assured, but this could turn out worse. It’s still a chance, though.”

I clenched my fingers then unclenched them.

“It’s an unknown,” I said. “It’s terrifying and dark and it could be the single worst thing any of us has ever done – but it’s not impossible to get out of a bucket. You need to own that, deep down. That if we’re the crabs we’re that because of fear and not because there was no other way.”

The silence that followed hung heavy over all of us. There was a song in it, I thought. Four monsters assembled in a room that wasn’t. Night twofold, harsh and serene. The Doom of Liesse and the Black Queen who slew her. The silver-eyed sisters were mirroring statues of stillness, not a hint as to their thoughts revealed. Andronike eventually let out a breath.

“It burns, doesn’t it?” she told her sister. “Sincerity. I’d forgotten the taste of it.”

“Once more we come to the crossroads, heart of my heart,” Komena murmured. “I believed in you then. I believe in you now. But this?”

She shook her head.

“Beautiful words, Catherine Foundling,” she said. “Yet still only words. It was no kindness to any of us, letting you speak.”

My hands shook. Gambled and lost. All of it. Akua stirred but I leant back against the pillar. Fighting was pointless. I’d asked for a leap of faith from the faithless and received the inevitable from that arrogant roll of the dice.

“Asked,” I repeated in a murmur.

Hypocrite to end, was I? Demanding what I would not offer. Was compromise on my own terms even compromise at all, or just victory by another name? For all I’d said tonight, one thing had not changed: I had not learned to lose. I dragged myself up, biting my lip not to scream at the flare of pain.

“Hear me, Sve Noc,” I said. “Whatever claim I yet hold to Winter, I pass to you. My crown of Moonless Night, I lay at your feet. I stand before you without power or right to my name, mortal at your mercy.”

Two pairs of silver eyes widened. I could feel the crushing weight of them swelling, breaking the memory apart at the seams.

“Help me,” I asked, begged, prayed. “Please.”

Night fell over me and I breathed my last desperate breath, clawing at the dark.

Chapter 80: So Below

“I speak today not for humble man-eating tapirs but instead for the most ambitious specimens their kind has ever known. Is it not the sacred duty of all Creation to seek to claim the Tower? How, then, could it have been a crime for these tapirs to follow this same dictate by devouring our late Emperor?”
– From official transcript from the Trial of Unexpected Teeth, opening speech of the defence

“What a silver tongue you have,” Andronike said. “But not quite silver enough. Your ignorance shows once more, Catherine Foundling.”

I tried to respond ‘when does it not?’, but I was currently being choked so it came out as more of a plaintive gurgle. So, this was how it ended: literally choking on my own words. Had to give her points for the irony, if nothing else.

“Allow me to educate you,” Sve Noc said, and threw me like a bloody rag doll.

Well, I thought, there’s a bright side to this. I’m currently not dead. Or at least not more than I was when this delightful interlude began. The slightly less bright side was that I was flying through flickering scenes, memories I could only glimpse the barest pieces of, and soon enough I would… Ah, there it is, I mused, managing to keep a semblance of mental calm as my leg snapped and my throat busied itself screaming. That utter asshole, I bet she’d aimed just so my bad leg would be the one getting the worst of the landing. I tumbled listlessly against the floor, my magical journey ending in the close acquaintance of my forehead and a stone wall. Still not dead, admittedly. I wouldn’t be in such an excruciating amount of pain if I was. My forehead was going to bruise, if I still had a body by the end of it. I moaned and flopped around until I was looking upwards, feeling out my knee and finding it only mostly broken. Could I still move on that? Maybe. There’d be a lot of howling involved, but it shouldn’t be impossible. I still stayed down for a while, lying uncomfortably on the floor.

In the distance people were dying.

“Educate me about that, would you?” I sighed. “Like I haven’t strolled through a dozen butcher’s yards.”

Might as well find out what had her tossing me around, I eventually decided. At this point I’d taken my swing and missed, I might as well die slightly less ignorant than usual. My good leg supported me as I forced myself up using the wall, taking a proper look around at my surroundings. Yet another drow city I’d never seen before, though I had a decent guess as to where we were: I was standing among a city-sized temple carved out of massive stalactites. The streets here were not interrupted by ‘canals’ that were effectively sheer drops, and hobbling to the edge of one told me there was an actual city below. If this wasn’t Holy Tvarigu, I’d eat my fingers… again? No, first time. I’d made other people – insofar as fae were people, anyway, – do it, but that hardly counted. I flinched at the vivid memory of it. Gods, I’d made people eat their hands. It’d seemed reasonable at the time, and damn me but I could still see the sense in it, but I couldn’t remember even hesitating for a moment. Not that hesitation would have made it better, I silently conceded. Cordelia Hasenbach’s passing comment had cut deeper than she knew.

What did regret matter, if it changed nothing?

The temple-city was strewn with corpses as far as I could see. Whatever battle had taken place here had ended, or at least near to it, and now this place was little more than a freshly-bloodied mausoleum. By Andronike’s passing mercy or a stroke of luck, I’d landed near the heart of the temple. I could only be thankful for that, I thought, as I eyed the mind-bogglingly complex web of stairways and bridges connecting everything. Some ways in front of me a wide staircase progressively narrowed in rising to meet a passage lightly sloped. On both sides it was flanked by a very short wall of painted stone topped by striking sculptures. It was a chain, I thought, as I began the painful climb. At the head of the stairs two androgynous drow of marble painted red and yellow roared out with curved blades in hand. From their back sprouted more drow in different colours, wielding whips and daggers, and facing those drow in hooded robes offered a supplicant’s kneel. The whirlwind of colours and faces and poses continued all the way to the end of the passage, where the heart of the temple-city awaited.

It took me far too long and far too many bouts of yelling to make it up the stairway, but the view when I did was almost worth it. Wouldn’t keep me alive, but that was probably asking too much. The riot of vivid pigments should have turned it ugly, but there was something almost hypnotic about the sight before me. More ziggurat than pyramid, though that failed to truly catch the essence of it: it was almost a stairway of giant steps, but a triangular mouth going all the way to the summit struck out from the rest of the structure – which was roofed, at that narrowest point, by some sort of cylindrical tiled pavilion. At the four cardinal directions pale or red stone made up the life and death of celestial orbs: sun on the rise and fall, moon ascendant and passing. It was like looking at a hundred rainbows made into stone and woven into a single tapestry. There was hardly a trace of such wonder left in what I’d seen of the Everdark. The thought shook me out of the trance and I resumed my advance. Halfway through the passage I finally noticed I’d not been alone for some time: hidden among the statues were drow, armed and armoured. They’d been so utterly still I’d never noticed. I continued limping until I entered the heart-temple, and there I found what Andronike had meant for me to find.

Inside were burned made of what must have been all precious materials in existence, from ivory to a massive hollowed out emerald, and every single one of them was wafting thick trails of scented smoke. At the centre of the shivering columns the two sisters were kneeling in front of simple carved piece of obsidian. A star map, by the looks of it. Andronike finished unfurling a large scroll filled with equations and incantations I’d already seen before, then passed her fingers over to smooth it out.

“Ready?” Komena asked.

“How could anyone be?” her sister replied. “Yet here we are.”

She breathed in loudly.

“We request audience,” Andronike said.

“We request bargain,” her sister said.

I hobbled forward with an expectant gaze, strangely eager to see the moment where they’d sold out their race with the best of intentions, but nothing happened at all. Stillness held the room.

“Damn me,” Andronike said with quiet horror. “I have killed us all.”

Her sister opened her mouth to answer, but was interrupted by an unholy ruckus. A dozen burners had been tipped over, by the sounds of it, and for a moment I thought it’d been me. But no – I turned, and there was someone in the middle of a set of spilled burners who’d quite evidently tripped on them. A drow, I saw. It rose hastily, pretending nothing had happened, and retched a little before slapping away the thick smoke.

“Gods,” the drow retched again. “That stuff is foul.”

Both sisters went still.

“O Shrouded God,” Komena said hesitantly, but the newcomer’s hand rose.

“Give me a moment, girls,” it rasped out.

It patted at its dirty robes and produced a flash of polished copper. My heart skipped a beat. The Wandering Bard uncorked her flask and took a deep drink, before gargling it and spitting out the liquor. The sisters traded an appalled look. A little less godly than they’d been aiming for, I supposed. The Bard took another swallow of liquor, wiped her mouth and went looking through the tipped burner before triumphantly snatching out a broken lute. Apparently she’d mistakenly spat some liquor on it, because with a shoddy attempt at discretion she began wiping at the wood with her sleeve.

“Good enough,” the Bard announced. “Right, so onto business.”

“You are no deity,” Komena flatly said.

“Well spotted,” Bard cheerfully replied. “And to think they told me you were the stupid one. For the purposes of this conversation, you might consider me an envoy of sorts.”

“You claim to speak for the Gods,” Andronike frowned.

“Oh, I wouldn’t go as far as that,” she said. “I’ve never been quite that much of a fool. But you called and here I am.”

“Are you a devil?” Komena pressed.

“Would it matter if I were?” the Bard shrugged. “Regardless, I hear the two of you are looking for a loan.”

The sisters stirred, Andronike picking up the scroll she’d unfurled.

“A miracle is what we would bargain for,” she said. “The specifics-”

“Are known to me,” Bard replied, waving the words away and accidentally sloshing some booze onto the floor.

One of the burners caught fire, and everyone delicately pretended it was not actually happening.

“Even the parts you got ambitious with,” she continued, lifting a finger off her flask to wag it chidingly. “Making it reusable? Now now, that’s trying to inflate the value. Just because you shove old skills and power into new heads doesn’t mean the following deaths are worth as much as the first.”

“We sought only to offer the finest possible tribute,” Komena baldly lied.

“I can’t believe I’m rooting for you right now,” I muttered.

Still, if the opposition was the Wandering Bard then ‘All is Night’ was most definitely the banner of the moment.

“More need than brains, huh,” Bard drawled. “No wonder you’re in good odour with the old crowd. Still, you two are a little late. They’ve been a lot more careful about where they put their money since Nessie ate the hand that fed him.”

“We offered all we have,” Andronike gravely said.

“Yeah, but you don’t have enough,” the old thing said. “I’ll level with you two, since you seem slightly less awful than your average drow. This? This whole thing? It’s not anybody’s plan. No one thought you’d actually fuck up so badly you’d obliterate yourselves. The folks upstairs are watching like hawks, and the other side’s wondering if it’s worth it to intervene given the… costs of such direct action.”

“We offer fair bargain,” Komena insisted.

“Fair is for children,” the Bard said. “They’re not interested in it.”

“Yet here you are,” Andronike said, amber eyes narrowing.

“Killing the Sages and calling Below in the middle of their seat of power was a nice touch,” she replied. “Got you the audience and a consideration. But the terms are going to need to change a bit.”

“This is an exceedingly delicate arrangement,” Komena said. “We can’t simply-”

“You will,” the Wandering Bard gently said. “Or you’ll die, every last one of you.”

“Speak your terms,” Andronike replied.

It sounded like a surrender, because it was.

“‘Nike-” her younger sister began.

“We are in no position to negotiate,” the older drow tiredly said.

“Debt isn’t wiped,” the Bard spoke softly into the silence that followed. “The Night will keep you all alive, but you two will need to keep it going. And if you stop…”

The ancient entity grimaced.

“Well, they’re not above cutting their losses,” Bard said. “Let’s leave it at that.”

“Should we even bother to accept?” Komena harshly replied. “Or is even that formality unnecessary?”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” the Wandering Bard murmured. “There are some things worse than death, and what this will make of you is one.”

She drank once more, then offered a sharp grin.

“But we all know better, don’t we?” she said.

I’d known how it would end from the start. I’d seen what had become of the Everdark and the two sisters, after all. And still, watching the light dim in the eyes of the two true drow in the room, I felt my stomach drop. Was there a single horror in this continent’s history the Wandering Bard did not have a hand in? The thing was, I understood why they’d made this choice. It was uncomfortable to even think it, but if offered the same terms with my own people on the line I would very likely make the same choice. Passing a hand through my hair, I gingerly lowered myself down to the floor while leaning against a pillar. So which part of this had it been that Andronike wanted me to see? Even odds it was either the Bard’s very presence or that threatening little bit at the end. They’re not above cutting their losses, the Intercessor had said. Was a gentle way to speak of genocide. Was that what Andronike was afraid of? That the moment she and I made common cause, a snap of the fingers Below would destroy her entire race? But it shouldn’t work out like that, I thought with a frown. The Gods were, well, exactly that. All-powerful. They could probably end the Night and likely Winter itself. But there was a story unfolding, and if they did anything of the sort they’d be directly meddling.

They couldn’t do that without opening the door for Above to do the same, and the Heavens should be taking a brutal beating right about now. The Dead King was on the march, the last thing Below would want was Above getting a free swing at him.

“So it’s the Bard you wanted me to see,” I said, raising my voice.

“The Bard,” Sve Noc repeated, walking out from behind the pillar. “What a quaint name. We knew her as the Envoy.”

“Neshamah called her the Intercessor,” I said. “And I suppose if anyone’s got her number it’s him.”

“The King in Keter wears a crown of lies,” the silver-eyed drow replied. “No creature born of this land has ever been half as skilled at the art.”

She moved to lean against the pillar I was sitting back against, standing above in both the physical and metaphysical sense. Well, at least one of those was new.

“He’s her enemy,” I said. “Trusting him would be foolish, but he wants her to bleed. That much can be believed in.”

“Trust is always foolish,” Sve Noc smiled. “It is faith writ small, and almost as dangerous.”

“So did you throw me here for a game of riddles?” I drily replied. “Because I can roll with it. The more you make, the more you leave behind. What-”

“Footsteps,” the goddess said.

“I might not win this,” I reluctantly conceded. “I only know, like, five riddles and that one was the best.”

If we made this about bawdy jokes instead my years at the Rat’s Nest would finally pay off, though. Worth a try.

“A riddle of my own, then,” Sve Noc said. “Why share what can be taken in full?”

I frowned, twisting to look up at her.

“You’re not Andronike,” I said.

“I never said I was,” Komena calmly replied.

“I’ve been over this with your sister,” I said. “But what the Hells, maybe the second time’s the charm. Just give me a moment to think of an insult to get you angry before this gets going.”

“Your offer has been made known to me,” Sve Noc contemptuously said. “There is no need to reiterate. I was partial to the notion of immediately crushing you underfoot, but request has been made that you be allowed to speak your piece first.”

Well, wasn’t that promising. I gazed ahead, honestly at a loss as to where to begin, and only now noticed the memory had stopped. Frozen. Maybe it really was only Komena’s memories, I thought. She certainly seemed to have greater control of our surroundings than her sister had. My eyes lingered on the Wandering Bard, the flask halfway to her mouth as she opened her mouth.

“She can be beaten, you know,” I said.

“You have not,” Sve Noc said. “And yet would demand that we throw in our lot with you.”

“I haven’t, it’s true, but there’s a villain down south called the Tyrant,” I said. “I have it from two rather reliable sources that he screwed with her plans in a major way last year. It can be done.”

“I lacked fear, once,” Komena said. “As you so foolishly do. I have since been taught better.”

“I just heard a woman try to lie to what she knew to be envoy from the Gods,” I said. “Brazenly so. She had a chance at getting her people out of this mess, I think.”

I smiled thinly.

“Now though?” I said. “You won’t even try. My opinion might be dross in your eyes, but I wonder what she’d think of you now.”

“Petty sentimentality,” she mused. “Is that truly the sum of what she brings, Andronike? This is what shook you?”

The other sister walked out from behind another pillar, this one in front of me. For terrifyingly ancient creatures, they did enjoy their petty theatrics.

“When have we last been called to account for our many sins, sister?” Andronike said. “There is worth in such a thing, even coming from her.”

“That last part was unnecessary,” I noted. “I mean, not wrong, but definitely unnecessary.”

“If you felt the need for a pet there are better choices,” Komena said, eyeing me darkly. “This one has been beaten too harshly to still be amusing.”

“I’m not even going to grace that with a response,” I indignantly said.

“A goddess has no interlocutors,” her sister said. “Only supplicants.”

“Judgement only has meaning coming from one worthy of casting it,” Komena said. “This one hardly qualifies.”

“I’m not going to claim I’m a saint,” I said. “And I’ve definitely crossed some lines, but-”

“Is this where you claim influence by your mantle once more?” the younger sister asked. “You could, at least, attempt a believable lie. ‘Nike, she’s not even held her half of the Garden for a decade. The drift would be negligible. It was still her. The only difference was that she had power enough to cow her foes.”

My fingers clenched. I didn’t want to believe that, and I wasn’t sure I did. But this was the Pilgrim all over again, wasn’t it? If there was anyone learned on the subject of mantles in Calernia, it would be the two of them. On the other hand, she’d already confessed she intended to kill me. Believable lies from enemies were a deadly thing.

“Humans are notoriously weak-minded,” Andronike replied. “Arguably the ease of their swaying is their defining characteristic as a species.”

I grit my teeth. Insulting as this was, I wasn’t exactly in a position to contradict her. I only had the one crossbow to wield and it was currently pointed straight at my foot.

“This didn’t have to get racist,” I still protested.

“Then let us see,” Komena said, ignoring my perfectly valid complaint, “the stuff Catherine Foundling is made of. Grant me the power, sister. I will not destroy her yet.”

Andronike considered me for a long moment, then inclined her head. My mind was racing at the implications. Angry Sve couldn’t kill me without Calm Sve’s say-so, then. Andronike owned the floodgate even in here.

“Done,” she said.

Komena pushed herself up and came to stand over me. Well, it wasn’t like I was capable of stopping her. Might as well do what I did best: mouth off to entities beyond my comprehension.

“Please be gentle,” I shyly said. “It’s my first-”

“No,” Sve Noc cut in.

What followed lived up to the word. Before the Battle of the Camps, I remembered, I had gone looking through a Deoraithe soldier’s mind for bits of useful information. If it had felt anything like this I owed the man apology and restitution. The sensation of cold fingers prying through my memories had me regretting the jest I’d just made. It was an intrusion, on some fundamental level, and there was no hiding anything from Sve Noc’s piercing gaze.

“There,” she said. “We begin with blood.”

For what he said and what he’d done, I’d decided he deserved to die – my hand had done the rest without any need for prompting. Edge parallel to the ground, slicing across the major arteries just like the butcher did it to pigs in the marketplace.

I gasped out weakly. She’d brought that to the fore, but her grasp had not slackened. I could still smell the blood in the air, the taste of the first life I’d ever taken. I could almost feel Black looking on, face unreadable.

“Humans killing humans,” Andronike commented. “Nothing of import.”

“A child arrogating powers beyond her due,” Komena contradicted her. “The birth of a recurring pattern. And see how quickly it comes again-”

I let what I’d just done sink in, closing my eyes. With a life spared, I’d just killed thousands. I’d just promised cities to fire and ruin, sown the seeds of a rebellion that would rip the land of my birth – the very same land I wanted to save – apart. But I’d also bought the war I needed. Damn me, but I’d bought the war I needed.

The Lone Swordsman, granted his life so that I may rise through the deaths it would bring. My throat clogged with old disgust. I’d never gotten over that quite as well as I liked to pretend. I’d just had darker things to my name, usurping the place of that early sin when it came to the litany of my regrets.

“Her own kind, thrown into the flames,” Komena said. “There are no similarities, Andronike, only lies she made herself swallow.”

“Not done without purpose,” I croaked. “Not for the sport of it. Because I thought it had to be done.”

“You were wrong,” the silver-eyed drow said.

“I was,” I got out. “And I will be again. But it still matters. If I stand judgement then judge me for all of it. Not just the parts that suit you.”

“Not desperation, sister,” Komena said, turning to address our audience. “It was ambition that held the knife. Best not forget that.”

“Not always,” Andronike said.

I couldn’t beat the monsters by being better than them. I’d never had that in me. Too much impatience, too much recklessness. That was all right, though. There was another way: be the bigger monster.

Akua on the Blessed Isle, a false victory. The two of us under moonlight, the beginnings of a dance that would see us both spinning for years. The moment I’d first admitted to myself I could live with being a monster if I still won.

“Pride,” Komena objected, shaking her head. “Refusal to lose even at the cost of principle. Must I bring out every example of this?”

The duel against the Duke of Violent Squalls, the Arcadian Campaign, Second Liesse. More recent, after that. The Battle of the Camps, Keter. The moment I bestowed a title on Ivah and bound it by oaths.

“Always another sliver shaven off,” Komena said. “Another compromise. How long would it take before we became the sacrifice?”

Andronike did not answer. She was, I thought, being convinced.

“This is most irregular.”

Both halves of Sve Noc jolted in surprise, and the younger sister’s grasp slackened for a moment before tightening twice as hard. I craned my neck to look at the source of the sound and winced.

“Finally you crawl out of your hole, shade,” Komena smiled. “I will enjoy this a great deal.”

Akua Sahelian stood among us, her scarlet dress flowing down to her feet, and managed to convey utter disdain without ever significantly moving her face.

“There are proper forms to observe, you grasping savages,” Diabolist scoffed. “This is not at all how a rigged trial is held. I see an accuser yet no defence – you can, and indeed should, bribe the defender, but you cannot dispense with the office entirely. It is simply not done.”

“Sister,” Komena began, but the other raised her hand.

“She is less dangerous here than out there, stirring trouble,” Andronike said.

“I find the shallowness of your understanding deeply offensive,” the shade retorted, wrinkling her nose. “This is the finest your misbegotten race has to offer? Even the least of Tyrants would have made matching cutlery sets of you.”

“I know you think this is helping,” I began, then paused. “Wait, do you? Are you trying to help?”

“You test my patience, shade,” Andronike warned.

“You test mine, chattel,” Akua replied. “Even a devil is owed an advocate.”

Komena laughed mockingly.

“And you would be hers?” she said.

“Why,” Diabolist smiled, extending her arms, “I only want to see justice done. Shall we begin?”

There should be a rule, I decided, about last moment rescues not being allowed to make a situation worse.

Peregrine I

“Of all Choirs, beware of Mercy
The hand so patient and kindly
Of any sacrament, it is the last
And ever the most harshly cast.”
– Extract from the ‘Hymn of Hymns’, Atalantian sacred text (declared heresy in Procer and Callow)

 

Levante had swelled thick with death, birthing an unending parade of horrors.

For six months now the red plague had tormented the city, spreading through every nook and cranny. It took the young and the old, rode those it did not kill only to rise again the moment it was believed to have been ended. There had been rumours it was an Ashuran ship that first brought it to the capital, though that kind of talk was harshly stamped out by what remained of the city guard. The Dominion was too deeply in the debt of the Thalassocracy to be able to afford the squabble that would come of such an accusation. Debts of gold, debts of protection, debts of knowledge – some days it felt like the true rulers of Levant lived across the sea, assembled in some hidden committee. Tariq Isbili was too deeply exhausted to resent the Ashurans for it, and what little disgust he had left he reserved for his own kin. Even as the people of Levante died in droves the old city had remained closed, healers obsessively scrutinizing even the bushels of wheat that passed the walls. Yet his Honoured Mother, the Holy Seljun of Levant, was no fool. She knew it would look ill for the Blood of the Pilgrim to remain hidden in such dire time, and so she had chosen some of her issue to venture into the jaws of death. There had been five children to the Honoured Mother, when the decision made.

Three now remained, Tariq second eldest among them. His elder sister Yasa, as Honoured Daughter and heiress presumptive, had been spared. So had his distinguished younger brother Bakri, as his exploits in the Brocelian Forest brought much-needed luster to the Blood. Tariq himself had been commanded to remain, but left without reply out of sheer contempt for the order. Of all his siblings he was the only one to have learned sacraments and the lesser ways of healing. Honoured Mother, he knew, wished to preserve him in the hope he would one day join the ranks of the Lanterns and provide useful ties to their lodges. A petty desire. Tariq would not hide behind tall walls when his people were dying like animals mere street corners away. Five months had passed, since that rebellion, and over their span the stench and wailing of the dying had become as old friends. He had gone from charnel yard to charnel yard, wielding cleansing Light until his vision swam and his hands trembled. The other healers had handled him with care, at first, trying to keep him away from the worst of it. He’d ignored their attempts and headed where the plague struck hardest, and as the weeks passed the attempts became rarer and rarer until they ended entirely.

They looked to him for instructions, now, for most the men and women who had given these had since died to the sickness. His two younger brothers had been lost as well, even if they’d been relegated to safer duties like commanding the city guard and overseeing the city’s quarantine. Idhari has survived a riot of the plague-ridden only to take sick himself, and after the plague sunk deep into him no amount of Light was enough to save his life. Tariq himself had nearly died pouring all he could in his brother’s feverish body, weeping as he held his Idhari’s corpse. Just a boy, he’d thought. He was just a boy. Sanja had escaped the red plague but not the knife. As overseer of the quarantine he’d been taking bribes in exchange for allowing wealthy individuals to flee the city. Word of it had reached their Honoured Mother, and secret decree come down. Sanja had ‘heroically died’ attempting to prevent his greedy right hand from breaking quarantine in exchange for bribes, slain when he confronted the desperate man. Those who knew better would hold their tongues, for one did not lightly lay accusations as the feet of the Grey Pilgrim’s own bloodline. Tariq dug the grave himself and wept for the man his brother could have become, if not for the one he had turned out to be.

But he had wiped away the tears, and returned to his duty. Wading in a sea of death, putting out the last embers of the disease. Six months from the first known red death, and finally the calamity came to an end. The healers kept vigil another fortnight, for they had been fooled before, but no flare followed. Tariq walked through empty streets, a ghost among a city of ghosts, and nearly retched at the lingering scent of the pyres. His silver robes, the privilege of holiest of bloodlines, had darkened with grime and ash. He felt like a carrion bird looking upon the corpse of a once thriving city, some wicked omen of death. Eventually his steps took him to the docks, and there he stood in the sea breeze watching an Ashuran trading ship make shore. Disaster had passed, he thought, and now their allies to east returned. First the merchants, to look upon the destruction, but soon enough some committee would send envoys. Quiet offers of loans and restitutions would be made. The world would keep on spinning like nothing had happened at all. He was still watching when they found him. Armed guard, their breastplates inlaid with silver: the Holy Seljun’ own guard.

“Honoured Son,” the sole captain among them said. “You are recalled to the old city. The gates have been opened.”

Honoured Son. An angry shiver went down his spine at the words. He knew very well the meaning of them and his wroth only grew for it. Tariq mastered the sentiment, for these guards did not deserve his anger. They were only messengers. He followed them in silence, until his threadbare sandals were treading the palace grounds. He was ushered into a cleasing room, large bowls of lukewarm water awaiting for him to clean himself up. Yasa awaited him there, her young face unreadable. We are all children, he thought. His only sister eldest among them, and barely twenty. She wore the long ornate braid of a woman married, though it did not suit her features. The custom was half-abandoned, nowadays, but Yasa was not one to abandon tradition for the sake of vanity.

“Honoured Brother,” she said, her smile rueful.

Tariq strode forward to wash his hands clean of grime, and only after shook his head.

“Honoured Sister,” he replied, denying it.

“There is no point in fighting it, Tariq,” his sister said. “The entire city sings your praises, and Mother prizes reputation most of all.”

“She sent us to die, Yasa,” he replied quietly. “Sanja’s end was of his own making, perhaps, but Idhari? Gods, Idhari…”

His voice broke.

“You were not there to see him pass,” Tariq whispered. “A shadow of himself. Terrified, his mind wandering. I do not care what she wants.”

Yasa’s hands were shaking, he saw. She’d been closer to him than any of them.

“Honour to the Blood,” she got out. “Though unworthy of Bestowal, he passed a true heir to the Grey Pilgrim.”

“Fuck the Blood,” Tariq hissed. “They were our brothers, Yasa, and she threw them away for what – appearances? Neither was ready for the duty. It should have been us from the start.”

“You cannot speak like that anymore, little brother,” she cautioned. “Honoured Mother has expressed her intent to name you custodian of the rolls.”

He almost spat. The rolls were almost as holy as the Book of All Things itself, in Levant. The sprawling genealogies of the Bestowed, beginning with the founding heroes of the Dominion. It had since grown to encompass the bloodlines and issue of every Bestowed in the history of their nation, all tracked along with great deeds across the myriad pages. To keep the rolls was the duty of the Holy Seljun, but the granting of custody over them was now often used to informally name an heir.

“You have prepared to rule your entire life, Yasa,” he said. “This is not only unjust, it is absurd. I have not the learning nor the inclination.”

“It’ll be all right, Tariq,” his sister reassured him. “I will stay at your side. We are not Arlesites, to sunder kinship over titles.”

He looked at Yasa’s face, then, the hurt in her eyes she was setting aside for the sake of their people. The unflattering braid serving as reminder of the marriage she had embraced early to ensure the Blood would have lawful issue while her younh brothers – even Tariq himself, as it now shamed him to admit – had spent their nights enjoying the attention that came from belonging to the holiest bloodline of the Dominion. While he escaped the old city to confer with priests and philosophers, to laugh with wandering poets and drink with sailors, his sister had studied the classics. Learned the intricate ways of trade, forged ties with the heiresses and lords of the ancient lines of Blood that now ruled over Levant. A lifetime of steadfast labour, and now she was to be robbed of her due because he had gained some acclaim. Because her marriage bed has not borne fruit, he suspected as well. Tariq wiped his hands clean and knelt at his sister’s feet.

“You cannot,” she whispered. “You can’t kneel to me anymore. To anyone but Mother. I know you mean well-”

Gently, he kissed her brow.

“Rule well, Yasa,” he said.

Her eyes flickered with confusion.

“Brother-”

“Am I not of the Pilgrim’s own blood?” Tariq smiled. “Who could deny my right to a pilgrimage of my own?”

“Tariq, she would be furious,” Yasa urgently said. “She’s already approached the Majilis for confirmation, if you leave she’ll be humiliated in front of every great bloodline in Levant. She might actually strike you from the rolls.”

From Tariq Isbili to simply Tariq, he thought. It stung that he could be denied his heritage in the eyes of all the Dominion, but it was not too great a price to pay for this. He met his sister’s eyes squarely.

“You will be better,” he said. “You have to be, for all of us.”

He kissed Yasa’s brow once more and rose to his feet. Tariq Isbili walked out of the old city, then of Levante itself, and kept walking. Before a sennight had passed the Holy Seljun of Levant had cast him out of the Grey Pilgrim’s line in the eyes of Gods and men. Within the year, there was not a single written mention of him left in the entire Dominion.

Tariq was eighteen years old.

“Healer, you do me dishonour,” the man insisted.

Tariq shook his head, smiling to take away the sting of it, and refused to close his fingers around the handful of silver coins. He pressed them back into the older man’s palm.

“I have taken vow of poverty,” Tariq lied. “I cannot, my friend. That you have provided me with roof and meal is already more than enough.”

The man – Olivar, his name was – hesitated but did not press any further. Such vows were rare among mere healers, but common among those who would seek admission into the Lanterns. The warrior-priests of Levant disdained all earthly possessions save glory itself, and none could enter their ranks without discarding all riches. Truth be told, Tariq could have used the silver. What little food he had left in his satchel was growing stale, and it would be a long walk to Alava. The hills were treacherous, especially at night, and full of prowling creatures of which wolves were the least dangerous. The village he’d stumbled into three days ago was too small to warrant mention on any map he’d ever seen, barely three hundred souls, but it was close to the most common path into the crags. Tariq had hoped to hitch a ride on a trader’s cart, but none had passed through. Without coin to offer the chances were slim any would accept him even if one did come, he knew, but he could not find it in him to take what was likely the only coins the older man possessed. If there was a lean month, come winter, they could make the difference between survival and starvation. Still, he could not linger here any longer. He had helped those he could, it was time to move on.

“Your mother must not exert herself for a full moon’s turn,” he reminded Olivar. “The Light can only do so much to ease the passage of time, and if she returns to the fields her joints will swell anew.”

“I will do what I can,” the man promised with a grimace.

“Would you not avail yourself of our hospitality one more night, healer?” another voice suggested.

Tariq cleared his throat awkwardly, eyes moving against his will to take in the shapely silhouette of his host’s daughter. Dalevi. Lovely as a summer night, and the invitation in her dark eyes had only grown more pointed the longer he remained here. It would have been dishonourable, for him to lie with Olivar’s daughter while staying under his roof. Very dishonourable, no matter what the Hidden Poets famously implied about lively Alavan girls in their more suggestive works. He’d mastered himself so far, but Tariq was no saint and the temptation was beginning to strain his principles. Especially when she smiled as slyly as she now did.

“Alas,” he croaked out. “I cannot delay any longer.”

She pouted rather distractingly, and it was a relief when her father spoke up.

“I know you are headed north on pilgrimage, healer,” Olivar said. “But it might be best for you to go around the hills and take the eastern path. There have been rumours of a creature attacking villages.”

Tariq’s eyes narrowed.

“Not bandits?” he asked.

Alavans had resisted the Proceran occupation most stubbornly, it was said, preferring to burn their own city and flee into the hills rather than live in their own homes under foreign yoke. But the habits of those years had not been entirely discarded after the liberation, many of them turning to banditry or the kind of mercenary work that was essentially that. The many lines of the Champion’s Blood had made a point of never stamping it out entirely, preferring to use the persisting peril as crucible for their young instead. Olivar shook his head.

“Some say it is a chimera, but every old fool this side of the Brocelian will blame trouble on chimeras,” the man scathingly said. “Some old barrow spirit gone mad, I’d say.”

Tariq grimaced. The restless things born of defiled sacred grounds were no implacable threat, but they were near-impossible to kill through mundane means. Perhaps the Light might put one to flight but it might also kill it and the notion of hurting a spirit cursed through no act of its own sat ill with him.

“I will be careful,” he promised. “And thank you for the advice.”

He made his farewells promptly, doing his best to ignore Olivar’s hard stare when lovely Dalevi lingered a little too close to whisper into his ear the kind of reception she’d grant him should he return, and escaped without shaming himself. He made good pace, sleeping under the stars when it grew too dark to continue, and found his way unhindered until the fourth afternoon. He saw the horses before he saw the warriors, tied to trees near a neatly-made camp. It was empty when he came upon it a little off the road, but there was no need to wonder where the occupants had gone: in the distance bellows and laughter sounded, interrupted by reptilian screams. It was not his business, Tariq knew. It would be wisest to press on. Yet he found his feet taking him towards the commotion anyway. Sliding clumsily off a rocky slope, he came across a mere half dozen young warriors in well-forged mail. They were loosely surrounding a creature, Tariq saw. A great winged lizard of dusty-coloured scales, with a long stinger-tipped tail trailing behind it. Wyvern, he thought. One of the warriors had put a spear through its left wing, he saw, and so it could not flee. They were exhausting the creature with harassment before going in for the kill. The sound of his descent was enough to alert one of the armoured youths.

“Close enough, stranger,” a dark-haired woman called out. “The hunt has been claimed.”

A sword was casually pointed in his direction, and to Tariq raised his palms in appeasement. Slowly he took off his satchel bag, dropping it to the ground.

“I mean no insult,” he said. “I was drawn by the screams.”

“Get him out of here, Sintra,” another youth called out, darting forward to threaten the wyvern with a raised spear before retreating when it struck out. “We don’t want unknowns in the middle of this.”

The dark-haired woman – Sintra, it seemed – left the ring as another warrior smoothly closed the gap. Two long tresses flowed down her back through an opening in her helm, swinging as she moved closer. The sword was not sheathed, but at least she ceased pointing it at him.

“Consider your curiosity sated, traveller,” she said. “This is dangerous work, and would be made more dangerous still by a watcher.”

Tariq cheerfully ignored the implied warning and order to walk away.

“Would this be the creature that has been troubling villages, then?” he asked.

Sintra looked amused.

“A well-informed traveller, I see,” she said. “Though not so learned as to recognize the symbols on my tabard.”

Tariq’s eyes dipped to the jerkin in question, finding it marked with red lion cradling a sword. He took in a sharp breath.

“Sintra Marave,” he said. “Of the Champion’s Blood.”

She had to be of the main line, to bear the heraldry, though where in it she fit he had no real notion. Yasa had been the one to rub elbows with such hallowed personages when the Majilis was convened, not him.

“Of some Blood yourself, to recognize it so swiftly,” Sintra noted with a raised eyebrow. “You do not have the looks of an Alavan. Your name?”

“Unimportant,” Tariq replied. “Have you learned why the wyvern attacked villages? They usually avoid such places.”

“Unimportant,” Sintra echoed. “It slew some and wounded many. A hunt is warranted.”

“You would kill in ignorance?” he replied, genuinely surprised. “Its eggs could have been stolen. They sell for a fortune.”

The creatures tended to take sick in other lands, but the eggs themselves were a delicacy. And it was said in Levante that the faraway Praesi would pay a king’s ransom for one unbroken, though that kind of trade was frowned upon.

“It has killed children of the Heavens,” Sintra said. “I know all I need to.”

“There is no honour in this,” Tariq insisted.

Their conversation was interrupted by a pained cry. One of the youths had struck the wyvern’s muzzle and drawn blood, retreating behind his shield as the winged lizard struck out with its stinger.

“There is honour in the very act of slaying,” Sintra flatly replied. “What business is this of yours, stranger of no name?”

She was not wrong, he thought. Hunts such as this were commonplace in all of Levant, and often with weaker reason than this. Those that wandered into the Brocelian to seek glory at the end of a blade could not claim to be avenging anything. Yet Tariq looked at the creature, the pierced wing clutched around its body, the dark blood dripping down on the earth, and he felt restless. Perhaps if it had been cleaner he could have made his peace with it, but there was something wrong about… this. It reminded him of children tormenting a cat.

“I dislike,” Tariq eventually said, “unnecessary suffering.”

“This is no land for the faint of heart,” Sintra replied, a hint of contempt in her tone.

“Let me try,” someone said, and to Tariq’s surprise the fool had the same voice as him.

Oh, he realized. It had been him. Fool and speaker both. The dark-haired woman stared at him in surprise, then laughed.

“You?” she said. “You do not even have a blade. It’ll gobble you in a moment.”

“Then you may use my death as a distraction,” Tariq drily replied.

Sintra eyed him anew, this time without the contempt.

“No coward, at least,” she said. “And it might save us an hour.”

She turned towards the others, raising her voice.

“Our friend wants to have a turn at it,” Sintra called out. “Make room in the ring.”

The youth who’d spoken earlier turned in surprise, backing away from the wyvern.

“You can’t be serious,” he said. “Sintra-”

“You are not so grown I cannot put you over my knee, Ishaq,” she interrupted flatly. “Move.”

They others obeyed without backtalk, after that, and slowly the ring parted to allow for passage. Sintra glanced at him expectantly and Tariq wondered if it was too late to change his mind. Not even six months away from Levante and he was already going to get himself killed. Bakri was right, he should have petitioned the Hidden Poets to join their ranks. His verses were no treasure, but it would hardly be the first time one of the Pilgrim’s line crawled into a sinecure and disappeared from the writ of history. Tariq warily advanced until he’d passed the ring, and slowed when the wyvern turned its bloodshot eyes on him. The stinger rose fluidly, of a height with his head.

“Easy now,” he said, raising his palms to show he bore no arms.

Carefully, he took a step forward.

“I mean no harm,” Tariq said. “Are you hurt, old one? I am a healer.”

The stinger drew back and he stopped.

“No harm,” Tariq repeated in a soothing tone.

The stinger drooped, and he took a step forward. The wyvern struck without warning, but he threw himself into a roll and the stinger missed him by mere inches. Behind him he could hear Sintra ordering her warriors to hold, but he had no time to spare for it. He called on the Light, let the gentle glow fill him, and shaped a simple wreath of it around his hand.

“I am here to help,” he said, and the stinger stopped an inch away from his forehead.

The wyvern stared at the Light, as if hypnotized, and let out a plaintive scream. Tariq laid a light hand on the tail and nudged it aside, advancing carefully with the Light ahead of him. Another four steps and suddenly the creature was on him, enfolding him inside its wings, and he was faced with rows of dagger-like teeth. He breathed out, ignoring his heartbeat going wild. Fear would only get him killed. Too-clever eyes considered him, and the wyvern let out another cry. It made his ears ring but he worked through it.

“You’re hurt,” Tariq quietly said. “Show me where.”

It sniffed, but then it lowered its head. It was easy enough to find the wound: right behind the crest there was an almost hand-sized thorn biting into the soft space between scales and flesh. The young healer touched it and the wyvern screamed. He withdrew his hand, studying the thorn instead. The flesh around it had begun to rot, turning black, and even the closest scales were falling out. No, not rot. This was poison, corrupting the flesh.

“This is from a barrow-tree, isn’t it?” he said. “That which is rooted in the grave bears its fruits.”

The wyvern did not reply, patiently waiting with its held lowered. Tariq had studied healing, though not as deeply as one who intended to make it their vocation would, and he knew there was no brew or spell that would cure such a wound. Not certainly, anyway: no two barrow-trees were the same, as no two barrows were. Some caused violent madness if the bark was partaken of, others a deathlike sleep should the fruits be eaten  and the leaves of others were said to preserve flesh from the ravages of time, if made into paste and applied, though at the cost of a deathly pallor. This one had borne poisonous thorns, it seemed, and the wyvern been imprudent enough to be stung. Perhaps it’d been lured by the prospect of eating a barrow spirit. Legends said great wisdom could be gained from such a thing, fanciful tales of creatures growing into dragons form the consumption abounding. He suspected, regardless, that it was the pain of the spreading poison that had driven it to attack villages. Tariq pressed his hand slightly to the side of the wound, pouring Light into the flesh. The poison was thinned, though not entirely dispersed, and the flesh purged the rot some. What was left behind still looked sickly but the wyvern let out a soft cry of relief. The pain was, for now, being kept at bay. This time when Tariq’s fingers closed around the thorn the wyvern did not protest. The Light was calming it, almost putting into a daze.

“I am sorry, old one,” he murmured. “I cannot cure you. The poison will have spread into your blood by now, the pain will resume as soon as the Light ends.”

He breathed out raggedly.

“Peace to you, my friend,” Tariq sadly said, and suddenly pushed the thorn all the way into its brain.

The wyvern screamed, wings batting wildly, but the poison was a violent one. It drew back, trashing around, and after a mere ten heartbeats it fell over dead. He’d been thrown to the ground and his arm was likely strained, but he rose to his feet. Kneeling before the wyvern’s head, he gently closed its eyes. A shadow was cast on him, Sintra standing by his side.

“I thought you were going to heal it,” she said.

He felt it then. The answer this begged. Like a whisper in his ear, a comforting hand on his back. The first step on a journey he did not yet understand.

“I could not,” Tariq said. “And I dislike unnecessary suffering.”

Chapter 79: As Above

“Hubris and wearing a helmet are not mutually exclusive. Here, allow me to demonstrate.”
– Dread Emperor Abominable, the Thrice-Struck

 

“I’ll be honest,” I said. “I kind of expected to get to the bottom of memory lane before we ran into each other. You, uh, took me by surprise.”

Andronike – Sve Noc’s slightly less unreasonable half, or at least that was the hope – did not lean into the feeble attempt at defusing the tension. Fine, I thought, be that way. We can be all grim about this, and not even mention that right now in a very real sense I’m inside your sister. There was room for an even filthier joke in there, and really where was Indrani when you needed her?

“I expected you to move from shadow to shadow until you reached Tvarigu,” the entity mildly replied. “Not to raise an army of slaves and declare war upon my entire race. This has been, one might say, a year for surprises.”

I was really taking a verbal beating on the whole slave thing tonight, huh. Was this what if felt like to be the Akua of a situation?

“Subtle has never been my strength,” I admitted. “It was a bad habit even before Winter filled my veins with pure ‘walk off dismemberment’ juice. Not sure I can shake it at this point.”

Or even that I should, to be honest. I’d run into one dead end after another since I started trying to play queenly games with my opponents. It wasn’t that I was awful at those – with the Woe at my back, I’d made sport of my opposition within Callow – so much that my enemies were just outright better at them. It was no excuse to cease learning, but on the other hand had it not been a kind of arrogance to believe that with so little schooling I could stand on equal footing with the likes of Hasenbach or Malicia when it came to their preferred methods? My own were brutish and clumsy things, but in the end I’d accomplished more with bastard ways than proper ones.

“It seems like tonight it is your flaw that will be doing the shaking, then,” Andronike indifferently commented.

“Night’s not over yet,” I said.

“Fascinating,” Sve Noc said, though she didn’t sound fascinated in the slightest. “Even knowing that my sister pursues you, you would still waste your time on idle banter. You are quite peculiar.”

My fingers clenched.

“You’re not stopping her,” I realized. “Or stopping mind-time, whatever the Hells this is. She’s still coming.”

“And will annihilate you the moment she finds you,” Andronike agreed. “It is inevitable. Even if you flee, eventually there will be nowhere left to run.”

“Could you not, uh,” I eloquently said, gesturing vaguely.

Silver eyes flicked at me, unamused.

“Why should I?” she replied.

The memory was still unfolding in front of us, the two sisters speaking conspiracy in hushed whispers, but that wasn’t the fire I needed to be paying attention to at the moment.

“I want to make a deal,” I said.

“So I assumed,” Andronike said. “That is usually the way, when one is staring defeat in the eye. What I wonder is why you’d presume I would be willing to indulge you.”

“This isn’t going to go like you think it is,” I said. “If she eats Winter-”

“The sum of your knowledge on this matter is animal instinct and second hand crumbs of understanding from the heir to over a millennium of abject failure,” Sve Noc cut in. “While your fumbling attempts to sow discord in ignorance might amuse another, I am not fond of such crude forms of humour.”

I grit my teeth.

“First off, Hierophant is a fucking treasure,” I said. “Sure he’s not perfect, but he’s kind and smart as a whip and he tries his best. Don’t shit talk my friends, it’s rude.”

Andronike simply stared at me, then shrugged.

“The hourglass is emptying,” she reminded me.

“I’ll be expecting an apology later,” I said, equally unmoved. “As for the other thing, it’s no secret I’m not the most learned in things sorcery. But you know what I do have a knack for? Stories. And we’re treading one right now, Andronike. You want to guess how it ends for the two of you?”

“This is puerile,” Sve Noc noted. “You are the one who sought me out for conversation.”

“It’s been a long my whole life,” I grunted. “Humour me.”

She did not reply. I sighed and was I about to prod the conversation forward when I felt the reason she’d not spoken up: a tremor shivering across the ground. The other half was catching up.

“We’ll finish this later,” I told her. “I need to strategically manoeuver out of here.”

There was no open stretch to leap down this time, which complicate things a bit, but the room was splayed before me in full. Including, luckily, the door. I hobbled forward, trying to spare my bad leg, and tugged it open before going into the dark.

“Come on,” I muttered, limping forward. “Give me what I need.”

There was no winning this with power, I knew. The moment I was caught I’d be swatted into oblivion, Andronike watching with mild interest as my soul was obliterated by her incensed sister. Even our thrilling little chase earlier had seen me on the defensive almost the entire time, only Akua’s intervention giving me an opening to strike. Even if I returned to the pit fight, even if I somehow managed to defy the odds and devour her before she devoured me, it would be an empty victory. I’d go right back to being an imitation of myself, only with a second kind of poison running through my veins. I needed to mold the situation so that at least half of Sve Noc wanted me to win, and so far on that front I was swinging at mist. I didn’t have good enough a grasp of what moved the sisters, and it wasn’t like idle chatter was going to get me here. Somehow I doubted the legendary power of stilted small talk would allow me to turn this around. Fortunately, I could skip the middle man and have a direct look at their – hers, maybe, for I was not sure if these were shared or purely Komena’s – memories. I’d been hoping for another pivot, hard decisions taken behind closed doors, but what I got instead was a battle.

The end of one anyway.

Komena was easy enough to pick out from the rest of the soldiers, as her pauldrons were a different set of sculpted obsidian but the rest of her armour had not changed. She was standing among a small band of drow officers, the lot of them idling behind another drow at the edge of a steep promontory overlooking a city. One I did not recognize, it bore saying. The signatures of drow architecture were there, the bridges and complicated segmentations in height, but it wasn’t anywhere I’d been before. This looked like a victory, I thought, yet the mood among the officers was grim. Unlike any other drow city I’d seen this one had walls – four interlocking sets of them, with tall bastions towering over – and beneath those there was a thick carpet of corpses. Many of them drow, but there was no small amount of dwarves to match them. Given that the city still stood and the likely invading dwarven army was nowhere in sight, the Empire Ever Dark was master of the field. Yet below in the winding city streets I could see soldiers retreating in haste, forcing aside panicking civilians to make their way out faster.

“Jakrin, Soliva,” the drow closest to the edge said. “Have your javelineers scatter the crowds of the outer district. The delay is dangerous.”

My eyebrows rose in surprise. I knew that voice. Not so long ago it’d been mocking me mercilessly. Under the helm and ornate armour it was difficult to have a look at the drow, but the voice did not lie: I was looking at a younger Mighty Rumena. Was that what it’d meant, when it had said it knew one of the sisters? Komena had actually served under it during the wars? Rumena’s orders drew no enthusiasm, but two officers peeled off to see to their ugly duty.

“The rest of you, see to your sigils,” Rumena said. “Prepare for the retreat north. Dismissed.”

The drow scattered without a word, all save for Komena. She strode forward instead, coming to stand at Rumena’s side, and I limped forward to flank it on the other side. The three of us looked down at the city eating itself alive, silent for a moment.

“Great General Who Shook The-” Komena began.

“Enough, rylleh,” Rumena tiredly replied. “Today I held command over the single greatest military disaster in the history of the Firstborn. Spare me the titles, they now have the ring of mockery.”

“It is not of your making, this war,” the woman who would become Sve Noc said. “I was there when you protested the deep raids. As were all the others.”

“It might not have been such a disaster, had we kept to the humans,” Rumena mused. “But they were too few, too far. We needed nerezim slaves if the hallowing was to happen in our lifetime.”

I let out a sharp breath. It’d been the drow that started the wars with the Kingdom Under? Deep raids, Komena had said, and all the greatest of Praesi horrors had been forged of human sacrifice. Gods, they were fool enough to attack the dwarves for ritual fodder, I realized.

“We had no idea, did we?” Komena murmured. “What they could bring to bear in their fullness of their wroth.”

Rumena stiffened, though not because of her words. It leaned forward, staring intently at the city, and I followed its gaze. It was gazing at some open-roofed temple. The structure was no great wonder, but its floor was glowing red and orange. No, not glowing. Melting. A massive creature with stone-like skin, horned and clawed, ripped free of the floor. Lava poured out in its wake, erupting like a fountain.

“I am told,” Rumena said, sounding darkly amused, “they use the creatures to heat their forges. They are not even soldiers, Komena. They are exterminating our kind with smithing tools.”

Red and orange bloomed over the city, smoke and screams filling the air, and I felt nauseated. Merciless Gods, was this the true face of dwarven warfare? No wonder the drow were still terrified of them after so many centuries. Still, interesting as this was it wasn’t getting me anywhere. Even as the two began discussing how much of their army they’d lose in the evacuation, I stepped forward over the edge of the cliff and embraced the fall.

“Now this is more like it,” I said.

The room was a barely-contained riot of scribbles. Every surface was covered with long equations in numerals I did not recognize and incantations in that near-Crepuscular I’d glimpsed in the first memory. There were piles of some strange string-like parchment scattered over what sparse stone furniture could be found, and Komena was going through one patiently.

“There,” she said, handing it to her sister. “The full transcription.”

Andronike took it absent-mindedly, a brush wet with red paint twirling between her fingers. On the wall in front of her scattered equations had red lines through them, others hasty corrections. The older sister finally glanced at the parchment she’d been given and frowned at what she found.

“It is as you said,” Andronike sighed. “It cannot be sacrifices. It would only worsen the gap.”

“It has to be the molten earth currents,” Komena said. “When we campaigned against the forest humans, they used the very land against us without relying on their own sorcery. The underlying principles should be the same. If the nerezim can master-”

“We are not the nerezim, ‘Mina,” her sister replied, sounding irritated. “In theory you are correct but it would take decades if not centuries of deep study before we could even begin to imitate their mastery.”

“We can’t wait forever, ‘Nike,” the other drow reminded her. “If you’re right, the tipping point was reached last year. The moment inertia ceases carrying us…”

“I know,” Andronike sighed. “I know.”

The second instance had been whispered and on the wings of it all semblance of vitality left the Sage. She looked afraid, tired, and so terribly young. I could sympathize.

“They’re still settling our former colonies,” Komena said quietly. “But it won’t be long before they start advancing again. They’re refused the latest peace offerings.”

“We have greater worries than that,” Andronike murmured.

Her sister’s eyes narrowed.

“You said we should still have five years, before we start dying,” she said.

“And that has not changed,” the older sister replied. “But the Sages are terrified, ‘Mina. They know the consequences of so many lost lives, and they have found no remedy in our lore.”

“Then there is none to be found anywhere,” Komena said. “Who else is there?”

Her sister looked away.

“‘Nike,” Komena repeated slowly. “Who else is there?”

“They have,” the other drow said quietly, “sought the advice of the King in Keter.”

“Shrouded Gods,” Komena snarled. “Have they gone mad? That thing destroyed an entire human realm.”

“And survived,” Andronike said. “Conclusion was reached that our kind as a whole can no longer be preserved. Yet the eldest of the Sages believe that is no reason for them in particular to perish.”

“How many times can a single band of fools damn an entire race?” her sister cursed. “They have to die, heart of my heart. I know you hesitate but we can no longer mass support in the dark. We must strike before they do.”

“If we kill them before we have our remedy, we have slain the Firstborn through them,” Andronike said.

“Gods take them all,” Komena said, passing a hand through her long hair. “As if they hadn’t done enough damage already.”

Her sister paused. After a long moment, she put the parchment back onto the stone table and refreshed her brush with red paint from a pot. Striding forward under Komena’s bemused gaze, she slashed through another few equations and then from that drew lines leading towards a rare empty spot on the wall. On it she wrote a single word in ancient Crepuscular, and this one I knew well: Night.

“We had never considered it before then,” Andronike said. “Neither of us were all that pious, and the Shrouded Gods have even been a capricious lot.”

I didn’t freeze this time. I’d expected her to show up from the moment I’d realized this particular memory would actually be of use to me. She seemed fond, I noted, of standing at my side. As if we were companions, the two of us watching some play unfold together.

“You needed a miracle,” I said. “And the hour had grown too late to quibble as to the source of it.”

Sve Noc blinked in surprise.

“An apt summation,” she conceded. “We did not grasp the full consequences of the bargain, then. We still believed it was a cure we would wrangle.”

“But what you got was a stay of execution,” I said. “The Night keeps them alive only so long as you keep feeding it fresh sacrifices.”

“As a young girl the notion would have disgusted me,” Andronike said. “But we’d both lived through the wars by then. Still, it amuses me in retrospective that it was her who balked at the terms when they were given. She cared for our kind in a way I never truly understood.”

“Why tell me this?” I frowned.

She’d not exactly been forthcoming with details so far.

“You do not understand the scale on which we operate, Catherine Foundling,” Sve Noc chided me. “How intentions fade in the face of eternity. The unmaking is in the details, you see. Allow me an example. I was of the Sages, and so unlike other drow allowed to learn of their history. They were once a great boon to my kind.”

“The same crowd who doomed you once and then tried to have another go at it,” I skeptically replied.

“They were necromancers, at their inception,” Andronike faintly smiled. “Not for conquest, but for peace and learning. They called on the wisdom of our ancestors, allowing the spirits to speak through them. Death, in their eyes, was the only sin – for it robbed the living of the wisdom of those departed.”

I’d seen the later meaning of those words with my own eyes and it had little to do with that gentle sentiment. Justifications only matter to the just, I mockingly thought. Sometimes you looked back and wondered what kind of madness had moved your lips.

“You wonder why I burden you with such tedious history, no doubt,” Sve Noc said. “I lead to a question – you held great power for years, Catherine. What did you build with it?”

Silver eyes studied me.

“What shape will your creations take, after your passing?” she said.

My lips thinned. Legacy. She was speaking of legacy. And what would mine be? Some things transient, other less so. I had changed the face of rule in Callow, left the old nobility to lie in the grave Black had dug for it, but there was no guarantee it would remain there in the decades to come. Tradition had a stubborn pull on my people. The Army of Callow had learned the Wasteland ways of war, but that was Juniper’s work more than mine and without a War College of our own to keep the torch lit the reforms would die with our generation. I’d fought wars, and liked to think most had been worthy of being fought. But that was to preserve, was it not? It was standing still, not advancing. I’d tried to bind more than humans to the Kingdom of Callow, more than born Callowans as well, but the numbers were few. A single goblin tribe, a few legions’ worth of foreign soldiers and officers. Not enough, I suspected, to truly change the threads the Callowan tapestry was woven from. Unpleasant as the thought was, perhaps the most consequential change I had brought to my home was receiving the oaths of the Wild Hunt. And that will die with me. Andronike, I thought, had been inviting me to ponder how what I’d created would twist and turn with time.

Instead I’d found I had created little and less.

But there was one thing, I thought, that I would count as legacy if I could – though it was so very far from done. One dream I was trying to bring into the world.

“I imagine the Accords will grow warped, in time,” I said. “And yet I have faith that even in their worst incarnation they will be better than the current face of Calernia.”

“Faith,” half of Sve Noc said, “is ever a costly affair.”

“Is that how you live with this?” I asked. “You tell yourself you were had, you were beaten, and that’s all there is to it?”

“You should choose your words more carefully,” Andronike coldly said.

Ah, was that emotion peeking through? Finally we were getting somewhere.

“You seem under the impression I’m afraid of you,” I said. “Best discard that, it’ll make this easier on both of us.”

“Do you believe your little shade will save you?” Sve Noc said. “It has hidden well, but not flawlessly.  Whatever her scheme it will end, and there will be no salvation through her bloody hands. Not half as clever as she thought herself to be, in the end.”

“Now, there’s a lot of harsh stuff to say about Akua Sahelian,” I said. “Believe me, I’ve covered a lot of that ground and I’m still discovering fresh pastures. But I’ll say one thing for her: even at her very worst, at least she wasn’t a spineless sack of whining like you.”

This, I reflected, was not my finest attempt at diplomacy. Well, too late to take it back so I might as well roll with it.

“Are you truly so arrogant as to believe I cannot destroy you here?” Andronike said.

“That’s beyond my control,” I shrugged. “You’re pretty much a goddess at this point, you could snuff me out like a candle at any point and there’s nothing I can do about it. But hey, not even an hour ago I lied down to die in the snow. As far as I’m concerned every moment from now on is an unexpected turnout, so if I’m about to be sent Below I might as well speak my mind first. You’re getting on my nerves, y’see, because behind all the bluster you’re a coward.”

“Your opinion is less than dust,” Sve Noc frigidly replied.

“So you got screwed by your deal with the Gods Below,” I said. “Surprise, who could possibly have seen that coming except literally anyone who ever read a history book not written by the violently mad. Still, I’m in no position to cast stones for bad bargains, given my record, so there you get a pass. Where you don’t is that over a thousand years have passed and the Everdark is still a murderous clusterfuck. If anything it’s gotten worse with the years.”

“It is as it must be to maintain the Night,” Andronike said. “Every grim beat of it.”

“And you’re proud of that?” I said. “Of maintaining this? It’s one thing to make a desperate mistake, but you’ve kept it going ever since.”

“Until today,” Sve Noc harshly replied. “Until you delivered yourself into our hands.”

“Can you not learn?” I hissed. “The Gods Below helped you into this mess in the first place and you’re still doing what they want.”

She rocked back in surprise.

“How do you think this goes for you, Andronike?” I pressed. “They throw two bears into pit, you come out with your teeth red and it’s all over? You do this, you give them the victory they want, and they own you all twice over. There’s no slipping a noose you tightened yourself.”

“The debt-” she began.

“- isn’t even the point,” I interrupted heatedly. “You think Winter is going to make things better? Its fae were almost as bad as devils, Andronike. Devils. Let that sink in for a moment. They’ll still have their hand up your ass, only this time it’s permanent instead of a ritual and you will never, ever be rid of it.”

“And being made into your pets is better?” she snarled. “An army of slaves to die for your cause, then sent away in some remote corner to rot when the usefulness has passed.”

“You’re right,” I said.

For the second time tonight, I took her by surprise.

“You’re absolutely right,” I admitted. “If I still bore my mantle I might be ranting about how it’s the lesser evil and at least with a leash on you’d be doing some good, but that’s honestly disgusting. So is what you made of your people, but it doesn’t excuse what I planned to do in the slightest. I was wrong, and it might mean dust to you but I apologize. I treated you like rabid animals in need of shackles instead of a people brutalized by circumstance and I can only be ashamed of it.”

“You are mad,” Andronike said.

There was an undertone of awe to the statement.

“I am angry,” I correcting, baring a grin that was all teeth and defiance. “Truth is, Andronike, I’ve been angry all my life. At the Praesi for owning my people, at my people for being owned. At my father, for being so much less than he could be. At my friends, for even needing someone like me. At myself for the trail of smoking ruins I’ve left in my wake. At my enemies, for just refusing to listen. I’ve been angry for so long that without the anger there’d be nothing left of me. It’s who I am.”

I bitterly laughed.

“And most of all, I’m angry I never left the fucking Pit,” I told her. “Because you and I, we’re not saviours or monsters or anything half as grand – we’re the entertainment, Sve Noc. We take out our pain on each other and their tally moves with the groaning weight of the dead.”

“There is nothing else,” Andronike said.

“There is,” I quietly replied. “We don’t claw at each other like animals. We help each other out of the pit instead.”

Eyes met, silver to brown.

“They can’t play shatranj if the pieces don’t listen,” I told her. “So I could say I want to make a deal, but that’s the wrong way isn’t it? This isn’t a competition, it’s not about winning. There doesn’t need to be a loser.”

I offered her a hand.

“You have my help, if you want it,” I said. “And there are hardly words for how very badly I need yours.”

Slowly, her arm rose. Then she struck like snake and seized me by the throat.

Damnit Akua, I thought, you broke the power of friendship.