Chapter 22: Trip

“A war fought and won for the wrong reasons, under the wrong cause, can be a greater threat to the Praes than simple defeat. Maleficent the First spoke of villains raising their own gallows, but failed to add that the killing stroke in a hanging comes from the height of the drop.”
– Extract from ‘The Death of the Age of Wonders’, a treatise by Dread Empress Malicia

“Preposterous,” Prince Arnaud of Cantal blustered.

He wasn’t the only one to speak up in the aftermath of that particular trebuchet stone being lobbed, but he was by far the loudest. And his heartbeat had not changed in the slightest, though his face was the very picture of angry befuddlement. All right, that one bore watching. I’d never met anyone this good at acting outside of the High Lords and maybe a handful of Named. I leaned back into my seat and riffled through my cloak pockets until I had my pipe in hand. The small satchel of wakeleaf parted under my fingers and I poured the contents into the chamber. I had a few matches, but also a quicker way. I coughed until Masego turned his attention from the book he was not-so-discretely reading under the table to me. I tapped the side of the pipe he’d gifted me with a finger. Scoffing, he flicked his wrist and fire bloomed within the chamber.

“Thank you, Lord Hierophant,” I drawled. “As for the many statements of the Proceran delegation, I’ll point you to the Chosen known as the Grey Pilgrim. A truth-teller of great skill, as I understand it.”

The gaze of everyone in the pavilion moved to the old man, still standing and devoid of expression. That’s right, I thought. I’m not lying. I didn’t have to. I very much doubted the Grand Alliance would just hand me a tankard and invite me to sit at the table, but even a refusal would need more than just Hasenbach involved. The Ashurans would have to put the question through committees, unless their quasi-king Magon Hadast intervened, and more importantly the Dominion would have to go through the Majilis. Their inept, bickering and deeply divided equivalent to the Highest Assembly. The entire process could take months even for a refusal. And if they accepted? Well, it wasn’t like I wasn’t intending to make deals with all of them eventually. It was a necessary component to the Liesse Accords being adopted. It was a different approach than I’d intended, but so long as it worked what did I care?

“The Queen in Callow did not speak a lie,” the Pilgrim flatly said.

I’d been a bit too much to swallow to tell them outright I was telling the truth, apparently. Nice to know even the Peregrine could be petty.

“This is a trick,” Princess Adeline of Orne insisted. “You are one of the Damned.”

Fancy Proceran talk for villain, I took it. The Chosen and the Damned, huh. Somehow I suspected a lot of foreign heroes who ended up fighting against Procer also ended up, by pure coincidence of course, painted with damnation brush. I breathed in the smoke, then allowed it to billow upwards with my exhale.

“And?” I said. “I already offered the Pilgrim passage through Arcadia if your army was willing to assault Praes directly. I’m not exactly unwilling to kick in the Empire’s teeth, Princess, and I was under the impression that was exactly what the Tenth Crusade was about. Or are there other concerns I don’t know about?”

My smile turned a little colder at that. She did not flinch, but her heartbeat quickened in fear. The taste of it was just as intoxicating as the wine I was oathbound not to drink. Brave soul, that one, but out of her depth today. She wasn’t in on the game the Pilgrim was playing. Prince Amadis began to speak, but the Pilgrim hastily cleared his throat to stay the man’s tongue. Wouldn’t do to have the mortals fuck up your scheme, would it?

“As a vassal state of the Tower-” the old man began.

“Is the Proceran delegation turning back on the premises of this negotiation?” Aisha interrupted smilingly. “You are addressing the Queen in Callow, Grey Pilgrim, by mutual agreement.”

I beamed at the lovely tribune. Ah, Aisha. Always quick on the uptake, wasn’t she? If it didn’t have ‘terrible idea’ written all over it in red ink, it would be tempting to give her a whirl.

“Over twenty thousand men were butchered by the Army of Callow,” Malanza spoke up. “You expect us to ignore this?”

“All a misunderstanding, evidently,” I replied calmly. “I believed your expeditionary force to be an attempt at invasion. I regret what came from it, but you must understand that Callowans have a chequered history with armies crossing our borders after using massive sorcerous rituals.”

There was a muted sound as Brandon Talbot choked on his tongue. The implied comparison to the Dread Empire ruffled more than a few feathers on the other side of the table, but they couldn’t exactly deny the bird’s eye view of it. Hasenbach’s burning of a passage was admittedly more grounded than your average Dread Emperor’s crowning disaster, but the similarities were there.

“Your alleged intent to seek alignment with the Grand Alliance is irrelevant to the negotiations being held today,” the Pilgrim said.

I glanced at Aisha. I was pulling one on him so far but it wouldn’t do to get cocky. The more we conversed the higher the chances he turned the tables.

“That is inaccurate,” the Taghreb aristocrat replied. “As is would be unlawful to be a signatory of the Alliance while paying any form of tribute to the Tower, providing this statement served the purpose of answering your question.”

So, I mused, watching Amadis across the table even though he was not the object of my thoughts. You going to keep fighting this one, Pilgrim, or give ground and rally for the third? I’d cut the grass under his feet by presenting myself as a possible ally, right in the wake of a bloody battle that saw no clear winner. He couldn’t work the ‘heroes with their back up against the wall’ story angle with a foundation that weak, not while the Procerans were fed and under truce. ‘Evil turns on Evil’ had been his move, but I should have tiptoed around the pitfall by stating in front of a truth-teller that I was willing to slap some red crosses onto the armour of the Army of Callow and fight the Good fight. That’d make me the one prick in every heroic band that crossed lines for the Greater Good, if it worked. The Lone Swordsman of continental coalitions, if you would. Two for two, so far. Parry and riposte. But we both know it’s the third one that matters, don’t we? I puff at my pipe, allowing the wakeleaf to fill my lungs. The old man was studying me in silence, but I did not meet his eyes.

“The clarification was sufficient,” Pilgrim finally said, and sat down.

Cutting his losses, I presumed, since I was no longer willing to engage. I remained silent as negotiations picked up again through intermediaries. The Procerans made an argument that reparations were not needed if this was all an accident, but Aisha turned it around by noting that the sale of supplies was a different matter entirely. That the terms of the truce specifically did not prevent them from entering Praes took the wind out of their sails, since they had to maintain the pretence that their ‘expeditionary force’ wasn’t an army meant to invade Callow – if they strayed from that, they were entering a nightmarish quagmire of war reparations and official apologies none of them could really afford back in Procer. My attention began to wane as the hours passed, tediously taking us to Afternoon Bell, but I forced myself to follow everything closely. I could not afford to be taken unawares when the Pilgrim intervened again. Yet none of the heroes spoke so much as a word, and I grew tenser the longer the sword remained hanging over my head. My side got its way when it came to terms of payment for the supplies, though the Procerans bargained down to only needing to pay a quarter of the total sum directly out of their pockets even if it was framed as a loan from Hasenbach to them. Odds were the First Prince would flip them the finger and that quarter was all I’d ever see, but considering I was essentially selling them back their own supplies I’d take it anyway. Even just having the documents would give me something to use when I had to treat with Hasenbach herself down the line.

The diplomatic claptrap continued, polite verbal fencing back and forth across the table. The crusaders tried to fuck us over what land was actually recognized as ‘under the rule of the Queen in Callow’, and to my distaste got the better of it. I couldn’t exactly make the argument that the Red Flower Vales were mine when they were factually in the hands of the Legions of Terror, and that meant the northern crusade could move against Black down there without breaking our terms. It’d be months before they even got out of Callow, I told myself. And it would take even more time for them to recover and march on the Vales. By then Black would either have won or lost against Papenheim. If he’d won, I’d have to trust that he could hold the valleys regardless. I couldn’t afford for him not to. And if he lost, well, the northern crusade would still be forbidden to go further than the Vales until the truce ran out. At that point I’d have more immediate problems anyway. We weren’t halfway to Evening Bell and there was only a single issue that hadn’t been addressed, guarantees for the treaty – though we’d have to double back to the supplies since that one had been kicked down the slope by Prince Amadis. It was beginning to look like we’d walk out of the pavilion with an actual agreement before nightfall, which had me wary.

The Procerans could have delayed much more than they had. We’d expected them to, as long as the battle for the Vales was undecided. This was going well, which meant I was about to have my knuckles rapped. Except the Pilgrim didn’t get up. It was the mouthpiece that addressed the subject, and my fingers clenched under the table. This wasn’t going to be straightforward negotiations, since it was about the mechanisms that would be enforcing the treaty. I wanted oaths to the Heavens out of everyone involved, witnessed by a hero, but Aisha had pretty bluntly informed me that wasn’t going to happen even if I offered to make an oath of my own. Our best guess was that they’d push for something along the lines of the agreement being made public so anyone breaking it would have their reputation tarnished. We wouldn’t accept that, since they might very well get away with breaking a treaty with a villain with praise for being clever in screwing over the enemy instead of any backlash for dealing in bad faith. The compromise we’d be working for was material value being left behind as guarantee, as well as staggered departure for the Proceran host so we’d have a knife at their throat if they tried to double-cross us. Breaking a promise to the bearer of a fae mantle would come back to haunt them, anyway, so this was mostly a precaution to account for any outside solution we didn’t know about.

Except after Aisha proposed my terms – as a starting position to be bargained down from, to my chagrin – the Procerans didn’t offer what we’d expected.

“As a sign of good faith, we are willing to offer a royal hostage,” the middle-aged diplomat said. “We would, however, require an accompanying observer and a guarantee of safety for both.”

That had to be the Pilgrim’s play, but I wasn’t seeing it. There wasn’t a good angle to use with the supplies deal, at least none that I could see, and after that there was nothing left to negotiate about. All right, then, royal hostage. What could he do with that? Assassinate the hostage after I took custody of them, so this entire treaty was ripped in half. If Malicia had made me an offer like this, it would be what I expected. Except that this wasn’t the way Pilgrim did things. Sure, he’d basically put his seal on the Saint offing me under a – glamoured, I had to concede that much – truce banner, but that plan didn’t fit with the way he’d approached this so far. Letting me die for the greater good was one thing, and he’d been pretty upfront that was essentially his intent when we first sat down for our fireside chat. But murder? No, that was going against the grain. He could be banking on either one of my people fucking up or Praes being out for blood, though. Not outright bloodying his hand, but shaping the situation so it would unfold the way he needed it to. That I could buy.

Except I’d have the hostage neck deep in wards in the safest place I could find, and Malicia wanted to use Amadis’ gaggle of expansionists to make a mess in Procer. That wasn’t to say if she decided it would be useful to weaken me she wouldn’t assassinate royalty that wasn’t Malanza or Milenan, the two she’d ordered me not to kill. But unless she had Assassin to call on, which I was almost certain she didn’t, she’d have a very hard time pulling this off. I had the fucking Hierophant designing my defences, these days, and the Guild of Assassins in my pocket. It wasn’t impossible but it would require a significant investment of resources at a juncture when her backyard was already on fire. Pilgrim might not know a High Lord’s seat got sacked and the court is up in arms about it, though, I mused. Lack of information? No, I could never assume that. Not with the Augur on the other side, and the pile of aspects the heroes had to draw from. Hells, it wasn’t even off the table that one of them had a godsdamned angel whispering secrets in their ear. In what circumstances was giving me a royal hostage the correct move, assuming they didn’t get killed?

If he wanted this treaty to work.

Was it that simple? That’d been treating him like an unmovable enemy when he was actually willing to work with me? No. Be cold. Be clear. Be a creature of logic, because the moment you allow your judgement to be affected is the moment you lose. My understanding of the Pilgrim, as based in fact, was that he was no more inclined to compromise than I. I desperately wanted someone on the other side to be willing to work with me, so I was painting what I wanted to see on the canvas. If he’d allowed this, it was because he saw a path to victory through it. And I couldn’t discern what he wanted to accomplish from my point of view, so I would have to adopt his. I am the Pilgrim, I thought. I have seen dozens if not hundreds of the villains, and I am apt at reading them. My truth-telling abilities may run deeper than that. How did I trick Catherine Foundling, if I understood what she was after? She wanted the treaty to succeed, so – no, mistake. That was the shatranj board on the ground, not the one he was trying to win on. The villain queen has wiggled out of my plan to pit her against other villains by trying to make herself into the suspect ally on the side of the Tenth Crusade. That is an issue, since it makes her difficult to assault. But she took a stance, and every stance has vulnerabilities. What is hers? She is behaving like an ally, looking down from Above.

How much effort would it actually take, to enforce that?

My grip loosened under the table. So that was it. I’d already done it to myself accidentally with the Lone Swordsman, back in the day: the Pilgrim’s play was a redemption story. It didn’t matter that I was in charge of Callow, if I was no longer a villain. Sure, most redemption stories ended in death. Sacrifice to make up for previous sins and all that, passing the torch to someone that had the same heroism but less blood on their hands. That was just spice in the wine, though, since it got him all the benefits of Callow not longer heading down the cliff without having to deal the issues inherent in keeping me around after my bloody history. In a way, this could be considered an elegantly subtle assassination attempt. The Grey Pilgrim or someone he handpicked according to his understanding of me would be the observer in the Proceran terms, and then all he had to do was wait and let the story do the heavy lifting. I laughed softly, ignoring the odd looks it got me. Gods, I’d underestimated him. He was playing me on the earthly board to win on the story one. Callow, of which I was queen, needed the truce for practical reasons. I needed the truce because it was a first step in getting the Accords signed. And so I would accept, knowing he was trying to kill me through it.

I admired the calculated methods Black used to kill heroes. I’d learned from them, emulated the techniques when dealing with the heroes who came into Callow. In that same distant way, I could admire what the Pilgrim had done here. My teacher was a villain, so he came at it from the perspective that the stories would get him killed. So he avoided them. The Grey Pilgrim was a hero, so he came at it from the perspective that the stories would get him what he wanted. So he leant into them. From an objective perspective, even if this was very likely meant to kill me, I could only commend how well I was being played. He’d read what I wanted, and was giving it to me in a way that led to his victory. And even deeper than that, he must know that even if I saw through this I’d feel bound to accept. Because I wasn’t Black. I was not a pupil of martyrdom, but I did believe there were things worth dying for. If I paid my dues in blood to the Gods Above, Callow would avoid the slaughter marching towards it. All it required me to do was smile, accept, and kiss the knife that would slit my throat. You have found the thing I most want in the world, and used it to kill me.

There wasn’t a fucking devil in existence that could have played it better.

“And the identity of the hostage and observer?” I asked, breaking in before Aisha could pursue the matter.

“As the leader of this host, it is my duty to serve as the hostage,” Prince Amadis Milenan said, inclining his head towards me.

And it was no doubt a fortunate coincidence that this honourable sacrifice would make him the hero who’d gone into the wolf’s den for the sake of his men instead of the ambitious fuckup who’d pissed away over twenty thousand men trying annex Callow. The other royals would return to Procer, where Hasenbach wouldn’t be able to blame them – Prince Amadis, after all, was the official leader of the army. And the man himself would be out of the First Prince’s reach to punish, not that she’d be able to after he’d become a hostage to save his men. He’d come out of this smelling like roses, a tragic figure who had fallen prey to the wickedness of the Black Queen. Meanwhile his allies in Procer would be building the altar of his legend so when he returned it would be to the praise of the thousands instead of blackened by inglorious defeat. Burning Hells. Even when I won, with these people, they still didn’t lose. Both sides getting their way had felt like a better principle before I’d had to look the truth of it in the eye.

“And I volunteer myself as the observer,” the Grey Pilgrim added calmly.

I didn’t humour him with a reply. We already knew my answer. I leaned towards Aisha.

“I’m going to agree to this,” I whispered in her ear. “Use it to extract concessions over supplies. You’ll find them more flexible than anticipated.”

Her dark eyes were troubled, but she was a Wastelander through and through. Her face became a mask and she did not argue with me in front of the enemy. I leaned back and my eyes turned to the Pilgrim. I was past pretending this wasn’t his game.

“I’ll accept these terms,” I said. “I believe we’re done here?”

The old man inclined his head.

“So we are,” he replied.

I rose to my feet, flicking a glance at Prince Amadis.

“Aisha Bishara speaks with my full authority,” I said. “She will finish these negotiations in my name.”

It was not proper etiquette, but I did not have it in me to stay seated and smile across the table from a man who’d just arranged my death, however beautifully. I offered the bare necessities of courtesy before leaving, Thief trailing behind me with worried eyes. Hierophant only noticed what was happening when I was halfway out the pavilion, then got up and left without even the semblance of an explanation. I halted and looked up at the descending sun, after I exited the conference. The Pilgrim thought he’d won. But he didn’t understand quite what I was after, did he? That for the Accords to work, there was a need for someone enforcing them from the side of Evil. Or maybe he did, and didn’t believe it would make a difference. In the end, a mistake had been made today.

Whether it was his or mine, only time would tell.

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Chapter 21: Tug-of-War

“Invading Callow is much like drunkenly playing dice: the odds are never as good as you believe, and you know you’ve reached bottom when snake eyes are involved.”
– Dread Emperor Malevolent III, the Pithy

I pricked my ears, gauging the enemy. Most of the Proceran delegation had either skipped a beat or seen their pulse quicken when the Pilgrim rose to his feet. That was telling. Since it was dubious anyone that high up in the Proceran pecking order was faint of heart, the implication was that this particular play had been kept close to the chest. There were only four who’d not had a physical reaction of fear or surprise: Prince Amadis, Princess Rozala, Prince Arnaud and the middle-aged diplomat who’d been the mouthpiece for the opposition so far. The first two were only to be expected, and the last a given, but the third? That was interesting. Arnaud of Cantal did not strike me as the kind of man the other two royals would keep deep in their confidence. Has he found out on his own? If he was spying on the leaders of the northern crusade, that was a possible angle for Thief to exploit. Turning him seemed unlikely, but if his spying apparatus could be infiltrated… Something to discuss with her later. I made a note to have Vivienne dig deeper into the man, as there was apparently more to him than his reputation. The Grey Pilgrim’s words were followed by heavy silence and I did not hurry to respond.

This, I knew, was the beginning of the deeper game. The war behind the war, where Named would claw at each other like animals to get the morsels of narrative they needed for the final victory. The thing was, as it stood, I was winning that fight. I’d repeatedly made overtures for peace, brought up whenever I could that the enemy was invading my homeland for mostly petty reasons and avoided – as much as feasible – falling into the kind of villainous stand that would get me winning in the short term and killed in the long one. As long as this remained a negotiation between mortals, for mortal motives, I came out ahead. Sure, they were a better hand at diplomacy and likely I’d end up unable to capitalize on several of my advantages. But that was fine, in the greater scheme of things, so long as I walked out of this pavilion with some gains and my narrative intact. There were earthly logistics to this, and Black had made an entire career out of proving those could win a war regardless of the subtler workings of Creation, but I was confident that as long as I held my ground story-wise I’d emerge in a position to begin the sequence of events that’d get me to my objective.

Which meant that I had to avoid engaging the Pilgrim as much as I could. I had a knack for stories, twisting them and using them. It came naturally to me. But the opposition had actually lived through hundreds of them. The experience gap between us was overwhelming, and that was without even taking into consideration whatever tricks the Heavens were sure to have bestowed upon him to make sure he’d keep coming out ahead. I could not confidently state I would win against the Grey Pilgrim, so my safest path was not to fight him at all. Ironically, my sharpest tool in ensuring that was something I generally had little patience for: etiquette. Instead of replying to the old Levantine, I leaned towards Aisha.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said. “But isn’t it a severe breach of decorum for someone without a formal role in negotiations to directly address a queen?”

The lovely Taghreb’s lips quirked.

“That is so,” she said, pitching her voice so it would be heard by all. “Under Tower law, such a transgression is punishable by flaying of the left hand and foot.”

Several of the Procerans’ hearts quivered.

“It has been the stance of your delegation to advance the Queen in Callow as an entity separate from the Tower’s rule,” the Pilgrim said, face serene. “Was this a misrepresentation?”

I did one the things I hated most in the world: I kept my fucking mouth shut. The moment I got involved the narrative was back in play. Lose, I told myself. Let him win the small things, so long as you get what you came for.

“Observations on the nature of Praesi law are no admission of anything else,” Thief coldly noted. “To pretend otherwise is disingenuous, and might be taken as an attempt to sink honest negotiations. Is that the intent of the Proceran delegation?”

I sat straighter in my chair. Thief was one of the Woe, and the Woe were under me. Would anything coming out of her mouth contribute to the tapestry the Pilgrim was trying to weave? Not if I contradicted her, I suspected, but if I was remaining silent… Best to stay on the safe side. Picking out a sliver of Winter, I formed a ring around her index on the hand beneath the table and squeezed it lightly. She inclined her head slightly to the left, acknowledging my warning as I allowed the construct to dissipate.

“A curious thing, that seeking clarity would be taken as offence,” the Pilgrim said. “Regardless, there is precedent.”

The Proceran mouthpiece bowed again.

“As far as the year seventy-four, Chosen recognized as titled advisors have been allowed to address to the Highest Assembly directly,” the man said. “As far one hundred and eleven, the same have been granted right of involvement with negotiations held with foreign powers.”

Seventy-four, huh. That was the year eight hundred ninety, by the Imperial calendar – Procerans begun theirs after the founding of the Principate, which had only taken place a year after Triumphant’s fall. Considering the current Imperial year was thirteen hundred and twenty-seven, that was not a young precedent. It shouldn’t matter, though, and if I’d picked up on that, Aisha should have as well. Living up to my expectation, the Staff Tribune advanced where we remained silent.

“Proceran custom is not universally binding,” she pointed out. “There is no such precedent for our delegation. Regardless, right of involvement would not equate right of interrogation.”

The middle-aged diplomat smothered a smile. A mistake had been made.

“Queen Eleanor Fairfax granted privilege to voice thoughts and questions freely to the contemporary Wizard of the West, after her coronation,” the man said. “This is a matter of public record. That privilege has been maintained through every known Choosing since.”

I kept my face rigid. Was that true? It might very well be. Records were sparse about the Old Kingdom, nowadays, save those that related to mundane matters – where the Empire’s rule tended to come out as a more prosperous, if also more tyrannical, alternative. My teacher had been thorough in taking the knife to anything that could feasibly become fodder for a hero’s rise, and knowledge about past Wizards of the West would have been high on that list of proscriptions. Except he wouldn’t have been able expunge Proceran records, not in depth anyway. The man’s heartbeat was steady, which could be an indication he was telling the truth – or merely that he was a very good liar.

“The Proceran delegation has not recognized ours as being representative of the Kingdom of Callow,” Grandmaster Talbot said, cool voice cutting clearly through the hesitation. “Only of the Queen in Callow, making such precedent irrelevant. Which it would be even if otherwise, unless by some labyrinthine exercise of reason an equivalence between the attempted murderer of Queen Catherine and the ancient servants of the now-extinct House Fairfax was established. Which it was not.”

Brandon fucking Talbot, I thought, smothering a grin. Riding in lance high at the last moment, proper knight that he was.

“Lack of recognition for Proceran law endangers the entire process of treaty-making,” the middle-aged diplomat warned.

“Forceful imposition of foreign customs on the same process is not a standard this delegation is willing to establish,” Aisha replied pleasantly. “We do not recognize the attempt to establish precedent by the Proceran delegation, and move the first issue on the program should now be addressed.”

“Is this to be who you truly are, Catherine Foundling?” the Grey Pilgrim said, soft voice carrying across the pavilion. “A villain hiding behind petty excuses, unwilling to even speak with those you deem foes?”

My fingers clenched. The fucker. He had a lot of nerves saying that, after he’d tacitly allowed the Saint to try to kill me under a godsdamned truce banner. I leaned forward to – let him win the small things, so long as you get what you came for. My teeth came down and I bit off my tongue, knowing I would not be able to keep silent otherwise. If Masego’s weakness was the need for utter precision, then mine was the inability to just keep my fucking mouth shut. Blood filled my mouth as Winter lazily coursed through my veins, repairing the self-inflicted damage. I swallowed as discretely as I could. The violent urge to respond was not gone, but the immediacy had ebbed. I kept my eyes on Prince Amadis, who was eyeing me with a mixture of disgust and fascination. I bared reddened teeth at him, watching his muscles clench to suppress a flinch.

“Shall we proceed, Your Grace?” I asked.

He inclined his head by a fraction. Good. I’d weathered the first blow, but if I knew anything about patterns that was the first of three. I would have to remain wary. Aisha had thought it odd that the Procerans had not fought back harder on the terms of truce and retreat being the first subject addressed, but now we knew why. They’d intended on flipping the table before it even came to that. Now, though, they were stuck actually discussing it. Withdrawal from the Tenth Crusade for the royals had never been in the cards, much as it irked me. For them to put their seal to a treaty binding them to that would be high treason and sustained heresy under Proceran law. One of the ancient First Princes had passed that motion through the Highest Assembly, after a few Arlesite principalities dropped out of one of the crusades against the Kingdom of the Dead. Their agitations in the south while the rest of the Principate was busy dying up north had been so deeply despised by the surviving princes they’d been willing to limit their own prerogatives to see the deserters punished. No, our wiggle room was narrower than that. The first opening was that, technically speaking, the Tenth Crusade had been declared on Praes. It would be damaging to their reputation to make a deal with me, but not actually illegal.

The second was that I wasn’t asking for peace, only a truce. The terms we were after were eighteen months where none of the signatories or soldiers under their command could enter Callow, which was where we first got shafted by the premises agreed on. They managed to have it defined as ‘the lands under the rule of the Queen in Callow’, which gave them some flexibility. The moment a part of the kingdom renounced my rule, it was fair game again and they could get involved without breaking the letter of the agreement. Or, and I was just guessing here, if a disavowed heroine like the Saint just happened cut my head off – well, it would be convenient coincidence that there were no longer any lands under the rule of the Queen in Callow, wouldn’t it? I was going to have to watch my back very, very carefully in the coming months. Eve more so than usual. Aisha began bargaining forthree years of truce and slowly allowed herself to be whittled down to fourteen months, though at least she got a concession out of it. The fantassins across the field were in the employment of the princes and princesses attending, but that was a matter of contract. Those could be released, at which point the terms would no longer apply to them. Horse-trading for six months less of truce, Aisha managed to extract they’d sign the treaty as well. None of the companies would be able to just sign up with the Iron Prince’s host instead.

A goodwill clause forbidding the fantassins to simply disband their companies and reform under a different name was written in, because even I had seen that loophole coming. It was when we moved to the second subject, supplies, that Thief’s predictions came true and they began their attempt to fuck us in earnest. You’d think they’d at least provide dinner first. Bad form, Amadis. Going at it with only wine made it look like they thought we were easy.

“As a sign of good faith, we would require that the Army of Callow continue to provide supplies while negotiations are ongoing, at the previously agreed cost,” Prince Amadis requested, meeting my eyes directly.

It wasn’t the first time they’d tried that. Fairly early on they’d narrowed in on the fact that my diplomatic training was lacking compared to Aisha’s or Talbot’s, and since they’d tried to get me involved as much as possible. Best way for them to do that was to ditch the mouthpiece and let the Prince of Iserre do the talking: he had enough status that etiquette dictated I couldn’t just foist the thing off to Aisha if he spoke to me directly. It was a play on their part, we both knew that. But it also left me with no real reason to call them out, and if these talks imploded because I’d walked out without a damned good reason? That was the story of a villain queen so arrogant she was willing to starve dozens of thousands for perceived insults. It did not bode well for me. This was going to be a pivot, I knew that and the Pilgrim most definitely did. It meant every word spoken today had weight. I’d be eroding at my own gains if I pulled out now, and even if it likely wouldn’t be enough to flip the entire story the opposition didn’t need that, strictly speaking. Just my position being weakened would make it much easier to kill me. Was this the second blow? No, the confrontation was too indirect. The Pilgrim had made himself the speaker for Above, it wasn’t something that could be handed to Amadis like a plate of pastries.

“While we are not willing to make that concession, we share your worry on the appearance of coercion,” I blandly replied.

Meaning it wouldn’t look good if it appeared we were negotiating with a loaded crossbow pointed at their balls, though we were both aware there were plenty crossbows today to go around. The Jacks had confirmed Hasenbach had her own scrying-capable mages in play, called the Order of the Red Lion. We also knew, from Masego, that they were at least a decade behind Praesi spell formulas when it came to that, which meant they couldn’t do relays and their range was limited: they could chain the reports manually, but that was tricky business. Hierophant’s best guess for the crusaders getting news from the battle at the Red Flower Vales was a delay of two days. Knowing Black, he was very unlikely to gamble it all on the first day. He’d stretch it out through series of fortifications, made even more efficient by the narrow valleys and steep slopes of the Vales. That provided us with some room to manoeuver.

“We are willing to immediately provide three days’ worth of supplies, at the agreed on cost, to prevent that misunderstanding,” I continued calmly.

Prince Amadis’ heartbeat quickened. Anger. Yeah, you princely shit. We saw that one coming. There was still risk involved, should Papenheim somehow win an immediate and crushing victory – or, more probably, if Black decided a strategic retreat out of the Vales was the correct decision – but odds were the crusaders would have to make the deal without knowing the outcome. They really wanted to avoid that, of course. But outright feeding them for three days yanked away their pretext to push for better terms. They could still delay until the days were past, but then we’d be the ones with grounds to protest bad faith. And we both know Kegan is coming. Your window of opportunity is narrow. If they failed to make terms before the Deoraithe arrived, their bargaining position took a hit. Juniper had urged me to send Larat to fetch Kegan’s host, and I’d already made up my mind to agree if we didn’t walk out with a deal by the day’s end. It was a naked threat, sure, and before the meeting began I’d worried about souring the process by resorting to it. But they were aready pushing back pretty hard, and if they were stretching things out on purpose threats were not a line I was unwilling to cross.

“The gesture is appreciated,” Amadis said evenly. “However, I worry this could be misconstrued as impropriety. Rumours of bribery would damage the reputation of all involved.”

My eyes narrowed. We were making the crusaders pay for the supplies, it was hardly a fucking bribe. Princes were touchy about their reputation, though, so while it wasn’t a good reason it was a halfway plausible one. And it wasn’t a reply we anticipated, though we should have. I glanced at Aisha, but she could be no help. Fuck. There was probably a way out of this, but I couldn’t think of one at the moment.

“We can table the matter for the moment,” I conceded grudgingly.

“As you say,” the Prince of Iserre replied, the hint of a smile on his lips as he inclined his head.

Aisha bowed in her seat, then addressed the table.

“We now address the third subject on the program,” the Supply Tribune said, “as requested by the Callowan delegation. Provenance and direction of promised coin.”

In other words, who was going to foot the bill for the supplies they were getting. That was going to be one of the trickier bits, Vivienne had told me. The Procerans were going to try to pass it all to Hasenbach, but we might have a way around that. For ‘practical reasons’ we were going to suggest they provide the coin themselves, though it would be framed as a loan on the part of the First Prince towards them. Our turn to screw them over the negotiation premises, for this one. As an expeditionary force of the First Prince, they had legal grounds to agree to that – if they were Hasenbach’s mandated minions, anything falling under war reparations was ultimately her responsibility to pay for. Aisha had noted some of them might consider it a worthwhile trade off to have the First Prince owe them money, since by leveraging that debt they might avoid political retaliation for a retreat. Thief had been more dubious, arguing that they’d balk since Cordelia might manage to get out of paying them anything back. It was going to come down to finesse.

“The delegation recognizes the Chosen known as the Grey Pilgrim, formal advisor to the Prince of Iserre,” the mouthpiece intoned.

Well, shit. We were halfway through the list now, so in retrospective I should have seen it coming.

“In matter of direction, I seek clarification,” the Pilgrim said. “The Principate of Procer is currently at war with the Dread Empire of Praes. As it could be considered treason for any coin paid through this treaty to come to gild Imperial coffers through either commerce or tribute, a question must first be addressed. Does the Queen in Callow intend to pursue formal independence from the Tower?”

I closed my eyes and thought. Why would he care about the gold? Coin didn’t mean shit to heroes. No, he had a reason to ask this that shaped a story. Independence from the Tower. Callow already was independent, effectively speaking, but there’d been no open break. Malicia and I knew it was just a matter of time, but the current fiction it wasn’t was useful for us both. If it was discarded, what was the result? Most likely, Malicia had to declare I was in rebellion even if she did nothing immediate about it. That was the part that had me wary, though. She couldn’t do anything about it right now, not with Ashur marauding the coasts and a city freshly sacked. So why would the old man be after that? Pilgrim might not know about Nok, though, I mused. No, wrong way to think about this. If this was a political play it’d be the Procerans doing the talking. Since it was the Pilgrim, he was leaning on the pivot for some reason. Malicia declared me a rebel. What did that mean, in the greater scheme of things? Ah, shit. Evil turns on Evil. That was his play. And it was a story old as the First Dawn, too, so if I caught even the hem of it in my fingers it was going to drag me through seventy fucking Hells. Stories repeated so often they were considered self-evident truths had a way of pushing themselves to the fore no matter what the people involved wanted.

All right, then. What could I do to avoid the pitfall?

Couldn’t argue there was no need to have the talk, this time, since that could be taken as me trying to frame the Procerans for treason. It’d turn this from truce talks to ‘Evil queen lays a cunning trap’, and that fucked everything up. I couldn’t lie in front of the Pilgrim, he’d see through it and that got me back in the deep even if ‘the Heavens told me it was untrue’ might not hold up too well as a negotiating position. Flatly admitting I was going to just led me to a different problem, so that was straight out. Could I maybe keep this contained, force an oath whatever was spoken on the subject wouldn’t get out of this pavilion? No, I decided. I didn’t have enough of a leg to stand on, and it wasn’t like the Procerans would jump for joy at the prospect of being oath-bound to someone holding a fae mantle. If you can’t dodge, attack, I thought. Instead of avoiding his story, what story could I make? Liberating rebel wouldn’t hold, not while I was wearing a crown. I’d only ever managed to squeak into heroic Roles when the opposition was… less than flexible, anyway. Treacherous lieutenant to Malicia? I could fit the boots, but it wouldn’t get me anywhere I wanted to be. Praesi stories would just make it worse, as a rule, so it had to be either Callowan or old and worn enough it was up for grabs by anyone.

Unless… Akua. She’d been on her own idea of good behaviour since Second Liesse, which had taken a while for me to puzzle out. She should have been scheming to get out, and to be frank she probably was, but she was also very much trying to be useful. To get out of the box more often, in part, but there were deeper reasons. I had beaten her, or at least she believed as much. According to the sack full of razor blades that was Praesi philosophy, that meant she was my follower now. That was an old story, and though the Wasteland had practically turned it into a religion it wasn’t just a Wasteland favourite. Or Evil’s in general. Early crew of heroes runs into a seeming enemy they fight out of misunderstanding, then fall together either facing a common foe or when the misunderstanding is finally cleared. Everyone’s friends, some cackling villain gets stabbed in unison and the Heavens pat everyone’s ass approvingly. Hells, that was more or less how Archer had ended up joining the Woe now that I thought about it. So I needed to be metaphorical Archer, fighting the crusaders out of a silly misunderstanding somehow involving three bloody days of battle and at least thirty thousand dead.

I am a crusader, I thought. What did I want? To fuck over the Wasteland, a sentiment I wasn’t exactly unsympathetic to. Kill Catherine Foundling, since she’s an abomination and also an asshole who keeps killing our guys. How did I cease being the asshole who kept killing their guys? Well, maybe if they stopped trying to kill m- no, not productive. Plenty of heroes were guy-killing assholes, I reminded myself, in and of itself it wasn’t a deal breaker. Larger perspective. Looking down from Above, what was happening in Callow? Praes is still in charge, I thought. The borders, the separate laws and the coinage wouldn’t matter to something like the Hashmallim. A villain was still on the throne, the former apprentice of the Black Knight. My army was more than half Callowan, these days, but I still had a detachment of mass-murdering Praesi household troops and the greenskins. Goblins had an unfortunate propensity for stabbing, and orcs did eat people. Wasn’t even that large a part of their diet, and it wasn’t like they ate people alive – it was illegal, if nothing else – but even occasional corpse-eating did tend to disqualify people from standing on the shiny side of the fence. As far as Above was concerned, I was a Dread Empress wearing the Queen of Blades’ clothes.

But I was in charge in their eyes, wasn’t I? The legalities we’d been quibbling about all day didn’t mean dust in the eyes of the Gods. That was the whole reason to remove me, wasn’t it? A villainous ruler for Callow was bad for business, regardless of the earthly practicalities involved. Which meant that if I made a choice, Above took that as a choice for all of Callow. There was an opening there. If I pulled the rug out from under the heroes, it worked for the entire kingdom. My eyes narrowed. I didn’t have to stop being a – unfairly characterized, I believed – murderous asshole. I just had to be their murderous asshole. Metaphorically speaking. Probably. And the way to achieve that… what was the name of Cordelia’s Friendly League of Upstanding Nations again? Ah, right. I cleared my throat, meeting the Grey Pilgrim’s eyes with a grin that was all teeth.

“To answer your question,” I said, “I intend to seek signatory status with the Grand Alliance within the year.”

Pandemonium erupted, the Pilgrim’s face went blank and my grin only got wider.

Chapter 20: Onset

“Proceran promises should be treated like stew: unless you know every ingredient, best not swallow.”
– King Charles Fairfax of Callow, the Rightfully Wary

Archer’s elbow was pressing into my eye. I blinked and craned back my neck before she could smack me again, turning in the bed. I carefully extracted myself from the pile of limbs over me, careful not to wake either of them. It was easier than I’d thought, since somewhat unsurprisingly Indrani was hogging the covers. Masego was laying back with his face towards the ceiling, still like he’d been put to rest in a coffin instead of passing out by my side when we came back from his mind. The eye cloth had been tugged down at some point, baring an eerie glass eye and partly covering one of his cheeks. I wrinkled my nose. Archer reeked of yesterday’s fighting, so clearly she’d not bothered to clean up before piling on top of us. She murmured in her sleep in a tongue I’d didn’t recognize, then promptly spread her legs where I’d been before. She was not, I noted with amusement, granting Masego any more room in the process. If anything she was coming closer to edging him off the bed.

I’d not taken off my tunic before falling asleep last night – and it still surprised me I’d felt the need to sleep at all – but I sat to pull on my boots. I splashed my face with the water basin more out of habit than any real need, the tepid liquid doing nothing to wake me up. A dreamless night, huh. Been a while since I’d had one of those. I made my way out of the tent quietly, stretching my frame when the sun bore down on me. If felt rested. Like I’d been tired and no longer was. It was a small pleasure I allowed myself a moment to properly savour. The Army of Callow’s camp was only beginning to wake, dawn fresh to the sky, and I wouldn’t truly be needed for at least an hour. If Hakram were around there’d be a meal waiting for me somewhere, along with the night’s reports, but he was very far away. Last I’d heard he was bringing the latest recruits up Quicksilver River, intending to link up with Kegan’s host before joining us.

The camp fire closest to my tent was deserted save for a single person, tending to a kettle hung over the flames. I didn’t need to look twice to recognize Vivienne. She did not turn, though I was certain she’d heard me approach, instead putting down a pair of cups on a flat stone and reaching for the kettle. I raised an eyebrow. The twin bells set on silver made it pretty clear where she’d gotten those. Had she nabbed old Fairfax dinner sets? I smothered a fond smile. Of course she had. Why would even bother to ask? I dropped down at her side, glimpsing the leaves inside the cups. Tea, though not the Praesi stuff. Smelled… Ashuran, maybe? Wasn’t the stuff Aisha got imported from across the Tyrian Sea anyway. Wordlessly, she poured the boiling water into them without spilling a drop. I claimed one, inhaling the scent. I tended to enjoy that more than the drink itself.

“I hope that was part of the tenth,” I said. “If there’s silver missing, the palace seneschal is going to be pissed.”

Thief smiled, using a long spoon of silver to stir her tea.

“Stealing from the palace is a hanging offence,” she said.

“Not since we revoked Mazus’ decrees,” I objected. “It’s a whipping and a fine now, I think?”

“As Her Majesty says,” Vivienne drawled.

She’d never actually denied it, had she? I sighed.

“All right,” I said. “You were waiting for me. Out with it.”

“We’ll be sitting with the Procerans at noon,” she replied before taking a sip from her cup. “Addressing our diplomatic approach is in order.”

I hummed, inhaling the fragrant steam again.

“Our strategic objectives are still more or less the same as when we started to march,” I said. “We need them on the other side of the passage, and to stay there long enough we have breathing room to refit while we prepare our next move. Coin too, if possible. I doubt they’ll agree to actualt war indemnities, so we’ll have to get that through the supplies if we get it at all.”

“I’ve been in contact with the Observatory,” Vivienne said. “The situation abroad is evolving.”

“The Dominion’s armies should be in southern Procer, by now,” I said. “But I’m guessing there’s more to tell.”

“Klaus Papenheim has finally begun his offensive in the Red Flower Vales,” my spymistress said. “No word as to the results of the first battles yet, but the Carrion Lord seems to be holding.”

I grimaced.

“He’d better,” I said. “If the crusaders punch through, our army’s in no shape to take them on.”

“I’ve also had word from Praes, though the news is a fortnight old,” Vivienne said. “Nok was sacked by the Ashuran war fleet.”

I let out a low whistle. I wasn’t exactly pleased at the loss of life that’d be involved there, but it was an impressive achievement for the Thalassocracy nonetheless. Praesi cities were layered with centuries of wards and sorcery, not to mention the pack of horrors the aristocrats kept bound in the basement for rainy days. I’d known the Ashurans weren’t exactly pushovers, considering they had the largest fleet in Calernia, but most their wars had been fought at sea. Last large-scale engagement I could recall they’d fought on land was when they’d landed armies to help Levant rise against the Principate, and it’d been the incipient Dominion that’d done the heavy lifting there.

“They withdrew after?” I asked.

“Set half the city on fire in the process, after looting it,” Vivienne said. “The Wasteland legions arrived two days too late to help with the defence. The Empress is taking a beating at court over it. Thalassina’s threatened to rebel if they don’t get a Legion garrison. “

“Whoever’s in charge of the fleet isn’t a fool,” I mused. “Nok’s the easiest target in the Empire, relatively speaking. They spent most their history under the thumb of one city or another. It’s nowhere as crucial to Praes as Thalassina, but they made the Tower bleed. All the wolves will be drawn out by the scent of it.”

“I would not wager that the Empress is too preoccupied to sabotage us if she so wishes,” Thief said. “But the real pivot remains the battle in the Vales.”

“You think Milenan and Malanza will want to stretch the diplomacy out until they know the outcome down south,” I frowned.

“If the Carrion Lord is driven back, their negotiating position significantly improves,” Vivienne noted. “If he wins, they are no longer sole bearers of the shame of defeat should they make bargain with us. From their perspective, delay has no drawback.”

“Except for starving,” I said.

She nodded, sipping at her cup.

“I would expect Prince Milenant to state the ongoing continuation of yesterday’s arrangement is a condition for continuing to negotiate,” Vivienne said. “Something along the lines of coercion souring the process of peacemaking.”

“I’ve got no reason to – ah,” I said. “They’ll fold early on something major, then argue I’m negotiating in bad faith if I’m not willing to agree.”

“Precisely,” she said.

“We’re not even peacemaking, not really,” I sighed. “They don’t have the authority to call off the Tenth Crusade. The most we can get is a very narrow truce that doesn’t violate the letter of Proceran laws on contributing to crusades.”

“It would be reputational disaster for them to agree to even that much without something to show for their retreat,” Vivienne said. “We’ll need to give them something.”

“I can’t move on them having a presence on our side of the passage,” I stated flatly. “You know very well how much trouble that’d be for us.”

She shook her head.

“Their ambitions to expand into Callow are checked, for the moment,” she said. “I find it dubious they will attempt to overturn that state of affairs given their weak position. What they need, Catherine, is a way to save face. A way to accept terms that will not make them pariahs in the Highest Assembly.”

“Reputation, huh,” I mused.

I drank from the tea, though its pleasant fragrance did not extend to the taste in my mouth. Whether it was eating or drinking, the enjoyable parts of it were mostly gone.

“The way I see it, what they’re most afraid of back home is Hasenbach,” I finally said. “It’s horrible for their reputation to make a deal with me, but won’t see them overthrown. The First Prince, though, she’ll toss their asses out in the cold if she has half an excuse.”

“It would greatly consolidate her hold on Procer if the largest opposition bloc was publicly disgraced,” Vivienne agreed. “Your point?”

“We hand them a way to kick the mess upstairs,” I said, eyes narrowing as I stared into the flames. “Like you said, they don’t have the authority to negotiate for the entire crusade. Just themselves. So if they’re presented with something they can’t accept or refuse without Hasenbach…”

“It is her reputation at stake, not theirs,” Vivienne mused.

I set down the cup.

“I think it’s time we brought Aisha in on this,” I said. “Unless you became fluent in Proceran legalities since we last spoke.”

She rolled her eyes. That was a no, then. With a groan, I got up. Time to get to work.

Seven tenths of diplomacy, as far as I could tell, was bickering over symbolic or largely irrelevant details. We wasted a full hour trading envoys with the crusaders just to the order the issues would be addressed in. That and the language that would be used for the negotiations. They pushed for Chantant, but I was having none of that. My knowledge of it wasn’t good enough for easy conversation, and I wasn’t using a translator for something this important when nearly all the opposite royalty could speak Lower Miezan without trouble. I folded on it being their pavilion and tables we met at, then conceded to their proposal of only twenty attendants in exchange for picking the tongue andthe first issue. At least Aisha managed to horse-trade the give on attendants for a limitation on the number of attending heroes. Five was more than I wanted, but there was no realistic chance of the Pilgrim and his sharpest knives not being at the table. All of the Woe save for Hakram would be attending, regardless, so I wasn’t feeling overly cornered when it came to the balance of Named power.

My delegation ended up split more or less half and half between Praesi and Callowans. For my homeland the two heavyweights were Grandmaster Brandon Talbot and Baroness Ainsley Morley of – currently occupied – Harrow. I wasn’t eager to involve the latter, since she was not a well-known quantity, but it wasn’t feasible not to. She was the ranking noble in my army and her holdings would be a point of negotiation. Even if it wouldn’t have been a grave insult to keep her away from the table, I would have involved her. Baroness Ainsley had already proved she wanted to look after her people. She deserved a seat, no matter my personal misgivings. On the Praesi side, the most important were Marshal Juniper of Callow and Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara. The latter had picked out everyone else in our delegation save for the Woe, keeping the balance between provenances while digging out the scribes and learned officers that served as the closest thing the Kingdom of Callow currently had to trained diplomats.

The Proceran delegation was, in comparison, a gallery of royalty. Prince Amadis and Princess Rozala had always been a given, but there were a full six crowned heads in attendance. Thief provided names and sparse details quietly. Prince Arnaud of Cantal, by reputation a loudmouthed idiot. Princess Adeline of Orne, whose brother and predecessor had been killed at Black’s orders. Prince Alejandro of Segovia, who’d publicly broken with his mother’s old alliance with Hasenbach. Prince Louis of Creusens, allegedly so badly in debt to Amadis he couldn’t even take a piss without the older man’s permission. Save for the heroes, the other attendants were all kinsmen to one royal or another. It was the Named I studied most closely. The Grey Pilgrim’s face was the usual serene mask but there were younger heroes with him. The sorcerer I’d fought before, which formal introductions revealed to be Rogue Sorcerer. A woman bearing sword and board and watching me unblinkingly was introduced as the Silent Guardian, while the woman with the red face paint I’d once cut the arm of was the Painted Knife. The last was the Forsworn Healer, and I frowned at the sight of him.

No Saint. That was only half a relief. If she was here, she’d be trouble but I’d at least know where she was for sure. I glanced at the heroes, frown deepening. Silent Guardian to hold me, Painted Knife to check Thief and the Sorcerer to delay Masego. The Healer to keep them going, and the Pilgrim to tip the scales. The five heroes had been chosen so they’d be able to hold up against the Woe in a fight. But if they think it’s going to turn to violence, why is the Saint not here?

“… and Her Majesty, Queen Catherine of Callow, First of Her Name,” Aisha finished, and I offered a polite nod to the Procerans watching me.

There’d been a Catherine Alban that served as queen regent for her son, actually, but by Callowan tradition that did not count as reigning precedent. Prince Amadis took a seat first. At the centre of his side of the table, before I did. The etiquette of that was against him – as the ruling sovereign of a nation, I had the highest status here and none should be seated before me. I didn’t feel particularly insulted, on a personal level, but it was an insult. Offered right after the introductions. While I was less than invested in etiquette, I was invested in this negotiation not being a complete shitshow. So, as Prince Amadis leaned back into his seat, I met his eyes. Silence stretched under the silken pavilion. Slowly, I cocked an eyebrow.

“I was under the impression Arlesites were a mannerly people,” I said, then waited a beat. “Your Grace.”

I let another moment pass before sitting down and gesturing for my entire delegation to do the same, regardless of the higher status of the royals on the other side.

“You have a reputation for preferring familiar manners, Your Majesty,” the Prince of Iserre smiled. “I apologize if offense was taken.”

I did not think it a coincidence that familiarity breeds contempt was a common saying in both our homelands. Procerans had a reputation for being able to speak flowery flattery while meaning the opposite that was apparently well-earned.

“With friends, certainly,” I smiled back as the Proceran delegation sat in proper order. “Are we friends now, Prince Amadis?”

“Rulers sharing an alignment of interests, mayhaps,” the older man said, his Lower Miezan without trace of accent. “Yet is that not the cradle of all great friendships?”

I inclined my head, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. I flicked a glance at the heroes, which were all seated at the left edge of the table save for the Pilgrim. He was at Malanza’s side, between her and the Prince of Cantal. Aisha made up my right side, Thief my left. Rank had not been the prime consideration in those arrangements.

“Before beginning, I believe it necessary for the nature of the involvement of your Named to be clarified,” I said.

Aisha’s notion. Prince Amadis had been introduced as the head of the Proceran delegation, as we’d expected, but the status of the heroes today was vague. Legally speaking, anyway. Several of them weren’t even Proceran, and those that were should have no authority to speak of if this was considered a negotiation between Proceran royalty and the Queen of Callow. If it was a conference between representatives of the Tenth Crusade and a villain queen, however, that was a whole other matter. My Staff Tribune had predicted it would be the latter and not the former – otherwise they’d have no legal authority to stand on without the permission of the First Prince and the other sovereigns at the head of the crusade.

“The Chosen have graced us with their presence in an advisory role,” Prince Amadis replied.

Good, I thought. Then it was the Prince of Iserre and his fellows I had to settle with, not representatives of the Heavens. We had, at least, the legal prerequisites for any treaty made here to be binding. Not that it assured the deal would be respected. Aisha had reluctantly informed me that the most prominent precedent for treaties between Procerans and an Evil polity was attempts at deals with the Kingdom of the Dead – which were broken by either side as often as not. There were treaties with Helike as well, but none relevant since the League of Free Cities had been founded. It would be shaky grounds to try using those as a yardstick. I nodded at Aisha, who bowed deep in her seat and addressed the table with a graceful smile.

“We would now open formal negotiations between the Kingdom of Callow and the lawful leadership of the invading army currently standing on its sovereign territory,” she said.

There were too many people for me to watch them all, so I kept my gaze on the two I knew best: Amadis and Rozala. The Prince of Iserre’s friendly smile did not waver in the slightest, but Malanza’s brow twitched. Not pleased. The language as presented by Aisha treated the crusaders coming here like any other foreign invasion, the kind the Principate had tried for centuries with various degrees of success. It stripped the Procerans of the handy excuse of ‘the Heavens told me to’, which might allow them to wiggle out some responsibility for their actions. They weren’t going to accept that, of course. But now the bargaining started. Prince Amadis glanced at one of his diplomats, the middle-aged man bowing just as deep before responding.

“We cannot treat in good faith under these terms,” the man replied. “We can, however open formal negotiations between the Praesi vassal state of Callow and the mandated expeditionary force of Her Most Serene Highness Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer.”

Not presenting themselves as crusaders, but still as being here on Hasenbach’s orders. I kept a frown off my face. They knew we weren’t going to accept Callow being termed as a vassal state, since they’d effectively be making a deal with the Tower by intermediary if we did. I was fairly sure they could break any terms made if ordered to do so by the First Prince, if it unfolded like that, since the Highest Assembly had formally passed a motion to declare a crusade against Praes and a vassal state would be considered within the scope of that. It went back and forth for a while, until something like a compromise was reached: negotiations were now being held between the Queen in Callow and the mandated expeditionary force of the First Prince.  Aisha had tried for Queen of Callow, but they’d gotten out of that by pointing out that unless the Highest Assembly passed a motion or Hasenbach recognized it by decree, they couldn’t legally recognize Callow as a sovereign state with me as its ruler.

Legitimacy was the issue here. My only claim to the throne was conquest, really, and even that was a little iffy. As it stood the treaty would still be binding, theoretically speaking, but it was made with me as an entity and not Callow itself. It became worthless ink if someone put my head on a pike. Thief flicked me an unsurprised look after, having predicted the implication of the other part of the terms. The Procerans, by presenting themselves as an expeditionary force, were paving the grounds for any bill incurred over supplies to be sent to Hasenbach’s court instead of coming out of their own pockets. I sincerely doubted that Cordelia would flip me so much as a copper if anything less than an oath to the Heavens was involved, so we’d have to get creative about getting the coin if we were going to get any at all. Still, that they were trying to extricate from this at all meant they were taking the process seriously. A good sign, after that tumultuous opening. I caught the subtle movement of Prince Amadis’ hand before anyone else on my side.

“The delegation recognizes the Chosen known as the Grey Pilgrim, formal advisor to the Prince of Iserre,” the middle-aged diplomat announced.

The old man rose to his feet.

“I seek clarification from the Queen in Callow,” he said calmly, “on matters of intent.”

I looked up and fought back a sigh.

Wasn’t it traditional that things had to at least go well for the villain before the tables were turned?

Chapter 19: Recovery

“To seek to ascertain the worth of even a single a soul through morality is to force unnecessary mysticism onto a simple matter. As in all things, supply and demand determine the price.”
– Extract from “Bought and Sold”, a collection of the teachings of the Merchant Prince Irenos, founder of Mercantis

“I’ll admit it,” I said. “I was expecting a library.”

My previous trips into dreamland had not led me to expect a great deal of nuance in the matter, though admittedly that’d been my own mind. Might just be that Masego was a little less straightforward in his way of looking at the world. The lack of swamp and shambling horde certainly implied as much. Instead Hierophant’s dream was order gone mad. A pane of crystal under my feet, tethered to the centre of the massive structure by a long length of gold, kept me aloft. Unfortunately that did little to put my old fear of heights from rearing up its head. It was one thing to leap down from the sky when I knew my legs would unbreak themselves within moments, another to have only a thin sheet of crystal being the only thing keeping me from falling into endless void.

“Fucking Hells, Masego,” I muttered. “Would it have killed you to put up a railing?”

Aside from the very real possibility of falling down forever, I had to concede there was a strange beauty to what I saw. It reminded me, in a way, of the depiction of astral spheres I’d once seen in Black’s mansion in Ater. Though, instead of circling the sun the way mages had along ago proven Creation did, everything here was circling the sphere of shivering translucent flame held within a deep basin of gold. From it spanned long tubes of gold holding up lesser spheres all wildly different. Crystal and frost, roiling wind and swarms of small silver constructs. My own platform, like all the others, circled around the central sphere with a slow and measured ticking sound. I could glimpse gears and cranks beneath the basin that kept it all moving along. I shivered, though there was no wind here. Perhaps because there was no wind. There was something subtly wrong about what lay before me, though I would not deny its eerie splendour. It was not a perspective, the way the cold machinery behind Black’s eyes could be understood. It was…

“A way of understanding Creation,” I finished out loud.

My voice felt dim and there was no echo. The void swallowed it all. My platform kept moving, and I shook myself out of the fugue. Odds were that I’d be able to find Masego within the sphere at the heart of this. I looked down at the gold support beam and winced. It was round, after all. If I slipped after making my way down… Well, I wasn’t sure what the consequences of falling into the void would be, but considering Hierophant’s mind was bound to have some very nasty defences I suspected it would not be pleasant. Not that my own little journey into Winter dreamland had been a treat. My fingers clenched. Don’t think about it, I told myself. Winter had been trying to grind me down, by lingering on the remembrance I was only playing its game.

“So shimmying across that beam is a bit of a stretch,” I decided. “That leaves trying to move from sphere to sphere.”

I turned my gaze to the moving structures. While I couldn’t discern the exact pattern yet – some beams extended at specific sections of the rotation, while others withdrew – I could at least grasp the likely length of the beams. And, more importantly, if one was ever going to come close enough for me to leap across. One, two, three – no, just two, that last one was moving back without warning and staying there. It’d have to do. I considered allowing a full rotation to take place just so I’d avoid running into any surprises, but there were no guarantees the pattern would remain the same every time. And, by the looks of it, this was going to take a while. Not all spheres were rotating at the same speed, but mine was fairly slow.  Hard to properly measure time and distance in here, but I’d guess at least two hours for a full turn? Leaping uncertainly would be a risk, but so would be waiting that long when I was uncertain of the relative time flows in here and outside.

“I understand you’re a man of deep and complex thought, Zeze, but you’re not making this easy,” I sighed. “You know what’s the worst people have to deal with, in my mind? Condescension Queen and Lady Backstab. And that one endless horde of dead trying to kill them, but let’s be honest – that’s not exactly out of our wheelhouse.”

I’d kind of expected one or both of the twins to materialize and mouth off after that, but I remained alone. Shame. Probably could have made rope out of intestines, maybe used bones for a hook. I paused.

“I’m not being unnecessarily gruesome there,” I defensively told the void. “I don’t know how to make rope out of hair, and to be solid enough to hold my weight skin would have to be tanned first.”

Nothingness did not answer. Pointedly so, I felt.

“Well, fuck you too,” I muttered.

It wasn’t murder if they were projections of your unconscious mind, I comforted myself. Probably. I’d never looked up if the Empire had laws on the subject. Testing the platform beneath me, to my distaste I found it rather slippery. That was not going to be pleasant. I tried to see if Winter was willing to get involved, but I was reaching for nothing. No, I thought. Not nothing. It was just distant. Interesting, but it wasn’t helping me in the slightest at the moment. The first outer sphere passed close after I spent half an eternity dawdling in the middle of nowhere, but I let that one pass. The sphere was wind and barely contained. Too much of a risk. The second rotated close after the rest of eternity passed me by, and I winced. Fire. Silver flames that flickered without a sound. Well, it wasn’t going to be pleasant if I stumbled into those but it was still better than falling. The boots on my feet were old, nothing like those I now wore though I vaguely recalled having owned that pair before being apprenticed to Black. The wiggle room for my toes was nice, but the softness of used leather less so. I had to balance my weight carefully when I took a running start.

“Nonononono-” I valiantly screamed, realizing with horror halfway through the leap that the sphere was withdrawing.

I had no power to call on, no mantle or Name that could save my hide at the last moment. The stark understanding of my helplessness brought back something I’d begun to forget – fear. Not the dim worry for events yet to come that haunted my every hour since I’d taken the crown, but the colder thing that was having to look death in the eyes. I twisted forward, and my fingers caught the edge of the platform. My life was not owed to my own merits. The sphere had just withdrawn only slightly.

“Oh Hells,” I panted, forcing my other hand to clench so the trembling would stop while I brought it up to clasp the platform’s edge.

I felt sweat drenching my back, another sensation I’d near forgotten. My palms were growing moist as well, and that was a lot worrying since they were the only thing between me and falling.

“Godsdamnit, Masego,” I said. “Godsfucking-“

I took a deep breath, then pulled myself up with grunt of effort. It was awkward, and my palm slipped when I got my leg over the ledge. I ended up falling awkwardly on the side, rolling in panic towards the fire to avoid the fall. Wait, had there really been enough –

The Conjurer was an utter fool, yet somehow he still lived despite Masego’s best efforts. His lips twisted into a sneer and he traced Form and Force, weaving the formula his words shaped through them. Air clustered into three arithmetically perfect spheres and shot forward, though in his irritation he had allowed the proper angle to/

Seven full months had he studied the theory. It was the simplest working he knew, transmutation of power into heat and light, yet his every deviation from the original formula to craft his own had resulted in failure. The numbers were perfect, he knew it, but somehow the spell would not/

“We’re not bleeding people, Apprentice,” she said accusingly. “We’re not that desperate.” He blinked, more out of sheer affront than surprise. What kind of a blunderer did she take him for? He opened his mouth to snap/

– I rolled out of the silver flames, my body shivering. That had felt… I patted my own stomach, reassured to find it flat. For a moment there’d been a disconnect and I’d expected to find otherwise. I closed my eyes and laid there for a moment before slapping my own face with an open palm. The sting snapped me out of it and I dragged myself into a crouch.

“Memories?” I murmured, glancing at the sphere.

Maybe. I’d felt genuinely nettled throughout all three glimpses. The third time had even been directed at myself, which was giving me a headache since his recollection of that conversation was a lot more vivid than my own. There’d been a common thread. It might be the same for every sphere, a sort of archive. Gods, his mind was so weird. I was starting to feel a lot better about the murder swamp in my own. I shook myself out of the trance. The rotation had continued while I was elsewhere, and for longer than I’d thought. I couldn’t even see the crystal platform I’d started on anymore. Still, screwed as that had been I was in a much better position now. There were twice as many spheres circling close to this one than there’d been for the last, and I picked on that looked like an orb of pure white marble for my second leap. There was no nasty halfway surprise this time. Time was hard to gauge, in here, but by my fourth leap I felt like I’d made some decent progress. I was more than halfway through, though difficulties had come with the advance. This close to the centre of the structure the spheres moved a lot quicker. And, I saw with a frown, the platforms around them were smaller. Not a lot of room for mistakes there.

I bid my time, reluctantly, until I picked one out whose rotation seemed steady and the sphere on it not too dangerous. A slower one passed by, but I wasn’t going anywhere near something that looked like a hole of darkness sucking in everything if I could help it. A constantly moving jigsaw of ivory wasn’t honestly much better, I’d admit to myself, but at this point there was only so much pickiness I could afford. With another heroically shrill scream I leapt, and it went perfectly. Angle and swiftness, all aligned as they should be. Then my boot touched the crystal, and with a sinking feeling I realized it was rough instead of smooth. Which wouldn’t have been much of a problem if I’d adjusted my stance before jumping. I had not. I stumbled with all the grace of cart rolling down a hill, my forehead going into-

He did not understand why the orc kept seeking his company, though as long as he came with a shatranj board Masego would not refuse the company. Campaigning, much as Father had implied, was a dull thing to suffer through. It was only when Hakram sat across him, sliding open the shutters holding the pieces, that he realized he’d been awaiting Adjutant. That he had no ceased his dissection earlier because there was nothing more to learn from the subject, but because he’d been looking forward to their evening game. “White?” Hakram offered and/

“It’s a sprite,” Archer said, shaking the glass bottle. He’d known at a glance, of course, and the angry buzzing of the lesser spirit indicated displeasure at the rough handling. “I am not unfamiliar with them,” Masego replied. “They are quite common in western Callow.” The strange woman chuckled, tossing the bottle into his lap. He hastily grabbed it. “Magelight’s supposed to be hard on the eyes,” Archer said. “If you’re going to keep reading after dark, use that instead.” He started in surprise. Had she caught it for him? Why would she/

“They were the rooms of the Wizards of the West, you know,” Thief said, leaning against the threshold. Masego did not quite succeed at hiding his start. She’d emerged without warning, as was her wont. Not even Summer’s light cast a shadow on her aspect. His eyes swept across the room, finding only furniture and a bath in the Soninke manner. “There is no trace of their presence,” he informed the woman. She shrugged. “Figured as much,” Thief said. “But there’s old stories about the location making it easier to align with ‘otherworldly powers’. Thought you might want to have a look.” The tone was defensive, he was certain. It held all the right markers. Did/

My face was less than an inch away from shifting ivory as I balanced uneasily on my feet. The roof of my mouth was dry. I licked my lips, retreating half a step. That’d been much more intense than the last. More nuanced as well. I’d felt the confusion shifting to understanding like it was my own. I still remembered what it felt like, people’s faces being so hard to read. Was that how he felt all the time? I’d thought he was uncomfortable with touching because it was the way Warlock had raised him, but that hadn’t been the way at all. I just… hadn’t known what the touching was for, and I’d hesitated to act until I could correctly identify the reason. It’d been like living a world full of masks, so very few of which I could read. Slowly I calmed down. Touching my face helped, the touch of my own fingers on my own flesh. I didn’t even bother to assess how much time had passed, since I already knew I wouldn’t like the answer. The spheres moved, but I waited patiently for my openings. Another two leaps, and as I stood besides a sphere of lightning-infused amber I timed my last one.

I’d underestimated how massive the central sphere truly was. At least as large as the royal palace in Laure, and the gold basin that held it was even larger. The trembling translucent flame in front of me was unlike the other globes I’d encountered. It was not full, only a thin barrier. Through it I could make out lights and shapes, some still and others in movement. Steeling myself, I marched through. Heat licked at my skin, ignoring my clothes, but there was no rush of foreign memories. Inside the sphere, as I had thought, Masego awaited. He was far from the only thing in there. Constellations of instruments of all kinds filled the firmament of this place, gold and silver and obsidian and a hundred other tools – some I had seen before, others never even imagined existed. They all clustered around Hierophant, who stood with his back to me as he studied something I could not make out.

“Distraction,” Masego said absent-mindedly. “Kill it.”

The only other living entity in the sphere moved. I looked back at my own face, my twin snorting and unsheathing her sword. Not my twin, I thought. She didn’t wear the same clothes as me, neither in this place nor back in Creation. She wore the same plate I had that day when we fought the Princess of High Noon, and her smile was too broad to be entirely human. It was a caricature of daring and insolence, not something lips could actually do.

“Masego,” I called out.

“Ah, apologies,” he replied patiently. “Please kill it.”

Flicker.

The other Catherine was no longer that. Archer idly nocked an arrow, the boundary between her scarf and her face blurred. Her appearance was even stranger than my not-twin’s had been. She was less detailed, like a rough painting of herself. It was when the string went as furthest back as it could that she sharpened, and in that moment she was stunning. The hungry gleam in the eyes, the easy arrogance in her stance. She wasn’t more beautiful than the real Indrani was, but there was an intensity to her that I’d never seen in Archer. Like she was leaving an indelible mark on this moment. The surprise of it slowed me down, and throwing myself to the ground did not help quite enough. The arrow went through my chest and I grunted in pain.

Flicker.

Adjutant slowly spun his axe as he advanced towards me. More statue than orc, all that he was set in stone. The weight of his presence was feather-light, at first, but the longer it was there the heavier it bore down on me. He bared fangs of carved bone as too-clever eyes followed my rising to my feet. The eyes were the most expressive part of this statue of Hakram, inhumanly perceptive. As if they were the only living part of him. I broke the arrow’s shaft, biting my lip to avoid screaming.

“Hakram,” I said. “Don’t do it.”

He kept advancing.

“Hakram,” I barked. “I order you to desist.”

Still advancing. Fuck.

“Masego,” I screamed, and then not-Hakram was upon me.

The moment he struck, he was a statue no longer. He turned into flesh and blood, strength uncoiling like a trebuchet released. I tried to catch his wrist, but I might as well have been wrestling that trebuchet. He smashed me into the ground effortlessly, painfully jarring the arrowhead still in my chest.

“Zeze,” I yelled. “Don’t you-“

“Wait,” Masego said.

The entity froze, axe a hair’s breadth away from my throat. Hierophant turned, and I grimaced at the sight. No blindfold on his face, i here. Hollow burnt-out sockets studied me, balls of Summer flame hovering within.

“I know you,” he said.

“Catherine,” I reminded him. “Your friend.”

He frowned. His face blurred, then became calm again.

“Are you quite certain?” he asked.

Shit. He doesn’t remember anything that’s in the spheres outside, does he? I had no idea how much of the man I knew was standing in front of me.

“Masego, you need to wake up,” I said. “I came here to get you back.”

“Don’t be absurd,” he chided me. “There is so much left to study.”

He gestured towards the thing his body had been hiding and my eyes widened. It was a sphere like those outside, though much smaller. The ball of Light was wriggling violently, a wound in it kept open by silver pincers.

“It is much clearer, without the noise,” Hierophant told me. “We are making great progress.”

I forced a smile.

“That’s good,” I said. “Tell me more about that. I want to see. But I’ll need to get up, for that, and there’s a blade at my throat.”

Flicker.

I saw Thief’s face, for a heartbeat, and then the entity was gone. Masego was gesturing.

“Come, come,” he said. “You’re familiar with the Ligurian theory of magic, of course.”

I got up, hand on my throat.

“Of course,” I lied. “It’s my favourite.”

He offered a beaming smile. His face blurred and he was calm again.

“You’re not trying to trick me, are you?” he asked.

“Of course not,” I hastily replied. “I uh, just really hate the Jaquinite theory.”

Gods, I really should have listened more closely when he talked about that. Was being an occasionally shitty friend going to get me killed? That’d be fitting piece of irony.

“As you should,” Hierophant sniffed. “Procerans. Their idea of a proper formula is to get down on their knees and pray.”

“Just the worst,” I agreed, slowly coming closer.

He gestured again for me to stand by his side.

“Now, the Gigantes do shroud their sorcery behind unnecessary claptrap,” he lectured. “But I believe Gharan the Wise was correct when he theorized they are the eldest race on Calernia to have developed a comprehensive method for use of the Gift.”

“Only makes sense,” I said.

I was close enough to knife him, now, but would that actually help? Academic question anyway, I didn’t have a knife and not-Thief could be anywhere. I glanced at the sphere he was inviting me to watch, and my vision swam. I could almost make out something. A memory, though I didn’t live it like the others. Marchford. Night, with hundreds of columns of fire moving according to my will. A ritual repurposed, my first real stride towards understanding the deeper mysteries of High Arcana. I closed my eyes.

“You were the Apprentice, then,” I said.

“Just a title,” he dismissed. “As milestone that denotes understanding reached, but of little practical worth.”

“You’re not anymore, though,” I said. “You’re the Hierophant. How did that happen?”

A little heavy-handed, but I had a lot of detachment to bludgeon through here. Subtle wasn’t going to work. Masego smiled. His face blurred. He was furious.

“Distraction,” he said. “Unimportant.”

“Name transition isn’t important?” I probed. “How often have you seen that phenomenon?”

His face blurred, returned to calm. I’d survive to hear a reply, then. Apparently improving one’s vocabulary really was a life-saving skill, who knew?

“Not enough,” he said. “But it is all contaminated. Too much bias. Not enough left to examine after removal.”

“Oh, that’s all right then,” I shrugged.

He nodded, pleased at my agreement.

“Difficult research isn’t for everyone,” I continued. “I’m sure someone will eventually get around to explaining it to you.”

His face darkened.

“I do not need to depend on the findings of others,” he said.

“Obviously you have to,” I said. “I mean, you’re just not capable enough to study it with the bias intact. You’ve said it yourself, it’s too much.”

I would have felt a lot worse about trying to trick him in this state if he hadn’t ordered me shot moments ago. Hierophant dismissed the sphere of Light with a wave of the hand, and reached out. Plucking out a distant sphere of water in a way that should not have been physically possible, he set it in front of us.

“It can be done,” he insisted. “Simply a matter of discipline.”

“I look forward to your findings, then,” I smiled.

His face blurred, and remained that way.

“You interfere with the process,” he said in an utterly flat voice.

“I would never,” I said and snatched his hand, forcing it into the sphere.

White light, blinding. A knife going through my back.

“No,” Hierophant’s voice barked. “No, go away. Catherine?”

I dropped down on my knees. Was that blood in my mouth? Fuck, it was just a stabbing. Thief was nowhere that good at killing people, I called bullshit. The spots went away and I looked at Masego’s mortified face.

“Hey, Zeze,” I grunted. “Been a while.”

“Cat,” he murmured. “You’re – no, doesn’t matter. I can end it.”

His fingers threaded through mine, softly, and as he squeezed we woke.

Chapter 18: Cradle

“Seven battles I won on my feet, and lost the war sitting at a table.”
– Periander Theodosian, Tyrant of Helike, after the founding of the League of Free Cities

“Six hundred and thirty-two dead,” Juniper said. “Our edge has been scraped raw, Catherine.”

I was really beginning to regret that oath to Hakram, because a bottle of aragh right now would do wonders for my peace of mind. I’d guessed it was bad, when I’d taken a look from the sky, but I hadn’t understood quite how bad it had really gotten. I leaned back into my seat and passed a hand through my mess of a hair.

“You did better than I could have hoped,” I admitted. “Considering what the other side was fielding, it’s a miracle it went this well.”

Miracle was the wrong word, I decided a moment later. It was short-changing Juniper. While I’d been traipsing about the magical wonderland of Winter, the Hellhound had been dancing on the edge against an army about twice the size led by heroes. That she’d not just lasted the day but actually inflicted a defeat was a reminder that Juniper of the Red Shields did not need a Name to be one of the sharpest knives in my arsenal.

“The casualties are trouble, but there’s worse,” the Hellhound grunted. “We’re near out of munitions, and without accord with the Tower the moment our stores run dry we lose one of our heaviest advantages.”

“Goblinfire?” I asked.

“Enough for one last blaze, but not a large one,” my Marshal replied. “We’re entirely out of demolition charges. Sappers still have a decent stock of combat munitions, but you know how fast we go through those when they’re properly used.”

Even if I hadn’t been taught the logistics of that at the College, Ratface’s constant reminders that a protracted campaign would see us run dry halfway through would have served that purpose. Once again, Malicia managed to fucks us without ever needing to do anything but say no. The Snake Eater Tribe that had settled near Marchford had made it clear it could not produce munitions, which meant the vicious old crones in the Grey Eyries had a monopoly. It was illegal under Imperial law for anyone but the Tower to possess munitions, not that it would have stopped me if I had a solid way to get them into Callow. I didn’t, and there were watchful eyes at the border just in case I felt like trying anyway.

“I heard we took a hit on siege engines,” I ventured.

Which was a polite way to say that Pickler had spent exactly three heartbeats welcoming me back before beginning to rant about the Grey Pilgrim apparently wrecking her lovelies. I’d taken that to mean the repeating scorpions, and while I did not share the slightly unsettling affection my Senior Sapper had for her creations the loss of them was still a heavy blow. They were one of our major force equalizers.

“Two repeating scorpions left, no Spitters,” Juniper said. “We’ve still got our full count of ballistas and trebuchets, but they’ve already proven they can make those irrelevant with their fences.”

As our skirmishing contingent consisted of pretty much only the Watch, that left the mages lines as our only effective long-range option. Which wasn’t saying much, considering they’d have to deal with both wizards and priests on the other side. They’d be spending most their time on defence and damage control, not going on the offensive.

“Don’t count on the mages,” the Hellhound warned. “We’ve been running them ragged for two days, fighting and healing. A lot of them are on the edge of burning out.”

I sighed, fingers drumming against the arms of the chair.

“You’re telling me we can’t have another battle,” I said.

“Not if you want to have a force capable of fighting afterwards,” Juniper bluntly said. “Four to six months of recruiting and refit, and we’ll be able to campaign again. Anything else is scrapping the host.”

“Well,” I said. “That adds a certain spice to the negotiations, doesn’t it?”

The orc grunted in amusement, and I allowed myself a moment of envy as she drank a mouthful of wine. My own cup was, sadly, water. Which I didn’t need anymore, or particularly enjoy.

“Had a good look when we engaged this morning,” Juniper said. “They’re on their last rope too. Without their officers they’ve had to rely on fantassins for frontline command, and we bloodied those repeatedly. Levies got bled bad, and the principality troops were always few. Most of their soldiers are fantassins, now, and mercenaries won’t be eager for another go.”

“They’ve got heroes, Juniper,” I reminded her. “Morale’s not ever going to be an issue for them.”

“You say that, but we know for a fact they had runners after the first gate trick,” the Hellhound said. “Kegan’s already caught a few up north, trying to flee back to the passage.”

“The meat of them will stay,” I said. “Still, worth keeping in mind at least half their host is gone. Gods, fifty thousand. I still have a hard time believe we held against that.”

“Wouldn’t have, without the gate,” the orc said. “Though that wasn’t without costs.”

I couldn’t call it luck, not with the amount of contingencies I’d had waiting, but I couldn’t deny it’d turned into a gamble in the end. I’d been so sure that if we kept the positioning aligned for only a short while… No point in whining. They had used their abilities, as I had mine. A mistake had been made, all I could do was learn from it. That particular tool wasn’t going to be put away entirely, but the restrictions on where and how it could be used had to be adjusted.

“It all rests on diplomacy, then,” I said.

“Your speciality, infamously,” Juniper said, rather drily.

I hadn’t even been back for a full day and already my underlings were ragging on me. I flipped her off, feeling the weight on my shoulders lighten the slightest bit. It just wouldn’t feel like home without the sarcasm. I groaned and rose to my feet.

“Best I get started on Masego,” I sighed. “It could take the entire night, if it gets tricky.”

“Don’t linger,” the Hellhound said. “This all falls apart if you’re not at the table. He’s not going anywhere.”

I nodded. Much as I disliked the thought of leaving my friend under any longer than I had to, as long as he was in no danger of death there were higher priorities. Having him at the table with me, even if he was blatantly bored with the proceedings, would get a point across. But uncertainty would have to do, if it took too long. I clasped Juniper’s shoulder in farewell, but paused when I felt her hand take mine. She tightened her grip, face half-hidden by her fur-like dark hair.

“Good to have you back,” Juniper got out, looking away. “It’s not the same without you.”

I embrace her, awkwardly given our respective sizes, but after that I couldn’t not.

“We’re still in it, Juniper,” I murmured. “Bloodied but on our feet.”

She shook me off, but only after a moment.

“Go away, Foundling,” she growled, sounding embarrassed. “And don’t let me catch you sleeping through a battle again. It’s horrible for our reputation.”

“Yes ma’am,” I replied amusedly.

She looked highly insulted by how sloppy my farewell salute was, and the good mood clung to me all the way back to Masego’s tent. I’d know she was there without ever taking a look. People had a warmth to them that I had learned to discern. Orcs were warmer than humans, as a rule, and goblins almost feverish to my senses. Archer burned warmer than any of them. My mantle stirred, tasting the sheer vitality in the air with relish. Indrani looked, at first glance, perfectly relaxed. She’d moved the folding chair she was was on so she could rest her bare feet on Masego’s guts and was casually chipping away at a chunk of wood with a knife. The carving looked like the beginning of a fox to me, but given her dubious artistic skills that meant very little. Her body was perfectly loose and at a rest, but the eyes gave it away. It wasn’t the restlessness of a woman who couldn’t wait to move I saw there. It was the silent frustration of someone who had a problem in front of them but no way to do anything about it. Shaving off another sliver of wood, Archer flicked it at Masego’s face to join a growing pile and offered me a wan smile.

“Cat,” she said. “Wondered when you’d come.”

Part of me wanted to simply get what I’d come here to do done as soon as possible, but instead I claimed a chair and dropped it by her side. Boots resting on the edge of the bed instead of Hierophant himself, since I was a good and loyal friend, I made myself comfortable.

“Had to talk with Juniper,” I told her. “Get the lay of the land.”

She hummed, knife deftly twisting in her grip so she could change the angle she was carving at. How someone so good with knives could be so terrible at sculpting, I had no idea.

“We’re fucked, but so is the other side, so we’re all showing teeth and pretending it’s a smile,” Indrani said. “That about it?”

I snorted.

“More or less,” I conceded.

A sliver fell to the ground. The tent was silent, save for Masego’s spell-induced breathing and the quiet whisper of steel on wood.

“He’s going to be all right,” I said quietly.

“Is he?” Archer said quietly. “Not so sure about that.”

I turned to glance at her and found her face aloof.

“You’re angry,” I said.

“Angry’s not the right word,” the other woman replied. “I get angry, I cut a throat. This is something else.”

I folded my arms around my chest, feeling defensive but not quite sure why.

“Vexed?” I said.

Her smile was thin.

“A cousin of that, I reckon,” Archer said. “I understand the Lady a little better, now. Wish I didn’t.”

“Thought you had a pretty good handle on her already,” I said.

“As much as anyone can,” Indrani shrugged. “But I did always wonder, why Refuge? Not like she enjoys running it. If it was just about the fights, she could have found those as a Calamity. They have a regular hero body count. And she still talks about your teacher like she’s in love with him, or as close to that as she can be.”

“But now you know,” I said.

“I do,” Archer agreed. “Put an arrow in that hard old biddy the Saint, this morning. Walking back to camp, after you gave the signal, I had a thought.”

I remained silent, watching her.

“Catherine, don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t really care about any of this,” Indrani sighed, waving the knife around. “It was a good laugh when you put on that crown, and the scraps keep coming. Got no complaints about that. But they’re just enemies not… my enemies, you get me?”

“It doesn’t feel like your fight,” I quietly said.

“You’re my friend,” she said. “So’re the others, even Vivienne though she’s usually a twat about it. It’s not that I mind giving a hand, and I’m pretty sure we’ve still got legendary fights ahead of us. But it doesn’t quite scratch the itch.”

“Because it’s not your story,” I murmured.

“It’s yours,” Indrani agreed. “And there’s something to being part of this. The Woe, or whatever you want to call it. I found something here I didn’t know I wanted, back in Refuge. But I get the Lady, now, and why she left. Because this isn’t something I was meant to do, just something I’m doing.”

My throat clenched.

“You were always upfront about it,” I said. “That you’d leave eventually.”

“Stop looking like I kicked your unicorn,” she sighed. “No one’s abandoning you. I’m not Ranger, Cat. I want to see it through to the end, to see what’s at the end. I don’t have that… it’s hard to put into words. She’s old, you know, in a way I don’t think we can really understand.”

“I never got a hard number on her age,” I admitted. “At least two hundred, but that’s only rumours.”

Archer’s knife stilled, tapping against the side of the possible fox.

“It’s the half-elf thing,” she said. “You go in knowing the people you meet will be dust before you even hit your prime, and there’s a part of you that doesn’t grow roots. Because you know it’s going to pass.”

I thought of the man whose name we’d avoided saying, of a quiet conversation the two of us had had long before I loved or hated him. They never understand, he’d told me, so very tiredly. Even if they love you, they never quite understand. In this, as in so many things, I was still the bearer of his legacy.

“You look sad,” Indrani said suddenly, and I found her eyes on me. “It’s been a long time, since I’ve seen you so human.”

The gentleness she’d said it with made it so much worse.

“I only ever seem to be,” I murmured, “when I’m at my worst.”

If It’d been Hakram at my side, he would have offered comfort. Masego would have given an explanation, brought reason into it. Vivienne… I still hesitated to be that open with her. The nature of our relationship had set boundaries. You could not bare your soul to the person you’d entrusted the means to kill you with, should it prove necessary. Indrani didn’t say anything, though, because unlike the others she understood that some truths simply stayed with you. Like a scar, or a limp you barely even noticed.

“You ever miss her?” I asked.

“It’s different, for us,” Archer replied hesitatingly. “She’s not my…”

Mother, I did not say. I knew a thing or two about words it cost to speak out loud.

“Isn’t she?” I gently said.

Indrani laughed, but the mockery in it was not meant for me.

“It’s deeper than that,” she said. “She didn’t tuck me in at night, Cat, she taught me a way to live. I didn’t want someone holding my hand. Or maybe I did, fuck – I was a kid and I was scared. But she gave me what I needed instead. Being able to stand on my own feet.”

“It’s not a weakness, you know,” I said. “Loving her for that.”

Archer scoffed, looking away. I left it at that.

“You ever miss him?” she asked.

My smile was a bitter one.

“I shouldn’t,” I said.

It was admission enough. My friend suddenly snorted, jolting in remembrance.

“I had a talk with him once, after Marchford,” Indrani admitted. “I was curious after hearing so many stories so I sought him out.”

“You never told me about that,” I said.

“Didn’t think it mattered,” she shrugged. “I was going to challenge him to a spar, but he had this look…”

I chuckled.

“Like before you even entered the room he’d figured out three ways to kill you,” I said.

She grinned, and it had her hazelnut eyes alight. She was most beautiful, I thought, in fleeting moments. Indrani was easy on the eyes yet not so striking it took the breath away, without the scarf, but now and then there would be a moment and it was the only thing you could think about.

“Yeah, that,” she agreed. “Couldn’t find the nerve. We had tea, we talked about Refuge a bit and then about the battle against the demon.”

She paused.

“And then after that, mild as you please, he smiled all nice and said that if I ever attacked you again he’d have me drowned,” she added.

I blinked in confusion for a moment, before I remembered the first time I’d ever met Indrani. She’d burst out of a window without warning at the manor in Marchford, then slapped me around along with Hakram and Masego. While I was still freshly wounded from a fight with devils, no less. Gods, I’d completely forgotten about that. Archer cleared her throat.

“What I mean is, I think he does,” she said. “Or did.”

Love me, she meant. In his own way.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “He can put it in a box when he acts. It’s not that I don’t think it’s genuine, it’s just…”

“How can it be enough, if it can fit in a box?” she said.

I nodded.

“I think I can handle caring,” I admitted. “As long as it also fits in a box.”

Because it was one thing, to have this tangle of gratitude and affection within me that refused to go away, but it was another to let it dictate my actions. There was a chance, however slight, that I could get to the end without killing him. But there was a greater chance I couldn’t, and when the time came I could not allow myself to hesitate. Not going against a man who wouldn’t.

“You ever wonder if getting older just makes us more like them?” Archer asked, looking upwards at the ceiling of the tent. “Different roads, maybe, but going to the same place.”

My boot scraped against the edge of the bed uneasily.

“I think we can learn from them without becoming them,” I replied. “Or maybe I just want to, because the alternative scares me. Not sure it can really be called faith, when I’m more afraid of being wrong than believing I’m right.”

“They wouldn’t have called a truce,” Indrani decided after a moment. “They would have found a way to kill every last one of them.”

My fingers clenched, then slowly unclenched.

“I’m not so sure they would have been wrong to do that,” I confessed.

I could feel her surprise without turning.

“Thought you are all about victory in peace, these days,” Archer noted. “Peace after a lot of killing, sure, but making nice still being the end of the road.”

“If I’d listened to Juniper and gone with Bonfire,” I said. “A third of my army wouldn’t be dead right now.”

“You just got done sleeping off your last big move,” she shrugged. “Not sure if it was the right call to pass on the Hellhound’s plan, but I can’t say for sure it was the wrong one either. Neither can you, unless you know things you’re not telling me.”

“So I keep telling myself,” I said. “But so far, all my plan’s gotten done is a lot of bleeding by people my duty is to not have bleeding. And it might fail, Indrani. That’s the thorn on the stem. I need the other side to be willing to make a deal, and I’m less certain of that being a real possibility by the day. I thought Pilgrim was someone I could work with, but after this morning… They’re not interested in both sides getting what they want, because if we get our way even a little bit they see it as a defeat.”

“So beat them,” Archer said. “Crush them so brutally they’re not thinking about winning, just surviving. They’ll take terms then.”

I laughed harshly.

“Gods, I want to,” I admitted. “It might not be easier, but it’d be simpler. If all I had to care about was coming out on top and what it takes to get there. And that’s the hypocrisy of it. Because as much as I rail against them, what I’m after is utter victory as well. It just involves make treaties instead of invading another country.”

“I’m still not hearing a reason not to step on them,” Indrani said, frowning.

“Because Triumphant took ten years to conquer all of Calernia and five years to lose it,” I said. “Just being strong isn’t enough, because if strength is all that keeps the peace then the moment you falter it’s gone. And we all falter, eventually. You can’t dance for decades without ever missing a step. I used to think Malicia lost sight of that, when she tried to get her hands on the doomsday weapon, but now I’m not so sure. After Second Liesse I told myself she’d put herself in the corner on her own. That by fanning the flames when Procer had its civil war she ensured sooner or later there’d be a reckoning, and then made it so much worse by trying to get the weapon. Now, though, I think I get where she was coming from. She thinks the only way they’ll ever negotiate with her is if the alternative is annihilation. No uncertainty, no room for a turnaround. Just…”

I snapped my fingers.

“Gone.”

“We rebuilding the fortress o’doom, then?” Archer asked. “I was under the impression we didn’t care for it.”

“Before I told Juniper to raise the army,” I said. “Before I let everyone off the leash to rebuild Callow and get it on war footing, I drew a line for myself. That’d I’d only keep fighting so long as what I led to wasn’t worse than surrendering to the crusade. Because if I can’t even believe that much, I’m the problem more than them.”

“No to the fortress o’doom, then,” Indrani snorted. “I think? It can be hard to tell with you.”

“If it takes Hellgates to make what I’m doing work, then it isn’t worth doing,” I replied. “The thing that gets me is, what I hate most about the heroes? I do it too. I’m furious that they think they should win just because they won’t compromise, but when have I ever done the same when I had the power not to?”

And I couldn’t just dismiss that. Because getting angry about them being stubborn didn’t hold, when I was just as stubborn. I could believe they were wrong, but I couldn’t just dismiss their right to disagree with me. The fury that burned whenever they cast their righteousness in my face was childish. I’d spent years telling my enemies that blame was pointless, that it didn’t change anything. That it was whining to demand the world be as you thought it should instead of how it truly was. It’d been my answer, when facing Vivienne in Laure, and I would not renounce it now. The servants of the Gods Above had powers my decisions had barred from me, but that was my own doing. I did not surrender the right to restrain and work around these powers whenever I could, but I could not honestly call it unfair. When had fair ever mattered? That I had to refrain from using powers I had gained because they were harmful of dangerous in no way meant my enemies had limit themselves the same way. If I could not win with this state of affairs, that was on my head. There could be no such thing as cheating when none of this was a game. And Gods forgive me, but I’d known it would be like this when I took up the knife.

“Winner takes all,” Archer said. “The law older than laws.”

“I could probably end the war in about a year,” I admitted. “If I hit Black’s army in the back while it’s defending against the crusaders, then help them move against Praes. There’d be a lot of death before it was over, taking Praesi cities, and probably just as much in purges afterwards. I’m not sure, though, that it won’t result in fewer corpses than my way. I genuinely can’t tell. If I threw it all away, if I rolled over for Hasenbach… Fuck, Callow wouldn’t be independent but I broke William’s neck because I believe the sign on the banner is less important than the people under it. I’m not after the same things I was when I started, not anymore. The amount of corpses on the ground at the end isn’t all that matters.”

“Never did get why you worry so much about people,” Indrani said. “Vivienne’s all about the good ol’ motherland and getting even, but she was upper crust before she learned wandering hands. She’s got a stake in that game. You? You’re an orphan, Cat. Never left Laure before Black took you in, if Hakram is to be believed. Why do you give two shits if this country burns? Not like it ever did anything for you. A chunk of it still hates your guts, and considering you sure as Hells don’t enjoy ruling it you’re going through a lot of trouble to keep doing just that.”

More than once I’d reflected that Archer had a lot in common with orcs, when it came to the way she looked at the world. I’d been wrong, though. Oh, they both liked blood on the floor and they measured most things through strength. But orcs had… loyalties. Not in the way I’d been taught to have them, but they were there. Follow the warlord, protect the clan, uphold what an orc should be. Indrani had none of that. If she was loyal to anything, it was herself. A betrayal, to her, would be forcing herself to do something she didn’t want to do. Pretending to be something else than she was. Black and I were creatures fettered to outcomes, if not means. Archer, and Ranger as well I suspected, could not conceive a world where fetters could be anything but a sin. The only thing Indrani had it in her to truly hate was being restrained.

“I thought I could fix it,” I quietly said. “I looked around me and thought that, if I had the power all those other people had, I wouldn’t make their mistakes. I’d use it the way it should be used. That it would be better.”

Archer studied me silently.

“And do you still?”

I made and broke the Liesse Rebellion, I thought. I bargained with fae as my people died around me, failed the responsibilities I had claimed so grandly a city was blotted out from Creation along with a hundred thousand souls. I am leading this land to make war on half the continent while the rest plots my demise.

“I’m not good enough a liar,” I said, “to make myself believe that.”

“So leave,” Indrani said. “Take your cloak and your sword, wake Masego and convince Vivienne. You have a way with her. We can be out of the kingdom before dawn.”

“Do you think we’re good people, Indrani?” I asked.

“Good people is what we pretend to be, when we’re more afraid of consequences than we are hungry or jealous,” Archer replied without hesitation. “When the living is soft and someone else takes the pain for you. It always, always falls away when you walk through fire – and we’ve been in too many blazes to still be wearing that face.”

“Right and wrong are less important than works or not,” I mused. “That’s what I was taught. And it fit, you know? Because mercy’s the privilege of the powerful. The House of Light can speak the pretty sentiments because by following them it wins. Black never followed his philosophy to its logical conclusion, though, because it’s not about logic for him. Not really. If the Heavens always win, why should anyone ever pick another side?”

“Gold, pretty boys, the power to fry anyone getting on your nerves,” Indrani suggested. “Angels tend to be pricks, too. You’re being all philosophical about this, but that’s just you. Most people don’t think that deep about it.”

“The Empire of the last twenty years was probably the most reasonable Evil has ever been on this continent,” I said. “It still involved exploiting an occupied country and habitual assassination. I don’t think it was worse than other current nations, not objectively. But if the best Evil can do is acceptably awful, then some things have to be reconsidered. The Pilgrim said I’m leading everyone down the cliff just by being in charge, and just because he’s trying to kill me doesn’t mean he’s wrong.”

“So stab the Empress,” Archer nonchalantly said, like it was just an afternoon’s work. “Climb the Tower and, you know, don’t do any of that.”

“That’s exactly what Diabolist is trying to get me to do,” I murmured. “But I think it’s a trap, Indrani. Because I’ll have to get worse to stay on top in Praes. Below wins, and just because I’d hang the Heavens if I could doesn’t meant I trust the opposition any. And whoever puts a knife in me, a few decades down the line, takes up the old banner with the scales having tilted their way. Pilgrim’s right about that too. There’s going to be consequences to all of this that won’t come out for decades, and if I ignore that I’m fucking over a lot more people than I’m trying to save.”

“You made part of this mess, can’t deny that,” Indrani said. “Promises too, to people you like. I won’t pretend breaking would be pleasant. But this is larger and older than us, Cat. It’s the Game of the Gods. Not playing is as close to victory as you’ll ever get.”

“If was a heroine,” I said, “I’d tell you to have a war you need two sides.”

“That ship sailed when you fucked over the Hashmallim, I’m pretty sure,” Archer said.

I laughed ruefully, shaking my head.

“The last time I felt like I had a grasp on any of this was when I killed the Lone Swordsman,” I admitted. “Ever since it’s been like swimming in the dark. I know I saw a shore on the other side, but the night is young and I’m getting tired. The longer I’m at it, the more I doubt I’ll ever get to land.”

“And what’s our shore?” Indrani asked.

“I call them,” I softly said, “the Liesse Accords.”

“They worth the swim?” Archer said, eyebrow quirking.

“They’re why I still have a crown on,” I replied. “Because for them to work, someone needs to enforce them from this side.”

“So we fight,” she said.

“So we fight,” I echoed.

Silence lingered between us, almost restful.

“I’m not sure I do,” I murmured. “Care. If I did, why would I need so many rules?”

“Same reason anyone has rules,” Indrani replied, with kindness like a knife. “Fear.”

I knew better, these days, than to argue with the truth. I rose to my feet and leaned over Masego, forcing away her feet and brushing the wooden slivers off his face.

“Wake me with dawn,” I told her.

She nodded silently, blade beginning to chip at wood again. I laid my hand on Hierophant’s head and breathed in, seizing his dream.

I never felt myself breathe out.

Chapter 17: Contingent

“Peace is little more than the reognition that the reasons for which war was undertaken are no longer relevant.”
– Dread Emperor Benevolent the First

I came back to myself with a roiling sea of Winter at my fingertips.

Fucking Hells, Akua. The trap I’d set that ultimately brought me back had required that the Diabolist or another entity to essentially go mad with power for it to work in the first place, but this was still beyond my predictions. Even with oaths binding her and Vivienne holding a leash, what I saw beneath me was a dark reminder of the quantity of power that could be thrown around without breaking the letter of the limitations I’d imposed. Half of the lake I’d dumped over the head of the crusaders with Masego’s help had apparently been used to smash the heroes, though I saw no corpses to show for the effort. Not that one of those would necessarily mean the end of it, with the Pilgrim around. Five contingencies, and this had been the one to work. I could not help but be pissed that even after all that planning in the end it’d come down to Akua making a mistake, however baited that mistake had been. Hierophant was nowhere in sight, so he was probably incapacitated. That was one down. Thief’s secret set of oaths must not have been sufficient to call me back from that… unpleasant journey, which made two. I’d not woken up to a sword through my back, so Larat hadn’t worked out either – but then that had always been the chanciest of the five. The oath forced on the fae had been comprehensive, but with that sort of creature it was hard to make one completely water-tight. He’d failed, either on purpose or not. I’d have to get the details out of him, but regardless that made three.

As for the last trick, well, it had very specific requirements. I wasn’t surprised it hadn’t gotten me out, though I’d need to have Hierophant take a look at the overlay as soon as possible. We were pretty sure it wouldn’t kill me if it triggered by accident, but there were always risks in turning yourself into living munitions.

I held the power in check, barely, as my gaze swept the battlefield. Ten heroes, looking ragged but unbowed. The Saint had taken an arrow, which meant Indrani was up and about. A relief, that. The rest were clustered together, protecting the Pilgrim and the wizard I’d scrapped with that one time. The thousand little bundles in the back of my mind made it clear Akua had indulged in a spot of necromancy, which brought mixed feelings. For all that Masego insisted there was nothing inherently bad about that kind of sorcery, after Second Liesse I had my doubts. Maybe there were applications that weren’t inherently horrid, but no one seemed to be actually using those. On the other hand, if the undead were getting chopped up that meant fewer of my soldiers were dying. I could appreciate the results, even if the means had me more than a little uncomfortable. I’d take a closer look a those later. For now, I was juggling the difficulty of maintaining the ice beneath my feet that kept me on the surface of this eerie marsh while simultaneously trying not to blow up either myself or my surroundings with the power Diabolist had drawn. My grip was beginning to slip, so action was in order. Senses no mortal could have were in full extension, telling me of the humidity in the air and the spread of both water and ice in my surroundings.

I dumped the power into the water beneath me, flash-freezing it with a loud snap as I continued spreading and shaping the working. The glacier formed at a mind-boggling pace, water rippling around it, and I closed my eyes to focus. Getting the paddles of the waterwheel all the same size was difficult, though it grew easier the more power I shed. I could have made it larger, not that it wasn’t already massive, but just a structure of ice wasn’t what I had in mind. Fingers clenching, I severed the platform I stood on from the wheel and lashed out with my will. Slowly, the wheel began to turn. The waters churned. I continued dumping power into the movement, accelerating it, and the tide of soiled water raged towards the heroes with a roar. Fuck it, I thought, and tossed the wheel at them too. We were past subtlety at this point. Eyes flicking towards the Saint, I sighed as she carved herself a path above the current and stood atop the arc. That’d been too much to hope for, I supposed. An arrow whistled at her and I took advantage of the opening Archer had just gifted me to move further away as I riffled through the bundles in the back of my mind until I could find Zombie. Good girl that she was, she’d been waiting on the edge of the marshlands. She seemed pleased by my summons, taking flight with haste.

I wasn’t sure what Akua’s plan had been but it hardly mattered. While it looked like she might have been getting the better of the fight with the heroes, fighting them at all was a mistake as far as I was concerned. Even if I killed a few they’d still get me in the end. In the distance I heard a gargantuan crack as the ice wheel fractured into pieces merrily carried by the currents, heroes having climbed atop them. That, as it happened, was an opening I’d left on purpose. I drew on Winter, feeling it whisper lovingly in my ears, and shattered the wheel shards. That dumped the heroes back into the water, though the fucking wizard made some kind of ring of fire that evaporated a safe place for them to gather and regroup. Saint was back on the offensive, making her way to me, but I wasn’t having any of that. Zombie made a low pass and I leapt atop her saddle, fingers slipping into her mane to anchor me while I got my feet in the stirrups. We went high after that, the undead horse’s wings beating hard as we ascended. My cloak was wet, I only then noticed. Like I’d been swimming. What the fuck had Akua been up to? No, not the time. By the height of the sun it was morning still, and promising to be a warm day. Not a cloud in sight. My mount gliding slowly, I took a look at the broader situation unfolding across the field.

The undead were shambling forward into a defensive Proceran line near what must have been a shore, before most the water in the marsh was used as ammunition in the Named brawl below me. The dead were not making an impressive showing. They seemed to have some semblance of intelligence, but there was no real coordination. They went in waves and shattered on the formations of fantassins and the priests accompanying them. Still, casualties were slowly mounting. I suspected the first few waves must have been wiped almost without losses, but now the crusaders were tiring and beginning to make mistakes. There was, to my surprise, another front to the battle. The Army of Callow was out in force, though there were a lot fewer of them than I’d expected. Had Juniper left men to guard the camp? Regardless, if she was leading this engagement she was being rather conservative in her command. Mages on both sides were trading spells at a pace, but aside from a long shield wall of regulars pressing against crusader lines there was no other real fighting going on. She’s not fighting to win, I thought, frowning as I watched the Order of the Broken Bell manoeuver on the flank to draw away enemy cavalry without ever engaging. She’s delaying and tying down men while incurring as few casualties as possible.

That was unlike the Hellhound, who tended to go for the throat whenever she could. Which meant she was relying on the dead to do the heavy lifting – and by extension had relied on Akua. That was a desperate measure if I’d ever seen one. The situation must be worse than it looked on the surface. The moment the front holding back the dead collapsed the battle was good as won, barring heroic intervention, but at the current pace that might take hours. My brow tightened as I scanned the battlefield for any hint of the Wild Hunt’s presence, but they were nowhere in sight. Had the fae sat on their asses the entire time I’d been gone? Fuck. It was a solid assumption there’d been a battle while I was gone, and without the fae the Army of Callow would have been fighting Named with only Legion mages to back them up, while the enemy had wizards and priests both. It must have been a fucking slaughter. Were the men I saw below all that was left of our host? There were what, maybe thirteen or fourteen thousand there? The Procerans looked like they’d taken a beating too, lost at least another few thousand since I’d dropped the lake on them, but Malanza could afford those losses a lot more than we could. She was throwing away levies and fantassins, not professional soldiers.

While I’d been taking my look around, the heroes had gotten their shit together. A beam of radiant light – fucking Pilgrim – tore up towards me, followed by a swarm of little balls of flame that looked liquid. I led Zombie into a deep dive to shake the projectiles. Archer could take care of herself, I decided. She was probably half a mile away and picking her targets carefully, in no danger of being swarmed by the enemy. Just in case I wove a glamour into large streaks of yellow and red indicating she should disengage even as I spurred Zombie to head towards the shore battle line. I whistled loudly as my mount’s hooves swept just above the water. It was not long before I had my answer. Loyal dogs that they were, the Wild Hunt came as summoned. There was an eldritch glimmer on the surface of the water at my side before Larat came riding out in full armour, sword in hand and grinning broadly. Even as his horse kept pace with mine, the rest of the Hunt emerged in our wake.

“Your Majesty,” the one-eyed fae greeted me. “Was your journey a fruitful one?”

“We’re going to have a talk about that, you little weasel,” I darkly said. “But it’ll have to wait. I have work for the lot of you.”

“We await your will eagerly,” the raven-haired man replied.

“Ignore the heroes unless they attack you,” I ordered. “See those Proceran formations ahead?”

My sword helpfully pointed out the Proceran defensive line.

“Their fear and desperation wafts most pleasantly to my nostrils,” Larat informed me.

They did to mine as well, and Winter grew hungry for the banquet, but I forced myself to focus.

“Break them,” I said. “Killing’s not the objective, the Hunt is to concentrate on shattering their lines.”

“Tasteless meat,” the one-eye fae complained.

“That sounds like the talk of a man hungry for fingers,” I noted very mildly.

The bastard laughed.

“Your will be done, Sovereign of Moonless Nights,” he smiled.

“It better, for your sake,” I smiled back cheerfully. “Because you seem to have fucked around in my absence, and we’re going to have a nice chat about that.”

I didn’t even allow him to respond, pulling Zombie up and willing one of her wing beats to splash water in his face. Let him try to look all elegant and sinister with muck everywhere. I absently tugged on the reins to lead my mount towards the crusaders, but my mind was elsewhere. I needed to keep the heroes busy for a while, there was no telling what they’d get up to unattended. I reached for the dead, grimacing after a moment. Ordering them one by one would take too long. I thinned my will and cast it broadly, grabbing a rough thousand still roving around. Pain spiked through my forehead. Too much feedback. I grit my teeth and ordered them to assault the heroes before withdrawing my will. They weren’t going to win that fight – a band of tired and encircled heroes fighting back to back against a relentless tide of undead? It had victory written all over it – but it should keep them out of my hair for a while. I tasted the warmth of the enemy Named, trying to get a sense of their readiness, and my fingers clenched. There should be ten. There were only eight. Where had they – no, it wasn’t even worth asking. They would be at the very worst possible place for me.

Guarding Rozala Malanza.

I allowed myself a moment to contemplate the unpleasantness that was fighting people both stronger than me and certain to be where I least wanted them to be before pressing down against Zombie’s back. She neighed and angled for descent as we flew towards the back of the Proceran lines. A handful of archers loosed arrows upwards, but I was too far and too swift for them to have any real chance of hitting me. Unfortunately, mages were bullshit and evidently I was both recognizable and a favoured target. Panes of opaque yellow force formed around me in an airtight box, but they were in above their heads this time. When it came to power, pound for pound, there were only a few people in Calernia who could beat me if I put my back into it. A lance of ice and shade formed around my hand and Zombie dove down. There was a heartbeat of resistance when the tip of the lance met the sorcery, then they both shattered and we flew through as my cloak trailed behind me. With a target painted on us so blatantly, it was no surprise I had to lead Zombie into a desperate roll to avoid being incinerated by a beam of light. It caught the edge of my cloak, leaving it singed and smoking. Fucking Pilgrim. It was supposed to be resistant to magic, wasn’t it?

He was down there, as I’d suspected. Leaning on his staff, the Saint of Swords by his side and waiting patiently for me to gain enough momentum I wouldn’t be able to pull out of the dive when she struck. Malanza was behind them, and as the air whistled around me I got a glimpse of her face. Fear, yes, but much more anger. I had to respect that she remained on her horse and unmoving even as my descent quickened. Her officers were not so brave, scattering to the winds. I’d have to play this one precisely, if I wanted to avoid getting skewered in the process of landing. Fortunately, I was spending increasingly large amounts of my life either falling from things or being thrown off of them. I’d become a fair hand at it. I drew on Winter and shaped it, tossing ahead of me a spear of mist that detonated into a cloud. Throwing myself off Zombie, I ordered her to peel off even as my relationship with gravity took a sharp turn downwards. This, I mused, had seemed a better idea before I’d gone through with it. The timing held. A cut dispersed the mist, missing Zombie by a mere inch. Then the Saint struck again and I cursed.

I threw ice at the cut, saving my hide just long enough for my feet to land on wet earth. Mud sucked at my boots and both my knees snapped, but they were reforming before I even stood. The Saint of Swords was lazily advancing, the Pilgrim pointed his staff and Malanza looked like she really wanted to be pretty much anywhere else.

“Truce,” I called out. “I’m here to talk.”

“I’m not seeing a banner,” the Saint noted.

Really? She was such a godsdamned asshole. I flicked my fingers and wove one out of glamour, but she pointedly did not look at it.

“I don’t want to fight you,” I insisted.

“So don’t,” she suggested. “Angle your neck a little to the side, it’ll be a cleaner cut.”

She was closing distance, which I knew from experience would result in my getting chopped up painfully and repeatedly.

“Pilgrim,” I tried, looking behind her. “This can end right now.”

“Gods forgive me,” the old man said. “But you are right. It will.”

“The battle is lost,” I said. “Your lines by the shore are collapsing as we speak. Even if you force me to flee, none of that changes.”

“Armies are armies,” the Saint shrugged. “Named are Named. More than one way to win a war.”

One step away from striking range, now. And the moment she got there we entered the wheel of pain, where every spoke was me losing a limb and trying very hard not to scream. The bundle of instincts that were not my own was licking its chops, hungry for the fight. To crush my enemies and savour their screams. The rest insisted I make some distance, because this was about to get ugly. I unsheathed my sword. This isn’t going to work, I thought, but I had to try anyway. My fingers came loose and I dropped the blade.

“Unarmed,” I said. “Under truce banner.”

“You’re a weapon unto yourself,” the Saint of Swords snorted, and stepped forward.

From the corner of my eye I saw implacable light bloom at the tip of the Grey Pilgrim’s staff. If I got hit by that, I suspected the consequences would be much more unpleasant than a sword wound. Nothing friendly felt the way that power did.

“Stop.”

I’d been reaching for Winter, but stayed my hand. That was not the Pilgrim’s voice, and certainly not the Saint’s. Rozala Malanza took off her helmet, sweat-soaked curls falling across her face.

“You want to talk, Black Queen,” she said. “So talk.”

“You fucking yellow-bellied-” the Saint began.

“I am the ranking general of this army, Regicide,” the Princess of Aequitan coldy replied. “I take no orders from you. Slay me or stay your tongue.”

By the looks of her, the heroine was feeling inclined towards the second. The light winked out on the Pilgrim’s staff.

“Laurence,” he said. “She cannot easily retreat. If talks fail, we will strike.”

That wasn’t how fucking truce talks were supposed to work, but then I’d not exactly respected the usual etiquette either. Disinclined as I was to give them a full pass, I would at least recognize they had some wiggling room when it came interpretation. The heroes were a distraction here, I decided. The one who mattered was the princess watching me with hard eyes.

“Battle’s over, Malanza,” I said. “Let’s end it before any more people die pointlessly.”

“I was assured you could not open your deathly gate again without the Hierophant,” the Proceran said flatly. “He is not here. The battle is not yet lost.”

“So maybe you wreck my army,” I said. “Even if you manage that, yours gets wrecked in the process as well. And you can be sure enough of my people survive to run that we can defend Hedges against what you have left. Logistically, you’re done. You don’t have the supplies or the men for a successful offensive into Callow.”

“If we take your supplies-”she began.

“Not happening. I gave standing orders to burn what we can’t carry, if we lose,” I interrupted brusquely.

Her eyes flicked to the Pilgrim, and reluctantly the old man nodded. The Saint’s already grim expression darkened further.

“I will not surrender to the likes of you,” the princess snarled.

My fingers clenched.

“Gods Below, what will it take?” I hissed. “Do I have to murder ever last Proceran on this field before negotiations can be had? Are you really so unwilling to consider not invading you’ll let dozens of thousands starve?”

“Your doing,” Malanza hissed back. “You steal our supplies, harass us and then claim affront at our desperation? You are the architect of this madness, Catherine Foundling.”

Winter whispered in my ear, urging me to rip apart the righteous little shit who had the gall to pretend she was the victim here while leading a fucking invasion army. My fingers dug into my palm until steel gave and flesh beneath it, blood dripping on the ground. The Saint’s stance shifted ever so slightly. Breathe in, breathe out. Pride was a liability. Anger an unhelpful bias. Be cold, I told myself. Be clear. Be a creature of logic, because logic is what gets you through this. Everything else is distracting noise. I thought of pale green eyes, and lessons I had not yet outgrown.

“Then do not surrender,” I said calmly. “Sound a withdrawal. My side will do the same. We can discuss terms for your retreat from Callow when our people aren’t dying.”

“And allow hunger to do your work for you?” the princess retorted.

“I’d be putting down an army of the dead as a gesture of good will, Malanza,” I said. “My concession is greater than yours.”

Her face remained unmoved by the statement, but she was silent for a moment.

“Supplies for the night,” she said. “Food, water and tents. Delivered after we tend to the wounded.”

I forced myself to consider the counter-offer calmly. Would those make enough of a difference I should bargain down? Vivienne still had their old foodstuffs in her metaphorical pocket, so it shouldn’t lead to logistical issues for the Army of Callow if I shelled thse out. It would still mean that the enemy, while not fresh, would at least have full bellies. They’d be closer to fighting fit. If negotiations broke down afterwards – no, wrong way to think about it. If we had a night to spare, odds were I’d be able to get Hierophant back up. My comparative advantage was greater, even with the undead tossed aside.

“They’ll be added to your bill,” I said.

The princess opened her mouth.

“Flat cost,” I added. “No surcharge.”

Her mouth closed. Grudgingly, she nodded. We both knew that if negotiations failed any talk of coin would become academic anyway.

“Truce until negotiations come at an end,” I said. “First session held at noon tomorrow.”

“Granted,” Malanza replied.

My eyes flicked to the Named at her sides.

“That includes heroes,” I said.

“I take no orders from mortal rulers,” the Saint flatly said.

I ignored her. She was irrelevant in this, unless she was willing to fight the entire Army of Callow on her own. Even if she got the rest of the heroes to back her, it wouldn’t be enough.

“You can’t seriously expect me to feed and shelter your army while we’re under attack by your allies,” I told Malanza.

The Proceran looked like she’d swallowed a lemon.

“I will formally renounce alliance with any hero resuming hostilities while we are under truce,” she said. “I can do no more.”

It’d be enough, I decided. Might even be better if the Saint attacked after that, we’d get a clean shot at her without making a diplomatic mess.

“I strike bargain under these terms,” I said.

I got my gauntlet off and offered my hand. Revulsion flickering across her face, the princess spat on the ground.

“I strike bargain under these terms,” she replied. “Get out of my sight, Black Queen.”

I supposed we were past courtesy, at this point. It’d never been my strong suit anyway. I crouched to pick up my sword and sheathed it, keeping an eye on the furious Saint as I did. She turned and walked away. The Pilgrim sought to meet my eyes, studying me a pensive frown, but I was done with him. Zombie landed moments later, a handful of arrows having sprouted in her flank since I’d last seen her. The enemy archers had been busy. It still took half an hour before the battle came entirely at an end, the last of the dead dropping into the mud like a stringless puppet, but it ended.

None of this felt like a victory, but at least it wasn’t a defeat.

Interlude: Kaleidoscope VI

“You can have the throne when I’m done with it, which will be never.”
– Dread Emperor Revenant, initiating the First War of the Dead

Rozala had only felt it once before, throughout the whole of her life. That limpid clarity that was perfect understanding, the crystallization of thought and moment into a single flawless shard. She’d been a child, last time, and her mother had kissed her brow before sending her out of the hall. She’d remained alone on the ancient throne of Aequitain, a cup of poison in hand. In that moment, as the oak doors closed behind her, Rozala Malanza had known that she would take Cordelia Hasenbach’s head or die trying. Known it in a way deeper than she knew her breath or the flow of her blood, felt that certainty become part of her soul. Now, standing at the centre of a storm of shouting men and bared steel, she learned something else.

She had overestimated her own cleverness.

It was a bitter lesson. She’d learned the ways of war since she’d been a young girl, been taught them so deeply her grasp on the Ebb and the Flow had paid for it. There were perhaps a handful of generals in all of Procer that were finer commanders than her, and all had decades of experience that in time she would come to match. The Iron Prince, she’d fancied, had been the only one who could match her own discernment in matters of battle. And Klaus Papenheim was old, stepping closing to death’s threshold every year. As the blue-eyed dead advanced in utter silence, Rozala Malanza realized that the waters of the world were deep and her understanding of them shallow. What had seemed like cleverness days ago might very well cost her this day, this battle, this campaign and perhaps even this crusade.

That the dead would rise was no great surprise. There were reports of the Black Queen having raised them for purpose of war in the past, and though the Army of Callow lacked Wasteland mages it would have been naïve of her to expect complete ignorance of necromancy. And so, even after the Queen of Callow was laid low, Princess Rozala had laid a trap. She’d crafted it carefully, drawing on the knowledge of the Rogue Sorcerer and the Grey Pilgrim. Even if the Black Queen woke, as the Pilgrim had hinted she might should defeat loom tall over the Callowans, Catherine Foundling had limits to the power she could draw. Great workings such as raising a mile of marshlands’ worth of dead would exhaust and weaken her. And so, patiently, she had ordered preparations. Rozala had no lack of priests and Chosen, and if there was one truth to be had about water it was that it could be blessed.

It would have been a beautiful counterstroke. The moment the Black Queen invested her power into the dead, heroes and priests would have gathered together to bless it and the touch of holy would have broken both the host of undead and the villain raising them. Two birds taken with the same stone, turning the Enemy’s arrogance into just demise. And so when the alarms had rung and the call to battle trumpeted, when she first received report that blue-eyed undead were rising from the marsh to attack the camp she had smiled. She might, after all, have just won the battle. Then the priests and the Chosen sallied out, carving an island of Light by the shore until they could finish their holy blessing, and when the ripple of pale shivered across the surface of the water triumph coursed through her veins.

Until the moment she saw the dead were still advancing, and Rozala Malanza was struck by terrible clarity.

The dead were coming. Thousands of them, leashed to the Black Queen’s will. It was possible for her host to successfully defend, even if caught by surprise and still half-asleep. With the Chosen holding the shore until enough soldiers could be assembled, it was possible to weather the storm. Unless the crusaders were forced to defend on two fronts. The Princess of Aequitan swallowed her fear and despair, soothing her mind. It was not yet done. If the Chosen managed to slay the Black Queen, the tide could be turned.

“Gather the men from Orne and Cantal,” Princess Rozala barked, her raised voice stilling the chaos. “We are, I believe, about to be attacked by the Army of Callow.”

She did not look to the shores, where the Named were gathering. The Pilgrim and the Saint would understand the situation without need for her to send a messenger.

It was as all on their shoulders now.

Christophe raised his shield and the undead’s blow glanced off the polished silver. The creatures were slow, for all that the Rogue Sorcerer had been astonished by them. The man’s insistence that they’d been raised through the pure power of Winter instead of a Damned’s fell abilities or even necromancy seemed to make little difference when it came to meeting them on the field. Flicking his wrist, he separated the abomination’s head from its body and the corpse dropped to the ground. The blue eyes winked out a moment later and he settled his stance. The wave was at an end, though already more were rising from the tepid waters. The Mirror Knight feared no Evil, yet he misliked the lay of this battle. His fellow Chosen were too few to hold the whole shore, and there were dangers in standing alone against the horde. Kallia had lost an arm to a dead crusader but a half-hour past, the thing clutching at her body until the munitions within detonated. Goblin devilry, the mark of a degenerate breed. The scuttling greenskins were without honour. The Forsworn Healer had reattached the arm and healed the wound, but the Painted Knife had been shaken. He could not blame her. Unlike him, she’d fought the monster up close. Christophe would never forget the sight of the Black Queen laughingly tearing apart an entire band of heroes almost by herself. She’d ripped out their lives like errant weeds, making a game of their struggle. Antoine, his young Alamans brother-in-arms, was still plagued by nightmares from having his arm torn out and tossed in Mansurin’s face as a distraction.

Yesterday had been almost worse. Christophe had come within a hair’s breadth of death leading the fantassins in their advance, saved only by the intervention of the Regicide. A second time he had felt the Cold Lady’s breath on his neck, when the Callowans had plied wicked sorcery and made river where there was once solid ground. He’d been on the wrong side of it, surrounded by the enemy, and prepared for his last stand when death suddenly bloomed in green flames. The impotence of it had been what stung the worst. Men and monsters he could meet sword in hand, but how did one fight fire? Soldiers he’d spilled blood with, comrades under the Heavens, had died screaming while the power he’d been bestowed by Above proved useless to save anyone. He was the Mirror Knight, granted his armaments by the spirits of the Old Lake after he passed their harsh trials. His power was the reflection of Evil against Evil, the conception of the snake biting its own tail. Yet he’d crawled away shamefully from the blazing green, fished out of the waters by a soldier after almost drowning in his flight. The Enemy had failed to scar his body, but the remembrance of that shame would leave mark on his soul until he drew his last breath.

Not all had been so lucky that dishonour was the price exacted. Mansurin’s second death had taken him beyond even the Grey Pilgrim’s reach.

Christophe chased away the thought and let the light of day wash over him. He drew strength from it, from the Dawn that was one of his aspects. He rose with the morning sun, tiredness and uncertainty leaking out of his body. The Elfin Dames had shaped him in this, granted him the boon that with every dawn his soul would rise – and never retreat. The Mirror Knight had once been a thin and sickly child, but the passing of the years had made him a warrior beyond mortal capacity. It was a slight thing, but every morning saw him a little stronger. A little faster. A little more enduring. Another decade of this, the Regicide had told him, and he would be beyond even her ability to match. Perfect within and without, as the Heavens meant him to be. His strength reaching its peak and a sliver beyond, he waded into the shallow waters and scattered the marching dead. He scythed limbs and shattered skulls, his silver blade breaking steel and the dead flesh beneath. He retreated only when none were left to stand against him, soiled water dripping from his greaves. The whistle caught him by surprise, and he turned so his helm would allow him sight.

“Mirror,” the Vagrant Spear said in broken Tolesian. “We gather. Take head of queen.”

The Arlesite tongue was not his most fluent, but he had made some study of it during his years defending the convent. Sidonia, as the other Chosen insisted they all call her in private, seemed unruffled by the darkness besieging them. Christophe admired this greatly, as she had been returned from the side of the Gods Above for nary an hour. The Pilgrim’s power had breathed life back into her still body so recently, yet she returned to their holy struggle without hesitation. The strength of her resolve was worthy of praise. No all the Grey Pilgrim had returned had been so unflinching in their devotion. There was no trace of daze and confusion in her eyes, only certainty, and the Mirror Knight wrestled with the strange thing that was attraction towards a Levantine. Had his vows not forbidden it… He cleared his throat, cheeks flashing with embarassment.

“Are we to leave our fellow crusaders to stem the tide alone?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Great Elder say, battle won only when queen dead,” she replied. “Strike strong. Avenge dead.”

Reluctantly, the Chosen withdrew. Already crusaders were forming in proper ranks behind him, priests mingling amongst them. Holy flames would not burn as bright as they should against these queer undead, but burn they would regardless. It would have to be enough, until the Black Queen was slain. Christophe saluted the brave soldiers with deep respect, and there was a flicker of guilt within when they responded in kind. He knew this was retreat with purpose, but it still felt wrong to leave them to stand alone. He followed Sidonia, who led him surefooted to the gathering of Chosen further down the shore. The Knight was the last summoned, he saw. The others greeted him, grim but resolute. The Saint of Blades stood apart from the rest, lazily carving through undead without even relying on her Name, while the rest of the Chosen clustered around the Grey Pilgrim.

Some he knew by name, others only by Name. Kallia, face painted in a fresh coat of red as she held her twin knives, stood besides young Antoine. The Blade of Mercy had his greatsword propped up on his shoulder, eyes gleaming white as he drew on the Light to slay his fears. The Forsworn Healer had his eyes closed as he mastered the pain of feeling so many deaths bloom around him. The Silent Guardian, tongue forever stilled by her oaths, kept her shield close even with her sword sheathed. Christophe had shared a shameful escape with her, yesterday, and their eyes met with unspoken understanding. Never again. The Myrmidon, garbed in bronze and faith, was sharing quiet words with the Rogue Sorcerer. Often these two kept to themselves, as the Sorcerer was one of the few Chosen that could speak her obscure Free Cities dialect. This was the sum whole of the Chosen of the Heavens in this blighted place. Mansurin and François had been taken by the green fire, never to grace Creation again. Christophe sheathed his blade and formed the wings against his breastplate, commending the souls of the lost to the Gods. They had served unflinchingly to the end, and deserved endless felicity for it on the Other Side.

“Hear me,” the Grey Pilgrim said, and a ripple went through all of them.

None dared disobey, when the Peregrine spoke. The Mirror Knight felt a thrum of excitement. When had such a gathering of the Good last taken place? Blessed souls were a rarity in the lands of his birth, and like him often served their purpose in isolation. The Tenth Crusade had gathered them all for greater design, and they would see it through. The Heavens will it.

“We go now to make war on the Black Queen,” the old man said. “We were twelve, once, but no longer. Do not forget this. As the Heavens protect us, the Gods Below look well upon her – for she serves their purpose, however unwilling. Victory is not assured, for we now venture in her realm of death and ice.”

The elder Levantine smiled sadly at them.

“There is no glory in this,” he warned them. “Bards may write songs, one day, and chronicles sing your praises, but this is earthly luster. We march in the spirit of sacrifice, to bring light into the dark. Do not look ahead or behind, only to each other. There is no salvation to be found save at the hands your comrades.”

Christophe kept himself from frowning. This was far from the exaltation that he had expected, and suspected they all needed.

“Stand with pride, nonetheless,” the Pilgrim softly said. “You came here of your own will, proving yourself worthy of all that was bestowed upon you. Much has been demanded, yet nothing is promised but duty fulfilled. Stand proud, children. We are the torch taken into the night, and though our flame is passing today we burn bright.”

The Mirror Knight shivered. He felt it, just like the others. The eyes of the Heavens on them. That sacred thing that made them who they were. The trance was broken by a cleared throat, to his vexation.

“All right, kids,” the Saint of Swords said, idly decapitating another undead. “We’re going after the tiger in her own lair, so expect this fight to be a notch above anything you’ve been in before. This is the third dawn, and she’s fresh returned: she will be at her peak and out for blood. Guardian, you’re to cover Forsworn against anything she tosses out.”

The silent woman nodded, edging closer to the healer.

“Myrmidon, you’re sticking by Rogue,” the Saint added. “If she hits you, buy him time to retreat and hold her in place until we can flank.”

The old woman looked upon the rest of them with a hard smile.

“Knife, Vagrant and Blade,” she said. “You’re our knife. Stay out of it until Tariq gives the signal. As for you, Mirror…”

The old woman’s grin had Christophe uneasy, though the light of dawn pushed the failing away soon enough.

“You’re with me,” she said. “We’re claiming the first dance.”

The Chosen nodded gravely. If he could save the lives of others by enduring pain, there was no real choice to be made. His power had granted him the ability to withstand much.

“Steel yourselves,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “It begins.”

The old man struck the ground with his staff, and the marsh parted.

Standing tall, the Chosen advanced.

Kallia’s heart grew steadier the longer they walked. The Painted Knife adjusted her stride so would not leave the shorter Vagrant Spear behind, silently hinting the Blade of Mercy should follow suit. The boy was taller than either of them, regardless of his youth. He’d have to be, to lug around that chunk of steel he called a weapon.

“There will be honour to be found today, strife-sister,” Sidonia murmured in Lunara when she caught up. “Worthy strife to offer the Blood.”

Kallia almost rolled her eyes. Alavans. The hill people were a ferocious lot, but they did clutch the old traditions a little too tightly for her tastes. She was from Levante, herself, which was a true great city instead of a remote valley of orchards and cattle fences. No one could deny the people of Alava were great warriors – their city was the home of the Champion’s Blood, after all – but Sidonia wasn’t someone she’d ever be able to discuss the latest songs from faraway Smyrna with, or even the latest couplets from the Hidden Poets of the old city. Still, she found her mood lifted by her fellow Levantine’s eagerness. In times of strife, it was heartening to remember the old ways.

“I’m not of any of the lines, Sidonia,” she reminded her comrade. “Either greater or lesser.”

The records of the Holy Majilis had shown that there had once been a Knife of Night a century past, who shared purpose with her, yet the man had never had children and so had spawned no lesser line to be added to the families of the Blood. Should Kallia ever have children of her own her line would be added to the rolls, but she had never been hungry for that honour. Only the greater lines won more than empty titles and emptier privileges from being recognized, as was only fitting for the descendants – in Blood or Bestowal – of the five heroes that had founded the Dominion.

“We Spears have timid boasts,” the other woman shrugged. “It will be good, to add this strife to our histories. We stand too deep in the shadow of the Champion lines.”

Not so deep, Kallia thought, now that Mansurin had been felled. He’d been born to the thinnest of the lesser Champion lines, but he had been descendent in Blood. His death was worthy of grief, but not unexpected. The descendants of the most fruitful of the founders of Levant were many and often Bestowed, but were known to die as often as they were empowered. None of those lines had ever learned fear, or the virtues of retreat in the face of the Enemy. The Painted Knife still felt awe at the remembrance of her meeting with the Valiant Champion, months ago. The woman was no descendant in Blood, but she had inherited the full Bestowal of her line’s founder. This was a rare thing, considered omen of great strife. Not, Kallia thought, that there was not even greater rarity ahead. Her eyes lingered on the crooked shoulders of the Grey Pilgrim as her hand unconsciously reached for the pouch of red paint at her side. She’d almost drawn the Mark of Mercy out of habit. And, she would admit to herself, wonder. The Great Elder was full inheritor in Blood and Bestowal of the ancient Grey Pilgrim that had been the first Seljun of Levant. Royalty beyond royalty, no matter what lesser kin now held the earthly title in Levante. More than that, he’d saved her life. Years ago, when that Spirit if Vengeance –

“Eyes ahead,” the Blade of Mercy spoke in Chantant. “We are nearing.”

Kallia’s mastery of the Proceran tongue was better than Sidonia’s, but both understood him perfectly. Her instinct was to move closer to the boy, stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the threat, but she could not – he needed room, to swing around that greatsword of his. The Painted Knife flicked a careful glance at the walls of water flanking them on both sides. After the Saint of Swords dispatched the first few undead to wander out effortlessly, the probing assaults had ceased. Their march had been unhindered; the path of mud they strode across leading to a tall glacier ahead. The Levantine stared at the mass of ice, still unused to the sight. These lands were strange ones. She had never seen snow nor ice before crossing the Stairway and glimpsing the tall peaks of the Parish, but now she had seen too much of it for her tastes. All the Bestowed grew tense when the enemy came within sight, save for the Great Elder and the Saint. It settled Kallia’s nerves some to see them so calm. They were a mighty pair, no lesser than the foe ahead. The Black Queen, she saw, was patiently awaiting them.

The Painted Knife’s fingers clenched around the hilt of her blades when she took in the full sight. The glacier had been turned into a blasphemous challenge to the Heavens, sculpted by eldritch power to nestle a great throne upon which the Enemy was seated. No, not seated. She was lounging, almost mockingly, with a long dragonbone pipe in hand. The Black Queen blew out a stream of smoke, eyeing them nonchalantly. The Bestowed slowed, spreading out as the Saint had ordered. Kallia felt Sidonia let out a delighted breath.

“Now that,” the Vagrant Spear murmured, making the Mark of Valor with shaking fingers, “is a worthy foe. Honoured Gods, a thousand singing praises for offering a great struggle to this humble one. Blood spilled on these holy grounds I dedicate to your name, my unworthy life placed on the scales of your judgement.”

Naturally, the Alavans was excited by the sight of this. She should have known better than to expect wariness from a Heavens-maddened lover of war. The Blade of Mercy glanced at them.

“Prayer,” Kallia explained in Chantant.

The boy looked approving. It was probably for the best he did not know about Levantine battle prayers. Whatever chatter had bloomed was whisked out then the Great Elder strode to the forefront, passing even the Saint of the Blades and the Mirror Knight.

“Child,” he said, tone appalled.  “What have you done to yourself?”

Sidonia shuffled impatiently. She did not know Lower Miezan, and so had no understanding of the conversation taking place.

“What needed to be done,” the Black Queen calmly replied. “My side doesn’t get to walk away clean, Pilgrim. I see you’ve been tossing around resurrections like they’re godsdamned solstice treats, too. Charming. Not going to have any long-term ramifications at all.”

The monster paused, then leaned forward.

“Did that register as a lie?” she grinned. “It didn’t, did it? Have a good think about that one next time you try to sleep, Pilgrim.”

“Surrender,” the Great Elder said. “Abdicate. It is not too late.”

“You missing the part where I’m currently winning the battle?” the Black Queen drawled. “Hells, it’s not too late for you either. Terms were offered and they hold. Take your army and go home. This doesn’t need to turn into a Named pissing contest.”

“You would argue this, after slaying thousands?” the Pilgrim asked.

“I feel like we might need to revisit the concept of foreign invasion,” the villain noted. “Specifically the part where it has fucking consequences. Like, you know, people dying. You’d think that one would be a given, but apparently you’re slow learners. Wahwah, my attempt to conquer a – sort of – sovereign nation wasn’t met with flowers and a godsdamned parade. It’s almost like we’re not happy about the whole thing. Go figure.”

“And you think your reign a better alternative?” the Grey Pilgrim asked calmly.

“Hells, Pilgrim, I was born to rule,” the Black Queen replied with a toothy grin. “But I’ll settle for getting you fucks out of my backyard, this once. Any takers?”

The monster’s gaze swept across the crowd of Bestowed as she idly emptied her pipe and put it away within her cloak. The only answer was Light blooming and weapons raised.

“Ah, well,” the Black Queen mused. “Pissing contest it is, then.”

If Akua had always known heroism was this entertaining, she would have begun dabbling years ago. A hook of Light lashed out at her as the healer Named shaped the heavenly power and tore through her throne, but she’d already been moving when the working had just begun. Landing in a crouch atop her glacier, she unsheathed her sword and tapped it pensively against her armoured leg. It was unfortunate that the deception required her to remain in dearest Catherine’s garments, as they were admittedly horrid, but needs must. The body was wonderfully responsive, and though without the Gift the mantle allowed her powers not fundamentally different. Tainted with Winter, perhaps, but that was no great trouble for her. Her angry little overlord had, as usual, allowed herself to fear her own power to such extent it crippled her when instead she should have been learning to master the influence. One never quite escaped one’s origins, it seemed. A shame Catherine was disinclined to take lessons from her in such matters.

Akua Sahelian was no stranger to otherworldly influences, and so she embraced Winter eagerly.

The mantle howled through her veins, and eyeing the healer and his grim little sentinel she flicked her wrist. Her glacial throne, a useful mass of ice she had chosen as her seat for purposes both practical and theatrical, twisted sharply and speared forward. The Saint of Swords shattered it within a heartbeat, sword clearing the scabbard, but Akua was unmoved. Ice remained ice, even when broken to pieces. An exertion of will transmuted the shards into cold mist and it fell over the pair of heroes like a blanket. Beneath her a man with a mirror-like shield was climbing the glacier with unseemly haste. And was that sorcery she felt? What familiar taste. A pilum of concentrated yellow flame tore towards her, and she raised a contemptuous eyebrow. The Half-Hornet, truly? How provincial. No one she knew would be caught dead using that in a serious battle.

She leapt down, feet landing on the climbing hero’s head, and measured the angle so the only corrective action the spell formula allowed for would fall well short of her. The sorcery hit the glacier with a thunderous crash, splitting it in two. Ugh, he’d even overcharged it. It was like watching a grown woman improperly dose last season’s poison. Movement flicked at the edge of her vision and Akua’s boot came down to smash the helmet beneath her, forcing the hero down and allowing her to avoid the Saint’s blow by less than an inch. The tips of Catherine’s pathetically unadorned crown were shaved cleanly off. The sorceress threw herself to the side, sliding down the falling glacier as streaks of light further shattered what had been a very tasteful throne, in her opinion. A piece of the crown fell at her side, and once more Akua mourned Catherine had not even been willing to add some sapphires to it. They were only moderately costly to import through Mercantis, and they would have fit a Queen of Winter perfectly. A triad of heroes, two of them Levantines by the skin tone, charged towards her as she caught her footing at the edge of the slope. The pair still shrouded in mist, she noted, were beginning to disperse it.

That just wouldn’t do.

Akua flicked her wrist and turned the mist they’d inhaled to ice again, clogging up their throats and lungs. Transmutation, she noted approvingly, came particularly easy to the mantle. Likely a consequence of the ever-fluid nature of the fae, or that these waters had come from Arcadia in the first place. The triad closed in, an inexplicably barefoot woman serving as the tip of the wedge.

“Glory in strife,” the beggar screamed out in Lunara.

Did Catherine know any Levantine tongues? Most likely not. Still, a responding battle cry was in order. It was the heroic thing to do. Something about Callow? Akua pondered her understanding of Catherine’s temper. I am angry, the sorceress decided, because I am disappointed as I have mystifyingly failed to grasp that the Heavens prefer their pawns powerful yet rather dim. I must now protect the venerable sanctity of farms and countless peasants everywhere, as I am very concerned with their fate even though they are ignorant and full of lice.

“Fuck off and die,” Akua called back, tinting her voice with wroth.

There. Crass more than witty, but Catherine did tend to walk that line. Entirely disinclined to engage three Heavens-empowered hardened killers with only a sword and dubious moral grounds in hand, she retreated into the waters and let them envelop her fully. Breathing was not necessary to this body, after all, and she could feel her foes where eyesight failed. She took a moment to touch the marching dead with her mind, noting with approval that though after the heroes claimed her attention she’d only succeeded in making them mindlessly advance and attack, they were bleeding the crusaders. Slowly but surely. She’d been rather displeased at the haste the enemy approached her with, as she’d been amusing herself by redeploying Catherine’s old goblin tricks against fresh opposition. A heartbeat later, the water surrounding her blew away as the Saint’s blow forced the marsh to recede.

“There you are,” the unseemly old woman grinned.

“Dodge,” Akua replied with a friendly smile, greatly enjoying herself.

Two massive blocks of ice formed into the waters on each side, their mass smashing forward and sending the tide hurtling back towards both of them. The wicked enemy of all things Callowan blinked in surprise, but alas it was not to be. Starlight stolen and made a streak cut towards the sorceress, evaporating the water and prompting a frown. This was not mere heavenly lightshow: it was the principle of untainted radiance directly from firmament, made into a weapon. Such a thing could be interrupted by workings, but it would take nothing less than a miracle to usurp or reshape it. Fortunately, she was not without answer. The gate opened before her, a perfect circle pressing back the fabric of Creation, and Akua carefully threaded the needle. Difficult, on such short notice, yet not impossible to a practitioner of her skill. Orienting the gate properly, she wove will into forming the corresponding exit behind the trifling Proceran who’d tried to hit her with childish sorcery. The radiance hit him in the back before he could react, though to Akua’s displeasure it did no harm. The Pilgrim could control his working to a truly despicable extent. Tying off the two gates so she could not be made to suffer the backlash of their breaking, the sorceress condensed a platform of ice to leap off of before the Saint could bisect her.

She landed smoothly atop the water on a foothold of ice, moving towards the flank of the assembled heroes before the old cutter could catch up with her. The enemy seemed puzzled, she saw, by her refusal to engage them on their own terms. Had Catherine truly traded blows with them up close? The sorcerers almost wrinkled her nose. Waving about swords was the business of people who failed to murder demigods for power. Perhaps it was time to make that exceedingly clear to the opposition. Winter burning gloriously through her frame, Akua Sahelian shaped the full power of the mantle. Half a mile of marshlands turned to ice as she remained standing on an elegant pillar, the surrounding waters disappearing as they froze and gathered into a monumental ball of frost hovering over the heroes. The Saint was running on now solid ground, sword flashing to carve a groove through both Creation and the pillar, but the sorceress merely cocked an eyebrow. Even severed, the upper part of the pillar remained unmoving in the air. Fire and starlight shattered the mass of ice, but the heroes were gravely mistaken if they thought this was a mere foot to stomp on them with. A flick of the wrist had the ice transmuting back into water and falling into a shower over the Named.

Another flick had it freezing again, and they were buried in falling ice.

“Come now,” Akua said. “This is as obvious an opening as you’ll get.”

The Saint of Swords was a wizened old killer, with an impressive reputation. She was not, however, invincible. Even as she turned around in an instinctive parry, the old woman took the arrow in the shoulder as the Archer finally made her presence known. The sorceress felt the trembling heat of the wounded heroine, and Winter demanded her screaming death. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mind, will lashing out to take the mantle by the throat and choke it. The urges receded ever so slightly. More dangerous than she’d believed, this influence. The principle alienation was similar in nature to the bleed from binding an ancient devil, but unlike the latter it did not recede after the moment of binding. Akua leapt down from the pillar, power lashing out to smash both broken halves on the Saint. The heroine flickered with Light and it pulsed in a perfect ring around her. Aspect, the sorceress decided. Weak enough it could likely be used more than once, which would be difficult to deal with. No matter, there were more tempting prey. Akua felt mild revulsion at the term her thought had ended by, to her surprise.

She did not have the time to linger on the matter, as the heroes had escaped her little greeting gift. Light broke through the ice, once, twice, and then in an eruption of steam the entire structure vanished. The second-rate wizard’s doing, she suspected. For a heartbeat she mused leaving the battle entirely, going to lead the dead personally, but found she could not. It would mean leaving Archer on her own, something she could not accept. The notion displeased her, even. The sorceress’ brow creased. This was not coincidence. She could feel her mind even struggling to consider the subject, which was telling. Feeling the Saint pivot to cut through a second arrow, Akua moved towards the other heroes as she fought the influence.

“Oh,” she murmured to herself after a moment. “My dear, that is exquisitely done.”

The sorceress had slipped her bindings by snatching an errant piece of Winter and making it her own. Through it she’d opened a path to the greater mantle that she’d eventually managed to crawl through, entirely so when she found no opposition awaiting. In her current state, it would be impossible for her to claim this body if Catherine disallowed it. The discrepancy in will and power was overwhelming. Yet using the sliver of Winter, Akua had succeeded in stabilizing the construct she now inhabited and claiming use of the full mantle – which she’d drawn on, this entire fight. The path going both ways, the mantle itself was now influencing her. Which had seemed a minor concern, until she realized that Catherine Foundling had bound her very soul into its fabric. The more Akua drew on the mantle, the more she called back the body’s true owner. I had wondered, as to why you never had Hierophant lay deeper bindings on me, the sorceress thought. It never truly mattered, did it? You left yourself a backdoor. She could not help but approve. Perhaps some mundane sorts would have been horrified, but Akua had first ripped out her own soul to use as a tool as the tender age of thirteen. Ruthlessness turned against yourself could be a very useful tool, if properly employed. In matters of self-mutilation for the sake of advancement, she must admit Catherine Foundling had few rivals. Eyeing the spreading steam, Akua made a decision. Struggling against this was pointless, and might be taken as treachery she did not intend.

“Let it not be said, my Empress, that I did not offer service leal and true,” Akua Sahelian mused.

She called on Winter again, the fullness of the mantle, and kept digging deeper until her vision blurred. Her reward did not take long to be delivered.

Back into the box, Diabolist.

Darkness came, yet Akua smiled.

A useful tool, after all, was never allowed to rest for long.