Interlude: Concourse I

“When a highborn is slain, look to who benefits and you will have learned what families the third party wants to incite strife between.”
– Extract from ‘The Behaviours of Civil Conduct’, by High Lady Mchumba Sahelian

There was only one crowned head left south of Salia, and it was Princess Rozala Malanza of Aequitan.

As a girl or, honesty compelled her to admit, as recently as a few years ago Rozala might have found such a prospect exciting. To wield such influence, to claim such authority, and with so few to check her! After her mother’s disastrous bid for First Princess during the Great War and the ruin that had befallen the Malanzas for it, Rozala had been forced to look in the eye the fact that if she did not take cover under another’s wings her family mighty yet be toppled entirely and that odds were Aequitan would not know prominence against in her lifetime. And now, not even a decade later, Princess Rozala could be argued to be the second most powerful individual in Procer: she commanded a great host, had inherited the reins of a powerful bloc within the Highest Assembly and her reputation as both general and noblewoman had reached heights she’d never before thought possible. And yet, as dawn inched ever closer the Princess of Aequitan found it all felt hollow. For all the power and influence that had been gathered to her name, Rozala Malanza found that the sum of what she could do in the face of death was look up at the sky and pray.

Pray that the Peregrine and the Regicide lived up to their legends, that the Rogue Sorcerer proved worthy of one day having such tales matched to his name. That the Tyrant’s schemes would be turned against the Crown of the Dead and, most of all, that the Black Queen would make as terrifyingly potent an ally as she had been an enemy. They’d all danced to the sounds of Catherine Foundling’s tune, this winter, found the calm-faced villain always one step ahead. Let the Hidden Horror taste of that, for once, Princess Rozala thought. Let every promise that has been made under cover of night come true, and great vengeance be visited upon the King of Death. Rozala Malanza ruled lands large and wealthy, commanded soldiers in the dozens of thousands and held power of life and death over a dozen times that – and so, left to stand stewing in her own inability to do more than hope, she pondered her growing mislike of the Chosen and the Damned. Those colourful few, cloaked in power and mystery, who would bargain with the fate of nations and the pivots of history. Who left all others in the dust of their grandiose adventures, be they great or small. What a hateful thing it was, to have your own life and death decided by the hands of others.

She was not unaware of the irony inherent to a princess of the blood pondering such things. The touch of rue jostled her out of her thoughts enough that she heard the person approaching behind her, though she did not turn. Hair loose and going down her back, Rozala tightened the warm fur cloak around her body and kept looking at the night sky brought about by the blasphemous sorceries of the drow.

“There have been another dozen,” Louis Rohanon, once Prince of Creusens, told her.

The Princess of Aequitan did not need to look to know he was exhausted beyond all words. Neither of them had slept in much, much too long – and there was only so far brandy and alchemical tonics could carry one past what one’s body could tolerate.

“Were they more coherent than the last?” she asked.

“In a manner of speaking,” Louis sighed. “It has become apparent that the… visions all concern the same journey, but the Heavens were seemingly unconcerned with the order of the revelations. It is all rather haphazard.”

Louis Rohanon had never been a particularly pious man, which was Rozala was less than surprised by his implicit criticism of the manner the Gods Above had granted their insights. No doubt if the Prince – former now, she reminded herself – of Creusens was a one of the Gods the visions would have been regularly arranged, in good order and with the proper seals affixed to bills of delivery. Less than surprised, yes, but perhaps a little amused. Not that she would show it. The mirth was short-lived, though.

“And the initial vision,” Rozala said. “Has anything happened to cast it in doubt?”

She looked at him from the corner of her eye and caught his face tightening.

“No,” Louis quietly admitted. “It still returns at least once per lot of dreamers waking, and never once have we been told of anything taking place past it. It seems to have been the end of their journey.”

The Princess of Aequitan closed her eyes. She’d not slept, so there’d been no opportunity to experience the dreams, but in the urgency after the first dreamers woke she’d had several of those blessed with the visions describe it to her in detail. It always seemed to centre around the same vivid parts: the Black Queen’s scream of denial after she realized being tricked, the Grey Pilgrim taking up the blade of the fallen Saint of Swords and then the wizened hero’s taking of his own life. All who’d dreamt the dream agreed that the Black Queen had tried to prevent the Peregrine’s death, though words failed them when they tried to explain why. Yet it seemed undeniable, by now, that both the Regicide and the Grey Pilgrim were dead. The former, if one of the growingly reoccurring visions was to be believed, having been slain by Catherine Foundling herself.

“Any word of the Dominion armies?” she asked.

“None of the Blood have returned from their seclusion,” Louis said. “The senior captains still hold command, and our people in their camps confirm their rank and file are having similar dreams.”

“It’s the Blood that’ll make decisions, not the captains or the soldiers,” Princess Rozala said. “Keep sending envoys, Louis. We can’t afford for the battle to resume.”

“Dawn will bludgeon the drow hard,” the former Prince of Creusens carefully said. “And will arrive soon. If a victory is to be seized by surprise, it would be in the coming hour.”

“Tell me, Louis,” the dark-haired princess flatly said, “even if we slew every last soldier of the Army of Callow without losing a man, what do you believe will happen when the Black Queen returns?”

“She’s already raised one army of the dead,” Louis said, though he shivered. “How many times could she truly do such a thing?”

And shiver he should, for Malanza had been told the same tale as he and it had clenched her guts to hear it. An ancient king of Callow stolen from the Dead King’s grasp and hundreds of thousands of furious wraiths summoned to deliver his wrath? Such a thing could break an army fresh and dug-in, if well-used, and Rozala Malanza’s host was tired and spread out. For all that the Black Queen had come to favour subtler tricks than those she’d plied at the Battle of the Camps, it would not to do forget for a moment that they were facing a woman capable of slaying thousands with snap of her fingers.

“Regardless, this is not a gamble we can even begin to consider with the League still on the field,” Rozala reminded him. “They may have withdrawn but they are not so far as that.”

The disparate armies of the League of Free Cities had, as of an hour past, begun to retreat. They’d put perhaps a mile between themselves and the other two great hosts on the plains, their great combined camp turning into a labyrinth of mayhem before it’d even been fully raised. Rozala had ordered envoys sent there, to probe for intentions and information, but so far all had been turned away outside the camp and the few spies she’d tried to slip in had been shot and hung from poles as a warning. She’d not even tried to get anyone inside the Army of Callow’s camp, well aware that Wasteland sorceries would make infiltration more than merely difficult, but at least there her envoys had been received by Lady Vivienne Dartwick. Who was now, it seemed, heiress to the throne of Callow. Lady Dartwick had been courteous but dclined Princess Rozala’s offer of sending a contingent of priests from the House of Light to see to her wounded, likely suspecting the additional intent of gleaning the state of her camp through it. At least the venture had confirmed that some of her soldiers were touched by the dreams too, as well as confirming that the ‘priests’ of the heretical House Insurgent were truly capable of healing. Which would not be a pleasant to hear for some of the priesthood in Salia, Rozala suspected. Last she’d heard from the capital, lines against Callow had been hardening amongst the House of Light.

“As you say, Princess Rozala,” Louis relied, inclining his head.

She grimaced, for until a few hours ago though she had been his leader they had also been peers: and while the former still held true, the latter did not. They would have to become used to that. Rozala tried to conceive of a sentence that could mend the gap she could feel growing between them, but sentiment had never been her knack and she struggled over the words until the entire debate was made moot. A messenger approached, though Rozala did not recognize her face and she was being escorted by a pair of Aequitan soldiers. The messenger bowed low, and only began to speak when Rozala gave her leave.

“Your Grace,” the woman said, her faint Alamans accent still discernible. “You have been summoned to stand before the First Prince. The Order of the Red Lion has found the restrictions on scrying lifted at last.”

Louis’ face darkened with both anger and embarrassment.

“It was ordered that any successful contact with Salia be reported immediately,” he sharply said. “How is it that I am only now hearing of this?”

“You ordered everyone under your command to do so,” the messenger politely agreed. “Yet I am here on behalf of Her Most Serene Highness’ plenipotentiary envoy Arnaud Brogloise, who answers only to the First Prince and the Highest Assembly.”

So Cordelia Hasenbach had hidden an entire set of messengers and scryers right under her nose, Rozala darkly thought. Likely among the army of the former Prince of Cantal, who until so recently she’d believed one of her most eager supporters. The Princess of Aequitan grit her teeth at the memory of Arnaud’s treachery revealed in the bloodiest of ways, though now was not the time to settle that account.

“As always, I am at the disposal of the First Prince,” Rozala replied flatly. “Guide the way, messenger.”

Louis was left with instructions to have someone inform her the moment there was movement from the Levantines, no matter who it was she was speaking with at the time. The dark-haired princess followed the messenger into the camp of the Cantal army, though she was not so foolish as to do so without a company of trustworthy Aequitan soldiers escorting her. She was well aware that the First Prince would find it much more difficult to take her head after the dust had settled and her star rose in the eyes of commons and royalty alike, and while Rozala was not certain it was in Hasenbach’s nature to so bluntly snuff out a rival these were dark days for all. Fear could do strange things to a woman: sometimes it could urge her to greatness, but it could just as easily spur her to the basest of instincts. Yet Rozala and her escort were not surrounded and slaughtered but instead guided to the former Prince of Cantal’s private pavilion where the man himself awaited. Along with a handful of wizards who took their leave when dismissed, and a basin of water large enough it could have been used as a bath. Arnaud Brogloise rose from his seat when she entered, as the fresh disparity in their ranks required, and personally introduced her.

“Her Grace Rozala Malanza, Princess of Aequitan and supreme commander of the southern armies,” he briskly said.

Cordelia Hasenbach’s cool blue eyes, framed by those perfect golden tresses, were already studying her through the waters and so Rozala offered the proper bow.

“Your Highness,” she said. “As I was summoned, I came.”

“For that promptness I thank you, and again for the services you rendered the Principate on this campaign,” the First Prince said. “You may consider me informed or recent developments in Iserre, for the purpose of this conversation.”

“So I shall,” Rozala replied, resisting the urge to glance at Brogloise. “May I then inquire, Your Highness, as to what the purpose of this conversation is? While I have matters to bring up before you, your messenger implied… pressing need.”

It was as close as she could come to chiding the First Prince for summoning her so abruptly, and the message should be twice as loudly heard for the way Rozala had kept to the courtesies while Hasenbach very clearly had not.

“As of a quarter hour ago, we have confirmed that the Dead King has withdrawn on all fronts,” the First Prince said.

Rozala’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Furthermore, while my cousin finds it difficult to see through either the Hidden Horror or the Black Queen, she has confirmed that a truce of more than one month and less than six was bought, though not at what price.”

I did not escape the dark-haired princess’ attention that Catherine Foundling had been mentioned in this, though for now she could only speculate as to why.

“You believe this is the doing of the Queen in Callow?” Princess Rozala asked.

Hasenbach sighed.

“Queen of Callow,” she finally said. “Best we grow used to that, Your Grace, for it seems bargains will have to be struck. The Augur had gleaned that the truce is related to the Black Queen, though little more than that. Given the consequences of hostilities resuming, we cannot afford to take risks with Queen Catherine’s life – or, indeed, to risk provoking her at all for at least a month.”

A pause saw the First Prince’s tone grow heavy and solemn.

“In that spirit, Princess Rozala Malanza, as commander of the Principate’s southern armies I charge you with the preservation of Queen Catherine Foundling’s life and the safeguard of her armies and associates. Should the Dominion strike at her, you are to take any measures short of open war with Levant to prevent conflict reigniting between Callow and the Grand Alliance.”

Rozala sharply breathed in. Open war, the First Prince had said. Which was implicit endorsement of assassinating Dominion commanders over allowing the Black Queen to be put at risk. If it ever came out that Cordelia Hasenbach had given such an order, the Grand Alliance might very well splinter. The First Prince, Rozala thought, had just handed her a knife to put to her throat in years to come. The Princess of Aequitan would never like the cold-eyed woman ruling over Procer, she knew that. There was too much bad blood.

Yet there were times where she could not help but admire the other woman, in spite of all the rest.

“I understand, Your Highness,” the dark-haired princess said.

“I believe you do, Princess Rozala,” the First Prince of Procer evenly replied. “Whatever comes, the Principate must survive. Do as you must, and know you have the full weight of my authority behind you.”

The water in the basin rippled and in the heartbeat that followed Cordelia Hasenbach’s silhouette disappeared, leaving behind only tepid liquid. While the First Prince had been within her rights to take her leave so abruptly, it surprised Rozala that a woman known so far and wide for her diplomatic talents would so carelessly offer discourtesy twice on the same night. Then it occurred to her that with the audience having come to an end so swiftly she’d never had opportunity to bring up the petitions passed on to her. The dark-haired Arlesite turned to Arnaud Brogloise, who still stood in silence. His dark eyes had not ceased studying either of the princesses as they spoke, though at least he’d not bothered to put on the pretence of being a blustering fool again. In Cleves the middle-aged former prince had put on some muscle, adding it to his pudgy frame, but Rozala had never found him to have much of a presence – on occasion a sort of buffoonish swagger, but nothing to give her pause. Yet now his girth seemed less laughable, his ruddy face no longer a fool’s visage, and the Princess of Aequitan realized odds were he was physically stronger than he. It was somewhat unsettling to know that, now that she’d seen Arnaud Brogloise open the throat of royalty without batting an eye.

“You are still her envoy, I take it,” Princess Rozala said.

She was princess and he not: no longer was courtesy owed.

“I am to begin negotiations with the Queen of Callow when she returns,” the older man acknowledged. “I’ve already spoken with her right hand, to interesting result.”

“Lady Dartwick?” Rozala asked, surprised.

“Hakram Deadhand, the Adjutant,” the Alamans corrected. “He lacks formal title save for his Damnation, but wields the influence nonetheless.”

An orc, holding power in Callow? It had been one thing when the Wasteland still held sway over these lands, but it seemed rather odd that one of that land’s ancient enemies would have such authority within its borders now.

“And what did the Deadhand have to say?” the Princess of Aequitan asked.

“A great deal, on the subject of accords,” Arnaud replied, lips strangely quirking. “I have a great deal of reading ahead of me.”

“More than you believe,” Rozala said. “I have petitions to pass on to the First Prince. As you’ve demonstrated a knack for reaching her, they will be placed in your hands. Delaying would be ill-advised, Arnaud.”

The man let out a breath that straddled the line between a sigh and a chuckle.

“You have something to say?” the princess flatly said.

“I would not speak out of turn, Your Grace,” he said. “Yet I wonder – these petitions, would they be the designated succession for the abdications of the night?”

They were, though Rozala did not immediately say so.  Thought it was little more than a formality, save if accusations of treason and other great crimes were to be made, the designated succession for a principality of Procer was to be submitted to the Highest Assembly. There’d only been a handful of refusals throughout the entire history of Procer, usually when villainy or civil war had split the realm asunder. Why would such a matter amuse Arnaud? Certainly the amount of crowns to be approved was unusually high, perhaps even without precedent, but… The Princess of Aequitan’s blood ran cold.

“Send for the wizards, Brogloise,” she said. “I will put the matter to the First Prince myself.”

“I will change nothing,” he replied. “An extraordinary session of the Highest Assembly was called. In times of troubles the wisdom of our predecessors is once again needed, and so the Guillermont Decree has been restored.”

It took a moment for Rozala to place it. Not the name of Guillermont, for that she could hardly ignore: it was the name of royal house that had ruled Aequitan before the Malanzas rose to prominence and set them aside. The decree in particular, though, came from the First Princess Éloïse Guillermont – best known for ending the Principate’s occupation of Callow. Before she’d been First Prince she’d been a sitter of the Highest Assembly, and her election to the office of First Princess had been… contentious. The politics of the time had been complicated, as they often were in Procer –  Guillermont had been the leader of a bloc among the Assembly that held no lands in Callow and so considered the taxes levied to keep armies standing there an utter waste – but the broad lines had been that Procer in those days had been split between the royalty that wished withdrawal and those that wished to tighten Procer’s grip. Princess Éloïse had risen to power by seizing an opportunity after Callowan rebels had slain five princes in their beds in Laure, gathering her allies in the Assembly and passing her eponymous decree before succession could be arranged. It was an obscure procedural measure that specified no assermenté – that pretentious Alamans term for proxy – could be used to present one’s name for confirmation of succession. The would-be ruler had to attend in person. In practice, that’d meant that the designated heirs and heiresses of the slain royals had been forced to leave their seats in the Assembly empty for more than a year as they remained in Callow trying to keep their holdings from collapsing. Those empty seats had allowed the Princess of Aequitan to swing the balance of votes in her favour by enough of a margin she was elected First Princess and ordered the withdrawal from Callow, changing the path of history.

Yet that had been a mere procedural trick, one that First Princess Éloïse herself had been easily persuaded into rescinding when she’d ascended to the office. What Rozala was beginning to piece together was a different beast entirely. Seven crowns had been abdicated, this night. That meant that almost a third of the Highest Assembly, which held twenty-four seats, had been silenced: proxies could not vote when there was no ruling prince or princess stood behind them, for they were the voice of that ruler and had no formal decisional power of their own. That left seventeen votes, then, for the foreseeable futures. The Lycaonese principalities made four. Salia itself, the demesne of the First Prince, held a vote as well. Prince Frederic of Brus and Hasenbach’s other two foremost loyalists in Salamans and Tenerife were well known to have instructed their assermentés to follow Hasenbach in all things, which meant eight votes. Prince Beatrice of Hainaut’s lands were being defended by Lycaonese armies, which likely made for nine and with Prince Gaspard in Cleves being heavily dependent on southern supplies for his defending armies that made ten out of seventeen. A clear majority that would vote however Cordelia Hasenbach wanted it to. And it would not be broken in the coming months, for the First Prince would be able to put her chosen candidates on the abdicated thrones long before any possible designated heir presented themselves in Salia. After all, the only mages who knew the secrets of scrying in Iserre were in Hasenbach’s service, and no rider could ride quicker than sorcery.

“She has made herself the queen of Procer,” Rozala croaked, “in everything but name.”

“On doom’s approach,” Arnaud Brogloise said, “law must fall silent.”

“And you would enable this?” Princess Rozala hissed. “You were a prince, Arnaud. You understand what is at stake: the Assembly can be led, but it must never be commanded. That way lies tyranny.”

“Oh, we’ll survive a spot of tyranny,” he replied. “Yet we might not survive Keter without it.”

“What did she give, to make of you such a loyal hound?” the Princess of Aequitan hissed. “What manner of ugly bargain was made?”

“She let her kin die and her home burn, to better our chances of victory,” Arnaud said. “Loyalty is a child’s sentiment, Your Grace. I heed Her Highness’s decrees because she had proved willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary for Procer to survive.”

The scathing reply on the tip of Rozala’s tongue had to be swallowed, for another entered the pavilion. It was, the princess saw, one of her own officers.

“Captain Matias?” she asked, tone harsh.

“Your Grace,” the soldier said, bowing. “Louis Rohanon has sent word: the armies of the Dominion are gathering.”

Cursing, Princess Rozala Malanza thought, would not help in the slightest. Yet she still blasphemed several times, before sending for enough soldiers to give those damned Levantine madmen pause before they got everyone killed.

Chapter 51: Twilight

“Of all Praesi I trust least those who come bearing gifts.”
– Queen Yolanda of Callow, the Wicked (known as ‘the Stern’ in contemporary histories)

There was a part of me still, after all these years, that expected the momentous to be flagrant. That the closing of an era or the birth of a realm should be an affair of thunder and lightning, a crashing and crackling storm of power. But that was so rarely the way, wasn’t it? The pivots of history that we all got to see, the speeches and battles and coronations, they so often flowed from unseen turns taken months before. Quiet bargains and private councils, decisions made in the dark. Yet I had learned that the truth of Creation was that while at times power in exercise was deafening, more often it was hushed. Subtle. And as the ending that was breathed into the Twilight Court came from the Grey Pilgrim – Mercy’s patient, farsighted and indirect hand – why would its coming be a raucous thing?

Tariq Fleet-foot, the sword of his oldest friend through the heart, let out a soft gasp and slumped onto the throne. Blue eyes fluttered to a close as trails of scarlet tainted the dusty grey of his robes: death blooming in three hues, painted by the Peregrine’s own hand. The Pilgrim’s face loosened slowly from a clench decades in the making, and as he sagged down against the throne he let out one last shuddering breath. That shudder rippled out, the last will of a man whose life had been a thankless struggle to lessen suffering in a world so very intent on wounding itself time and time again. It was a death that would ring out across Calernia, I thought. One not easily forgotten. Yet, looking at the white-haired healer who’d stumbled back with a sword through his chest, I could not help but believe it had been a lesser ending than he’d deserved. I’d had my quarrels with the Grey Pilgrim, but never once had I thought him malevolent or deliberately vicious. The shudder I’d felt slowly faded, and in deference to the death of a man who had tried so very hard to be a good I closed my eyes. I had no prayers to offer, for the goddesses I kept to were not the kind whose attentions would have been welcomed by the Pilgrim, and so I remained silent instead.

The roof that would have been above our heads had been ripped away by my own wroth, when I’d hunted down Kairos Theodosian meaning to kill him, and so the lazy summer breeze reached us unhindered. It shook me out of my daze, enough that I opened my eyes and looked up. What had been darkness above us, Masego’s grief and madness given shape, had became something softer. Almost wistful. It was closer to night than day, to my eye, but the shade of the twilight writ across the firmament of this realm was a pale and starry blue. Speaking not a word, I limped out of this cursed room. The summit of the tall stone stairs beyond the bronze gates allowed me to stand and take in the breathtaking sight splayed below: what had once been a ruin of dust and flame was now a realm in truth. The Hierophant’s devastating use of this broken realm had been turned into something beautiful: a sprawling kingdom of tall grasses and rolling hills, of shadowy rivers and secret paths. It was a warm evening, like a southern summer’s, yet the breeze was soft and its caress almost playful. It was the kind of night, I thought, that would be a pleasure to journey through.

I wondered if a young man called Tariq had once roamed a twilight much like this one, a very long time ago in a land far from here. If the echo of that memory had been enough to leave its mark on this place. For that this was the inheritance of the Peregrine there could be no denial: just as it had been set on the Twilight Crown, the pilgrim’s star shone above in the starry sky.

“It’s beautiful,” the Rogue Sorcerer quietly said.

I’d not even heard him approach, too deeply lost in my thoughts. Long leather coat trailing at his back, the last of the three heroes to have heeded my call came to stand at my right. He was looking not only at this starlit realm below but also had what had been made of thrice-broken Liesse. The City of Swans had partaken of life breathed into this place, and though it was not the same city that’d once been the jewel of southern Callow I could still see the traces of that place in its fresh face. The ruins had not been raised anew but the sight of them had been… eased by the growth of greenery. Tall shaded trees had become the pillars of slender basilicas, gutted churches turned into ethereal gardens of flowers in shades of dusk. Vines with umbral flowers bound together streets like strange arches and soft grass had grown through both pavestones and graveyards. Liesse, I thought, had become the City of Twilight. A resting place for pilgrims and the lost, bell towers and softs beds of moss awaiting all who’d wander to this cradle of tragedy. I found my throat choking at the sight. How could it not, when Tariq’s last gesture had been to make beauty out of the broken shards of my bitterest failure?

“The star’s always watching,” Archer softly said, having come to stand at my left. “You old rascal. Keeping an eye on it all, are you?”

How strange, that I found the thought comforting when the man had tried to kill me more than once.

“He always did,” Roland said, tone quietly fierce. “Gods, he was not a perfect man. And there are things he did, that he asked us to do… But he looked out for us. Even when it cost him. Especially when it cost him.”

It was not a grand eulogy, for a man who for good and ill had done so much for so many years, but I couldn’t truly mind. What kind of words could any of us say that would be more than a pittance to the living, breathing tribute to the Grey Pilgrim that was around us?

“I wished I’d never had to fight him,” I simply said, the honesty of it feeling a little too raw. “I wish it’d never come to this. But we so rarely get to choose, don’t we?”

“Then win, Black Queen,” the Rogue Sorcerer said, eyes burning as they met mine. “Because this was not nothing. Two great stars fell to forge this realm you promised, two servants of Above like few before and few will ever come again. It has to matter. Or else…”

He trailed off, though it was not a threat. It was almost a petition and more than a little desperate. Or else what did their lives mean? Their tears and blood and decades of bitter struggle to bring just a little light to Calernia? If the fall of such old and honoured stars meant not a thing, what could any of us ever hope to amount to?

“This war has only just begun,” I softly said. “It will take us to Salia, to forge a peace. It will take us to Keter, to visit upon the Dead King what he has so often visited upon us. But there’s another enemy, Sorcerer. She breaks kings with sentences and topples kingdoms with but the lightest of touches. None of this can end before she’d been killed. For good.”

Roland dipped his head, not in acceptance but at least in acknowledgement.

“It seems,” he said, “that we have much to speak about.”

That we did, I silently agreed, dipping my own head in a return of courtesy. But not here, not now. Not looking at what could either be taken as a last breath of life freely gifted or an entire realm made into the mausoleum of good intentions.

“Not dawn yet, I think,” Archer said. “But close. It might be time to go back, Catherine.”

She was right, I knew. The Pilgrim had promised that the manner of his death would assure there was no war between the Grand Alliance and my own armies, but his death would still be catastrophic to relations between my people and the opposition. The Tyrant of Helike, by now, would not doubt have crawled back to his armies and begun his hasty retreat. There would be fears to quell, explanations to give, and more duties to see to than there were hours to either night or day. I should go back, for though the triumvirate of Vivienne, Juniper and Hakram could see to much of the situation there were parts that could only be settled by my own intervention. Fearsome as those three could be, my reputation loomed taller still.

“Go,” I said. “I’ll follow.”

Indrani cast a look at me, half worried and half hesitant.

“Are you sure that-”

“Go,” I repeated, a tad more sharply.

Her jaw tightened with displeasure, but she did not test me further. I did not have it in me to be furious at Indrani for getting in my way tonight, not right now – it was like the Pilgrim’s death had replaced sentiment in me with some manner of exhaustion – but her actions there would not go unanswered. It would be a thorny knot to untangle, this mess we’d made together, for she had died and we’d both need knives sheathed if we were to help Masego out of the worst of his grief. But she’d not trusted me, in the end, even if her intentions had been guided by love of me. That would need to be addressed, lest the wound fester between us.

“Archer can guide you out,” I told Roland. “She has a knack for paths like these.”

He nodded, though his face was unsure.

“Come along, Rogue,” Archer said, tone thick with forced cheer. “We’re all in a need of a stiff drink after a night like this, and there’s none to be had here.”

No elaborate farewells followed, as they simply disappeared into the city below. Indrani would find a way out, as she had first found a way in when seeking Masego. The Lady of the Lake had shared knowledge with her I’d not asked the lay of, long aware that the keeping of her teacher’s secrets was one of the few things Indrani considered sacred. I sat, after they’d gone, resting my bad leg against the rough granite steps. But for all that I was tired, it was a restless of weariness that’d settled over me. Before long I was hobbling down into Liesse, through the broken palace of the proud and ancient House of Caen – gone from Callow, like the city they’d once ruled. Above me, shadows among the shade, crows flew beneath the starry sky. I had no destination in mind to guide my steps, little more than a wandered in a realm of wanderers. Feeling the breeze stirring my hair, cooling my sweat in the crook of my neck, I passed through the garden that’d been made of Liesse. I trailed my fingers through luminous bushes bearing wine red flowers, limped through fields of soft grass made silver by starlight. It was a surreal city, and one where it would be easy to become lost. Yet I came upon a place, in time, where the scent of old deaths lingered. It’d been a basilica, once, before the walls were shattered.

Now all that remained of whatever beauty there’d been were tall panes of stained glass whose colour had faded, whatever scene they’d once depicted now instead a mere game of blue shades. There had been pillars, within, and though half-crumbled they’d become intertwined with thick and twisty trees bearing small red fruits. Yews, I thought, and what had once been a temple of worship to the Gods Above had instead become a manner of shaded grove, leading to a yew elder and larger than any of the others. It towered tall and broad, its branches spreading out far in a great crown of leaves. The wind set something akin to chimes tinkling when it passed through the branches, and it was when I saw the face of those chimes I understood the source of the taste of death. The ragged remains of a tabard that’d once depicted the golden bells of House Fairfax trailed like streamers, tangled among them the broken shards of the armour last borne by the Good King Edward. Halfway sunken into the earth at the foot of the great tree the last Fairfax’s sword shone from an errant ray of light, the blade still pristine and sharp. I slowly approached, in almost reverent silence: the King of Callow had cowed the Hells themselves, for a time, and done it with little more than will and spite.

The crows threaded through the branches and took perch with only the slightest murmur of a sound heralding them, their shadowy feathers melding into the penumbra of the great yew. They looked, I thought, as if they belonged here. My fingers softly lid across the grip of the sword once wielded by Edward Fairfax, and I smiled mirthlessly.

“In northern Callow,” I said, “the yew is known as the tree of death. In the south and the heartlands it’s the elder trees they claim to be that omen, but even in Laure the story was told different.”

I flicked a glance upwards and found my patron goddesses silent yet watchful.

“It’s because of the Deoraithe,” I told them. “Their longbows, they’re made from yew. And for a very long time, there was no sight half as dreaded in Callow or Praes as a company of Daoine longbowmen. There were older superstitions, too, but in my eyes it was the centuries of reaping lives that hung death on the branches of yews.”

And still my only answer was silence.

“So this is how it goes,” I softly said. “I take up again the sword I lost in the Everdark, and bring war to the Crown of the Dead. It’s an old story. Well-worn, and strong for it.”

King Edward had been taller than me, I thought, with broader shoulders as well. And yet, I suspected that if ripped that sword free from the earth it would fit my hand perfectly. Better than any other blade ever hand.

“The world spins on,” I said. “No matter who lies buried. And so that is the sum of us: we fight and we die and if we’re lucky we’re remembered for a while still.”

All we’d schemed and struggled and bled, and still this night hadn’t belonged to any of us. How could it? When the crabs dragged each other down the only victor to be had was the bucket.

“No,” I murmured. “I think not.”

My fingers left the sword I would not claim.

“Am I not your high priestess, Sve Noc?” I said. “First Under the Night?”

“So you are,” Andronike said.

“In this, we are satisfied,” Komena said.

“Then as your priestess I make this claim – we can do better than this,” I called out to the twin shadows among the branches. “Than a ruin of a victory, handed to us by kindly hand. I don’t care if we’ve been tricked and tripped by the Intercessor or the Dead King or even fate itself. We can do better than this, and so this story has not come to an end.”

I laid my palm against the rough bark of the yew, looking up through the branches.

“I heard you, Good King,” I whispered. “Your warning. I hear and heed, so lend me your aid when I yet stumble.”

Under the twilight sky the great yew groaned and twisted, the scent of death in the air thickening until I could taste it on the tip of my tongue. From the crown of the tree a branch dropped, slender desiccated deadwood still echoing of defiance in the face of the end. I knelt to take it, and found it was of excellent height and yield for me to lean on as I walked.

“We will not go gently,” I promised to the tree-grave of the last Fairfax. “And we are not yet done.”

Turning my back to the grove abruptly, I limped away leaning on the yew branch-staff. The grounds I had tread I tread once more, returning to the summit of the City of Twilight. Through grass and grove, through thorns and flowers and streets of worn stone. Behind me, as if trailing, Sve Noc followed on inky wings. I climbed the great steps of granite, and as I forced open the great gates of bronze I had never closed two great crows claimed my shoulders as their perch. Within awaited silence and something else, for though the Grey Pilgrim still sat dead on his throne with the Saint sprawled at his feet they were not alone.

Like a solemn tribunal, or some aerie of angels, the Choir of Mercy stood vigil over its fallen champion.

Under the stars a multitude of tall and thin silhouettes stood, the only marks of their presence silhouettes like a heat shimmer and ever-spinning eyes like wheels of flame. There were dozens and dozens of them, all bent as if in grief. None turned as I entered the throne room and my own back was coated in starlight, but the weight of their attention was felt nonetheless. I could almost hear a song being sung, as if the wind was carrying to my ear parts of a faraway refrain, and what little I could make out was… heartbroken. Melancholy in a way I was not sure I – or any mortal – could truly understand. The barest fraction of that feeling was enough to put a stutter to my step.

“You actually loved him, didn’t you?” I said, voice wondering. “Or as close to that as you can.”

They answered not. Whatever manner of mourning the angels bore, they would not share it with me. It took a single step forward, and as if a sword had been unsheathed a myriad of burning, spinning eyes turned to me. I swallowed dryly, for though Sve Noc were at my side and I knew well their power the Choir of Mercy was older and colder both, when it deemed it necessary.

“You can’t bring him back,” I said. “I understand. There’s rules, and it’s not in your nature to make exceptions.”

The attention never wavered nor lessened in intensity.

“But I’m not you,” I said. “Your rules don’t bind me. And if you let me, I will.”

I suspected, that if not for the Sisters sinking their talons deep enough into my flesh I bled I would have passed out. The blinding light and heat I felt, for just a moment, would have seen me fall to my knees if not for the staff in my hand. And yet it’d not been strike, for within that heat and light I’d heard whispers and while the words I’d not understood their meaning I’d somehow grasped anyway.

“Why?” I repeated.

It was a fair question, I supposed.

“Because I can, so I should,” I said. “Because even when he was my enemy I did not believe him to be a bad man. Because…”

I struggled to find the words to express it, but perhaps the simplest truth was best.

“Because I don’t want to be at war with you or him,” I quietly said. “And the moment you choose to believe that, the war’s over.”

And I supposed I was a fool, thinking I could make peace with a Choir even if its virtue was that of mercy, but I owed it to all of us at leas to try.

“We kill you,” I said, “you kill us. The wheel keeps spinning, the world keeps bleeding. And maybe that can’t be mended, maybe there’s just something about mortals that’s all teeth and hunger and it’ll never go away no matter what we make of ourselves – but we can do better than this!”

I gestured at the room around us, the realm around us, but I meant more. I meant the armies below, at each other’s throats even in the face of annihilation. I meant the Named scraping each other raw until even the noblest beginnings and the finest intentions became knives to hack at each other with. I meant Praes, hungry and wealthy, and Callow, sated and poor, each capable of helping the other but forever clawing at themselves instead.

“Please,” I said. “I know you don’t make exceptions, and I won’t ask you to. All you need to do is to stand aside.”

We stood there, the Choir of Mercy and the Arch-heretic of the East, and a long moment passed.

They stood aside.

Heart beating wildly I limped forward, until I stood by Tariq’s corpse. He would have looked to be sleeping, if not for the sword through his heart. Night flickered through my veins, strengthening my limbs, and the Sisters flew up cawing like grim omens. I eased out the Saint’s blade, spilling blood all over myself, and dropped it to the side. And then, without warning, I stuck my arm into the Grey Pilgrim as the thief of Bestowal that I was. Three aspects awaited: a star, an eye and a prayer. It was the last I ripped out, a whisper of Forgive touching my mind. My fingers withdrew a small receptacle of wood, which I slid open with shaking fingers. There was a fine red powder within, and a power that would have blinded me if I’d tried to gaze upon it.

“Time to rise, pilgrim of grey,” I murmured. “There’s still work to be done.”

I blew out a breath, and the powder scattered across the dead man’s face. A long moment massed, once more, and my stomach tightened.

Then, above us in the sky, the pilgrim’s star winked out.

Tariq’s mouth opened to a ragged gasp, and within the depths of Liesse death was cheated for the third time at my hand.

Chapter 50: Sunset

“Blood freely spilled always offers greater power, for it carries the worth of both the blood and the choice.”
– Extract from “The Most Noble Art of Magic”, by Dread Emperor Sorcerous

“Huh,” the Tyrant said. “That is not what I believed that would do.”

I wheeled on him with cold eyes. For all that he’d helped me land the killing stroke on the Saint, he was also the reason there’d been a need for one at all. We’d been close to subduing her, before he’d decided to taunt Fate and loudly dare it to meddle. There would still have been the issue of the wounded crown, but Gods I would have preferred ending this without Laurence de Montfort’s corpse on the ground. Not because of any deep affection for the heroine, though I’d had a few perturbing glimpses on this journey at the woman that lay under the zealotry, but because the Saint of Sword’s death would both have a messy aftermath and rob us of someone who might have been able to truly hurt the Dead King. I’d begun this winter itching to put her down, but now… A virtue was no less of one because it belonged to an enemy, and for all her horrid flaws Laurence de Montfort had hardly been without the opposite. My hand had been forced, in the end, when the choice had been between a woeful roll of the dice and slaying her where she stood. But for all that the choice I’d made would stay with me, I would not for a moment forget who’d forced me to make it.

“This was,” I said, “one betrayal too many, Kairos.”

“There’s no such thing, Catherine,” he confidently told me. “And if there was, yet one more betrayal would see to it.”

Shouldn’t be too difficult to kill him, I thought. I had no intention of allowing anywhere near the decision yet to be made over the crown, or of sparing him after that last knife in the back, so ending this here and now before the Twilight Crown finished crumbling seemed the way to go about it. Kairos Theodosian still had a handful of attending gargoyles and more artefacts than anyone should have at their fingertips, but aside from that he was spent. He’d burned his strength against the Skein and then against me, shaken his sleeves enough that all his worst tricks had already been revealed. And while I was hardly fresh, above us two crows still slowly circled. Omens of death, and death was what I intended on delivering: if I need seek the helping hand of my patronesses for that, so be it. On the other hand, I grimly thought, there was still one last use left for the Tyrant of Helike tonight.

“There’s one path that doesn’t lead to me snatching the life out of you tonight,” I coldly said. “And that’s you putting on that crown.”

“So it seems I am to die,” the Tyrant pensively said, “unless, instead, I am to die. Truly, my friend, you present me with a dilemma.”

“Burn enough bridges and you’ll find there’s no pretty path left,” I bluntly said. “You just tried to get half of us killed by flapping your mouth, Kairos. Fuck the amnesty you bargained for: the last courtesy I offer you is deciding the shape of your grave.”

The slightest flicker of power, but there were only so many times someone could use a trick around me before I caught on.

“Riddle me this, Catherine,” the Tyrant cheerfully said. “What makes you think that-”

Night flooded me, bringing strength to my hands, and I crushed the obsidian scabbard still in my grasp. The powder that fell I blew through and, shaping the Night I threaded within it, cast it outwards. The obsidian dust revealed Kairos’ glamoured silhouette as he tried to make for the door and the Night I’d sent out wove itself into a noose that delicately went around his neck. The end of that rope fell into my palm, and as the noose tightened my fingers closed around it.

“Well,” Kairos Theodosian slowly said, glamour dispelling. “This is embarrassing.”

“Don’t pay attention to him,” the glamour I’d been conversing with insisted. “He’s an impostor.”

I wound the Night rope around my fist and spread my stance to steady my footing.

“How’s your dilemma coming along?” I asked.

“Bracingly,” the Tyrant replied without missing a beat.

“Enough,” the Grey Pilgrim tiredly said.

The streak of Light cut halfway through the rope of my own making, severing it clean. I was, bluntly put, too surprised by the old man’s sudden turn to properly react.

“How many of us do you intend to slay tonight, Queen Catherine?” the Peregrine said. “Enough.”

“If it’s not him it’ll have to be one of us,” I pointed out. “There is no reason to spare him, Pilgrim. One might well argue he earned that end.”

“Shall we speak of endings earned then, Black Queen?” the Grey Pilgrim replied, tone remote and eyes considering. “It would be an exchange of some consequence, I think.”

“You can’t be serious,” I said. “You struck out too, Pilgrim. To contain her, as I wanted to. And the damned reason it had to go further than that was the Bard’s fucking amnesty, which you insisted on-”

“I am well aware of what took place here tonight,” the Peregrine harshly interrupted. “Are you? I’d just lent my hand to the killing of a woman I loved like kin and trusted just as deep. Those ties were already tried and tested when you were yet to be born, Catherine Foundling. I did this because the bargain you offer may yet save lives by the millions and lay the foundation of a long-lasting peace. But do not mistake that, not for a moment, as my having been suborned to your every whim.”

“None of that means he should be sent home with a slap on the wrist,” I hissed.

“A trusted and farsighted comrade has asked me to spare the Tyrant’s life,” he flatly said. “And so it will be spared, no matter the nasty tricks he may play.”

“You are the hero of my heart, Grey Pilgrim,” Kairos Theodosian said, picking out the Night noose still around his neck and dropping it to the floor. “In the spirit of my deep gratitude, I would offer-”

The weight that fell over the room was almost a familiar thing. Above us Sve Noc spared a glance, and so my knees were not made to buckle, but the Tyrant of Helike was offered no such protection. The odd-eyed villain collapsed, first on one knee and then outright to the ground for that leg’s shaking. Twitching on the stone floor, Kairos rasped out a pained breath as the Grey Pilgrim stared down at him. Sharing that gaze, the Choir of Mercy looked upon the Tyrant without the slightest speck of compassion.

“You are not forgiven, Kairos Theodosian,” the Peregrine said, voice ringing with power. “You will yet serve a greater purpose, and for that you will be allowed to crawl out of this place through filth and dust. But you are not forgiven, you creature of ruin and perfidy.”

The Tyrant twitched on the floor still and I realized with a start it was as much from his convulsing body as a shivering laughter ripping out of his throat.

“Coward,” he gasped. “Even now Mercy holds your hand. Coward.”

The old man strode forward, dusty grey robes trailing behind him, and he knelt before the cripple before laying a hand over his lips.

“Through lies and deception you have brought great suffering,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “And so from you I take that poisonous gift: never again will you speak untruth, lest it be the last words you speak at all.”

Radiant light blinded my eyes, for a heartbeat, and through the Pilgrim’s touch I felt the Ophanim reach out into Creation. This would be a curse, if a villain had been the one to place it. I wondered what it was to be called, when a heroic hand had done the placing. My brow furrowed. Would lying make Kairos make a mute or kill him? It’d not been clear, by the phrasing. Looking at the Peregrine’s shoulders, I wondered if that’d been on purpose. The Tyrant’s body shuddered one last time, like someone whose fever was going the way of the grave, and only then did his twitching end. He exhaled a ragged breath.

“This is not,” Kairos Theodosian guffawed, “the last you’ve seen of me.”

Mismatched eyes going wide, he looked up and waited. A moment passed and he did not die.

“Best get crawling then, I suppose,” the Tyrant of Helike mused. “Until next time, friends.”

Without a hint of shame he flipped onto his belly and began dragging his expensive robes through the filth, fleeing the throne room like a snake slithering on the ground. Three heartbeats later the last remaining gargoyles ran out after him, as quick as their little legs allowed. I debated, seriously, reaching for the Night and just vaporizing the back of his head. The temptation was there, made even heavier by the way the odds were good I’d manage it. But if I did, it wasn’t the story that’d punish me. I’d be, in essence, breaking off ties with the Grey Pilgrim. Which I couldn’t afford to, if the Accords were to be more than a waste of ink and parchment.

“That was a mistake,” I finally said.

“If it was,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “then it was mine to make. Not yours.”

I kept my face calm but winced beneath it. Already the cracks were beginning to run through what I’d wanted to be the foundations of the Liesse Accords. And it wasn’t fair, I thought, for there was plenty of fault to spare and divide. But in the end, the Peregrine had stuck to our arrangement and helped slay the same woman whose life he’d bargained for. I could not truly ask more of him or begrudge his bitterness over having been led to this pass.

“If you’re quite finished,” Archer spoke up, “then I could use a hand, Pilgrim. I’m usually concerned only with hitting heads, not what comes after. Does he need healing?”

She’d propped up the Rogue Sorcerer over her knee, supporting the back of his neck. The Saint had knocked Roland unconscious, but aside from a red boot mark on his forehead the spellcaster should have no lasting marks. A concussion seemed likely, though, Named or not. The Pilgrim hurried to the younger hero’s side, wielding Light with a delicate touch for but a few moments before the Sorcerer woke. The mark, I noted, had gone from bright red from light pink but it still remained highly visible.

“She’s dead then,” Roland croaked out, eyes going to the heroine’s corpse. “Gods, what a waste.”

“So it was,” I quietly agreed.

His eyes, for once without trace of a coloured ring around the pupil, met mine.

“Your work?” he asked.

I nodded. Behind us, as is mocking the quiet of the conversation now taking place, the crown continued lashing out around itself with tendrils of sorcery.

“Whoever bears that will die,” the Rogue Sorcerer frankly said. “I’d be like trying to grip a naked blade as tight as you can, only with your soul instead of your fingers.”

The Saint of Swords’ last kill, unerringly made from beyond the grave. Her aged figure still lay sprawled at the foot of the throne, still and silent. No one had dared to touch it.

“Look like the choice was made for us,” Archer said, seemingly amused. “We’re back at making a god and killing it, whether we like it or not.”

“There is no choice to make,” Tariq evenly said.

And already I could see the lay of that, how it’d unfold. A band of five assembled before the eyes of princes and princesses of Procer had gone into broken Arcadia at the urging of the Black Queen, among them perhaps the two most famous heroes alive. Neither the Regicide nor the Peregrine would return from that journey. The treacherous Tyrant of Helike would escape with but a curse, and from the heroes the only survivor would be the Rogue Sorcerer – a hero little known, and a mage to boot. Sorcery was not well-trusted, in Procer, and seemingly rare in Levant.

We’d be at war again before Morning Bell, bargain or not.

“Agreed,” I said. “It’ll have to be me.”

Three gazes turned to me, Archer’s the least surprised.

“You said it was possible resurrection would work,” I reminded the Pilgrim. “And dawn comes. If it doesn’t, well… Vivienne’s been designated as heiress to the throne. I wish she’d had longer to prepare, but we don’t always get to choose.”

“No,” Indrani said.

I blinked at her.

“You’ve cheated death too many times, Cat,” she bluntly said. “You’ve always squeaked out of it so far because you had a story at your back, but this time the wind’s going the other way. You’ve spent your luck thrice over, this is just going to get you killed.”

“It’ll get someone killed regardless,” I said. “I don’t relish the thought I might not come back from this, Indrani, but I knew the risk when I began going down this path.”

“That’s nice,” Archer casually said. “Very stirring. But if you take so much as a step in that crown’s direction, I’ll knock you the fuck out.”

She was, I realized as I looked at her stony expression, absolutely serious. It was a strange thing, to both love and be furious with someone in the same moment for the same reason.

“It cannot be you, Queen Catherine,” the Grey Pilgrim agreed. “You underestimate the depth of the loyalties you have earned, and not only here. The Army of Callow would carry your corpse to the gates of Salia to make a funeral pyre of it. And I shudder to think of what the drow would be, without their designated conscience.”

“It can’t be you either,” I hissed. “You think it’ll go bad if I die? Hells, Pilgrim, your death alone would have Levant on the warpath but the Saint and you? Even if the First Prince turned up just to order the Alliance armies down there not to fight we’d still have a battle on our hands.”

“Then it has to be me,” the Rogue Sorcerer tightly said. “Archer has already been resurrected once, there is not even a chance of her being spared lasting death.”

He shuddered out a breath.

“It will have to be me,” Roland repeated. “It makes sense. I am the only practitioner among you, who best to shape this realm in what is needed of it?”

“At a guess? The only person in this room to have ruled over a court of the fae before,” I said.

“Cat, you can’t be trusted to make a choice like that right now,” Indrani frankly said. “Whenever there’s a blunder – and I’m guessing you count the Saint’s death as one – you always get all… self-flagellating. Like you’re just looking for a sword to fall on. Pilgrim says it’s good politics to keep you alive? Even better. I don’t really give a shit, though. I’d rather cut the damn thing than let you put it on.”

“You can’t think like that, Archer,” I sharply said. “I’m one life. That’s the weight on the scale. You’d be putting at risk hundreds of thousands-”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m not one of Above’s footsoldiers, isn’t it?” Archer said. “I get to be selfish if I want to.”

I wasn’t going to make headway there, was I? Touched as I was, I was just as infuriated. Because I couldn’t be grateful for this, not when it might cost the world so much for her to follow through. Who was it, I’d wondered, who’d taught her to love people on her own terms – much as I wanted to blame the Lady of the Lake for it, the dark suspicion lingered it might just have been me.

“It will not be you,” the Pilgrim said. “Nor will it be Roland.”

Though he’d gone pale at the notion of perhaps embracing his own death, I felt a sliver of admiration for the way the Sorcerer didn’t simply take the first way out he was offered.

“The Black Queen was correct,” Roland said. “There may be war, if you are the one crowned and killed.”

“My death will echo,” the Grey Pilgrim said, cocking his head to the side. “I have been promised this. There will not be war.”

The Ophanim agreed with this? Godsdamned angels.

“You’re needed to keep the heroes together,” I said. “There’s no one else with the pull.”

Maybe, and I would not have put a lot of faith in that prospect, maybe the Saint could have succeeded at that. She’d had the strength, if not the charisma.

“The White Knight will return,” the Pilgrim serenely said. “He was already on his way.

“The Tyrant had plans about him,” I said.

“I expect he does,” the Peregrine said, undertone amused. “It will come to nothing, under the stern glare of the Seraphim.”

“It might be that you could forgive my death,” the Rogue Sorcerer hesitantly said. “None could do the same, for you.”

“Forgiveness was never meant to be a salve for every wound made on Creation,” the Pilgrim gently said. “It was a gift to be handed out in the face of grave injustice. And there is no injustice, Roland, in an old man being allowed to rest at last.”

“So you’re just going to lie down and die?” I said.

The was a heartbeat of silence.

“The Saint of Swords is dead,” I said. “We all had a hand in that, mine looming largest by far. But that’s it, Pilgrim? Your friend is dead and you feel tired, so you’re choosing death when Calernia is facing its harshest test since the reign of Triumphant?”

“Queen Catherine,” the Sorcerer hissed. “There is no need for-”

“You’ve done some real nasty things over the years, haven’t you Tariq?” I said. “We both know you have.”

The old man’s blue eyes, limpid as a cloudless summer sky, met mine.

“You don’t get to roll over for death, after crossing those lines,” I said. “After taking on that responsibility.”

“Which of us are you truly haranguing, Black Queen?” the Grey Pilgrim chided me, not unkindly.

“I think I’ll get away with it,” I pensively replied. “I really do.”

Because I’d been here before. Twice. At this crossroads, making this call. I’d chosen death to rid myself of a pattern of three with the Lone Swordsman and taken my due resurrection from the Hashmallim after refusing the crown they offered me. I’d chosen death once more to slip the bindings the Diabolist had entwined me in, making myself the beastly keystone to her demise, and refused the crown she offered me. Liesse had been the crucible of my existence in a way nowhere else in this world could claim to be. Which of my triumphs and ruins had not been born of this place, or taken place among it? Here in this city I’d forged my claim of power over Callow not once but twice – first through bargain, and then through simple might. I’d struck a pact here that allowed Akua Sahelian to govern this place, and when that governance led to folly it was on these grounds I’d torn through her heart. Indrani said I’d cheated my demise too often, and perhaps she was right. Twice, here, I had tricked life out of death. But there’d never been a third, for before I’d woken in the depths of the Everdark mortal once more I’d dreamt and within that dream asked Sve Noc a question: am I dead? And the reply had been: at the threshold. Not through. Not quite dead. And so, I thought, Archer might be wrong in this.

Maybe I did still have a story at my back: twice living through death after twice being offered a crown. There was power in reiteration, in repetition, and few numbers had heavier hand on a story than three. Or, I knew, this might be where the pattern came to a close. This once I’d be reaching for the crown, and so my death would remain. It could go either way, I felt. Yet even then, I had a better chance of living through this than any of the other three. Rolling the dice on poor odds had always been one of my worst habits, I thought, but why stop now? You only lived once – give or take a few times.

“Three times I’ve been offered a crown here, by someone neither fully friend nor foe,” I began. “Three times-“

Archer, sighing, slid behind me and to my indignation she covered my mouth with her palm and put me in a chokehold. I began struggling, but she was Named and I was not: the disparity in strength could not be breached my mundane means.

“Is that… necessary?” the Rogue Sorcerer delicately asked.

“If you feel like you’re winning,” Indrani said, “the single stupidest thing you can do is let Catherine Foundling talk. Go on, Tariq. Before she turns it around on us.”

I reached for the Night, preparing to force her back as gently as I could, but it slipped through my fingers. Fear rose up in me, and I looked up. The Sisters were perched on the edges of the gutted throne room, one to the east and one to the west. They watched, silent.

Are you worthy? Komena asked, a whisper in my ear.

Patrons, I thought. Not tools or companions but goddesses of which I was the high priestess. If I set a measure in their name, I would be measured by it. It was, I admitted, brutally fair of them.

I have brought us here, through scheme and steel, I told them. I’ve tricked mortals and Named, set the Dead King aflight and freed from his grasp the last of the Fairfaxes. I have slain and won victories, all to bring this journey to an end of my making. Who can be worthy, if not me?

Sve Noc watched me, judged me, and in inscrutable silence passed their judgement.

All will be Night, Andronike whispered in my ear, and it tasted like assent.

Indrani knew me best, and so when the goddess-crows above let out a cacophonous caw she immediately tried to knock me unconscious. Unfortunately I knew her as well, and so restored not to struggle but to the first trick I’d even seen one of the Firstborn use: sinking into a pool of Night at my feet, I dissolved into a tendril of shadow and followed forward. Even in that strange, unpleasant state I could feel the clash of Sve Noc and the Choir of Mercy – both attempting to hinder the others’ champion and prevent their foe from hindering their own. They were, at least in that moment, each other’s match. I could hardly see, when shadowed, for unlike drow this state of being did not come naturally to me. I had to leap back into mortal form to get my bearings, though fortunately I found myself not far from the throne. From the corner of my eye I found Indrani, having strung her bow, nocking an arrow and likely intending to wing me before I could claim the crown. The Sorcerer’s jaw was tightly clenched as he worked some manner of sorcery, but it’d be too late. Sidestepping the Saint’s corpse, I reached for the crown.

My fingers went through it

The illusion broke, now that I knew it was there, and so did the one the Rogue Sorcerer had woven around the Peregrine. The Grey Pilgrim took the wounded crown, set with his own star, and placed it upon his brow.

“No,” I shouted.

Like it was the most natural thing in the world, the Grey Pilgrim leaned down and gently pried the Saint of Swords’ blade from her cold hands.

And, just as gently, rammed it through his own heart.

Chapter 49: Cracked

“They who first look at the sun will never see aught else.”
– Helikean saying

It was just steel. There must have been thousands of longswords just like it in Iserre alone, decently crafted but nothing extraordinary. It was the work of some smith somewhere, not an enchanter or legendary artisan, so there was nothing to that sword that should allow it to cut into the likes of Twilight’s Crown. Except, of course, that it was Saint of Swords of wielded it. Tabard trailing behind her, the old heroine crossed the room in three smooth strides and her sword arced down beautifully: the strike was like flowing water. And hit something that shouldn’t have been there, a subtle glamour broken when Laurence de Montfort’s blow scythed straight through the gargoyle that’d thrown itself in the way. The Tyrant of Helike cackled, high-pitched and delighted, but the Saint’s blow carved through the stone construct and continued through and into the crown.  I thought, as I watched the edge of the steel bite through chalcedony and mother-of-pearl, that if not for the for the gargoyle it would have gone straight through. Yet the Tyrant’s stage trick had tainted what would have otherwise been a clear blow, and so instead the Saint’s sword cut halfway through the Twilight Crown before it stopped.

Not even a heartbeat of stillness reigned over the room before a torrent of power tore out.

Everyone here had been in a scrap or two, so the raging tendrils of sorcery that went out did not score a kill the way they might have with less experienced Named.  Reflex had me half-stepping to the side, still a swordswoman picking her distance for all my lack of sword, and dusk-like power howled through a bare few feet to my side. More importantly, having been close to the initial burst the Saint had been forced to retreat or see herself run through by a tendril. More than one, even, for a handful of howling streaks chased her even as she retreated, never slowing nor missing a step. Had her attack awoken something in the crown, some shard of sapience? A flicker of a look to the side instead showed me a hard-faced Rogue Sorcerer with his hands outstretched and his long coat fluttering in unnatural breeze, guiding the sorcery with sharp gestures.

“Treachery,” the Tyrant of Helike gleefully hooted. “Treachery most foul!”

With great flourish he presented his left palm, allowing one of the chittering gargoyles in attendance to place down a wand of what looked like pure gold on it.

“Cat?” Indrani calmly asked, eyes on the Saint of Swords.

She was ducking and weaving, for now, driven back by the Sorcerer’s trick. But it’d be temporary. I wouldn’t trust means that feeble to hold back Archer for long, and Laurence de Montfort was her superior in several ways.

“Don’t kill her,” I said. “Unless it puts you at risk not to.”

“Gotcha,” Indrani nonchalantly said.

In a whisper of boots on stone she slipped into the fray, the maelstrom of unleashed energies that had yet to ebb in the slightest. I’d expected the crown to either keep bleeding like a stuck pig or translate the wound into a single punishing torrent of power, but it wasn’t indulging any of my expectations. It seemed almost like the lashing sorcery was the wound itself, thrashing about the room in some kind of eldritch pain. A nudge from Andronike had my gaze lingering on the side of the cut Laurence’s sword had made, a sliver of Night sharpening my sight. Ah. So it was eating into the rest of the crow, shaving through a sliver at a time. It was simply slow and little at a time, though if we didn’t settle this mess for too long we’d still be in trouble. The Tyrant’s wand proved to be an artefact of some power, a heartbeat later, as he aimed it towards the Saint and spoke an idle word:  streak of brilliant lightning went out, forking around an approaching Archer and striking at the Saint from both sides. Undaunted, Laurence de Montfort parried one streak and smoothly ducked beneath the other. Just in time for Indrani’s boot to catch her in the chin, sending her sprawling back. Three streaks of twilight-stuff, guided by the Sorcerer, snapped out at the falling heroine. One would have punctured her throat, by my reckoning, but Roland redirected it towards her shoulder instead at the last moment and that was room enough for the Saint to manoeuvre: she twisted on herself, allowing one of the streaks to hit her flank and using the pressure to adjust her fall out of the way of the other two.

She landed in a crouch, slapped aside Indrani’s follow-through strike with the flat of her blade and brutally backhanded Archer. I sucked in a breath, but Indrani had scrapped with Laurence before.  She slid back, parried a probing blow by the Saint and adjusted her angle of attack to make the most of the support the Sorcerer was still providing. She’d make it through this, I told myself. I couldn’t even hold it against Roland not to have put an end to this fight right out of the gate, not truly. The Saint had been a respected elder and ally until not so long ago, and even though she’d done so treacherously she was only going through with the fate he’d himself advocated for the Twilight Crown. A glance told me Kairos already had another artefact in hand, some sort of jeweled silver arrow, and was preparing to throw it like he was playing darts in a tavern. Yet it was the last of us whose reaction I was most dreading to look upon, and my eyes finally turned to the Grey Pilgrim. I hid a grimaced. The Peregrine looked as if he’d aged twenty years in the last twenty heartbeats, and given his age that led him at least one foot into the grave. His face had gone ashen, his footing unsure, and if he’d still had his staff I was certain he’d be leaning on it for support. He had, I thought, genuinely not seen this coming. Neither had I, though that’d been more because I’d expected the Pilgrim to seem more worried if it was a possibility and he hadn’t been. I could almost hear my father chiding me for relying on second-hand knowledge without having contingencies in place accounting for it being false.

“Pilgrim,” I said.

He did not reply, eyes clouded as he watched the Saint of Swords cleverly snap out of Indrani’s longknives out of her grasp, catch it with her free hand and smash the pommel into Archer’s cheek. A moment later the Tyrant’s strange arrow struck at her with a keening sound, and though she flicked her blade back in time to cut through it barely helped: at the moment of impact, the arrow broke and a dozen sharp darts of wind exploded out. Maybe half hit the Saint’s flank, scoring blood if no deep wound, though that didn’t hurt her half as much as Indrani’s other blade cutting halfway through her thumb and snatching back the stolen longknife.

Pilgrim,” I said more loudly. “This is not the time to sink into yourself, Tariq. Whatever grief you might hold, how many lives is it worth?”

That shook him out, enough his blue eyes turned to me.

“The crown is wounded,” he said.

“So I’d gathered,” I flatly said.

“You do not understand,” Tariq said. “The wound is permanent. It is part of the crown, now. And it will kill whoever bears it.”

Shit, I thought.

“This from your Choir?” I pressed.

“Yes,” he tightly said.

Shit, I thought once more, with feeling. I wasn’t going to return for a sermon at the House of Light anytime soon, but in current situation I was willing to take the Ophanim to their word. We’d be killing whoever ended up putting it on, which disqualified Indrani from his discussion of succession as far as I was concerned. I’d already had enough close calls with death that I suspected I’d run out of ways to cheat it, and if I croaked it here too many things fell apart. That left who, the Sorcerer or the Pilgrim? It’d have to be Roland, I grimly thought. Much as he’d been growing on me, if the Grey Pilgrim died here the storm that’d follow would be massive. It was an ugly thought, turning on someone who’d been becoming a true ally, but what other choice was there? Indrani, the thought came. I felt a sharp well of disgust at myself, both for her name having come to me at all and then my refusal to entertain it. Was it not rank hypocrisy, to demand this sacrifice from strangers while denying even thought of it when it came to my own? There’d been more than one reason villainy came easier to me than the other side’s works.

“It will have to be me,” the Grey Pilgrim said.

Night preserve me from godsdamned heroes. It wasn’t a righteous sacrifice it you screwed the people you were allegedly doing it for, it was just vanity.

“No,” I bluntly said. “Don’t be a fucking fool. Now, would you help us contain the Saint before someone gets killed?”

The Tyrant had, while we spoke, thrown a javelin of red coral at Laurence. Poorly, for his arm was trembling and it was dubious he’d ever trained his body, so it flew errantly and skittered against the ground – where it blew up into a storm of fire, a solid ten feet to the side of anyone else in the room. The Saint leapt through the flames, apparently deciding to take advantage the opportunity to shake her pursuit, but Kairos already had tossed out a large opaque orb of glass and it caught her in the belly as she went through. It broke against her and smoke poured out as words boomed out in the tradertongue, the smoke solidifying and trying to bind her limbs.

“Laurence,” the Grey Pilgrim called out, but his call was drowned out by the booming tradertongue harangue.

For a moment I wondered if Kairos had planned it that way, before dismissing the motion. Though it was possible, in truth it hardly mattered if it was. I reached for the Night, wove a globe of it and sent it spinning forward. Though it’d do no harm to anyone, it swallowed the words that’d come from the orb like a pit of darkness swallowing even the sound of falling. Unfortunately it also took the smoke bindings with the rest, which I’d not meant for it to do in the slightest. Kairos protested, though I ignored him.

Laurence,” the Grey Pilgrim repeated. “Desist now, while you still can.”

“Better dead than kneeling to the dark,” the Saint of Swords snarled. “Do your-“

The cold beam of Light struck her in the chest before she even finished speaking, and I almost let out a whistle. I’d felt that, the rippling of it in the air. The Peregrine was finally done fucking around, it seemed. The side of her chest a ruin of burned flesh, the old heroine swallowed a scream and slid across the stone floor. Already the Grey Pilgrim was crafting fresh strikes of Light, while Archer ran towards our opponent with five streaks of twilight-stuff guided by the Sorcerer following hidden behind her. The Tyrant had a handful of gargoyles before him presenting artefacts for him to wield like a pack of chittering wee sommeliers surrounding an Alamans prince with choice vintages. With the Pilgrim having been moved to act, the balance of this scrap was sharply on our side. But was it, I suddenly wondered, too sharply on our side? The crown was still falling apart, sliver by sliver, so we had to end this. Yet if this began a lone principled heroine standing against a band of five that was mostly villains…

“Give up, Saint,” the Tyrant of Helike drawled. “Our victory is inevitable. You might even say that, in a manner of speaking, we are invin-”

Kairos,” I screamed. “Don’t you fucking dare-”

“-vincible,” the Tyrant finished in a cackle. “Submit to Below and you may yet be spared, do-gooder.”

It wasn’t anything as obvious as Laurence de Montfort suddenly finding all her wounds had been healed, or a lightshow of power being shoved into her tired frame. Yet, just like that, as she was dragged by Kairos’ latest bout of treachery onto the path of a story the Saint of Swords stood a little straighter. Her eyes sharpened, her footing grew more assured.

“Archer, retreat-” I yelled.

But it was too late. Indrani’s first blade extended as her whole arm outstretched and she place the point of her longknife at the Saint’s back with blinding quickness. Just not quite quick enough. Laurence took a half-step to the side, letting her pass, and cut off her arm the wrist. She would have flicked the blade a second time and taken Archer’s head, if not for the Sorcerer’s quick divesting of twilight-streaks forcing her to withdraw a step back. The Pilgrim’s gleaming Light caught her a moment later, but with hard eyes she carved right through and leapt up. The Tyrant and I struck at the same time, his green jade baton sending out a swarm of green insects at the Saint as I wove Night into dense flecks and sent them out at her. But it was like, I realized, tossing logs into a fire. The insects – each one made of jade, I only then caught – found a cut in the air that warded their approach save for those that impacted it and found themselves cut through. I’d formed four flecks of Night and the Saint almost contemptuously cut through only one, though at exactly the right time for the detonation that ensued to catch the other three. Her right boot landed on the Rogue Sorcerer’s face a moment later and he went down like a sack of beets from the hit. Hells, that’d gone south in a hurry. Unlike the heroes and possibly even myself, Kairos had to know that the Saint would kill him in a heartbeat if she could. So why would he throw the fight this way?

I glanced at the Tyrant of Helike and found his gaze, half of it red as fresh blood, resting on my ebony staff. Kairos grinned when I caught him, utterly unrepentant. I found myself wishing I’d succeeded at cutting his throat instead of blackening his eye. The Pilgrim had chosen to prevent Indrani bleeding out instead of pursuing the offensive, to my relief, and as she held her severe hand to the stump with gritted teeth one of the greatest living healers of Calernia began to put it all back together. Good. Archer might make it back into the fight, I just needed to use Kairos and my own talents to hold until we could turn this around. The Saint should be coming for either of us by now. As it happened, Laurence de Montfort rose from the smooth crouch she’d landed in after tumbling past the unconscious Sorcerer. She glanced at me, calmly, and then her gaze swept the rest of the room. It came to rest on the crown, and without a word she ignored us and went straight for it. Oh Hells. It might be, I knew, that finishing the cut would only break this realm and spare us all either death or bargain.

Or it might mean the death of hundreds of thousands.

“Slow her,” I ordered the Tyrant.

My tone was harsh enough he did not argue. The unpleasant truth was that I did not have the means to contain someone like Laurence de Montfort. Every trick left in my arsenal derived from the patronage of Sve Noc, whose blood-drenched path to apotheosis made the exact kind of power that someone like the Saint of Swords had been meant to put down. Maybe if I’d been quick enough to think of it earlier all of us save Archer could have let ourselves be ‘beaten’ and she could have duelled the Saint with something close to even footing. But at this point trying to use numbers to bring her down was effectively using the same tactics that’d led a horde of devils to swarm this very heroine barely an hour ago. The result back then had been providing the Saint of Swords with a lot of bodies to cut, and I had no reason to believe this would go any differently. I couldn’t contain her or defeat her, and maybe if I had longer I might be able to figure out another way to get this done but I didn’t have the time. So either I bent, and let her toss the dice with the lives of three great armies and most of Iserre besides.

That, or I killed her.

Breathing out, I began to limp forward even as Kairos tossed priceless old artefacts in the Saint’s way like they were apple cores. My staff I raised, and abandoned the delusion that it had ever been one. Night roiled and the ebony fell to ash, leaving behind only a sword in a scabbard. The latter was an ornate thing, unlike most I’d borne in my time. Carved obsidian, depicting the tale of the fool girl who’d made accord with the Night. The blade had not once unsheathed waited within as my fingers tightened around the scabbard. Its long handle was onyx and amethyst, stones chosen for one’s facility in holding power and the other’s aptitude for bridging the mortal and the divine through communion. Kairos had, against all odds, succeeding at expending enough of his inherited trove of treasures to force the Saint to step back. She still stood by the throne’s side, some sort of shining panels of sorcery standing between her and the crown, but my advance drew her eyes went to me. My hobbling had taken me ahead of all the others, and at my approach she smiled a hard smile.

“A duel, is it?” Laurence de Montfort said.

I lowered the scabbard to my side, right hand gripping the grip.

“Stand down,” I said, offering once last chance. “Stand down, and we can still end this with words instead of blood.”

“Some bargains compromise the very heart of what you are,” the Saint replied. “You’ll lose, Foundling. Call your minions back and let me end it the way it should have been done since the start.”

I breathed out, steadied my stance.

“You’re mortal,” Laurence de Montfort sharply said.

“So are you,” I replied, and for the first time since I’d left the Everdark I drew a sword.

I’d gathered Night for months in preparation of this moment, not a single mote of it anybody’s but my own. This was a prayer, after all, not a ritual. I was making an appeal to Sve Noc, and sacrificing power so that a miracle might be granted. And so, when my sword cleared the scabbard, it was revealed to have no blade. Night pulsed all around us, a living and breathing thing.

One.

“What have you done?” the Saint asked.

Two.

“Nothing,” I honestly replied.

Three.

“Do you think I’ll not strike you for being unarmed?” the Saint snarled.

Four, five, six, I counted as she spoke, and she stiffened with the last. It was close, then. I’d wondered how long she would last. I touched me too, but Gods forgive me the touch was lighter than I’d believed it would be. The Dead King, it seemed, might have been terrifyingly correct. The Saint took a step forward, and I almost spoke but instead I close my mouth. It would not do to monologue, would it? Not when the end was close. I watched her skin tighten, grow sallow, I watched her limbs weaken and finally she fell down. A moment later and she was dead. Struck down without a trace. It had, from the beginning to the end, taken eleven heartbeats.

And so in the heart of the prayer I had made, eleven years had passed.

I’d always known that I couldn’t beat the Saint of Swords in a fight. What kind of a fool would fight a heroine forged of war through that which had forged her? No, I’d heeded the lessons of my years under the Black Knight and slain her through one of the few things the Heavens did not protect their chosen from: the passage of time. I let another heartbeat pass, simply to be sure, and only then did the Night’s touch upon this broken realm withdraw.

Chapter 48: Swan Song (Redux)

“Beware of deep passions, for great love may turn in hatred just as great.”
– Hesperos the Tepid, Atalantian preacher

Less then an hour was left before the sky fell down on Iserre, and three great armies were broken and buried. How many people were down there, right now? I’d off-handedly said two hundred thousand, but with the League’s armies it had to be more than that. Three hundred? It didn’t matter, I thought. Their deaths were simply not the kind of blow Calernia could recover from in less than fifty years, if even that. To anchor this realm and wrest it out of the precipitous fall, Twilight could have three outcomes” a crown-bearer, one’s corpse or a shattered crown. If there was to be a crowning it’d have to be one of us, I admitted to myself. None aside from the band of five I’d assembled and our guide in Archer, the fateful sixth, had the required weight to bring this to an end. We’d been the ones to storm the Dead King’s holdfast, to destroy the shard of him and to face against the clever fox who’d turned it all around on us. It had to be us, didn’t it? I could feel the current of the story and fighting against it too forcefully would only lead to failure. If I tried to bring out Akua, whose ties to this place and murderous legacy ran deeper than anyone else’s, I suspected she would simply not arrive in time. In a place like this, where the rules of Creation ran so thin they could be twisted and snapped, having the story going the other way was a stone around your neck. The flipping of an hourglass would tell me near nothing about how far dawn was, while the rising tension of the choice having to be made would be almost exact a measure.

Crescendo awaited, climax, and cheating it would be tricky business.

“There is no choice to be made at all,” the Rogue Sorcerer said with forced calm. “We must shatter the crown. Anything else would be odious.”

There’d been a time I knew, where I would have agreed with him. But it’d been a few years since I’d last had the luxury to think that way – right and wrong, untouched by practicalities such as risk and consequence. Which was the greater wickedness, I wondered: the killing of one at the altar, or to gamble hundreds of thousands of lives on odds unclear?

“I have heard it told in rumour,” the Tyrant of Helike said, “that our friend the Peregrine can offer solace through resurrection. One after each dawn, the rumour goes, forgiving the mistakes that came before it.”

And there went Kairos, pivoting from pest to useful because he was simply too clever to remain a distraction that all would agree on throwing out when it was all coming to a close. I suspected he would act the wise and sagacious ally, from now on, simply to ease everyone’s well-earned urge to toss him out on his ass and close the doors behind him. Exhausted as the rest of us, Kairos Theodosian had a worsening purple bruise where I’d very satisfyingly decked him in the face, but otherwise no real injuries. Still, from the way his limbs had taken to twitching under the robes you’d think he was the worst off among us. Whatever sickness it was he’d been born to, it was debilitating whenever the protection of his Name waned. I followed the villain’s gaze as it turned to Tariq, adding my weight to the unspoken question: if someone sat the throne and let themselves be slain, could the Pilgrim raise them anew after dawn? The white-haired man cocked his head to the side, as if listening to words only he could hear. He, too, had old monsters to ask answer of.

“It is uncertain,” the Peregrine admitted. “There are some deaths not even my prayers can forgive, and to die on the altar for the sake of others might be one such.”

The old man glanced meaningfully at Indrani, who in deference to the seriousness of the situation had been keeping her mouth shut.

“I cannot bring back those departed twice,” he warned. “No matter the circumstances.”

I’d had absolutely no intention of letting anyone so much as shake a knife in Archer’s direction, but that was good to know. My friend had already died one tonight so, as far as I was concerned, she’d more than the paid the dues she hadn’t even owed.

“Might be this is obvious to the rest of you,” Indrani slowly said, “yet why aren’t we simply having someone put on the fancy hat and stay alive? That ought to do the trick.”

I grimaced. The Saint spat to the side.

“There’ll be no founding of a court in service to Below on my watch, girl,” Laurence de Montfort bluntly said. “The terms of this truce were that there would be a breaking, not a coronation.”

“It would be preferable to the cold-blooded murder of an ally,” the Rogue Sorcerer flatly said.

“Think beyond keeping your pretty hands clean, boy,” the Saint harshly said. “Consider the centuries of blood and suffering that would come from the birth of this Court of Twilight.”

“Ah, but the courts of Arcadia was so troublesome for they had many stories, many titled among their number,” Kairos idly said. “It need not be so for Twilight. A single brow bearing a crown, and nothing else. Power held yet going without exercise.”

His tone had been idle, but there’d been something to it that had me clenching my fingers. He was half in love with the notion already, I could tell. And I could see how it’d appear to the Tyrant of Helike: then moment of temptation forever continued, principled restraint that might yet be broken by the right word or tragedy. And as for the rest of us, none would get what they truly wanted save a life spared. Or, as Kairos was likely to see it, yet another foe slighted and spared. To him, it’d be the loveliest of endings. And Gods forgive me, but I was more inclined to it than a killing. There was no one here that could have their throat carved open without a bloody mess following, greater good or not. If it was a hero and the Saint survived, she’d carry that grudge like a blade pointed at my back until one of us died. If it was the Saint herself, the lengths Tariq had gone to for the preservation of her life would find themselves tossed in the mud before so much as the first signature was put to the Liesse Accords. It was a thinning of foundation where I needed it to be firm. There’d be no talk of Indrani going through this, and while before the end I suspected I’d be put before a choice like this I would not walk the altar path when there was so much work left to be done. Martyrdom without groundwork was vanity, nothing less and nothing more.

It was a possibility, I thought, to force that crown onto Kairos’ head and slit his throat. One I’d seriously consider, but the Tyrant had bargained back his life from the Bard and the Pilgrim seemed set on respecting this. Would it be worth it, I asked myself, to cross him on this? It might be too much of a risk. The Rogue Sorcerer might come out either way, given his scraps with the Tyrant, and Archer would be at my side through Crown and Tower but the other two? The Saint was most likely to see the practicality in bleeding Kairos, but she often deferred to the Pilgrim over calls like these and she’d be just as eager to take a swing at me. The Tyrant’s reaction was arguably the most predictable and least worrisome, for though he’d attempt escape he wouldn’t take it personally in the slightest. No, I finally decided. The odds were too stiff and the cause too red. Even if I got away with it I’d leave scars, the kind that’d come back to bite me down the line, and our alliance was too young not to be mangled by something like this. Gods, sometimes working with Above’s people felt like shackles around my wrists. They just had so many rules. Even making a discreet inquiry as to the nature of the truce agreed on by Bard could feasibly do damage here, I reluctantly acknowledged, so it was best to set aside the notion entirely. Unless the Tyrant betrayed us once more, at which point the chops would be back on the damned plate.

He wouldn’t though, I thought as I he offered me a bright and knowing smile. Kairos had a finger on the pulse here, on the underlying currents, and he had no intention of giving me an excuse. I smiled back, and it did not reach my eyes.

“That’s a pot forever on the edge of tipping,” the Saint growled. “I’ll not have it.”

“If your issue is with a villain bearing the crown, then I will do so myself,” Roland said.

“That sounds lovely,” the Tyrant grinned. “Indeed, what is one more elaborate lie when one is at the very heart of who you are, Sorcerer? You’ve my seal of approval.”

The hero paled, to my surprise. What was it that Kairos had found out about him? Pilgrim and Saint shared a weighty look and Tariq cleared his throat.

“You are too young for such a burden,” the Peregrine delicately said.

Ouch, I thought. That had had to sting. Having the closest thing to your side of the Game’s communal wise grandfather essentially telling you he didn’t think you’d be able to take it if you stepped into the fire. The Rogue Sorcerer tried to hide his flinch, but he was among the least skilled of the liars here.

“If the Grey Pilgrim wants to take the crown, I’ll make my peace with it,” I conceded.

“You sound like you’re making a concession, Foundling,” the Saint harshly said. “When what you’re doing is giving Below a path to one of the most powerful heroes alive. Shut your damned-”

“Tariq tossed his own crown into the bag, dearest friend,” the Tyrant idly interrupted. “So if he takes one up now with the intent of ruling, who knows what manners of wickedness may come of it? We must think of the children, Catherine.”

Indrani choked at the last sentence, sending Kairos an admiring glance that had the villain overtly preening. Aside from the theatrics, he’d actually made sense. It might be that Tariq would be reclaiming the right to rule he’d discarded, by putting on that crown. Or it might be something else entirely, and a disaster in the making. We couldn’t take the risk.

“Even if I were willing to let that much power fall into the Saint’s hands, I doubt she would be willing to take it,” I said.

“You won’t be getting your hooks in any of us,” Laurence de Montfort bluntly said.

“It cannot be you, Queen Catherine,” Tariq apologetically said. “I yet remember your… brittle temperament as Queen of the Hunt. I cannot in good conscience make bargains with such a creature.”

I grimaced. Well, he wasn’t entirely wrong. I suspected I’d handle apotheosis a lot better if the crystallization of it didn’t come from one of the worst days of my life, but there was no real way to know. And it’d be a lie to pretend the notion of claiming that sort of mantle again was anything but repulsive to me. I’d put power over the rest before, and we’d none of us come out the better for it. Slow learner as I was, I would not claim to be that slow.

“I claim only one crown, and hardly forever,” I said.

“While I would be delighted to lend a hand -” the Tyrant of Helike began.

“No,” I said.

“No,” Tariq said.

“Hah,” Indrani snorted.

The Saint’s hand simply went down to her sword.

“- yes, that,” Kairos said, sounding a touch chagrined. “Which leaves only one among us.”

“Kairos,” I mildly said, “did we not once have a conversation on the subject of you taking a swing at my people and the consequences of such an act?”

“It is… possible,” the Grey Pilgrim said.

I nearly twitched in surprise, fixing the old man with a look.

“There would have to be oaths,” the Peregrine said, dipping his head in apology at Archer. “Safeguards.”

“Well, would you look at that,” Indrani mused. “You do listen, after all.”

“Abdication after ten years,” Tariq said, eyes moving to me. “Guaranteed of safe passage for those waging war on Keter. Abiding by earthly treaties.”

I was genuinely taken aback by the turn, enough that it took me a moment to get ahold of my thoughts.

“I won’t force her to do it,” I flatly said.

“Cat,” Archer said. “Look at me.”

I turned, eyes lingering on the traces of blood still on her forehead. The reminder that she’d already died once tonight.

“It’s just ten years,” she said. “And you didn’t age while Duchess or Queen, so I’m losing nothing there. I’m not enough of an asshole to insist we murder someone over a decade.”

Except that she was, unkind as that thought was. Because Indrani was lovely and generous to those few that she loved, but the rest? She was not the kind to bleed for strangers, and I doubted the few months we’d spent apart had changed that about her. Or maybe I just didn’t want to. What would it mean, if months away from the Woe was all it took to let her compassion bloom? Or it might just be away from me, I darkly thought. What had I ever really asked of her, save for slaughter? And though that thought remained, so did my gaze remain on the bloody marks streaking across her forehead. That, too, might be a reason for seeking crown. For all the other burdens of my time as Sovereign of Moonless Nights, I’d been absurdly difficult to kill.

“I won’t pretend it doesn’t make things easier,” I said, meeting her eyes. “Having that much power at your fingertips. But it blinds you to other ways to die, Indrani. It takes from you as much as you’ll gain – perhaps even more.”

“I know,” Archer said. “I was there, remember? But I want to know what the word looks like, from that vantage. That’s reason enough.”

“Is that really who you want to be?” I quietly asked.

“An entire world of secret paths, of unknown horizons,” Indrani smiled. “Wouldn’t be that something to tread?”

It’ll change you, I wanted to say. Even if you put down the crown after ten years, and that is never as simple as you’d think, it will still have changed you in ways you can scarce understand. Gods, I wanted to forbid her to go through with it. And the thing was, if I pushed hard enough she just might withdraw her agreement. I knew that sure as I knew my own breathing. Indrani trusted me enough for that. But it would never be the same, afterward: we would no longer be partners or friends – a line would be drawn, and she’d be on the side of it that meant servant. Merciless Gods. It was ugly and selfish of me, but I would rather let her try the crucible of Twilight than knowingly destroy what bound us to each other.

“We’ll have to agree on the wording of the oaths,” I finally croaked out.

I met her gaze, and an understanding passed between us. It was not love – neither of us had been afflicted with that particular delusion regarding the other, for all that we occasionally shared a bed – or at least not that kind of it. It was… a recognition, maybe. That I thought she was making a mistake, but that I respected her enough to stand in the way of decisions she freely made. Had this, too, been a pivot? A moment she’d look back to, in years to come, when wondering if the ties binding her to the Woe were a lifeline or a leash. Perhaps pivot was a conceited term to use, when matched to the unspoken understanding of two mortals of no real import in the greater scheme of things. Too grand for the two of us. But there was resonance to the meaning of it, I thought. Whether this had been a fault or something akin to wisdom I’d not know for years to come, but in time I would know. I was unnaturally certain of that, in the beat that followed her hazelnut eyes meeting my own. Indrani inclined her head towards me, not speaking a word.

“No,” the Saint of Swords said.

The Tyrant let out a pleased, breathless sigh.

“You told me if I still believed you wrong come morning light, we’d put this to judgement,” Laurence said, looking at Tariq. “Dawn’s around the corner, old friend, and now I tell you this: I will not brook this deal you would strike. It is an abomination in every way.”

Indrani casually took a half-step to the side, coming closer to me. In a better position to buy me time to weave miracles, if it came to blades bared. I wished I could say she was being unreasonably cynical by doing so. I almost spoke up, but there was a reason Kairos was keeping his mouth shut. He, too, suspected that anyone carrying Below’s banner in the Saint’s eyes intervening now would be met with immediate assault. Robber had told me a sapper’s saying, once: no one has hands clever enough to juggle munitions. Simply by speaking up here, I’d be cracking a match in a warehouse full of goblinfire.

“Only ten years,” Tariq told her. “It is breathing room so that we can arrange for a more agreeable ending, Laurence.”

“It’s condoning the birth of a court hatched by servants of the Hellgods,” the Saint barked. “There’s no going back from that once we unleash it, Tariq. And odds are we won’t live to see that garden of ruin come to bear fruit – by what right do you pass on that woe to those that come after us?”

“You would rather embrace murder than compromise?” the Rogue Sorcerer said.

“Shut your mouth, boy,” Laurence hissed. “You understand nothing. You shy away from taking a life now, from takin a risk, and you think that makes you virtuous? All it makes you is complicit. Your scruples will cost a hundred generations blood and fear simply because you flinched when time for the hard choices came.”

“How hard a choice is it really for you?” the Sorcerer replied, tone ice cold. “When did you last make another, Saint of Swords?”

Laurence’s face shuttered closed. Hells, I had to admit that Roland was starting to grow on me some.

“Peace, Roland,” the Pilgrim said.

“Would that she’d hear of it, if only the once,” the younger man scathingly replied.

“No, Tariq, let him speak,” the Saint said. “Let him sing the praises of compromising with the Enemy. You’’ survive this, Sorcerer, for you may yet bring some light into this world. But burn this moment into your memory, child. Keep it close. There will come day when it burns like a lash on your back.”

“What is made can be unmade, Laurence,” the Pilgrim told her. “Even if this bargain were a mistake, and I do not believe it to be, it remains impermanent.”

“Does it?” she asked. “You’re letting them in, Tariq. You are setting a precedent for us sitting across the table from the monstrous and the mad, pretending they can be reasoned with. And Gods be good, perhaps this once it might even be true.”

My brow rose.

“And yet it cannot be allowed to pass,” Laurence said. “Because once the exception is made, the precedent is set, the ink touched the water – it’s done. It’s over. The poison is in and there’s only sickness and death ahead. How many times will this bargain you’d strike lead those who come after us astray? How long will it take, before Twilight becomes a murderous madness that can reach everywhere across Calernia?”

“We must first ensure there is a Calernia left to safeguard, Laurence,” Tariq quietly said.

“Compromising the soul to preserve the flesh,” the Saint of Swords said, “is the first step into Below’s service. There are things worth facing ruin for, Tariq.”

“No compromise with the Enemy,” the Grey Pilgrim echoed. “That is your principle. Yet you know mine, Laurence.”

“So I do,” Laurence de Montfort softly agreed.

Light bloomed, but already the Saint of Swords was moving and she struck.

Chapter 47: Tenet

“You who would be mighty, seek excellence in all things, for the conquest of eternity must be earned with every breath.”
– Extract from the ‘Tenets Under Night’, Firstborn religious text

Well, shit. I guessed you could always count on good ol’ Larat to make a bad situation incredibly worse. And I wasn’t the only one to realized that with a pithy gesture and a few words he’d dropped us all in the deep end, because the moment the fae who’d abdicated the Twilight Crown took a step away from the throne I had to speak up.

“Hold,” I got out, and there was an echo.

Archer’s longknife slowed a hair’s breadth away from the hollow of Larat’s throat, as did the Saint’s longsword – though it’d not been me that Laurence was listening but the Pilgrim. Who had, thanks the Gods, enough of a finger on the pulse of this to recognize that killing the fae now would be a Very Bad Idea. High above us, Sve Noc lazily circled the sky. Yet another fire I was going to have to put out the moment I’d assessed the nature of this turnabout. I inclined my head in thanks at Tariq and shot Indrani a steady glance. Shrugging, she withdrew her blade and with an unnecessarily eye-catching spin she put it away. The Saint I left to the Pilgrim, eyes on the fae who’d been the Twilight King for the span of two sentences. Was he still, though? I wondered with a frown. Not king – the abdication might have been a trick, but not of that particular kind – but fae. There was a flush to his skin now, and while his long hair remained unearthly in its perfection it was no longer… unnatural.

“Larat,” I said. “Look me in the eye.”

Baring a smile of pearly white teeth, the one-eye creature met my gaze and my lips thinned in dismay. When I’d first met the Prince of Nightfall, a simple look in his eyes had sent me tumbling down into fear and darkness. A glimpse into his nature, forced by the matching of gaze. I’d learned to resist that pull, in later years, or at times simply been the greater monster of the two of us. I was not currently using any of those tricks, for there was no need to. Larat held not a speck of power within him. And fae, Masego had once told me, were little more than power made flesh and shaped by stories. The inevitable conclusion of that sent a shiver up my spine.

“Do you even know,” I softly asked, “what you’ve become?”

“Something… unprecedented,” he said, smile broadening.

“And the rest of the Hunt?” I said.

One after another they leapt down, graceful and lithe. None of them bore titles that I could catch the scent of, be it the newborn regalia of Twilight or older and more vicious accoutrements.

“We claim nothing,” Larat languidly replied, “save that we are.”

“Fascinating,” the Saint of Swords said. “You gonna feed them to your drow, or should I just go ahead and finish this? I’ve yet to hear a reason that smirking head should stay atop his shoulders.”

“Because someone’s going to have to put on that damned crown, now,” I said, never looking away from Larat. “And while I can’t say for sure what murdering the creature that first forged it would do exactly, I doubt it’ll be particularly pleasant.”

The former fae’s lips twitched. Seed of madness in the crown was my guess, putting an original sin at the heart of what this realm would become. The clever fox had picked a path that meant we couldn’t kill him without dropping a vial of poison in our own cup.

“There no longer are any oaths between us,” I acknowledged. “All debts have been paid.”

“So they have,” Larat admitted. “Would you believe me if I said, my queen, that my service under your banner was a pleasure?”

“Not even an hour free,” I said, “and already lying? You always were a quick learner.”

He laughed, deep-throated and wild. I swallowed a sigh.

“You fulfilled your oaths to the letter,” I conceded, and raised my voice to the others. “All of you. If we are to part tonight, it is not in anger.”

Larat, viper-swift, raised the sword hanging from his hip. I did not reach for the Night, though Archer was halfway through a killing stroke before she turned it aside – my former servant, after a salute, had dropped the blade at my feet.

“May we meet again, my queen, before the end,” Larat said. “For every gift you gave you took fair measure, and I can pay no higher compliment.”

Much as they had years ago when riding horses, the creatures that had once been the Wild Hunt paid me the mirrored farewell to the allegiance they’d sworn. Lance and blade and bow fell at my feet, and with every last a bow. Some paid respects to Archer as well, though to her they offered only words. They gathered around Larat: slender, beautiful and even without so much as a speck of power still terrible to behold.

“And what will you do?” I asked.

“Whatever we wish, my queen,” the one-eyed fox said. “For be it wicked or righteous, it will be entirely ours.”

I let them go without another word, ignoring the Pilgrim’s weighty look and the Tyrant’s fleeting yet fascinated glances at the former fae. There was another issue about to take hold, after all. For all that I’d chosen to part with the Wild Hunt on a cordial note, Larat had repaid my planned deicide in the same manner. The Twilight Crown was not up for grabs, and he’d known exactly what he was doing when he’d offered it to the worthiest. It was respect that’d stayed the hands of the drow so far, for through the Night I could feel hundreds of them hungrily gazing down. If I ordered them to refrain, I’d strain the limited of my authority as the First Under the Night. Oh, some would listen. At first anyway, until they saw foes and rivals close to getting their fingers on great power and the balance swung the other way. They only way they’d obey such an edict was if Sve Noc put their weight to my words. Yet I had the Sisters in the back of my mind, and so I knew they were eying that crown as hungrily as the rest of them.

“Black Queen,” the Grey Pilgrim began, “given the-”

“Pilgrim,” I calmly said. “I don’t think you appreciate how delicate the situation is right now. I need to… confer with my patrons.”

“Evil clawing at itself,” the Saint bitingly said. “There’s a surprise.”

I ignored her.

“It’d be a mistake,” I said in Crepuscular, addressing the sky.

The first crow that landed on the floor did so smoothly, and just as smoothly rose into the silhouette of a drow. Silver-blue eyes shone, and I saw she was wearing the ancient armour of soldiers of the Empire Ever Dark with at her hip a sheathed blade of obsidian. Komena.  Her sister, fully formed a drow before her crow talons could touch the stone, made ground with serenity. It was the robes of the long-broken Twilight Sages she wore, in flowing shimmering silk, and her hands she hid within long sleeves. Andronike. My patrons, at least, had taken me seriously enough to make act of presence. And a little more than that, even. I caught flecks of dust gone still in the air around me, made visible by the glinting light, and all others in this seat of power stood as if frozen. Save for the Pilgrim, whose knowing eyes followed me still – whatever power was at work here, bending perception, the Choir of Mercy had not suffered that he would be touched by it.

“Would it be?” Komena said. “Twilight is not so far removed from our domain. And mastery over ways… oh, let the offering of travellers be not blood but instead prayer. There would be opportunity in that, and yet more. We have lost the Everdark and the kingdom you bargained for still has to be reclaimed from death. A home for our people would be fair in every way, Herald.”

“You can’t eat two courts of the fae, Komena,” I said. “That would be grave overreach.”

The two of them, long-legged and fluid, began circling around me on foot the same way they had as crows.

“You have warned us of such perils before, of the foes they would bring,” she replied, and glanced at the Grey Pilgrim. “Having seen them, I am less than cowed.”

“The way I see it, there’s two ways that could go,” I said. “Both end up with every single gain you’ve made so far pissed away.”

That had them both looking at me with their full attention.

“You could become ‘the monster that eats courts’,” I said. “And just like that you’re the greatest threat kicking around Calernia, both taking the weight off the Dead King and beginning a death match with every powerful entity in the service of Above up here and gathered to deal with him.”

I paused, letting that sink in.

“Or, perhaps even worse, you’ve just begun a pattern,” I said. “I made a Court of Winter and you ate it. I made a Court of Twilight and you’d eat it. There’s only one court of the fae left, Sve Noc, and I also had a hand in its inception. Where do you think that story leads?”

“We would be mistresses of the greater part of the Garden,” Komena said.

“Would you?” I said. “I wonder. When I stole Winter, it didn’t do anything to the ruling court of Arcadia as far as I could tell. See, what I think is that it’s the neverborn courts they get their blood from: Autumn and Spring, never to be again. Because Summer and Winter had to die so the unification of Arcadia could happen, so they couldn’t be foundation of an entirely new realm could they? So my theft of Winter? Fine, I was robbing a corpse. The crown just to our side might just be what used to be Summer. So at best, o goddesses of mine, you’ll be even. And you know that one viciously clever little bastard that just walked out of here?”

I jutted a thumb towards the open gates of bronze.

“The ruling King of Arcadia considers him to be a little dim,” I said. “Think on that, before you start believing you’ll be the winners in that scrap even if the weight is even. You’re too young to the godhead, your power is too fragile and your foundations too unsteady. You’re not ready for the kind of attention eating Twilight would bring.”

Komena did not reply. She was not pleased, I could feel it, but she did not dismiss what I’d said.

“I do not disagree,” Andronike said.

And now for the other one, I grimly thought.

“Let us allow the Mighty to find who is worthiest among them, and so establish influence without… overstepping,” the oldest of the sisters said.

“Short-sighted,” I assessed.

I saw Komena hide a smile.

“Pardon?” Andronike said, voice too calm to truly be.

“You’re thinking in terms of gains without also weighing the drawbacks,” I said. “Do you intend to make whoever takes the crown the leader of your people, fold them under their rule and effectively have them stuck in this ruin of a realm forever? Because that’s what you’re headed towards if you make a play here.”

“They have no choice but to make bargains with us if the ways are under our stewardship,” Andronike said. “This war is lost otherwise.”

“You’re robbing them while the Dead King holds them at knifepoint,” I said. “That’s a mistake. What happens when the war is over, Sve Noc? Do you think they won’t go back on treaties you crammed down their throat when they were in duress?”

“And will they come to love us, if we treat them lovingly?” Andronike mockingly replied. “That is surprisingly naïve of you, Herald. If they turn on us for this, they were always going to turn on us. All the more reason to claim what we can before the knives are bared.”

“You’re missing the point,” I patiently said. “There’s nuances to this, Andronike. Sure, the Procerans are never going to put a crown of flowers in your hair, but there’s a difference between ‘the enemy we leave alone because it contains a worse enemy’ and ‘those bastards that extorted us while we were facing annihilation’. You know what’s going to be a lot more useful to your people than one of the Mighty on that fancy chair behind you? An undeniable and weighty precedent for the Firstborn being reasonable, restrained actors. You’re going to have to live up here, after the war ends.”

“You would have us pin our hopes on amity and mercy,” Andronike said.

“I’d have you fight this war in a manner that doesn’t guarantee having to fight another one in twenty years with your current allies,” I frankly said. “You named me First Under the Night because you needed feet on the ground. Someone to steer you away from the mistakes you’re blind to because of your position.”

I paused.

“This is one,” I said. “This might be the mistake. The choice that decides whether you’re a decade-long catastrophe that ends up drowned in heroes or the latest nation to claim a seat at the table up here in the Burning Lands.”

They circled around me still, silent. Thinking.

“This is not our way,” Komena said.

“Your way is a snake eating its own tail,” I said. “Be better.”

“They might turn on us regardless,” Andronike said.

“They might,” I admitted. “Fear or faith, that’s your choice. You can’t cross a chasm without taking a leap.”

The Sisters looked at each other, eyes sliding away from me, and whatever it was they spoke it was not meant for my ears. Pounding heartbeats drummed against my ears, they began circling anew. With every step they further faded into the shadow, until there was nothing left but crows once more circling above. As if they’d never left at all. I breathed out, slowly.

“You are First Under the Night,” Andronike confirmed.

“The Firstborn listen,” Komena said. “Speak.”

My fingers clenched. Above us the Mighty stood, a ring of painted sigils and silver-blue yes. Watching, waiting. And my goddesses had asked me to teach restraint to a people they had taught to esteem gluttonous theft above all. I was not, I thought, clever enough a liar to trick them all into obedience. And that’d be rather defeating the purpose of this, wasn’t it? I was the high priestess of Night: if I found offence with the faith I’d been named the steward of, who but me could be charged with the change of it?

“Are you worthy?” I asked, and my voice rang out.

Not a soul replied. I let out a harsh bark of laughter.

“Your silence says it all,” I told them. “You believe you are, or that the shedding of blood will make you so.”

And why wouldn’t they? The worthy took, the worthy rose. Did the act of taking not make them worthy? That was the sickness inside them, Below’s ever-red altar made into an entire people. It was the old enemy wearing another face: Callow and Praes, forever intertwined and bleeding. Procer as much burden as bearing, sowing its own demise with every conquest. It was bucket holding the crabs, and I was going to break it.

“I see you,” I harshly said. “Scavengers, carrion things crawling in the dark. You make faith of what you’ve taken and call that worth. I see you, who call yourselves Mighty. I have been you, and heard the sweet anthems of might, so hear me when I tell you this truth: a hundred rats clawing at each other does not make a single king.”

Oh, they did not love me for that. I saw it in their eyes, in the way fury and malice filled the Night. But it was a lesson long overdue and love was not what I wanted from them, much less what I needed.

“Did you believe a single moment of excellence would earn you an eternity of power?” I said. “The one-eye fox that left this place head held high forged this crown through ruses that fooled gods and ruined realms. What bring any of you that matches those deeds?”

I bared my teeth.

“The murder of your own kind? I ask you, what manner of creature under sun or moon is not capable of this? Where lies that which would make you worthy?”

I struck my staff against the ground, let the clap that sounded out jostle them.

“You have grovelled in the ruins of your own empire, bleeding behind the Gloom,” I said. “And through that you survived. Yet is that all you seek, you who call yourselves Mighty? Survival? I thought you seekers of deeds. I thought you reclaimed of an empire ever dark. I thought you Firstborn, not grey ghosts haunting a ruin.”

Fury still, but now their pride had been pricked. And there were some who were listening. Hearing what had been spoken but also what had not been.

“It is not enough to take,” I said. “For you must be worthy to take. It is not enough to rise, for you must be worthy to rise.”

Blasphemy, some would have called that, but how could it be when I spoke with the voice of their gods?

“Did you think eternity would so easily be conquered?” I laughed. “Seek excellence in all things, Firstborn. Seek to stand nighty not by lowering others but by rising above them, lest you make your own victory worthless. They who cannot master themselves will never be anything but servants.”

I breathed out, let what I’d said sink in.

“And so I ask you again, you who call yourselves Mighty – are you worthy?”

Sa Vrede. The whisper spread, bloomed until it was on every pair of lips. No, the answer came, and with it the beat of spears against stone. Slow and oppressive, like a dirge.

“Then seek excellence, Firstborn,” I said.  “Ever seek it until the night comes where your answer has changed.”

Chno Sve Noc, they went. All will be Night. And they bowed, for I has spoken with the authority of high priestess of Night and for all their fury they had found worth in the path I laid before them. As the deity-crows circled slowly above us all they withdrew into the darkness, dismissed without my needing to speak another word. I let out a shaky breath and turned to find the eyes of most everyone else resting on me. I doubted anyone other than Archer had understood any of that – Indrani had learned a bit of Crepuscular back in the day, though it was a fiendishly complex language so not all that much – but I supposed even without the learning it’d been something of a spectacle.

“Dawn will come before the hour’s turn,” the Grey Pilgrim quietly said. “And with it the end of this journey, for good or ill.”

“Then there is only one agreeable solution,” the Tyrant of Helike said.

He let a moment pass.

“We should crown Catherine,” he said, and winked at me.

“I’ve ridden that horse before,” I said. “Never again.”

“A shame,” he mused. “I’d volunteer, yet I suspect my dear friends might…”

“Murder you like we were planning to do to Larat?” I finished. “Of course not. Go ahead, Kairos. Put on the crown.”

“Breaking the crown itself might suffice,” the Rogue Sorcerer said.

“How sure are you of that, Roland?” the Saint asked.

He grimaced.

“Half and half,” the Sorcerer said. “As you might guess, there’s not exactly a precedent for this.”

And considering that the hero wasn’t able to understand High Arcana, there was only so much weight I was willing to put on his word. Gods, I wished Masego was in a fit state to speak right now. Hells, I’d even settle for Akua right about now.

“So either we roll the dice over the life of around two hundred thousand people,” I grimly said. “Or someone puts on that crown and then we kill them.”

Chapter 46: Abdication

“One hundred and two: defeat is inevitable, yet it can be just as useful as a victory. Fate assures you at least one loss, so make sure it’s the right kind.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

We’d won, so naturally in the heartbeat that followed it all went to shit. Masego stumbled down his throne with gasping breaths, fingers blindly clawing at the rune-carve stone. He’d always been tall, but never before had I seen him so thin – it made him look spindly, like some long-legged insect in ragged black robes. The sorcery that’d been hanging heavy in the air was gone now, like some great gust of wind had blown it out, and I suspected that whatever it was that’d achieved that was the same thing that had Masego’s limbs trembling. Heaving, he began to puke and I had to restrain myself from going to him after taking a unthinking step forward. It’d have to wait just a little longer, graceless as that truth was. Before the rest I needed to be sure that I wasn’t going to be asked to make an ugly choice between two people I dearly loved.

“Pilgrim,” I said. “What ails him, does it threaten his life?”

Even if the man did not know, the Ophanim would.

“Only if not attended to,” the Peregrine said after a moment. “The fever will rise and his body will weaken: it will take weeks if not months of recovery.”

“Then raise Archer, if you would,” I said.

I’d phrased it politely but we both knew it for the order it was. Wordlessly, the Sisters left my shoulders

“We don’t raise the dead, Foundling,” the Saint sharply said.

“Resurrect, then,” I replied, rolling my eyes.

I met Tariq’s stare and slowly he inclined his head in agreement. I wondered if I was right in guessing he’d not immediately brought Indrani back because he’d thought Masego might yet die and that, in the war on the Dead King, the Hierophant would be more useful than the Archer. I set aside the thought, for there was nothing to gain from pursuing it. Even if he’d been thinking that way the colder part of me had to acknowledge that it might not be a bad thing at least one of us had been. I was too close to this, to them, to be able to genuinely do the same. Leaving the Grey Pilgrim to the business of overturning death, I hurried to the still-crawling Hierophant. By the looks of it there hadn’t been much in his stomach, which no doubt made the heaves worse as the body stubbornly tried to spew out something that wasn’t there. His glass-crafted eyes moved wildly beneath the eyecloth, but he did not seem completely blind. I knelt in front of him, swallowing a pained wince, and made sure he saw me before further approaching.

“Masego,” I softly said. “It’s me? Do you recognize me?”

“Catherine,” he croaked. “It’s gone.”

“I know,” I softly agreed. “We all saw you push the Dead King out. We struck at it together.”

I caught his shoulder and, shivering at the weight it put on my bad leg, tipped him back so he was leaning against me instead of half-sprawled over the floor.

“Here we go,” I said. “I’m going to get the vomit off you, Masego, is that all right?”

“Not the Dead King,” he rasped. “It’s all gone, Catherine. My magic.”

I stiffened at the announcement. I wished he’d spoken in a softer tone, so that the heroes – and Kairos, who’d remained dangerously silent through all of this – would not have heard him. As they most definitely just had. I immediately rebuked myself for the thought, for he was in no state to consider such matters. Are you sure, that pointed little question, held on the tip of my tongue for a heartbeat before I buried it. It’d only insult him: he wouldn’t be this devastated if he wasn’t sure.

“It’ll be all right,” I whispered. “We’ll fix it. There’s always a way, Masego. Always.”

A lie, I thought, but one I would have wanted to be told in his place. He’d be able to speak to this more clearly when he’d rested and recovered, and when he did he’d have Akua to help and the knowledge of Sve Noc to look through. If there was a path to be had, we would find it.

“I feel warm,” he said. “Fever. My teeth hurt. I can’t fix it.”

Sickly as he was, Masego was larger and heavier than me – I had to draw on Night to subdue him without hurting him, his sudden violent flailing taking me by surprise. Shit. I’d wanted him awake for the last stretch of this but he was going a bad way. Weaving a long thread of Night as gently as I could, I pressed my thumb against his forehead and let the working gently tug him into slumber. His thrashing subsided until it was little more than twitches and I let out a shaky breath of my own. All right. It looked bad, but once we got back to camp it could be fixed. We had mages and priests and I was owed by the foremost hero on Calernia, a man who had an in with a Choir. He’d come out of this all right, and then we could see about clawing back his magic from our enemy. Breathe in, breathe out. There was no place for weakness in me when the Tyrant and the Saint were looking. I unclasped the Mantle of Woe and bunched it together, sliding it under Masego’s head so he wouldn’t scrape it against the runes. I rose back to my feet, leaning against my staff.

“Touching,” the Tyrant of Helike drawled. “I do not jest, Catherine, it was truly-”

“There’s a general that’s been with you from the start,” I said, meeting his gaze. “Basilia, is it?”

“Are you threatening me?” Kairos asked, sounding amused.

“Finish that sentence,” I said, “and you’ll find out.”

Whatever might have followed that was to remain unspoken, for with a gasp Indrani returned to the land of the living. I limped past the Tyrant, making my way to her side. Tariq had put her on her back before digging into his aspect, and now miraculously enough there was no trace of the hole that’d been blow through her head save for dried blood over her face. The Saint was gazing down at her with a sneer when I arrived, while the Pilgrim gently asked her to cease moving so the Light could heal the last of her scrapes. Indrani’s hazelnut eyes swam into focus when I arrived, first staying on me and then moving to the other two heroes by her ‘bedside’. Leaning to the side, Archer spat out a little mucus and wiped her lips.

“Cat’s always been fine and I can be sold on the Saint – gotta love a girl who knows her way around a sword,” she drawled. “But a priest too? Gods, there can’t have been that much liquor in the city.”

In a moment of quicksilver surprise, I saw the Saint of Swords looking like someone had just personally pissed in her morning porridge and the Grey Pilgrim looked utterly, wickedly delighted before I had to cover my mouth with a hand lest I burst out laughing.

“I wasn’t always a priest, I’ll gave you know,” the Peregrine sanguinely replied. “As a young man I once even attempted to become one of the Hidden Poets.”

“They of the seventy-eight methods of carnal love?” Indrani asked, sounding somewhat intrigued.

“Indeed,” he agreed. “Alas, my kamil declamations were judged unworthy and so I took an interest in healing instead.”

“You look rather spry, for a dead woman,” I said.

I looked at her searchingly even as I spoke, looking for a flinch or darkening of mien that would have given away a shadow cast on her soul. Resurrection was too great a boon to come without a cost, in my eyes, though that did not mean that price would be paid immediately. Yet I found nothing and so offered up my hand to cover my surprise. Indrani took it, and with a grunt I dragged her up.

“Well,” Archer said, “I did get to take a nap. I’m all refreshed now.”

I almost winced at that. I’d not seen her die, but the sight of her head missing a chunk was going to haunt my nights for a few months to come. Indrani’s eyes moved to the sleeping form of Masego, lingering on the rise and fall of his chest. The twitched were already rarer, but still I caught his leg in a spasm as he turned and a moan escaped his lips.

“What happened?” she quietly asked. “I know how I…”

She hesitated there, and I found an almost troubled look on her face when I looked. Not entirely without marks, then. I reached for her shoulder, but she shook it away.

“We knew it was a possibility,” she said, tone grown firm. “But it should have shaken him out of the Dead King’s hold. What went wrong?”

“Your little friend pushed out the Hidden Horror,” the Saint of Swords said, approaching. “Long enough for us to help strike him down.”

“When the shard of the Dead King ruling over the Hierophant was destroyed, it took his magic with it,” the Rogue Sorcerer said.

Both the Pilgrim and the Saint shot a look at him, and he dipped his head as if to confirm something.

“Roland?” I asked.

“It is part of my Choosing to know when there is sorcery to confiscate,” the hero told me, face grim. “There is none left in the Hierophant.”

“Shit,” Indrani murmured. “That’s going to leave scars even if we fix it.”

“Which we will,” I meaningfully said.

Indrani questioningly glanced at my neck, more specifically the height where my cloak’s collar would usually be.

“If anyone can,” I agreed. “Otherwise, well, praise the Night and we’ll figure something out.”

“Crows might know something, yeah,” Archer said. “They’re basically magpies only with, you know…”

She gestured vaguely, trying to get across the concept of godhood. Something that had eluded the finest mages and theologians of the continent for millennia.

“That’s heresy,” I piously said.

Komena cawed in the distance, unamused by the way I hadn’t entirely disagreed in my own thoughts.

“See, you’ve angered the gods,” I said.

After the hellish, riotous night we’d gone through – and which had yet to end – trading barbs with Indrani like this was like a balm for the soul. The rest of the band had been looking on with various degrees of amusement and impatience, which was fair. Most of us were allies of convenience, if even that. I cleared my throat, Archer falling in at my left like it was the most natural thing in the world. I found strength in that where earlier I’d begun to find mostly exhaustion.

“The five of us have made it to the journey’s end,” I said. “And so now we bring about an ending.”

“This where you reveal the last crown?” Laurence de Montfort bluntly asked. “Overdue.”

“I’ll confess to some curiosity as well,” the Rogue Sorcerer said.

There was a moment of silence, a courtesy I was offering to the man in question – the opportunity to speak himself, if he preferred it that way.

“It will be mine,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Though the Dominion of Levant has no kings, I was born to the bloodline that has ruled it since its founding.”

The Saint spat to the side.

“Funny how it’s always us who ends up paying the butcher’s bill tonight,” she said. “Almost like it was planned that way.”

I didn’t answer that. It was true, at least in part, though I regretted nothing. For all that I’d scraped them raw, I’d made them fair offers and would deliver on all I had promised. As we’d begun the year deathly foes, I considered that far more generous treatment than was owed by the ways they’d dealt with me in the past.

“There can be no us and them, Laurence, if we are to survive the decade,” the Pilgrim quietly said. “Not against the kind of foe we face. And it is no great loss, I assure you: I know better than most how ill-suited I would be to rule.”

“Some would say merely knowing that would make you better ruler than most,” the Saint replied.

I bit down on my tongue, because now was not the moment to express my strong opinion on the matter. Humility wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in a king, but it was hardly a qualification. Ambition wasn’t a flaw, it was the character trait behind most – no, now was not the time for that. Gods, was this my shatranj speech? Of all the damned habits I could have picked up.

“Oh, please do have him elected Holy Seljun,” the Tyrant grinned. “That would be delightful. We’ll have to have his… great-great-nephew? Close enough, I think. We’ll need to have the current Seljun assassinated first, that is my implication, but worry not. Mercantis offers very fair prices on poison these days.”

“Must you, Tyrant?” the Rogue Sorcerer asked.

“It’s simply getting a little too chummy in here for my tastes, if you’ll forgive my language,” Kairos cheerily replied. “As if most people in this room had not tried to kill each other at some point.”

“Well,” Indrani mused. “He’s not wrong. Why is he alive, anyway?”

“He made a deal with the Wandering Bard,” I said.

“That is the opposite of a reason to keep him alive,” Archer pointed out.

“A courtesy was extended,” I said, tone informing her the line of questioning was at an end.

“Hear that, Saint?” Indrani grinned. “We’re being courteous to you. So maybe you try not being such a-”

Archer,” I hissed.

“-card,” Indrani adjusted at the last moment, “I was definitely going to say card.”

Kairos gasped, as if deeply shocked by her foul language.

“It will not be long before dawn rises,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “even given the nature of this place. We must attend to the tasks ahead.”

“Namely, to slay a god,” the Rogue Sorcerer said.

That bought an aftermath of silence for a few beats. If he’d not been Proceran I would have assumed a pun, but given his origins my assumptions erred on the side of clemency.

“Unless you’re holding out on us, Foundling, the odds are not skewed in our favour,” the Saint of Swords bluntly said. “It would have been one thing with the warlock, but he’s done. The five of us and your cheap Ranger imitation won’t cut it.”

“There were more than simply the Huntsman outside,” Roland said. “The entire Wild Hunt was standing vigil around the room. We will be outnumbered.”

“We won’t be, my dear friend,” the Tyrant of Helike said, “for the same reason that the Hierophant is nowhere to be found.”

Three pairs of eyes sought Masego, and when they found nothing at all turned to me instead. Alas, without my cloak I’d been robbed of my pipe and wakeleaf. Hadn’t thought that through properly, I mused.

“Did you think she wanted this done before dawn for the ambience?” Kairos Theodosian grinned. “Oh no. She wants the war ended before daylight scatters her little army of darkness.”

“I’ve dealt with fae royalty before,” I mildly said. “A story is the one blade they can’t parry and that we earned, as our band of five. But you still need to sink in the knife and that means power. I’ve provided it.”

Of which there would be no lack, before the coming of dawn. The Sisters were circling in the sky above, patient and slow, but the Mighty I’d sent for would have long ago made their way through the broken grounds of Liesse and reached this deeper palace. If the coming Court and my own side came to blow, as I expected they would, I would have warriors awaiting more than the match of a Wild Hunt reforged.

“You think our Larat’s going to be a rougher ride than High Noon?” Indrani asked.

“If we let him get a grip, that seems likely,” I grimly replied.

None of the others here had been part of our fight against Princess Sulia, the general of Summer’s hosts and herald of its sun, so while the idle reference by Archer was not gibberish to them neither was it really understood. The Saint and the Pilgrim had faced villains and monsters I’d never known the likes of, but the fae were… different. Less and more dangerous at the same time. And Larat, once the Prince of Nightfall, had been all sorts of dangerous even before his service under my oaths had taken him across the breadth of Calernia. Fae couldn’t learn, not the way mortals did. Their natures were static in the way our weren’t. Yet I knew from experience that they could learn to… interpret themselves through different eyes, shaping themselves through oaths and stories. The Wild Hunt, while bound to me, had seen more of Creation than the rest of their likely had in centuries. I fully expected any Court they had a hand in making to be dangerous in ways that the ancestral forces of nature that were Summer and Winter could scarcely have imagined. I breathed out, rolled my shoulders to limber them.

“Ready yourselves,” I warned. “We begin.”

I seized my staff and struck down at the ground, a thin wave of Night rippling out, and from that darkness I leaned down to snatch out the bag that held seven crowns. Without even needing to look, I knew that the fae had come. As I strode towards the throne on which Masego had sat, when in the throes of the Dead King’s enchantments, from the corner of my eye I saw silhouettes standing atop the walls. In ripping out the ceiling, I had made of this throne room an arena of sorts – and in a silent circle above the Wild Hunt stood, eyes watchful. I emptied the sack at the bottom of the throne. An old crowb of ivory and gold, set with a great carved topaz. A straight-edged cavalry sword, wrapped in a cloak. An ornate longsword, specked with its dead owner’s blood. A silver tiara, bitter surrender. A bloody knife, regicide absolved. A bare blade within a banner, and last of all two silver wings ripped in spite. A harvest of royalty that cast a shadow over a third of the greatest realm under Calernian sun. No small harvest, this. The Grey Pilgrim padded forward as I threw aside the empty sack, and with measured ceremony came to stand before the pile. The old man brusquely snapped his own staff over his knee, the old thing breaking like it’d been fragile as driftwood, and tossed it onto the pile. He whispered two words under his breath, though I caught only one: izil.

With that last addition the seven crowns and one I’d promised were offered, and so the creature I’d promised them to arrived. Larat drifted in from right, steps silent and smooth, long black hair trailing behind him. He near brushed against me as he passed, though it was not jostling – it was an acknowledgement of his presence. We were, I thought, long past the petty games of posturing other times might have brought.

“I had thought, my queen, that you might destroy me before the debt was paid,” the fae amusedly said. “Or make of me something… tamed and hollowed.”

His sole eye flicked a glance upwards, where two crows still circled.

“I am a woman of my word,” I replied. “However terrible that word might be.”

“So you are,” Larat said, dipping his head. “Let all witness it, and Creation remember it.”

He ran an almost loving finger against the stone of the throne before him, having fluidly stepped around the crowns that were his due. As I watched every last thing tossed onto the pile turned to ash, until naught was left but that, and under Larat’s watchful gaze those ashes rose up. They spun once, twice, thrice, and with every spin they gathered more tightly into something being forged. A crown, I thought. It was made of grey chalcedony and mother-of-pearl, one twisted like threads and the other hanging in star-like spots, but something more eldritch leant both darkness and radiant lights to the shaping artefact. It thickened, until the last touch was added – a distant radiant star, shining on the brow, stolen and set for the pleasure of the newborn Court.

“And so is born the Court of Twilight,” the fae said. “Under the pilgrim’s star, willingly given, and winding through the many realms of mortals wicked and righteous both. We tread the span of dusk and dawn, unhindered and unseen, watchers of boundaries and makers of secret ways. Let none think themselves our masters, for we are the children of the debt repaid and the tricks woven in death.”

Pale fingers caught the crown and Larat softly laughed.

“I thank you, Sovereign Under the Night,” he said. “Not for the bargain fulfilled, for that was as ordained, but for what you gave us all freely.”

He’d not put on the crown, I thought. It had not yet begun.

“And what would that be?” I asked.

“We cannot learn as your kind do, Foundling Queen,” Larat smiled. “But we can… mimic. That is our gift. And you have shown us a great many things. You taught us, my queen, the greatest trick of them all.”

Larat, smiling, put on the crown.

“Hear my first decree, one and all, as Twilight’s King,” he laughed.

Larat, smiling, tossed it back down onto the throne.

“My crown I abdicate, and let the worthiest of you bear it.”