“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.