Charlatan IV

“We like to tell each other devils are the true face of wickedness, for it makes evil into a monster we can vanquish. A sword cannot settle the banal cruelties decent folk inflict on each other, you see, though these do more evil in a day than a flock of devils in a year.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand

Spring had brought troubles, at first, but what followed was stranger.

The ice broke and melted, and it was as if the world had been uncorked. A hundred things were pouring out onto sleepy little Beaumarais, each coming quicker than the last. First the muddy mountain paths found early travellers, another pair of mages from the low country, and Olivier was barely done settling them in a house when word came that a company of riders from Apenun was headed the town’s way. Lady Mireille Lassier, Alisanne’s mother and the ruler of the city, had heard rumours and sent some of her men to have a look at the town. It was the same highborn officer as last time who led them, Captain Alain, and the man developed an interest in the arrangement around the shop that had Olivier wary. They were not yet ready, he felt, for such scrutiny. Alisanne was of a different opinion.

“Now is the time to make bargains,” she told him. “Your numbers a rising but still small, you’ve proved you are able to settle affairs with townsfolk without resorting to unsavoury means and the shop is popular with the people of the town. You will never have a finer hand to play, Olivier.”

He could not refuse to speak with the captain, anyhow, so there was little choice to be had. The officer asked probing questions but to the younger man’s surprise he was polite and respectful throughout. A degree of surprise must have shown, for Captain Alain amusedly addressed it.

“Lady Alisanne has taken a shine to you, all agree, and she has been part of this from the start,” he said. “I would not harbour great hopes there were I you, but I’ll not act the bull over a matter where one of Lady Lassier’s daughters has been so involved.”

Olivier managed not to blush, wondering if the other man knew how much of a shine had really been taken, and the implication of marriage he chose not to address. He’d never had any illusions there, so there was no hope to disappoint. The captain requested to be allowed to visit the shop and see some of the enchanted wares that had already begun to sell and seemed rather impressed.

“The wizards we’ve in Apenun insist only spells can chase away vermin properly, not artefacts,” he told the younger man. “Many will be pleased to hear the truth is otherwise. There is much coin to be had there, Master Olivier.”

Though Alisanne had not been part of the conversation of the visits, keeping to at least a thin pretence of not being his accomplice in every way, Olivier wasted no time in calling on her as the captain retired for the night. Though the febrile energy that’d taken the both of them was first spent in a more pleasant way, they spoke at length after. The young man admitted to a fear this entire arrangement would be shut down, or at least severely curtailed, but Alisanne enthusiastically disagreed.

“Wizards are dead useful to nobles, Olivier,” she said. “The issue is that much of the taxes levied on them are levied by the Highest Assembly, so neither princesses nor ladies can waive them. That and no one is comfortable allowing the old guilds to rise again. There is only so much influence to go around, and what they might gain will have to be lost by someone.”

“If we grow too much, shop or not we will be as a guild,” he pointed out.

“The House of Light already has hooks in you, so you won’t seem a threat,” the grey-eyed beauty smiled. “And you won’t want to keep all the mages here forever, will you? There’s only so much use for them in a town the size of Beaumarais, and too many will make the people uneasy.”

Olivier’s brow creased in thought.

“You would see us turn into a school of sorts,” he said. “Teaching mages profitable skills then releasing them into the world.”

“Even that drunk Maxime would have a use, if you go down this path,” Alisanne said. “He knows war, for all his empty bragging, and a few wizards so trained would make even a country lord’s retinue something to reckon with.”

“The House will object,” he said.

“The priests will want the right to dictate where those wizards go, no doubt, but too many in the higher ranks will see the use of this,” she denied, shaking her head. “Magic made to serve the influence of the House would be a delicious turn in their eyes, I imagine.”

Everybody would benefit in the world she painted with her words, Olivier thought. Everybody, though perhaps the mages the least of the lot. You have made yourself into the lord of this little town’s wizards, Morgaine had accused. And here was now, plotting to barter away their hours without consulting even one of them. There’d been just enough truth to her words, he thought, for them to sting. Yet the thought of simply handing this all over to someone else was an ugly one, and perhaps deep down handing it over to Roland made it worse. What had his brother done to deserve being given all this? Olivier had thought himself beyond those old jealousies, but perhaps he was not. It had been one thing, when he had a path of his own, but not Roland was encroaching on even that and this was a harder pill to swallow.

He told Alisanne none of it, for the thoughts shamed him, and instead simply held her close.

Captain Alain left within days, away to report what he had seen to Lady Lassier in Apenun but his parting words to Olivier were encouraging. It was more than a month before he returned, and in that span yet another mage came over the mountain paths. It was more practitioners than Olivier could ever recall hearing of being in the same place, save in old stories. It was exhausting to organize it all, to keep incidents from happening in the first place instead of simply reacting to them, but it needed to be done. When Captain Alain returned it was with a royal magistrate and a certain Brother Elian, whose name Sister Maude went stiff at. Olivier was brought in for a more formal conversation at the mayoress’ own home, though she was gently evicted for the duration of it.

Brother Elian was one of the greats of the House in Apenun, while the royal magistrate was the one who habitually dwelled in the same city. This would be, Olivier understood without being told, the moment that determined how this would all end. He felt ill-prepared for such a trial, but he would not flinch away in the face of the unexpected.

Though he left convinced he’d doomed them all, the evening brought different results. A glowing Alisanne ambushed him with an enthusiasm that saw them distracted for some time before telling him she’d just spoken with Captain Alain and learned he had, somehow, convinced these people that he knew what he was doing and it was a worthy enterprise. Both the royal magistrate and Brother Elian had given their blessing to the arrangement, though already there was jostling about how the services of certain mages might be ‘leased’ and who should get primacy over the other. Beaumarais’ sudden rise in importance was expected to be bringing people and coin to the town, as well, and it would be quietly arranged that it would get an appointed magistrate and eventually elect its own.

“Apparently my mother has decided this means I am not entirely bereft of political instinct,” Alisanne wryly told him. “I have been recalled to Apenun, where my fate going forward is to be decided.”

Olivier had known it was only a matter of time, yet he was startled by how grieved he felt at the thought he might never see her again. He’d believed himself hardened to the prospect, but perhaps that was simply a lie he’d told himself. He would not make a scene, the young man told himself. It was beneath them both.

“I will miss you sorely,” Olivier quietly said.

Grey eyes turned to him, confused.

“It will only be for a month or two,” Alisanne told him, stroking his side. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

He blinked in surprise.

“You intend to return?” he asked, sounding like a fool even to his own ear.

“There’s more than sharing your bed that keeps me here, Olivier,” she said, tone cooling. “Though I had expected even that might mean more to you than it seems it does.”

“You would be giving up a wealthy and exciting life,” he slowly said.

Apenun was not a grand city, in the greater scheme of things, but it was still as another world from the likes of little Beaumarais nestled in the mountains.

“I’ll be wealthy regardless, and you overestimate the excitement there is to be had as the seventh child of a noblewoman,” Alisanne said, eyes searching his face.

She paused.

“Did you really think I would cast you aside as soon as the call to return to Apenun came?” she asked.

The answer to that now shamed him, so he did not answer.

“I have feelings for you,” Olivier artlessly confessed, “but I harbour no expectation of permanence. It would not be difficult for you to find better prospects.”

“I’m not offering marriage,” Alisanne frowned. “But you have been my lover for near half a year now, Olivier. It is not a small thing and I’d not have it treated as such.”

“I would not have you feel bound to something you began away from home and bereft of company,” he plainly said.

“I can decide for myself whether I should feel bound to something, Olivier,” she said, and if her tone earlier had been cool it was now frigid. “I do not need you to settle my own affairs for me.”

It is a well-meaning condescension you offer, but condescension nonetheless, Morgaine had accused. Making decisions for others without truly understanding them, what they wanted. To see that sentiment reflected in Alisanne’s grey eyes made it impossible to deny the sorcereress’ words.

“I meant no offence,” Olivier said.

“You have given it regardless,” Alisanne evenly said. “Perhaps it would be best for us to be apart for some time, yes?”

It was not truly a question but he nodded in assent, hastily dressing himself from the clothes littering the ground. She looked at him as he did, and for a moment hesitation flickered in her eyes.

“We will speak when I return,” the grey-eyed beauty said, face conflicted.

She did not stop him when he left, and he did not try to stay.

It took six months for Alisanne Lassier to return to Beaumarais.

Six months where Olivier grew increasingly restless, his hours always fully used yet somehow never in a way that felt satisfying. Another four wizards and witches came over the span, and there were now simply too many to host even when spread out between the shop, the family home and the house they’d bought at the edge of the town. After consulting with Mayoress Suzanne, they’d agreed it would be best if a house was raised away from Beaumarais. The townsfolk were growing uncomfortable with the amount of practitioners around Beaumarais: too many had come, and too quickly. In a twist of irony, the location that was settled on was the Knightsgrave. The small valley wasn’t too far from the town, it had a small river for drinking water and no one used it as grazing grounds because of the old legends.

Eager to avoid old mistakes, Olivier put it to the mages themselves. The notion was a popular one – in some ways the practitioners were just as uneasy about the townsfolk as the townsfolk were about them – though there would have to be rotations in who got to sample the comforts of the town instead of staying out in the mountains. The greatest matter of debate was the shape the lodgings out in the Knightsgrave would take.

“It should be a tower,” Morgaine said. “There are many magical reasons why this is preferred dwelling of our kind, and so close to the mountains we will not lack for stone.”

Olivier thought the raising of a mage’s tower out in the wilds was a lot more likely to bring unease than a hall or cottage would have, but Morgaine’s suggestion was highly popular and he would not deny these people without a good reason. Not after having asked them what they wanted. Coin was sparse but a loan was extended by the House of Light through Sister Maude, as the priests were eager to demonstrate that it was they who were the patrons of this arrangement and not the rulers of Apenun. Olivier found his brother began to come around more frequently, though never as much as when they’d been younger. The relationship felt only half-repaired, but neither of them had the time to spare for more. Roland simply had too much to do, too much to learn. He was a student to half a dozen practitioners now, not merely their parents and Morgaine.

They saw him as their future, Olivier realized. Someone who would be able to speak for them yet be one of them. Morgaine had not lied on that night.

Before winter the magistrate Apenun had assigned them arrived, along with a small retinue. They were put up in the temple until more fitting lodgings could be raised. Olivier called on her the evening of their arrival, heart split.

“Did you miss me?” Magistrate Alisanne Lassier smiled.

He had, more than words could properly express. They got to work together again, and already the old tension hung in the air between them. The same way it had before they’d begun. Before they’d quarrelled, too. When spring came Olivier took the first good excuse he found to return to the road, lest he find himself making an inevitable mistake.

The road did him good.

Out there he went, sifting through towns and countryside looking for mages who had not yet heard of the refuge that could be found in Beaumarais. He obtained contracts for enchantments against vermin, for tools that would not rust, for brews that would help childmaking or prevent it. And he returned to Beaumarais, often but not for long. There the town grew to thrive, the coin poured in by peddlers seeing houses raised and shops open. People came to live in Beaumarais who had not been born there, or been brought in by kin and wedding, for the first time in living memory. Magistrate Alisanne saw to the order of it all with bewitching grace, her natural aplomb a fair match for the demands of the office. The tower out in the mountains slowly grew and the practitioners were drawn towards it. The shop would be how they won their coin, how they afforded to live, but the tower would be their home.

Olivier stayed on the road, drawing the closest towns and villages into the fold of what was being built. Justice need not be sought in Apenun now, not when there was a magistrate in Beaumarais. All manners of old disputes could be settled at last. Those few he’d taught how to read and write remained bound to him by gratitude, and they were all from families of importance: the town of his birth was, slowly but surely, becoming the heart of the settlements in the Vermillion Valleys. Olivier longed for grey eyes and a quiet laugh, but found himself reluctant to return to what the two of them had once been. She must have been as well, for while they lingered close to one another neither ever reached out through that slight, final distance separating them.

These days he felt reluctant to stay in Beaumarais at all. Out there Olivier found he thrived: wherever he went, he found success. He talked around peddlers and craftsmen to bring Beaumarais into their routes, secured a proper mason’s help for the tower. He even picked up a few disaffected fantassins ready to turn bandit and convinced them instead to turn into a company under contract by half a dozen towns to keep the mountain paths clear of bandits. Even the House of Light was danced with, as Sister Lucie of Grisemanche was recalled in disgrace when she was found to have taken payment for healing travellers instead of offering it freely as was her duty. It was all exciting. Something he was good at, something he’d been meant to do. Unlike looking over the shoulders of mages in Beaumarais, something they resented of him and he disliked doing in the first place.

By the second year the practitioners had taken to pooling their knowledge and a library was being assembled in the more than half-done tower, and while Olivier would have loved to read through the books there he often felt unwelcome when he visited. The mages who nowadays stayed in the Knightsgrave, having raised tents and small huts there, had started to think of themselves as a small village of their own. They did not like the notion of being beholden to anyone. Morgaine and his brother had taken to staying one week there and another in town, and eventually given Olivier’s frequent absences it became natural for Roland to be given the responsibility of seeing to the affairs of the valley. It was better this way, Olivier told himself. He closed his eyes to Roland being rather well versed in poetry, these days, and spending much of his time in Beaumarais calling on Alisanne.

For three years it all grew. The town, the tower, the profits. Rumour had spread that enchanted wares could be bought in the mountains and so now a caravan of peddlers came every spring, while the highborn of Apenun had their orders conveyed by riders along with the payment. Beaumarais had swelled, and these days Mayoress Suzanne and Magistrate Alisanne were considered the grandees of the region. Olivier himself was known, but not as much. He preferred it that way. There was talk that soon a petition to the court of Prince Arsene of Bayeux might be arranged, requesting that someone might be raised to formal rule over the Vermillion Valleys, and Alisanne’s name was the one bandied about.  The notion found some popularity even away from the town, largely because the magistrate herself was popular.

Winter was ever the season Olivier spent in Beaumarais, and on that third year he’d come a month early as he had a few affairs to see to in town. It was his habit to call on Alisanne the day he returned, no matter the hour, but he was surprised to see his brother leave her house well two hours after sundown. Roland looked just as surprised to see him, and for a moment Olivier was taken aback by how much taller his little brother had become. Roland had grown into a man while he wasn’t looking: his shoulders had broadened, he had a short beard and even wore a knife at his hip. The wonder went away when he remembered where he’d just seen his brother leave, and at what hour.

“Olivier,” Roland smiled. “Back so soon, this year?”

The smile was, he thought, too stiff.

“Out so late, Roland?” Olivier replied, and did not bother to smile.

“There’s no call for that face, brother,” Roland said. “I was only having dinner with a dear friend. We share great hopes for the future of Beaumarais.”

His little brother, still taller than him, began to walk past Olivier but paused.

“Besides, even if I did have other designs are the two of you not done?” Roland asked. “There would be no call for bruising.”

Olivier’s eyes narrowed.

“I sometimes dislike the man you’re growing into, brother,” he said.

“Then perhaps you should have been around more, brother,” Roland replied.

He walked away and did not turn back. Olivier breathed out, calming himself, and only then called on Alisanne. He was ushered in by the servants and brought to her small parlour, where she was having a glass of wine. Alone, he noticed. There was no second, empty glass. It could have been removed.

“Olivier,” she smiled, waving him in and inviting him to sit. “Back early, this year.”

“So I’ve been told,” he said. “Twice now.”

Her brow rose. He bit his tongue. He had no right to feel jealous, he reminded himself. They had not been lovers for years now.

“Your brother is the soul of persistence,” she said. “It is somewhat flattering.”

“Is it?” he quietly asked.

“None of that now,” she replied, just as quietly. “For years I thought you might apologize, that we might begin anew. You never did. Our friendship is dear to me as well, Olivier, but it is not a friend who speaks to me now.”

“No,” he admitted. “It is not. Do not think too badly of me for it.”

Alisanne kept silent for a long moment.

“Jealousy is something, at least,” she said, eyes unreadable.

She drank from her cup, then rose to pour him one as well. His lips felt parched when he drank.

“I am not involved with your brother,” Alisanne said. “Nor have I ever been.”

Relief. Relief, however guiltily it might come.

“He has, however, been courting me for years,” she continued. “And tonight he sought my hand in marriage.”

His fingers clenched around the rim of the cup.

“Tell me you refused him,” Olivier prayed.

“I did not answer,” Alisanne said. “Too swift a refusal would have been indelicate.”

He drank deep to hide the way his hand had trembled.

“He is not in love with me, Olivier,” the grey-eyed beauty mused. “He his taken with my looks and thirsts for lordship over these mountains, which he fancies wedding me might grant him.”

“I did not think him so ambitious,” he confessed.

“Morgaine has been fanning those flames, along with the dream of a hidden city for mages,” Alisanne said. “Though I’ll not blame her too much for that: there were already embers there to fan.”

“I’ve let a lot of things grown rotten, haven’t I?” Olivier softly said.

“There’s a light in you, on those days you come back from the road,” Alisanne said. “A glow almost. When you’ve traipsed around like a rogue, tricking and helping and trading in knowledge. It was hard to grow angry with you, when what you did make you so blatantly happy.”

“It has,” Olivier admitted. “Yet I regret what I left behind.”

She studied him again, silently.

“Apologize,” Alisanne ordered.

“I am sorry,” Olivier said, “for how it ended between us. And for every day since.”

“Good,” she said, and kissed him.

It was a soft night, after that. Patient and tender, almost like a goodbye. They slept in the same bed for the first time in years and neither woke until late in the morning. Olivier woke first but waited until she did, moving as little as possible to not wake her. Eventually her eyes fluttered open, and they stayed nestled together for a long time.

“You’re going to leave, aren’t you?” he asked.

Alisanne sighed.

“Three years is long enough,” she said. “Beaumarais is now capable of electing its own magistrate.”

“And you are growing bored,” he said.

“I am,” Alisanne admitted. “The tower is nearly done, the affairs with the mages quite settled and the rest is… middling.”

“When do you leave?” Olivier asked.

“In a few days,” she replied. “I might return come summer to oversee the election, but it is not certain.”

He breathed out.

“Would you stay, if I asked?”

His own question startled him, but embarrassed as he might be to have asked he did not regret having done so. Grey eyes met his.

“No,” Alisanne said. “But it doesn’t need to end, Olivier. Come with me to Apenun.”

“I cannot,” he replied instantly.

“Think about this, actually stop and think,” she insisted. “You’d go mad, staying here all year, and I’d not stand to be your port of anchor when it’s too cold and nothing more. But in Apenun, you could thrive. Already your work here has made you known in some circles, opportunities could easily be arranged. I’ll find an occupation of my own, and we can live as we want to live. Not bound by half a dozen uneasy threads, forever defined by your family.”

“I can’t abandon all we built here, Alisanne,” he said.

“Then don’t,” she said. “Roland wants it, so let him prove he can lead. You’ll still have shares of the profits, coin to live comfortably, and you can return in a year to see how he’s done without you looming over him.”

And Olivier wanted to object but the truth was that he was already gone most of the year, wasn’t he? What was it that was lost if he left? The more he thought of it, the less he had to say. He did not agree, leaving their bed later and burying himself half-heartedly in the shop’s bookkeeping, but the thought did not leave him. He returned to Alisanne’s home that night. She knew his answer before he spoke it, as she often did.

A hundred things would need seeing to before then, but when she left he’d leave with her.

Olivier woke up to screaming on the night before their departure.

He’d slept at the shop, as he’d been there until late seeing to the last details, and he dressed hastily before slipping into the street. Beaumarais was ablaze, he saw. Armed men on horses were tossing torches onto houses. The militia had come out, but it was a small thing these days and Olivier saw several of them were already corpses. The horsemen were eerily silent as they went around burning and killing, and it was hard to tell how many of them there were. A dozen, two? One of them was knocked down by a vivid red fireball, as Maxime Redflame came out of the tavern drunkenly bellowing and waving about his arms, and they all turned towards the threat. Olivier took advantaged of the distraction to sneak past the nearest raider, towards the east of the town.

Alisanne’s house would be there, along with her small but well-trained armed retinue. The House of Light was close as well, and these days Sister Maude had help from other priests capable of wielding Light. Except that when he got there, the house was strewn with corpses. Soldiers and servants, even a young priestess. Olivier frantically looked through the butchery, but of Alisanne there was no trace. Or of the raiders themselves, though from the way the blood was spilled at least some of them must have been killed forcing the house. Had she been taken? Livid with fear and rage, Olivier stumbled onto a mess in the gardens that looked like it’d been made by someone struggling as they were dragged. The were horse tracks leading away from there, away from the town. Into the mountains.

Olivier followed.

The horsemen had not been careful when they left. Only a few had left by the path, two or three, and though on a rocky stretch Olivier lost their trace he knew well these mountains. This path in particular, which he’d first tread as a boy. Once upon a time, it had been a rite of passage among the children of Beaumarais to sneak out in the night and steal a flower from the valley known as the Knightsgrave. Stomach dropping as unwelcome but inevitable suspicions took hold of him, Olivier sped through the dark mountain paths. Above him the moon lit his way, and vigour like he’d never known before made his stride long and sure and tireless. Before long he stood above the stretch of a small valley filled with tall grass and red flowers by a mountain spring, though now there was more. Tents and huts, close to the shore, and a stout tower jutting upwards that was now nearly done.

The Knightsgrave was almost empty, Olivier saw.

Of the near dozen mages who lived here even in winter there was no trace. Two raiders stood silent in the night, their tall form a stark contrast to the red flowers around them, while their horses drank from the mountain spring. The tower’s door was open, and torchlight flickered within. Olivier no longer had a boy’s body, but he was still spry and the raiders were both eerily still and inattentive. Too still, he eventually realized. They did not breathe at all. Undead, he thought. Merciful Gods, Roland, what have you done? He snuck past the standing corpses, sticking to the tall grass until he was close to the tower. He peeked within and found only a single silhouette within. Morgaine. Sitting in an armchair, looking down at the fire roaring in the firepit.

Anger seizing hold of him, Olivier slipped into the tower and crept upon the sorceress from behind. There was a small paring knife on a table and his fingers closed around the hilt. About to place the blade against the throat, he stopped when he got a look at more than Morgaine’s side. She was burned, heavily. Most of the left half of her torso was a blackened ruin and her breathing was laboured. The sorceress’ dark eyes fluttered open and she caught sight of him. She let out a small, bleak laugh.

“You,” she said. “Of course it would be you.”

“Where is Alisanne?” he asked.

“Upstairs,” she croaked. “Gods, the folly. It all went wrong.”

“You did this,” Olivier hissed.

“No,” she denied. “It was not the plan at all. They were supposed to attack as you left. We would drive them away, the girl would…”

Morgaine let out a dry, rasping cough.

“The girl would owe us,” she said. “Her mother. Roland would be a hero, the natural magistrate.”

“You raised corpses,” he accused. “So that they would serve you.”

“We,” she snorted. “Me, him. For protection. This place was already a grave of knights, we just needed to dig.”

“Your protection is burning the town,” Olivier snarled. “You have destroyed everything with your madness.”

“You did this,” Morgaine hissed. “He went mad when he learned the girl would leave with you. That he’d never be lord, that he was just a fool. It was all you. My plan would have fixed everything, but he lost it. Sent our soldiers for the girl, and when I tried to stop him…”

Olivier looked down at the sorceress, burned by her own pupil and pride. Even now it was all his fault in her eyes, wasn’t it? And maybe it was, in a way. Because he’d chosen the thrills of the road and the chase rather than stay here and see this through. Because he’d chosen to be someone at the expense of being a brother. Maybe he’d had a hand in this, if not the one she thought. And the truth he knew, deep down, was the same truth he’d known since he was a boy: no one else was going to fix this. To try to make it right. It was not his place to pass judgement over that dying woman before him, for he was neither a lord nor a magistrate, but it still needed to be done. And he’d had a hand in this, in the magic that had gone to wicked use here, and so he would also have a hand in ending it all.

“Too many people have died, Morgaine,” Olivier said.

She tried to raise her hand, lips beginning an incantation, but however quick her magic it was not quicker than a knife. It went straight into her heart and Morgaine gasped out her last breath with a hissing curse. Olivier ripped out the knife, bloodying his hand. It was the first time he’d ever killed. The anguish he’d expected to feel from having taken a life did not come, even after a long moment passed. He felt tired, mostly, and sad that a woman who’d been exceptional in many ways had come to die like this. It’d been a bitter flame at the heart of her, and it’d ended up eating her from the inside. We lit it, Olivier reminded himself. Magic hadn’t done that, men and women had. With the ways they treated each other, with the slow strangling grasp of something subtler and deeper than sorcery could ever be.

Bloody knife in hand, he looked at the stairs. This might not be the last life he took tonight. Even as he went up the stairs, Olivier’s mind dreamed up what a monster his brother might have turned into. A raving and ranting madman, or a warlock wreathed in pale lightning.

Instead, what he found was Roland on his knees and weeping.

His little brother looked terrified, the look on his face making the beard he’d grown and the broadened shoulders look like they belonged on someone else’s body. Alisanne had been laid down on a cot in a corner, her hands folded over her lap with delicate care. She was slumbering too deeply for it to be anything but the result of a spell. He could have snuck in, Olivier knew. Roland was lost inside himself, he wouldn’t have heard it. Merciful Heavens, his brother wouldn’t have noticed a thing until the knife took his life. And it’d be safer, wouldn’t it? If Roland’s magic could defeat even his old teacher’s, what could a peddler with a paring knife do against it? But that would mean that his brother was his enemy. And fool that he was, Olivier could not accept that.

He set down the knife on a table and knelt by his brother’s side, pulling him close. Roland did not fight him, let it happen, but his eyes were unseeing. It was only after some soothing that sense returned to them.

“Ollie?” his brother asked, voice hoarse from the weeping.

“I’m here,” Olivier quietly said.

“I-” Roland said, then his voice broke. “Gods, what have I-”

He violently retched, breaking out of his brother’s embrace and throwing up on the floor. Looking scared and ashamed, Roland backed away from him afterwards.

“The magic,” he said, “it was worse than wine. I was in a haze, and I was so angry…”

“Your undead attacked the town,” Olivier said. “Morgaine is dead.”

“Morgaine,” Roland hissed, “Morgaine. It was her who convinced me. Who told me we would never get our dues fairly, that we needed to raise the corpses. I never wanted to, you have to believe me.”

It began, slowly, to dawn on Olivier. But he did not want to look it in the eye, fought it tooth and nail.

“Alisanne,” Roland suddenly said, “what-”

He glanced back and relief touched his face when he found Alisanne was asleep on the cot.

“She won’t wake until the spell is broken,” Roland said. “She… she doesn’t need to know. Olivier, you have to help me. I never meant to hurt anyone.”

He was aching behind the eyes with the effort of not seeing it, but he was losing the war. It felt inevitable, inexorable.

“What do you want me to do, Roland?” Olivier softly asked.

His brother did not notice the soft, steely undertone. Perhaps he would have tread more lightly if he had.

“Morgaine is dead, or good as,” Roland said. “And it was her idea from the start. We can tell people… Alisanne is the magistrate, and she trusts you. If you tell her it was all Morgaine she’ll believe it.”

Dragged up by the hair and forced to look the truth in the eye, Olivier saw it plain for the first time: his brother was not a good man. Magic had nothing to do with it, or little enough it hardly mattered. The older brother stayed silent, trying to fight the revelation but finding little to fight it with. Roland’s eyes went hard when he got no reply.

“Trying to get rid of me, are you?” Roland said. “Now that you have all you wanted, time to do away with the mage brother before you buy yourself a title. You owe me, Olivier. If you hadn’t taken her, I never would have-”

The other man bit down on the sentence, but the hardness in his eyes did not waver. It was never the magic, was it? It was you, Roland. All along it was you.

“It’s your fault,” Roland harshly said. “You know it is.”

“I do,” Olivier quietly replied.

And it truly was. If Olivier had not left the family home as quick as he could, if he’d not left his brother behind, it might not have come to this. But he’d avoided the place as much as he could because it brought a bitter taste to his mouth. Because he wanted to leave it behind. And he had, but he’d also left behind more than the house. There were so many ways this could all have been avoided. If he’d not taken to the road, if he’d not left so many things half-said, if he’d found it in him to not see, deep down, his own brother as a rival. He’d left Roland to stew in a cauldron of anger, and so anger was what Roland had learned.

Too slow to notice, too slow to act.

All that was left, now, was to look at a man who had used his magic to throw a murderous tantrum when denied what he wanted. And the thought disgusted Olivier, because in the end it would be others who paid the price for this. When it came out Roland had raised the dead, had been responsible for so many deaths, then the House of Light would smash all of this to pieces. And their town would be spoken of as an example as to why mages could never be trusted, never be listened to, when the lot of wizards was next questioned. Have you heard of the fate of Beaumarais, my child, a thousand Sister Maudes would say, tutting about how it was so sad but you just couldn’t expect differently of that sort.

“You can’t have done this,” Olivier finally said. “It would ruin it all.”

“Yes, exactly,” Roland said, licking his lips.

It couldn’t be Morgaine, either. She was too well-known, it would be almost as damning. The undead were the keystone, for what Proceran mage would dare dabble in necromancy? There was a ready-made culprit on the other side of the valleys: Praesi warlocks with their wicked arts, who had wanted to ruin the good work of reliable Proceran wizards. Olivier himself had once falsely claimed that bandits who’d robbed him had been in the pay of Praes, the precedent would make it more believable to highborn always keeping wary eye on the east.

“There is a spell that could make her more suggestible when we wake her,” Roland told him. “Nothing untoward, just as if she’d had a large cup of wine. It would-”

“You should not have magic,” Olivier said, and believed every word.

No more than he should have a sword or a lordship, had he been born to either. His fingers itched with the truth of it, as if something were trying to claw its way out from beneath the skin. Roland cracked a scornful smile.

“It should have been you, right?” he said. “You manage to go a great many years without saying it, brother. I’m almost impressed.”

“You have abused your power,” Olivier said slowly, as if testing out the words. “You no longer deserve to hold it.”

“I was born with it, Ollie,” Roland hissed. “There it is, the simple truth: I was born with it and you weren’t. And you’ve been trying to take things from me all my life to make up for that, but it won’t ever do anything because the Gods Above already decided which of us would matter when they gave the Talent to only one of us. Allow me to demonstrate-”

It was all, in that moment, clear as crystal. Every detail of the world around him, from Alisanne’s steady breath on the cot to the slight coating of dust on the bookshelves to the flush on his brother’s cheeks. And Olivier knew, with unearthly certainty, that it could be done. He’d spent all his life taking knowledge and putting it to use, and wasn’t the knowledge always the hard part? And so when he saw sorcery flare around his brother’s hands Olivier brushed his own against them, and took the magic. No, not took. He was not a wanton thief, stealing away whatever he wished. He had done this because the magic was being misused.

Confiscated, he thought. He had confiscated the power.

The word felt right, like an old friend he’d never met.

“What have you done?” Roland shouted. “What have you done, Olivier? Did you destroy my magic?”

No, Olivier knew. He hadn’t it. He could feel something within him, like a bundle of warmth. Or perhaps a spool of wool, one that he might yet learn to unspin.

“It’s over, Roland,” he said. “You won’t escape the consequences of this.”

A shout was his answer, and to his surprise his brother charged him. Roland was taller and had caught him flatfooted, so Olivier stumbled backwards into the table as his brother grabbed him by the hair and smashed his head against the wood.

“It will come back, if I kill you,” Roland seethed. “Won’t it?”

Olivier felt daze and his hands scrabbled for leverage so that he could throw back his brother, but his head was smashed again. Blindly groping, his fingers closed around something hard. A knife, he realized. The same bloody paring knife he’d killed Morgaine with. And if he struck now, while Roland had not noticed… And still he balked. Roland noticed.

“A pushover to the end,” Roland sneered.

He ripped out the knife from Olivier’s grip and tossed it behind him. The older brother closed his eyes and desperately reached for the bundle within him, the Talent, but there was something missing. He could not touch it, could not understand how. He was thrown down against the table again, head rapping against the wood, and his vision swam as he felt a hand close around his throat. There was a gasp, and the hand trembled as it loosened. Olivier kicked his brother away, gulping air desperately, and as his vision came back he found that Roland’s mouth was open in a silent moan.

Alisanne Lassier, standing tall and cold-eyed, stabbed the paring knife in his brother’s lungs a second time.

The death was startlingly quick. A few heartbeats was all it took before Roland slumped to the ground, first on his knees and then all the way down as the light left his eyes. Olivier found he could not look away, and that though Alisanne was speaking he could not seem to hear her words. It was as if the whole world had gone still and silent and dark, save for the sight of his brother’s face in a growing pool of blood. Someone was touching him, he realized.

“- are you all right?” Alisanne said. “Did he hurt you?”

Olivier blinked, as if waking up from a deep sleep.

“No,” he said, touching his throat and wincing at the bruising, “He didn’t – I’m all right.”

“We need to leave this place, Olivier,” Alisanne told him, tone gentle but urgent. “We don’t know if anyone else was helping him.”

“We can’t leave,” Olivier tiredly replied. “Not when it’s like this.”

She looked askance at him, wary and confused.

“It can’t have been them,” Olivier said, hesitating. “It has to be me, Allie. It can’t have been them, or everyone will pay.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Alisanne slowly said. “You’re in shock, Olivier. We need to leave.”

Lies wouldn’t be enough. Magic could, if it was the right kind, and Olivier had read the books. He knew the principles. Yet that perfect sphere he could so easily imagine – so easily he was not certain it was imagination at all – seemed beyond his reach. There was power there, but he could not use it. Frustration mounted in him. What had been the point, if he couldn’t do any good with this? If he couldn’t use his talent to do anything but subtract from the world? He had to be able to use it, or so many people would suffer for the madness of so few.

The world shivered.

Oh. It couldn’t be about him, could it? It couldn’t be selfish. There had to be a purpose. Thinking of what would come to pass, Olivier reached out for the sphere within himself and gathered the slightest lick of power. One of the easiest tricks of any mage was the making of fire, he’d heard. And as Olivier raised his palm a small trail of flame grew on it, though he snuffed it out even as Alisanne let out a loud gasp and stepped away.

“You’re a mage?” she asked.

No, Olivier thought. Not even now that he had magic.

“I am a charlatan,” he bitterly smiled.

He reached for the power again, and it came more easily this time. Even with his eyes closed to concentrate, it took him three times to successfully weave the illusion. He watched comprehension dawn in her grey eyes, watched the horror rise.

“No,” Alisanne quietly said. “No, please. Olivier, don’t do this. Don’t take his face.”

“Olivier de Beaumarais died,” he replied. “Slain along Lady Morgaine by the Praesi warlock who raised the dead and set them on the town and tower. He will be buried here.”

Roland’s body could fill the grave.

“Roland de Beaumarais heroically drove back the Praesi but failed to kill him, and now pursues him to avenge his brother,” he continued. “He wills all his possessions to Alisanne Lassier, to dispose of as she sees fit, as he will never return to Beaumarais.”

The deception would not hold, were he forced to uphold it around people who’d known them both. Illusions could only do so much.

“And when authorities seek out Roland to interrogate him?” Alisanna asks.

“He will not deign to be found,” the man who was now Roland de Beaumarais sadly smiled, “What do the wishes of men matter, to a rogue sorcerer?”

Chapter 40: Campaign

“A war is not always won with daring, but it is always lost without.”
– Florianne Goethal, Princess of Brus

When the First Prince left the Arsenal, it would be with a talking corpse in a locked box.

The work on my end was done, and it’d been exhausting enough that I slept fitfully for a few hours after returning to my rooms. Archer kept watch, and intercepted messages and reports before they could reach me. I woke up halfway to Afternoon Bell with a stiff leg, the undead Red Axe remaining as a little bundle of senses in the back of my mind I could look into if I so wished. I could snuff her out again with a snap of my fingers if I so wished, a precaution I’d judged necessary given who the heroine had made deals with when she still breathed. Let Procer have its trial, and Cordelia settle her princes. I’d made it clear it was the last favour I’d be doing her for some time, and that now it was her time to deliver.

Among the messages Indrani passed me was one from her, which turned out to be a good start on that. She’d officially ratified a treaty making the ealamal a weapon under the Grand Alliance, if not a weapon of the Grand Alliance. Yannu Marave and I were being invited to post up to three hundred soldiers each to stand guard over the weapon, with Procer itself promising to limit its own garrison at five hundred. Twenty slots for ‘scholarly observers’ were offered for each us, with access to the doomsday weapon, though if Named were to be part of that twenty it would require unanimous approval by a vote of the signatory members of the Grand Alliance.

All this we’d agreed over the Lord of Alava’s strong wine, but the added list penned by Cordelia’s own hand of all Named she was willing to grant access was an unexpected boon. As I’d expected Hierophant wasn’t on it, but both Roland and the Forsworn Healer were. Only a few villains were among them: the Harrowed Witch, the Forgetful Librarian, the Royal Conjurer and the Hunted Magician. Three out of four were Proceran, but honestly of my lot they were the most decent folk that’d be able to get something out of looking at the corpse. The Affable Burglar was the only Named she went out of her way to specify would be allowed under no circumstance, which honestly was fair.

Aurore was delightful, but she had the worst of Vivienne’s old habits paired with a moral compass to make a priest weep.

I penned a quick diplomatic thank you note for the First Prince, then a longer message for Lord Yannu mentioning I was still willing to back up his nomination of the Healer if he was willing to do the same with mine of the Rogue Sorcerer. I was willing to get it all going this very evening, if he was. Most of the other messages were minor, the only one of decent importance a formal confirmation that the war council would begin tomorrow through the Mirage. I’d already agreed to that, though, so it wasn’t a surprise. What was, however, was the official report I got from the Arsenal research council that a functional, usable Unraveller pattern had finally been made.

Mind you the estimated costs for one were still higher than I’d like – about the same as a good horse – but it’d be worth the coin if they worked as advertised. I’d spend a good horse’s worth of gold on an artefact capable of destroying a beorn or even a turtle-ship with a single touch without hesitation, considering how necromantic constructs tended to be the Dead King’s means of shattering shield walls. Hells, with a decent supply of those the Lycaonese would be able to hold Twilight’s Pass until the Last Dusk – they were a damned stubborn folk, and their fortresses would hard to invest without Keter’s monstrous siege engines.

“We’ve got Unravellers,” I told Indrani, grinning. “We still need proper field testing, but they seem to hold up. The Blind Maker had a breakthrough while we were busy politicking – apparently wood soaked in Arcadian water works just as well as that murderously expensive stuff we were bringing in from the Waning Woods.”

It was easy to forget that, for all the intrigue permeating it at the moment, the Arsenal remained first and foremost a research facility. That’d not stopped just because nobility had swarmed all over it.

“I want a full quiver,” Archer replied without missing a beat.

I snorted.

“Sure, if it comes out of your pay,” I said. “Even for your beast of a bow the size of the thing will be a little hard, though.”

I passed her the report, which included dimensions, and she looked disgruntled. Yeah, that was more a lance than a javelin. She might be able to throw them – scratch that, she’d definitely be able to throw them – but unless she had a bow made specifically for firing Unravellers she’d not be able to use them as arrows.

“Alexis’s silver bow will be able to handle them,” she reluctantly admitted. “It’s a Gigantes artefact, it can change its shape some.”

Huh, good to know. Just for that the Silver Huntress had earned a guaranteed place among the Named that’d be joining the offensive into Hainaut. Assuming said offensive was agreed on by the Grand Alliance, though I expected it would be. That bridge the Dead King was building didn’t leave us much of a choice. I had a few questions for Indrani – including whether or not she could spare the Harrowed Witch, now that her old band had been gutted – but we were interrupted by a messenger. The White Knight was requesting, firmly but politely, a moment of my time. I didn’t allow myself to sigh until I’d sent back an affirmative that Hanno could call on me.

“Want me to stay?” Indrani offered. “If you want a loomer, I can loom.”

“I won’t be needing a loomer, no,” I amusedly replied.

“I’ve been practicing this thing with the knives, too” Archer told me, “Where I’m carving away all casual at a piece of wood, but then I change the angle and it makes this sinister scraping sound-”

“You’re not going to intimidate the White Knight with sinister wood scraping, ‘Drani,” I told her, lips twitching.

“You can’t know until we try,” she insisted, then peered at me piercingly. “Good to have that chat alone, then? Shiny Boots is bound to be a little miffed over your latest bout of corpse-snatching.”

“He’ll have to get over it,” I said. “I broke no laws.”

“Because that argument always works with heroes,” Archer drily said. “I guess you haven’t had a polite and oddly preachy argument in too long, something’s got to be done to scratch your itch.”

“Out with you,” I grinned.

“But what about what’s right, Catherine?” Indrani said in a deep voice, looking at me stoically. “Have you thought about the children, or how this will make angels sad?”

I bit down on my laughter, since otherwise it’d just encourage her.

“Away, witch,” I said. “Go chuck terrible sculptures at Masego.”

“Heard that might get illegal soon,” she replied, cocking an eyebrow at me.

I let out a startled laugh. I’d forgotten my teasing promise to Zeze from when we’d been mopping up the last enemies in the Arsenal, but I shouldn’t have expected him to – or to have failed to inform Indrani of it.

“I’ll make you royal art thrower,” I promised. “Court title with a legal exemption and everything.”

“Make sure it sticks under Vivienne too,” Indrani requested, “I’m fairly sure the wench likes him better than me.”

I managed to keep a serious face at that, which was quite the achievement, and ushered her out before the White Knight could arrive. I was a lot more dishevelled than I would have allowed myself to be in front of Lord Yannu or the First Prince, but unlike them Hanno had seen me on campaign. Staying in a tunic and comfortable boots wouldn’t be taken as an insult by him. I poured myself water waiting for him, and before long an attendant was knocking at my door. I dismissed the young woman in question at the door and welcomed him in myself, gesturing for the salon in front of my room. The White Knight was dressed just as fancily as me, his tunic grey to my green, and if anything his boots were more worn than mine.

I found Hanno’s face hard to read as he entered and sat, though his continued silence save for simple courtesies did not bode well.  He sat and declined the water I offered, expression calm. I lowered myself on the seat on the opposite side of the table, raising an eyebrow to invite him to begin.

“You made the body of a heroine into an undead prop,” the White Knight said.

Calm, but it wasn’t a friendly kind of calm.

“Legally speaking, Procer did that,” I noted. “It employed my services in doing it, true, but I acted on its behalf.”

“I expected better of you,” he said.

“Oh, fuck off,” I flatly replied. “I wouldn’t have had to step in if you’d compromised with Hasenbach yourself. The way I asked you to.”

“What she asked for-”

“Was hard to swallow,” I interrupted, “but she asked it for a reason. Refusing her is fine, Hanno, but if you do then something has to be done to address those reasons. You can’t just call it politics and say it’s out of your wheelhouse, not when your heroes are half the reason we’re in this mess to start with.”

“There was no call to compromise, Catherine,” the White Knight said. “If the Principate is proving incapable of fulfilling basic treaty obligations it agreed to, it should not be further indulged with concessions. You are acting in a manner that will secure signatures for your Accords but destroy any trust there might be in them.”

“I’m acting in a manner that keeps Principate conscripts, food and coin flowing,” I said, voice grown cold. “You know, those things we need if we want to have any chance at all of beating Keter. What was done breaks no laws and did not interfere with the sentence you passed under the Terms. You have no grounds on which to complain.”

“You could have told me of your intentions,” Hanno said. “You chose, instead, to scheme.”

His eyes narrowed.

“I am not blind,” he said. “You pushed to have the details of the trial placed under seal so that word of the trial in the Highest Assembly will spread among the people of Procer long before the one in the Arsenal does.”

“Named will be able to ask about the sentence passed on the Red Axe, as is their right under the Terms,” I replied. “They will be told, if they do, that you personally executed her.”

It’d come out eventually that Procer had tried a walking corpse, that much was certain – there were too many Named for loose lips not to eventually spill the truth, and the Arsenal itself was not airtight – but by then it wouldn’t matter. Hasenbach would have had town criers all over Procer spreading her story first, an apparatus that no Named could hope to match in speed and scope. The people of Procer would treat is as rumours, not the true story, while Named would have the White Knight’s own word of having killed the Red Axe to count on. Hanno’s own reputation was being used to anchor this, which I suspected was part of the reason he was angry.

“You build your tower on a foundation of lies and confusion,” the White Knight said. “It can only crumble.”

“If this was about ten people, or even a hundred, you’d be right,” I said. “When it comes to a few hundred thousand, though, to millions, then all those stories in the back of your head stop mattering. The scope is just too large for a pattern like ‘the secret coming out’ to make a dent. Even if rumours linger, more rumours can be seeded to dislodge them.”

“More lies,” Hanno said. “Making a game of treaties can only lessens them, Catherine.”

His expression tightened.

“There was a moment, in that room where we had come to speak with the First Prince, where you decided I had become an obstacle,” the White Knight said. “Already you had it planned, suggesting that Procer to get custody of the corpse.”

“I’m not one of yours, Hanno,” I mildly said. “You got in your own way and it needed to be done, so I did it. If you want pretty ends, get them yourself. Below deals in much, but rarely that.”

“This has cost you trust, Black Queen,” he said. “From heroes, and from me. You made the choice to go behind my back instead of working together.”

And that was true, I wouldn’t deny it. But this pretence that I was just a scorpion stinging out of habit was infuriating me, because I wouldn’t have had to do anything of this if he’d godsdamned handled it himself.

“This has cost you respect, White Knight,” I replied, voice gone hard as steel. “Because the longer you speak, the more I can’t help but notice that for all your whining you haven’t given a single alternative.”

The conversation ended there, which was for the best.

Sometimes I thought about how much gold had been sunk into building the ‘Mirage’ and winced, but I had to admit that at least it looked impressive.

It wasn’t that the room itself was large, or all that richly decorated: it was a circle with a radius of maybe a hundred feet, and the place was aggressively bare of ornaments. Nothing had been brought into here that might interfere with the enchantments, and even we had been warned to keep our clothing simple. No jewelry, and no weapons were allowed in – and for me in specific, neither my yew staff nor the Mantle of Woe. At the centre stood a great table of stone, carved with small runes that could be touched to silently signal you were requesting the right to speak, and around said table twenty seats of stone had been assembled. Those seats were within boxes of clear glass, which would serve as the medium for the magic, but in truth the entire room was an intricate ritual array hid under the floor tiles.

With all the glass and the strange table, surrounded by smooth walls of polished stone, the Mirage made for an unusual sight. I claimed my seat with a limp, letting a mage attendant close the glass panels behind me, and breathed out in surprise when within moments I began to saw around the table people that were thousands of miles away. The illusions were damned convincing, too: I could see the flush on Rozala Malanza’s cheeks, and the details of the folds on Itima Ifriqui’s skin. It was a shame that there would be no refreshments offered at this war council, given how long it was likely to last, but Hasenbach had suggested that after an hour we vote on taking a pause so at least I wouldn’t stuck in this box forever. It was going to get warm in here, I suspected, considering the openings in the glass were small and meant more to let in air than address heat.

There were too many commanders in the Grand Alliance for them to all fit in one room, much less warrant the expensive arrangements necessary to be connected to the Mirage, so it was only the very highest rung of command that’d been invited to this war council. For the front in Twilight’s Pass the Kingfisher Prince had come in person, while an illusion Lady Itima Ifriqui of Vaccei stood in for the Dominion troops in the region. For Cleves, an illusion of my old foe Princess Rozala Malanza of Aequitan had been conjured up while Lord Yannu Marave had claimed his seat in person. For Hainaut, grizzled old Klaus Papenheim has been brought in phantom form while the Kingdom of Callow had its representative in my person. Though not a general, the First Prince naturally had a seat of her own as the highest military authority in Procer.

Going by numbers Callow’s presence in the room was almost slightingly small, and in truth I’d been offered the right to bring in an Army officer from the Pass to even the numbers a bit, but I’d declined. Dragging Pickler or Kilian into this was unwarranted for essentially the same reason that neither Razin Tanja nor Aquiline Osena were in attendance even though they fielded troops in Hainaut. Hells, it was why General Pallas wasn’t here even though her Tyrant’s Own numbered more than the troops Lady Itima had brough up north. None of those commanders were of the highest authority in the front. If I told Razin to send out his foot, the boy did it. If the Iron Prince wanted the kataphraktoi to screen the flanks of Alamans skirmishers, screen those they did.

While all those people would be told of the decisions made, and participate to the planning of the campaign itself, the hard truth was that none of them were influential enough to warrant a seat here. And not all seats were equal in here, either. I spoke for the entire Army of Callow and was the informal representative for the drow as well, which meant my word weighed heavier than that of any single Levantine or Proceran save perhaps Cordelia herself. Their authority was diluted by their numbers, not strengthened: Itima Ifriqui could not speak for the captains under another of the Blood, and Malanza couldn’t speak for the Lycaonese holding the Pass. My army’s chain of command was fundamentally unlike theirs, when it came down to it. Theirs forces were a messy patchwork of personal noble troops and free captains answering this way and that, while mine had been inherited from the relentlessly professional Legions of Terror.

Given the difficulties Cordelia still had in getting her princes in line I might actually have more soldiers under me than she did, regardless of Procer fielding a significantly larger force overall.

There was no small talk, and barely even greetings. Once the spells were stable and the mage-attendants had made sure the links were matched silence was given without even needing to be called for. Everyone knew why they were here, and how serious the matters at hand were. It was the kind of weight that tended to make small talk feel like whistling in a graveyard. Hasenbach did not let the silence linger for long, opening the council with a few brisk courtesies and then getting us started in earnest with the unfortunate realities of our war.

“All of you have, by now, received the information that the Witch of the Woods obtained during her sally beyond enemy lines,” the First Prince said. “The Dead King is raising a bridge in northern Hainaut, in the flatlands known as Thibault’s Wager. Troops are being massed on the northern shore, and fortifications have been raised to harden the site against assault.”

Itima Ifriqui of the Brigand’s Blood rapped her knuckles against the table before her, requesting the right to speak and having it granted immediately.

“Did we get hard numbers on what is being massed?” the Lady of Vaccei asked.

“The initial report by the Witch estimated around two hundred thousand on the northern shore,” the First Prince replied, “but that was more than two months ago. We have not been able to scry the location since.”

“I mean no disrespect to the skills of the Lady Witch,” Princess Rozala said, “yet it occurs to me that the Hidden Horror might well have allowed her this vision. I won’t argue against the necessity of break that bridge, but it seems to me we are being provoked to battle on his time and terms.”

She was right about that much, in my opinion. While I honesty doubted Neshamah had given up the game with the bridge on purpose – he wasn’t infallible, we took him by surprise sometimes – he was aware that we knew about his bridge and couldn’t afford to let it stand. He knew a battle was coming in this ‘Thibault’s Wager’, and he’d be prepared accordingly.

“I’ve been sending native outriders and Helike cataphracts deep into enemy territory,” the Iron Prince told us after being given right to speak, “and the reports from the survivors all speak to the same truth: the Enemy is withdrawing deeper into Hainaut. We still get regular raids on our lines but the army Old Bones wanted to strike with while the plague ravaged our backs broke into smaller forces. We think at least half of them are headed north.”

I touched a rune on the table with my fingers, which drew Hasenbach’s attention, and she gave me the right to speak a heartbeat after.

“It’s a safe bet he’s fortifying the Wager,” I said. “The longer we wait to make our offensive, the more heavily dug-in the dead will be. Revenants, constructs, earthworks. He’ll make that place into a fortress.”

Possibly literally. The flatlands would become even more strategically valuable after the bridge was built, should we fail to stop that, so it would be a sound use of resources to raise a fortress there. The right to speak passed back to Lady Itima.

“A surprise strike through the Twilight Ways is the answer,” she said. “A strong force with Bestowed can shatter the works and retreat.”

“And the moment the dust settles on that raid, the Dead King will begin raising a new bridge,” Frederic pointed out. “It would be worthwhile for him even only for the forced attrition – how many elite troops and heroes will we lose with every attack?”

“The work can’t be done in a day,” Princess Rozala disagreed. “It will slow him down enough that we’ll get breathing room to muster a proper answer.”

“Your theory rests on the Hidden Horror’s means to build staying the same,” Prince Klaus retorted. “They won’t. The longer this goes on, the more bodies he can mobilize.”

“If we strike at all, it should be to win lasting gains,” Lord Yannu said. “There is only so much blood we can afford to spill over that bridge.”

“The strategic reality is that a raid is just pissing away lives,” I bluntly agreed. “We have to be able to hold the region, or we’ll be doing this again and again. Even if we make this Wager impossible to build in, what prevents Keter from starting work on a bridge a hundred miles upriver?”

“We would be committing to a major offensive entirely on the Dead King’s terms, Queen Catherine,” Princess Rozala replied. “And if a severe enough defeat ensues, it seems likely that the Hainaut defensive lines will be unable to withstand the counterattack.”

“If Ol’ Bones gets two hundred thousand of his finest on the south bank, we won’t be able to withstand a plain attack,” the Iron Prince grunted. “Your instincts are good, Malanza, I mean no slight to them. It’ll be a nasty piece of war to slog through, for sure. But I don’t see that we have a choice. The Black Queen put her arrow in the eye: this is going to keep happening until we secure the shores of Hainaut.”

“It would make the principality easier to defend,” the Kingfisher Prince noted. “Barring disaster, having a moat between Hainaut and Keter should offset the casualties taken winning it.”

“A plan that accounts for victory but not defeat is not a plan, it is a daydream,” Lord Yannu said. “If disaster does happen, how does Hainaut hold?”

“I will be bringing reinforcements from Callow,” I said. “The Duchy of Daoine has agreed to send six thousand men, under condition that they are used purely for defensive warfare. Lady Dartwick will hold the command.”

Duchess Kegan had been willing to shake loose some of her soldiers, if they were used only to man the defensive lines. I didn’t even grudge her the limitations, considering those lines were going to have to be manned regardless: skilled as Deoraithe fighters were, on the field I would rather have more legionaries in the ranks. I would have liked some Watch, mind you, but Kegan had been understandably unwilling to let any of them near the greatest necromancer to ever live. I didn’t want Neshamah to get his hands on that mass of souls the Watch got its powers from either, so I’d live with the disappointment. Besides, if they stayed in Callow then they were for Malicia to worry about – and given how few troops were left to defend my borders I wanted her to worry as much as possible.

“Six thousand will not hold back the tide, Your Majesty,” the Princess of Aequitan said.

“Neither will hiding behind our walls,” I flatly replied. “And even if we suffer a defeat, the Ways mean there will always be a path of retreat the enemy can not follow us into. That will mitigate casualties, and the defeated force could then retreat to the defensive lines faster than the dead can march and replenish its ranks with the reinforcements from Daoine.”

“Companies of volunteers are also being raised from the refugees in Brabant,” the First Prince said. “Though they will not be ready in time to participate in a summer offensive, they can at least serve as a strategic reserve.”

“Starvelings in dwarven tinpots,” Lady Itima snorted. “How many of those poor souls are you raising?”

“Between ten and fifteen thousand,” the fair-haired princess replied.

A pretty number, especially when you added my six thousand Deoraithe to it, but no one here was fooled. How many of those ten to fifteen would truly be fighting fit, instead of sickly elders or children too small for the breastplate? If it was even half I’d count us lucky. Procer was at least a year past scraping the bottom of the barrel when it came to recruitment, these days it was digging into the floor under the metaphorical barrel. Still, warm bodies with spears could hold the defenses we’d raised. Not well, but long enough for reinforcements to arrive. And with Named to stiffen the backbone, we should be able to avoid a general rout the moment the volunteers first saw what an offensive by Keter looked like.

“Ten thousand starvelings can hold a wall, Itima, if they have a Callowan backbone spread through their ranks,” the Lord of Alava said.

“Might be,” the Lady of Vaccei grunted back.

“Though our hand is being forced, there is another reason I’m in favour of an offensive in Hainaut,” I said. “The Hierophant is close to a breakthrough on a weapon that would make an attack on the Crown of the Dead feasible – and reclaiming Hainaut would be necessary before such a step.”

It was good news I’d given them, and it was treated like it. Only Hasenbach knew of Quartered Season in any depth, though both Malanza and Marave were aware that I’d had Masego working on something since the foundation of the Arsenal. Klaus Papenheim, in particular, had finally traded that grim Lycaonese scowl for a distinctly wolfish smile.

“Within three months we should have the artefact itself,” I continued, “and though the time required to make it a fully functional weapon is uncertain, it would be ready for use by next summer.”

Meaning if we took back Hainaut this year and dug in over the winter, we could attempt to end the war in a single stroke the following year.

“Might we expect a fuller understanding of this weapon soon, Your Majesty?” Princess Rozala asked.

“Once the initial trial is complete, in three months, a briefing will be arranged,” I said. “Before that I will only fully inform the First Prince herself and a designated high officer for Levant.”

The Levantines shared a look.

“I will be that officer,” Lord Yannu said. “It will be confirmed by the Majilis before the end of the day.”

I inclined my head in acknowledgement.

“In light of what I’ve said, I’d like you all to reconsider how you’re looking at the offensive ahead of us,” I said. “While it’s true that Keter will be expecting us to attack, at this time I don’t believe the Dead King will be expecting an all-out and sustained offensive to reclaim all of Hainaut. This could be an opportunity for us to do real damage.”

“You’re suggesting we destroy the Enemy’s forces in Hainaut,” Frederic said. “Bold.”

“I’m suggesting that if this is to be our last offensive before we move against Keter itself, it’s in our interest to destroy as much of the Dead King’s armies as possible,” I said. “Better to face them on the field than behind the walls of the Crown of the Dead.”

That siege would already be hellish enough without Neshamah being allowed to pull back his armies in good order and turning his capital into even more of an impregnable nightmare.

“We don’t have the numbers for that kind of campaign in Hainaut,” Prince Klaus pragmatically said.

“The Firstborn forces under General Rumena are willing to participate to that offensive,” I said. “And I’d like for commanders on the other fronts to consider sending reinforcements.”

“The defense of Cleves will be made significantly harder by the absence of the Firstborn,” Princess Rozala said.

“Perhaps that will remember Gaspard Langevin the realities of his situation,” I said, tone gone sharp. “Sve Noc’s patience is not without limits. Besides, it is Twilight’s Pass I would expect more soldiers from.”

“Holding the grounds we’ve taken is not leisurely, don’t let the stalemate fool you,” Lady Itima said. “Your raiders ought to have told you this much.”

“You believe the Unravellers will stabilize our front enough we can afford to thin the ranks,” the Kingfisher Prince said, eyes narrowing.

There was some undisciplined talk at the talk of the artefacts, since to my surprise the news hadn’t made it everywhere. Lady Itima had held no idea, and to my surprise neither had the Iron Prince – he must have been away from reliable scrying relays.

“I wouldn’t take my mages from you, but Special Tribune Robber and Sapper-General Pickler would both be of great use on this campaign,” I said. “Not to mention a few hundred Lycaonese foot.”

Prince Klaus looked a little flattered, I saw from the corner of my eye. Well, he knew what I thought of his people as far as soldiering went. Lycaonese fought fierce and rarely broke, there were few better men to field against the dead. Frederic’s horse was famous as well, but they were mostly retinue troops and Hainaut was already well served in cavalry by my reckoning. Between my knights, Lycaonese cavalry and the kataphraktoi we had a fine array of heavy horse, while Alamans horsemen made for fine skirmishers and outriders.

“If the Unravellers prove reliable, I would agree to lending troops to the offensive,” the Kingfisher Prince said.

Not that he could keep Pickler or Robber from leaving if I recalled them, but it would be undiplomatic to withdraw my soldiers without first consulting the commanding officers of the front.

“You don’t need my lot, not when you’ve got Tartessos screamers,” Lady Itima noted. “I’ll send Moro and a company of sworn blades, but no more.”

“I would be willing to contribute Alavan captains,” Lord Yannu said. “Should the campaign be soundly planned.”

More heavy foot, these, allegedly the finest in Levant. I nodded in thanks at both Levantines.

“If the Firstborn leave and our Levantine friends split their forces, I do not believe I can spare much men,” Princess Rozala said, tone faintly regretful. “And of that little no horse, if the drow no longer screen the coasts.”

“Setting aside the details of the offensive,” the First Prince said, “I now ask formally: is this is council in favour of a summer offensive in Hainaut?”

The vote was unanimously in favour.

Chapter 39: Transliteration

“A sinking ship knows no captain.”
– Ashuran saying

I wondered if Hasenbach was getting as tired of this as I was.

Probably not. Ruling in Procer involved a lot more wrangling than it did in Callow, or at least the Callow I’d risen to rule – one where most great nobles had been stripped of their lands, and the armies of all but the crown had been severely curtailed. Outside her own Rhenia, the First Prince of Procer’s authority had rarely ran further than what she could sway others to grant her. Which must have made it all the more galling that, after years of staying one step ahead of her opponents at home and abroad, she was now getting cornered again and again by a bunch of yokels with swords. I supposed if I’d been fuller of myself than I was I might have started to believe that Hasenbach was losing her touch, or that I was a fine schemer indeed.

I was not so deluded, thank the Gods. The First Prince was being forced to give ground again and again because the Principate was collapsing under her, not because she’d proved to be blind or a fool. The crushing pressures within her realm where simultaneously forcing her to take unwise stands – like trying to claim the Red Axe – while robbing her of the clout that a First Prince with Procer firmly behind her would be able to wield. It was a deathly downwards spiral I’d begun to glimpse, one where to keep her head above the water she had to risk ever taller waves and even one grave misstep might be enough to see her drown. Still, she was not the only one who had demands made of her. There were matters I could not compromise over.

Trying to keep to that while preventing Procer from bursting open like an overripe fruit was why I’d sought Cordelia Hasenbach out for a private audience and insisted that the White Knight come along. Hanno’s dedication to trials under the Terms being treated as genuine exercises of justice was laudable, if occasionally inconvenient, but even he knew that worrying too much about appearances when the hour of need was upon us could only be a recipe for disaster. And so the White Knight had agreed to discuss the upcoming trial of the Red Axe, if not her sentencing, and to try to find a compromise with the First Prince. He was a reasonable man; it’d not been hard to exact that promise from him.

But I also knew that, like all Named, Hanno of Arwad would have lines that his very nature would not let him cross. Hasenbach and I, ultimately, were practical creatures. Our lines were born of practical concerns, either the feasibility of the Liesse Accords or the salvation of the Principate. The White Knight, on the other hand, was a principled man. The lines he would refuse to cross were moral ones, and while I could not find it in me to look down on that neither would I pretend that it did not make him unpredictable to deal with.

“This is nostalgic,” Hanno smilingly said, setting down his cup of tea. “I’ve not had this brew since I was a boy.”

Oh, good. Then if I got lucky I might never again have to force a smile after having a sip of this stuff. Even the Firstborn made better tea, and their version of it involved no leaves as well as more fluorescent snails than anyone should be comfortable with.

“I have an appreciation for Ashuran leaves,” the First Prince smiled back. “Though I will confess this particular sort was tricky to obtain.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Hanno snorted. “Few Ashuran merchants would willingly sell copper tea. It’s not a true leaf, you see. They make from the leftovers and low-quality batches of harvests that can be sold abroad.”

“Even your copper tea would sell for more than its weight in gold, back home,” I shrugged. “Luxury is in the eye of the beholder.”

While by the look on his face I suspected that Hanno would have genuinely enjoyed a conversation about this, it wasn’t what we’d come for and so after a few more courtesies the cups went down – mine only lightly touching my lips once more out of politeness, though I did not actually drink – and we got to business.

“Neither of us is blind to the damage the Red Axe’s trial could wreak on the Principate,” I calmly said. “And no one wants the situation to get out of hand. We’re looking into way to mitigate the issue.”

I wouldn’t back giving the heroine to the Highest Assembly to try, even the series of recent diplomatic reverses Procer had suffered weren’t enough to get me to consider such a thing, but I’d meant it when I’d told Hanno that Hasenbach needed to be given something. The question now was what she could safely be given, and while I had my own notion of what that compromise might look like it would be… contentious. I wasn’t sure either Procer or the heroes would go for it. Better to let Hasenbach out one of the contingency plans I did not doubt she had up her sleeve. The First Prince’s glance at the White Knight was measuring, in the heartbeat of silence that followed.

“The Terms cannot be twisted or turned aside,” the dark-skinned knight said. “That would be a severe breach of faith. Yet, as the Black Queen has said, I am aware of the difficulties this trial poses to Procer. I would not cause undue harm if there is a way to avoid it.”

There, what she’d wanted: confirmation that this wasn’t just me dragging Hanno in by the ear so that he might go through the motions of making nice with her. Not that she’d been inclined to think poorly of him, I believed. I’d never deeply discussed either of them with the other, but to my understanding there’d always been a degree of mutual respect there. Not closeness, though. The White Knight encouraged heroes working with the authorities, but never to the extent of becoming part of them.  Even the little I knew about the Thalassocracy told me where he might have gained a taste for that distinction. As for Hasenbach, she was understandably wary of the armed Heavens-blessed demigods traipsing around her realm that considered themselves only loosely bound to its laws – and so she must be wary of their leader as well, regardless of his general amiability.

“The trouble in in the primacy of the Terms over our laws,” Cordelia said, “even when applying to individuals of Procer who committed crimes against other Procerans.”

The Red Axe was from the southern outskirts of the Principate, it was true. The Wicked Enchanted had been Proceran as well, and Frederic still was. All three were also Named, though, which complicated things a great deal.

“The matter of the attempted regicide, in particular, will be a contentious matter,” Cordelia continued. “If even rulers anointed by the House of Light can suffer assassination attempts without Procer being able to give answer, there are some who might argue that we have all been made subservient to the Chosen.”

“The Highest Assembly approved of the treaties establishing this,” the White Knight reminded her.

“Those treaties were approved when it was believed that the Chosen would not resort to attempting the murder of princes,” the First Prince flatly said. “We have been… disappointed, in this regard.”

Harsh but fair, I thought.

“Middle ground can be found, I expect,” I intervened. “The Terms were not made to last, and we did not expect they would stumble into such challenges. It’ll require everyone to bend a little more than they’d like, but that’s the nature of compromise. I’m sure you have suggestions, Your Highness, as to what my ally the fears of the Highest Assembly. I’d be interested to hear them.”

I found her hard to read, in the moments that followed, as she studied us both. Hesitating, or gauging how far she’d be able to push this?

“As the concerns come from the forced impotence of Proceran law, I would suggest that the Red Axe be made to stand trial before the Highest Assembly,” she said.

My brow rose. She wasn’t a fool, so that couldn’t be all of it.

“The sentence passed would, undoubtedly, be death,” Cordelia said. “Its application could be suspended, however, until she has also stood trial under the Terms.”

Ah, there it was. If both Procer and the White Knight condemned the Red Axe to death, who was to say what sentence was being carried out when the blade was swung? If Hanno did the deed, or a Proceran executioner, then the balance would be made to swing either way. But there was a candidate to keep the weights even, as it were.

“You’d make Prince Frederic do it,” I quietly said. “Since he straddles both worlds. That way everyone can go home with a win to tell their people about.”

It’d eat up the man inside, though, I thought. He’d wanted to avoid taking her life. But while I liked Frederic Goethal, his peace of mind was not worth what it would cost.

“A compromise I could live with,” I said.

Some of the more paranoid among my charges would smell a rat, but with the Red Axe dead at the hand of the same hero she’d tried to kill I shouldn’t get too much pushback. There would be some who’d have wanted me to bleed the heroes dry over this, but they’d be few and not popular among our kind – the likes of the Headhunter and the Red Knight were powerful, but usually without many allies.

“What is being suggested,” the White Knight coldly said, “is not just.”

My fingers clenched under the table. Hanno’s face had gone hard as stone.

“I will not promise a sentence or an executioner before a trial has been held,” the White Knight said. “This is not a compromise, it is a perversion of the oaths we all swore. It does not matter what the Red Axe has done: she has rights under the Terms, and among these is a fair trial.”

A steady look was fixed onto the both of us.

“What you are speaking of,” he slowly said, “is not a fair trial.”

And that was that, wasn’t it? As far as he was concerned that settled the matter. And for all that Hanno had gone cold, I thought, the look on Cordelia’s face was no warmer.

“Compromise requires both sides to give, Lord White,” the First Prince of Procer said, frigidly polite.

“There is no justice to be found in denying the rights of one to safeguard those of another,” the Sword of Judgement evenly replied. “All that is accomplished is the shifting around of injustice.”

“If a right is abused, then the abuser is no longer deserving of it,” the First Prince said. “Else it becomes a tool of oppression.”

A little rich coming from a princess of Procer, that, but most of the time I still liked that lot better than Above’s so I’d let it slide. At nineteen the scene unfolding before me would have me giddy: the Principate and heroes, both bitter enemies of mine, were at each other’s throat. But years had passed, and these days I had too much use for both to be glad of this.

“A mechanism has been established to deal with such abuses,” the White Knight bluntly said. “It has yet to fail, in my eyes, and so your treatment of it strikes me as unwarranted.”

He wasn’t going to give an inch on this, I sensed. It just wasn’t in his nature to give that inch over something like this, when he knew himself in the right and all those involved had taken the oaths with open eyes. And Gods, part of me agreed with him. The fucking Principate was quick to cry foul about the rights of its peoples being ‘trampled’ these days, but that conscience had been nowhere in sight when it’d been Callowan freedoms on the line. And even now that half the continent had gathered to keep it from burning still it insisted on throwing tantrums over gift horses, never mind looking them in the mouth. Hanno was looking after his own, people whose calling and service he respected and honoured, and aside from all the greater considerations he simply wasn’t going to dent his principles over something like princes being uneasy.

The White Knight did not believe it his charge to soothe princes, and so he’d not sacrifice things that he did consider his charge in order to do so. It was a fair way of looking at it, if you were a hero.

I wasn’t, though. I’d been one of Below’s since age sixteen and more importantly these days I was a queen. So while the White Knight wasn’t wrong, I did not believe that the First Prince was either. She wasn’t throwing a fit over this for pleasure, or even for principle – if Hasenbach’s objections to this were personal in nature, she would have stowed them away by now. This wasn’t a winning fight for her, and the fact that she was still picking it anyway meant that she was afraid of what would ensue if she didn’t.  More afraid than of the consequences of the mess before my eyes, too, which was more than a little worrying. If the First Prince was coming out swinging this hard, then at a guess I’d say word about Frederic being bled had already leaked to the Assembly. There’d be pressure at her back to do something about this, and while I doubted that unseating her was in the cards there were other ways this could all go to the Hells.

If southern principalities started ignoring her orders because they no longer believed her to be a worthy leader for Procer, the Grand Alliance was in trouble. Weakened as it was, the Principate was still the main source of coin and goods for the war effort and those sure as fuck weren’t coming from the war-ravaged north. And while it might have been years since Black torched the heartlands, those lands had never truly been allowed to recover: continued conscription, high taxes and rationing meant some of the richest lands in Procer had never actually gotten back to their old prosperity. No, Hasenbach wasn’t worrying about things like authority and legitimacy because she was some over-proud highborn twit. She was worried about those things because if she lost them then Procer might start coming apart at the seams.

If she didn’t come through for her princes, if she damaged their privileges and all the while made heavy demands of them, then why should they keep listening to her? Especially if she lacked the means to force them to.

Sentimentality had me on Hanno’s side, but sentiment had to be left a door in matters like these. The needs of the queen took the victory once more, as Akua might have said. And if these two weren’t going to reach a compromise by themselves, if there was no pretty stainless solution to be had, then all that was left was the cheap tricks that’d been my trade since long before I put on a crown.

“Procer could be allowed to dispose of the body as it wishes, at least,” I said, and sighed when Hanno began to respond, “In the eventuality that there is a body, yes, not to make assurances either way. But if there is a corpse, White Knight, can it not at least be ceded to the Highest Assembly?”

“It would be a petty thing for a heroine’s corpse to be parade like a trophy,” the dark-skinned knight said, tight-lipped.

“Petty’s not unlawful,” I said. “So unless your feelings have become rules…”

His lips thinned even further. It’d been a hit below the belt, but then if the Gods Above had wanted me to fight clean they should have shelled out for another five inches at least.

“In principle, I would have no objection,” Hanno eventually replied.

It would have been undiplomatic of Hasenbach to point out that this was such a paltry concession as to almost not be one at all, especially given that I’d secured it on her behalf, but from the cool serenity of her face I got the message anyway. She wasn’t going to be appeased with a few metaphorical coppers flipped her way. If she didn’t get meat to throw her princes, it would be on her they turned their fangs. I angled my face so that Hanno wouldn’t see and cocked a brow at her.

“It appears we have reached the end of what can be settled today,” the First Prince calmly said. “I thank you both for calling on me, but I believe there is nothing left to say on this matter.”

“That seems to be correct,” the White Knight said, tone regretful.

Not enough to bend his neck, though, so what did regret matter?

“While I have your ear, Your Highness, I had a few questions about the issues Mercantis,” I idly said.  “If you’re willing, it shouldn’t take too long.”

Hasenbach considered it for a moment.

“I had anticipated a longer conversation,” she said. “I have the time to spare if you do.”

Hanno cast me a searching look and I shrugged. He and I had already talked about Mercantis some, and he’d made a suggestion I was warming to – sending the Painted Knife’s band there to keep the merchants honest – but Named arm-twisting was only a small part of the matter and he had little to do with the rest. It wasn’t his wheelhouse, and if it grew to concern him I’d make it known.

Not that I actually intended to talk about Mercantis.

I gave him nothing to work with, so the White Knight made his courtesies and left. In the silence that followed his departure I glance at the cup of tea I’d barely sipped at, choosing my words as the First Prince’s expectant gaze found me.

“There’s a way for you to get what you want,” I said. “Though I expect you won’t like it.”

Blue eyes found mine, unblinking.

“Yet here I am,” the First Prince of Procer calmly said, “listening.”

Murder of an ally. Attempted murder of an ally. Aid to an enemy of the Grand Alliance.

The Red Axe would stand trial accused of those three breaches of the Terms, and that the equivalent of a treason charge was the least of the three meant the affair begged for a blood end. The Wicked Enchanter had been an unrepentant monster, but until he stepped out of line again he’d been under protection: his killing must be punished, and as the representative for the villains under the Terms there was only one punishment I was willing to accept. I still had the smoldering remnants of sympathy for the heroine on trial, but she’d known how this would end before she took her first step down this road.

The Red Axe herself seemed utterly unworried when she was brought in. Unlike the Mirror Knight when he’d stood in the same place her hands were bound by shackles and she was chained to a steel ring set in the ground. Masego and Roland had personally traced the wards that would keep her out of the back half of the room should she get free, though it was a lot more likely that the crossbowmen and armed guards surrounding her would get to it first. It would have been counterproductive to gag her, I knew, but as I looked at her calmly expectant expression I found I itched to have it done anyway. There were few things more dangerous in life than someone with nothing left to lose.

I’d expected some ceremony out of Hanno, given his years as the champion of the Choir of Judgement, but instead he was brisk and business-like.

“The charges against the Red Axe have been made known to you,” the White Knight said. “Do any of you intend to lay further ones, or contest those I will pursue?”

Denials all around. Mine was barely more than a mutter, my eyes remaining on the heroine.

“Then I will proceed,” Hanno calmly said.

The Red Axe laughed.

“Gods, but what a pretentious waste of time,” she said, her Chantant lightly accented.

The White Knight looked unmoved.

“Do you understand the charges laid against you under the Terms?” he asked.

“To the Hells with your Terms,” the Red Axe said. “They’re expedience made law and just as ugly as that sounds. I renounce them, and for you fine people who think you have rights over me, I add this-”

She spat on the stone, offering up a hard smile.

“Are you requesting that the protections of the Terms be withdrawn from you?” the First Prince calmly asked.

Not surprising. Hasenbach would definitely try to get her hands on the heroine outright, if she could at this late hour, regardless of any deal she and I had made. What I’d offered was barely palatable, while this would smack to her of a clean win. Wouldn’t work, of course. I wasn’t a fucking idiot, so I’d told Hanno of my conversation with the Red Axe and made sure he spoke with her as well.

“Whether she desires this now or not is irrelevant,” the White Knight said. “She agreed to the Terms as made understood to her by the Archer and had not renounced them when she committed the breaches for which she is now being charged.”

“Your rules never meant a thing to me, Sword of – sword of what, these days, I ask?” the Red Axe said. “Not Judgement, and nothing I see in this room makes for a good replacement.”

“That your word means little does not mean you are exempt from holding it,” Hanno replied without batting an eye.

Cordelia glanced at me, but there wasn’t a lot of hope on her face and I didn’t add any with my own bland expression. Procer would get no help from me if she made a play for snatching now, and Lord Yannu did not speak a word to deny the White Knight’s claim. Hasenbach let it go, and we moved on. The first hurdle had been passed.

“Given the number of eyewitnesses to the killing of the Wicked Enchanter, I saw no need for spoken testimony,” Hanno continued. “I’ve selected and now provide thirty different written accounts, which should prove sufficient. If there are any doubts among the tribunal, there are more that can be sent for.”

I’d already read some of those parchments and the facts were not in doubt, so I offered the writing only a few looks before setting it aside.

“I confess,” the Red Axe said.

A moment of silence. Eyes went to the heroine, which only seemed to encourage her.

“I confess I put down a monster,” she said. “ That I killed a rapist, a murder and something worse. I confess I would have made it slower if I could, that-”

“Guards, please silence the accused until she is called on to speak again,” Hanno said.

Spells wouldn’t work on her, so it was a gag they had to use. She fought them, and the sight sickened my stomach – all those men in armour around a girl, alone and unarmed and tied up. Named, I reminded myself. One who’d done things that might yet kill thousands, in full knowledge of the risks. The White Knight continued to make his case, as if never interrupted. The Kingfisher Prince’s personal testimony was a written one, as he’d decline to stand before the tribunal, but witnesses among my soldiers and the Levantines gave damning account of the attack on the Prince of Brus. The Sinister Physician came in to speak as to how dangerous the wound had been and was followed up by two priests who’d handled the later parts of Frederic’s recovery.

With attempted murder of an ally solidly grounded in proof, it was ‘aid to an enemy’ that was approached. Proof was difficult to establish, when it came to the Bard, and while I recounted my conversation with the Red Axe it wouldn’t be enough to damn her. Fortunately for Hanno, once relieved of her gag she was eager enough to handle that herself.

“You want to accuse me of working with the Wandering Bard,” she said, amused. “It’s a crime now, is it? I didn’t. She worked with me.”

The Red Axe shrugged.

“I wasn’t tricked, if that’s the story you want to spin,” she said. “I knew what I wanted, and she wanted me to get it too. None of what she told me was even a secret. It was just names and places, that’s all.”

“To be clear, you admit to collaboration with the Wandering Bard?” Hanno asked.

“She talked and I listened,” she said. “Sometimes I talked too. Call that whatever you will. Not like it’ll make a difference in your little puppet show, is it? You’ve already got what you need for blood.”

Lord Yannu let out a harsh bark of laughter. Well, she wasn’t wrong. In principle even just killing the Wicked Enchanter would be enough to get her executed, much less the rest. With yet another confession on the record, the trial was effectively at an end. Hanno asked us if we wanted to deliberate, but there were no takers. Recommendations followed.

“Death,” the Lord of Alava said.

“Death,” the First Prince of Procer said.

“Death,” I echoed.

The Red Axe mockingly laughed. She’d not been gagged, I supposed because of discomfort at the idea of ordering this woman’s death without letting her speak in answer to it.

“Half the world clamoured for her death,” she said. “What an eulogy that will make.”

She wanted, I felt, someone to answer her. To engage. This was the culmination of her story, wasn’t it? The moment where she was sent to her death because of her principles, where defiant and dry-eyed she cursed the wicked kings doing her wrong. But no one answered. Because to the rest of us the Red Axe wasn’t a righteous heroine about to shame us for our misdeeds, she was the woman who’d endangered one of the treaties keeping the Dead King from winning this war and sweeping over Calernia in a tide of death. No one here was enjoying this, I thought, but ashamed? No. We were a long way from that. So instead of a cruel jest or a justification, as she would have gotten in a story, the Red Axe got silence and then Hanno passing her sentence.

“Death,” the White Knight echoed. “By beheading, to be carried out by my own hand tomorrow at Morning Bell. The accused will be granted a night to make her peace with the Gods Above, but kept detained until then.”

“Pathetic,” the Red Axe said. “You’re all-”

Hanno called for her to be gagged again, and as soon as it was done asked for the comments from the tribunal. Lord Yannu agreed, sounding largely indifferent, but when it was my turn to speak I had more to say.

“I am satisfied with death,” I said, “but today’s proceedings should be put under seal instead of made known.”

“On what grounds?” Hanno frowned.

“On the grounds that the details of this will make it known to every Named that has issued with the Terms that they’ve got an ally they can plot with,” I said.

“The Wandering Bard is to be declared an enemy of the Grand Alliance regardless,” the White Knight said. “What is there to hide?”

“That the Bard is after the Terms themselves, instead of the ringleader of a plot against the Arsenal,” I said. “If she just helped thrash the Arsenal, no one will see her as an ally. If this was all a plot against the Terms, though? That’s a banner, and those always gather people.”

The White Knight cast a look at the other two members of the tribunal, who did not seem to object. I could see him weigh the costs of refusal here and then decided it wasn’t worth it.

“Agreed,” the White Knight said.

“I am satisfied,” the First Prince calmly said.

The Red Axe, even gagged, was laughing convulsively. People did get more perceptive, when standing in the shadow of their gallows. Had she figured it all out, or just that Cordelia and I were acting in concert? Didn’t matter, I thought.

It was already too late.

I’d not slept well, even with Indrani sharing my bed, and rose early.

I left Archer to sleep and slipped on my clothes, learning when I limped to an early breakfast that it was just shortly past Early Bell – there were still about three hours left before the execution happened. I asked for porridge, the bland but filling kind that remained a Legion staple to this day, and silently sipped at an herbal infusion that’d soothe my leg. It was an odd mood that’d taken hold of me, but I did not fight it. It’d pass soon enough, I knew, and I owed it to the woman I was about to see killed to at least look what I was doing in the eye. I ended up wandering away afterwards, eventually coming up where the killing was to be done. These were not, I thought, awe-inspiring grounds. More abattoir than gallows: a stretch of naked stone, an executioner’s block and a few seats on raised platforms.

Yet for all the bare bone nature of the place I found it carried a sort of cold, impersonal dread to it. Not unlike the Terms themselves, if one chose to look at it that way. The Mantle of Woe pulled tight against me, hood up, I tucked myself away in a shadowed nook and lit a pipe. A stream of wakeleaf gently rose, and I allowed my thoughts to drift. I wasn’t sure how long I stayed like that, absorbed in my silence, but when the sound of steel and leather boots came reached my ear I did not need to guess who it was that’d come. There were too many guards for it to be anyone but Cordelia Hasenbach. She approached me without escort and I flicked her a look from beneath the hood.

She’d dressed in dark colours today, if not outright black. They did not suit her well, but cosmetics and jewelry hid the fact decently enough. She came to stand by my side, reflecting my silence with her own. I’d worn no crown, and she only a simple circlet of white gold. My eyes were on the block, and without turning I somehow knew so were hers.

“She is right about one thing, at least,” Hasenbach murmured. “It has been an ugly affair.”

I breathed out smoke, letting it rise in curls. It was a calming sight, familiar.

“I’ve made a lot of ugly choices, over the years,” I said. “I believed them necessary, when I made them. More often than not they truly were.”

“It is the exceptions that stay with you,” the First Prince said. “A hundred victories will fade, but that sole stinging defeat will sink its hooks.”

I smiled bitterly.

“Can’t save everyone,” I said. “And if you try to, usually you don’t even get to save most.”

Nauk. Ratface. Farrier. Anne Kendall. There was always a price to trying to make a change. And keeping it standing, when it got done? Oh, that was even costlier.

“Duty is a bed of thorns,” Cordelia quietly said, “but someone must lie in it.”

“Oh, there’s not enough kindness left in me to flinch at this I don’t think,” I mused. “I was just wondering at how things change, over the years.”

“How so?”

“The first two lives I ever took were those of a rapist,” I said, “and his accomplice.”

She said nothing.

“I wonder if I’m still the one holding the knife,” I murmured, “or if another role does not suit me better, these days.”

There was a word, for those who protected the likes of the first man I’d ever killed. Accomplice.

The silence held until the room began to fill with the few dignitaries who needed to be there. The Red Axe was brought in after the White Knight had already stepped up to the block, a longsword at his hip. She wore only a brown shift, walking barefoot, and though escorted to the fore she went freely. Unafraid. The White Knight gestured for her to kneel, but she refused.

“On my feet,” the Red Axe said. “To the end, on my feet.”

The White Knight slowly nodded. The heroine turned towards us, gaze lingering on my hooded and smoking figure besides the First Prince’s dark-clad paleness.

“I go with all my accounts settled,” the Red Axe said. “And no regrets.”

She did not close her eye, even when the blade went through her neck with a flash of light. A clean cut, made that way by the searing Light on the edge of the blade. She wouldn’t have felt a thing. The head fell, neck burnt on both ends, and the body toppled. Hanno caught her and laid her down, unclasping his cloak and laying it over the corpse. His expression was tight as he rose to his feet, eyes searching for Hasenbach and finding her. His stride was quick.

“The corpse is now passed into the custody of the Principate, as was asked,” he stiffly said.

“We thank you for the courtesy,” the First Prince replied.

He grimaced.

“What will you do with it?” he asked.

“That is no longer your concern.”

Hasenbach’s tone was not harsh, but neither was it one that would suffer further questioning. The White Knight’s eyes went to me, but I did not meet them. I breathed in the smoke, spewed it out, and waited until he’d left. The room slowly emptied, in the end leaving only the First Prince and her guards along with me. Leaning on my staff I limped up to the body veiled by the White Knight’s cloak, Hasenbach keeping pace with me. I laid down a hand on it and hummed. Yes, it could be done.

“Step back, if you don’t want to leave the room,” I said. “It won’t be easy work raising her coherent enough to stand trial before the Highest Assembly.”

Chapter 38: Tantamount

“A diplomat without a general at his back is just a polite man no one heeds.”
– Exarch Acantha of Penthes

Within an hour I received a formal message asking for my agreement to hold the Mirror Knight’s trial tomorrow. I sent back said agreement immediately and I must not have been the only one to be prompt, as within an hour of that the White Knight sent along the formal charges that Christophe de Pavanie would be accused of. I narrowed my eyes at the paucity of them: assault of an ally and insubordination. That was it. No mention of the fact that he’d kept the Severance at his hip long after the crisis had passed, though Hanno might make the case that since no formal demand to return it had been made of the Mirror Knight it hadn’t actually been a breach of the Terms for him to keep it. It wasn’t even unprovoked assault of an ally, I noted with distaste, but instead a lesser sister-charge.

I’d reserve judgement – no pun intended, Sisters preserve – until the trial took place, but I wouldn’t consider this an auspicious beginning.

Intriguingly enough, I got a third message in the wake of the first two and not from someone I’d expected to be reaching out. After I’d sat down with Vivienne to go over the possible outcomes of tomorrow with a cup of wine in hand, our talk was interrupted by a message from Lord Yannu Marave. He was overseeing the sparring of his sworn swords in the Revel’s arena, and he’d invited me to come have a look. It was a threadbare excuse to have a private talk, but that he might want that talk at all surprised me. I shared the thought with Vivienne.

“They call him Careful Yannu, back home,” she mused.

My brow rose.

“He did not strike me as all that careful a man, during the trial,” I said. “Juniper has some respect for his skill as a general and I’ll not argue there, but he’s not particularly impressed me otherwise.”

“The Dominion doesn’t do politics like we do, Cat,” Vivienne reminded me. “They often duel, when they disagree, and they’re cautious with risking their honour. He didn’t particularly care about the trial because by Levantine ways he shouldn’t have been in the room – villains are yours to discipline, as your ‘sworn men’.”

My forehead creased in thought as I considered him again with fresh eyes. He’d spoken in favour of death, when the time came for recommendations, but to Levantines things like betrayals tended to be seen as matters of honour. Honour was usually settled by blood on the floor, back in Levant, so for a lord of the Dominion to express surprise this didn’t start and end with putting the Magician’s head on a pike made a brutal sort of sense.

“Careful Yannu, huh,” I murmured.

I wasn’t entirely convinced, but best to watch my step anyway. There were damned few situations where it wouldn’t be a good idea to do that, so what was there to lose?

“There’s an emerging pattern of the Dominion reaching out to us amicably,” Vivienne thoughtfully continued. “When they suggested we arrange formal ambassadors I thought it might be leftover goodwill from your saving the Pilgrim, or perhaps courting your support in keeping their villains from making trouble, but now I’m not so sure.”

“They’ve been wary of making deals with me,” I slowly said, “but at the highest rungs of Dominion leadership they’ll be aware of my eventual abdication. You’re a lot more palatable, from their perspective.”

A former heroine with some impressive deeds to her name, nobly born but not afraid to get her hands a little dirty? That sort of reputation would go over very well, down in Levant.

“They also remember how quickly Proceran gratitude fades,” Vivienne murmured. “And how a First Prince can withdraw from the treaties signed by a predecessor. A treaty of mutual defence between our realms might appeal to their Majilis.”

“I’d think it more likely they want an informal alignment within the bounds of the Grand Alliance,” I told her. “They don’t want it to become a vessel for Proceran interests any more than we do.”

“They’ll be in no hurry to seal a pact, regardless,” Vivienne noted. “Bargaining done with an ally is expected to be gentler, and the negotiations over the Accords is the greatest leverage the Dominion has over us at the moment.”

True enough. More than once I’d wondered if Procer and Levant were actually drawing those talks out so that they could bribe me with ‘concessions’ when they wanted something from me. Not a pleasant thought to entertain, but even if it turned out to be true there honestly wasn’t much I could do about it.

“No reason not to take up Lord Marave on his invitation, then,” I said, draining the rest of my cup before rising to my feet.

No reason to waste time, either, so I got to it.

I wasn’t one to complain when offered up the sight of two dozen very fit men and women half-naked and laying hands on each other, but it lost some of the charm when they were doing their best to pummel each other unconscious. I’d been in a few brawls myself, back in the day, so I could tell that no one was taking it easy down there: those blows weren’t being pulled in the slightest. If the personal sworn swords of Yannu of the Champion’s Blood had been ‘sparring’ with blades instead of fists, there’d be corpses on the sand by now. As it was, I saw only blood and broken bones. A pair of young Levantine healers – who amusingly enough wouldn’t be considered real priests in the Dominion even though they used Light, as unlike the Lanterns they did not battle against evil – mended the fighters during their breaks, but did not otherwise involve themselves.

Yannu Marave himself sat besides me on the rafters, drinking deeply from a waterskin. He’d been down there fighting with the others when I got there, and only come up after one of the healers set a broken finger and bathed it in Light. The Lord of Alava was still barefoot and clad in only loose trousers and a sweat-soaked tunic, neither of which hid the fact that the man was a towering slab of muscle. He was tall, for a Levantine, and unusually for one of their men close-shaven instead of bearded. His colours were not currently on his face, but instead discreetly painted in intertwined threads around his wrist. After emptying what must have been half the skin, the Lord of Alava sighed in pleasure.

“I thank you for your patience,” Lord Yannu said.

“I didn’t send a messenger ahead to warn of my coming,” I dismissed with a shrug.

There’d been others up here when I first came, who’d invited me to take a seat on the bench where I still was, but they’d withdrawn when their lord came up. Now he glanced back at them meaningfully and they reached within the leather bags at their side, fiddling with something within. A moment later the small tingle of a ward coming down over the area passed over my skin, and I eyed the men speculatively. They wore armour, both of them, which was rare in mages aside from those in my army and the Legions – and even there it was a lighter kit than that of the regulars. They might not be mages at all, though, or just practitioners with a meagre Gift: it did not take much to wake the wardstones the Blood used. Gifts from the Gigantes, they were a wonder to behold and one I remained deeply envious of.

“Hiding stones,” the Lord of Alava said, noting my interest. “We will not be heard, not even by the men carrying them.”

“Useful,” I said.

Hopefully it wasn’t too obvious on my face that I’d trade the Blessed Isle for a reliable way to get those. Not that I currently owned the Blessed Isle, but that’d never stopped me before.

“I will not waste our time with small talk,” Lord Yannu said. “We both know what this is.”

I hummed, inclining my head in unspoken agreement.

“We’re not happy with Procer having an ealamal,” the tall man said.

“I’m not familiar with the term,” I said, “but I can guess what you’re referring to.”

“The angel-corpse, you have called it,” Lord Yannu said. “That is the word for such a thing in Murcadan.”

Ealamal, huh. It had a ring to it. Less ungainly to keep mentioning, too.

“Understood,” I said. “I’m not happy about it either, as you already know.”

“I do,” he said. “And the heads of two lines of the Blood vouch that your word has weight, so now we speak. Procer is a great but dying beast, and I do not advise forcing its lair, yet for that same reason we must act. An animal bleeding out cannot be trusted with the likes of an ealamal.”

He paused there, as if to invite me to speak.

“I’d prefer the weapon scrapped,” I admitted, “but I agree that no good will come out of pushing the Principate too far. The reasonable compromise would be having people of our own near it, so that it can’t be used without our agreement.”

The tanned man nodded.

“I speak for the entire Majilis when I say this,” Yannu Marave said. “We want the ealamal to be made a weapon of the Grand Alliance, like the Severance.”

“I don’t see Cordelia Hasenbach going for that without assurances,” I said. “At a guess, Procer keeping the most boots on the ground around it and maybe even controlling who has access.”

Rubies to piglets that the First Prince would cut off a finger before letting Masego anywhere near her angelic doomsday weapon.

“We’d agree to limiting Bestowed access,” the Lord of Alava said, “by making it subject to a vote needing to be unanimous. But we want Binders and Lanterns there, so that we can know the nature of the threat. I will not accept our first warning being a tide of burning light on the horizon.”

“Preaching to the choir there,” I grunted back. “I’d agree to limiting Named under those terms as well, but I want your support in pushing for the Rogue Sorcerer to have a look.”

Roland was in that narrow category of people who were both likely to understand what they were looking at and then share that information with me. The Lord of Alava studied me closely.

“Agreed, if you support the same for the Forsworn Healer,” he replied.

I hid my surprise. The man was from Atalante from what I recalled, not Levant. And he served up in Twilight’s Pass, where no Named from the Dominion had been assigned. There were Levantine troops up there, though, led by Itima of the Bandit’s Blood. Might be there was a tie there that’d slipped me by: there were few of my lot in Lycaonese lands, and none I was close to. Either way I had no reason to refuse his terms.

“Bargain struck,” I replied, offering up my arm to clasp.

“On my honour,” Yannu Marave agreed, taking the arm.

Good, that tended to be reliable in Levantines.

“All that’s left is deciding how we approach her,” I said. “It will have more of an impact coming from Levant, I’d say.”

“If Callow is the one to approach her, she will sound us out and find the door closed,” the Lord of Alava replied. “A softer creep, yes?”

“If she doesn’t already know we’re talking, I’ll put up my crown for auction in Mercantis,” I snorted. “Besides, soft won’t get this done. It needs to be made clear to her she’d standing alone in this, and that her allies are not pleased.”

“A common front, then,” Lord Yannu said. “Wearied comrades coming to her together.”

Interesting. He really didn’t want to be the one to swing the sword on this, did he? Worried about the appearance of siding with a villain, or some of the undercurrents of the Dominion’s own politics tying his hands? It was a shame that the Jacks knew so very little of the powers that moved Levant, but given the distance and the youth of their organization it would have been foolish to expect them to have spread their net that far.

“That could work,” I conceded, sensing pushing for more would get me nowhere. “A dinner tomorrow, after the trial?”

“No point in letting her dig in,” the Lord of Alava agreed, sounding amused. “I will make the arrangements, Black Queen, if you have no objection.”

“I entrust my honour to your hands,” I replied, nodding.

Surprise flickered across the man’s face, and though he tried to hide it the courtesy had obviously flattered him.

Lord Yannu of the Champion’s Blood would be less flattered if he knew I’d learned the words from the Barrow Sword, I suspected, but I had no intention of telling him.

I’d expected to derive some pleasure from this, to have to hide it, but when the time came I found that I got no joy from the sight of Christophe de Pavanie being pilloried.

Metaphorically so, that was. Aside from being unarmed and heavily guarded the Mirror Knight wasn’t bound in any way. He still looked like a beaten dog as the Sword of Judgement briskly went through the charges laid against him, face bleak as he remained silent unless spoken to. No one wanted to drag more Named directly into this, so the testimony of heroes had been offered in written form instead and the entire affair took no more than a quarter hour. The White Knight made his case methodically, laying no accusation that could not be proven and justifying his charge of ‘assault on an ally’ instead of ‘unprovoked assault on an ally’ by specifying that there’d been some fighting between heroes and that he himself had not done as much as he could have to prevent violence from erupting.

It’d keep the Mirror Knight from more severe consequences, but even as I watched the First Prince’s face subtly harden I decided it’d been a strategic mistake on Hanno’s part. Admitting to heroes brawling amongst each other only helped make them seem less reliable in Hasenbach’s eyes, damningly enough not without reason. That my own lot was looking better in comparison was darkly amusing, considering they tended to be significantly worse people. They were, however, much better at hiding their misdeeds. The most fire that was squeezed out of the Mirror Knight was when he was probed over his reasons to have acted in such a manner by the First Prince.

“I sought only to prevent the scapegoating and execution of a Chosen,” Christophe said, voice defiant. “I took the wrong path in seeking this, I’ll not deny it, but the intention itself I will not apologize for.”

Cordelia warmly thanked him for his candor with a smile and he looked both surprised and rather charmed. I wasn’t fooled, myself. I knew that glint in her eye, as it was cousin to one that’d often gleamed in my own. The First Prince of Procer was looking at a Heavens-ordained victor still insisting even now that his own half-baked sense of justice should trump laws and treaties, and finding indignation rising within her. I suppressed a wince. Those two sentences had probably done as much damage as the rest of this trial put together. Now she had to be asking herself how many heroes like Christophe de Pavanie there were, for each one like the White Knight.

I could only begin to imagine her horror at the thought of that sort of strength and ignorance bolstering the position of some Highest Assembly cutthroat.

With the charges fully presented and little doubt left as to the truthfulness of them, Hanno asked if the tribunal wanted to deliberate. I was still gauging the risk of being seen as overstepping if I pushed for that when the First Prince voted in favour. I quickly added my vote for to the tally and the Lord of Alava belatedly voted that way as well, looking more curious than anything else. With a majority secured the Mirror Knight was sent out of the room to a nearby one where he could wait until deliberations were finished, and within moments of his departure Arsenal mages put a privacy ward over the room. Cordelia opened the dance without being coy about it, much to my pleasure.

“Before punishment is decided by the White Knight, I have relevant facts to present to the tribunal,” the First Prince said.

“By our own rules of procedure, these cannot be charges,” Hanno told her.

“They are not, Lord White,” she calmly replied. “If I may?”

The dark-skinned knight nodded.

“Christophe de Pavanie has involved himself with the royal family of Cleves, the House of Langevin,” Cordelia said. “He has taken for a lover the daughter of Prince Gaspard Langevin and become associated with the plots of that line, though his exact degree of awareness there has not been made clear.”

The drow hadn’t seen him backing the plot to knife them in the back, that much was true – if Sve Noc had that kind of leverage, they would have given it to me. But he’d not outright refused either.

“Neither taking a lover nor the plotting of others is something that the Mirror Knight can be castigated for,” Hanno replied, just as calmly.

Yeah, no one was going to get anywhere trying to get the Sword of Judgement to spice up a sentence according to political necessities. You might as well ask Archer to settle down or the Pilgrim to deal in casual cruelty.

“Ignoring the full circumstances when passing the sentence would be dereliction of duty,” I said instead. “You’ve clearly established the man to be lacking in judgement through your charges, his association with known schemers has to be taken into consideration when addressing the consequences of that lack of judgement.”

“Well said,” the First Prince of Procer added. “Justice dealt without thought to consequence is no more than the arithmetic of law.”

A little rich coming from a woman famous for her mastery of using the Highest Assembly’s procedural laws against her rivals, but I’d not answer wind in the sail by poking a hole in the damned thing. Yannu Marave’s face had gone cold, though I noticed only when he leaned forward.

“You both seem in agreement that Gaspard Langevin is scheming,” the Lord of Alava. “What is the nature of this scheme?”

I cast a look at Cordelia, silently ceding her the right to speak. I was the closest thing the Firstborn had to a representative in this room, but the House of Langevin was her headache – and a little goodwill gift now and then helped grease the wheels of this relationship, anyway.

“Designs have made on lands that were promised to the Empire Ever Dark for its contributions to the war,” the First Prince said. “Though the plans remained imprecise, and no concrete measures were ever taken.”

If the Lord of Alava’s expression had been cold before, it was now freezing.

“That such an honourless man still lives, much less still wears a crown, is repugnant,” Lord Yannu spelled out with excruciating care. “With this scheming against allies he dishonours not only Procer but this entire alliance.”

I said nothing, less than inclined to take that bolt for Procer when I pretty much agreed with the man.

“Measures are being taken,” Cordelia evenly replied.

“Then let them be taken soon,” Yannu of the Champion’s Blood replied. “I will not lead my captains in the defence of such a man and his holdings, First Prince. We will not die by the hundreds so that your hungry princes can sink their teeth into new lands.”

It would have been inappropriate to let out a whistle there, but I was tempted. The Lord of Alava was being heavy-handed, but given how much honour mattered to the Blood he might be genuinely offended by what he’d learned. Or, I mused with Vivienne’s words in mind, Careful Yannu might just be preparing the grounds for our common offensive at dinner tonight. He was in full face paint today, which made reading his expression rather harder.

“We have strayed from the purpose of this deliberation,” the White Knight said.

With that call to order we let the subject drop, though it would not soon be forgotten. I’d said what I’d wanted to and the First Prince had proved true to her word by actually addressing the Langevin troubles, so when the deliberations were called to an end I did not argue against. The Mirror Knight was brought back in and Hanno called for recommendations to be made by the tribunal.

“A public lashing and four fingers,” Lord Yannu flatly said.

The Mirror Knight paled but did not speak.

“Reassignment to Twilight’s Pass until the end of the war, subordinate to another,” the First Prince suggested instead. “After his deeds being made known among all Named and a month in a cell.”

He made an uglier expression at that than the prospect of losing fingers, which I supposed said much about how other heroes would respond to his action. A month was a fairly specific length of time to ask for, though. I suspected that it would line up very well with a sentence under Procer law, by mere happenstance of course.

“I’ll second Twilight’s Pass and the subordination,” I said. “As for the rest, I’ll trust in your judgement.”

A month in a cell would be a waste, so I’d not argue in favour of it, but I was actually in favour of making it known Christophe had tried his hand at a coup. It would bottom out his reputation while the way Hanno had handled him would gild his own. Given the silence of the Choir of Judgement, the occasional reminder that the White Knight was not someone to fuck with had its uses. I didn’t want to be seen arguing for the public shaming of an opponent, though, so it was best for Cordelia to be the one doing that – not that I’d missed she was trying to send her inconvenient native hero up in Lycaonese lands, where her support ran strongest, and squarely under the Kingfisher Prince’s military command.

My eyes stayed on the White Knight, though, whose serene face I found unreadable.

“Christophe de Pavanie’s breaches of the Terms will be made known to all Named,” Hanno said. “He will offer apology and restitution to all those harmed by his actions, after which he will be apprenticed to the Grey Pilgrim for the span of a year so that he might learn from his mistakes.”

My brow rose. Was that all? I was relieved when he began talking again.

“After the year has passed, the Grey Pilgrim will give his opinion on whether further action is required,” Hanno asked. “If he believes it to be so, this tribunal will be assembled again so that appropriate sanctions might be considered.”

I breathed out shallowly. Fuck me, but he’d stepped in it there. From the corner of my eye I saw Hasenbach’s back go straight as a spear, and the fact that her anger was that that visible meant she must be furious. From a Named perspective, Hanno’s sentence was solid work: Tariq, for all his flaws, had mentored dozens of heroes over the years and had an aspect that would allow him unearthly insight into what needed to be mended in Christophe. Honestly, after a year under Tariq I fully expected the Mirror Knight to come out of the experience a better man. But the Grey Pilgrim had also butchered an entire village of Proceran civilians in order to catch Black, back before the Salian Peace, which Hasenbach still despised him for. Now a brewing threat to her authority was being sent to learn at the foot of the same Peregrine. It… wasn’t a good look.

“Wisdom was shown,” Lord Yannu commented.

Yeah, none of the Blood were going to argue with a sentence that put the Pilgrim in charge of a problem child. He had a steady hand with those. Was this enough for me, though? From the corner of my eye I watched Cordelia and saw clouds looming on that horizon. Time to throw her a bone, maybe.

“I give no objection to this, so long as the Principate is also satisfied,” I mildly said.

The First Prince glanced at me, accepting the gesture for what it was – a largely symbolic one, but not entirely without meaning. If she wanted to fight this, I’d lend a hand. Within reason. A long moment of silence passed, the Mirror Knight visibly getting uncomfortable the longer it lasted, until the First Prince finally spoke.

“I will accept this sentence, if the Grey Pilgrim sends monthly reports to the high officers on the subject of this ‘apprenticeship’,” the fair-haired princess said.

Hanno mulled over that a moment, then nodded.

“That is reasonable,” he replied. “It will be so.”

And so the trial of the Mirror Knight came to a close, having lasted not even a half hour from beginning to end. It didn’t take long afterwards to agree that the Red Axe’s own should be tomorrow, though late in the evening.

And yet, for all the smoothness, I could not help but feel there was the scent of a storm in the air.

It was an amusing novelty to be more at ease in a diplomatic situation than Cordelia Hasenbach.

When the Lord of Alava had said he’d make the arrangements to receive us for dinner, I’d not expected him to actually throw what looked like a genuine Levantine meal. One of the nice halls put together in the Proceran manner had been stripped of its decorations, painted shields having been hung up in their stead. The heraldries had been skillfully painted, I found. My own Crown and Sword had been perfectly presented in black and silver, while the golden towers on blue of the House of Hasenbach drew the eye with their neat arrangement. The colours of the Valiant Champion’s Blood were red and orange, but to my understanding the pattern changed from ruler to ruler. Yannu Marave’s own was simple but elegant, bold strokes of orange evoking a helmet with a smiling slice beneath it.

The First Prince was clearly familiar with Levantine ways, so she’d come dressed in a fine brigandine of Rhenian colours with a sword at her hip and her hair pulled back in a long three-strand braid. I’d kept to a simple grey tunic myself, though paired with bracers and greaves, and brought a short blade at Vivienne’s recommendation. Hasenbach was the first to hand over her sheathed sword to the Lord of Alava when he welcomed her, only to have it handed back as gesture of trust, and though she did not fumble handling the weapon I’d noticed she was not used to having it at her hip when she walked. My own blade was returned with the same formula of ‘your honour is known under this roof’, which while mostly symbolic was still nice to hear.

Unlike the elaborate affair of when the First Prince had entertained me over dinner, this was to be a simpler arrangement. Levantine ways in some ways reminded me of those of the Taghreb, in the sense that hospitality mattered a great deal to them and that courtesy was demonstrated personally instead of through formal etiquette. It was an honour, for example, that there would be only the three of us at the table and no servants to pour or serve. The Lord of Alava would do so for us himself, showing much more respect than if a stranger were doing it in his stead. The fare was simple but tasty: slices of dried pork ham, a mix of beans, chickpeas and eggs touched with spices and oil, good white bread with some sort of tomato paste.

Lord Yannu was generous in pouring wine, strong red stuff from southern Levant, which did wonders for my appreciation of the meal. Conversation started light and stayed there for some time as we dug in.

“Do you actually know how to use that?” I eventually asked Hasenbach, flicking a glance at her sword.

She’d kept drinking, bound by the rules of courtesy, so I believed the flush on her cheeks to be entirely genuine.

“I can hold a wall, if need be,” the Lycaonese princess replied, “I am a Hasenbach. My skill is middling, however. I was always better with a bow.”

Didn’t have the callouses of someone who shot regularly, though, I couldn’t help but notice. Probably didn’t have the time with her duties in Salia.

“Good bowmen are always useful,” the Lord of Alava said in approval. “It is unfortunate they are not as useful against the undead as the living.”

“Swords for the Dead, arrows for the Plague,” Hasenbach quoted. “There is a proper use for all things.”

That was as good a segue as we were going to get, I suspected, and I wasn’t the only one to figure that out.

“Some weapons are best left in the sheath,” the Levantine lord said. “And there are some who even sheathed cause the wise to be wary.”

The First Prince wasn’t an idiot, and not interested in pretending otherwise, so instead of playing off the comment she dabbed her lips with the cloth and washed down the last of her pork with a small mouthful of wine. Only then did she answer.

“There are many wise in Levant, I imagine,” she said.

“I have known this to be true,” Yannu Marave said, face pleasant but eyes cool.

The First Prince glanced at me.

“I don’t claim wisdom,” I said, “but wariness is dear as a sister to me.”

“It pains me to see my allies troubled,” Hasenbach mildly replied. “Though I am wary, myself, of troubling the princes sworn to me.”

“Your princes trouble me,” the Lord of Alava replied, dispensing with the pretence. “I have broken bread with Gaspard Langevin, never knowing he was plotting betrayal of an ally. I will never share a table with any of that line again.”

Godsdamn, I thought. While I was fairly sure he was feeding the flame some, the spark at the heart of it struck me as a genuine thing. The twist of those lips was just a little too tight for it to be otherwise.

“You’ve expressed concerns about the reliability of Bestowed,” I said, “and perhaps not without reason. You can understand, then, our concerns about an ealamal possibly falling in the hands of less honourable elements within Procer.”

She didn’t like it, I could tell, but she couldn’t afford to antagonize Procer’s only two allies by brushing us off. It must not have been a pleasant turn, I thought, to be the one on the outside for once. I was rather enjoying being the one with backing, though. I could get used to this.

“Let us discuss then,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, “how all our concerns might be allayed.”

After that, all that was left was bargaining over terms.

Chapter 37: Trying

“A man should beware of praying for justice when he truly wants vindication. He might just get what he asked for, and it is never a pretty thing when we all get exactly what we deserve.”
– King Pater of Callow, the Unheeding

There were too many parts in motion for me to keep track of them all, and I did not like the feeling in the slightest.

Late in the night Lord Yannu Marave arrived in the Arsenal, though given the hour I elected not to reach out to him until morning. Now that the representative for the Dominion was there, the right amount of high officer for the Grand Alliance had gathered and the trials could begin. A round of messengers sent to all involved saw me get answers as I broke my fast with Vivienne just before Morning Bell, the two of us catching up over warm pastries by Hakram’s bedside. The necessary official talk we’d gotten out of the way the day before, at least when it came to getting me up to speed about all she’d been up to, so we’d allowed ourselves the luxury of an hour or two for ourselves. It ended up being less than that, inevitably, as the last messages came while she was on the tail end of a rant about living so close to the seat of Proceran power.

“If I receive another subtle yet suggestive poem from a secret admirer, I’m going to start setting the Jacks after them,” Vivienne told me, at least halfway seriously. “I’m actually pretty sure two of them actually hired the same poet to write for them because the rhymes were suspiciously similar.”

I answered with an amused snort.

“Any fish work hooking in there?” I teased.

“Please,” she dismissed. “Like taking a Proceran to bed wouldn’t be horrible politics even if those trying their hands weren’t either ambitious fools or spies.”

“Terrible politics,” I agreed, without the faintest hint of irony.

I’d been taught by some very fine liars, after all. And it had truly been that to dally with Frederic, admittedly. Terrible, delightful politics that did that delicious thing with their hips. I seemed to have gotten away with it, though, so I’d not get greedy and ruin it by dallying again even if the thought was occasionally tempting. A knock at the door was followed by another messenger being allowed in, passing along a written response. Hanno had been the last to answer, not by lack of punctuality but by being the hardest to find. His agreement to the first trial – the Hunted Magician’s – being held half past Noon Bell was dropped by Cordelia’s impressively prompt one and the Lord of Malaga’s slightly slower answer.

“So?” Vivienne asked. “Are we starting today?”

“This afternoon,” I replied. “All agreed.”

In the wake of wrapping this up, I’d spring on them the Concocter’s own punishment. None of this was supporting Hasenbach outright, but prompt and severe consequences for my Named who’d stepped out of line ought to make it clear the reins were still being held. As long as the trials for Above’s didn’t end up spoiling the brew, anyway. The Mirror Knight had not tried to escape imprisonment and the Severance was back under seal, but my polite inquiries had made it clear that Hanno did not see a trial as something to discuss in advance. I’d expected as much, honestly, given that I was dealing with the Sword of Judgement. I still didn’t like that I’d be going in blind there, but there wasn’t really anything I could do there – under the Terms this was the White Knight’s show, and no trespass of mine there would go without swift and severe answer.

“Yannu Marave’s considered a pragmatist by his countrymen,” my dark-haired heiress said. “Not aggressive by nature, though he’ll be extremely thorough in answering slights. So long as you don’t end up touching the Dominion’s bottom line, though, I don’t see him being trouble.”

Hasenbach had intimated as much, but it was good to hear the same talk coming from a source I could trust wholeheartedly.

“The crowns do matter,” I admitted, “but it’s the White Knight that’ll be the keystone.”

The Terms were, ultimately, a treaty between Named. The nations that’d signed on did so mostly as guarantors of rights and privileges, not legal authorities – Procer, Callow and Levant all had a seat in the tribunals but in the end it was the White Knight and the Black Queen that passed sentences. It’d have a lot more of an impact if Hanno had issues with my rulings than if nation did.

“True as that is,” Vivienne calmly said, “what is left to do now, save pulling the trigger?”

I’d never won much arguing with the truth, so I let the conversation end on that.

Putting the staff together for this hadn’t been all that difficult, since the members of the Arsenal could serve as a ‘neutral’ entity to draw people from. Not the Named, of course, but the scholars and mages and priests. I’d decided to avoid any trouble by drawing on scholars for the scribing work, and from Vivienne’s own staff for the rest. The ever-useful Lady Henrietta Morley – these days no mere landless aristocrat but instead Viv’s own private secretary – was recommended to me as someone capable of handling details and timing, so I put her in charge of handling transcripts and evidence.

For all that this was a formal trial under the Terms, it appeared somewhat haphazard at first glance. At the high table the tribunal sat, with Vivienne representing Callow and the rest as expected: Cordelia Hasenbach for Procer, Yannu Marave for Levant and Hanno for the heroes. They’d all been provided with a list of the accusations laid at the Hunted Magician’s feet earlier today, which weren’t actually all that numerous. ‘Aid to an enemy of the Grand Alliance’ on one count, for having cooperated with the Bard against the Arsenal, then one count of ‘unprovoked assault on allies’ for the gas canisters he’d opened in the Stacks and one count of ‘accessory to attempted murder’ for the illusions he’d woven when attempting to help the Red Axe get Frederic killed.

I’d spoken with the Concocter, who would have had a right to lodge a complain considering the gas in those canisters had been her work in the first place, but she’d declined to pursue the matter. Through me, anyway. No doubt she’d be making a deal of her own with the Magician without my being involved. Of those charges the ‘aid to an enemy’ was the most severe, the deceptively mild wording mostly a result of it not being possible to call it treason when there were so many different crowns and jurisdictions involved. It was still considered just as severe, though, and it’d be the driving force behind the harshest part of his sentence.

The Hunted Magician had come dressed soberly but smartly, having put on an embroidered pale green vest over a white long-sleeved shirt and loose dark trousers. Like most the times I’d seen him, he looked more like a wealthy nobleman in casual clothes than any sort of mage. It was all well-cut without being ostentatious, which was halfway clever of him: it was a shallow thing, but people tended to favour those who looked well. Look too rich, though, and pretty or not that appreciation tended to turn to antipathy with some. He’d straddled the line well, which only had me further convinced that he was highborn and not from a lesser line. In Procer in particular, the difference between those who dressed well but subtly and those who were garish with their wealth was one of the ways to tell apart those whose ‘nobility’ was an old thing, often preceding the Principate itself, from those who’d risen to higher station more recently by sword or coin.

I’d already been on my feet when the Hunted Magician had been escorted in, made to stand on bare stone as behind a set of wards and guards the assembled high officers of the Grand Alliance sat and watched him approach, so I only needed to limp a bit before I stood by his side. The man turned dark eyes on me, face blank, and I leaned in a little closer.

“Keep your head,” I murmured. “They’re not out to get you but no one here wants you to wiggle out either, least of all me, so take your lumps and walk away.”

“I helped your man,” the Magician murmured back. “Do not forget it.”

“I forget little, Hunted Magician,” I coldly replied. “And never aid given to my enemies. Best you don’t forget that either, yes?”

He’d been well-taught enough not to grimace at the reminder that even the help he’d given Masego when it came to Quartered Seasons hardly made up for the hand he’d had in the storm that’d swept over the Arsenal. A great deal could have been mitigated, if he’d not decided it would be the height of cleverness to make a deal with the Wandering Bard. Mind you, if Tariq hadn’t insisted we hedge our bets when it came to her such a deal might have smelled of the noose enough the Magician wouldn’t have dared. Past a certain point, fault became such a many-faceted thing there was little practical point in pondering it. I turned away from my charged and faced the tribunal. Cordelia was unreadable, Hanno lightly frowning and Yannu Marave looked already bored. Vivienne, clever thing that she was, was spending more time looking at the other members of the tribunal than anything else.

“I’ll not trouble you with an excess off ceremony,” I said. “You’ve all already been made aware of the breaches of the Terms the Hunted Magician has been accused of. For the sake of formality, I will list them once more: aid to an enemy of the Grand Alliance, unprovoked assault on allies and accessory to attempted murder. As representative for the villains under the Terms, these are the charges I will lay against him. Do any of you intend to present further charges, or contest those I have laid down?”

“I do not,” the First Prince calmly said.

“No,” the Lord of Alava bluntly said.

Vivienne silently shook her head, but like me her eyes were on the White Knight.

“Yes,” the White Knight said.

My fingers clenched around the length of dead yew in my hand.

“Elaborate, White Knight,” I said.

“Your charge of ‘accessory to attempted murder’ would attaint the Red Axe of said attempted murder before she’s stood trial of her own,” Hanno said.

Which was, I grimly though, actually a good point. Sure any idiot could tell I was right to call it that – there wasn’t a lot of room for interpretation in the act of hacking a sword at Frederic’s neck – but the Terms functioned because I passed judgement for villains and Hanno for the heroes. Neither of us could or should trespass beyond that boundary.

“I’ll not withdraw the charge,” I said, “but I would offer assurances that I would not consider the Red Axe in away attainted by it.”

“Callow agrees with such a compromise,” Vivienne calmly said.

It was a cheap trick, agreeing with me quickly to put the pressure on others, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be effective.

“Levant agrees as well,” Lord Yannu dismissed.

Cordelia’s cool blue eyes were slightest bit narrowed in thought, but she did not hesitate as soon as she was satisfied she’d parsed out the implications.

“The Principate is in agreement,” she flatly stated.

Eyes went to Hanno, whose frown has deepened ever so slightly.

“I am wary of influencing opinion in another trial even with such a compromise,” the White Knight said. “Yet I can recognize that opinion is not bound to be settled by law, and so it should not be objected to on such grounds. Under such an assurance, I withdraw my objection.”

Well, first hurdle passed. From there, it was mostly a matter of presenting to the tribunal what I was making my own judgement on. By Henrietta Morley’s practiced hand my witnesses were brought in one after the other, those made to present in person at least. Unprovoked assault was the easiest to prove, so I started with that: two scholars who’d been made unconscious by the gas, a healer to certify none of those affected had any lasting consequences – which would have made it more than mere unprovoked assault – and the Magician confessed to the theft of the canisters and their use when pressed.

“If the canisters were stolen, why is theft not being laid as a charge?” the First Prince asked. “I believe those were property of the Principate, as well.”

The Concocter had made those as a possible tool for Cordelia to quell riots bloodlessly, apparently, and created them using Proceran coin. But I’d known about this in advance and prepared for it.

“The canisters remained the Concocter’s property so long as they were in the Arsenal, and she’s declined to lodge any grievances,” I said. “Lady Morley?”

The noblewoman had a signed statement by said Concocter backing up my words brought forward, and after it was made clear that the loss of the canisters and their content would be folded into the repair budget for the Arsenal after the raid instead of forcing Procer to pay for the same goods twice she had no further objection. We moved on to the slightly trickier one, accessory to attempted murder. Two officers – one Levantine and one Callowan – were brought to describe the illusion woven, which had been of the Prince of Brus acting and speaking aggressively. Marave spoke up for the first time, just to make sure his countrymen would face no retribution for baring steel on a prince of the blood, and lost interest as soon as he was reassured this was the case.

My case for this was weaker, and in truth some would have folded it into ‘aid to an enemy of the Grand Alliance’, but I was actually doing the Magician a favour here. By making him part of someone else’s attempted murder, in this case the Red Axe’s, I was preventing him from being accused of having tried the same thing only on the Bard’s behalf. Trying to get a prince of the blood – and hero – killed for the Intercessor would warrant steep consequences, while helping a heroine in her own fumbled attempt was not quite so grave. He wasn’t a fool, and he obviously knew the Terms in and out, it was almost eagerly that the Hunted Magician confessed to an act I had only moderate proof of him having carried out. After Yannu Marave watching out for his fellow Levantines I got no interruption, and we swiftly went on to the last of the charges.

“First, I want to remind you that even at this very moment the Wandering Bard has yet to be designated an enemy of the Grand Alliance,” I said. “It was not a breach of the Terms to have dealings with her when the Hunted Magician did. What was a breach, however, was how information like the location and inner dealings of the Arsenal – a secret location – were revealed to an outsider. It was when the Bard then masterminded an assault here that the Magician’s actions became ‘aid to an enemy’. In this light, it seems appropriate to water my wine.”

“Traitors should only know one kind of mercy,” Yannu Marave replied.

Most people in the room knew enough about the Dominion that he didn’t have to slide a finger across his throat to actually spell out what he meant. That he didn’t bother to do it anyway made him a fairly subtle man, by Levantine standards.

“It is not appropriate to speak of the sentencing before the trial is finished,” the White Knight cut in, tone even. “Is there a reason for it, Black Queen?”

“Informing deliberation is part of her responsibilities as representative for Below’s champions,” Vivienne coolly replied. “Failing in that duty would truly be inappropriate, unlike what you’re currently fretting about.”

The Lord of Alava let out a chuckle, looking more interested than he’d been in the better part of an hour.

“Fighting words,” he approvingly said.

I cleared my throat.

“I spoke to this to make clear that I believe the Hunted Magician’s breach of the Terms was done not out of malice but out of ignorance and incompetence,” I said.

The man stiffened behind me but had enough sense not to argue my words.

“Indeed?” the First Prince of Procer said, eyebrow quirking.

I suspected that, after the last few weeks, Cordelia was rather enjoying watching one of we troublesome Named squirm in discomfort.

“Absolutely,” I told her. “The Magician’s fault came as a result of wildly overestimating himself, when in fact his arrogance and simplicity allowed a genuinely malicious entity to make use of him as a tool.”

The Magician twitched at my words but kept his mouth shut. Maybe he wasn’t entirely beyond salvaging, then. Evidence over his conspiracy with the Bard was sparse as wheat fields in the Hungering Sands, but that was seen to by the simple magic of having told him in advance that if he took his fucking lumps and confessed I wouldn’t need to treat him as a liability. Through gritted teeth, the Proceran confessed to having had dealings with the Bard. He left out as much as he could, as I’d expected, but even the bare bones were damning enough. His saving grace here would be that he hadn’t actually killed anyone here directly, which hadn’t actually been all that difficult to prove: all our dead and wounded were accounted for, the reasons for their state more or less clear. His responsibility there was indirect, which left me some wiggling room even with the gravity of the aid charge.

I‘d finished making my case, so without further ado I asked the tribunal if they wanted to deliberate before recommendations were made to me. Hanno did, but no one else was in favour so he conceded and we went on straight to the tribunal offering its recommendations.

“I trust in the judgement of the Black Queen,” Cordelia said, opening the game with a measured smile, “and I expect that her sentencing will be fitting.”

Easier to say, I supposed, when you already knew what that sentence was. Still, she’d left herself some room to manoeuvre just in case what I’d told her I’d pass as a sentence wasn’t what I’d actually say now.

“We should be fitting his head for a pike,” Lord Yannu said. “But if he’s just an idiot, as you say, it’d be a waste. Levant will settle for flesh instead of a skull, Black Queen.”

I nodded. Not exactly a push for moderation, that, but it was signaling that the Dominion would be satisfied so long as the punishment stung. The details of that punishment, though, they hardly cared about. Vivienne did not speak, since it would have been quite the empty game if she’d pretended she had the right to speak with Callow over me, so it was Hanno that spoke next – but only after a long silence spent carefully choosing his words.

“There must be visible consequence to aiding a common enemy,” the White Knight eventually said. “And given that the breaches seems to have been committed on personal grounds, the consequences should be personal as well.”

Mhm. He’d been careful not to actually suggest a sentence – knowing that whether I then followed his suggestion or ignored it there’d still be trouble from some quarters – but it was clear he wanted a few metaphorical fingers broken. Nothing permanent, I meant, but at the very least lasting pain. The tribunal would have the right to comment once more once I’d offered the ‘draft’ of my sentence, and I suspected he was keeping his comments limited until we got there. Nothing I’d heard now went against what I’d planned, so it was a simple thing from there: I simply shared the sentence I’d already told Hasenbach I planned to hand down. Loss of the right to refuse assignments, then a fine equivalent to the sum of the damages done to the Arsenal repeated for every signatory member. Pensions for the families of the dead got a grunt of approval from Lord Marave, but otherwise he seemed skeptical of the punishment until I specified the fine could be repaid in work.

The prospect of Levant having access to a highly-skilled Named enchanter brightened his eyes, especially considering that with the established debt there wouldn’t be a need to pay that enchanter.

The Hunted Magician himself looked appalled, at first, but as the initial surprise passed he looked thoughtful. He’d figured out the advantages for him, then – ties to three crowns, and good reason for each to ensure he stayed alive after the Truce and Terms ended and the Accords replaced them. Satisfied he wouldn’t be a stick in my wheel going forward, I returned my attention to the tribunal. The First Prince, content I had kept to my word, gave her seal of approval promptly. The Lord of Alava was not far behind, and mostly symbolically Vivienne agreed for Callow. The last to speak was once more Hanno, and he was studying the Hunted Magician closely.

“It is a measured punishment,” the White Knight said, “but it lacks consequence.”

My brow rose. I’d been pretty severe already, so I wasn’t exactly inclined to bite there.

“Coin is coin,” Hanno said. “But such a failing should not be kept under wraps. Let his breaches be made known to all Named. Let sunlight burn out the rot, so that something wiser might replace it.”

Mhm. Well, it’d be a humiliation for the Magician but it wasn’t like the specifics of the assault on the Arsenal were going to stay secret forever. He couldn’t lose respect the heroes already didn’t give him, and my own lot would be more inclined to mock a failed plot that condemn it on moral grounds. I could actually kind of see what Hanno was going for, there: if the Named under the Terms became a community, then reputation would start being worth a lot more more. It’d become something worth taking small losses to preserve, if it was actually useful, and serve as an incentive to keep one’s word. It was worth encouraging, and not unreasonable to ask.

“Agreed,” I said. “The breaches and sentence will be made known to all Named under the Terms, if not the details of the trial.”

He nodded in thanks, and another round of consultations got me the unanimous seal of approval from the tribunal that I did not need but had definitely wanted. This had, to my surprise, actually gone pretty well. The Concocter’s own punishment wouldn’t require a trial like this, but I’d wait until later to make it known to the high officers seated in the room – there was no need to muddle the waters by doing too much at once. A semi-formal occasion sometime this week would do just as well, with an opportunity to voice issues should there be any. This wasn’t like hitting a tavern with friends, so when the business was done we all parted ways after the proper courtesies were offered. I’d intended on thanking the staff I’d borrowed personally, including Vivienne’s own, but the White Knight lingered long enough to catch my eye so I passed that duty along to Vivs and accepted the implied invitation to go on a walk.

Considering Hanno had made it clear he wasn’t going to be discussing the trials in advance, I was pretty curious about what it was he actually wanted. I was doing a lot of limping in hallways with important people these days, I mused, to discuss all sorts of concerns. I was going to have to see about getting some of this done seated, or else I’d need to arrange for more of the brew that made my leg sufferable without drawing on Night.

“Your leg is paining you,” Hanno said, eyes narrowing as he studied me.

Not the start I’d expected, but true enough.

“That’s what legs do,” I dismissed.

“I will refrain from small talk,” the White Knight told me. “We can slow, if you prefer.”

“Thought you said we wouldn’t be doing small talk,” I grunted back.

I’d never learned to take pity all that well, even when it was kindly meant, and I was starting to feel to old to try. The dark-skinned hero didn’t even blink at my bite. I supposed he was used to it, by now.

“The First Prince has approached me several times now,” Hanno said. “She has several intentions, but foremost among them is securing agreement for the Red Axe being tried under Proceran law instead of the Terms.”

I didn’t bother to fake surprise. Even odds he’d be able to tell even if I did, and we were largely on the same side besides.

“I’ve heard the speech as well,” I said, then after mulling it over threw him a bone, “from both her and the Kingfisher Prince.”

The White Knight did not look all that surprised, but he nodded in thanks anyway. Yeah, I wasn’t surprised that the First Prince hadn’t tried to win him over through Frederic. The Kingfisher Prince was his subordinate, in a sense, and it would have tripped a lot of those Proceran unspoken law to bring attention so clumsily to the divided loyalties of Prince Frederic of Brus.

“I would not impugn your character,” Hanno delicately said, “yet I imagine a diplomat of Cordelia Hasenbach’s skill would have not prepared an offer easy to refuse.”

I decided to be amused instead of insulted, after a beat. He was asking whether or not I’d been bought by whatever it was Hasenbach had offered me for my agreement, in this case Procer’s seal of approval on the Liesse Accords as they currently stood.  Hanno had been right in both suspecting an offer would be made to me and that it’d be a very tempting one, so I’d forgive him on account of that and the delicacy of inquiry.

“I didn’t bite,” I bluntly told him. “My priorities haven’t shifted, White Knight. First is winning this war, second is establishing the Liesse Accords. Most everything else is noise.”

Not entirely true, since my neck would bend some when it came to the preservation of Callow, but in essence I stood by my words. I’d rather fight this war in Procer now, even if it got ruinous to my kingdom’s treasury, than on Callowan borders in a decade with fewer allies and resources to call on. It wasn’t going to make me popular, but I could live with that: there was a reason my abdication was set in stone.

“I believed this would be the case,” Hanno admitted, “but I had to ask. The intensity of Procer’s overtures over this worries me. It smells of desperation, and despair makes for a poor councillor.”

“She has reason to be worried,” I admitted. “We both had traitors, White. If it’d been only my lot she might have been able to write it off as Below’s usual perfidy, but yours have arguably been making more trouble with her. Add to that the three fingers calling the Mirror Knight to heel cost you, and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. We’re not looking all that reliable.”

And, in an ironic twist, for once it was the heroes who were looking like the problem child. Between killing villains, bleeding princes and dabbling in coups, it had to be said that Above’s champions had not come out of the last month looking pristine. My lot looked better in comparison, amusingly enough, but much as it pained me to admit it that might not necessarily be a good thing. Villains weren’t the ones bringing the trust to the table, when it came to nations backing the Terms. A risk had been taking on Below’s folk in large part because I was riding herd of them and I’d shown a lot of goodwill to the leaders of Levant and Procer. That and I’d established early on that I was perfectly willing to kill villains if they stepped out of line. In the end, though, it was the heroes that brought trustworthiness to the Truce and Terms. It was their reputations, their record, that justified all the twists and turns and compromises that were being had to keep Named mustered and pointed at Keter.

If they were no longer trusted, we had a problem.

“I have worries myself,” Hanno frankly replied. “Most urgent among them the First Prince keeping the remains of one of the Seraphim. Even were she not attempting to make some sort of sordid weapon out of it, I would be troubled: such a thing is not to be trifled with.”

I grimaced. Glad as I was that the White Knight shared my misgivings there, there were risks to making common front. We were already refusing Hasenbach over the Red Axe, and then we’d be trying to pry what she probably saw as her weapon of last resort from her hands. I was pretty sure Levant could be convinced to back us over this, through Tariq if nothing else, but I was wary of going through with this. Like Hanno had said, Procer was starting to smell of desperation. I’d heard in Frederic’s voice and seen it on Hasenbach’s face, so I was wary of pushing the Principate when it already felt cornered.

People did stupid things, when they felt cornered.

The hardest lesson I’d learned since putting on the fancy hat and eating a season had been that just because you could win a fight didn’t mean you should be fighting it. There was already too much fighting going on among people who should all be on the same side, and it was like the assault on the Arsenal had shone down a light on every fracture that lay at the heart if the Grand Alliance. They were growing bigger, I could feel it, and yet caution was stilling my hand: a hasty move, now, could do untold damage. And yet waiting too long will do just the same, I thought. We needed to finish those trial as soon as possible, then tie up Mercantis and the Gigantes. Gods, all this trouble and we’d yet to even begin the godsdamned war council for the actual fucking war we were fighting.

“Give her time,” I said. “She’s a pragmatic creature, there’s only so many bridges she’ll be willing to burn over this.”

“It will have to be addressed before our time at the Arsenal ends,” Hanno said.

“Agreed,” I reluctantly said, then cast him a dark look. “And you need to get your house in order, quick, before we lost more trust. I doubt Procer will try to outright axe the Terms, but there’s lesser measures it can take. They could restrict access to cities, assign escorts – Hells they could just begin funding Named on their good side and only them. This isn’t a flip of the coin, White Knight, they have more than two options.”

Poor choice of words there, I realized a heartbeat later with a wince, but he did not comment on it.

“Then the Mirror Knight can stand trial tomorrow,” Hanno offered instead.

“Good,” I nodded. “Once that’s out of the way, we can sit down with the First Prince and find a way to settle the trouble over the Red Axe.”

“I will not discuss sentencing, Black Queen,” the dark-eyed man flatly said. “I have already told you this.”

Gods save me from heroes, all prickly as cats and half as sensible.

“Then don’t,” I sharply said. “Talk about how we arrange this so she doesn’t have to deal with a revolt in the Highest Assembly, something that we cannot afford. I’m not great admirer of her princes, White, but your girl cut a prince of the blood that was trying to protect her from harm. They’re right to be on pins and needles about it: nobody wants a young Regicide walking around, only this one protected by treaty. I won’t argue to throw her to the wolves, we have to clean our own houses, but we have to give them something.”

The White Knight considered me for a long moment.

“I do not see what we can, Black,” he finally said.

“Then pray, hero,” I said, baring my teeth. “And I’ll see what I can get done down in the mud.”

Chapter 36: Trepidation

“It is traditional to kill to preserve your secrets, but I have found it more efficient to instead kill everyone who would be offended by the revelation.”
– Dread Empress Massacre

A claim like that required elaboration and it was had. The long-dead fantassin had apparently been quite the chatty fellow once he got talking, so even though the Relentless Magistrate had only been cut into a few of his memories a fairly complete picture of the events could be had. None of us were all that concerned with the history of it all, though, not right now. So when the floor was opened for questions, it began with Hasenbach asking for more details about the intervention by the ‘unknown woman’.

It was the Bard. Of course it was the fucking Bard, and I wasn’t sure why any of us were wasting our time pretending otherwise.

“The White Knight called on the Brighteyed Lords,” the Painted Knife said. “Those you know as the Ophanim. And they came down in a wave of burning light, to strike down the Grey Pilgrim, but even among the blinding radiance a silhouette could be seen to have appeared.”

That had Intercessor written all over it, as far as I was concerned. There weren’t a lot of people who could take a hit from an angel – I certainly couldn’t, at least not without Sve Noc and the right story behind me – but the Wandering Bard was certain to be one of them. Even if it killed her, it wasn’t like she’d stay dead.

“Was the woman ever identified, by either your prisoner or any others in the valley?” Hanno asked.

I snorted, ignoring the looks I got from some in the room.

“We all know who that is,” I said, “and faces don’t matter a whit to her. She’d had more of those than we’ve had meals.”

“If I can hear even a fake name, I can search through old lives for a connection,” the White Knight reminded me.

“I think you underestimate how good the old bird is at hiding her tracks,” I bluntly replied. “But be my guest.”

I’d have to remember to ask if they still had the dead fantassin about, though, since I could probably take those memories through Night and make of them something that could be seen by multiple people. Could be useful. The Painted Knife had patiently waited for us to finish speaking, but it was actually the Magistrate that she bid to answer Hanno’s question.

“The prisoner never saw a face, though the silhouette was definitely a woman’s and the timbre of her voice supports this,” the Relentless Magistrate seriously said. “The Grey Pilgrim was not in the field of vision of the prisoner when this took place, as he was looking at the White Knight, which leaves us instead with an impression of her face as she reacted.”

My brow rose. They’d been very thorough, I noted appreciatively, and they weren’t hiding the imperfections of their results as some might be tempted to in front of such an influential audience.

“She looked surprised,” the Relentless Magistrate said. “And she spoke, though the noise of Mercy’s descent drowned it out. I believe, however, that by reading her lips I have pieced together what the word was. It is not, however, a certainty.”

“Your work has been exemplary so far,” the First Prince said, “and certainty is a rare thing indeed, in these matters.”

“Agreed,” I said, drumming my fingers against the tabletop. “On both counts.”

The Royal Conjurer looked pleased, though the Poisoner was harder to read. My approval was something of a mixed bag for the rest, not unexpectedly.

“It was in Chantant,” the Relentless Magistrate said. “Trouveur.”

Which meant ‘finder’. Huh, not exactly something I’d associate with the Bard. Not all at the high table seemed to share my opinion, though. At a glance both Proceran royals, Roland and the White Knight all seemed to be varying between grimness and understanding.

“I’m guessing I missed something,” I noted.

Considering only the native speakers and Hanno – a filthy cheating cheater who cheated, because his aspect was bullshit – seemed to have caught it, I’d guess it was something Proceran. Probably specifically Alamans, as the scholar with the Arlesite name didn’t seem to know about it either.

“In older Alamans traditions, a trouveur was something like a troubadour,” the Rogue Sorcerer told me.

Oh, Roland. Both reliably competent and socially skilled, why hadn’t Zeze figured out a way to make more of him yet? Still, would you just look at that. It might be a few centuries late but we’d caught the tail of the Wandering Bard at last. Whatever it was that’d gone down in the Verdant Hollow, she’d clearly not wanted anyone to know about it.

“I will attempt to confirm this independently,” the White Knight said. “It may take some time, but it should not be impossible to learn more. Until then, however…”

“I am willing to operate on the assumption that it is the Intercessor we are dealing with,” Cordelia agreed. “Queen Catherine?”

“I was sold the moment someone stepped in on Mercy in smiting mood,” I drily replied. “But consider me formally in agreement, if that’s what you’re after.”

It was, so we moved on with little ceremony. Masego had questions but no burning desire to ask them himself – at least not right now – so I did on his behalf.

“On the subject of the Ophanim being made to ‘leave’,” I said. “I’ve inquiries about some of the details.”

It was the Magistrate who fielded answers once more, and he began by striking a cautious tone.

“The prisoner saw nothing of what took place after that, not until the light had dispersed and the soldiers fled,” the dark-haired hero said.

Which their report had made clear enough. The fantassins led by the White Knight had skirmished with the warrior band led by the Grey Pilgrim over the span of an afternoon before it turned into a proper battle over a grassy slope. The battled had turned in the favour of the Levantines. Their training and equipment were both flatly inferior but they were much better at skirmishing than the mercenaries, so they’d softened up the fantassins over the afternoon.

When the fight had gone south for the Procerans, the White Knight had stepped back from the frontline and called on Mercy, which was when our old friend had stepped in. Our sole witness had gone temporarily blind and only got his bearings later, running away with the survivors and wounded after they found the Levantines had not taken the opportunity to slaughter them while they were blind. Hierophant didn’t want me to fill in the blanks in the history, though, he was after something else.

“I understand that,” I said. “But, to be clear, even after the silhouette was seen the light did intensify?”

The man frowned, collecting his thoughts for a moment.

“That is correct, Your Majesty,” the Relentless Magistrate said.

Masego let out what someone who loved him less that I did might have called a cackle.

“A limitation,” Zeze said in Mtethwa. “Finally.”

A surprising amount of people spoke that tongue, considering the side of the Whitecaps we were on, but it was still far from a full roster. I cleared my throat.

“Lord Hierophant has deduced something of import from the detail,” I said. “Which he will now share with us.”

Masego’s Chantant was significantly better when listening than speaking, so it was in Lower Miezan he addressed the high table.

“The Choir of Mercy did strike at the valley,” Hierophant said. “It explains the presence tabula rasa effect observed in the valley by the Royal Conjurer, which would not have been there if the Ophanim had not fully aligned with Creation.”

Hanno was fairly learned in matters of sorcery, at least as much as someone without the Gift could be, but unlike me he didn’t have the benefit of being familiar with the Praesi parlance in the art.

“If I understand correctly, Hierophant,” the White Knight slowly said, “you are stating that Mercy did smite the Grey Pilgrim?”

“Yes,” Masego bluntly replied.

Surprise flickered across half a dozen faces and from the corner of my eye I found that the Painted Knife was grinning, muttering honour to the Blood with an awed look on her face. Must have been nice for the national pride that the original Pilgrim had walked off Mercy’s attentions – and where Procerans would have considered it an indication of virtue, with the Dominion it was a flip of the coin if they’d decide it’d been about pure strength instead. I was pretty sure we were about to get into the specifics of being smote by angels, which should run afoul of at least one Proceran heresy law, so I decided to give a warning.

“Deeper explanation will require drawing on learning that some deem to be blasphemous,” I said. “I tend to find the academic tone there refreshing, but I’m not unaware that others differ in opinion.”

Cordelia flicked a discreet glance at her secretary, who ceased writing.

“Given the situation, I believe such objections can be set aside,” the First Prince of Procer mildly said. “Lord White?”

“I’ve no objection,” Hanno said, sounding faintly amused.

Considering he’d once told me his own mother had kept to Below, I suspected he’d be harder to shock theologically than people would expect of him.

“Try to keep it concise,” I told Masego in Kharsum. “And please don’t talk about dissecting anything someone prays to.”

“My children will eat your goats,” he replied in the same, sounding a little miffed.

I threw him an offended look. There’d been no need for that sort of language, I was just giving advice. Given how important cattle was to the Tribes, that was actually a pretty brutal putdown for them – I’d seen orcs brawl over less. I bet it was Robber who’d taught him that one, though. The malevolent imp had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of taunts and insults in every tongue he was even slightly proficient in. I caught Hanno covering his mouth as if to hide a yawn – or a chuckle, I realized, since I’d forgotten he actually knew Kharsum.

“Angelic power is fundamentally like any other,” Masego told everyone. “It has fixed rules and properties, however esoteric, which allows it to be measured and predicted. In this case, the tabula rasa observed means that there was a strike in the valley. That it does not seem to have caused any deaths means a property of that power was amended.”

The First Prince of Procer observed him carefully.

“And that is… feasible, even for one who is Named?” she probed.

“I cannot think of another who could do this,” Hanno admitted.

The Fallen Monk had been able to screw with Light, from what I recalled, but having fought him my opinion was that a scrap between him and an angel would have begun and ended with the sound ‘splat’. The Intercessor wasn’t some second-stringer with a grudge against priests, though.

“She’s not like other Named,” I said. “We’ve known that for some time. It’s the reason we’re tugging at threads that are literally centuries old.”

Mind you, if it wasn’t an aspect that let her do that I’d eat my own fingers. The Intercessor might be in a class of her own in some regards, but she wasn’t beyond the constraints of being Named. Beating her thrice forced her away, she’d avoided the Hierarch like the plague and my money was on her having only three aspects just like the rest of us. One was the wandering trick, coming and going everywhere, and another had to be her sight for stories. That left whatever the Hells this was to look out for.

“Yet it is telling that the strike did land,” Masego continued. “As she clearly did not want it to. It implies she does not have the ability to outright command angelic entities.”

Which was the good news. So now came the bad ones.

“It does seem, however, that she is able to affect the properties of angelic power,” Hierophant continued. “Be it directly or indirectly. Which property in particular was tinkered with I cannot say, as there are too many possibilities. Reduced potency, different parameters for harm, different manners of harm…”

He trailed off, shrugging, as he’d made his point. The specifics didn’t actually matter all that much when it came down to it. Whatever the form it was a problem, to say the least, that if a metaphorical angelic arrow got shot the Bard could decide what kind of an arrow it became.

“Are you saying that the Intercessor has the ability to… reforge angels as she wills?” the First Prince said, sounding appalled.

“No,” Masego said. “In a sense it is impossible to affect an angel directly – even those that are said to be ‘dead’ and have left behind a corpse remain in their Choir and unchanged. The Choirs are fixed entities. As befitting the way that she has been named an intercessor, I would theorize that what she affects are the ‘senses’ of angels. Not unlike coloured glass tinting one’s perception of the world when that world itself remains objectively unchanged.”

“So Mercy struck,” I said. “But it didn’t kill anyone, because simultaneously it saw that there was no one it should be killing.”

“In essence,” Hierophant agreed.

If the lever could be pulled down on that, though, it could also be pulled up. Which would be something of an issue if someone had, say, an angel corpse lying around that they’d unwisely made a weapon out of, Cordelia. That wasn’t a conversation that needed to be had in front of the Painted Knife and her fellows, though, so instead I asked if anyone still had questions for the band. The First Prince apparently shared my curiosity as to the fate of the dead fantassin, but we were both to be disappointed: it’d been the sorceries of the Barrow Lord that kept him moving and aware, so within a few days of the villains’ destruction the corpse had begun breaking down. The aftermath of necromancy tended to be rough on bodies, from what I recalled. Made sense. You could only shove so much magic into even a living body before things started going south and corpses were even less flexible.

“He was given a marked grave in the way of the southern companies,” the Grizzled Fantassin said, almost challengingly. “He kept his contract to the end, and deserves the long peace same as any of us.”

It might have been possible to extract a few things out of the remains of the remains, in practice, but it honestly wasn’t worth the effort considering it’d require either myself, Akua or one of few oldest Mighty in Cleves to see to that extraction in person. Being halfway decent people, the rest of the high table weren’t inclined to argue in favour graverobbing anyway. Hanno made plain to the thee heroes that he’d want a more in-depth talk about their investigation at some point, and I casually informed my pair of the same, but aside from that we were done here. With the questions, anyway. They were released to rest and recreation, and within moments of the door closing we were dealing in state secrets.

“The crown of Callow has already made known its concerns regarding Procer’s continued custody of the corpse of an angel,” Vivienne said, leading the offensive. “After today, the dangers of continuing down that path should be even clearer.”

Not what Hasenbach wanted to hear, I saw on her face – practiced a diplomat as she was, she’d spent too much time around me. Enough I’d learned some of her tricks, and that’ pleasant yet distant’ smile on her face tended to come out when she was feeling pressed.

“Secretary Corrales,” the First Prince said, “if you would speak the appropriate part from the transcript of the Dead King’s words at the end of the Salian conference?”

The tanned man sharply nodded. Idly I noted that Hasenbach had not said read and that the man was not looking at any papers. She was fond of precision, the First Prince.

“-and it will tell you, should you be clever enough, of the doom you all so narrowly escaped by the grace of Kairos Theodosian,” the secretary quoted.

“Thank you,” Cordelia smiled. “Now, should we take the Hidden Horror at his word then there seems to be different trouble here than the risks inherent to the Principate’s possession of a large-scale defensive weapon.”

Hasenbach wasn’t a fool, much as her insistence to keep the corpse still angered me. It wasn’t like I didn’t understand the temptation of keeping the angelic weapon around. She’d only seriously consider using it if the Grand Alliance were already collapsing, anyhow, so from her perspective there really wasn’t anything to lose in keeping it except some unease from my camp. It was a card up her sleeve in case the night got too dark for the dawn to pierce through, and unlike Named and coalition armies it was also something she had complete control over. No one would be pulling that trigger without her say-so, at least in theory. That had to be reassuring, considering that in practice Cordelia Hasenbach was sharing the reins over the war that would decide the survival of her nation with more people than any ruler would like.

My issue with this whole blunder had previously been that doomsday weapons were disaster magnets no one could ever really control – and were prone to backfiring massively – but with Zeze’s words there was fresh unease to add to the brew. A weapon that answered to someone else first was best snapped over your knee.

“The Dead King implied that Kairos spared us something,” I agreed, “which fits with the end of the Salian Peace. The angelic remains dredged up are allegedly from one of the Seraphim-”

“They are,” Hanno flatly said. “You may take my word on it.”

This might be a tad of a sensitive subject for the Sword of Judgement, I thought, but there weren’t ways to tiptoe around it that I could see.

“I will,” I agreeably replied. “So we’ve got a Seraphim corpse and a confirmation that the Intercessor can affect angels. The Tyrant of Helike then masterminds the Hierarch rising to… obstruct the Choir of Judgement, so to speak, and in the wake of that the Dead King speaks of us being spared doom by Kairos Theodosian’s actions. The picture there is pretty clear, as far as I’m concerned.”

If Cordelia had pulled the trigger on the Judgement corpse before Judgement got walled off by Bellerophon’s maddest son, the Bard would have had a degree of control over what happened. Now, though, the corpse could have no tie to the Choir – even Hanno, its champion on Creation, could not get a peep out of them as far as I knew. If Masego was right and the Bard worked over angels by screwing with their ‘senses’, then the current state of the weapon was a dead end for her. She couldn’t trick an inanimate object, after all. The Tyrant of Helike had, true to form, solved an old headache by leaving us with a fresh one: right now, no one had any fucking idea what would actually happen if Cordelia pulled the trigger. Gods, but sometimes I wished I’d killed the little bastard myself. It’d at least give me something to look back to fondly when sill dealing with the fallout of his actions several years after his death.

“By the Dead King’s own admission, the danger has been averted,” the First Prince noted.

“Are we now to take the word of the Hidden Horror for truth, Your Highness?” Roland politely asked. “Let us not pretend the creature will not serve its own interests above all.”

“If the weapon is a threat to the Dead King, his interest is in discrediting it,” the Kingfisher Prince pointed out. “Which he has not, strictly speaking, accomplished here.”

In the sense that the Bard wouldn’t currently be holding the reins, he had a point. On the other hand, Neshamah had neatly soured us on the Bard with this and further deepened my already deep objections to Hasenbach keeping that looming disaster of a weapon around. He’d gotten his gains, as he tended to.

“He hates the Intercessor like poison,” I said. “Insofar as he’s damaging her in our eyes, I’d tend to take him at his word. He’s too canny of an old thing to try a lie there, there’s too many Named in play for one of those to actually work for long.”

The Intercessor herself would delight in revealing the inaccuracies, if only to further establish herself as the Dead King’s ancient sworn enemy that we should all be listening to. After all, if the Hidden Horror was going out of his way to discredit her then she must be a threat. Truth be told, I did believe her to be that. Only to more than just Neshamah.

“Adanna,” Hanno said, voice clear and calm. “If the remains of the Seraphim were used in a ritual and the Wandering Bard amplified the effects as much as she could, what sort of a scale would we be looking at?”

“I am uncertain,” the Blessed Artificer reluctantly admitted. “Though as a rule, the greater the quantity of Light the simpler the purpose it can carry. At a greater than regional scale, harm is likely the sole effect that could reliably be had. I do not have the proper references to hazard a guess at the scale of propagation.”

From the corner of my eye I saw Masego finishing a flourish of the wrist with a wooden stylus that’s somehow written in dark letters over the tabletop. I leaned in closer, glancing at equations that were giving me a headache just to try to parse.

“Masego?” I asked.

He breathed out a little noise of triumph.

“The Whitecaps are the limiting factor,” Hierophant called out. “Assuming there is a hard limit to the power a Choir can wield and the source would be in central Procer, we are looking at an estimated two thirds of Calernia being affected. Rhenia and parts of Hannoven would be untouched, up north, while the eastern limit would be the Whitecaps down to the Stygian border with Delos. Assuming a dilution effect by large bodies of water-”

“At such a scale, there would not be,” the Blessed Artificer told him. “A higher threshold of propagation, but that’s all.”

Masego let out a noise of grudging appreciation.

“In that case,” he continued, “the city of Levante might be unaffected, and the mountainous parts of the Titanomachy would certainly be. Everything else would be within range.”

“Ashur?” I faintly asked.

He shrugged.

“Fifty-fifty odds,” he admitted. “The sea is an unpredictable boundary.”

Utter silence followed in the aftermath of his words. Putting together the words of Masego and the Artificer, the picture painted was… horrifying, for lack of a stronger word. More than nine tenths of Procer and Levant dead, the better part of the Free Cities – including its two largest cities, Helike and Nicae – and even odds on the complete annihilation of the Thalassocracy. An end to the ratlings, and at the moment the Firstborn as well. Callow and Praes would get to hide behind the mountains and four of the Free Cities were far enough east to be spared, but the sheer loss of life… Fuck.

“It would end the armies of the Dead King as well,” the Blessed Artificer quietly said. “And most likely destroy the Hellgate in Keter.”

At the cost of what, two thirds of the population of Calernia? The Dominion wasn’t densely populated, but Procer sure as Hells was and the Free Cities were aptly named. No wonder the Hidden Horror had believed everyone would turn on the Bard after learning this.

“Removing the hard limit in power, the Whitecaps will eventually be vaporized and we’re looking at full saturation of the continent,” Masego noted. “Including through the ground into the Kingdom Under, though that will take up to days longer.”

“Even under your limited model the crater in central Procer is likely to touch dwarven tunnels,” the Blessed Artificer condescendingly said, “and they’d be looking at the loss of a few principalities’ worth of territory as well.”

Ah, I thought with fixed smile on my face, would you look at that. They’d actually made it worse, which I’d doubted was possible. Now we also had to worry about the dwarves considering the weapon a threat and deciding to strike first.

“Merciless Gods, Hasenbach,” I feelingly said. “How much more will it take to convince you to drop that fucking thing at the bottom of the Skiron Ocean?”

“The Kingdom of Callow has grave concerns about the keeping of such a potentially calamitous weapon,” Vivienne said, translating my words into something more diplomatic.

“Much of what was said here is speculation,” the First Prince mildly replied. “And even this speculation points to the risk having passed.”

“If a proper method to wield the remains is created, it is the sort of weapon that could win us this war,” the Blessed Artificer agreed.

“Or it could kill us all,” the Rogue Sorcerer gently reminded her.

“You have personally patronized the Quartered Seasons weapon, Queen Catherine,” Cordelia reminded me. “Which carries great risks as well, to my recollection.”

“I’ve limited information on it, but it’s ultimately a Grand Alliance initiative and not a purely Callowan one,” I replied. “I’ve been preparing the results for perusal, as a matter of fact, now that tangible progress has been made. I can’t say the same about that corpse you’re dragging around.”

“Then your issue is the lack of Callowan observers, not the weapon itself,” the First Prince said.

My brow rose. This kind of wordplay might be useful in a place like the Highest Assembly, where appearances were everything and such little victories counted, but she ought to know better than to try to finagle me. I was in no way above using a bloody hatchet where a stiletto failed to get the point across.

“No,” I bluntly said. “My issue is with anyone’ possession of a weapon that could potentially wipe out two thirds of Calernia. There’s no equivalence to be drawn there, First Prince. If Quartered Seasons goes wrong it’ll be a disaster, but a survivable one. Your ‘large-scale defensive weapon’ is a blade put to the throat of millions, and I did not torch such a weapon in Praesi hands only to meekly accept your keeping the same.”

A bit of an exaggeration there, since Black had been the one to destroy Liesse while I’d actually been inclined to side with Malicia in the heat of the moment, but it wasn’t like anyone else here knew that. Blue eyes stayed on me as Hasenbach attempted to gauge how serious I was being, and I hid nothing: this was genuinely unacceptable. It’d been a liability before, but now it was something a lot worse.

“We have gone far beyond the remit of this council,” the First Prince eventually said. “If there are grievances to be had, there are mechanisms to address them under the treaties binding the Grand Alliance.”

My eyes narrowed. The diplomatic thing here would have been implying it was up for negotiation before brushing me off, opening the path for later private talks if she wasn’t willing to hash this out in the open here. The First Prince had not done that. She was sending the message there wasn’t room for compromise there, and coming from a diplomat of her calibre that surprised me. What was driving her to keep her finger on that trigger at all costs? I glanced at the White Knight and found him looking remote, almost absent-minded. Whether it was because Judgement had been spoken of or because he saw the disputes of crown as beyond him, I could not be certain. Either way it was less than helpful.

“It might allay some unease if specialists were allowed to take a look at this weapon and ascertain its possible effects,” Vivienne suggested.

A fair suggestion, I thought, but not a tempting one for Procer. In our case said specialist would be Masego, which I somehow doubted they would go for. They weren’t idiots, they had to know that letting the Hierophant riffle through anything miraculous was as good as allowing him to shut it down at will.

“Something to discuss under different circumstances, Lady Dartwick,” the First Prince politely replied.

Huh. Really not giving even the shadow of an inch, was she?

“White Knight?” I tried.

If he wasn’t going to step in by himself, I’d drag him into the melee by the scruff of the neck.

“It would be unwise to further debate this without having sought more information,” Hanno eventually said. “This council has served its purpose, I believe, and need not be further prolonged.”

I hid my displeasure. Not what I’d wanted to hear, though I supposed it was much like him to keep silent until he’d dug through enough memories he had a better idea of what he was dealing with. The White Knight disliked rushing to decision when there were still cards yet to be revealed. Though he didn’t show it, I suspected he was a lot warier of making mistakes now that the Seraphim were no longer looking over his shoulder. With both Hasenbach and Hanno supporting this all coming to an end there was little point in pursuing the opposite, so I folded and we called the meeting to an end. The First Prince caught my eye as we began to disperse, however, and her secretary passed along an invitation to walk with her a span. Before long we were sharing a stretch of hallway between my limp and her measured stride, Vivienne and the Kingfisher Prince trailing behind us.

“I have concerns,” the First Prince told me with unusual forthrightness.

For her to drop the more elegant methods she preferred, they had to be some pretty dire fucking concerns.

“You’ve heard mine,” I said, frowning. “I’m all ears for yours.”

“The Truce and Terms are proving to be highly unstable,” Cordelia Hasenbach said. “An uncomfortable number of collaborators were found by the Intercessor among both Chosen and Damned, and now the White Knight himself was mutilated by one of his subordinates. I am forced to wonder if these trials are not simply the act of gilding a sinking boat.”

Fuck, I thought. All this time I’d been worried about keeping my villains in line and Hanno’s lot from stepping on mine, but I’d not stopped to think about how the Principate would see it all. Hasenbach was still being asked to ignore attempted regicide of one of her princes so that the authority of increasingly bloodied Terms might be preserved. The more their credibility was damaged by little things like the Mirror Knight cutting up a high officer of the Grand Alliance, the less she’d be inclined to bend her neck. I studied her from the corner of my eye. Given how useful Named still were to the fronts, she was exaggerating to some extent there. Even if the Terms had been much worse, from a pragmatic perspective they’d still be a net advantage when it came to survival – and that was the way Hasenbach had to think, right now. She was drawing my attention to this to make a point elsewhere.

Considering what we’d just finished having a council about, it was not hard to guess.

“There are some matters that can be gambled with,” I slowly said. “There are others where the simple act of implying a gaming mood loses trust in a way that cannot be mended.”

I would not haggle over the custody of the doomsday corpse, not when it’d been made clear that there might be millions of lives hanging in the balance.

“I will not allow policy to be dictated by pissing matches among Named, Queen Catherine,” Cordelia Hasenbach coolly said.

It was the crudest thing I’d ever heard come out of her mouth, and that was enough to give me pause.

“The coming trials will clarify whether Chosen and Damned can be trusted to oversee themselves,” the First Prince of Procer warned. “And if your kind proves to be running wild unchecked, Black Queen, if they cannot be counted on?”

She met my eyes.

“Then the Principate will do what it must to survive, no matter whose feathers it ruffles. On that point there can be no negotiation.”

Chapter 35: Portents

“One who rears a tiger should not complain of stripes.”
– Soninke saying

The Painted Knife’s band had been one of the first we’d assembled, back in the first days under the Truce and Terms.

I’d been a given that a hero would have to lead it, as even with Hanno and the Pilgrim backing the Terms there would have been desertions if a villain had been put in charge of Above’s precious little bastards. The Painted Knife, whose name was Kallia, was a tall woman who wore elaborate red face paint and had been Tariq’s personal recommendation for the task. A heroine but not from one of the Dominion’s great lines, and one who tended to be more comfortable on the prowl than standing shoulder to shoulder in a shield wall. I’d wedged in a Proceran villain I’d thought it best to keep out of sight for a while, the Poisoner, since amnesty or not she’d killed a lot of nobles. She was a decent alchemist besides, which tended to be useful in all sorts of ways, though naturally to keep an eye on her the heroes had pushed for a Proceran hardcase known as the Relentless Magistrate to be added to the band.

The man was deeply unpleasant to anyone he considered to be a criminal but obsessed with respecting the letter of the law and a prodigious investigator, so I’d made my peace with it. To add a bit of bite to the band we’d rustled up the Grizzled Fantassin, though we’d had to appropriately pad her retirement fund to get her on board, and since I wasn’t sending anyone hunting for old secrets without a dedicated mage I’d reluctantly parted with the Royal Conjurer. The Helikean mage was an escapee from Kairos’ rise to power and remarkably flexible in ability – he was a more than decent combat mage as well as capable of subtler touches – so it’d been a real loss sending him out. He would have been a good fit at the Arsenal, or any of the fronts for that matter, but in my experience sending a band of five digging into ancient mysteries  without some sort of magical support tended to result mostly in corpses.

Yet they’d returned, at long last, and all five of them were alive. Not without some missing parts – I saw with dismay that the Grizzled Fantassin was missing a finger, and from what I remembered of her contract that was going to put a dent in someone’s savings – but the way they held themselves as they strolled out onto the expanse of stone caught my eye. Wary, yes, but that wariness was aimed outwards. The Poisoner, a plump and smiling middle-aged woman, stood close to the skinny and permanently stubbled Relentless Magistrate whose gaze was sweeping their surroundings without an eye being kept on the criminal he’d once been so scathing about. The Royal Conjurer was trusted to stand at the back without anyone feeling nervous, and the Grizzled Fantassin was standing next to the Painted Knife instead of slightly behind so that she’d be the one to eat an arrow if they got ambushed.

I knew that look, that way of standing together. How could I not, when the mere presence of three of the Woe at my side had me feeling lighter on my feet than I’d had in months? Those five gone through the crucible and come out on the other side changed. Bound to each other in some intangible way, and though it wouldn’t make them like each other it had brought trust with it. A lot more precious a thing, that, in my opinion.

I liked a lot of people, after all, but trusted only a handful.

I wasn’t the only one to see it. Vivienne had turned when I did, but it wasn’t her who let out a low whistle. Archer, ever more perceptive than she seemed, was watching the five Named with narrowed eyes.

“Those five have had an interesting year, I bet,” Indrani murmured.

I’d expected the Royal Conjurer would be eager for a different assignment, after this, but now I doubted it. A proper debrief would be needed, at some point, but I was personally more inclined to find something else important to send a proper band of five at than try to break it up. Practical considerations aside, my heart clenched in excitement. A band, a real band, with villains in it. That was… there were precedents for temporary truces, even the occasional cooperation, but never anything like this. Not that I knew of, anyway, and I’d made it my business to know.

“Catherine’s associate is making his way here,” Masego noted.

I flicked a glance upwards and found him at the top of the stairs, burning glass eyes staring at the unseen through the walls of the Arsenal.

“Which one?” I asked.

“The tolerable Ashuran one,” Hierophant said, then added, “By which I do not meant the Blessed Artificer, to be clear.”

Three amused looks were turned onto Zeze. His continuing feud with Adanna of Smyrna, now drained of the dangerous underlying tensions, had resumed being entertainingly petty. He meant Hanno, presumably, who I really should have expected to turn up the moment the Painted Knife’s band came through. The White Knight had a general knack for being in the right place at the right time, even more so than most heroes. Mind you, providence was not absolute. It could be gamed, if you knew the right tricks. I looked down at the gathering Named, speaking with the mages who’d spelled them through, and grimaced as I realized it’d be rude not to greet them down there and instead continue up and wait there. Which meant I was going to have to go up and down these fucking stairs again.

Forget the Dead King: if I didn’t get to take a sledgehammer to these… tyrannical stones before I died, I might just have to come back as a vengeful spectre.

“’Drani, go tell him to get a move on,” I said. “Vivienne, do you remember their Names?”

Blue-grey eyes turned to me and she grimaced the slightest bit.

“All but one,” she admitted. “The smiling one who looks like the village baker?”

“The Poisoner,” I said, enjoying her slight wince. “One of mine.”

“You don’t say,” Vivienne drily replied.

Admittedly the Name was not one that, uh, invited nuanced interpretation. The

“I don’t know any of them,” Masego informed us.

Neither of us bothered to pretend we were surprised. Painted Knife and her companions had begun the walk across the floor but we got to the bottom of the stairs before they did. The red-painted heroine offered me a salute, a fist against the chest, that I vaguely remembered being a gesture of respectful acknowledgement among Levantines.

“Black Queen,” the Painted Knife greeted me. “We return.”

“And I am glad of it,” I replied, offering her a nod before turning my gaze on the others. “What you have found is eagerly awaited.”

Especially since they’d refused to commit it to either scrying or letters, which would have gotten it to us months ago.

“Ah,” a voice came from above. “I had been wondering why I was here.”

Hanno looked pleased but not entirely surprised as he came down, Indrani idling at his side and only parting ways at the bottom to throw an arm around a tolerant Hierophant’s shoulder.

“White Knight,” the Painted Knife greeted, significantly warmer.

Still the same salute, though, so I decided not to feel too insulted. The Grizzled Fantassin cleared her throat, freeing her grey hair by removing her helm.

“This is all lovely, but after this long on the road I’d knife an angel for bed and a warm meal,” she said, her Arlesite accent light and pleasant.

“Contrition’s your choir,” Archer advised. “Steer clear of Mercy, though, they’re a little…”

I cleared my throat. The old soldier looked mostly amused, and Hanno patiently forgiving, but the Painted Knife was waiting to see if the Peregrine’s own Choir was about to get insulted. Would a Levantine fight an honour duel over an angelic choir’s reputation? It said a lot about the Dominion that I could not reply with an immediate and definitive no, to be honest.

“We’ll get you settled in,” I said. “But for a few hours at most. There will be a council to receive your findings by Afternoon Bell at the latest.”

Considering how the First Prince tended to pack her hours even more tightly than I did, I suspected she’d have trouble shaking loose the time for a proper debriefing before then anyway.

“Will Kallia speak for all of you?” Hanno asked. “Or will the report be given as a group?”

“As a group,” the Painted Knife said, and there were nods all around.

I caught the Royal Conjurer’s eye, cocking an eyebrow in question, but the tanned old man discreetly shook his head. No need for a separate talk between us, then.

“Good, it will simplify matters,” I said. “Messengers will be sent to you rooms to inform you of when the council will take place.”

I paused for a moment.

“Water’s rationed in the Arsenal, but feel free to ask to be drawn a hot bath anyway,” I said. “Under my authority, if need be,”

Groans of anticipatory pleasure were my answer.

“Many are temptations of Evil,” the Relentless Magistrate gravely said.

His tone was serious, but the slight quirk of his lips gave the humour away.

“I assure you,” the Poisoner said, “evil paid much better than the Grand Alliance.”

Fair, I admitted even as the band let out the kind of small chuckles a fond but worn joke would get after a few months or a year of being bandied about. Exhausted as they were, we didn’t linger around for small talk.

Ultimately my pride was my downfall, as I decided that asking Masego to levitate me over those fucking stairs would be too undignified.

I’d either overestimated how full Cordelia Hasenbach’s schedule was or I’d underestimated how much she wanted to hear the report from the Painted Knife’s band, because as soon as an hour past Noon Bell our little council was seated in one of the  formal halls of the Arsenal.

We’d kept the numbers relatively low, since this was unlikely to be the sort of thing we wanted spread around and numbers were always the death of secrecy. There were three seats filled as a given – mine, Hanno’s and Hasenbach’s – but after that it’d been on strict basis of need. Vivienne, while tired and fresh off her own travels, was my heiress-designate so she’d naturally been brought in. Masego was as well, as my advisor on sorcery and the eldritch, and he’d not even needed to be talked into it. Hierophant had no interest in politics, but he’d always been like a magpie when it came to secrets. Hanno had brought in Roland and the Blessed Artificer, both of which had been hard to argue with. The Rogue Sorcerer was a generalist, when it came to magic, and Adanna of Smyrna understood Light in ways few others could.

I was pretty sure that the only reason she and Masego weren’t trying to stare each other down was that the Artificer knew he didn’t blink.

The First Prince had brought in Frederic, and I’d had a hard time placing why at first. The Prince of Brus was popular and a Hasenbach loyalist, but he wasn’t exactly in the running for the throne even if she stepped down from it. Malanza was all but certain to get the chair, if it came to that. I liked Frederic, our little affair aside, but as far as I knew he didn’t bring much to the table. Except, I realized after a moment, security. He was a Named that the First Prince knew would be on her side, if anything went wrong in this room where no guards would be allowed in. Given that he was a prince it was hard to argue with his presence, regardless, and one might argue that anyhow I’d already put my faith in the… discretion of the Kingfisher Prince. Hasenbach’s other seat had been given to a middle-aged man by the name of Alvaro Corrales, who was introduced as a scholar and one of her secretaries.

He’d be taking the formal notes for the session, though Vivienne would be taking notes for my side as well.

Since Lord Yannu Marave had yet to arrive, the Dominion would go without a representative today. It wasn’t ideal, but to be honest there simply wasn’t anyone high-ranking enough from Levant on the premises. Anyone brought in – one of the few captains, most likely – would be lost for most of the conversation and require access to several more well-kept secrets just to understand most of what was going on. It wasn’t going to be happening, Hasenbach and I had agreed. We’d keep the Painted Knife and her band here long enough that the Lord of Alava could hear the same report we had, if a little later, and maybe offer a polite apology for the haste. Not a very sincere one, though. No one had been particularly inclined to delay until Marave got here, given the potential importance of the report and how long we’d been waiting for it. Sparse small talk was had as a courtesy for the short while we waited after the coming Named, but it’d barely gotten past greetings by the time the five were brought in.

A few hours of rest had visibly done them some good, I thought. Months on the road couldn’t be cured with a catnap, but at least it’d taken the edge off and allowed them to change into clean clothes. By habit my eye sought weapons and found none, not that Named could ever truly be harmless. After the attendants escorted them down to the lower table – ours was up on platform, in a bit of pageantry – and the Painted Knife offered greetings for the band as a whole. Hasenbach took the lead in answering, even as I studied the five Named. The Poisoner looked uncomfortable, which was only to be expected since she’d once accepted a tidy sum to kill the First Prince even if she’d ultimately failed, but that the Relentless Magistrate looked the same caught my attention.

Whatever it was they’d found, it didn’t sit well with the man.

“- if my fellow high officers have no objection?”

I’d kept half an ear on the talk, so I wasn’t caught unawares. Cordelia was trying to move this along.

“None,” I said.

“Agreed,” Hanno replied.

The Painted Knife breathed out, and I wondered how much nervousness the thick face paint was actually hiding. The people in this room, the people she’d be addressing, were not without power or influence in the wider world.

“The mandate given us by the White Knight and the Black Queen was to find the truth of what took place long ago in the place known as the Verdant Hollow,” Kallia of the Knife’s Blood began.

It was Neshamah himself, during the conference in Salia, who’d suggested we should look into a place where the first Grey Pilgrim would have ‘slain many men’. Paired with the insinuation that we owed Kairos Theodosian all our lives and that the Wandering Bard had been playing us for fools, it’d warranted investigation. Tariq himself had known of the existence of the hidden valley, this Verdant Hollow, and even negotiated with the Holy Seljun on our behalf to access the records of the secret records Isbili when it turned out that the White Knight could not see a single thing that’d taken place within the valley grounds through his aspect. After a look through the records the band of five had chased after the trail like bloodhounds, but I’d heard very little of how they’d gone about it.

“We first tried the Verdant Hollow ourselves, using sorcery to try to bring forth a shade from those ancient days,” the Painted Knife said. “It did not succeed.”

She glanced at the Royal Conjurer, who cleared his throat and asked for permission to speak.

“Granted,” I said.

“Old battlefields and sites of slaughter usually have stray spirits even when shades have faded, as the former often feed on the latter,” the old man said, offering a grandfatherly smile. “There was not a trace of either, however, and my attempts to conjure up the dead failed in a manner that can only be called absolute.”

At my left, I saw Masego lean forward in his seat.

Tabula rasa?” Hierophant asked.

The wrinkled old mage nodded.

“Indeed, Lord Hierophant,” he replied. “I drew the obvious conclusion.”

“Angelic intervention,” Roland said, voice quiet and troubled.

I sagely nodded, as if I’d known that all along. Although, the tabula rasa thing did vaguely ring a bell. Akua had once mentioned that the touch of angels on Creation tended to ‘renew’ the fabric of the Pattern, often erasing old damage, which was why even though Callow had been subjected to more than a few rituals it wasn’t up to its neck in fae and devils all the time. Still, this was hardly a great revelation. If the first Pilgrim had called on an angel to tip the scales against a villain, it wasn’t exactly unprecedented.

“It was clear there would be no shortcut, so we followed our other lead,” Kallia of the Knife’s Blood said. “The records of the Pilgrim’s Blood spoke of survivors that fled north, into the Alavan hills, carrying wounded with them. We looked for graves along that path, combing the countryside.”

A sideways look at the Grizzled Fantassin saw the older woman salute – towards Cordelia in particular, I noted – and speak out in a cadenced tone I recognized from my own years on campaign.

“There weren’t any Dominion graves, Your Highness, but I recognized old markers in the tradition of the southern companies,” she said. “It was my kind that got butchered in that valley, and they buried their own as best they could while running away.”

I’d not guessed it would be fantassins that’d gotten killed by the first Pilgrim, but that it would be Procerans had been something of a given. The founders of the Blood, immortalized in the epic poetry of the Anthem of Smoke, had been rebels against Proceran occupation.

“We attempted to summon forth the spirits form the graves, but there was a complication,” the Painted Knife said.

“Someone had beaten us to it,” the Royal Conjurer said, sounding amused. “Necromancy had already been used there, and recently.”

“How recently?” Masego asked. “For how many corpses?”

“A month, five corpses,” the old Helikean mage replied.

Zeze scoffed, and I let out a low whistle myself.

“That’s a hell of a bleed,” I said.

From the corner of my eye I saw Roland lean to the side to explain to the First Prince in a whisper what I’d learned from my own lessons in the Art. Usually the turn of the moon dispersed weak magical residue, so for it to still have been detectable after a month when there’d only been five corpses to raise meant that the caster had grossly overcast their spell. Usually either the mark of the incompetent and ignorant – Masego’s own conclusion, obviously – or of people with a lot of power but little control.

“Fortunately, we were able to track the risen dead through the gift Bestowed upon of one of our own,” the Painted Knife said.

The Relentless Magistrate, who I could not help but not had yet to shave, rose to offer us all a stiff bow.

“We followed the trail to a fishing village south of Malaga before it went cold,” the man said, his strong Alamans accent showing even when speaking Chantant. “Upon investigation, Your Highness and Majesty, it turned out that villages in the region all had a few missing individuals. While the locals were disinclined to answer the questions of a Proceran magistrate, Lady Kallia’s stature as one of the Blood bridged the gap and we figured out the common link was access to boats.”

My brow rose.

“The Royal Conjurer and my humble self meanwhile found out that graves were being robbed in the area,” the Poisoner tittered. “Which painted a damning picture, yes?”

Considering I’d heard that poisonous things tended to grow around Dominion barrows, I decided not to ask exactly what they’d been doing when finding that out.

“When another young man was abducted we followed,” the Painted Knife said, “and after borrowing a boat and sailing across the Pond we made shore south of the Brocelian.”

Which was, from what I recalled, one of the last largely unexplored stretches of Calernia by virtue of most people going into it dying ugly deaths. Ventures in there were profitable if you could handle yourself, though, given the amount of magical creatures and rare resources. The city of Tartessos should be an impoverished hole in the ground, going by simple geography, but trading in Brocelian goods had instead made it one of the great cities of Levant.

“Didn’t even get to find our way before we got ambushed by undead,” the Grizzled Fantassin sighed. “Although that was still better than the damned boat reeking of fish.”

“It was clear we were on the right path, if the enemy was attempting to obstruct us,” the Relentless Magistrate smiled, a small slice of teeth and malice.

“The Brocelian is not a forest to be tried without preparations,” Hanno said. “Did you seek a guide?”

“One of the ambushers was a living man,” the Painted Knife said. “And though terrified of his ‘master’ he agreed to serve as our guide after some convincing.”

The Poisoner tittered, smiling girlishly.

“It is easier to bargain when one has the only antidote to be found for a thousand miles,” she said.

That’d been an impressively creepy titter, I mulled to myself. The woman was talented.

“Ten silvers it was some Named undead trying to gather an army on the sly,” I muttered under my breath.

“I will take that,” Masego decided. “No one with that much bleed could possibly be competent enough to lead an army.”

Ha, the sucker. Although it’d better not come out of the Arsenal budget, since that’d just be cycling my own coin around.

“Twenty it was trying to take over Levant,” Vivienne offered under her own breath.

The White Knight turned a steady gaze onto us, and I felt vaguely ashamed at having been caught betting on this.

“I’ll take the bet on the twenty,” Hanno softly said, leaning towards us. “And thirty it has Barrow in the Name.”

It was probably some sort of heresy to gamble with the White Knight, I thought, but then I had been Arch-heretic of the East. They couldn’t reasonably expect me not to dabble at least a little.

“I’ll take that bet,” I snorted. “We’ve already got a Barrow Sword, the Gods Below wouldn’t be that uninspired.”

“It’s Levant,” Hanno drily replied, “there’s always a barrow involved somehow.”

A few gazes had turned towards us at the continued whispers, so I painted a solemn look onto my face. It’d been a serious, professional conversation we’d be having and there was no reason to even suspect otherwise.

“We pushed on into the woods, meeting little opposition as we went,” the Painted Knife said.

“About a hundred zombies and just the most horrid manticore,” the Grizzled Fantassin corrected.

“It was unusually unpleasant even by manticore standards,” the Royal Conjurer agreed.

“We then found an army of the dead being gathered in the depths of the Brocelian, thousands of corpses being armed in the shade of the trees,” the Painted Knife continued.

I cocked an eyebrow at Masego who looked mightily disgruntled at the revelation. Ten silvers for me, that was.

“We knocked out the prisoner and infiltrated the camp, where we learned that it was one of the Bestowed who was gathering a host,” Kallia of the Knife’s Blood said. “Though long dead, it had once been of the Tanja and wanted to claim rule of Malaga once more – Lord Razin Tanja was only titled through a loophole, it argued, and so it would rise the same.”

It made me feel a little dirty inside to refer to Praes laws on anything, but for once the Dread Empire might just be the leading light there: it had pretty strict laws cutting out the undead of both inheritance and holding titles at all. It’d only taken like three civil wars to get there, too, which by Praesi standards was basically unanimous consent. Hanno glanced at Vivienne, who was to embarrassed to curse in front of the Sword of Judgement but looked like she very much wanted to. Malaga wasn’t all of Levant, after all.

“He had proclaimed himself to be lord of the dead,” the Relentless Magistrate said, sounding offended by the pretension.

“She,” the Poisoner corrected.

“They named themselves the Barrow Lord,” the Painted Knife cut in.

I cursed in Kharsum, which drew some gazes. Including the First Prince’s. Really, Below? That was why Good kept winning, because they were such shits about it all. Now the White Knight was the one who’d won the most out of this whole blasphemous sidebar, and let that be a lesson: Above would always win so long as Below wasn’t willing to spring for some proper Names. Barrow Lord, I scathingly thought. They might as well have just named the poor bastard ‘Grave Noble’, it was about as clever in the greater scheme of things. People were still looking at me, so I cleared my throat.

“I grieve for the people of Levant,” I said, which strictly speaking wasn’t a lie.

“I thank you for your kindness,” the Painted Knife said, sounding surprised. “But the five of us were able to defeat the old dead. Though it refused to rest even when broken, the Poisoner was able to find a way to destroy it.”

“Manticore venom is a powerful acid, when mixed with blood and rhododendron,” the Poisoner smiled.

Well, that was an image. Masego and Roland both looked interested but were aware enough not to indulge their curiosity just now.

“And the corpses you had come there to find?” the First Prince calmly asked.

“We had destroyed several without knowing it,” the Painted Knife admitted, “but the fifth made itself known.”

“It proclaimed itself the new Barrow Lord,” the Grizzled Fantassin snorted. “Which several other undead saw fit to argue with. It was all very Highest Ass-”

The older woman paled.

“-League of Free Cities,” she hastily corrected, glancing sideways at the First Prince of Procer.

I was rather amused she did not so much as glance at Frederic, who was a sitting member of the Assembly as well.

“You captured your corpse, however, I take it?” Hanno asked.

Subtle laughter rippled through most of the band.

“I arrested him,” the Relentless Magistrate defiantly said. “For false arrogation of noble title, which is a crime under Proceran law.”

I choked at the bold assertion and was not alone in my surprise.

“Dead or not, he was a Proceran subject,” the man insisted.

I was a little disturbed to see that Cordelia Hasenbach was beaming down at him, or at least as close to that as her face would allow.

“Is it actually illegal to be undead under Proceran law?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“It would fall under the heresy laws, in most cases,” the First Prince told me. “Though in the four northern principalities undeath is considered high treason and acted upon as such.”

“It’s illegal for undead to do manual labour under the Accords, by the latest draft,” Vivienne noted.

“We’re going to need to make sure I don’t accidentally qualify under the wording, given how often I’ve died,” I told her under my breath.

“The ancient dead was convinced to surrender to the authority of the magistrate,” the Painted Knife said. “After some aggressive persuasion. And after we ran away with him tied to the Grizzled Fantassin’s back, we finally had our answers.”

That caught everyone’s attention.

“The mercenary companies were led by the White Knight of the time, a woman of Procer,” Kallia of the Knife’s Blood said, “and had been hunting the Grey Pilgrim for some time. They caught up to him and his fellow rebels in the Verdant Hollow.”

Wait, it was a heroine he’d been fighting? I’d known that in the past the Principate had fielded the occasional hero when taking a swing at its neighbours, but I’d not expected a damned White Knight to end up serving as a bloodhound for insurgents. By the look on Hanno’s face, he was less than happy to hear this but not outright surprised. I supposed he’d seen too many of the lives of his predecessors to hold any illusions about their infallibility.

“The fight went in the favour of the Pilgrim,” the Painted Knife said. “Yet the White Knight would not have it. When defeat seemed to be looming, she called on the help of a Choir.”

Oh, fuck. I did not like where this was headed. I did not like it at all.

“Which one?” Hanno calmly asked.

“Mercy,” the Relentless Magistrate quietly said. “I… glimpsed, and it must have been Mercy.”

Considering how brutal Tariq could get in the pursuit of greater goods, I could actually believe the ancient White Knight had been backed by the Ophanim in her quest. Suppress the rebellion and reform from the inside, maybe? It was an uncomfortably familiar refrain, and it might just be I was painting my own history on a blank canvas there. But she’d led fantassins instead of regulars, so perhaps it had been unkind to assume she’d been with the rapacious princes occupying Levant back then.

“And what happened after that?”

“Angels came,” Kallia of the Knife’s Blood said. “But a woman stepped in, and then the angels left.”

Chapter 34: Quickening

“If you want something done right, steal it from someone who did.”
– Dread Emperor Malevolent I, the Unhallowed

I’d become unfortunately familiar with a certain feeling over the years that was hard to describe, at least in Lower Miezan.

It was that mixture of relief and wincing that came from looking at a debacle but knowing at least it wasn’t a catastrophe. Like if you came back one evening to find your barn was on fire, but at leas the livestock wasn’t in it. I’d told Akua this, once, after one too many times looking at the near wipe of a forward patrol that’d still caught a probe from Keter before it could do damage, and she’d answered with amusement that there was in fact an expression in Mthethwa for it. Kutofa ushidi, which more or less translated to ‘victory in failure’. It was a recurring theme in Praesi plays, particularly their comedies, with the traditional protagonist of those being Dread Emperor Baneful – who’d never actually been emperor, only one of the claimants during the War of Thirteen Tyrants and One. He was notable mostly for somehow having managed to hang on until nearly the end with only a string of mitigated defeats to his name.

Akua could actually quote some passages from one of the more famous plays, The Long Road to Ater, and it’d been as endearing as it had been surreal to hear her chortle about Baneful accidentally poisoning his cousin instead of his husband – only to later find out that she’d been about to betray him. He had, Akua had gleefully explained, avoided his own assassination but only at the price of a feud with his distinctly unimpressed warlock brother-in-law, who promptly cursed him. Any play with that much murder in it would probably have been a tragedy instead, in Callow. Except if it were foreigners doing the dying. Which was why I had rather mixed feelings, looking at the mutilated White Knight and the bloodied, unconscious body of the Mirror Knight. The Severance had been returned to the sheath and was now in Hanno’s hands, but there was less of those than there used to be.

Three fingers lost on his right hand, though at least he’d kept the thumb and index. He’d still be able to write with it even as he waited for a prosthetic, though I did believe he was ambidextrous regardless.

“You might say that,” the White Knight serenely replied.

Not quite so serene he was able to hide how he was trying not to put too much weight on his knees, gingerly shifting his footing. Though the cracked stone floor and the lack of cuts spoke to an overwhelming victory by Hanno of Arwad, I suspected it’d been a closer thing than it seemed. How many bones had he cracked just by hitting the other man? If the Mirror Knight had not fallen unconscious, it would have been the beginning of a downwards slide for the Sword of Judgement: I knew for a fact that his healing was shoddy, and not without adverse effects. Mind you, I thought as I pulled at my pipe and eyed Christophe de Pavanie’s blatantly broken nose, he’d still won. And without using a blade, by the looks of it, which was impressive. You were making a statement, I thought, studying him openly. That you can handle him on your own, and so there is no need for anyone to step in.

It was about three fingers too late for that.

Indrani, who’d been at my back this whole time, let out a low whistle.

“Nice scrap,” she praised. “But you missed a spot.”

The way she trailed a finger across her throat while looking at the Mirror Knight made it clear what she meant by that. I didn’t correct her, or indeed say anything at all, simply watching Hanno. I’d be a grave misstep for me to have even the slightest and most indirect of hands in the death of Christophe de Pavanie, as even the appearance of my involvement with the killing of a heroic opponent of mine would blow up in my face like a crate of sharpers. If the White Knight was the one who took his head, though, that was a different story. While an argument could be made that the Mirror Knight was simply too useful and powerful a Named to execute, I was lukewarm to the prospect of keeping the man alive. Part of that was that he was a very direct threat to me, but there was also the fact that he’d just fucking cut up the representative for the heroes under the Terms.

The White Knight hadn’t said anything, but after days at Hakram’s bedside I was painfully familiar with what cuts made by the Severance looked like.

“The Mirror Knight breached the Terms,” Hanno said, ignoring Indrani outright and looking straight at me. “But he has been subdued without lasting harm being done. I will now take him into custody, if you have no objection.”

I spewed out a stream of smoke, watching it spin and writhe before me. I didn’t want – and couldn’t afford – my hands on any of this, but I balked at simply leaving the Mirror Knight in a cell without further supervision than what Hanno might judge fit to provide. On the other hand, what were my alternatives? I couldn’t put him under a guard of my own without it looking like a villain had taken a hero prisoner and I sure as Hells wasn’t going to leave him loose in the Arsenal. Besides, the White Knight might have asked if I had objections but he wasn’t simply going to do whatever I asked. He’d listen to any grievances I had and try to address them, but Hanno wasn’t going to roll over something like this and I had little appetite for picking a fight. I still tapped the side of my own hand, where the dark-skinned hero was now missing fingers.

“That requires consequences,” I warned. “And do not expect to find much mercy in me.”

Or Hasenbach, for that matter, I thought. The First Prince would have taken it a greater victory to bring the Mirror Knight to her way of seeing things than to quell him, until now, but this little episode would change things. The baggage he’d be bringing with him when going under her wing would begin outweighing his uses, to such a canny princess’ eyes: anything he did after becoming an ally would reflect on her, and her position was too delicate to be able to afford much bumbling. Considering I spoke for Callow as well as Below’s lot and the Dominion had little reason to be fond of the Mirror Knight, that boded ill for the man in question. Hanno would be the one to pass the sentence, in the end, but the White Knight no more operated in a vacuum than I did.

Hanno did not blink in the face of my stare, unmoved.

“The Terms will be upheld,” the White Knight answered. “I will not let intentions excuse actions.”

But, I thought, for though his eyes were calm they had hardened.

“But make no mistake, Catherine,” the Sword of Judgement continued. “I will not sacrifice a good man for the sake of convenience. The Terms constrain, but they also protect.”

“At three fingers the chance taken on a fool, you’ll run out of one long before the other,” Archer sardonically said.

Well, she wasn’t wrong. I breathed in a mouthful of wakeleaf, savouring the burn I’d not allowed myself to indulge in when sharing a room with the First Prince out of politeness. Through flickering lights, rows of soldiers on both sides awaiting only my command to bare steel, I watched the White Knight. Even without armour, even without either of the swords on him having left their scabbards, he felt dangerous. Not like a blade at my throat, for there was not a speck of hostility in his stance, but like a sharp stone under water. It didn’t look like much until you tried to step on it, and by the time you felt the pain it was already too late. I’d trust him, I decided, at least for tonight. He had yet to disappoint me, and I’d not break that streak by forcing a fight that was not necessary. I hoped it would never be. But if it ever were, I would pick my grounds better than this.

I spat out the smoke, making my choice.

“I won’t war over what might be,” I said. “Take him, Hanno. But don’t forget how many eyes are on you, either.”

He inclined his head the slightest bit, not in concession but in acknowledgement.

“Have the Severance back in its room before night’s over,” I said, and it was not a suggestion.

On that I left him to his bloodied and bloody fool, Archer offering a singsong and almost taunting good night, and limped back to the ranks of my legionaries. They closed behind me seamlessly and I took aside the commanding officer long enough to order a line be sent to escort the White Knight as he carried the other Named to his holding cell. Some Proceran soldiers, I saw, were missing.

Cordelia would be getting a report soon enough, and tomorrow would bring consequences for all.

I woke up around what would have been dawn, were we still in Creation.

For all the weight of what had taken place yesterday – as much my conversations with the First Prince as the Mirror Knight’s beating and imprisonment – I found relatively little to do when I woke. I broke my fast quickly and retreated to Hakram’s room in the infirmary to see to what few affairs I had. I penned a recommendation to the First Army’s general staff for Lieutenant Inger to be promoted to captain, for her exemplary service when commanding against a demon, knowing it’d likely end up on Juniper’s desk. The First Army had been gutted to fill all sorts of needs, from garrisoning the Arsenal to organizing training camps and providing escorts for supply trains, which my marshal had been less than pleased by. It’d still been the natural pick, even she had admitted that, considering that Juniper still couldn’t work for more than a few hours a day without having… episodes.

Malicia had a lot to answer for. Tariq had seen to my old friend personally and assured me that eventually the damage that’d been done to her mind by the Empress’ planted controls would mend itself, but that it would take time. The Hellhound still got more done in a slice of a day than most people did with a full one, and had violently resisted the notion of resting more fully even though it’d accelerate her recovery, but these days she was forced to rely on her general staff too much for the First to be a functional battlefield command. I could have named someone else to serve as general under her and lead on the field, but why offer that insult when I had need of soldiers for all sorts of detached duties? At this point even if tomorrow she was healed her soldiers would still be more useful in their current assignments, so it’d change nothing. Mind you, if we were to assault northern Hainaut come summer I’d want her to be part of the planning so she might have to leave her staff behind for a bit. Aisha would be politely furious at me for making her travel, but there was no helping it.

I saw to some minor correspondence after that, the sort that seemed to accrue like dust wherever I stayed for more than a day, and wrote a formal request for the Arsenal to begin working on prosthetics for Adjutant. I’d already gone to the Named directly and found both the Blind Maker and the Hunted Magician highly amenable – the latter in particular, since he wanted to buy his way back into my good graces – but it would be easier to shake loose rare substances if this was made formal. As Queen of Callow I had no problem paying for any of this from my treasury, but a lot of the more precious materials in the Arsenal were bought through the Grand Alliance instead of anyone’s personal agents. It was half past Morning Bell that Archer strolled in to tell me of the day’s first arrival, which I’d been expecting for some time: Vivienne was, at last, about to get here.

To my surprise, Masego had roused himself to welcome her in person as well. The three of us set out together, which drew eyes enough as we made our way through the halls. The Woe had something of a reputation.

“I’m glad you made time for this,” I told Zeze. “It’s been a while since you’ve seen her, right?”

“We scried a fortnight ago,” Masego contradicted.

He was, I supposed, technically correct. He usually was, especially so when it was most annoying for everyone else.

“In person, I mean,” I specified.

I’d not seen Vivienne in person for… a little over a year, now? There’d been that conference in the Brabantine heartlands last winter, when I’d gone down in person to hasten along the negotiations over how the refugees were to be settled – the new Prince of Lyonis had been pushing for forced conscription of all those of fighting age, which would have been a disaster – when she’d sent word the process was being stalled. In all fairness, the Procerans hadn’t even been the most obstructive people in that conference. That honour had belonged to the delegates for the Dominion, who’d been trying to argue that the mass of displaced were an issue of the Principate alone and not worth discussion by the Grand Alliance at all.

We’d been in the same small city, Malben, for about a week before I returned north to prepare for the offensive. We’d spent a few hours together on several evenings, aside from the time duty ensured we’d spend side by side, but in truth we’d simply been too damned busy to spend much time together. She just as much as I, which not that many people could claim.  I’d effectively dropped all Callowan affairs and foreign diplomacy into Vivienne’s lap, and while she’d taken to both admirably in tidier times both those duties would have warranted different appointments by sheer virtue of the work they represented. There was a reason that her personal staff had swelled by more than a dozen times over but I’d never once balked at signing onto the costs involved.

“Under those terms, it has been seventeen months,” Hierophant replied. “Not since her official visit to the Arsenal.”

“She actually likes the place, unlike some,” Indrani said, glancing at me sideways. “Mind you, that might just be the Thief in her salivating at so much nifty stuff being kept in the same place.”

“Vivienne would not steal from the Arsenal,” Masego firmly said.

Aw, I thought, looking at him fondly. The faith there was a little touching.

“Given the authority Catherine has granted her, it would only count as a requisition,” Hierophant told us.

A little less touching now, admittedly. Indrani snickered.

“Don’t Procerans have a saying about thieves and crowns?” she said.

“Petty thieves hang, the great wear crowns,” I quoted in Chantant.

Archer grinned at me.

“Give it a few years,” she said, “and we’ll proving that true.”

I snorted, mildly amused. I’d never made a mystery of my intention to abdicate in favour of Vivienne after the war, at least not among the Woe – though it wasn’t common knowledge outside them, to this day. It’d been with a mixture of pleasure and irritation that I’d realized that few of them actually cared. Archer was largely indifferent to crowns, and I suspected she fully intended on continuing send up bills to the royal palace even after it became Viv’s, while Masego had actually been pleased. It’d give me more time to help him with a few things, he’d been happy to tell me. We’d never made a proper study of Night, and since I’d have no use for all that power I wielded he did have a few projects that could use the fuel… At least it’d not been too difficult to talk him into setting up shop at Cardinal when it was raised, which as a side-benefit ensured Indrani would have a permanent anchor there no matter where the wind ended up taking her.

“I’m still glad you made time,” I told Zeze. “Unlike some here, you’re actually busy.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Cat,” Indrani blithely said, “I’m sure that whole queen thing will pay off eventually.”

“It pays for you, sullen wench,” I grunted back. “Though I’m beginning to question the wisdom of that.”

“I’ve never bought a drop of anything with Grand Alliance gold,” she righteously assured me.

I raised an eyebrow. Did she really expect I’d fall for that?

“How about silver?” I pointedly asked.

A heartbeat of silence passed.

“Zeze’s only here because he accidentally broke his spheres bothering elves,” Archer said, shamelessly selling him out without even a speck of hesitation.

I mouthed at her she was not yet out of the woods, then turned a cocked brow to Masego.

“I made the spheres,” Hierophant told me, a tad smugly. “And the spell that broke them. Therefore I did, in a sense, make time.”

Huh. I’d be damned. Compared to his usual brand of sneakiness, that was positively devious. I was inclined to blame Roland for this. The Rogue Sorcerer was pretty tricky sort, for a man who went around in a leather coat shooting fire at people.

“You’re spending too much time with Alamans,” I told him.

“The only thing you should listen to them about is the kissing,” Indrani agreed.

I shot her an amused look. Having recently basked in the luxury of displays of affections from her partner, it looked like she wasn’t willing lose the goods quite to soon. The braided mage cocked his head to the side.

“But it was from two of you I learned to dissemble,” Masego said, looking puzzled.

I swallowed a startled noise that was as appalled as it had been amused, because he’d been completely earnest about that. It was truly his most dangerous magic, I thought, that damned disarming earnestness.

“Catherine’s a bad influence,” Indrani told him. “The Grey Pilgrim said so that once, and that’s basically just like angels saying it.”

“Hear that?” I said, and allowed for a moment of silence. “That’s the sound of your discretionary funds getting audited, Archer.”

Naturally, she called me a brutal tyrant and the three of us managed to keep bickering all the way to the plaza where Vivienne would be translating in. Gods, but it was good to be home. It wasn’t the same with just Indrani or Hakram, though they tried. We’d simply gone through too many crucibles as a band of five for it to ever feel truly complete without all of the Woe there. Not that we would be, even when Vivienne got here. Adjutant had yet to wake. With that thought dampening what had been a rising mood, I found myself limping down the same bloody set of stairs for what felt like the hundredth time. Wasn’t there another access point without quite so many of those?

“It should all be slopes,” I muttered under my breath. “Nice, gentle slopes.”

The murderholes, siege engines and well-armed soldiers could stay, though. Those were always a good investment, in my experience. Indrani pretended she hadn’t heard me, hiding her smile in her scarf, and the three of us settled at the bottom to wait for Vivienne. It would have been convenient for her to arrive immediately, but instead it took long enough we ended up playing dice on the floor to make the wait tolerable. Masego cheated with sorcery borrowed from one of the silver trinkets in his braids, but that was fine: they were Indrani’s dice anyway, so they were loaded, and I’d yet to throw them without first weaving an illusion guaranteeing me the numbers I wanted.

Lady Vivienne Dartwick, heiress-designate to the crown of the Kingdom of Callow, arrived to the sadly not unprecedented sight of the Archer threatening to rise in rebellion if I didn’t stop abusing my powers to make her roll snake eyes – only to then roll another pair, as Masego was evidently finding her anger quite amusing and wasn’t above using an aspect for petty indulgence.

“This is Grand Alliance property, you filthy gambling vagrants,” Vivienne called out. “I’ll have you tossed out.”

The four mages that’d made the translation with her looked terrified, at least until I began laughing.

“She’s cheating, too,” Indrani complained. “It is a sad day indeed for the House of Foundling, that its head would resort to such sordid treachery.”

“We were all cheating,” Masego happily said, “you were simply the worst at it.”

An offended squawk was his answer and I left them to it, instead turning to have a better look at my friend. I was struck, once more, with how little she now resembled the woman I’d first met in Summerholm all those years ago. In principle not much had changed: her hair was still dark brown, her eyes that pleasant blue-grey tone and her slender frame had yet to thicken. The hair was even longer than when I’d last seen her, and as was her habit kept in a milkmaid braid that evoked a crown, but it was the little details that made all the difference. She’d aged, not by much but enough that her face had grown mature. And though she was visibly tired, even in her blue riding dress and trousers there was a lightness to her that was the burning opposite of the anger she’d carried with her everywhere during her eyes as the Thief.

Losing her Name had been good for her in a lot of ways.

I limped up to her, leaning on my staff, and she met me halfway. I pulled her in close for a hug, enjoying how she was one of the few people close enough to me in height it felt like there was little difference there. Her grip was firm when she returned the embrace, and I noted with approval she’d kept in shape. Just because she’d traded the respectable form of theft that was burglary on rooftops for the organized form of theft that was taxation from a palace was no reason to let herself go. Mind you, Vivienne had always been whip-lean in a way that was from breeding as much as an active nightlife of skulking through alleys.

“Catherine,” she smiled, after drawing back. “It’s good to see you.”

It’d been a while since I’d last felt pangs of attraction towards Vivienne, but now and then when she smiled like that I remembered why I’d felt them. It was a done thing, but not unsweet to look back on for all that it’d been entirely one-sided.

“And you,” I replied. “Would that you could have gotten here sooner. I heard something about rains?”

She nodded.

“They flooded the roads,” Vivienne said. “There were levees but they broke – no plot there, simply gone unrepaired for too long.”

I grimaced. I doubted it’d be the only place where something like that had happened. Considering the dark picture that Hasenbach and Frederic had painted for me on the state of the Principate, I suspected that a truly staggering amount of maintenance work must have gone undone because there were more pressing needs to fill.

“We’ll have our fill of plotting in here anyway, I think,” I sighed. “Things had been moving quickly enough in here that I suspect even you won’t have heard all of it.”

The Jacks had people in the Arsenal, naturally, as did the Circle of Thorns. The Dominion did not have designated spies so much as captains sending regular reports, which was perhaps not too surprising – it was a lot less centralized than either Callow or Procer, and if I’d learned anything about spies since becoming queen it was that they cost a lot of fucking money. A lot more than, say, one of the major Levantine lords would be able to afford tossing into such an enterprise if they didn’t want to fall behind their neighbours when it came to fielding soldiers. The Old Kingdom hadn’t been all that different, even though the Fairfaxes hadn’t been the largely symbolic leaders the Isbili still were. Nowadays we could afford the Jacks in part because nobility wasn’t there to drain the pot anymore, so to speak. Callow hadn’t gotten much richer, but a lot of more of its gold ended up in the royal treasury than before.

“I’ve no difficulty believing that,” Vivienne grimly replied.

We parted ways entirely just in time for Indrani to squeeze in between us, throwing out her arms around our shoulders.

“Vivi,” she grinned. “Long time no see.”

The former thief snorted.

“Last time you gave me that grin it was after emptying my liquor cabinet,” Vivienne said. “Though I’ll admit it was a nice touch to fill the bottles back up with water.”

“A lot harder than you’d think, too,” Archer cheerfully said. “Especially considering how drunk I got from drinking all your liquor.”

Masego’s long fingers were laid on Indrani’s shoulders and he gently moved her aside, freeing Vivienne at the price of leaving me stuck with a pouting Archer. Hierophant offered her a smile and, as ‘Drani and I watched expectantly, bent down to kiss Vivienne’s cheeks one after the other. She froze, not answering even when Masego welcomed her to the Arsenal. The flabbergasted look on my fellow Callowan’s face had been well worth the wait, I decided. She threw Indrani a confused and almost pleading look, which Archer answered with her usual shit-eating grin. She turned towards me after, perhaps expecting a greater degree of helpfulness coming from there.

“Zeze’s been rubbing elbows with Alamans,” I sagely said.

Which explained the kissing, at least, though the initiative to start doing it was all him.

“People keep repeating variations on that sentence,” Masego said, sounding peeved. “As if it were some sort of conversational panacea. Shall I obtain such an elbow and carry it around so that I can behave outlandishly without facing questions?”

“There’s probably a few still lying around the Graveyard,” Indrani mused. “Couldn’t be that hard to get our hands on one.”

“I see that in some ways remarkably little has changed,” Vivienne drily said, catching my eye.

I shrugged, offering her a small grin. If her days were anything like mine, and they most likely were, then this… lightness must be a balm on the soul. After hours of deciding life and death for thousands, of making ugly compromises and closing your eye to small evils, there was nothing quite like ribbing and idle talk with people you loved to remind yourself you were alive. A person, too, not just a collection of necessary decisions given a frame to inhabit. The four mages that’d translated with Vivienne had given us a wide berth, accurately guessing that the reunion of four of the Woe wasn’t something to just stand around listening to, but she left us for a bit to thank them and request that she be informed when her personal affairs arrived. She’d come with several wagons, apparently, and only pulled ahead of them and her entourage when it came to crossing into the Arsenal itself. Zeze and Indrani took the lead in going up the stairs, leaving us behind in a conversation that was unlikely to be of much interest to either.

“We’ve got lots around the corner,” I told her as we began our way up. “And it’ll be coming at us quick.”

“The trials, for one,” Vivienne agreed.

She’d know about two, the Red Axe and the Hunted Magician, but there might be a third on the horizon she wouldn’t have heard about. Whether the Mirror Knight would end up before a tribunal or not I couldn’t be sure, but I suspected he would. Hanno would want the Grand Alliance to have the opportunity to speak, if not sentence.

“The war council, too, which will start when Lord Marave gets here,” I said.

She nodded.

“I take it the First Prince has spoken to you on the subject of the Mercantis troubles as well?” my heiress asked.

“She did. Their envoys due here in a few days, Hasenbach and I are to dazzle and scare them so they continue coughing up coin,” I replied. “You heard about the Gigantes?”

“The Arsenal seemed like the natural location to entertain their envoy, this Ykines,” she confirmed. “Considering they requested the White Knight personally it was almost a given it would have to happen now, before the two of you return to the front.”

“I’ve limited hopes there, but even their scraps would be damnably useful,” I said. “Talked about them with the White Knight, he has good insight. Hard to say when they’ll get there, but I’m betting after the trials.”

“Quite a few weeks,” Vivienne drily said. “And to think we used to have the occasional restful month, you and I, where there was no especially urgent fire to put out.”

“A lot more ground to cover these days,” I mused, “and a lot more fires with it. There’s also a last thing, now that I think of it, which ought to be soon-”

Behind us sorcery roiled as another translation into the Arsenal began. Ah, of course Creation would deign indulge me now. A moment later the Painted Knife and her band of five passed through the gate, bringing with them a secret the Dead King believed would chill our blood.

Well, I supposed it’d make something to chat about over lunch.

Interlude: Epitomes

“For though the Gods Above laid down the path of righteousness for all to see, so did the Gods Below then lay down a hundred others that look just like it.”
– Extract from the ‘Truths of the Shore’, a collection of the teachings of Arianna Galadon (considered holy text only in Procer)

Hanno would have to be very careful, to ensure Christophe de Pavanie was alive by the end of this.

Even as half a dozen shouts erupted in the wake of the Mirror Knight’s challenge, the dark-skinned man wondered if he should first have spoken with the other knight alone. No, he decided. That, too, would have been a mistake. It would have been treating Christophe like a sickness to be quarantined instead of comrade whose doubts needed to be allayed. Hanno was no more lord over heroes than heroes were lords over Creation, and though the demands of experience often saw him walk the fine line between stewardship and government he must never cross it willingly.

Sit down, Christophe,” the Vagrant Spear called out, “this is-”

“- ful Gods, I will punch the sense back int-”

“Silence,” the White Knight said.

The ripple of power in his voice sucked the cacophony out of the room, as if by magic. The Mirror Knight stood ramrod straight, as if the outpouring of anger had been a matter of indifference to him, but the slight hunch to his shoulders spoke otherwise. Still, for all the red colouring his cheeks Christophe did not desist. Pride was the stone around his neck, and now Hanno would have to find a way do ensure it did not end up drowning him. First, however, the venom must be drawn out. The White Knight did not rise to his feet, or react beyond turning his head to properly address the other Named. Christophe watched him with strained eyes, his light brown hair harried.

The angle of his arms ensured the polished bracers he wore on his wrists reflected only a muddled haze.

“Let us avoid misunderstandings,” Hanno calmly said. “What is it that you mean, Christophe, by ‘I will not allow it’?”

“How many of us need to die before you face the truth of what you made us part of?” the Mirror Knight said. “The Exalted Poet was shot in the back by one of the Woe, and who here has said even a word of it?”

“He was a traitor,” the Blessed Artificer coldly said. “Good riddance.”

She looked more conflicted that her words might indicate, Hanno thought, but here and now she’d chosen anger over qualms. Few in the rooms shared her apprehensions, given that the man had been seen working with the fae of the Court of Autumn. Whatever his reasons, he’d sided with creatures that had slain soldiers and broken works dedicated to the end of the Dead King. That in the process he’d tried to betray two heroes had seen his memory grow increasingly reviled: the Vagrant Spear’s face had gone icy at the mention of the Name, for she was Levantine as well and had taken the betrayal as a slight on the honour of Levant as a whole.

“Traitor to what, exactly?” Christophe de Pavanie said, voice just short of a shout. “To the rules and designs of a Damned? To ‘terms’ that would see us murder a woman for slaying her own rapist?”

“You have not answered the White Knight’s question,” the Kingfisher Prince cut in, voice measured. “Are you threatening to take up arms to enforce your will, Christophe de Pavanie?”

The fair-haired prince’s hand had slipped, ever so slightly towards the sword at his hip. Hanno thought better of his comrades than to expect they would brawl like tavern drunks but, should there be fighting, he suspected it was not the Prince of Brus that would be the victor there. The Kingfisher Prince’s role was a martial one, but also soldierly in nature. He could turn a company of riders into an unbreakable lance or fight as a champion for his host, but he would not be the equal of the Mirror Knight in a duel.

“Let him speak,” the Forlorn Paladin hesitantly said. “Or has it now become a sin to even speak against the Terms?”

“Why bother? This isn’t a vote,” the Bitter Blacksmith bluntly replied. “No point in pretending otherwise, the Terms are there to stay. We can whine about it all we like, but at the end of the day I’d rather share a room with a villain than a Revenant.”

“How often are we going to be made to bow our heads using that argument?” the Mirror Knight asked, turning to her and sweeping the room with his gaze. “Accept this, or the Dead King takes us all. So first we welcome crooks. Then we welcome thieves, then rapists, then murderers – and Gods only know what comes after that. What single thing can we not be made to swallow, when it is put to contrast with the end of days?”

“Spoken like a child of summer,” the Bitter Blacksmith said, tone gone hard. “There is no bargain to be had with the night: do what needs to be done or disappear.”

She was not the only here there to have doubts, though Christophe’s appeal had not been without impact. Neither was it without sense, Hanno knew. It was all to easy to justify all manners of cruelty by drawing some invisible path linking their avoidance to the victory of Keter. Yet that was no excuse to ignore what still lay just beyond the horizon, waiting for a misstep. It did not surprise the Ashuran that it was Roland who gave further answer, for few among them better understood what still lay ahead of them all.

“We contrast with the end of days,” the Rogue Sorcerer thinly said, “because the end of days is looming. It is not a rhetorical device, Mirror Knight. It’s what happens this winter if we make too many mistakes.”

“We’ve won wars like this one before,” the Blessed Artificer disagreed. “And won them without destroying what we are.”

“We haven’t,” the Vagrant Spear said. “This many soldiers, this many Bestowed, and all we can do is hold? No one’s had a war like this in, maybe not since the Empress Most Dread.”

Even in Levant the memory of Triumphant had not quite faded. Hundreds of thousands had died in the creation of the Titan’s Pond, and most of them had not been Gigantes. Neither had they been Levantines, not exactly, but they had been kin to those tribes that would one day become the Dominion of Levant. It was a good conversation to have, what was being said, and a necessary one. Yet it had strayed from the words that first set it into motion. This was not happenstance.

“Fear, Christophe,” Hanno said, and his voice cut through the room. “That is what I see now. You spoke words, and now you fear them.”

The green-eyed man turned a burning glare towards him.

“You can retract them,” the Ashuran man continued. “Spoken in heat, they can be set aside as the heat fades. Or you can stand by them, if that is your choice. But this pretence that they were not spoken is beneath everyone in this room. Let it end.”

He simply could not leave the venom to linger in the flesh, much as it would be painful to squeeze it out. Else Christophe would leave this room believing that he could keep challenging the powers of the Grand Alliance without consequence, that a Name and a sword made him invincible. He was failing to see the power of the enemies he was making, how even the popular sentiment attached to his fame could turn with the wind. If the Army of Callow and the Firstborn left the fronts over his affronts and it was made known why, how long would it take for every throat from Rhenia to Tenerife to begin howling for the blood of Christophe de Pavanie? There were some who believed that the Black Queen had gone tame, lost her bite, but the White Knight knew better.

There was a saying, in Ashur, that a lioness in her lair was twice as deadly as one in the field.

“I will not allow anyone to kill the Red Axe,” the Mirror Knight said, “not when-”

“That is treason,” the Kingfisher Prince flatly interrupted. “You would be taking up arms against the First Prince and the Highest Assembly, never mind the rest of the Grand Alliance.”

It was a mark of the respect afforded the man by those in the room that no one had even considered complaining that he was the First Prince’s eyes and ears here, even though he’d more often mentioned the opinion of Cordelia Hasenbach than his own. Of course, those that did not notice would be more inclined to take it as their man in Highest Assembly sharing knowledge with them than the other way around. Which made it all the more pointed that the Rogue Sorcerer, by simple virtue of speaking up for restraint and the Terms, had been accused of being Catherine’s creature. The taint associated with magic in these lands was, the White Knight had often thought, one of the most insidious poisons he’d ever seen.

“Taking up arms?” Roland quietly said. “No. Taking up arms is for an army, or at least an armed band. When a single man does it, that’s just called committing a crime.”

He’d meant to impress the pointlessness of such a stand, perhaps, but for once the other hero had misread the room. It’d been taken as a challenge instead and Named were taught to answer challenges only one way. Another chair clattered back.

“He would not be alone,” the Blade of Mercy said.

The young man looked both thrilled and terrified, taking a stand with someone he admired yet uncertain as to the consequences. The heat was rising in the room, and even those not all that inclined to agree with Christophe’s arguments would be feeling a strange leaning towards him right now. Adanna, Sidonia and even the Forlorn Paladin looked troubled by the turn things had taken. We are trained to this, Hanno thought. Conditioned. To side with the underdog, the dark horse. Most of us have been in that place, once in our lives, and it calls to us still. This, though, he could and would nip in the bud.

“How,” the White Knight calmly said, “will you prevent the execution of the Red Axe?”

There was a heartbeat of stillness. Hanno deliberately looked at the pommel of the Severance, leaving his gaze to linger.

“Is that how?” he asked. “Will you cut me down, Christophe?”

“I will not kill you,” the Mirror Knight said, “unless you force me to.”

And like that, he lost the room and the story along with it. He was no longer the rebel fighting tyranny: he was a man threatening to kill a comrade to get his way.

“Do you so badly crave to be part of injustice, Hanno of Arwad?” the Mirror Knight said. “They wouldn’t even let me speak with the Red Axe, did you know? Black Queen’s orders. She’s to be butchered in some dark room-”

“After a trial is held,” the White Knight calmly replied. “After I listen to the evidence, determine guilt, pass my sentence and carry it out. Which will be, almost certainly, death. That she killed the Wicked Enchanter and attempted to kill the Kingfisher Prince is not in doubt, it is established fact.”

The latter man was keeping a close eye on them all, Hanno found. He’d spoken little but missed nothing. Frederic Goethal, the White Knight decided, had not come today to steer the conversation one way or another but to mark the positions and allegiances of his fellow heroes. And while the man was as canny as any prince of Procer, Hanno had no doubt that this was the stratagem of shrewder mind still. Cordelia Hasenbach liked to know the full lay of the board, before she cast her dice.

“She was used by the Wandering Bard,” the Mirror Knight said, “as many of us were. And yet Chosen must die for this offence, while the Black Queen will let off her Damned with a slap on the wrist. And these are the rules you would have us heed?”

Hanno cocked his head to the side. There was no point, he thought, in continuing to argue that Catherine had yet to render any judgement and that she would be holding trials over rather different breaches of the Terms besides. Continuing to drown in details would resolve nothing, for the Mirror Knight was not truly looking to debate anything. His fingers were grasping for a stone to throw, not an answer to consider.

“Yes,” Hanno said.

Christophe visibly stalled at the unexpected reply.

“I will pass judgement over the Red Axe, and carry out the sentence,” the White Knight explicitly stated. “In this matter I cannot be swayed or bargained with. It will be done, that is all. Do you now intend to kill me, Christophe? I will not be fighting you, if that is your choice, so strike at your leisure.”

The eyes of every single person in the room went to the Mirror Knight, whose face had gone red. His hand was on the pommel of the sword, but he’d not unsheathed it. Even the Blade of Mercy took a step back form him. Antoine was not the sort of young man to let even admiration overcome a reluctance to kill in cold blood.

“Let us assume you do kill me,” Hanno gently said. “What happens then, do you think? Will the Grand Alliance let the Red Axe go free?”

“It is the representative for the Chosen that would pass sentence over her,” the Mirror Knight harshly said. “Do not now pretend otherwise.”

“And killing me would make you the representative?” Hanno asked.

The dark-haired knight took a step back, as if struck.

“They would have to,” he said, stumbling over the word. “It would be obvious that…”

“You would need the agreement of every constituent crown of the Grand Alliance,” Hanno said. “Given that you believe the Black Queen to be scheming against us, why would she agree?”

The dark-skinned man leaned forward over the table.

“If she refuses,” Hanno asked, “will you kill her too?”

“She’s Damned,” the Mirror Knight defended.

He took a step back anyway. Giving ground it had become impossible to defend. He would feel it, the way the room was turning against him. Even those he had considered to be his own followers, warped as such a thought was to even entertain.

“And if the First Prince refuses?” Hanno continued. “If the Holy Seljun does, after that? What then, Christophe? How many heads will you have to take before no one is left to argue with you?”

“I haven’t killed anyone,” the Mirror Knight said, voice gone faint. “It doesn’t have to be me, the representative. It could be any of us so long as they see what you won’t. What you can’t, anymore.”

The dark-haired knight’s fingers tightened around the hilt of the sword. Hanno did not tense. Why would he? At the end of the day, he simply did not believe that he was facing someone capable of killing an unarmed man in cold blood.

“You are no longer the Sword of Judgement, White Knight,” Christophe de Pavanie said. “The Seraphim have gone silent, you do not speak with their blessing. What sets you apart from any of us now, Hanno of Arwad?”

And there was his mistake, laid bare. The belief that the justice had ever been in Hanno, when it had always been in the Seraphim. Hanno had not become any blinder, by simple virtue of always having been blind.

“What sets us apart,” Hanno of Arwad replied, “is that you are on your feet, with your hand on your sword.”

The Mirror Knight flinched, fingers leaving the hilt of the Severance as if burned. It would be enough, Hanno prayed. Being shown himself in a mirror, bereft of all the little lies people told themselves to soften the edges of the world, it would be enough. Christophe was not a bad man, even at his worse. His mistakes were sculpted by pride and fear, but they rose from a bedrock of good intentions. And if it ended here, if Hanno had correctly walked the line once more, then this could end without any blood being spilled. Catherine would return to her usual mercenary pragmatism the moment she no longer felt cornered, the First Prince would withdraw if she felt the situation handled and there was simply no one else that would care to contest with him over Christophe. Hanno caught sight of his own face on the Mirror Knight’s bracers, the reflection fleeting but troublingly vivid for the moment it lasted. He had looked calm, the dark-skinned man thought, but also aloof. Almost indifferent.

The Ashuran felt the turn of the tide in the air, even thousands of miles away from any sea at all.

“You are not the only one allowed principles, White Knight,” Christophe said. “You are willing to die over this? So am I. And if you will not free the Red Axe, I will.”

The Severance cleared the scabbard with a rising whistling sound, as if it were cutting the very air of the hall. The Mirror Knight’s sleeve tore with fine cuts that looked like veins, but his polished braces remained untouched. Already he was learning to use the artefact, Hanno thought, though if not for the whistling the Severance would hardly have looked like one. The arming sword, for all its power, was not a fantastical sight. Its steel was fine and touched with small, shadowy patterns like trails of smoke that could hardly be seen with the naked eye, but it neither glowed nor shone, or boasted some fanciful enchantment. The guard was straight, the pommel an angular globe, and the handle covered by an iron grip. The sheath was an ornate thing, but the sword? No, the sword would not have suffered ornament. There was still enough of Laurence de Montfort in there such frivolity would have been carved right through.

Three people rose to their feet in quick order – Sidonia, first, then the Kingfisher Prince and lastly Roland – but Hanno was not of them. He only met Christophe’s green eyes, unblinking.

“Nothing of what you seek can be obtained using that,” he said, gesturing towards the blade.

“You’ve drawn steel on allies,” the Vagrant Spear said, tone icy as she palmed a knife. “Sheathe now, or you will be treated as a foe.”

The Kingfisher Prince drew as well, sword coming out with a muted ring, and Roland pushed back his chair so he could have a clear line of fire for his sorceries. The Blade of Mercy had only a hunting knife at his hip but he drew that, falling to Mirror Knight’s side and covering his flank.

“This is madness,” the Blind Maker said. “We are Chosen, not-”

“Sheathe the sword, Mirror Knight,” the Kingfisher Prince coolly interrupted. “And put it on the table: you have proved unfit to bear it.”

“Enough,” the White Knight said, finally rising to his feet. “Christophe-”

Hanno saw, from the corner of his eye, Helmgard’s eyes go flinty as she glared at the Mirror Knight. He was, damn him, still just a little too slow. The Bitter Blacksmith kicked the table into Christophe, half-flipping it, and the Hells broke loose. Hanno tried to catch it but it slipped through his fingers, and before he could do anything more the Severance had carved an eerily neat path through it. The Vagrant Spear was halfway into a leap, knife raised, but the Blade of Mercy made to stop her even as the Blind Maker scrabbled to get out of the way. Helmgard had already snatched up half the table and she swung it with little skill but enough strength to shatter stone – the White Knight, Light flickering around his hand, shattered it in her grip.

Antoine made to avoid the blind old man between himself and Sidonia and succeeded but at the cost of a stumble. The Vagrant Spear’s foot hit his jaw and the young man went down, but before Sidonia could try to move on the Mirror Knight a streak of Light tossed by Adanna passed in front of her – it hit the edge of Christophe’s left brace and most of it careened away, though the metal glowed with heat. The Kingfisher Prince weaved through the chaos with a dancer’s grace, ducking under a flailing Helmgard and coming up against the Mirror Knight’s flank. Sword met and the Alamans prince parried adeptly enough his sword was not simply sliced through, but in matters of might he was outmatched and had to take a step back.

Hanno did not let him press his attack, grabbing him by the back of the neck – the man started in complete surprise – and tossing him towards the back of the hall unceremoniously. The Blade of Mercy had gotten back on his feet and he tried to force back the Vagrant Spear but she turned the blow, caught his shoulder in a hold and forced him to his knees. Passing the knife into her free hand she twirled it as she readied a blow. Hanno, from where he stood, could see she meant to strike Antoine’s temple with the pommel of her knife after flipping it. Yet from where the Mirror Knight stood, all that could be seen was the Blade of Mercy on his knees and the Vagrant Spear drawing back her arm for a blow.

The White Knight saw it all come together, as if he were looking down at it from above. Christophe’s wrist rising as he prepared his own blow, stepping forward through flying shards of wood. Sidonia seeing the movement at the edge of her peripheral vision and her body trying to react – she lost her rhythm, and what would have been a blow of the pommel as it went down instead remained a strike with the point of the knife. And in turning towards the blow, what would have been a cut through her wrist instead passed through the front half of her face. It would kill her, sure as day, even if it had not been meant to.

The window to act would be slight, for all here were Named, but he was not among the least skilled of his kind. The White Knight moved with purpose, balancing it all on the span of a single breath. His left hand caught Sidonia’s wrist before it could come all the way down, leaving to prick Antoine’s skin just lightly enough no blood was drawn. And with his right he turned aside the Severance, forcing it to the side so that no life would be taken. The edge of the sword carved through the first two phalanges of his middle finger and through his ring and little finger before veering off, the Mirror Knight ending the blow before it cut into the ground.

Hanno had yet to draw his sword.

“No,” Christophe hoarsely shouted, drawing back.

The White Knight’s fingers dropped to the ground. The cut had been clean and painless, but it might still kill him if – Hanno resorted to an old trick let out a pulse of blinding Light, brute forcing the healing and hardening the skin irreparably. There’d be no mending what the Severance had cut, anyhow.

“Sheathe your blades,” Hanno said, and his tone brooked no argument. “Every last one of you.”

It had taken more than just Christophe de Pavanie for it to come to this.

“I-” the Mirror Knight stammered, “I didn’t mean to-”

And before anyone could speak so much as a word, he bolted for the door. Hanno almost cursed. He’d expected anguish, not flight. This was potentially much worse. The door opened the other way but it had not been meant to resist Named and it broke with barely a touch as the Mirror Knight pushed through, the White Knight forcing aside the Vagrant Spear as she moved into his way. He flicked a glance back to the assembled heroes.

“By my authority under the Terms, I order that you all return to your quarters and remain there until sent for,” Hanno said, tone forcefully calm.

He did not stay long enough for anybody to begin arguing, instead stepping into the halls of the Alcazar and catching sight of the Mirror Knight turning the corner. Christophe would have no destination, right now, but Hanno knew that the longer he ran with the sight of burning bridges at his back the more the Mirror Knight would look for a way to justify all of this, any of this. And that mean, right now, the Red Axe. If Christophe hurt or even accidentally killed guards breaking her out, Hanno knew there would be no saving his life. There would be no deal to be made, no bargain when so many heroes had broken so many roles. The tolerance from the Grand Alliance would run dry.

As things stood, there was only one way to settle this.

The White Knight breathed out and let Light flood his veins, hastening his steps. He scarred the stone as he turned the corner, Christophe not far ahead, and unclasped his sheathed sword from his belt. The Mirror Knight glanced back just in time to see the strike coming and twist around to face the White Knight, narrowly avoiding the blow at the back of his knee that would have had him tumbling.

“It didn’t have to be like this,” Christophe pleadingly said. “You could have listened, and you can still-”

“I’m sorry,” Hanno said. “But now it has to end a certain way.”

If I do not show them I am capable of handling you physically, this can only end in your death. Christophe did not truly want to fight, even if his body reacted to being attacked, so his initial reaction was sloppy. The Severance was swung quickly and powerfully but with little skill, trying to cut through Hanno’s own sheathed blade, but strength without precisions was meaningless. The White Knight took half a step back, then use the backfoot and a flicker of Light in what had once been the Flawless Fencer’s favourite trick: the side of his sheath struck the Mirror Knight on the left cheek, smashing him to the side. The pain returned Christophe de Pavanie to the there and then, his eyes hardening.

“You lost a hand,” the Mirror said. “Retire, before I must hurt you.”

Hanno had lived through so many memories he hardly recalled whether he’s originally been left-handed or right-handed, not that it mattered. He was perfectly capable of using either hand to wield a sword.

“Your worry does you honour,” Hanno evenly said, “but it is unnecessary.”

Something like anger flickered across the other knights’ face and he rushed forward. A simple swing forced the White Knight back and with a half step he feigned use of the same trick – yet when Christophe threw a punch where his face would have been were he reiterating, instead the other man caught the Mirror Knight’s wrist with the hand he’d freed by dropping his sheathed sword. Light scouring his veins, Hanno clenched his fingers around the bracers until they crumpled and threw his hip. Lifting Christophe de Pavanie, he smashed the other hero into the ground like a mace. The stone cracked rather than the Mirror Knight, but the tremor toppled several of the magelights hanging above. They toppled, several cracking and the light of the hall began flickering. Christophe shouted, Light glimmering over him, but Hanno called on it as well and threaded the two together.

Before the Mirror Knight understood what was happening, he seized the now single-entity Light and used it to strengthen both his kneecaps as Implacable Monk had been fond of doing – he then hammered his boot down into Christophe’s throat, knowing that the Mirror Knight was too tough for it to kill him. The other man choked and Hanno repeated the process thrice, each time increasing strength as the stone fractured beneath them and the ground shook. The Mirror Knight’s hand seized his ankle after the third time and he swung the Severance upwards and half-blind. Hanno leaned down, snatched up his sheathed sword and pragmatically slapped the other man in the eyes with the side of the sheath. Christophe yelped and released the foot, which returned to kick his chin at full strength.

The White Knight had not strengthened his kneecap this time, unfortunately, so while the strengthening on his limb held fine he felt the bone of his knee crack.

Pushing down the wave of pain he drew back a step, waiting for the Mirror Knight to get up on his knee before sweeping it – and, this time, smashing down on the wrist with his sheathed sword. The Severance clattered on the floor and Christophe screamed in pain and anger, catching the sheathed sword in his grip and effortlessly crushing it. Hanno released the hilt, but not quickly enough: he was tugged down enough that the Mirror Knight caught his tabard and dragged him even further down. Aware that wrestling with a man who might as well be made of steel would be foolish, the White Knight used his still-bloody mutilated hand to hook a finger into the Mirror Knight’s mouth and drag the other man’s face straight into his knee.

Christophe’s nose broke, but so did Hanno’s kneecap.

It bought him long enough, however. Catching the bloodied man by the back of the neck even as he dropped to his knees in pain, Hanno let the Light run loose through his veins until he could feel it filling him to the brim. He smashed the Mirror Knights head into the ground, repeatedly, as Christophe struggled against the other hand keeping him from turning properly to fight. Hanno felt several of his bones fracture from the other hero’s twisting about, but on the sixth impact Christophe de Pavanie finally fell unconscious. The Light slowly left him, leaving behind only waves of pain as the lights continued flickering and casting the fractured and bloodied stone into strange reliefs. The White Knight breathed in and out slowly for some time, but the sound of boots forced him to open them again. Gingerly, he took the sheath of the Severance from the Mirror Knight’s side and slid the artefact back into at the costs of only a few shallow cuts on his fingers.

Soldiers poured into the hallway from both sides, staying in the steady lights.

The legionaries of the Army of Callow were the easiest to recognize, the painted shields and red tabards that heralded some of the finest professional soldiers of Calernia putting a name to them just as surely as the unique mixture of orcs and humans of different hues. Yet there were other soldiers there, in colours less straightforward to place even though their long mail coats, coiffe and broad rim helm marked them as Proceran. Swords and spears came to the fore in good order, the now infamously deadly Callowan crossbowmen spreading out in the back. Quite a lot of trouble, Hanno thought, for only two men – only one of which was conscious, besides. Admittedly, he tiredly thought, they had made something of a ruckus.

Unfriendly eyes remained steady on him as he rose to his feet with a swallowed moan of pain, but the White Knight was hailed by no officer. He’d not expected to be, as it happened. There were only two people in the Arsenal who would have had the authority to mobilize troops like this, and it was unlike the First Prince of Procer to be so heavy-handed. With the crisp sound of steel-clad boots hitting stone, the legionaries smoothly split to the sides and a shadowed silhouette began limping her way towards him. Even through the helmets Hanno could glimpse the burning, violent devotion those soldiers had for Catherine Foundling. It was in the way they looked at her as she moved past them, in the way the stood taller and with straighter backs for her mere presence.

Some of the White Knight’s colleagues worried of the Black Queen’s power, of her fearsome mastery of Night, but that’d never been anything to him. It was strength, and strength failed. But the look in those soldiers’ eyes, those orcs and Taghreb and Soninke and Callowans? That was a dangerous thing. Hanno knew faith when he saw it, after all. Faith in their saint of impossible victories, in their hard-handed goddess of blood and mud. That look in their eyes would still matter long after strength had faded into irrelevance.

Catherine Foundling limped forward, the uneven steps somehow ominous even without the sharp contrast of her absent staff against stone. The Queen of Callow was, to his great surprise, wearing a dress. Long-sleeved and lightly touched with silver thread, the black velvet suited her well and was even accented with a set of silver bracelets. The dark fabric complimented the tan of her skin, and her braid was rather more elaborate than the simple ponytail she usually kept her hair in. It was an odd sight, in the sense that he was unaccustomed to it, but it was returned to a semblance of normalcy by what followed.

The Archer, who sometimes filled Catherine’s shadow in place of the Adjutant, stepped out from behind her queen and flicked her hand. A small packet was caught by the Queen of Callow, who then produced seemingly from nowhere a long pipe of Hanno suspected to be genuine dragonbone and began stuffing it with wakeleaf. The White Knight studied the Archer, whose bow was not yet strung, and decided this would not be a confrontation. Deadly as the Ranger’s most famous pupil was with her blades, it was a paltry thing compared to the threat she was with a bow in hand. Falling in slightly behind the Black Queen, the hard smile the Archer was offering him was revealed by the sudden flicker of flame of Catherine lighting her pipe. Within moments, she spat out a thick stream of acid smoke as the red embers lit up her face.

Wreathed by shadows and smoke, Catherine studied him with cool eyes as she closed the last of the distance. A moment of silence took hold between them, and she was the one to break it,

“Busy night?” the Black Queen asked, smiling as if she’d spoken a jest only she knew.

Interlude: Paragons

“To offer forgiveness to the unrepentant is as the sheep embracing the wolf.”
– Hektor the Ecclesiast, Atalante preacher

Hanno had underestimated the depth of the troubles in the Arsenal.

It had already been an unpleasant surprise for providence to have failed him, not offering even the slightest of nudges otherwise when he’d decided to wait a few days before heading towards the Arsenal, but now it seemed that initial mistake had allowed several streaks of unpleasantness to take root. That Catherine would be as a scalded cat was only to be expected, given that she’d pitted her wits against the Wandering Bard and there was no victory to be had without a cost there. That could be worked around until it passed, which he trusted it would. That there would be distrust and discontent boiling up within the heroes as was not something he’d foreseen, at least not to such a grave extent. That Christophe de Pavanie’s name never seemed to be far behind whenever a spot of discord was there to be found was even more unfortunate.

It had become the White Knight’s habit to arrange for a great talk with all the heroes of a region whenever his travels allowed, so that they might vent their grievances before they could grow into formal complaints and frictions of character could be caught before they escalated, and it was without hesitation he followed the habit after coming to the Arsenal. There were nine heroes within these walls who bore Names, and most made good time when he sent for them. Still, extracting themselves from their occupations took longer for some than others. Hanno was not displeased by that, as them coming with waves allowed him to take a look at the currents binding them to one another. Roland, for example, came with the Vagrant Spear and the Forlorn Paladin.

The latter two of those three had spent more than a year as part of the Archer’s band, while the Rogue Sorcerer was perhaps the hero who best got along with the Woe in particular and villains as a whole. There were some who called him soft on Below because of that, though his distinguished record had ensured it was just idle talk. That the Dominion heroine would keep company with Roland and the Forlorn Paladin was interesting, however. If she had felt uncomfortable under the Archer, starved of respectable company or mistreated, she would not have chosen those particular companions. As for the Forlorn Paladin himself, though he remained improbably cheerful despite his Name it was clear that he felt lost and that the Vagrant Spear was serving as an anchor. Hanno sympathized.

He had more memories than any man alive, and their loss was something he dreaded like little else.

The White Knight spoke with the first three heroes to arrive, little more than small talk about what they’d seen and done since their last parting, but before long others began to wander in. Though the Kingfisher Prince was not someone Hanno had ever met in person before, the Prince of Brus was hard to mistake for another – between the fanciful Alamans clothing and the elaborate hair ribbons, there was simply no other hero he could be mistaken for. The man had a reputation for charm that must have been true at least in part, for the often-taciturn Bitter Blacksmith was laughing as some unheard jest as he gallantly opened the door for her.

Though Hanno did not particularly consider himself the host of this gathering – he had not fetched the refreshments himself, or done anything at all save requesting the help of messengers and attendants – he still welcomed the pair into the room, returning the Prince of Brus’ firm arm clasp and congratulating Helmgard for her impressive work on the sword he was not learning had been named the Severance. A shame. He’d been rather partial to the ‘Severity’, himself. It seemed a truer homage to the woman it had been forged from. There was hardly a ripple as the two Named joined the others, cordial smiles being offered up by those whose character so inclined them.

The Mirror Knight arrived rather late, considering that Christophe had been eager for a meeting like this one when they’d last spoken, but it was easy to see why. When the dark-haired hero arrived, it was with the Blessed Artificer and the Blade of Mercy at his side. He must have wanted the three of them to come together and so waited, though Hanno found that the Mirror Knight looked rather jittery underneath his attempt so seem calm. The White Knight almost frowned when he saw how uncomfortable young Antoine was, avoiding looking at the end of the table where Roland and the two heroines he’d come in with sat. Not, not Roland, Hanno decided. It was Sidonia in particular the younger man was avoiding looking at.

The Vagrant Spear did not gaze in their direction at all, as if noticing them was beneath her.

The Blessed Artificer strode forward with little apparent awareness of her companions’ discomfort, offering Hanno himself a nod before settling in the chair by the Bitter Blacksmith’s side. The two began to talk animatedly, and Christophe look almost miffed before he came to make his greetings. The White Knight took the time to speak with young Antoine for a bit, but the Blade of Mercy remained stiff and tight-lipped. Twice, in mere idle conversation, he redirected a casual question of Hanno’s to the Mirror Knight. The Ashuran filed that away, refraining from making assumptions but equally disinclined to simply ignore an oddity.

The Blind Maker was the last to arrive, the older man having been in the middle of delicate work when the messenger came and so unable to extract himself easily. He apologized, but no one felt slighted and so the matter was waved away. Hanno caught himself looking at the door, as if still waiting, and felt a pang of grief when he understood why. Nephele would not be coming, for she was dead. She’d perished in the fight against a demon, mere days ago, and so Hanno would never see his friend again. Hear her laugh, enjoy the sight of how she had come to thrive in the very place she had died defending. The dark-skinned man did not shy away from the grief, instead leaning into it. Let it pass through him.

The White Knight could not change what had been done, but he could keep Nephele alive within himself. Hanno’s mother had been fond of a verse from her homeland, one that claimed all were born to two deaths: one in the flesh, one in the memories of those left behind. It was not in the Ashuran knight’s ability to unmake the end of flesh, but in memory at least he could honour the woman who had been the Repentant Magister. Yet there was a time for grief and a time for the present, and now Hanno was called upon by the latter to set aside the former. He did so.

“I see were all here,” the White Knight said, standing at the head of the table. “I am not unaware that there are many demands on your time, and so I thank you for indulging my request.”

“We were long overdue a council of the Chosen, anyhow,” the Blessed Artificer said.

Adanna of Smyrna had spoken with characteristic bluntness and so Hanno knew better than to take offence, though that did not stop some from eyeing her with irritation. Or dislike. Heroes were not above the vagaries of human interaction in the slightest. They were, if anything, more prone to falling into them. A consequence of strong personalities, Hanno had often thought, which were those that tended to come into Names to begin with.

“A council over what?” the Forlorn Paladin asked. “The messenger never said.”

From the corners of his eye, Hanno saw that the Kingfisher Prince was carefully studying the heroes in the room. Looking, the White Knight suspected, for the invisible web of alliances and enmities that Alamans considered to be the foundation of all society. This one was a hero, the White Knight thought, but a prince as well. It would not do to forget that. The blue-eyed Prince of Brus caught Hanno’s own watchful eye, and with a quirk of the lips offered a wink.

“This is to discuss the fate of the Red Axe, obviously,” the Mirror Knight said.

“What is there to discuss, exactly?” the Rogue Sorcerer flatly asked.

“These talks are meant to allow you all to air grievances and worries,” Hanno cut in as he sat down, voice serene. “If such worries concern the matter of the Red Axe, you are of course free to voice them.”

“There’s grievances enough for twenty to be aired,” the Blessed Artificer said. “Most of them about the Black Queen’s atrocious behaviour.”

Hanno cocked his head to the side.

“The reports I received must have been incomplete, then,” he said. “For I have read them and found little to fault her with.”

That made a stir, though not a large one. He’d hardly said anything incendiary, besides. If Catherine had genuinely been at fault, it would have been his duty to act on it. If he had not, the reason why ought to be self-evident.

“This is ridiculous,” Roland said. “We heroes in our little hidden room, discussing the Black Queen like we’re some sort of secret cabal. If it came out, we’d be a laughingstock – or worse.”

“You worry too much of how things might look, Rogue Sorcerer,” the Mirror Knight said, contempt clear in his voice.

“You don’t worry enough, Christophe,” the Bitter Blacksmith sneered. “I don’t care if she stepped on your toes, she’s also sent troops to fight up in Twilight’s Pass. You don’t get to fuck that just because no one bothered to beat humility into you as a child.”

The Mirror Knight looked not only surprised by Helmgard’s words, but almost hurt. They were friends, the White Knight distantly recalled. But right now the Bitter Blacksmith was just seeing yet another Alamans posturing while her people died in droves, and that pulled on an older and deeper loyalty that anything friendship might earn of her.

“I choose not to believe that expecting civility of each other is being too ambitious,” Hanno calmly said.

The Blacksmith looked away, but not without embarrassment first painting itself across her face. Christophe looked pleased and almost vindicated, though, which had not been Hanno’s intent at all. It worried him that the other man seemed convinced that there were sides to take instead of disagreements to be had. The difference might slight, at first, but the longer the path was the starker the difference would grow.

“Impugning each other’s character is no more civil than insults,” the White Knight plainly said. “I will add, however, that expecting Catherine Foundling to withdraw the aid she has offered because her actions are being questioned is not a defence of her. It is, in fact, the contrary.”

The Kingfisher Prince cleared his throat.

“Considering grievances have been mentioned, I am curious to hear them,” Prince Frederic Goethal said. “I was part of the defence myself, after all.”

“You failed to hide the Red Axe from mere guards, then were laid down by your own ward,” the Blessed Artificer said. “Hardly a participation.”

Every single Alamans at the table looked appalled at her words, Hanno noted, though not necessarily because they disagreed with them. The Prince of Brus had an impressive martial reputation in the north, but he’d worked with few other Named and his showing during the assault on the Arsenal had been lackluster by some ways of looking at it. Hanno’s esteem of the man had raised at his restraint when faced with bare swords and threats, but even on the side of Above there were some who measured success largely through body counts.

“Adanna, you’re being insulting,” the Bitter Blacksmith told her.

The golden-eyed artificer looked surprised.

“I meant no insult,” she assured the prince. “Only that-”

Mercifully, Helmgard elbowed her before she could launch into an explanation that Hanno suspected would offer several additional insults. The dark-skinned man actually sympathized with Adanna a great deal, since he understood exactly where her occasional maladroitness came from: it was rather typical of Ashurans in general and citizens from higher tiers in particular. High Tyrian was a highly blunt language, compared to some on the continent, and most Ashurans who learned a second tongue had to unlearn habits that made them come across as very rude. Those born to higher tiers were also raised into believing that criticism of lower tiers was a civic duty, which could combine in unfortunate ways with other Ashuran customs. Captains, traders and diplomats were naturally taught how to avoid those pitfalls, but the Blessed Artificer was unlikely to have rubbed elbows with any of these in Smyrna – she would have moved in different, higher circles.

“No offence was taken,” the Kingfisher Prince said, and it he was lying he hid it well. “Yet my question stands.”

“I am curious as well,” the White Knight said. “Though I want it to be clear that you are all free to speak, and I will not take you words as a formal complaint under the Terms unless you explicitly state otherwise.”

“I was threatened with execution,” the Blessed Artificer said.

The Rogue Sorcerer laughed, and not kindly.

“Tell them why,” Roland said.

“It hardly matters,” Adanna said. “The threat is the reason of my complaint.”

“She nosed about an Arsenal project the Grand Alliance is going out of its way to keep secret, and then tried to bully the Black Queen into speaking about it in front of what turned out to be at least two traitors,” Roland his aggressively even tone making it clear what he thought of the entire affair. “The specific threat then involved first gaining the approval of the Grand Alliance for your execution by the lawful means, as I recall.”

Hanno’s brow almost rose. It had been a misjudgement on Adanna’s part to believe that the Black Queen would respond to this sort of a pressure, and an even greater misjudgement to resort to this sort of thing against an ally at all. He’d expected better of her.

“I can confirm there are projects under such stark secrecy that exist,” the Kingfisher Prince said, “though I am not conversant with their exact nature.”

The Blessed Artificer’s lips thinned, though she did not argue.

“I have a complaint of my own,” the Mirror Knight said.

Eyes moved to him and the dark-haired man smiled thinly.

“About the Rogue Sorcerer, and how he might as well be the mouthpiece of the Black Queen in this room,” Christophe continued. “Go where you belong, Sorcerer. Go sit at her side, and let us get on with our duties at last without your help.”

Roland’s fingers clenched at his face paled in anger. Hanno genuinely could not remember ever seeing the mild-mannered man this furious.

“I do not know you, Alamans,” the Blind Maker calmly said, his thick Arlesite accent tinging the words, “but your words fall well short of the chivalry your Choosing boasts of.”

“That was ill-said,” the Forlorn Paladin agreed, face grown serious.

Some were less courteous in their chiding.

“Fuck you, Christophe,” Sidonia hissed. “I’ve been with the Lady for more than a year now, does that make me traitor too? Who the Hells are you to tell anyone to leave?”

Hanno pulled on his Name the slightest bit, then slapped his hand against the table. The sound was like a thunderclap in the small hall, and it drew shocked silence from all in it.

“Civility,” the White Knight reminded them. “Be clearer on the nature of your complaint, Mirror Knight. Are you accusing the Rogue Sorcerer of having fallen from grace and become one of the Damned?”

That would, in fact, be a valid reason to ask for Roland’s exclusion from this meeting. In practice it would be difficult to prove either way, but it hardly mattered since Hanno doubted the Mirror Knight would pursue his hasty words to the end. It was a profoundly serious accusation and there would be consequences to using so frivolously. That the Principate had used such methods frequently against heroes of opposing nations was one of the reason it had such a poor reputation with Named, and for a Proceran hero in particular to be seen using the same means would see him made a pariah among their kind.

“I did not speak those words,” Christophe de Pavanie stiffly said.

“Then you should be more careful when you address others,” Hanno frankly said. “If you did not mean to make that accusation, then all you did was offer an insult.”

The Mirror Knight looked like he’d been slapped, but then he’d offered the same to the Rogue Sorcerer with intent nowhere as kindly meant. He must be made to understand that he should be choosing his words more carefully, not blurting out offences and then apologizing for them.

“Everyone knows the Sorcerer’s thick as thieves with the Woe,” the Blade of Mercy spoke up. “It’s not a crime to say that, is it?”

“No,” Hanno serenely replied. “Though neither is it a crime to have a cordial rapport with an ally, Antoine.”

In truth, it would be a poison to this alliance if heroes came to believe that being on good terms with villains was a sort of betrayal. Perhaps if bands of five had remained entirely Below’s or Above’s it could have been borne, but that had not been the case for some time now. The ability to forge a band out of Named of all allegiances was simply too potent a tool in the war against Keter to be easily discarded, and that meant heroes and villains must be able to maintain a degree of respect for each other.

“I have a grievance of my own, as it happens,” the Rogue Sorcerer coldly said.

The anger was still in him, the White Knight saw. That boded ill, for Roland was sharper with wits and tongue than many were with steel.

“Why is Christophe of Pavanie still strutting about with the Severance?” Roland asked. “More than half a dozen of us worked on it, and a fortune was spent forging it. The peril has passed, Mirror Knight, so why do you still carry that priceless artefact with you like some ceremonial blade?”

“I am safekeeping it,” the Mirror Knight harshly said.

“We’ve found no one else capable of using it,” the Blessed Artificer shrugged. “Where else should it go?”

“It’s an artefact meant to kill the Hidden Horror,” the Bitter Blacksmith disagreed, “it should be under lock and behind wards, not lugged around.”

“It hasn’t been observed since it was taken up, has it?” the Blind Maker mused. “It should be, or we will not know how it takes to being used.”

“It was taken up in a battle against great foes,” the Vagrant Spear said. “And used worthily. It would be a grave dishonour to claim it back now.”

The Mirror Knight threw her a look as surprised as it was grateful.

“Hear hear,” the Forlorn Paladin said. “It is not a deed to be lightly gainsaid.”

“Seven demons were slain with the blade in the Mirror Knight’s hand,” the Blade of Mercy fervently reminded them. “Seven. What fool would now give it to another, or put it back to rest?”

“I agree that Christophe is most fit to wield the Severance, given its temperament and his own talents,” Hanno said. “I have already informed the Black Queen as much.”

There was a moment of stillness in the room. Dismay on the Rogue Sorcerer’s face, triumph on the Mirror Knight’s – or was it relief?

“It must be returned, however,” the White Knight continued. “It was taken up during a crisis for laudable reasons, but the crisis has passed. Until it is formally bestowed upon someone, it belongs to the Grand Alliance.”

The scene of a moment earlier, reversed. Nothing about this, Hanno thought, ought to be taken personally. Diplomacy was setting the beat to the tune, not lesser and pettier considerations. He knew better than to believe it would not be taken personally regardless.

“The First Prince shares that belief,” the Kingfisher Prince said. “I do as well, for that matter. You’ve fought mostly in Cleves, Mirror Knight, while the sword might be needed elsewhere. That front is the mildest of the three.”

Christophe cast the prince an unfriendly glance, then turned to Hanno.

“Is this an order, White Knight?” he challenged.

He wanted, the dark-skinned man sensed, a confrontation. To make this about the two of them. That was disturbing, considering the White Knight had no enmity towards Christophe de Pavanie and had believe the opposite to be just as true.

“No,” Hanno said. “I have told you my opinion. It will become an order if the signatory members of the Grand Alliance so decide, likely by vote. I expect the Severance will be assigned in the same manner.”

The Vagrant Spear laughed.

“Should have been more careful who you insulted, Christophe,” she said. “Even if your First Prince takes a shine to you, that’s two out of three who’d rather burn than back you.”

“I am sure Her Most Serene Highness will see reason, when properly made aware of the facts,” the Mirror Knight said.

There was a certainty to his voice that Hanno would have found admirable were he not certain it was unwarranted. Though the White Knight had not lost the respect he’d found for the First Prince during the defense of Cleves, he’d since tempered it with appropriate caution. He could respect Cordelia Hasenbach without losing sight of the truth that she loved Procer more than she did most anything. It was why she now wanted the Red Axe to stand trial before the Highest Assembly, ignoring the protection promised the heroine by the Terms. The First Prince would not find many allies in this, unless he’d gravely misread Catherine so at the moment she was also highly unlikely to take a chance on championing Christophe de Pavanie.

“The Hasenbach will do what needs to be done,” the Bitter Blacksmith bluntly said. “Whether it pleases you or not. That is their way.”

There was an undertone of pride to the words, not quite hidden. Christophe looked upset, which led Hanno to suspect he had come into this hall expecting that Helmgard would support him in all things. The Ashuran was not the only one to notice.

“Is it because you’ve been fuckin Damned that you’re so traitorous?” the Blade of Mercy bit out.

There was a beat of silence, the half a dozen people started talking at the same time. Sidonia was loudly laughing instead, Hanno noted, while the Kingfisher Prince was looking rather interested even as he kept his silence. The White Knight struck his palm against the table once more.

“Order,” Hanno said. “Antoine, please apologize.”

“I think not,” the Blade of Mercy coldly said. “What did I say, save the truth?”

“So she took the Hunted Magician to bed,” the Blessed Artificer replied, dismissive. “What of it? He’s a comely man, and rather skilled in bedplay.”

Several of the heroes choked in surprise. Hanno did not share their shock, benefitting from the perspective of a shared homeland. Adanna of Smyrna would likely equate having sex with a villain to a citizen of a higher tier doing the same with one of a lower tier, and so see nothing there to raise an eyebrow over. Considering marriages across tiers were exceedingly rare such affairs were usually purely physical, and the Blessed Artificer would be highly insulted should someone imply her judgement  – or that of a friend, which Helmgard was – might be affected by such a thing.

“Is he?” the Vagrant Spear asked, leaning forward eagerly. “Elaborate.”

The White Knight could not blame the Archer for that behaviour, sadly. She’d been this way since they first met and actually tended to be significantly worse when Rafaella was around for them rile each other up. The Dominion spirit of competition did not exclude revels.

“Adanna?” the Mirror Knight said, sounding horrified.

“I took up with him myself, for a while,” the Blessed Artificer said.

“He thought we didn’t know,” Helmgard grinned. “We kept making appointments at the same time, you should have seen him panic and make those tortured excuses.”

The White Knight cleared his throat.

“How any of us choose to share our beds is not anyone else’s concern,” Hanno said. “And not to be subject to insult. Antoine, apologize.”

For the first time that day, his voice hardened. The younger man froze at the sound, eyes going wide.

“He meant no insult, Helmgard,” the Mirror Knight said, addressing the heroine directly.

The Bitter Blacksmith spat to the side.

“Only a boy needs others to speak for himself,” she said, but curtly nodded.

Hanno caught her eye, raising an eyebrow in question, but she shook her head in denial. If she was satisfied, then he would pursue the matter no further.

“Are there any further grievances?” the White Knight asked.

“The Black Queen should not be a high officer of the Grand Alliance,” the Mirror Knight flatly said.

The entire room went silent, as if breathing in simultaneously.

“That is not a grievance,” Hanno noted.

“She’s corrupt,” Christophe de Pavanie said. “She made a deal with the Hunted Magician to let him off-”

“The Hunted Magician is to stand trial within the week,” the White Knight corrected. “I am to be a member of the tribunal.”

“Don’t be obtuse,” the Mirror Knight insisted, “she alone gets to decide the sentence, and she was arrogant enough to take her bribe while I was in the room. She thinks herself untouchable, White Knight.”

“She alone stands as judge over the Damned, by the Terms we all agreed on,” the Kingfisher Prince said. “To argue against that is to argue against their very existence.”

Which by the way his tone had cooled, was not a stance that would endear anyone to the prince.

“What meaning is there in the Terms, if the one enforcing them on villains abuses her office?” the Mirror Knight said. “We’ve offered amnesty to a parade of rapists and murderers but the Damned holding their leash is just as corrupt. Is it any wonder that the likes of the Red Axe strike against us?”

Christophe de Pavanie rose to his feet, animated and angry. The emotion did him no favours with some at the table, but it caught the attention of others. There had been doubts about the Terms from the beginning, after all, and two of the heroes who’d most stringently argued against their current form were in this hall – both Adanna and Christophe had been deeply opposed to the principle of villains policing themselves through the Black Queen. Enough that they’d threatened to walk, though it’d been an empty threat. It had been a point of principle back then, however. It’d since grown into a genuine belief for the Mirror Knight, it was plain to Hanno’s eyes.

“We are losing the mandate of the Heavens,” the Mirror Knight warned. “Every time we care more about the letter of a treaty than doing good, we lose ourselves a little more.  That is Below’s subtlest scheme: to make us embrace one evil in seeking the destruction of another.”

Hanno had heard many people claim they understood the designs of the Heavens, over the years, and what their mandate for their children was. It was unfortunate that no degree of certainty seemed to prevent them from error, or mutual exclusivity in their claims. His attention, beyond the words being spoken, was on the heroes in the room. Some were skeptical, the White Knight thought as he studied the Named, but others were visibly in agreement. The Blade of Mercy, the Blessed Artificer. Reluctantly, the Bitter Blacksmith. Given the deep enmity she had with her brother, Hanno suspected that her leanings there were personally driven. She must be troubled by the thought that the reason she’d refrained from fighting her brother to the death, the Terms, might have been some trick of the Gods Below.

“Horseshit,” the Vagrant Spear said. “The Red Axe killed the Wicked Enchanter. He was an animal of the worst kind, but what does that change? She gave her word. We all did. And now you’re trying to wriggle out of it, like a worm on the hook.”

“She got Nephele killed,” Christophe de Pavanie hissed.

“No,” the Blade of Mercy burst out.

Astonished, the Mirror Knight turned towards the younger man.

“I was there, it wasn’t like that,” Antoine insisted. “She lost soldiers, too, and it was the Hierophant who caught the demon. Not her, not us, him.”

“Hierophant hasn’t enough interest in people to get them killed on purpose,” the Bitter Blacksmith grunted. “And he liked Nephele, I remember.”

“Praesi hide their intentions skillfully,” Adanna said.

She then withered under Helmgard’s skeptical gaze.

“It is perhaps unlikely,” she conceded. “And though she is a vicious brute, I’ll admit I have some doubts the Black Queen would have attempted to arrange the death of an ally in the middle of a fight with a demon. She is a practical sort of monster, and more careful with her life than her cavalier manners would make you believe.”

On the account of the pragmatism and cavalier manners, Hanno tended to agree. Catherine was also savagely protective of those she considered in her care, whether they were objectively deserving of that protection or not, so that she might have arranged for Nephele to die was… improbable. Not impossible, of course, and he was willing to hear out Christophe, but he was more inclined to believe in a misunderstanding than a conspiracy.

“What leads you to believe that the Repentant Magister was the victim of a plot?” the White Knight asked.

The Mirror Knight blinked, biting his lip.

“A library was burned, and in it there were two false Revenants who attacked us as we tried to rescue the Doddering Sage,” he said. “It must have been the Black Queen and one of her servants, who else could it have been?”

“Even if you were right, how would that lead to scheming Nephele’s murder?” the Rogue Sorcerer asked.

“She lied to us,” Christophe said. “Do you not see?”

The Blind Maker cleared his throat. The Mirror Knight’s face tightened with anger.

“And now you mock me, just as she did,” he said. “Does no one else understand what she’s doing to us even now?”

Hanno chose his words carefully, but perhaps too slowly. He was not the first to answer.

“So here we are,” the Rogue Sorcerer quietly said. “The truth comes out at last. Nephele died and your pride was hurt, so now you’re throwing a tantrum painted over with righteous speech. The part that disgusts me most, Knight, is that you are pretending you actually knew her. The way us here at the Arsenal did, we who shared years with her. You swagger around arrogating the loss of others, as if it makes you important and worth listening to.”

Roland cast a look of icy contempt at the other hero.

“All it makes you is the most despicable sort of braggart,” the Rogue Sorcerer said. “Have the decency of silence, Mirror Knight, and sit in your fucking chair.”

Roland,” Hanno sharply said. “That’s enough. Being insulted is no reason to return the treatment in kind, not amongst allies.”

“You’re a disgrace, Sorcerer,” the Blade of Mercy spat.

“Swallow your tongue, boy,” the Bitter Blacksmith harshly said. “You have already given away your right to speak.”

“I will not speak to the Rogue Sorcerer’s anger,” the Forlorn Paladin said, “but his doubts I’ll admit to sharing. You cast grave accusations, Mirror Knight, but offer no proof. Even a villain is due more than that.”

“This is all pointless talk, anyway,” the Vagrant Spear exasperatedly said. “Even if every word you spoke was true, Christophe, what is it that could be done? You want to spank the Black Queen’s bottoms until she learns about virtue? The moment one of us – any of us – attacks her, the Kingdom of Callow‘s armies will leave and let Procer burn to the ground.”

“They have a duty,” Christophe tightly said. “And I do not speak of forcing her to abdicate her crown, Sidonia. Is Lady Vivienne Dartwick not her heir? Let her replace the crooked queen as representative for the Damned, then.”

“That is enough of that,” Hanno said.

Eyes turned him.

“We do not rule the Grand Alliance,” the White Knight evenly said. “We do not settle its affairs for it, much less meddle with its constituent crowns. We are servants of the Gods Above who have sworn an oath of war against the Hidden Horror.”

Hanno swept his gaze across the room.

“We must remain aware of our limits,” the White Knight said. “We are not deciding the fate of the Queen of Callow between us, or the fate of the Severance, much less who the representative for villains would be under rules that we have already given our oath to observe. If you have concerns, I will hear them. I you have grievances, I will act on them. But do not delude yourselves, not for a moment, that we can dictate terms to half of Calernia bound in alliance.”

Few looked like they wanted to object, and none who dwelled in the Arsenal. They understood best, Hanno thought, the actual scale of something like the Grand Alliance. They’d seen it at work, when this unearthly place had been carved out of nothing in less than a year. The others knew only their front, their battle, their struggle. It was human nature, Hanno knew, to reduce things to something that was easier to grasp. That did not make you uncomfortable about how very small you were. The Seraphim had stripped him of that, among their many gifts. The White Knight perfectly understood how insignificant a speck of dust he truly was, and that had allowed him a certain… clarity of sight, in some ways.

“You’re going to kill the Red Axe.”

Hanno turned a calm gaze to the Mirror Knight, whose green eyes had gone cold.

“I am,” the White Knight agreed. “If a law cannot be borne, let it not be borne. I will not worship at the altar of our imperfections and pretend it is infallible. But if it is to stand, if it is to be heeded, there cannot be exceptions.”

Hanno did not judge, for that was not his place even bereft the guidance of the Seraphim, but he was neither blind nor deaf. He would act as he must, knowing his actions to be blind and imperfect. Christophe de Pavanie rose to his feet. Slowly, inexorably.

“No,” the Mirror Knight harshly said. “I will not allow it.”

Those were not, the White Knight thought, words that could be taken back.