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Summary

The Empire stands triumphant.

For twenty years the Dread Empress has ruled over the lands that were once the Kingdom of Callow, but behind the scenes of this dawning golden age threats to the crown are rising. The nobles of the Wasteland, denied the power they crave, weave their plots behind pleasant smiles. In the north the Forever King eyes the ever-expanding borders of the Empire and ponders war. The greatest danger lies to the west, where the First Prince of Procer has finally claimed her throne: her people sundered, she wonders if a crusade might not be the way to secure her reign. Yet none of this matters, for in the heart of the conquered lands the most dangerous man alive sat across an orphan girl and offered her a knife.

Her name is Catherine Foundling, and she has a plan.


A Practical Guide to Evil is a YA fantasy novel about a young girl named Catherine Foundling making her way through the world – though, in a departure from the norm, not on the side of the heroes. Is there such a thing as doing bad things for good reasons, or is she just rationalizing her desire for control? Good and Evil are tricky concepts, and the more power you get the blurrier the lines between them become.

Updates every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. First update of every month will be accompanied by an Extra Chapter.

Interlude: Suffer No Compromise In This

“Fifth of all Choirs, sternest Judgement
They who cannot abide the repugnant;
None more farsighted than the Tribunal,
And none as even-handed or as brutal.”
– Extract from the ‘Hymn of Hymns’, Atalantian sacred text (declared heresy in Procer and Callow)

Anaxares had been a boy when he’d first heard the song of rage.

He’d been seven when thousands boiled through the streets of Bellerophon in wroth, for the lot-drawn iakas had mismanaged the People’s wheat and rationing was announced. He’d heard myriad voices howling out the same displeasure, like a great beast made up of an entire city, and it had been a thing of awe. So many voices, all telling of the same belief: this may be, yet this is not how it should be. The iakas were dragged out one and all, and before the citizens they had failed were made to answer for that failure. Tribunals were called by the People, held by the People, and the People handed down their bloody verdict. As a boy he’d watched the fear on the faces of the iakas with curiosity, but it had felt distant. Like a glimpse of another world entirely. His own was easier grasped for it was made up of the pounding of a thousand feet, the shouts of a thousand throats. The people, he’d dimly grasped then, were the river that carried them all. No single man nor woman could command the current, and like any capricious river-god it could bathe or drown as its whims demanded. What purpose was there to fear, when naught of this could be changed? And so Anaxares the Diplomat had let the river take him where it would, beyond care or worry.

Yet the river had brought him to a shore where none of the people should ever know.

What a terrible thing it had been, to watch the sole thing he truly believed in turn against itself. Your services to the people have made you a Person of Value, the kanenas had told him. And in that blasphemous betrayal the seed of a greater folly was planted, for the People cast their vote for Anaxares the Diplomat and that worst of treasons saw him elected the Hierarch of the Free Cities. Long had he wondered of this, of the purpose to it. Could there even be one? Forbidden to take his own life through action or inaction by the decree of the People, he had been left to wallow in the absurdity of his continued breath. And with every moment the world had hounded him for further treasons, flies swarming to him like they would to carrion. Named and kings and queens, princes high and low, a buzzing flock of foreign despots that wanted him to sit at their table and pretend they were anything more than ticks sucking the blood out of those they claimed to be ruling. And all the while Kairos Theodosian, Helike’s bloody son, had taken the spurs to his flanks until this day came. This hour, this moment, this reckoning for all the many balances left uneven.

Anaxares was not blind. He knew well the Tyrant had paved the road to this for his own foul reasons. It did not matter to him, for the destination was of his own choice, and no part save that one weighed on the scales. It’d been a choice forged in that terrible, lucid moment where the creature that called itself the Wandering Bard had tried to clap him in chains, but he had not grown to regret it since. Anaxares had been a boy, when he’d first heard the song of rage, but he heard it still as a man grown. It had stayed with him, seeped into his bones, and as the great despots of the east and the west entered under his watchful gaze the tune was so loud he grew deaf to all that was being spoken. The Tyrant flew above on his gargoyle-carried throne – a familiar twitch of revulsion went through him at the sight, the clenching muscle of Thrones Are An Unforgiveable Abomination Unto The People, To Be Met With Scorn And Thrown Rocks – and addressed the lot of them, weaving his exact truths into the finest of lies. The song ebbed low, though it did not leave, and the Hierarch cut in through the chatter.

“Be seated or you will be expelled,” Anaxares stated.

“Lord Hierarch,” a fair-haired woman said. “I greet you-“

The diplomat twitched.

“There are no lords in a court of the People,” Anaxares of Bellerophon coldly said. “Neither crowns nor the petty tyrannies of those claiming them are of any weight here. Be seated presently or you will be expelled-”

He did not know her name, unfortunately, and so glanced at the Tyrant in question. The mad boy grinned back.

“Cordelia Hasenbach,” the king of Helike helpfully provided.

Was she? It would explain why she might be under the mistaken impression her words carried authority here.

“Yes,” Anaxares said, “that.”

His eyes swept the crowd, recognizing only a single face: Catherine Foundling, the so-called Queen of Callow. The Black Knight of Praes was not here, which was displeasing. The man had also committed crimes under the laws of the League and would not have been unfit to stand trial today, were he present. A woman at the back of the pack, bearing a large unstrung bow, raised her hand.

“Speak,” Anaxares said.

“Is that the Dead King?” she asked, pointing behind him.

There did indeed seem to be some sort of crowned skeleton there, the Hierarch noted. It was holding a cup full of blood, which after a long moment he was forced to concede was not against any law he knew of. The diplomat once more cast a glance at the Tyrant, who equivocated with a wiggled palm.

“More or less,” Anaxares replied.

She raised her hand again, to his irritation.

“Speak,” he repeated.

“I see the Dead King got refreshments,” the woman said. “Which is most terribly unfair, as we have not.”

“That is not a question,” the Hierarch peevishly told her.

It was, however, true. And damning. Anaxares turned to glare at the Tyrant.

“My staff are on it,” the boy assured him.

It would suffice. He was not concerned with the matter beyond the perception of willingly allowed imbalance.

“I will not repeat myself a third time,” Anaxares bluntly said. “All attending must take their seats or depart.”

There was offended shuffling from the band of Avaricious Foreign Oligarchs, but they heeded the reminder. Not that the diplomat spared them much attention, not when the accused himself was stepping forward. The White Knight, Hanno of Arwad. No longer a citizen of Ashur by their own laws, inquiries to the Thalassocracy had established, and seemingly claimed by no one in particular. No one mortal, that was. The White Knight was a tall and solid man, plain of face but of calm bearing, and he strode to the stand reserved for the accused without need for prompting. Anaxares approved. He waited until the man stood amidst the gutted altar to Above before speaking up.

“I am Anaxares of Bellerophon,” he informed the Named. “The elected Hierarch of the Free Cities.”

“I know who you are, Anaxares the Diplomat,” the White Knight replied.

The afternoon sun filtered in though the stained glass and the gaping walls, casting the court in mixed and coloured light. It made the White Knight seem as if he had been painted on, as if this entire court of law was some delirious stretch of Arcadia. Anaxares remained seated at his table, facing the accused with a quill in hand and the parchments he had prepared for this day ready.

“Then you know why you stand now before me,” the Hierarch said. “A grievance was lodged by a member of the League concerning crimes you committed, and my judgement was sought over the matter.”

“I am not a citizen of any nation of the League,” the White Knight said.

That was true, and to be entered in the record, though of no repercussion on the proceedings.

“That is irrelevant,” Anaxares flatly replied. “Crimes committed against citizens of the League on the grounds of the League fall under its jurisdiction nonetheless.”

He paused.

“I am told,” the Hierarch said, “that you willingly agreed to submit yourself to judgement.”

If so, that was a principled action. Not one that mattered in the slightest when it came to culpability, but the principle was laudable regardless.

“I agreed to stand trial,” the White Knight corrected.

“Then as is allowed the laws of the League of Free Cities, you are allowed to request someone to advocate in your name,” Anaxares said. “So long as they are a citizen of a member-nation, that is.”

“I have volunteered to serve as your defender, should you desire it,” the Tyrant called out. “Otherwise a band of seven candidates was arranged.”

Those had already been refused, which the boy knew even if he now implied otherwise, and so Anaxares made note of the Tyrant’s petty obstruction.

“Your candidates were judged unlawful,” the Hierarch reminded the Tyrant. “Gargoyles are not citizens, even when words indicating otherwise are painted on them.”

His gaze turned to the former Ashuran.

“While remaining here in containment, you have an hour to send for such an advocate should you so wish,” Anaxares informed him. “Or you may accept the offer of the Tyrant of Helike.”

“It was my understanding,” the White Knight said, “that it was the grievance of the Lord Tyrant that led to this trial.”

A moment passed.

“That is correct,” Anaxares conceded.

“I would seek to be impartial in both offices, naturally,” Kairos Theodosian cheerfully assured the accused, “You have my solemn vow in this.”

“A kind offer,” the White Knight drily said. “I will be serving as my own advocate, Hierarch. Who is to be my accuser?”

The song stirred at the man’s mellow manner, the way he seemed to take none of this seriously. Anger, anger the white-clad killer who had walked the Free Cities and killed as he pleased and never once thought there might consequence to this. That a Name and the blessing of angels set him beyond such petty matters.

“There is no accuser,” the Hierarch harshly stated. “Your crimes are not in dispute, they are a matter of known record as certified by sworn witnesses from Delos, Stygia, Helike and Nicae.”

“Then the actions you deem as crimes should be listed, should they not?” the White Knight said. “Unless you intend to simply pass sentence.”

“I deem or dismiss nothing,” the Hierarch said, grinding his teeth. “The law is writ, and known to any who care to know it.”

He brought forward the first parchment, his own familiar writing providing the list that the Named was asking for.

“Murder of citizens of Helike and Stygia is the first charge,” Anaxares said. “On one hundred and seventy-three counts assured, forty-two alleged with proof in only the second degree.”

Which was to say, less than two witnesses and no writ evidence.

“You speak of soldiers,” the White Knight said, “fought in time of war.”

“In time of war between members of the League of Free Cities,” the Hierarch said. “You are not a citizen, and so not legally part of such a war, unless you took coin as mercenary in the service of a lawful government. Do you here claim to have done so?”

“I do not,” the White Knight said, “though I worked in lawful accord with the Secretariat in the defence of Delos and with the permission of Strategos Nereida Silantis in the defence of Nicae.”

“The Secretariat has provided records that put truth to your words,” Anaxares acknowledged. “Basileus Leo Trakas, who speaks for Nicae, has declined to do so. Yet in the absence of payment from Delos that would qualify you as a mercenary in the employ of the Secretariat, the point is irrelevant. The askretis cannot absolve a crime, only abet it.”

Anaxares reached for his papers, where he had put to ink the names he could not all remember. There were many, some he had known when he was still entirely a diplomat.

“You also murdered sitting members of the Magisterium, the exact list of your victims being-”

“Has the Magisterium then made complaint to the League?” the White Knight interrupted.

The song rose in pitch at the interruption, not for the words themselves but at the disrespect for the trial they implied.

“It has not,” the Hierarch replied, brow creasing in displeasure. “It has, however, granted rights to another party to seek redress in its name.”

“That would be me,” the Tyrant gleefully said.

“That is correct,” the Hierarch agreed. “You have also attempted to murder the ruling king of Helike-”

“Also me,” the Tyrant added, still with unseemly glee.

“- and in the attempt claimed to hold the authority to pass judgement over King Kairos Theodosian of Helike,” Anaxares continued unflinchingly.

“That is incorrect,” the White Knight said.

Someone in the benches loudly cursed, but the Hierarch paid it no mind.

“Speak now, if you would amend the record,” Anaxares said. “It has until now been understood that in your role as the White Knight you spoke for the Choir to which you are sworn and passed judgement in their stead.”

Was the man now renouncing the authority bestowed upon him by the Choir, in an attempt to exempt it from consequence? If so, it was a cowardly thing.

“I do not judge,” Hanno of Arwad said, “and passed no judgement over the Tyrant of Helike. The judgement was passed by the Tribunal, and I sought to execute the sentence it as is my duty.”

The song, oh the song swelled. This was, Anaxares understood, so much worse than he had believed. Had the Tyrant known? No, that did not matter. Law was law, no matter what capering gargoyle brought it to the fore. Yet mistakes here could not be allowed.

“Clarify what you mean by ‘the Tribunal’,” the Hierarch ordered.

“The Choir of Judgement,” the White Knight replied.

“You then allege,” Anaxares slowly said so there could be no mistake, “that the Seraphim of the Choir of Judgement have claimed the right to pass judgement over citizens of the League?”

“It is not a subtle thing, what you attempt,” the White Knight told him. “Do you understand this? That you have not tricked or fooled any in this hall. That your intent is clear as day.”

“What I attempt,” Anaxares of Bellerophon softly repeated. “As if this were some sort of plot, a scheme against you or your masters. Is that what you believe, Hanno of Arwad? That the Seraphim and your service of them are owed abeyance? That the world entire is to twist and bend to your verdicts, unasked for and unsought?”

We are all of us free, the song whispered in his ear, or we are none of us free.

“Madness,” the White Knight said, “is no excuse for baring steel at the Heavens.”

“If the Heavens would have part in this trial,” the Hierarch coldly said, “they may be seated and silent, like the rest of the gallery. Speak not otherwise of those that cannot be called to account.”

“This will not end as you wish, Hierarch,” the White Knight calmly said. “Yet if you cannot be turned aside so be it: the Choir of Judgement acknowledges none to be beyond its jurisdiction, save for the Gods Above.”

The song filled him, up to brim, but that wroth was as much his own as the tune’s.

“There is no law, writ or known, that grants this right to the Choir of Judgement,” Anaxares of Bellerophon said with excruciating calm.

“And yet it is theirs nonetheless,” the White Knight said.

We are all of us free, the song hissed in his ear, or we are none of us free.

“No,” the Hierarch coldly said. “It is not. And if it would pretend otherwise, let it stand before this court and defend that crude arrogance.”

“I warned you,” the White Knight sadly said.

Power coursed around the court, first the distant weavings the Tyrant had laid around this place and then the blooming protections the tyrants high and low garbed themselves in out of fear. And then it came, the answer he had asked for. There was no ceiling above them, nothing save the cloudless blue sky, and through it the wroth of Judgement came down on him.

The Hierarch burned.

The Tribunal gazed down upon him, and its fury broke his bones and scoured his flesh. All around him shattered, even the very ground, and even as his body tore apart claws dug into his mind. Force him to look where they would, to see what they wished him to see. Before his eyes unfolded and endless shifting tapestry, made from all the decisions that were made and could be. The depth was… too much to grasp. The threads of every action and consequence, of the reasons and the endings. This was, the Hierarch grasped, what the Seraphim saw. The truth of their judgement. And as he tried to parse it, he felt his mind begin to unravel. He could have looked away. It would have spared him the horrendous pain going through every fiber of who he was. But that would be admitting that their judgement was right. That it was correct, for they knew things mortals could not. And so as he stared unblinking Anaxares of Bellerophon found oblivion snaking her arms around him. Oblivion, and with it would come rest. Would that not be a relief? And yet there was one thing he could not help but see.

It was a woman, carving words into a stele of stone that somehow reminded him of a great bird’s corpse. Around her was a sea of people in rags, thin and sickly and hungry. Yet there was something in their eyes, as they looked at the stele and the woman, that made him want to weep. And the words, oh the words he knew them. Every child born of Bellerophon knew them. All are free, or none. Ye of this land, suffer no compromise in this. The woman was wounded, bleeding within, and with the last letter she died. But the words, the words stayed. And as the city rose around them, around the stele, blood splashed stone. Suffer no compromise in this, the stele had told them, and so they did not. And they bled and they bled and they bled, and they bled but they never bowed. Not once did they look at the world, even at the very bottom of the pit, and bend their neck. It would have been easy, light as a feather. And perhaps they would have been better for it. And from mother to son, father to daughter, the words on the stele had carried down. Until they ended up told to a small boy, who one day would be a diplomat. Suffer no compromise in this, Anaxares thought, and the world sang it with him.

His body was a ruin yet there was a need for it, and so the Hierarch decided it would have to Mend.

Bones set back in place, soldered by will, and flesh knit itself anew. Teeth made by heat into black and broken stones flew back into his mouth as the table and the chair snapped back into place. The Hierarch of the Free Cities dipped his quill into the inkwell, tongue lolling out of his half-broken mouth as it reformed.

“This will be added to the record as evidence of guilt,” he informed the Choir.

Attempted murder of a sitting judge of the court, he penned. The Seraphim had expressed their displeasure yet not bothered to attend, but that would not be enough to spare them judgement earned. Mind clear and still as a pond, the Hierarch closed his eyes and allowed himself to Receive what he required. Silhouettes stood before his gaze, bearing each six wings of bronze and a conviction like a fire that nothing could put out. They gazed back, and in their fury struck again. The world broke, and Anaxares with it, but without pause it was mended anew.

“Petulance,” the Hierarch said. “I address now the Seraphim of the Choir of Judgement, also known as the Tribunal, and Indict you for the following crimes-”

They smote him again, and he mended. It did not matter, for now his Name sang and filled the world. As it had in Rochelant, a blank slate on which all could write their accusations and have them known by all.

“- despotism high and low, arrant and illegal intervention in League affairs, attempted regicide –”

The Tyrant of Helike was laughing, he realized as he mended anew.

“- disturbance of the court, three –”

It was desperate now, the burning that consumed him tinted with dismay.

“- four times,” the Hierarch adjusted. “And repeated attempted murder. Given the overwhelming evidence-”

It no longer hurt, the Hierarch mused as he mended, as if the ability to feel pain had been scoured out of him.

“- the verdict cannot be in doubt,” he continued. “I pronounce you guilty and sentence you to-”

The words choked in his mouth, for something has seized his throat. Not the Tribunal, no. It was a great presence but not that, and as the grip tightened around his throat the Seraphim prepared to strike again.

“I win,” Kairos Theodosian laughed.

And the grip was gone.

Interlude: Wicked

“Inexorable is the end of the journey; choose wisely how you spend your steps.”
– Ashuran saying

“Look, I’m not saying half a hell won’t come howling out if you disappear instead of attending like a good Choir boy,” Queen Catherine said. “But this whole serene thing you’ve got going on? That’s the look on the face of someone about to have it slapped right off.”

Hanno was not certain what was more surreally amusing: that the most prominent villain of their age was expressing sincere worry for his well-being, in her own rough way, or that the First Prince of Procer was seemingly unable to decide what part of this she found the most appalling.  The three of them were riding ahead of the rest of the column and at brisk a pace, though Lyonceau would not be in sight for some time.

“I have fought the Tyrant before, Your Majesty,” the White Knight replied. “I am not unaware of the danger he represents.”

“You fought Kairos when he was sowing the seeds of a hundred enmities,” the Black Queen flatly replied. “Now he’s reaping his harvest, Hanno. He’s going to burn every favour and story he’s got up his sleeves so he can snap Judgement over his knee.”

“Damned or not, he remains a single man,” Cordelia Hasenbach carefully said. “Surely you do not mean Kairos Theodosian could face a single angel alone, much less an entire Choir.”

“I’ve been in brawls with two Choirs, Your Highness,” Queen Catherine reminded the other woman. “It can be done, and without losing a finger if you’re quick and careful enough.”

From the look on the First Prince’s face, Hanno mused, she had finally happened upon the part she could find the most appalling. The White Knight was less offended, for though the touch of Contrition always served a purpose it was not often gentle in pursuing it. As for Endurance… Hanno cleared his throat.

“Fuck off, you bottom feeders. This one’s been claimed fair and square,” he quoted, drily amused.

Some of the last words the Stalwart Paladin had ever heard. That life had perhaps been the most useful to call on, when studying the Black Queen. The Lone Swordsman had been the rival of her youth, and her struggles there too far removed from the woman she’d become, and none of those who’d died at the Battle of the Camps had seen much of her aside from the terrifying foe that’d been the Sovereign of Moonless Nights. The Stalwart Paladin, though, had walked among the people of the Callowan city of Dormer and then spoken with the Black Queen for some time. It had been fascinating, hearing through him the offer she’d extended. Go home, Catherine Foundling had offered, looking so very exhausted. She’d offered peaceful means, and bared steel only when pushed.

It was not his place to judge, yet it had troubled Hanno that he could not easily decide what his answer would have been, had he truly stood in the other hero’s boots.

“Shit,” Queen Catherine said, cheeks darkening. “Went fishing for that, did you? In my defence, they tried to snatch the man after I’d already put him down hard. It was unsporting, is what I mean.”

“You cursed at angels,” Cordelia Hasenbach slowly grasped. “You called them bottom-feeders?”

“It wasn’t about the bird wing thing,” the Queen of Callow assured the other royalty. “I can’t stand puns. It was about the kill-snatching.”

“Perhaps,” the First Prince said, voice choked, “we might return to the matter at hand.”

“As I was saying, Your Majesty,” the White Knight calmly continued, “your worry is appreciated yet I speak not in arrogance. I understand what it is that the Tyrant of Helike seeks to achieve through this purported trial.”

“He’s going for Judgement,” the Black Queen agreed. “And any other day I’d say the Seraphim lose a feather before they eat him, but today? We get a curse on the way out, White Knight, and it sticks. Even when it has no right to.”

For once, the memories that set his mind astray were not another’s. Gods of my ancestors, grant me due, his mother has once snarled. And as the blood-soaked tile through which she had honoured Below for many years shattered, the heavy weight of a curse had filled the air. All it had taken for it to seize men by the throat was for a knife to kiss a throat, and Hanno of Arwad to become entirely an orphan. The White Knight knew a thing or two of curses spoken with one’s last breath.

“I speak not in ignorance either, Your Majesty,” he softly said. “I understand that Kairos Theodosian is perhaps the closest thing to a high priest of Below that draws breath on Calernia, and his passing will not be a gentle thing. Yet it is your own past, that drags your eye away from the truth of this.”

She considered him with those clever, serious eyes that ever belied the casual manner of speaking she wielded as club and scalpel both. Honestly examining herself for where she might have made a mistake, a misstep. A refreshing thing, this. The willingness to entertain she might have erred.

“You think it doesn’t matter what he comes at you with,” she slowly said. “All he’s accomplishing is giving the Seraphim a good, clear shot at him.”

Judgement had already been passed on Kairos Theodosian, on a floating tower in sight of the walls of Delos. That verdict had not waned or weakened for the passing of months, and still resounded like a whisper in the back of Hanno’s mind. The Tyrant of Helike had ran across half the continent hiding in the shadow of great hosts and great needs, yet now he was delivering himself to the Tribunal of his own free will. There was no escaping that judgement, once it had been passed.

“Even as Queen of Winter, you did not wield your full might,” Hanno said. “You understood, then and now, that strength without restraint in a villain is a call to the grave. Yet I am not a villain, Catherine Foundling.”

He met her gaze, serenity untroubled.

“I am the Sword of Judgement,” the White Knight said. “If Evil seeks to end me, I will break it. Should the Enemy seek to struggle against the Tribunal instead, then what heeds not justice will be put down with overwhelming might.”

“Using strength on Kairos Theodosian is like trying to strangle a stone,” the Black Queen warned.

“Yes,” the White Knight agreed. “And crow he might, that he will not lack for air. Yet it will not matter when the grip shatters rock.”

He watched her watching him, saw the eyebrows narrow and the thoughts adjust. She had understood, without him speaking a word of it, that there was more to his certainty than she knew. From he could almost see her passing through a list of possible allies, now as nimble in her thinking as William of Greensbury had found her to be on her feet. Her eyes almost flicked behind them, to look where the other guests were riding, and Hanno nodded in assent. Yes, she’d understood correctly. It would be not one but two Choirs the Tyrant of Helike would face, should he bare his fang against the Tribunal. The Black Queen clicked her tongue against the roof her mouth.

“I’ve given you warning,” she finally said. “I have nothing more to say on the matter.”

Her gaze moved to the First Prince, whose face had remained inscrutable for some time as she followed the conversation closely.

“Your Highness, I extend offer from Sve Noc to weave… containment over Lyonceau, in case the Tyrant’s last surprise is meant to spread.”

Cordelia Hasenbach smiled pleasantly.

“A kind offer,” the Warden of the West – though only the shadow of what that might have been, to his sorrow – replied. “Yet I wonder at the price of it.”

The Black Queen grinned.

“No cost,” she said. “Call it a gesture of goodwill between allies against Keter.”

The First Prince seemed even less pleased, which took Hanno some time to grasp. Ah, it had been horse-trading. Cordelia Hasenbach would have preferred this to be a transaction, bought and paid for. The Black Queen offered instead a favour, to be repaid in kind one day. It was a bargain that demanded little of Procer yet would benefit the drow in the currency they would need the most after the Tenth Crusade came to an end. The blue-eyed princess turned to him, and already he could hear the question on the tip of her tongue: how likely would it be that such protection would be needed? Yet she never spoke the words and looked faintly ashamed for a flickering moment.

“Procer will be grateful for the aid, First Under the Night,” the First Prince of Procer said.

Hanno’s esteem for the woman, which had already been set high by the laurels branded onto her palm, rose a notch. She’d preferred owing a favour than to gamble with lives in her charge, even on the finest of odds. The Black Queen nodded in acknowledgement, then flicked him a glance.

“Mind you, they’re not coming any closer even if things go south on your angels,” Catherine Foundling said. “I’m not risking their feathers on the Tyrant of Helike’s chosen grounds.”

“The grounds were our choice, Queen Catherine, not his,” the First Prince reminded her.

“That doesn’t mean they’re not his chosen grounds,” the Black Queen grimly replied.

Both she and the White Knight moved in unison when there was a tremble of sorcery ahead, though when the silhouettes revealed became clearer the tension went out. Antigone could hardly be taken for anyone else, riding Lykaia’s broad back as she was, and Roland’s eternal leather longcoat was almost as familiar a sight. The other two he recognized only by description. The tall woman in mail with a long green coat and a half-hidden face must be the Archer, a guess that the massive longbow on her back seemed to support. The blind man with dark skin and long trinket-woven braids must be the Hierophant, a warlock who when enthralled by the Dead King had very nearly killed every single living thing in Iserre. Hanno cocked his head quizzically at Antigone, who replied in the same Gigantes stance-speak.

Respect, dislike, danger. The dislike had implication of arrogance, not offence, which was interesting. So was the danger, for the corresponding tilt spoke not of ‘past danger’ or ‘potential danger’. Antigone’s opinion was that the Hierophant, even stripped of his sorcery as he currently was, might be able to kill either of them in a fight. That spoke to the respect, for the Gigantes prized not a single virtue should it be accompanied by weakness.

“You both seem untroubled by those approaching,” the First Prince of Procer mildly said.

Unlike them, her eyes could only discern details so far.

“Archer, the Rogue Sorcerer and Hierophant,” the Black Queen said. “And if I’m not mistaken?”

“The Witch of the Woods,” Hanno agreed. “I expect they will have word of Lyonceau for us.”

Simply because the Tyrant of Helike had kept his cards hidden until the last moment did not mean they would enter the trap blind. The White Knight had learned much from his own defeats, from studying the dooms and triumphs of his heroic predecessors. And this particular method, which he had once discussed with the Peregrine, often served: sending a companion out with only vague mandate when the enemy was afoot. It was creating an opportunity for providence to smile upon them, for as all other things providence must be helped along lest if fail. That Roland had been chosen as an instrument along with Antigone was no great surprise, and neither was the Archer’s presence. Like her storied teacher the Lady of the Lake, she was likely cast in Roles either heroic or villainous by circumstance.

Her allegiance to the Black Queen put a hand on the scales towards Below, it was true, but then Catherine Foundling had often sailed dark ships to pale shores – terrible shores, it was true, but pale nonetheless. The Hierophant’s presence was more surprising, and ill-omen. For providence to have offered a stirrup to his foot, his particular knowledge must have been needed. The four approached, and though the First Prince’s armed escort neared they were not so uncouth as to take defensive positions. Cordelia Hasenbach’s horse was shaken but not put aflight by the massive shape of Lykaia, which he noted approvingly. It was a well-trained beast.

“I don’t suppose you just happened onto Lyonceau by accident,” the Black Queen tried.

“Warded up to the Heavens,” the Archer said. “Literally, even!”

The Hierophant stirred.

“Inaccurate,” he said, voice mildly irritated. “For the third time-”

“Greetings, Your Majesty, Your Highness,” the Rogue Sorcerer said, bowing. “What my companions are attempting to convey is that the town is heavily warded with an eye as to the angelic.”

Accurate, Antigone silently told him. Secrets, Dead King.

“Are any of the wards harmful in nature?” the White Knight asked.

“No,” the Hierophant said. “Not in the slightest. They command and retain attention, and so in function have similarities with the initial part of a ritual Breach-”

“As in devil summoning,” the Black Queen flatly interrupted.

“The first segment of such a ritual, yes,” the Hierophant peevishly replied. “As I was saying, Catherine, if you had let me finish.”

“Surely that must be harmful in some manner,” the First Prince said, looking sickened.

“Not unless you want to argue that attracting angelic attention is harmful,” Queen Catherine drily noted. “Which I’m guessing might be less than popular a stance with some of your subjects.”

“Simply the act of warding makes such a meeting place suspect,” the blonde princess insisted.

“Salia’s warded,” the Archer said.

“What Lady Archer means, Your Highness, is that making such an argument given the nature of the wards might be considered by some a breaking of faith,” Roland delicately said.

Which was a peril that Hanno would not lightly risk, as it would expose all those that had broken faith with the Tyrant of Helike to the vengeance that would follow. In a stroke, the heads of all signatories Grand Alliance would be in the villain’s reach. There was no understanding of this situation that was acceptable, for even if the White Knight was certain to die in such a trial his life would weigh less on the scales than that of Catherine Foundling and Cordelia Hasenbach: without those two, the war on Keter was lost. The cause would be weakened by his own death, but hardly irreparably.

“We must proceed,” the White Knight said. “Though given the circumstances, I believe the presence of great mages among our number could not easily be made into a slight.”

“I don’t care if the Tyrant gets snippy about,” the Black Queen snorted, “Hierophant is coming. Archer, I need you in Salia.”

“You can’t be serious,” the Archer replied, tone hardening.

A swift exchange in Kharsum followed, neither of them apparently aware he’d used Recall to learn some of the tongue months ago. Queen Catherine was insisting that should they all die in Lyonceau then Vivienne Dartwick would need both the Archer and the Adjutant at her side to keeps things from collapsing, while the Archer argued not untruly that if the Black Queen died the talks were dead anyway. The discussion ended when the Archer informed her queen that she’d stick around ‘Zeze’ to watch his back and stay out of trouble, if that was what it took, and Queen Catherine angrily conceded. Neither of them paid any attention to the Hierophant’s protest he had no need of a bodyguard.

Antigone inclined her head in question, but he dismissed it. Best for all if she started with them, as far as Hanno was concerned, and Roland as well. He was not as powerful a spellcaster, but he was cunning and his knowledge broad in scope. And so they resumed the ride forward to Lyonceau, into the jaws of the beast waiting to gobble them up.

It was, for a hero, one of the most practical places to be.

It had made for a serviceable temple, if to admittedly asinine Gods and the occasional feckless Choir, but it made for a rather dignified courtroom.

Kairos Theodosian had seen to it, assigning his most trustworthy servants to the task. Sadly most of the gargoyles that could tell colours apart with their beady little stones eyes had been merrily massacred by Catherine when they’d had their little tiff at twilit Liesse, which had made for a charmingly eclectic selection of paints and cloths. Even as the latest of his esteemed guests passed the threshold of the wards encircling Lyonceau, the Tyrant of Helike leaned back against his throne and cast a critical eye on the stained glass before him, which was depicting the first elected First Prince being crowned by what appeared to be a flock of naked giggling cherubs. One of his trusted servants had painted over the face of Clothor Merovins a bright red beaked nose and touched up his hair with bright blue spikes, which one might venture to say was a fetchingly clashing addition, yet it was lacking a certain je ne sais quoi, as the Alamans said.

“Naked angels?” the Tyrant of Helike said. “’tis most obscene, my loyal minions. Possibly blasphemous as well, I’d have to inquire with a priest.”

Inquisitive chittering was his answer, his last gaggle of gargoyles gathering to hear his regal proclamations.

“You shall have to clothe them,” Kairos decided, touching his lip with his scepter. “In undergarments, naturally.”

More chatter, increasingly inquisitive.

“The colour will be of your choice, I would not lightly infringe upon your artistic integrity,” the king of Helike assured them. “Yet if I might venture a suggestion as to the appearance? Lacy.”

The chittering turned rather enthusiastic, matching his mood perfectly. Even as he ordered his porters to move him away, his heart already warmed in anticipation of the fresh abomination those incompetent little mongrels would create in trying to paint something as delicate as lace. The House of Light was coming along nicely, in his opinion, and all it’d taken was knocking off the roof. And large swaths of the walls, and rearranging most the insides. Also desecrating the consecrated grounds, as the delightful outrage from Above at his presence thundering in his ears sadly hadn’t been worth the constant migraines. Yet now the temple was a lovely piece of work, raised platforms with benches and seats surrounding what he liked to think of as an arena: the altar to Above turned into the defendant’s stand, and the splendidly shoddy table and chair the Hierarch of the Free Cities had spent several days making with his own hands, as Anaxares despised the notion of using tyrannical Proceran tables and chairs instead.

Gods Below, Kairos had not regretted having the man elected even once.

The sole standing walls that remained were those encasing the tall panels of stained glass, casting colours lights on the ground that mixed with that which the afternoon sun carelessly shone through the gaping swaths. The Hierarch of the Free Cities was already seated on his rickety three-legged stool chair, methodically scraping any ink off the parchment that’d been used to send messages to him, avoiding the need of in fact using any such scroll not given unto him by the People – which was perhaps for the best, as to Kairos’ understanding of Bellerophan law he would then have to report anyone having gifted him such parchment to the kanenas for having paid tribute to a Foreign Despot, namely the Hierarch himself. The laws of the Republic were as a splendid maze made entirely of trapdoors, to the Tyrant, most of which led to a pit of spikes but some instead to a mob of angry crocodiles. That there would be a dead body at the end of the journey was perhaps the only part of it not in doubt. Truly, the people of the Free Cities could all learn a lesson or two from the Republic.

They were significantly better than anyone else at spontaneous lapidation, for example.

“It’s all the practice, I think,” Kairos told his trusted attendants.

“It is fascinating,” the Dead King said. “Even now, I cannot tell if you are mad or feigning.”

The Tyrant’s good eye found the skeleton-thing that claimed kingship of death and Keter, and to his continued distaste found nothing at all.  Oh, the body was there. A shell, pretty enough if a little too pretentious for his tastes, but he couldn’t see in it. Even if he leaned into the aspect, in that way that allowed him to glimpse past that first burning wish at the heart of everyone into that myriad of lesser ones, all that there was to be found in the Dead King was a darkness. If he saw the first body, the true one, Kairos believed his sight would not fail him so. It had not failed him with the Wandering Bard, after all. Yet Trismegistus was ever a cautious one, a creature of brokers and emissaries and intermediaries. All of them the same old horror, but as the name went it was intent on remaining hidden. How unsporting of it, really. How was he to break what the Dead King wanted most in the world, if he knew not what it was?

“How boring life would be, if there were only ever two choices to be had,” Kairos lightly said. “Our guests have come, dear friend.”

“Yes,” the Dead King said. “I can feel the Hierophant. Soon, now.”

“It is a shame the Empress could not attend,” the Tyrant sighed.

The old thing laughed, for the both knew Kairos would have betrayed her as eagerly as he intended to betray Ol’ Bones himself. Sadly, Malicia had decided that after wringing him dry of every use she had of him and cutting the grass under his feet among his beloved allies she no longer had a need to humour him. The Dead King himself was here because the old thing was under the impression the only one that could make him bleed was the Intercessor, and that these games in Salia were a passable amusement until he retired to his domain. What splendid arrogance, this, what sumptuous hubris! Truly, was the King of Death not among the greatest of their ilk?

“I shall have refreshments brought to you,” Kairos smiled, for he was an impeccable host.

It should be interesting to see if the Dead King would in fact drink from a cup of human blood, even though he had no throat or stomach or any real need to. Still, with the guests so soon to arrive the Tyrant of Helike had his porters bring him to the highest point in the old temple, atop the platform in the back. A more discreet snap of the wrist had another cup of Valiant Passing brought to his hand, and he drank the brew fully though the taste was horrid. It was a necessity, sadly. Without it the fits came every half hour and he was blind in one eye, though the old recipe was only a temporary reprieve. Soon, Named or not there would be enough of the poison in his bones that no purging trick would see him through it unharmed. Ah, but the harm had been done long before the drink and there’d never been any purging of that. Tossing away the cup in a corner, Kairos allowed his loyal attendants to drape him in the formal regalia of the kings and queens of Helike: the cloths of purple and gold, the heavy bejewelled crown that Theodosius has adorned with the jewels of defeated royalty, the pearl-incrusted slippers.

He was ready before the first of his guests arrived, passing through the open and unhinged gates of the former temple. Catherine, bold as ever strolled in first. The Queen of Callow still bore one of the strongest wishes he had ever seen, pulsing with her heartbeat: peace, peace, peace. It was like watching a flower bloom anew with every beat. Even now it was all he could do not to laugh until his throat bled, for what an exquisite jest it was that one of Below’s finest servants in the long history of Calernia was at heart one of Above’s! At her side that boring little thing the White Knight tread, all desires his own faded while that horrid thing intertwined with the Seraphim – I wish to be just – tainted everything. Most of the others that followed behind were tedious to behold, Cordelia’s implacable duty and ugh, the Blood was all honour and glory as always and oh, wasn’t that Itima Ifriqui craving revenge? Ah, what a proper villain that one would have made with a little prodding.

Neither Rozala Malanza nor Vivienne Dartwick were attending, which was amusingly cautious of Catherine and Cordelia, though it seemed the Witch of the Wilds and the Hierophant had been dragged along. Reading the latter was always amusing for the splitting headache it gave him, the Hierophant’s path to apotheosis being so deeply steeped in High Arcana that trying to understand the concept was like driving nails through his own forehead. The Witch was intriguing, for a hero, her wish for completion too complex and driven in notions he did not understand to properly grasp, but she was still a passing fancy compared to the Archer and that delightfully strange and nuanced horizon. The wonder of discovery, of the fresh and new, of doing things no one had done before. It was not all-consuming like Catherine’s craving for a peace that would justify all the horrors or the White Knight’s childish need to have his hand felt, but it was deeper in some ways.

It was not always the wish that commanded her, but it was so deeply ingrained abandoning it would kill her sure as dawn.

The Tyrant of Helike gestured for his porters to take flight, though until more of the flock joined in to even the sides his throne was slightly askew in the air and Theodosius’ crown, always too large for his brow, went askew with it. His rise caught the eye of everyone in the room, even the Hierarch.

“Greetings, friends,” Kairos Theodosian grinned, “and welcome. Now that all are in attendance, it seems we can at last begin the trial.”

At last, he yearningly thought. At long last.

Interlude: And So Let Us Be

“The source of might in an army is unity, not numbers. Therefore, the mightiest of all armies numbers a single soldier.”
– Isabella the Mad, Proceran general

Hakram was smelling a rat. Adjutant had always enjoyed using that particular human idiom, as it happened, mostly because it was patently untrue by face value. Humans had all the nose of a sparrow, stumbled around like drunks in the dark and were terribly fragile in most ways that mattered. The last had little to do with rodents, but it was always worth mentioning. As a rule, humans would not be able to smell a rat if it was nesting under their own pillow. Unlike goblins, who entirely coincidentally tended to have very full cookpots when Legions were garrisoned in cities. Goblin stew was always an enjoyable meal, Hakram thought, if not necessarily for the taste then always for the surprise.

“The Magisterium is pleased by your understanding, Lord Adjutant,” Magister Zoe Ixioni smiled. “It is always a delight to speak with a professional like yourself.”

The slaver – he would not forget for a moment what she was, even if she offered an empire’s worth of smiles and compliments – offered Louis Rohanon a more restrained look.

“And we honour the Principate as well, of course,” Magister Zoe added. “It is deplored by the enlightened members of our assembly that war was waged between our nations.”

“First Prince Cordelia is a fervent adherent of peace and diplomatic resolution,” Louis Rohanon replied without batting an eye, lips quirking enough to imply a smile without ever delivering it.

Princess Rozala’s ‘secretary’, who regardless of what he was now titled had been until recently the Prince of Creusens, had proved to be fairly adept at navigating the meetings Hakram had found himself dragged into one after another. Adjutant rumbled out a breath, feeling the rhythm of Bittertongue’s old song sound against his bones. No peace can there be, between lash and orc. It was an affront to the history of his kind that he must now speak otherwise, pretending the ways of the sorcerer-lords of Stygia did not sicken him as he watched the magister slip away. Rohanon let out a noise of distaste, when it was only the two of them left in the room.

“I always end up feeling like I need a wash after entertaining someone from the Magisterium,” Louis Rohanon admitted.

“Would that someone had laid to waste that city and its slaver-lords with it,” Hakram gravelled. “Yet they have tread with care to avoid this, over the years, and it seems still.”

The man nodded, slowly. He was a skinny, scholarly sort this one. Yet not without spine or cleverness, and for a Proceran seemed a surprisingly decent man. That might explain why the Jacks had found out he was so badly in debt to Iserre. Decency was unlikely to see one thrive in a place like the Highest Assembly.

“If I might speak frankly, Lord Deadhand?” Rohanon hesitatingly said.

“I would prefer it,” Adjutant said. “Mine are a simple folk, and the sly ways of humans confuse me.”

It was almost appalling, the orc thought, how eager people this far west were to believe that. Not so appalling he would not use it, however. The former Prince of Creusens choked.

“That would have been more believable a lie before I saw two envoys fall for it, my lord,” Rohanon delicately said. “It no longer holds water in the slightest. Not that listening to Basileus Leo explain to you the office and powers of the Hierarch was not most entertaining, but I would spare myself the indignity if you’ll allow it.”

“Leo Trakas was a most helpful young man,” Hakram drily said, neither admitting nor denying anything. “You offered frankness, Louis Rohanon, and I accepted. Speak accordingly.”

“I would not dare to presume as to the Black Queen’s intent in sending you out,” the former prince said, “yet if you were meant to assess divisions and seek weaknesses in the League, you should have come to the same conclusion as I.”

The orc studied the man, considering if this was a conversation he should be having, then lightly inclined his head I agreement.

“The League of Free Cities is on the verge of collapse,” Hakram acknowledged. “Nicae has yet to hear of the disastrous fate of its fleets but already the Basileus seeks to displace Helike as the leading power. Atalante chafes under a villain’s lead, and at the frequent slights it is offered.”

“Bellerophon is out of its depth,” Louis Rohanon noted. “I would hazard a guess its general-delegate has not received instructions from the People in weeks, if not months, and is entirely unwilling to do anything that might result in execution by the kanenas.”

Which was, as far as Hakram could tell, essentially any action at all. The Republic of Bellerophon’s legal system struck him as what might come to be if a dutiful scribe set down every single shout from an angry mob and made them all into law, then repeated the process half a hundred times.

“Delos remains aloof, but it appears both Stygia and Penthes are readying to leave the sinking boat,” Hakram added. “Else Magister Zoe would not have been so eager to assure me theoretical alignment with the Tower would not result in military support of any kind.”

“The Tower has been digging at the Tyrant’s position in the Free Cities,” Louis Rohanon openly aknowledged, “and the Empress has lived up to her reputation in achieving such broad success. Unless the Hierarch takes the League in hand this day it will not survive this conference as a united entity. Should he die, nearly half the League will seek the Empire’s protection against coming retribution before the corpse is cold.”

Which was inconvenient as without allies in either the League and the Thalassocracy the sole avenue to bring the Empire to heel was a land war of the old way, Callow and Praes entwined in the ancient dance of steel once again. Yet as much as Hakram’s mind was inclined to tumble down the slope of logistics and strategy, it would be a mistake to do so. The Tyrant of Helike was the devil of the day, and what they had now discovered the Named must have already known. The ship that had carried him to the peace conference of Salia, the large and largely untouched army of a united League of Free Cities, was on the verge of collapse. As things stood, even if the Tyrant ordered these armies to ravage southern Procer most of them would ignore him and continue the retreat south. And with Catherine having crippled the famous kataphraktoi, Helike’s own army was crippled in turn.

The Tyrant of Helike no longer had the clout to make demands. More worryingly the boy-king must have known it would come to this for weeks if not months, and he had still come. And so, Hakram was smelling a rat.

“I fear,” Hakram Deadhand said, “that Lady Dartwick’s instincts have proved true.”

“In what way?” Louis Rohanon asked, eyes cautious.

“Kairos Theodosian is exactly where he meant to be,” Adjutant said, “and cares little for the fate of the horse he rode after he ceases riding it.”

Indrani had never been one to shy from admitting to herself when she was enjoying something, and so she wasn’t going to start now: this was hilarious, and she in no way regretted striking the first spark of that debate.

“Soon you’ll be telling me magic is an art and not a discipline,” Masego scathingly said. “Divine approval? You might as well start praying for spell formulas.”

“There is recorded precedent for certain workings functioning better when aligned with the words of the Book of All Things,” Roland said. “While I would not-”

The Rogue Sorcerer was trying to keep things civil and academic, which naturally meant he was doomed to fail just as all voices of reason had been since First Dawn.

“Spoken like a Trismegistan coinpurse,” the Witch of the Woods snorted contemptuously. “Praying would work swifter than your method and involve rather less scribbling of numbers. And Gods forbid you forget to carry a one: you’ll melt your face instead of lighting a candle, if anything happens at all.”

“While Trismegistan sorcery is known to require significantly more study than most, it has also been proven to produce more reliable-” Roland tried.

“You defend ignorance as creativity and methodology as shackles,” Masego retorted, deeply appalled. “I should expect nothing more from someone who apes Ligurian magic without-”

“Dogs of Trismegistus bark not –”

“Perhaps,” the Rogue Sorcerer desperately said, “we should lower our voices. At this rate illusion or not they’ll hear us arriving.”

A moment of silence followed, the two mages who’d been arguing looking away in embarrassment at how heated the conversation had grown.

“I hear Jaquinite sorcery can do stuff neither yours can do,” Indrani idly said.

“That would matter, I imagine, if Jaquinite sorcery could reliably do anything in particular,” Masego said.

“Teach an apprentice Proceran magic for a year and they will crush one taught Wasteland posturing for the same,” the Witch of the Woods retorted without missing a beat.

Ah, Archer thought. Much better. Roland shot her a betrayed look she answered by prettily batting her eyes, and the giant wolf the Witch was riding on glared at her woefully. Indrani sniggered. ‘Woeful’, which worked as two puns because Archer was one of the Woe but it was also close to wolf and… eh, just wasn’t the same when Cat wasn’t there to be offended to her core by the puns. She’d keep it in mind for when she ended up giving her report, though. The four of them were getting close to Lyonceau, the small town they’d been headed towards for the better part of an hour now, so perhaps it was time to pretend she’d been on Roland’s side this whole time.

Zeze and the Witch were in a full blow argument again, voices progressively rising along with the general pettiness of what was being said, so she cleared her throat loud enough it’d cut through.

“Shame on both of you,” Indrani piously said, “ignoring poor Roland, when he’s trying to warn you about dangers.”

The Rogue Sorcerer eyed her pensively.

“I believe,” he said, “that you might just be the worst person I know.”

“That was unkind,” Masego seriously said.

“Rogue,” the Witch said, “comport yourself cordially. They are our allies for now.”

There was a pause.

“You have fought the Dead King, besides,” the Witch reminded him.

“I know what I said,” the Rogue Sorcerer muttered.

“I forgive you, as mine is a forgiving nature,” Indrani lied.

Roland met her eyes discreetly, lips moving to silently mouth ‘the worst person I know’ in Chantant, and she grinned back. Indrani had grown to like the Rogue Sorcerer: he was a delight to toy with and halfway decent in a fight. Not too hard on the eyes, either, which was always nice in a boon companion. He’d also proved more useful when they’d run into the Witch of the Wilds and accusations had flown about how they were plotting to murder the entire Grand Alliance. Which Indrani was reasonably sure was not the case, since she would have had a seat at the council where that’d be decided and she’d not been that drunk in a while. Roland had more or less vouched for them not being up to no good – at that moment in time, anyway – and that’d led to the question of why the Witch would think they were up to some skulking murderousness.

The answer was, in a word, Lyonceau.

Archer herself had found there was something odd with the League’s camp when she first went out on a walk thereabout, in essence because there was nothing at all odd with the League’s camp. The Tyrant might be able to keep his lunacy in check for a few days, Indrani had mused, but the Hierarch? Unlikely. She still remembered the frightful madness that’d fallen over Rochelant like a veil, the red-handed tribunals that’d spread out like tendrils of sickness from where the Hierarch sat. It was the sort of thing you could tuck away in Arcadia or some other neat little pocket, on occasion contain behind the right sort of wards and sometimes even something you could lull into sleep. For a time. But there were always, always signs. So Indrani had told herself, maybe there were wards. None she could find, true, but it wasn’t her specialty by any means.

Zeze had been raised by a man who’d turned warding into weapon to shatter fortresses, though, and losing his sorcery had done nothing to curb his sight. The Rogue Sorcerer had been with him then, the two of them discussing the Twilight Ways and the making of gates for it, and it’d been easy to bully – convince! Convince him to come along. No wards of the calibre that’d keep the Hierarch quiet in the League camp, they’d confirmed for her. Might have been a good time to go to the Crows, then, but Zeze still kind of wanted them on a vivisection table and the Sisters tended to ask payment up front for miracles from anyone but Cat. Who had half a dozen other cats to skin, about then, and a limited amount of additional hands in Hakram and Vivienne. So instead Indrani had called on the finest band of useless busybodies she knew, namely Robber and his cohort of miscreants.

Her Majestic Catherinery had helpfully turned them loose on the countryside with even looser instructions, so it’d been child’s play to commandeer their little goblin legs and watchful eyes. The Hierarch had to be close, because there was no way to the Tyrant was wandering too far away from him, and it wasn’t like the man was going to feed himself – so find the food, find the man. Or so had been the thought. And Robber had put his cohort to passable work, keeping a watch on the League’s camp through the day and night. Unfortunately Kairos Theodosian was, as usual, a twisty little fucker. The food wagon had gone out under illusion veils, then passed through some wards carved into stones. Twice they’d followed a wagon and lost it, which none of them had taken well pride-wise, and some Magisterium prick had caught the goblins lurking so Archer was forced to send them away.

They’d gone hunting for the ward stones instead, since those would be the key, which was when they’d run into a masked woman on a giant wolf and some very hurtful accusations. The Witch had come to it form the other way entirely, as it happened: she’d found an abandoned town a few hours out of Salia that was entirely hidden by wards and followed the wagon line from the other direction until she ran into them sniffing around a ward stone. Conclusions were leap to, though Indrani would admit that a pair of villains around a disappeared town was usually pretty damning stuff. The place was, according to the maps Roland had gotten his hands on, called Lyonceau. It was one of those small Proceran towns that emptied during winter, and according to the locals pretty much the only thing of note bout it was that it had a large House of Light: several towns and villages around used it for the festivals instead of their own small altar, since it was cheaper than building and maintaining one of their own.

It was suspicious nonetheless, all had agreed, and they’d gone to trespass – by which Indrani meant investigate, naturally, since you got to call it that when you were on the side of the angels. Though in theory the Witch was the one guiding them, in practice since she’d spent most the way arguing with Zeze it had been the helpful giant wolf that led them.

“This isn’t right,” Masego suddenly said.

All four of them were Named, and none fresh to the mantle, so the moment the Hierophant spoke the other three ceased moving forward. Indrani could see nothing but a snowy plain above, and apparently neither could Roland, but even with the mask she could see Masego and the Witch were looking at the same place.

“We’ve arrived?” she asked.

Leaning on her aspect might allow her to peer through an illusion or a ward, but she’d rather not begin using those too early in the day – not when there might yet be a fight ahead of them.

“We are at the outermost boundary of the wards,” the Witch of the Woods said. “I grasp your meaning, Hierophant. This is… unusual work.”

Roland muttered under his breath in the mage-tongue, gesturing sharply with one hand as he reached within his coat with the other. The silvery sorcery that gathered around the tip of his fingers he laid against the small wooden box he’d produced and it sank within. He opened it deftly, revealing some sort of oily ointment.

“Around the eyes,” the Rogue Sorcerer told her, “and over the eyelids.”

Indrani’s brow rose and she dipped a finger, handling one eye and then the other. The smell was unfamiliar to her, save for what she suspected to be apple tree bark, and it tingled pleasantly against her skin. One she’d applied it as the hero had instructed, she found she could now glimpse colours where before there had been only air. It was a vast tapestry of many-coloured threads, she thought, yet she could only ever see the threads she was directly looking at.

“It is not merely unusual work,” Masego said, sounding troubled. “It, in part mine. Akua Sahelian’s also, and a myriad others, but some of those patterns were first laid down by my hand.”

“There are other influences in there,” the Witch of the Wilds said. “Callowan wards, Aenian cants and that odd Jaquinite escapement.”

“No sorcerer could make such a thing,” the Hierophant said. “No living one, anyway.”

“The Tyrant’s bargained with the Dead King before, we know that,” Indrani said. “What’s so troubling about these wards anyway?”

“The Doom of Liesse was meant to bring forth devils, to forge Greater Breaches,” Masego hesitantly said. “This is…”

“Angels,” the Witch of the Wilds said. “They are not as easily summoned as devils, but this is meant to command the attention of angels.”

Well, Archer thought, shit.

Vivienne found Adjutant waiting in the hallway, along with a worried-looking Louis Rohanon. She was not the only one to notice this, Princess Rozala excusing herself from her conversation with Lady Itima to silently join her as she sought out Hakram.

“Lord Adjutant,” she greeted him, “Secretary Rohanon.”

Rozala Malanza went through the same round of courtesies, receiving the same nods for it.

“The situation in the League is considerably more unstable than we’d believed,” Hakram quietly said.

“We believe the Tyrant no longer holds sway,” Louis Rohanon added just as quietly. “And that he was undermined by the Tower. Both Stygia and Penthes seem to be leaning towards Praes.”

Which went some way in explaining why the Tyrant had willingly served as the Dead King’s herald once more, Vivienne thought. She’d believed until now it was simply a matter of letting loose a wild lion in the pen so he would not seem as dangerous, but this… fit. Though a raging lunatic, the boy-king of Helike was brilliant in his own way. He must have known that the Princes’ Graveyard would be the beginning of the end for his influence in the League, and with it his right to make demands of the Grand Alliance, so he had helped forge another calamity so that he could bargain away the key to beating it back in exchange for the promises being made to him being kept. The vicious wretch had yet to miss a single step, though Vivienne had a hard time believing the outcome of the Graveyard had been his intent. Most likely Catherine’s victory had forced him to improvise in the wake of the defeat, leading to this fresh madness.

“It no longer matters he’s lost the League,” Vivienne admitted.

Surprise, from both men.

“He swore before the Peregrine he has a way out of our current predicament,” Princess Rozala elaborated. “His bargaining chip has changed, though the bargain has not. He still requires the White Knight to stand trial for his actions in the League.”

“When?” Hakram asked, hairless brow creasing.

“Today,” Vivienne said. “The recess will be extended into a dismissal of today’s session. We will be heading out to the trial’s grounds presently.”

Catherine and Hasenbach had returned to the hall along with Yannu Marave and the Carrion Lord to swiftly pass the motion, though given that the Grand Alliance commanded a comfortable majority in such votes that was largely a formality.

“It cannot be held in Salia, surely?” Louis Rohanon said, looking alarmed. “I know not the consequences of attempting to pass sentence onto the Sword of Judgement himself, but surely we cannot risk the people of the capital so recklessly.”

“The First Prince agreed,” Princess Rozala said, smiling approvingly. “The trial will be held outside the city. Haggling was had over the exact grounds, until we settled on a town in the countryside three hours’ ride from here by the name of Lyonceau.”

“It is a trap,” Hakram bluntly said.

“It’s Kairos,” an amused voice drawled. “Of course it’s a fucking trap.”

Vivienne turned and saw her friend – her queen – limping forward, leaning on her strange yet oddly soothing staff. She did not hide her surprise at the swift return, or at the way that the drow called the ‘Lord of Silent Steps’ stood at her side. Hakram was just as surprised, by the looks of it.

“Your Majesty,” Princess Rozala greeted her. “Was your right to vote passed to a delegate?”

“We’re already done,” Catherine replied. “First Prince Cordelia wasted no time on ceremonies, and most votes were know before they were cast.”

“The League?” Vivienne asked.

“Couldn’t even agree on a delegate without the Tyrant herding them,” the Queen of Callow said. “The wheels are coming off that cart, mark my words.”

“And the Dead King, Your Majesty?” Princess Rozala probed.

“I hesitate to ascribe surprise to a bare skull,” Catherine mused. “But this was not his work, I’d bet rubies to piglets over it. This stage belongs to Kairos Theodosian alone.”

“We believe the Tower to be actively courting cities among the League, Queen Catherine,” Louis Rohanon said. “Dread Empress Malicia would have greatly undermined the standing of the Tyrant for this to succeed.”

The Queen of Callow frowned.

“Then after riding his last horse to the grave, he has saddled a fresh one,” Catherine said. “You saw it true, Vivienne.”

Even now, the former thief was surprised by the flush of pleasure she felt at the freely offered praise. It was not entirely warranted, in her eyes, for while she’d brought up the notion first but she doubted they would not have seen it themselves in time. Still, it was not unpleasant to hear. She smoothed away the emotion, for there were higher callings than indulgence at hand. A drow painted in the colours of the ‘Losara’, the tribe among their kind that Catherine had unsurprisingly ended up forging when none at hand suited her purposes, stepped forward to murmur in Lord Ivah’s ears before retreating. The Lord of Silent Steps addressed the queen in Crepuscular, and she closed her eyes in thought. A few moments passed, and she opened them.

“No, doesn’t mean anything to me,” she told the drow. “Adjutant, I need you to find me someone who knows something. An herbal brew made of foxglove, nightshade and powdered graveborn mushrooms – what is it for?”

Vivienne was looking for it, so she caught it: the faint tremor, the pulse that shuddered through the fabric of Creation as Adjutant called on one of his aspects. The tall orc’s head snapped to the side, cheeks creasing in amusement as his eyes came to rest on the approaching form of Lady Aquiline Osena.

“Providence, warlord,” he gravelled in Kharsum. “The wind is in our sails for once.”

“Don’t rejoice,” Catherine replied in the same. “Think on how bad the opposition must be, that we are smiled upon.”

The Lady of Tartessos was approached, and Princess Rozala was prevailed upon to make introductions. Few courtesies were had, as Levantine ways tended to be pleasantly brisk. The question was asked, though nightshade was a term unfamiliar to the Levantine. Belladonna, however, she recognized.

“That is champion’s brew, though I have never heard of graveborn mushrooms being used in the recipe,” Lady Aquiline said, though she looked bemused at the question. “Only one without character would use it in an honour duel, but it can be a worthy thing when drunk in the deeps of the Brocelian.”

“What does it do?” Catherine pressed.

“It lends strength to the dying,” Lady Aquiline said. “It calms limbs, eases the flow of blood and lends vigour – for a time, and at a price. It is false strength, and when it fades often kills the drinker.”

“Let me guess,” Catherine Foundling grimly smiled, “graveborn mushrooms would add a little more to the vigour, right?”

“I am not certain,” the Lady of Tartessos admitted. “It would be better to ask Razin, as one of the Binder’s Blood would be learned in such lore. Yet what you say seems likely, for barrow-born things often lend poisonous strength before they kill.”

“Catherine?” Vivienne asked, looking at her cautiously.

Something almost like fear had flickered across the Black Queen’s face for a moment.

“The Tyrant of Helike was drinking this by the cup last night,” Catherine said, “and it was brewed potently enough it would have outright poisoned someone without a Name.”

A moment of silence passed.

“Steel yourselves, my friends,” the Black Queen gravely said, “for when the likes of Kairos Theodosian comes to sing his swan song it is not a thing to be taken lightly.”

Interlude: So Smile, Tyrants

“And so as night fell over the Blessed Isle, his Dread Majesty sent across the river the corpse of Prince Robert and the captured Princess Juliana, still bound in chains, for when released she had bit off the ear of the High Lord of Okoro. King Selwyn Fairfax rode halfway across the bridge, where he thus addressed His Dread Majesty: ‘You have fought this war grimly on the field and gallantly beyond. Would that you had been born west of the river, under a virtuous star.’ And so His Dread Majesty replied: ‘For having been born east of the river I became instead a man to pluck stars from the sky. Is that not a higher virtue?’”
– Extract from ‘Commentaries on the Campaigns of Dread Emperor Terribilis the Second’

To match the coming Damned, Chosen had been sent for.

Because Creation was a strange and ironic thing, Rozala Malanza thought, this had been the suggestion of Catherine Foundling and opposed largely by Cordelia Hasenbach. Not that the First Prince would be so uncouth as to risk offending the Dominion by implying its favourite son was anything other than a treasured ally. There’d been talk instead that the Peregrine’s presence might incite the Tyrant to misbehave, that surely the White Knight himself would be enough. Princess Rozala suspected that the First Prince had known it would fail, and it had, but had allowed herself to vent a sliver of personal dislike in as harmless a manner she could. That Hasenbach despised the Peregrine was no surprise to her, not since she’d heard the full story of what had taken place at Saudant. The sleepy little fishing village by the shores of Lake Artoise that had been butchered to bring the Carrion Lord to heel, leaving not a single survivor. Not even children.

It had shaken Rozala’s high esteem of the Chosen, to hear this. A greater good had been achieved by the act, that much could not be denied. How many more dozens of thousands would have died if the Legions of Terror slipped the noose in Iserre to ravage the western principalities as well? Yet it’d been a grave evil, that too could not be denied, and one dealt unto a sworn ally. The First Prince’s view of the matter was without nuance, but the Princess of Aequitan could not quite bring herself to share it in full. She remembered still the Grey Pilgrim saving thousands of lives during the Battle of the Camps, and almost as many after when he went from wounded to wounded and worked his healing to exhaustion. It had been an ugly choice the old hero made, and one he had no right to make. But did they not breathe a little easier for it? Were they not, behind the outrage at the lives taken and the brutality of the act, all a little grateful for what had come of it?

The dark-haired princess could not embrace the choice he had made, the deaths it had meant, but neither would she condemn it outright. It would be hypocrisy of the worst sort to let Peregrine undertake the bloody work of capturing the Carrion Lord for them and then in the same breath to complain of his murderous meddling.

“Princess Rozala?”

The Arlesite general turned a pleasant smile upon the woman who had approached her, for this was a relationship that must be cultivated for years to come should they all survive these dark times. Lady Vivienne Dartwick cut rather more regal a figure when out of the thief’s leathers she’d worn at the truce talks in northern Callow, though Rozala decided that the milkmaid braid crowned by a tasteful silver circlet rather helped the effect. It was said she’d once been a Chosen, before the Black Queen turned her to villainy. Though few believed the Black Queen’s handpicked successor to be anything close to ‘redeemed’ from such damnation, she was still considered rather less incendiary an interlocutor in diplomatic talks. Nobly born as well, for House Dartwick was on the Callowan lists of nobility, which was a balm on the pride of those who still balked at negotiating with a no-name orphan like Catherine Foundling. A foolish thing, that, when the shadow of that orphan’s displeasure had half of Calernia shaking in its boots, but pride could oft be a foolish thing.

“Lady Dartwick,” Rozala replied. “How may I be of service?”

“The Lord Adjutant is being sent out by my queen and will require a guide,” Lady Vivienne said. “If I might trouble you to provide one?”

A matter of too little importance to speak to the First Prince over, Rozala idly thought, yet requiring the assistance and assent of a high-ranked Proceran. The Callowan noble had correctly navigated etiquette in approaching her, which was a refreshing change compared to her mistress – who largely behaved as if she were above such things. Rather more gallingly, she was not wrong to believe so.

“My personal secretary Louis Rohanon will see to it,” the Princess of Aequitan said.

She discreetly gestured for one of the attendants to approach her, so Louis could be informed of her request. It was insulting that her dear friend’s abdication of his crown for the sake of the Principate meant he no longer qualified to attend councils such as this, but given the recent… agitation in Salia the princess knew it was not the time to test the First Prince’s tolerance.

“Will the Lord Adjutant be leaving us, then?” Rozala asked.

She would not mind that, for the quiet watchfulness in the orc’s eyes spoke of little missed. Yet it would not do to loose a Damned without first learning where he would head, and for what purpose.

“Queen Catherine intends to sound out the loyalties and interests of Nicae,” Lady Vivienne said.

And she’d sent out an orc to do so? The Princess of Aequitan was no village bumpkin, to believe orcs men turned to corrupted forms by some ancient sin and the hand of Below, but it could not be denied that the Deadhand’s large fangs and leathery skin fed into his looming presence to unsettling result. Though the Lord Adjutant had struck her a clever-minded and methodical, he hardly made for a pleasant envoy. Unless, of course, a reminder of force was what the Black Queen meant to send. Who could truly know, with that one?

“Then allow me to offer my secretary’s services as scholar and translator,” Princess Rozala suggested.

The heiress-designate eyed her pensively. It would mean anything spoken would later be reported to her, true, but it would also lend the weight of Procer’s tacit approval to whatever was spoken. Besides, Louis truly was fluent in tradertalk and of scholarly inclination besides. He would be of practical use, regardless of all the rest.

“I thank you for the boon,” Lady Vivienne said, tone formal. “I am certain Lord Adjutant will delight in the use of such an able aide.”

Secrecy was not paramount to whatever the Black Queen had planned for the League, then, or perhaps even Nicae in particular. The arrangements were made swiftly, and all was in motion before the latest arrivals stirred the room. The Grey Pilgrim’s stride was greeted enthusiastically by the highborn of the Blood, though rather more coolly by the Callowans and the Carrion Lord. First Prince Cordelia herself offered the due courtesies and not an inch more, for even in utter scorn the Lycaonese princess was rarely anything but flawlessly polite. The White Knight’s entrance was, by contrast, was more warmly received. The Chosen’s willingness to work with the Highest Assembly – though never under, for Hanno of Arward answered to the Tribunal alone – and the strictures of Proceran law had endeared him to Hasenbach and even Rozala herself, she would admit. Never before had she heard of a Chosen who would list and explain every kill he’d made in a rioting city before scholars of law so that the actions might be assessed.

At least not without hinting it was mere humouring of mortal crowns, while the White Knight had instead seemed serious and even earnest.

The White Knight and his companion the Witch of the Woods were also notably strong Chosen who had come to safeguard Salia and the peace talks, which had been reassuring considering who would be attending. The Black Queen, the Hierophant, the Tyrant of Helike – and now it seemed even the Hidden Horror himself. In truth Princess Rozala had been surprised at Queen Catherine’s suggestion that the White Knight attend this council, for the Sword of Judgement was blatant enough a ward against her that the dark-haired general had believed she might take offence. Apparently, Rozala Malanza faintly thought, someone had forgot to inform Catherine Foundling of this: she met the White Knight’s arrival with a smile and a respectful nod, which the Chosen casually returned. Rozala was not the only one to take notice, the eyes of half the room coming to rest on the pair in silent surprise.

“Kairos Theodosian nears,” the Black Queen suddenly said.

It had been more than a year now since the Tyrant of Helike had sworn eternal friendship to Cordelia Hasenbach. Not that she had ever believe him. Nor would she now put too much stock in anything he said, not even if Chosen insisted he had been bound by a curse of truth. If a madman believed the sky to be green, did that make it so? No, the Tyrant had been a thorn in her side for too long to be taken as anything but a peril.

The First Prince had considered the young king a diplomatic and military headache from more or less the first breath after he’d taken the throne, for he’d proven to be both cunning and very much inclined to turn that cunning against Procer. The blonde princess had once believed that Helike and its boy-king could be restrained by fetters of ink, treaties binding the League to a ten-year truce with the Principate until other affairs were settled, but that had arguably been the second-most serious diplomatic blunder of her reign. She could not be certain that the Tyrant’s rise could truly be laid at her feet, for he might well have struck out for power regardless of anything she did. Yet the League’s vote for truce with Procer had undeniably been the trigger of the civil war that propelled the Tyrant of Helike to greater heights. And saw Anaxares of Bellerophon elected to the office of Hierarch of the Free Cities, though in some ways that seat was still good as empty.

Still, for all that Cordelia had maneuvered and plotted against Kairos Theodosian she had never seen the man with her own eyes until he came to Salia. Much of what she had read of him proved true, the First Prince pondered once more as the Tyrant swaggered into the parlour, but it did not quite do the man justice. The thin sickliness, the loose robes that did not quite hide erratic convulsions and trembling, or even the blood-red eye under wispy brown curls: Theodosian almost seemed more notion than man, as if some godly hand had painted grinning malevolence on the canvas of Creation and crowned it king of Helike. Most of those here loathed him, the First Prince considered. Some loathed him so deeply it was like a poison in their veins. Yet looking at the young king and the two waddling gargoyles flanking him, one would think he was among friends.

“Oh my,” Kairos Theodosian drawled. “Such a gathering of great and mighty names. My heart is made all aflutter.”

“Lord Tyrant,” Cordelia Hasenbach calmly said. “Welcome. You are thanked for accepting our invitation.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” the odd-eyed villain grinned.

“Gods, you really are such a prick,” the Black Queen of Callow said, sounding almost admiring. “If I didn’t know better, I’d call it an aspect.”

The fair-haired Lycaonese bit down on her initial wave of fear and irritation. Much as she disliked the manners of the other ruler, it could not be denied that no one in this room had even half the understanding of the Tyrant she could boast of having. As if to prove correct her thought, instead of storming out at the casual slight and informality the other villain instead let out a cackling laugh.

“Catherine,” he replied cheerfully. “A pleasure to see you, as always. Is that my old friend Amadeus I see cowering in your shadow?”

The Carrion Lord, who had kept his peace and spoken only sparingly since his declaration of war on the Tower, never lost his air of cold indifference.

“It is a rather broad shadow, these days,” the Carrion Lord casually replied. “It makes for comfortable cowering.”

The choking sound from her side was, Cordelia realized, most of the Blood supressing laughter.

“An empire’s worth of room, eh?” the Tyrant sneered. “I wonder, did the broken spine take the Name or was it the other way around?”

She must step in now else the villain would needle everyone here ‘til Last Dusk. Satisfying as it was to hear the Carrion Lord pricked, it did nothing to endear the one pricking him to her heart. Or advance the cause of Procer’s survival to let it devour time from the recess, for that matter.

“The Dread Empire of Praes,” the First Prince said, “is not why it was asked you attend this council.”

“Then by all means,” Kairos Theodosian drawled, “reveal this revelation to me, Warden of the West.”

Cordelia stepped forward, back straight. Closer to a villain whose suspected body count was in the hundreds, who had once router an entire host by wielding a storm and not so long ago ripped out thousands in cavalry from Arcadia and smashed them down onto the earth. She stepped forward with utter calm, for these were her chosen grounds and her favoured manner of strife.

“Circumstances have ensured there is an alignment in our interests, Lord Tyrant,” Cordelia said.

A heartbeat passed; the blood-red eye blinked.

“Boring,” the boy-king said, solemn as a judge passing a sentence.

“Yet here you are, standing among us,” the First Prince said, unruffled. “Itching to turn on the Crown and Tower who have used you better than you used them.”

“Slightly less boring,” the Tyrant conceded. “Still I’ve yet to hear a single reason I should break such deep trust or sunder a precious bond of fellowship.”

“You require assurances, understandably,” Cordelia said. “This can be arranged. You stand, as you said, among an assembly of great and mighty names.”

“And what would be required of me in exchange for these assurances?” the Tyrant grinned. “Go on now, Warden of the West. Do not disappoint.”

“You have been deep in the Enemy’s councils, Lord Tyrant,” Cordelia said. “Reveal their plans to us and-”

“Nononono,” the Tyrant of Helike interrupted, growing increasingly shrill. “That was not the right thing to ask. You’re doing it wrong.”

The villain seemed genuinely agitated, his arm slipping out of the folded sleeve hiding it in a spasm. His brown eye had grown watery, as if he were in pain or sorrow. The First Prince was taken aback, and for once uncertain as to how she should respond. A limping gait whispered across the floor, the Black Queen hobbling behind the Tyrant’s back and slowing only to offer her the most insolent wink Cordelia had ever seen. She flushed.

“Sometimes they need us devils to speak the ugly things, Kairos, you ought to know that by now,” Queen Catherine said, tone teasing.

Tension in the Tyrant’s shoulders loosened by a fraction at the words, and Cordelia grasped the game. Silk and the steel, then. She was more used to standing as the former than the latter, but not unskilled at the exercise.

Say it,” Kairos Theodosian demanded.

“Give us a good reason to keep warring on Keter,” the Black Queen said.

As she often did, the Queen of Callow was cutting to the bone of it for that was the truth exact of what they needed. A great banner of fear and outrage that would bind Principate – and beyond – to pursuit of the war against the Dead King, and if there was one man who might give them that at this very moment it was the Tyrant of Helike.

“Ah,” the odd-eyed king said, savouring the sound. “There it is. Now, let the mangled relic in the corner attest to my words – not you Amadeus, at least this time – and pronounce truth where it is. I have such a reason and can reveal it to you.”

All eyes in the parlour turned to the Grey Pilgrim, whose eyes were narrowed.

“Truth,” the Peregrine slowly said. “In word and intent.”

“Then let us speak of price, Theodosian,” Cordelia said. “Some offences may yet be forgiven, should you bargain in good faith. Wealth and honours could be laid on your brow.”

Cordelia was much taller than the Tyrant and made certain to loom over him as he spoke. A tilt of the neck lent her the appearance of looking down on him as she spoke, and she added a faint hint of sneer to her lip. Dislike was as distracting a feeling as any other, and if she must wield the reputation of the Alamans abroad to best achieve it she would not balk at the indignity.

“He’s not the coin kind of king, Hasenbach,” the Black Queen drawled. “No, he’s an old-fashioned sort. He wants his seat at the table back. Don’t you, Kairos?”

Which Queen Catherine wanted no more than Cordelia herself, though with the amused glint to her eye she was doing a fair impression of desiring otherwise.

“Catherine, how distressing,” the Tyrant grinned. “That would imply that I currently no longer have a seat. Am I not a participant in good standing of this peace conference?”

“Helike can be spared retribution for its reckless war-making and treachery,” Cordelia said, phrasing it as a great concession. “Your abdication, however, might be required for the sake of peace.”

“Now there’s a familiar tune,” the Black Queen smiled.

It was, the fair-haired princess thought, a little too sharp a smile for that sharpness to be entirely feigned.

“Ladies,” the Tyrant intervened, sounding utterly delighted, “come now, is there truly need for such language? Now, unless I am mistaken there was some talk of dues.”

Queen Catherine began circling again, and Cordelia breathed in. Time to see what the two of them could bargain him down to.

“You are due quite a few things,” the First Prince pleasantly agreed.

“Mostly the one, as far as I am concerned,” Kairos Theodosian grinned. “And dear Catherine knows what I want, she does. She even brought it for me.”

The trial, Cordelia thought. It was all coming to hinge on the trial of the White Knight, as promised at the crossroad of the Princes’ Graveyard. She had been warned by every Chosen and Damned she was on speaking terms with that to allow such a thing to unfold would be highly dangerous and acted accordingly.

“Your demand for a trial of the White Knight is on the official order of affairs, Lord Tyrant,” the First Prince mildly said.

“Very far down the list,” the Tyrant replied, just as mildly. “And I could not help to notice some details of procedures related to its positioning. Now, were I a suspicious man, I might suspect they’d allow a clever sort to put off that discussion for weeks, if not months.”

Which had been the very intent. The League of Free Cities as it currently stood was a derelict taking water, and the situation would only worsen unless the Hierarch himself intervened. It was unlikely he would, meaning that waiting for a span might very well see the Tyrant’s power among the League and perhaps the League itself collapse – and so make any demands of his utterly irrelevant, for he would no longer have the knife at the throats to see through his extortion.

“Then we move it up the list,” the Black Queen shrugged.

“I would not wish to be unseemly in my demands,” the Tyrant smiled. “And so, I’ve a suggestion to offer that could be considered less of an imposition.”

The smile widened, until all that Cordelia could see was a thin, sharp slice of teeth and a pulsing red eye.

“Let us hold the trial now.”

Interlude: All Ye Villains

“In studying our histories I have cast aside old mistakes, instead embracing fresh and interesting ones.”
– Dread Empress Atrocious, later devoured by man-eating tapirs

The games being played on this marble floor, Hakram thought, were no less deadly than any played axe in hand. Perhaps even deadlier, for an axe took one life at a time while here a streak of ink and a sharp phrase could kindle the death of thousands. Most of his kind despised the ways of the Tower’s court: the poisons drunk and spoken, the colourful clothes worth a manse and the alliances that came and went faster than the tides. It was not that orcs knew nothing of treachery or cunning ways, for though the Adjutant had long left behind the Steppes he still remembered the spoken histories and there were betrayals aplenty in the tales. Some were spoken of as reverently as great deeds unsullied, for though the treachery was not in question neither was the greatness.

Aslog Ironfoot’s warbands turning on Warlord Gorm at the Battle of the Lights, bringing bloody end to Eldest Horde. Dagmar Hardteeth allying with the Queen of Okoro to murder their rivals by sorcery and surprise at the gathering of the thaw. And lesser betrayals, too were spoken of, not worthy of legend. Not even a century ago the Blackspear Clan had broken alliance with the Howling Wolves at the incitement of the Painted Dogs, allowing warbands through their territory, and then ambushed the returning Dogs to take the spoils of the cattle-raids. No legend had come of this, no tale save that Blackspear blood flowed without honour. No, Hakram Deadhand did not believe the Clans to be made of finer stuff than the rest of Creation, for their history spoke otherwise time and time again.

Yet his people disdained those who made sport of their own word, those who pretended to valour and honour while acting otherwise. And there was a sense of that, hanging around this great hall. Vivienne’s words were ringing still, yet the harvest of surprise they reaped was meagre indeed. A few of the Tyrant’s playthings, the Thalassocracy’s man – who like the nation he stood for was this day isolated and out of his depths, ship bound to currents unknown – and those few scribes and translators too low in status to have warranted warning. The Dread Empress of Praes, wearing a mutilated and marked body like a coat, betrayed no surprise. Neither did the grinning devil known as Kairos Theodosian, or the utterly still corpse inhabited by the Dead King.

It was the first of these that Hakram was most wary of. Malicia had lost the reins of much she once commanded, but the most dangerous part of the Empress had ever been her boldness and clever mind, neither of which had been taken from her. Catherine thought her half-spent a force, with jackals circling the Tower and her realm deeply wounded, and dangerous mostly in that way a desperate villain tended to be. The Adjutant was not so certain. The Empress had not even attempted to bring the Carrion Lord to her side, by scrying or sent agent, this he knew for a fact: as the Eyes had people in the Army of Callow, so did the Jacks have people among the Legions-in-Exile. And the Scribe would have forewarned them, if those eyes were fooled, for the Adjutant understood her in a way most frightful.

He would act in similar manner, if Catherine was preparing to throw away her life and life’s work.

And so while the hall twisted and turned, twining around the already half-known revelation that the Grand Alliance had known of Ashur’s unfaithfulness and behind the Thalassocracy’s own back prepared answer of its own, Hakram Deadhand watched the Empress. Malicia was not beloved of his people as her right hand had been, still was, for unlike the Carrion Lord she had neither been warlord nor tireless defender. Yet she was respected, by the wise among the Clans, for having enacted the Reforms without needing to cram them down the throat of the High Lords by civil war as the Black Knight’s iron-handed ways might well have required. She had been good the orcs in a way few of her predecessors could boast, and never given slight without reason nor meddled in the affairs of the Clans beyond the old rights of the Tower.

Malicia had been a fair ruler to his people in most regards, Hakram thought, and looking upon the puppet-thing she now wore he could not bring himself to believe her to have gone the way of the Old Tyrants. The Empress had bought and paid for the Doom of Liesse, it could not be denied, yet meant to use is to serve the principles she had once writ in her treatise ‘The Death of the Age of Wonders’. She’d since used only the blades of assassins, sharp intrigue and the sole doomsday weapon of the Warlock that was already known to Calernia. Still Water was a thing of terror, true, but it should not be forgot that in the eyes of most in this room that terror had already been laid at the Empress’ feet.

She lost little by using it, and gained form the use a great fleet as well as means to influence Ashur into leaving the Grand Alliance. It had not been a careless or desperate act, he thought. Which meant Malicia’s keen edge had not faded, and nothing of the play taking place in this hall was a coincidence. Not even that raw thing that the Carrion Lord’s voice had carried, when he good as begged for a reason not to turn on her. It’d be a damned cold thing, making that cut on purpose.

But cold was oft the winner, in Wasteland games.

“Catherine,” the Adjutant whispered in Kharsum, leaning closer to her. “I think we are being had.”

Tanned face set into a calm look as she studied the hall, his warlord slowly nodded.

“There’s no swing in them,” the Black Queen murmured. “This isn’t their game. We misread them, Hakram.”

As was often the case whenever Catherine’s eyes narrowed and her twisty mind wandered down paths the rest of them could only dimly glimpse, Hakram was forced to take a moment to parse what she’d said. Not enough swing. As in the opposition was not putting up a fight, and so without pause she had decided it meant they saw what was happening as not worth fighting over. It might be argued instead, Hakram knew, that Callow’s entering of the Grand Alliance was good as certain, and so the opposition had not considered it something that could be fought. Yet the Adjutant’s instincts sung in accord with his queen’s, for one did not face the longest-reigning Dread Empress in the history of the Wasteland and the King of Death himself and received so little ‘swing’, as his warlord had said.

Vivienne sat down even as a clarification was requested by the current speaker for the League of Free Cities – Basileus Leo Trakas once more – as to the veracity of the statement made by Lady Dartwick. Confirmation from the First Prince and Lord Yannu Marave followed.

“If they have no stake in this, then their victory lies not in a contested field,” the Carrion Lord quietly said.

“That would mean they’re not looking to get anything out of this conference,” Vivienne said, her Kharsum still a little ragged even though they regularly practiced together. “So why are they even here?”

Catherine’s hand half-reached to the pockets sown within her cloak, before she remembered it would be unseemly for her to light her pipe before so many eminent rulers. She forced it back down and let out an annoyed hiss through her teeth. Odds were, Hakram fondly thought, that she did not even realize how around greenskins she tended to mimic their manners. That particular manner of hissing couldn’t properly be done without goblin teeth, for unlike theirs human teeth had no gaps when put together, but more than once Adjutant had seen goblins shoot her almost awestruck looks when she did it before them. There was a reason half the goblins in the Army of Callow considered her to be a Matron in human flesh, and contrary to what Indrani kept insinuating it wasn’t the height. Well, not only the height.

“Where else are they going to get a gathering like this?” Catherine said. “What happens in the conference is as dust to them, I bet. But they’ve got an audience with the powerful of most Calernia here, don’t they? They’re hear for the ears, not the tongues.”

Utter silence seized the room, sudden and oppressive. Half the hall was watching the same thing, and Adjutant followed their gaze. The Dead King he saw, had moved for the very first time since his body sat. His skull had turned to gaze at Catherine, hollow sockets empty and unblinking. The slightest of tremors was going through the skeletal thing, Adjutant saw, and for a moment he did not understand. Then he did, and his blood went cold.

The Dead King was looking at Catherine Foundling, and shaking as he laughed.

The Enemy was laughing.

Cordelia Hasenbach was not one to boast of bravery, for hers were not the gifts of courage on the field, yet neither did she consider herself to be faint of heart. And yet the sight of the Hidden Horror’s silent tremors of amusement sent a shiver up her spine. That the monster was gazing unerringly at the Black Queen as he did only made it eerier. The blonde princess did not allow it to reach her face, or seep in her eyes, instead thinking of Hannoven. Of the city broken once more, walls torn down and her kinsmen slaughtered to the last. Cordelia thought of the brave men and women who’d died on those walls, keeping dawn from failing just a little while longer, and when cold wroth roared through her veins she fed it the fear. Composure returned to her, for that anger was an old friend, and finally she gestured for the page standing behind her table to step forward. At her side, Agnes suddenly stirred.

“Magon Hadast was killed,” the Augur said.

Agnes, she saw, was staring at the Carrion Lord. The page passed Cordelia a sealed scroll, bearing scarlet wax stamped with the heraldry of the Order of the Red Lion. She set it down and turned a sharp gaze on her cousin.

“Is he dead now,” Cordelia whispered, “or is he going to die?”

Agnes blinked sleepily, a look of utter frustration flickering across her face. It took her a moment to speak again, as if she had to piece together once more when and where she was.

“Soon,” the Augur said. “Many branches but always he dies. The spider waited until he was too deep in the web to turn back. There is nothing anyone can do. Too quick. All the paths are dead ends.”

She hesitated, scowling.

“They are learning,” she admitted.

The spider, Cordelia thought. There were some who called the Scribe the Webweaver, in the Wasteland, yet the Augur had used the word before to mean another. The Assassin, who more than once had tried to take her own life and that of people dear to her. Had this been the order of the Carrion Lord, then? The other villain was said to answer to him alone. Ashur had made bargain with Malicia, and so Magon Hadast was to die? It would sow chaos, Cordelia admitted to herself, until the old man’s successor consolidated power. The heir that’d been groomed before had died at Thalassina and now only distant relatives remained, none of which would be a deft hand a navigating the Thalassocracy’s labyrinth of committees and bureaucracy. It was still unacceptable, if it was truly the Carrion Lord’s order.

Magon Hadast had long been her ally, and for his defection now she blamed him not as the Grand Alliance had failed him before he it. He might yet return, besides, given time enough for it. To have him so casually ordered slain was a foul thing, though no less than should be expected form a rabid animal like the Carrion Lord.

“Darkness looms, Cordelia,” Agnes murmured. “Tarry not in opening the scroll.”

Lips tightening in sudden wariness, the First Prince reached for the parchment and broke the seal. She unfurled the scroll and her eyes moved carefully across the contents. This was not a direct report but instead the welding of several, from across broad swaths of Procer. Three names in particular caught her eye: Prince Otto Reitzenberg, Prince Gaspard Langevin and Princess Beatrice Volignac. The ranking commanders on the three northern fronts of the Principate, at least in principle. Prince Otto’s words were coming from the Morgentor, the last fortress held in Twilight’s Pass, and though he cautioned of the Enemy possibly laying a trap Gaspard of Cleves and Beatrice of Hainaut were both seeing the same thing. And like Prince Otto they’d followed the dead carefully. Cordelia turned to the awaiting page.

“One whose authority was the scroll sent?” she curtly asked.

“Anselme of Beaudry, Your Highness,” the man quietly replied.

A telling detail. Anselme of Beaudry was the ranking officer of the Order of the Red Lion in Salia, and Cordelia had chosen him for that office in large part because his cautious and meticulous nature. He would not have sent such a scroll without first making certain there had been no misunderstanding or sudden change. The First Prince quietly thanked and dismissed the page, mind racing, before glancing meaningfully at one her closest attendant. The young woman approached discreetly.

“Have word passed to the Callowan and Levantine delegations that I will put forward an extraordinary motion for immediate recess and I would request they support it,” Cordelia said. “There is urgent need for a private discussion between us.”

Cordelia allowed time for the messages to be passed, through Razin Tanja for the Dominion and the heiress to the Barony of Harrow for Callow. When the First Prince of Procer asked for immediate recess soon after, the vote in favour was unanimous. The Enemy’s gazed moved towards her as it deigned to vote for the first time that day, silently raising a hand in approval.

The Dead King had yet to speak even once, and some part of Cordelia Hasenbach felt blind dread at that realization.

Half an hour of recess had been voted on, and Hakram found himself part of the handful of guests invited into a nearby parlour by the First Prince. The Blood were likely to be brought in as well, he guessed, for whatever it was that Cordelia Hasenbach had learned it seemed to concern all signatories of the Grand Alliance. The Carrion Lord’s presence along with Catherine, Vivienne and himself was a reality all involved politely refrained from looking in the eye, as the man was deeply despised in Procer and might well have been excluded from such talks if not for the Queen of Callow’s influence. It was an almost amusing turn, that after early years of relying of the Black Knight’s power and influence it was not the same man who was relying on his former pupil’s instead.

There was an almost feverish energy to Cordelia Hasenbach, Adjutant saw when they entered the parlour. Though she was composed as ever, she was standing instead of seated and looking at her gave the sense she had a burning urge to pace that only manners were keeping at bay. Catherine limped in ahead, eyes considering as she took in the sight of the full roster of the Blood as well Princess Rozala. Liveried servants offered refreshments that all refused, and Hakram noted with exasperated amusement that his warlord’s eyes were lingering a little longer than necessary on Rozala Malanza. Half the Blood too, though he was surprised that among the men she seemed to prefer the almost orcish frame of Yannu Marave to Razin Tanja’s, who was much closer in age.

As she was less than discreet he wondered if offence might accidentally been given, but if he was reading the expression correctly Lady Aquiline Osena looked more flattered than anything else by the roving eye. He met Vivienne’s eyes in shared aggravation behind Catherine’s back, though he figured at least they should be pleased she’d not been undressing the First Prince of Procer with her eyes. That might go over poorly, he thought. As the others advanced and went to stand with the other nobles Hakram remained at the back near the threshold, where he could watch from a distance. A set of eyes removed from the thick of it was often more useful than another wagging tongue, he’d found, and he’d always disliked wandering into arguments without first taking the measure of all that was being said.

“Thank you all for coming,” Cordelia Hasenbach gravely said. “And for your trust in aiding my motion.”

“You seem to have received news,” Lady Itima Ifriqui said, rather bluntly.

“I have,” the First Prince agreed. “I have received reports from all three northern fronts against Keter, and they all speak to the same truth: the dead are retreating.”

Exclamations of surprise from many here followed, though not Hakram Deadhand or the queen that had chosen him as much as he had chosen her. Catherine Foundling’s hand went inside her cloak and Adjutant, Name tugging at his feet, was moving before she could even begin stuffing the pipe with a satchel of wakeleaf. He struck a match a heartbeat before she extended her pipe, lighting it neatly, and was offered a thankful flash of pearly teeth before stepping back. The nerve of the Lord of Silent Steps, that it’d think itself fit to step in between the ordained cogs of fate with its little moving tricks. You didn’t need to move swift as an arrow to see too things, just leave at the right time moving to the right pace.

“Does the Hidden Horror seek to hold the northern shores against us?” Lady Aquiline frowned. “It hardly seems necessary, given his advantages.”

“It will allow us time to bring our armies to bear, regardless,” Lady Itima said. “A blunder, this.”

Catherine blew out an acrid stream of smoke that had Lord Yannu wrinkling his nose in distaste at the smell.

“No,” the Black Queen said, “it wasn’t. We just got knifed in broad daylight, make no mistake about that.”

It amused Hakram a great deal that though several of the great nobles here suppressed distasted as the spoken ‘us’, not a single one of them denied it. It seemed that his warlord’s usefulness had at last outstripped the distaste these righteous folks had for the colour of her cloak.

“You believe this to be a scheme,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, then sharply nodded. “I agree. This is a poor decision by the eye of a general, which means it was made by another.”

“They’re going to offer us a truce out there,” Catherine said, jabbing a thumb towards the wall.

The wrong one, Hakram drily noted, if she meant to point towards the hall.

“They?” Lord Yannu calmly asked.

“This is, if not outright the plan of Dread Empress Malicia, at least in part her notion,” the Carrion Lord tiredly said. “This sort of manoeuvre is her very signature: weakening the opposition then posing great incentive to keep a truce that allows her to further work on dismantling her enemies without the direct use of force.”

First Prince Cordelia would not doubt be the first of that western lot to grasp what exactly it had meant, when the Hidden Horror had extended Catherine an offer to sign the Liesse Accords last night.  The implications of it, in the long term.

“We have no reason to accept this truce even if it offered,” Razin Tanja flatly said. “We war against Keter to the end, and Dread Empress Malicia makes herself enemy to all that live through alliance with it.”

Vivienne Dartwick had spent years in the shade of one of the great villains of their age and yet more in the service of another, so it was no surprise she caught on quick.

“If the decision was made solely in this room, you would be right,” Vivienne grimly said.

“They will be seeding rumours of the offer of truce even as we speak,” Cordelia Hasenbach told them all. “In Salia and everywhere they can, which given the reach of the Dread Empire and the Tyrant of Helike is far and wide.”

Her lips thinned.

“There will be riots if we push for prosecuting a war against the Dead King in the face of offered peace while the north is months away from collapse,” the First Prince said. “Mayhaps even rebellion.”

“The odds are strong that the Empress will declare a treaty of mutual protection with Keter,” Lord Amadeus calmly said. “The Dead King ought to agree, as otherwise there would be free hand to settle his sole reliable ally.”

“Why should we pursue if the Hidden Horror retreats to his lands?” Lord Yannu Marave bluntly asked. “Is that not the victory we sought to achieve?”

The King of Death had not even yet spoken, Adjutant darkly thought, and already he was drawing blood among the Grand Alliance’s ranks.

“You would call this victory?” Razin Tanja scathingly replied. “Keter coming and going as it pleases, massacring any who oppose it?”

“Are we then to send armies to die in the Kingdom of the Dead for the sake of your boyish swagger?” Lord Yannu harshly retorted.

“Better honourable death than a coward’s disgrace,” Lady Aquiline sneered.

“This is what he wants,” Princess Rozala said, voice cutting through the rising noise. “Chaos among our ranks. It is why he is marching north instead of south, because if he does not we are a threat.”

“Well said,” First Prince Cordelia calmly added. “Make no mistake, my friends, the Enemy cares nothing for peace. He has only ever known truce, and ever broken it when suited him.”

“We have yet to speak of the League,” Lady Itima said. “The Tyrant offers aid to their wicked lot and sows chaos in his own ranks. It is madness, and I would not let a hound gone sick lounge at my threshold for long.”

“That is the nature of Kairos Theodosian,” Catherine said. “He will set fires until either the world is ash or he is.”

She had not spoken loudly, but it commanded the attention of all in the parlour. She blew out another stream of smoke, visibly savouring the leaf.

“Can’t set fires if there’s nothing left, though,” she idly continued. “And that’s what happens if the Dead King wins. So I’d suggest we all save ourselves some trouble and invite the Tyrant of Helike in here.”

She grinned.

“I’m rather curious how long it’ll take him to sell out the King of Death, this time.”

Interlude: Rise, Rise

“A treaty is fooling all the people at the right time, an alliance is fooling the right people all the time. A war is when all the people are fools all the time.”
– Prokopia Lekapene, first Hierarch of the League of Free Cities

The Carrion Lord’s spoken Chantant was flawless, the First Prince grudgingly admitted. Almost entirely without accent, too, and it was the tongue the most people in the hall would speak so it’d been the canniest choice. After such an incendiary claim it was no surprise that the hall fell into disarray, a hundred whispers filling the room as loudly as any ringing shout. There were many faces that Cordelia Hasenbach could have watched. The Dead King, the Enemy incarnate, was seated and still not a hundred feet from her. The ‘Firstborn’, whose unknown tongue and strange disposition married to the sudden strategic importance made increasingly important to understand. Even the Carrion Lord himself, who she had watched for some time as he had that terse, charged exchange with the Dread Empress in some eastern tongue. The pale man’s face had turned corpse-like halfway through, like a mask made of wax.

Malicia’s inhabited body was not so expressive, but she’d seemed shaken as well. Perhaps there truly was genuine sentiment between the two of them, Cordelia thought. It hardly mattered, with monsters like those. The First Prince’s gaze had left them before the end, though, turning to the tanned woman leaning back into her seat at the same table. Catherine Foundling’s face had not lost any of the sharp angles that meant no one would ever call her a beauty, but where before she’d seemed sullen there was now a certain… carefreeness. The Black Queen’s eyes had always been what softened her mien to something short of severe, Cordelia considered, but now instead of wild swings of emotion or utter iciness there was an unsettling candidness to what could be glimpsed in them. The First Prince had found her personable, when spoken to face-to-face, which she had not expected.

Which made it all the more chilling that the sequence of events the Black Queen had so offhandedly predicted last night was coming to pass so unerringly.

Cordelia Hasenbach was not above admitting when she had made a mistake, and her early assessments of Queen Catherine had been very much mistaken. She’d taken the lapses in etiquettes, the strange asides and poorly-kept temper to mean that the Black Queen was mediocre diplomat, and in truth little more than a charismatic warlord whose grip on power was maintained by terror in blood. Considering the other woman had since wheedled support out of the Kingdom Under – the likes of which had not been seen since Triumphant’s day! – and somehow become the foremost religious figure of the drow and then leveraged this into the Everdark’s entry into the war, it would be absurd to keep believing as much. And so much of this was absurd already, Cordelia grimly thought. How could anyone have a pitched battle with the Dominion and somehow come out of the slaughter in good odour with the Blood?

No, Foundling was not a mediocre diplomat. She simply disdained the usual means of diplomacy, which had seemed the same when it was through these that Cordelia interacted with her. Her Liesse Accords, which admittedly she professed to be as much the work of Vivienne Dartwick and Hakram Deadhand, were also a diplomatic solution coming from a woman the First Prince had once considered a canny, dangerous thug with an army. It was necessary to reassess what she’d once thought of the Black Queen, for though she was now an ally only a fool kept both eyes on the stag when hunting with a wolf. Cordelia had known all of this, or at least thought she did. Yet looking at Catherine’s Foundling calm face, the barely-veiled sympathy she looked at the Carrion Lord with, she could not help shiver. For all that the Black Queen had yet to even address the hall, every person here had so far danced to the tune of her choice. Cordelia set aside the thoughts and the wariness, striking at the table as her majordomo loudly called for order. The noise withdrew, leaving a palpable sensation of absence in its wake.

“We recognize the words of the Carrion Lord,” the First Prince said. “Yet let it be said, and known, that this conference claims not the authority to install or depose rulers.”

Enthusiastic approval from the Dominion’s tables at that, as they’d been understandably wary of the precedents that might be set today. For all that Levant now stood strong compared to a weakened Procer and bloodied Callow, it would not last forever. None of the Blood wanted foreigners to us this conference as pretext to meddle in Dominion affairs a decade from now, when their power waned and Procer’s waxed. Cordelia waited a beat, for her partner in this intricate dance to step in. The Black Queen rose to her feet, demanding the floor, and a nod from the First Prince to her majordomo had it granted.

“The Wasteland’s affairs are its own,” Catherine Foundling said, then offered the Empress a hard smile, “at least for now. Yet it cannot be denied that the Carrion Lord speaks for the Legion-in-Exiles, and others among the Dread Empire. We may not have the right to crown him, but let us not shy from practical realities for politeness’ sake.”

And there it was. The line that would allow them to hamstring Dread Empress Malicia and bring the Carrion Lord to the table without granting her the wellspring of Praesi support that ‘foreigners attempting to place their chosen candidate atop the Tower’ might otherwise garner. Lord Yannu Marave rose and was passed the right to speak.

“The Dominion backs the right of the Carrion Lord to speak for the Legions-in-Exile and any other who come under his banner,” the Lord of Alava said, his Chantant polished and practiced.

He had been the right choice, the First Prince decided. Razin Tanja was emerging as a rival power among the Blood, and one the Grey Pilgrim was taking an interest in, but he was young and not as skilled a speaker.

“The Kingdom of Callow seconds this,” Vivienne Dartwick said, tone brisk.

A moment passed as the Black Queen raised an eyebrow at the drow.

“The Empire Ever Dark recognizes the Lord of Carrion and his rights,” General Rumena said, sounding amused.

It – Cordelia had learned that the drow eschewed sexes, and found insult in their use – was smiling most unsettlingly, the pale blue eyes that seemed universal to its kind never blinking. It was ancient, the First Prince tell that much by a simple glance. Yet it also looked ancient. Given that the Black Queen had once casually mentioned her attendant, the one they called the Lord of Silent Steps, had been alive before the Conquest and yet looked near boyish the princess had to wonder how long it would take for age to become so visible among one of their kind. Centuries? A thousand years?

“Why don’t you take this one, Leo,” the Tyrant of Helike said, grinning as he winked. “Did I not say that I would allow other voices than my own to be heard?”

The Basileus of Nicae, Leo Trakas, looked hesitant at the sudden offer. The young man was unfortunately not a well-known quantity to her. Until recently his ancient office had been the lesser of the powers in the city-state, largely concerned with stewardship and ceremony while the ruling Strategos truly held the reins. Strategos Nereida Silantis had been an ally of hers, and one cultivated by half a decade of gifts and correspondence as well as fair mediation between Ashur and Nicae. She’d also died when the Tyrant took Nicae and in the chaos Leo Trakas had seized great authority, preventing the nomination of another Strategos. His victories against the Thalassocracy had since ensured he was highly popular in Nicae, though his hold on rule was a great deal more fragile than one would assume at first glance.

He’d be deposed within the month, should he blunder badly enough the people turned against him. The Basileus mastered himself, after a moment, and as Kairos Theodosian had no doubt expected him to do he chose the safe path.

“The League of Free Cities abstains,” Leo Trakas said.

Which left only one vote, until Procer delivered its own.

“The Thalassocracy abstains,” Sitter Ahirom said.

The man had kept his composure, but it was visibly fraying at the seams. As it would be, Cordelia thought. Magon Hadast might have been forced to break alliances to repay a debt of gratitude and prevent the starvation of his people that might follow ingratitude, but keeping company with Keter and Ater was nothing to be proud of. Much less when it was becoming increasingly clear that neither the Crown nor the Tower were quite as masterful as they’d no doubt pretended to be.

“The Principate of Procer supports the motion,” Cordelia Hasenbach crisply spoke into the silence. “Four in favour and two abstentions, the motion passes. The Carrion Lord’s right to speak for the designated peoples is accepted by this hall.”

In the silence that followed, the First Prince of Procer mused, one could almost hear the first spark of civil war in the Wasteland.

It had all been going smoothly, which in Vivienne Dartwick’s experience meant the other shoe was due to drop.

The Black Knight – she knew he held the Name no longer, but how could that man ever be anything but the Black Knight in her eyes? – had a seat at the table without this conference and its heart, the Grand Alliance, overreaching by attempting to enthrone him. Most importantly, the careful wording the First Prince had convinced Lord Yannu to employ had deep implications down the line. And any who come under his banner, the large Levantine had said, and the wording had been upheld even if Hasenbach had been careful not to repeat it. It meant that the Black Knight could be offered terms now, lenient ones, and that those terms could then be made to apply to all of Praes should he become Dread Emperor. As Dread Empress Malicia had earned little but hate from those in this hall, any terms she might receive would be decidedly inferior. It was leverage that might tip the scales win favour of supporting the Carrion Lord among certain Praesi, though unless the Empress outright abdicated it was good as certain there’d be a civil war between their supporters.

Not necessarily a long one, given that the loyalties of the Legions of Terror might just swing in his favour hard and early, but Wasteland wars were always nasty stuff.

Another two rounds of the tables saw confirmed the recognition of Dread Empress Malicia – even the Carrion Lord voted in favour, amusingly enough, which made the vote unanimous in favour with Magister Zoe Ixioni’s assent in the name of the League – and another for the Dead King. Ashur abstained on that one, as did the Black Knight, and Nestor Ikaroi of the Secretariat voted against in the name of the League. Malicia was his sworn ally, however, and the Grand Alliance delegations had all been forewarned and agreed on common action, which meant that the majority in favour carried the vote. The King of Death had his seat and his vote, at least for now. Not that the motions had much power outside the strictures of the peace conference: they were a tool to manipulate the rules of this game through formality, not something that could be used to truly produce diplomatic results.

Vivienne had voiced the votes for the Kingdom of Callow both times, Catherine remaining silent. She knew well what it was Cat was doing, giving her the duty to speak for their shared home in front of every great power on Calernia. It was as tacit an endorsement of her as a successor there could be without Vivienne being named a princess, which would be… complicated to accomplish, and likely require her adoption into House Foundling. Setting aside the thoughts, Vivienne forced herself to sharpen her focus on the proceedings. Though the Dead King had yet to speak a word, little more than a grim sculpture of bones, the Empress had no shared such compulsions. With a pleasant, sonorous voice – Vivienne wondered if the body had been picked for it – she opened her part of the dance. The Carrion Lord, a mere landless rebel, had been allowed to address the hall while the rightful ruler of Praes had been denied the same right, she said, which was miscarriage of procedure.

It was not an unexpected assault. Hasenbach had named it a likely avenue, since refusing the Empress would taint the appearance of fair proceedings and accepting would allow her to go on the offensive while bypassing the agreed-on order of affairs. Which would otherwise keep her contained until hours into the talks simply by speaking of very little Praes could weigh in on.

“We recognize the words of Dread Empress Malicia of Praes,” the First Prince said.

Malicia’s mangled puppet smoothly rose to her feet.

“The Dread Empire cedes its speaking right to the Thalassocracy of Ashur,” she smoothly said.

Ah, Vivienne thought, almost grimacing. And there went the first stumble in the plan. Tightening the vise on the opposition by hammering home how isolated the League and the Empire were one motion after another wouldn’t work if Ashur withdrew from the Grand Alliance formally before the talks had even begun. Sitter Ahirom rose to his feet, acknowledging the First Prince’s evenly spoken recognition of his right to speak with a nod.

“I speak now the words of Magon Hadast, citizen of the second tier of the Baalite Hegemony, Sitter of the Eminent Committee,” the man said.

A heartbeat of silence passed.

“As of this day, the Thalassocracy of Ashur declares its withdrawal from the Grand Alliance and all attendant treaties,” Sitter Ahirom said.

Few across the room were surprised, and those that were told much to Vivienne. The Dominion had been brought into this early and the Firstborn had only middling interest in matters unrelated to the war against the Dead King, but the lack of surprise did come as a surprise to Sitter Ahirom himself. It was as the First Prince had speculated, then: Ashur was good as blind on the continent, and clutching at any offered driftwood that would prevent it from drowning. More interestingly, there was a great deal of surprise among the League’s delegation. Not Magister Ixioni, though, Vivienne thought. Helike and Stygia were traditionally kept close alliance when the League was at war, as they fielded its finest armies and typically both benefited greatly from strife. A Tyrant’s rule also meant that Below held the reins in both city-states, buoying Evil in the Free Cities for a span.

Delos and Atalante had both had no idea. The general from Bellerophon still looked lost and afraid of asking questions, but the two Penthesians were calm. Better at hiding their thoughts, or in the know?

“Penthes?” Vivienne murmured.

“Theodosian owns and informs them, I’d wager,” the Black Knight softly said. “Prodocius has an emperor’s ambition and the wits of a well-bred trout while Honorion is afflicted by that peculiar condition where one comes to believe that gold makes up for any and all shortcomings. Scribe has theorized the Tyrant ensured they’d be the last two claimants because they are singularly inept at anything but banquets and squabbling.”

“If he leans towards one we could back the other,” Hakram suggested.

“Tyrant’s too canny for that,” Cat grunted. “He’ll have them both convinced he’s secretly helping them against the other.”

“The Empire has influence there as well, through trade,” the Black Knight said. “Penthes is a dead end. Nicae might not be.”

Basileus Leo Trakas looked like someone had slapped him across the face. He was a handsome one, Vivienne thought, though less so when his eyes were narrowed in surprised anger.

“He doesn’t know about the ships yet,” Vivienne quietly said. “Otherwise he’d be storming out. Trakas only thinks he’s about to get strong-armed into backing off Ashur by his own side.”

“Agreed,” Catherine said. “He’s not smooth enough to keep it in the pot if he gets knifed that hard and deep in the back.”

“Then we approach him during the recess,” Hakram said. “We lack proof beyond the Tyrant’s own words, which only a fool would take, but the groundwork can be laid.”

“Hasenbach tried to use Nicae as a counterweight for Kairos and that went over about as well as pepper in a kennel,” Cat reminded them.

“If enough of the League’s armies keep withdrawing to their territory, it no longer matters that Theodosian is dominant,” the Black Knight noted. “He’ll no longer have the strength to collapse Procer or invade Callow, which effectively muzzles him.”

Which would be ideal, as far as she was concerned, since acting against the madman outright was likely to see them burned. If he could instead be dragged back into the lesser squabbles of the League of Free Cities until the war against Keter was brought to an end it should be significantly less risky of a proposition. Which meant bending the individual city-states, and that would require significantly more pressure than the coalition had brought to bear so far.

“We need to strike while they’re still uncertain,” Vivienne said.

Catherine looked at her curiously.

“We out it now, Cat,” Vivienne said. “It’s out of the order, but then so was this. It ought to put them on the back foot again.”

The Queen of Callow considered it for a moment, then nodded.

“Hakram,” she said, “find me an in.”

The orc’s brow creased as he put his superb memory to work.

“This isn’t a motion, it’s an address,” the Adjutant said. “Which means we can ask for right of reply on if what we speak of is associated. If the First Prince grant it, which I’d venture to assume.”

Catherine’s lips quirked into half a smile and she turned.

“Do it.”

Vivienne started in surprise, looking at the woman that was both her ruler and her friend.

“This isn’t a vote, Cat,” she said. “It’s-”

“I know what it is,” Catherine said. “It was your notion, and a good one. Besides, you’re the one who’ll reign under it. Speak the words.”

Vivienne breathed out shallowly. But it was too late to flinch, to fear. It’d been too late since that night in Laure where she’d chosen to bet on the Squire. She rose to her feet.

“The Kingdom of Callow request right of reply,” Vivienne Dartwick said.

Cordelia Hasenbach, tall and fair and with eyes like chips of ice, considered her for a moment.

“We recognize the words of Lady Dartwick, heiress-designate to Callow,” the First Prince said.

“Pertaining the Grand Alliance, as addressed by Sitter Ahirom,” Vivienne said, “we declare now before Gods and men that the Kingdom of Callow is a member and signatory.”

Winter II

“Good for a day, a man. For a year, a priest. For a decade, a Chosen. For a lifetime, a fable.”
– Alamans saying

“The western shore has held,” Princess Rozala Malanza announced.

There was a round of cheers, and even some of the royals among the crowd bent their pride enough to participate. Hanno found the customs of the Principate interesting, for much of the rules that bound their behaviour to each other were unwritten. This very assembly, for example. Though the city of Cleves was ruled by Prince Gaspard, who had commanded the defence of the principality for three months before the relieving armies arrived, when assembly was had in the prince’s hall the man always deferred to Rozala Malanza. The Princess of Aequitan, while leading such assemblies, in turn always offered Prince Gaspard the courtesies due to a close friend even though as far as Hanno could tell they could hardly stand each other. The grey-haired man that ruled Cleves was said to stand opposed to much the younger princess’ politics, for though he was only a lukewarm supporter of the First Prince he’d been hostile to the alliance led by Prince Amadis of Iserre – of which, Hanno had been informed, Rozala Malanza was part.

The almost bewildering amount of subtleties to every interaction between the princes and princesses in Cleves was difficult to understand, though often Hanno grasped the shape of what was taking place. Though what some had called his father’s unfortunate marriage meant that even within his citizenship tier he’d never been seriously considered for any of the committees, the dark-haired man himself had once been scribe to the Outer Tribunal. He’d seen the ways the higher tiers heeded conventions of their own that no mere scribe could understand, and the unseen pull those could have on the exercise of all things. Still, some aspects of this remained clear to his eye. In matters of war, Princess Rozala Malanza stood first among equals in Cleves. Even orders from the Iron Prince, fighting fiercely to reclaim Hainaut from the dead, would only ever be taken as suggestions – though suggestions well-heeded, for no man was half so practiced at the war against the Dead King as Prince Klaus Papenheim.

The First Prince of Procer was the highest authority of all, in principle, but she had so far refrained from handing out orders through her Order of the Red Lion. She was said, though, to be moving stone and sea to ensure supplies arrived on time and aplenty on all three northern fronts while pursuing a campaign of her own against the Carrion Lord’s army in the heartlands. Cordelia Hasenbach’s readiness to support a political enemy – Rozala Malanza’s hatred of the First Prince and her allies was an open secret – as well she could and without then meddling at every turn for the sake of the defence of Cleves had impressed the White Knight. Restraint and farsightedness were laudable traits, but especially encouraging when displayed by the ruler who was to be the backbone of the war against Keter.

“Princess Adeline’s army held the beaches until the enemy retreated, and Cantal horse intercepted a flanking force that’d made shore unseen,” Princess Rozala said. “Yet we would all have been days too late, if not for the intervention of the Chosen: we thank the Witch of the Woods and the Valiant Champion, who held the main force at Sengrin for three days and three nights.”

Another cheer followed, even more enthusiastic than the first. The royalty and their attendants turned their gaze to the heroines of the day, which Princess Rozala had requested attend – Raphaella usually did not, and Antigone had confessed finding the proceedings enormously tedious. The Champion was grinning as she preened under their praise, though, and the Witch seeming rather taken aback. Antigone detested cities save for the towering and airy labyrinths of the Gigantes, and as a rule was less than fond of crowds. She’d been forced to suffer both for some time during the defence of Cleves, which was why she was always so eager to take the field against the dead far from the capital whenever opportunity arose. Which was why she’d no notion of how high in the esteem of the Procerans she had risen, the mystery of her mask and aversion to speaking with them only adding to her allure. Already three poems describing the heartbreaking beauty she was hiding under the clay were floating around the city, one even rumoured to have been written by the eldest son and heir of Prince Gaspard.

“It was a victory, and one worth celebrating, yet we must not lower our guard,” Princess Rozala said. “The Dead still have a beachhead at Trifelin, and we’ve reason to believe the attacks on the western shore were meant to draw away some of our forces before an assault from the east.”

The mere mention of the name of Trifelin cast a shroud over what had been a rambunctious assembly. After the siege of Cleves was first broken and the armies under Princess Rozala bolstered the defences, a general offensive had been undertaken to reclaim the shores that’d fallen to the Dead King’s first wave of corpses. Along the shores of Lake Pavin, to the west, the campaign had largely been a success: Prince Alejandro of Segovia had ridden out with much of the Proceran horse and shattered the warbands that’d been ravaging the countryside. Even as a second wave of foot under the Princess of Orne had begun to march there to thoroughly sweep and then garrison the coast, near two thirds of the living armies in the principality had marched in pursuit of the retreating undead army that’d besieged Cleves. The pursuit had led to a mining village by the name of Trifelin, perhaps a day’s march from the northern coast and less than a week’s march from the border with Hainaut. The White Knight still remembered the battle that’d raged there, the utter brutality of it. It’d been the harshest defeat the defenders had been inflicted so far.

The Dead, they later learned, had found a shepherd’s trail leading to the shore of the Tomb that’d allowed them to quietly mass numbers. It’d been an ambush, the purported retreat of the undead a trap to bait the Proceran armies away from walls and defensible grounds. The undead had poured in from the sides when the army was still stretched out in a marching column, archers firing volleys one after another and undead leaping off slopes heedlessly. Often they were simply aiming to kill a soldier with their fall so that the dead man could be raised and turned against his comrades in the heartbeat that followed. It’d been bloody fighting, and Hanno’s order to send the Fortunate Fool ahead of the column had seemingly not paid the dividends he’d expected. Yet the tide had begun to turn when the Mirror Knight struck at a cliff until it collapsed atop him, allowing for a countercharge by Rozala Malanza’s cavalry that swept through the undead archers on one side. It was only moment later that the White Knight was found by the Fortunate Fool, who as it turned out had fallen down a crumbling mine shaft, and only then was the full horror of the trap revealed.

Trifelin was a mining village, and even as Cleves was besieged the dead had been expanding on the tunnels. The Hidden Horror had been laying this trap for months. The Fool’s warning made the difference: Hanno found Antigone and told her of what was coming. When the Dead collapse the tunnels under the outstretched army, the Witch still held the grounds aloft for half an hour through sorcery before collapsing unconscious. And so only six thousand died, at the edges of where the Witch had stood and worked her magic, instead of what could easily have been twice that – if not thrice. All those that died in the collapse rose before the dust had even settled, and though the Vagrant Spear and the Valiant Champion led a furious counter-attack against the undead that was the moment where Keter first revealed its Revenants: a dozen dead heroes and villains had hit the lines and broken the last of the Proceran army’s cohesion, routing it within moments. Hanno and Christophe found Arnaud Brogloise’s still mostly untouched infantry and led it in a rearguard action until night fell, which allowed most the army to retreat, but in the dark thousands more were hunted and slain by prowling ghouls.

Casualties at Trifelin numbered over twelve thousand, at the last count, and given that those losses instantly bolstered the Keteran forces by that much there had not been a major offensive in the northeast of Cleves since. The Dead King’s beachhead was being contained by a ring of fortresses, and Hanno had sent two of his own in the region to stiffen resistance, but those measures would not suffice. It was only a matter of time until the Dead resumed a general offensive, and Trifelin was likely to be where the hammer came down from.

“Prince Gaspard,” Princess Rozala said, “I would now invite you to share the latest news from Hainaut.”

Raphaella, disappointed to no longer be the subject of cheering, cast a curious look at him and Hanno shook his head. She was free to leave if she so wished. The Champion wasted no time disappearing into the crowd of officers, many of them clapping her back and speaking to her on her way out. The Witch followed closely behind after watching Hanno for a moment. Back leaning forward, head moving to the right. Apology for abandoning him to such an assembly, even if she felt in her right to do so. He replied straight-backed, rolling his eyes with chin raised and slightly moving to the left. Haughty amusement, without sting. She was chuckling under her mask as she left, curtly refusing to speak with the officers brave enough to address her.

“Prince Klaus caught the dead flatfooted at the Prisoner’s Mercy with his heavy horse and his spears, breaking ten thousand and the latest offensive against the capital,” Prince Gaspard said. “Keter has not fielded a great army since, for fear of losing it as well!”

The cheers that followed were hardy and desperate, for all knew the defence of Hainaut had been a losing battle and should Cleves’ eastern neighbour fall the principality would not be far behind.

“A great victory,” Prince Gaspard said when the cheering died. “Yet to achieve it much of the garrisons in the northern crags had to be stripped empty, and once ceded that ground will not easily be regained. The Iron Prince cautions us that the Dead now hold the shores of Hainaut without contest, and that they may begin marching reinforcements towards our northeast along the shoreline.”

It was an unsettling thought, and one that dimmed the enthusiasm that’d begun to bloom anew.

“An attempt was also made on the life of the Iron Prince and Princess Mathilda of Neustria, by some fresh manner of ghoul,” the Prince of Cleves continued, tone grim. “They speak to the monsters being more cunning than the usual breed, and possessed of the ability to squeeze through very small spaces. Princess Mathilda was attacked in a holdfast as she slept and took a wound.”

Uneasy murmurs passed.

“Mathilda Greensteel informs us that they die just as easily to steel as the rest, and shriek most satisfyingly when struck with fire,” Prince Gaspard drily added.

Laughter and some surprisingly fond words about Lycaonese valour chased away the uneasiness, likely as the Prince of Cleves had meant to achieve.

“I will be sending the Painted Knife to Hainaut to guard against further attempts,” the White Knight spoke into the silence. “The Repentant Magister will accompany her in scholarly capacity. It has been thrice now that undead still unknown to Cleves have been revealed in Hainaut, and I want them studied for weaknesses before they are faced on our walls.”

It would also prevent Christophe and Kallia from coming to blows again. The fury of their last argument had yet to leave them, and it was only a matter of time until it erupted once more. As for Nephele, a month or two proving the knowledge she had learned at the feet of the Magisterium could be used to fight the Enemy would do her a great good, and Hanno’s understanding was that the situation at the capital of Hainaut was a great deal less perilous than at Cleves. At least for the moment. A rest away from the frontlines would help her find her strength again.

“Would the Forsworn Healer not suffice in such capacity?” Prince Arnaud of Cantal called out. “How many Chosen must we lend to the Iron Prince before he grows satisfied?

Several faces darkened in irritation, others betrayed faint embarrassment: the demarcation between those who were not allies of Arnaud Brogloise and those who were. Hanno watched the man mildly. The prince was prone to bluster, and hardly a popular man even with his allies, but he tended to keep his calm when doom came to call. It was the reason he remained tolerated to such extent. That and Rozala Malanza’s deft handling of him, which was why so many eyes turned to the Princess of Aequitan in the wake of her ally’s comment. Still, there was something about Arnaud Brogloise that had him itching for the coin. A sense of wrongness that only the judgement of the Tribunal would truly be able to settle in his mind. Yet that would have been… unwise. If given reason he would without hesitation, but he had not yet been given reason. In some ways it was a shame that Kallia would soon leave, for among the heroes in Cleves her skills at moving unseen were second to none.

“Surely you did not mean to imply that the Chosen are ours to command, Arnaud,” Princess Rozala smilingly said.

The prince’s already blotchy face reddened.

“Of course not,” he said. “Only, perhaps, that in times of war royal wisdom is best heeded and-”

“Royal wisdom was heeded,” Hanno evenly interrupted. “That of the First Prince of Procer, when she granted the heroes of the Tenth Crusade leave to deploy as they would in accompaniment of her armies.”

“And surely one must not court even the shadow of Her Most Serene Highness’ displeasure,” Prince Alejandro of Segovia said, tone masterfully straddling the line between earnest and sardonic.

Prince Gaspard sneered at the handsome younger man in distaste, but all held their tongue. As Hanno understood it, hard words were still occasionally exchanged over the fact that all the reinforcing royals had voted and even agitated against the measures in the Highest Assembly that’d provided gold for the refurbishing of many of the fortress walls they now fought behind. Prince Alejandro was still on occasion heard to bitterly say that Cordelia Hasenbach’s scheme to spruce up Lycaonese lands with Arlesite gold had paid rather unexpected dividends at this late hour, though only in his cups and in carefully chosen company. When the reinforcing princes had first come, for all their help they’d still been remembered by the people of Cleves as the royalty that’d nearly tossed Cleves and Hainault to the dogs so that Iserre would not suffer Praesi raids. Their reputation had starkly improved since, but their offences were not yet forgot.

“As you say,” Hanno agreed. “That aside, the Silent Guardian and the Silver Huntress have now been at the fortress ring for three months. I will be recalling them for rest and recuperation. As this will coincide with rotation of troops among you as well, I would hear of the designated commanders’ preferences.”

He made no promise to heed them, but he would at least listen. The amused look Princess Rozala cast him made it plain she’d noticed as much though the man meant to accompany her own forces, Prince Arnaud Brogloise, seemed blind to the subtlety.

“I’ll want the Witch of the Woods,” the Prince of Cantal said. “And call the fool anyone who‘d choose otherwise.”

“As was explained at previous councils, Antigone’s ability to work great magics means she is best kept in reserve so she can blunt the Enemy’s offensives,” the White Knight patiently replied. “As she did so recently at Sengrin.”

“Offence is the very essence of war, young man,” Prince Arnaud asserted. “Why, if you were under my command we’d already-”

“I thank you for your contribution,” Hanno serenely replied,

His gaze moved to Princess Rozala, ignoring Prince Arnaud’s spluttering.

“I don’t suppose I could talk you into shaking loose the Valiant Champion?” the Princess of Aequitan smiled.

“I had meant to send the Vagrant Spear to relieve the Silver Huntress,” Hanno admitted. “And the two of them…”

The dark-haired princess sharply nodded, too polite to outright grimace. It was not that Raphaella and Sidonia were at odds, much to the contrary. After some stilted awkwardness due to the significance of Raphaella’s Name to Levantines, they’d become fast friends. Which, for women who were bound to the Champion’s line and the Slayer’s line, meant hunting very dangerous monsters together, drinking every bottle of hard liquor at hand and finding people to either brawl or sleep with. Inherently there was nothing terrible about this, but it did tend to cause some degree of damage to their surroundings. Less than ideal, on the frontlines. It also tended to cause betting pools to form, which Hanno had been told Alamans disapproved of on grounds of impiety.

“Lady Spear has a talent for striding the wilds, I’m told,” Rozala said. “A good fit to relieve the Lady Huntress at Hochelin fortress, given the heights. It is Sautefort I am wary of, for they’ve been seeing larger numbers try their walls lately. A steady sort will be needed.”

“I had been considering the Myrmidon,” the White Knight said. “Yet I can see your concern. She is not the most talkative among us.”

She spoke none of the Proceran tongues, but if she stayed with heroes who could understand her native Aenian she’d likely never bother to learn any of them beyond a handful of words. It would have been good for her, the steady fighting and camaraderie slowly easing her into the learning. Hanno was not, however, beyond acceding to larger concerns.

“The Mirror Knight will ride to replace the Silent Guardian, then,” he said.

There was a thrum of satisfaction in the room, as there always was whenever Christophe was mentioned. Though the Procerans had been duly thankful that heroes had come to help their support against the Dead King, it’d rankled some that so many of the Named they must rely on and occasionally obey were nearly all foreigners. The Mirror Knight, very clearly Alamans and of respectable birth, had been the darling of those since they first heard of him. He remained highly popular with Procerans as a whole, helped in that by the unusual strength of his Name. His growth had not been in wild spurts, as it was for some Named, but the steady regularity of it remained troubling to Hanno. What manner of Evil was Christophe meant to fight, that he would need such strength? Something to see to after the war. There were more pressing matters. It might be needed to send someone with the Mirror Knight, Hanno decided. When exposed to long to the admiration of his people without counterpoint, Christophe tended to lapse into regrettable arrogance. A steady presence at his side reminding him that his power was meant to serve and not be gloried in could only do him some good.

“Three cheers for the Mirror Knight, then,” Prince Arnaud of Cantal loudly said.

“And all our other trusted comrades among the Chosen,” Princess Rozala added, a tad more diplomatically.

Wine was promptly sent for. Hanno was not all that fond of the drink, truth be told, or even drinking spirits as a whole. Yet Procerans drank wine by the barrel whenever they had an excuse, toasting even their worst enemies without batting an eye for the right vintage. Attendants returned with glasses already filled – it would be different bottles for the royals and the officers, Hanno suspected – and a shyly smiling young woman in Cleves livery offered him his glass.

“Thank you,” he replied, then paused.

Like an itch on the back of his neck, a hum in his bones. The attendant paled, thinking she’d given offence. Hanno calmly set down his glass on the table to his side.

“I’d suggest taking cover,” he kindly said,

In the same moment he unsheathed his sword, feeling his Name roar in his veins.

“The Enemy comes,” the White Knight roared along with it.

Bells began to ring outside, and a moment later claws the size of a horse tore the ceiling open. A sky-shaking scream erupted from the fanged mouth of the gargantuan winged beast half-revealed through the tears, and even as he felt the Light well up in him the White Knight could not resist but to feel the slightest bit thankful.

The attack, after all, had come before he was forced to drink the wine out of politeness.