“You can’t drop a pin in Procer without hitting royalty.”
-Eleusia Vokor, Nicaean ambassador to the Principate
Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer, idly glanced at her paperweight and pondered how satisfying it would feel to break Prince Amadis’ nose with it. No such thoughts, of course, appeared on her face as she continued to listen to the ruler of Iserre lay out his objections to the Principate’s current political stance. Objections was admittedly a generous term to use. One might have called the man’s tone “whiny” if one cared to pass such a judgement, but properly raised ladies like Cordelia did not venture such opinions out loud. For all that southerners were convinced that the Lycaonese were one bad harvest away from barbarism, manners had been drilled into her from an early age.
“If these Callowan paupers insist on taking Proceran gold, it is only fitting they should be led by a Proceran commander,” Amadis finished, the smugly self-satisfied smirk on his face tempting Cordelia’s hand to drift towards the paperweight.
She allowed silence to linger long enough that the cold glare levelled onto him by Uncle Klaus started to make the Iserran shift uncomfortably before replying.
“The Liesse Rebellion is a popular uprising, Prince Amadis, at least in appearance. We must not allow the shadow of foreign interests to be cast on that image,” she reminded the man patiently.
That she even had to explain this much to a ruler over twice her age was galling. For all that the Prince of Iserre had a way with intrigue, his grasp on popular opinion was… dubious. The Alamans rulers had spent so long playing the Ebb and the Flow that they were completely out of touch with the people they were supposed to rule over. That is what happens when one is the fulcrum of a nation’s political elite for nigh a thousand year, she reflected.
“With all due respect, First Princess Cordelia,”-
“Prince,” she corrected flatly. “First Prince.”
It seemed to dumbfound southerners that she still went by the Rhenian formal address rather than the more gender-accurate one she’d gained upon her election as the ruler of the Principate. While she was technically the princess of Salia, now that she’d gained the title of First Prince, she refused to allow the southlings to slight her heritage by refusing to acknowledge that she came from the northernmost principality of Procer. Rhenia was still backwards in some regards and the laws had never been officially amended to reflect the reality of women ruling, but she was proud of her origins nonetheless. Not that she would expect an Alamans to understand. Their own tribal confederation had joined with the disparate Arlesite holds to found the Principate and they’d never allowed anybody to forget it. Meanwhile the Lycaonese were made part of Procer by conquest, as they are so fond of remembering for us. Yet this particular Lycaonese was the lawfully elected ruler of the Principate and she would not allow this wretch of a man to forget it.
“Your… advice has been duly noted, Prince Amadis,” she spoke calmly. “We will explore all avenues open to us, but at this point in time direct Proceran involvement does not seem like a feasible option.”
In truth, imposing a foreign general would be utterly disastrous. For all that Liesse had bought an army’s worth of mercenaries in Mercantis, over half of the rebellion’s rank and file was peasant levies from southern Callow. Should the Countess Marchford be replaced by a prince of the Highest Assembly as Amadis so clearly desired, mass desertion would follow. Callowans were notoriously touchy about their independence and while they would fight for a restored Kingdom they would not bear arms to forge a Proceran protectorate. Amadis took the implied dismissal with ill-grace, as Cordelia had expected him to. The prince of Iserre bowed to the exact degree he was expected to and not an inch lower before leaving the room. Normally she would have taken the time to smooth over the man’s ruffled feathers, but today he’d tried her patience too much. It would not do to allow him the impression he could push her this far on a daily basis. She’d have to make that statement more pointedly, of course. The man was working trade deals in Creusens, sabotaging a lucrative but not politically relevant one should get the point across. A moment passed, then Uncle Klaus rose from his seat and poured himself a glass of mead. The grizzled prince of Hannoven eyed the silver-gilded goblet with puritan disdain before gulping down a mouthful.
“Not your most loyal subject, that one,” Klaus grunted.
Cordelia snorted. “He would sell me out for a basket of fish,” she agreed. “It would not even have to be fresh fish.”
And yet, irksome as it was, she would continue to have to play nice with the man. Amadis had made too many alliances to be dismissed out of hand. His keeping Iserre largely out of the civil war had allowed him to emerge from the two decades of warfare with an intact power base and full coffers. In the wake of Cordelia’s rise to power malcontents from the Alamans and Arlesite principalities had flocked to him like maggots to a corpse, bolstering his power and influence to a very troublesome extent.
“He’s a buffoon,” her uncle decided after a moment. “Spends more gold on throwing banquets than equipping the Iserran army.”
“He is a buffoon making inroads in Creusens and Segovia,” she reminded him with a sigh. “That makes him a particularly dangerous specimen of the breed.”
The prince of Hannoven smiled wolfishly.
“Let him try his luck, then,” he said. “We taught them to fear northern blades, at Lange and Aisne. A third time will sink in that lesson properly.”
Cordelia loved her uncle dearly. He’d been the one to command her armies during the civil war, and she would never have managed to unite the four Lycaonese principalities without his backing. He was, in truth, one of the finest military minds in the Principate. While the principalities of the centre and the south had been playing their petty games Uncle Klaus had been taking on the endless flood of warbands trickling down from the Chain of Hunger, and when the time had come for Cordelia to claim the throne he’d shattered every army that stood between her and it. But he saw things through the lens of military affairs only, and in the Highest Assembly that was the kind of flaw that got you murdered in your bed. Amadis would not trigger another civil war, if he started to really oppose her. After twenty years of the Principate bleeding itself to death none of its rulers wanted to start another fire. He’d simply start going after her support base until she became little more than a figurehead to the Principate.
“We have other preoccupations at the moment,” Cordelia murmured. “The Dominion has been shuffling around troops and Helike keeps testing Princess Francesca’s borders.”
“Helike’s just blustering, they always do when a Tyrant gets in charge,” Klaus dismissed. “They won’t take on the Principate now that the civil war’s over. The rest of the League wouldn’t have it anyway.”
“That still leaves Levant,” Cordelia spoke. “The Dominion has been itching to take a bite out of Orense for decades. They would swallow the entire principality if they thought they could get away with it.”
“If you’re that worried, lend them the gold to rebuild their army to a decent standard,” her uncle spoke flatly.
The First Prince of Procer rubbed the bridge of her nose, allowing herself the impropriety only because there was no one else in the room to see it.
“I cannot do that without removing lending restrictions for all principalities,” she told Klaus.
And that was not something she could do. Not when her position was still so weak. No power could challenge the newly-founded Hasenbach dynasty as of yet, not with the kind of backing she had, but should the south be rebuilt… There were just so many people living down there, compared to where her power was based. Her enemies could afford to fill the ranks with fresh recruits, if they lost a battle. She could not. And for us every loss on the field is one less soldier to man the walls when the Chain of Hunger comes again, one less watcher keeping an eye on the Kingdom of the Dead. The south could not be allowed to regain its footing just yet, not before she’d secured the throne.
“You know I hate agreeing with the likes of Amadis on anything,” Klaus spoke quietly, “but he’s almost got a point. This rebellion gambit is risky. And even if they win, it won’t amount to much. Liesse is an incompetent wastrel, Cordelia. He’s got no business being in charge of a chamber pot, much less a kingdom.”
The ruler of Procer sighed and forced herself not to fiddle with her hair. It was a bad habit, and it had taken her chambermaid the better part of an hour to style the blonde locks that morning.
“Pour me a glass, would you?” she said.
Her uncle’s white brows rose in surprise. She rarely drank, mostly because she disliked the loss of control that came with being drunk. This time, though, the conversation ahead of her warranted the indulgence. Klaus wordlessly filled a cup and handed it to her. Technically speaking it was illegal for a prince to hand anything to the ruling First Prince of Procer, but when it was just the two of them she tended to ignore those little formalities. Odds were her uncle had never bothered to learn them. Regardless, she had no intention of allowing a cupbearer into her solar when they could overhear state secrets.
“We are running out of options, uncle,” Cordelia admitted. “The longer we delay, the more the Empire strengthens their grip on Callow. The reports are unanimous: outside the cities, most of the Kingdom no longer cares it is under occupation. They do not think the Legions of Terror can be beaten and the standard of living for the peasantry under Praes is better than it was under the Fairfax dynasty. They have no stomach for rebellion and if we wait a few more years I am afraid they might actually resist an attempt to liberate them.”
The prince of Hannoven looked like he was about to spit in distaste until he remembered where he was sitting.
“We’re not ready for a war with Praes,” Klaus told her, though it visibly pained him to say it. “Not when they’ve got people like Black and Grem One-Eye on the other side. If we send a host through the Red Flower Vales, they’ll savage it and set the border principalities on fire.”
Cordelia took a deeper sip, letting the sweet taste of the honey-wine linger in her mouth.
“We can no longer afford not to be at war with the Empire,” she replied. “And for all that you worry about the likes of the Black Knight, Malicia is the real danger.”
“Malicia’s been spending all her time keeping her nobles in line,” he scorned. “And she’s not the one the Legions are loyal to.”
“If the Knight was intending a coup he would have already made his attempt,” Cordelia noted. “Regardless, the Augur is adamant: the Pravus Bank was Malicia’s doing.”
At the beginning of the civil war most participants had expected it to be an affair of a single year, two at the most. Wars of succession in Procer were not unheard of when the Highest Assembly proved unable to elect a First Prince, but usually when one of the claimants proved to have a decisive advantage the principalities fell into line. Weaker rulers and regional power blocs stayed down after being inflicted a major defeat, treasuries too empty to make another bid. And yet, this time, principalities on the brink of defeat had always seemed to manage to find the funds and the weapons to stay in the Ebb.
Cordelia had been thirteen when she’d first seen how. She’d been on a diplomatic mission to Lyonis, as its prince had managed to carve out alliances neatly encircling the northern principalities, but by the time she arrived in the city the man’s armies had been broken on the field by the betrayal of the princess of Lange. He’d refused to meet with her for the first few days, and when they’d finally talked he did not face her with the kind of despair she would have expected of a man in his position. He’d recently come into a great deal of gold, he’d told her, and was already raising another army with the funds. He’d even managed to secure several wagons of dwarven weaponry to equip it.
Cordelia had left the city after being assured the man had no designs to open a new front to the north, mind awhirl at the sudden change in the other ruler’s fortunes. Where had the gold come from, she wondered? Year after year, news trickled in of similar reversals. Even when alliances collapsed the strongest ruler among them somehow always ended up with the just the funds and the weapons to launch a counter-offensive. This was not, she had decided, a coincidence. Someone was purposefully fanning the flames of the civil war. From there, it had only been a matter of narrowing down the suspects. The name her agents found was the same every time: the Pravus Bank.
It was based in Mercantis, but that meant nothing: the City of Bought and Sold had a long history of being used as a cat’s paw in international politics. Cordelia’s initial attempts to find out more were met with polite misinformation and the much less polite slitting of her agents’ throats. By then she’d been the ruler of Rhenia and de facto the leader of all four Lycaonese principalities but her reach that far south had been… limited. Which had been when an unexpected windfall fell into her lap. Her cousin Agnes from one of the Hasenbach branches came into the Name of Augur, overnight turning from a quiet girl overly fond of bird watching to the holder of a Role that granted indirect access to the very Heavens. And so, one augury at a time, Cordelia had narrowed down the source of the gold flowing into Procer.
That had been… unexpected. Dread Emperors and Empresses broadly fell into two categories: the laughable and the terrifying. Thankfully for Calernia, the latter were few and far in between. For every Maleficent and Terribilis, there were ten Sinistras – whose notorious attempt to “steal Callow’s weather” had resulted in the devastation of half her realm instead. The point was that, most of the time, the Dread Empire was comically inept. They used undead plagues and flying fortresses, sentient tiger armies and invisible invasions. Those grand projects inevitably failed and most backfired spectacularly. Of the Empire’s seventy-odd attempts to conquer Callow only two had succeeded. And that first success was why people still thought of Praes as more than an international laughingstock: Dread Empress Triumphant. The only person to ever conquer all of Calernia and she’d done it in ten years. Every time some madman climbed the Tower, there was the risk he or she was cut from the same cloth.
And yet Triumphant’s conquests had collapsed within five years, while Malicia’s annexation of Callow still stood twenty years later. That made her an entirely new breed of Evil. Slower, more careful and in some ways even more dangerous. The Augur had found that the plan being implemented went much deeper than a mere escalation of the civil war, and Cordelia’s blood still ran cold whenever she remembered her cousin’s words: the Tyrant seeks to end Procer. Once she’d known what to look for, the patterns had emerged. The Pravus Bank systematically enabled regional powers to fight above their means, but not enough that they would be able to expand outside of their borders. As the years passed, the Principate had become a handful of petty kingdoms in all but name, perpetually waging war on each other. And Malicia had intended for them to stay that way, forever asunder.
And so at the age of nineteen, Cordelia had gone to war. She was not a particularly gifted warrior, she knew. Like all Rhenians she was expected to man the walls if the Chain of Hunger tried to cross the Grave again, but military training had never particularly appealed to her. Instead she’d studied history and etiquette, the ways of diplomacy and intrigue – all the arts of ruling that her father had held in contemptuous disinterest. And while her uncle killed southerners, she’d made alliances. She’d schemed and betrayed, and for once the proud Alamans princes had found that their opponent’s cunning ran just as deep as theirs. Six years of running battles and backroom deals, playing Creation’s most elaborate shatranj game against the Tyrant in the Tower.
And, Gods forgive her, but it had worked. There was enough blood on her hands for a hundred butchers, but it had worked.
“I do not expect Liesse to succeed, though the Lone Swordsman might yet surprise us,” Cordelia admitted quietly. “The rebellion is a tool crafted for a specific purpose: getting the Deoraithe into the war.”
“I know the Watch has a reputation, but not even them can beat all of Praes on their own,” her uncle said.
The First Prince of Procer took a hearty swallow of mead and closed her eyes.
“They will not have to, Uncle Klaus,” she replied. “Liesse will last a year, perhaps two. It will be enough.”
The prince of Hannoven’s vivid blue eyes narrowed.
“Enough for what?”
“For Procer to be ready to launch the Tenth Crusade,” she whispered.
All of her problems, neatly solved with a single announcement. The Dominion was at least nominally Good, and would not nibble at their borders while they were fighting the Empire. The League of Free Cities would either keep their more Evil-inclined members in line or erupt into civil war, either of which would keep Helike busy. And while the First Prince did not legally have the right to command the private armies of the principalities, all of them were by custom bound to contribute to a Crusade. The troops of her political opponents would be abroad for years, where they could not interfere while she stabilized the Principate. Tens of thousands would die. Callow would be broken for a generation, as the prize being fought over. But it would keep Procer together.
Cordelia loved the Principate, for all its flaws. At the end of the day it remained the greatest force for Good on Calernia, and though its history was full of mistakes and mishaps Procer was what kept the surface together. If it collapsed… Those twenty years of civil war had been but a taste of the bloodshed that would come if the Principate split. Like crows to carrion, all its neighbours would feast on the corpse of Procer and madness would seize the continent. So let Malicia plot her schemes and send her blood-soaked Knight to reap his harvest of lives. Let all of the traitors and the monsters come for her head. She was the First Prince of the Procer, the Warden of the West. Cordelia might be a Hasenbach by blood, but her mother had raised her to the ancestral words of the rulers of Hannoven, the old retort thrown in the teeth of the Enemy when all its grand plans came to naught.
And Yet We Stand.