“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
“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.