“Procerans have always been the villains in our plays, scheming Alamans and grasping Arlesites. Given our history this is understandable, my lord Exarch, but you and I know the truth of of it. The Principate is the final line of defence between Calernia and Evil. Two millennia they have kept the Dead King on his shore of the northern lakes and even longer have they turned back the ratling plague, without aid or succour from the rest of the continent. When Procer fails, the light of civilization dims and the monsters all get a little closer to our homes.”
– Eleusia Vokor, Nicean ambassador to the Principate
The League of Free Cities did not have an official seat, because that would require a hard majority of its constituent to agree on any single subject for any length of time.
Anaxares was of the opinion that this was even more unlikely than usual, these days. Stygia was on the wane, as they’d hit that part of the twenty-year cycle where their old slave soldiers were being discreetly butchered and the fresh ones finished their training, but their northern neighbours were in no shape to take advantage of it. Atalante and Delos were too busy fighting over control of trade routes to Mercantis to turn their attention elsewhere, a situation further inflamed by the murder of an Atalantian logothete at the hands of a frothing Delosi preacher. In Delos, the will of the Heavens and the will of the asekretis of the Secretariat were considered to be the same thing. Woe to anyone who would defy that vicious little pack of scribes. To make everything even more complicated, Helike had spawned one of their godsdamned Tyrants a few years back. The boy had promptly proceeded to piss all over the last fifty years of border treaties, seizing Nicean assets and tickling the chin of the Proceran princess in Tenerife. There was opportunity in that, however, for the Great City of Bellerophon. First and Mightiest of the Free Cities, May She Reign Forever.
Anaxares capitalized the words even in the privacy of his own mind because you never knew when the kanenas were looking into your thoughts. His delegation must have at least two of them out of the ten diplomats who’d accompanied him, not that he’d be able to tell which were part of Bellerophon’s “agents for the protection of the people”. His home was the only true democracy on the continent, a fact its citizens touted at every opportunity, but the will of the people was preserved by the spilling of blood. The kanenas made sure of that, ensuring anyone who looked like they were trying to seize power for themselves disappeared. A system of random lot-drawing made all appointments every three years, which meant the competence of the city’s administration could vary wildly from one year to another. The only part of Bellerophon’s state apparatus was that was not randomly allotted was the diplomatic service, of which Anaxares was unfortunately part of. The small pebble lodged inside his body – and that of all members of his family – was a grim reminder that at any point one of the kanenas could decide that he’d gotten ambitious and kill all of them with a word.
The pebble would return to its original size and break his body from the inside. It was, Anaxares had been told, a particularly gruesome way to die. His predecessor had been splattered all over the insides of a meeting hall in Nicae just for being offered a bribe.
Naturally, the filthy Penthesians had made a game of trying to have the envoys of Mighty Bellerophon executed by their own people in as few words as possible. The kanenas had gotten their hands on one of the sheets they used to tally scores and plastered copies all over the streets. There was a reason Anaxares’ city kept trying to invade theirs, ugly knock-off Mercantis that it was. Did they really think that just because the wealth of Praes flowed through their river they were better than anyone else? They weren’t even Evil. Admittedly Good and Evil in the Free Cities were more like backing a charioteer team than a true affiliation but the principle of the thing made it galling. You’d think the Dread Empress would send her gold to one of the cities on the right side of the metaphysical fence. Not that he’d ever say as much out loud: the Empress’ agents were everywhere in the Free Cities these days, clashing in back alleys with those of the First Prince.
It was Helike’s turn to host the League delegates, which no one had been all that happy about. The city had gone even madder than usual under the Tyrant, whipped into a frenzy at the memory of Theodosius the Unconquered and the legendary victories the man had achieved on the battlefield. Anaxares had been in the city for a mere fortnight and already could no longer stand to look at statues of the man. He was currently drinking from a cup with Theodosius’ face on it and sitting on chair engraved with his work at the Siege of Tenerife, when the Helikeans had crawled through the sewers to avoid the butcher’s bill taking the walls would have cost. The representative for Bellerophon shifted uncomfortably against the wooden frame, ignoring the screaming delegate from Atalante calling the senior Secretariat member from Delos a “quill-waving lunatic”. His eyes flicked to the Tyrant in question, who’d named himself delegate for Helike instead of sending an actual diplomat.
The boy was dark-haired and olive-skinned, with a bloodshot red eye and a hand that seemed to be permanently shaking. He was sixteen, Anaxares knew, and had been sitting on the throne of Helike since he was twelve – when he’d seized power and sent his much older nephew fleeing in exile. Bad seed, the delegate for Bellerophon thought. The Tyrant had been smiling for what seemed to be hours now, and the grin widened when he met Anaxares’ eyes from across the table. That same friendly young man had made swearing a stoning offense in his city and drowned a Nicean delegation in their own wine barrels when they’d protested their seizure. Named. Mad, every single one of them.
“Proper forms were filed by Secretariat members of good standing,” the Delosi delegate said calmly. “The caravan went through our territory without a permit, seizing its merchandise was perfectly legal.”
The woman’s tone never rose, but it could be seen in her eyes she was beginning to get irritated. Fair enough, Anaxares thought. Atalantians got on everyone’s nerves, what with the way they were moved to emotion so easily. The famous warrior Atalante who’d founded their city was said to have wept at the sight of the rising walls, so clearly it was some sort of cultural defect. Public weeping was not allowed in Bellerophon, as it had been deemed Against The Will Of The People.
“Is there a form for murder?” the Atalantian screeched, sounding triumphant like he’d achieved some sort of great victory with the reply.
The Secretariat member blinked.
“Seven,” she said. “Though for five of them, after committing the crime the criminal must present themselves for execution within twelve hours.”
That wasn’t going anywhere, so Anaxares let his attention lapse and considered the other diplomats at the table. The Nicean delegate was listening carefully but the man had been hitting the wine pretty hard so this might actually seem interesting to him. The delegate from Stygia – Magister Zoe, she’d introduced herself as – was openly bored out of her skull and had been scribbling on a sheet of parchment for a while. Anaxares squinted at the lines while trying not to be too obvious about it. There were stanzas, he saw. It looked like a sung version of the argument between the Atalantian and and the Delosi that had been lasting for the better part of an hour. Some liberties had been taken with the plot, unless he’d missed a lot of unspoken sexual tension between those two. The delegate from Penthes was… looking at him already. Smiling. Anaxares resisted the urge to make the sign of of warding, the one that politely asked Evil to look at someone else instead please. That covered all the diplomats seated at the table, though there was another one seated on a bench a little to the side: the envoy from Mercantis.
The City of Bought and Sold was not part of the League proper, but they’d been granted the right to sit in on its meetings because of “aligned interests”. Anaxares suspected a grand amount of bribes had also been involved in making that right part of the League’s charter, though that was the kind of suspicion best left alone. The merchant lords of the Consortium did not have a standing army, or even a city guard, but they had a great deal of gold and enough hired killers to populate a small city. The woman Mercantis had sent was morbidly fat, of course. They always were. It seemed to be considered a prerequisite for rising to the higher tiers of the Consortium, and so anybody who could afford to pack on the weight did so with gusto. The waste that implied offended Anaxares’ Bellerophan sensibilities. The Grain Of The People Should Go To The People, he thought, just in case one of the kanenas was listening in. Down With Foreign Despots, May Glorious Bellerophon Reign Forever.
“You’re wasting everybody’s time,” the Stygian magister said, breaking into the middle of the argument. “Either submit the matter to League arbitrage or shut up.”
Anaxares snorted. No one had ever submitted anything to League arbitrage without being sure what the verdict would be ahead of the submission. If either of the arguing delegates had considered the incident worth the bribes and concessions buying a verdict would cost, they wouldn’t have been bickering about it in the first place. His amusement had been noticed, though.
“Do you find my people’s pain amusing, Bellerophan?” the Atalantian said.
“The Glorious Republic of Bellerophon has no stance on the incident,” he said.
“You’re a person, you should have an opinion,” the man said dramatically.
Anaxares went very still.
“I am a mere vessel for the will of the people,” he babbled hurriedly, “unfit to pass judgement on my own. Long Live The Republic, Peerless Jewel Of Freedom.”
Eyes closed he waited for the pebble to shift and tear through his organs. There was a long moment of silence in the room, but nothing happened.
“Damn,” the Penthesian said. “That would have been a five pointer.”
“Don’t blow up the Bellerophan, this one is less fucking insane than the usual ones,” the Nicean delegate said.
“Language, you two,” the Tyrant said. “Please, ladies and gentlemen, let us have some decorum.”
No one felt quite safe enough to roll their eyes at that. Diplomatic immunity only went so far when you were dealing with a Tyrant.
“Delos sees no need to submit the matter to arbitrage,” the Secretariat member said.
The Atalantian looked like he’d just bit into something foul.
“Neither does the city of Atalante,” he said.
“Good,” the Nicean delegate said, after draining his seventh cup of wine. “If that’s over with, the city of Nicae had a motion to submit for League consideration.”
He held out his cup for a servant to fill again. Anaxares raised an eyebrow. He doubted this would be a rehash of the old Nicae demand for the League to declare war on Ashur – no one else cared that the Thalassocracy suppressed Nicean commerce. If they’d wanted to own the Samite Gulf, they should have won at least one of the four wars they’d fought for it. Ashur made sure to line the pockets of all the other cities with fleets anyway, which ensured their predominance at sea would never be seriously challenged. Not that any of this mattered to Anaxares: Bellerophon was landlocked. Ships Are The Work Of Wicked Foreign Oligarchies, he added just to cover his bases.
“The Exarch feels that tensions with the Principate have been escalated unnecessarily,” the Nicean said. “Their civil war is over and the First Prince has the principalities in order: we need to nip this in the bud before they turn in our direction.”
Everybody carefully did not look at the Tyrant, who had both the distinctions of being the boy responsible for those elevated tensions and the ruler who’d be expected to lead the armies of the League if it came to war. That wasn’t a coincidence: whenever Procer came knocking, Helike always became the first among equals. Their army might not have been as large as Stygia’s, but it had never lost a war to the Stygians either.
“To achieve this,” the Nicean continued, “the Exarch has ordered me to present a motion to open ten-year truce negotiations with the Principate.”
Anaxares’ eyes flicked from one delegate to another. The magister was surprised but no one else seemed to be, not even the Tyrant. Ah. As he’d earlier thought, no one ever bothered to present a motion without knowing what the results of the vote would be. Of the seven Free Cities, four were aligned with Good – Nicae, Atalante, Delos and Penthes. Bellerophon and Stygia openly embraced the Gods Below, while Helike waffled between one side or another depending on whoever ruled them at the time. Even if rivalries between cities usually trumped any greater allegiance to the Gods, when it came to League foreign policy the Good cities tended to stick together. They never pushed too far of course, since forcing their will too often would trigger the collapse of the League, but it looked like this was going to be one of those times where they banded together.
“Atalante votes in favour,” the diplomat said.
“Delos votes in favour,” the woman from the Secretariat said.
“Penthes votes in favour as well,” the filthy Penthesian added.
Well, that carried the vote. Some advantage might be gained in ensuring a Bellerophon presence when the negotiations begun, and the four cities having their way here should give him enough leverage to ensure that. Anaxares signalled a… servant, repulsive as that thought was – People May Be Servants Of The State But Never Of Other People, A Thousand Years Of Damnation On Vile Foreign Autocrats – to fill his cup of wine but the woman drifted away without apparently seeing him gesture. Irritating.
“We won’t be doing any of that,” the Tyrant said cheerfully. “Procer can go hang and the pox on anyone who says differently, if you’ll forgive my language.”
Magister Zoe raised an eyebrow. They had a talent for condescension, the Stygians. The ones who weren’t slaves anyway.
“I sympathize with the sentiment, but a majority has been reached. Exactly how do you intend to reverse it?”
“Well,” the Tyrant began, bloodshot eye fluttering, but he was interrupted by a dull thump.
The Nicean delegate had hit the table face-first, cup of wine still in hand. The man did not look to be breathing, and Anaxares’ own breath caught. The Delosi slumped in her chair a moment later, the Atalantian had just enough time to scream before choking and the Penthesian simply… stopped moving, between two heartbeats.
“The dosage must have been inaccurate,” the Tyrant mused. “Someone’s getting stoned for that. I had this entire speech planned, I was going to sweep my arm and then-“
The young man made a noise Anaxares assumed was meant to represent death by poison, which was by definition silent.
“This is madness,” the Stygian barked, apparently unshaken by the fresh murder of over half the people in the room.
That was the slavers for you: ice all the way to the soul.
“The poison?” the Tyrant asked, surprised. “It was quite affordable, actually. Bought it from Mercantis.”
The representative from the Consortium had not moved since the deaths and seemed utterly unconcerned. She was openly amused at Magister Zoe’s angry look.
“The Consortium believes in a modern, cost-effective form of murder,” she said. “A wide range of substances is available to any with the means.”
“I believe she was referring to the act of poisoning itself, Lord Tyrant,” Anaxares said, surprised at how steady his voice sounded.
Having carried a death sentence in his stomach since the age of twelve had done wonders for his composure, the delegate from Bellerophon reflected.
“There will be war for this,” the magister barked. “Murdering envoys? It’s-“
“Villainous?” the Tyrant said softly, smiling again.
His bad eye looked redder now. Like it had fed on the deaths. His hand was not shaking for the first time since Anaxares had met him. The Bellerophan was something of a connoisseur in the domain of foreboding, and considered that sign a particularly ominous one.
“That’s the problem with Magisters,” the boy said cheerfully. “It’s all slavery and murder with you, there’s no art to it. No whimsy. When’s the last time any of you did anything just because you could?”
He gestured enthusiastically.
“You’re taking it too seriously. You have all this power and all you ever use it for is making sure you keep it. Do you have any idea how boring that is?”
“Stygia will have no part of this idiot war of yours,” the magister hissed.
“Of course you’ll take part,” the Tyrant grinned. “And you’ll be on my side, too. Because if you’re not I’ll sack your city, tear down you walls and swell my ranks with your slaves.”
“Am I to assume this threat extends to Bellerophon?” Anaxares said calmly.
“Anaxares, was it?” the boy asked. “I have to say, I’m loving the whole serenity thing you have going on. And if your Republic doesn’t back me, I’ll roast your children like poultry and sell them in Praes. Maybe overcharge on transport, they’ve been screwing us on tariffs recently.”
“You’re at war with over half the League and you’re threatening the rest?” Magister Zoe said, sounding appalled.
She had, the Bellerophan thought, yet to grasp exactly what it was they were dealing with here. Magisters were too used to being in control. Anaxares had never been under that delusion: his people were the current carrying him, on any day as likely to dash him on the rocks as they were to carry him safely to shore. Having no real influence over the course of his life was a familiar feeling. If he cared enough to comfort the foreigner, he would have told her it got easier after you stopped thinking of your future too much. Much like drowning, it was much easier on you if you didn’t struggle.
“Four cities or six or half of Creation,” the Tyrant shrugged. “It makes no difference to me. Gods Below, act Evil for once in your life. It’s like it’s a hobby with you people.”
That red eye shone malevolently as the Named stared them down.
“It’s not a hobby, my friends, it’s a side. A side in the war that defines Creation. Did you think you could sit the fence forever? Speak the words without ever paying the price? Naughty, naughty, if you’ll forgive my language.”
The Tyrant grinned and for a moment all Anaxares could see was that horrible red orb and and the curved stretch of pearly white teeth. A devil’s grin on a devil’s face.
“We’re the villains, my friends. We’re the things out there in the night that they’re all afraid of, the reason they bar their doors and shutter their windows. This place is in dire need of being remembered that truth.”
The boy laughed and Anaxares shivered.
“So muster your armies, rustle up your devils and let your monsters out of their cages. Let’s have us a jolly good time, eh?”
The Bellerophan decided to call for another cup of wine and didn’t particularly care if it was poisoned or not.
Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer, put down her correspondence.
Her quarters in Orense were like a warrior past his prime: fair to look at still, but already showing signs of decay. She was not surprised. Prince Rodrigo of Orense’s finances could aptly be described as “dregs”: the commerce that had begun to bloom again had petered out, his fields emptied of farmers who’d died as soldiers and the entire south of the principality had been ransacked by Dominion raiders. The man could no longer afford to live in the style he was accustomed to, and for a prince of Procer there were few blows harder to one’s pride than that. It had turned the older man bitter, as had his repeated bloody defeats in the Proceran civil war. Though he’d never been a claimant himself, the two candidates the prince backed had been crushed by other alliances after he’d sunk his fortune into their causes. And now the Dominion of Levant was pillaging his lands with impunity, or at least had been until Cordelia came south. Gratitude might have been expected, but then the man was an Arlesite.
The army Uncle Klaus had raised was not as full of northerners as the one that had won her the throne, but the core of the host had still been forged on the battlefields of Lange and Aisne. It was there that Lycaonese steel, tempered against the ratling warbands of the Chain of Hunger and the endless harassment of the Kingdom of the Dead, had proved superior to the numbers of southern principalities. Numbers were still Cordelia’s problem, as it happened. There were only four Lycaonese principalities: Rhenia, Hannoven, Bremen and Neustria. Though neither Bremen nor Neustria were surrounded by mountains as the other two were, their lands were still hard to farm on. The four Lycaonese principalities had the four smallest populations of any principality in Procer, and though unlike southerners the Lycaonese had universal military service the attrition still rankled. She could only afford to lose so many soldiers from her support base before she was too weak to strong-arm the Highest Assembly.
So now she drew from the ranks of her allies, the princes and princesses who’d joined her willingly when it became clear her cause was on the rise. Few principality troops had been made available to her, but her allies had not been stingy with fantassins. Cordelia was somewhat unschooled in matters military, but as her uncle explained it these were men and women who’d served as peasant levies in the the civil war after being disposed by the fighting, making it their trade. Not as good as soldiers who’d trained since infancy, but those were costly and hard to replace. There were tens of thousands of fantassins floating around Procer at the moment, the First Prince knew. People who could only live for violence and now found themselves without anyone willing to pay for them to commit it. She needed a war, and quickly, before they turned on their own people. The first step in mitigating the problem was folding as many of them as she could into the ranks of her own armies, but that wouldn’t be enough. She’d have to accelerate the economic recovery of the south to find them lands to occupy, which she’d been trying to avoid until her position was better secured.
She’d a received a report that morning from Uncle Klaus announcing he’d thrown the last Dominion raiders out of the south of Orense and set up defensive positions a few miles away from the Red Snake Wall, which had been one problem solved. That was not the report she was looking at, though: this one was from an agent of hers in the Free Cities, informing her that two days ago the Tyrant of Helike had murdered four League delegates in broad daylight, then declared war on their cities. Calmly, she placed down the letter on the surface of her gilded desk.
She’d pressured, bribed and otherwise convinced the leaders of the same cities whose envoys had been poisoned to pass a motion to negotiate a ten-year truce with the Principate. It had taken her years and quite a bit of silver, but she’d done it. And when she had, she’d known there would be two ways that League session could end: either the Evil cities accepted the muzzle, or there would be war. Either one would force Helike to cease probing at Tenerife’s borders, binding the princess who was already one of her closest allies to her even closer. And it would secure our south-eastern flank, she thought. The Tyrant of Helike still stood alone, as far as she knew, but the odds were that the other two Evil cities would join him. Could she influence them the other way, to stack the odds towards the outcome she desired? Bellerophon was more or less impossible to affect measurably, since they executed anyone who looked like they might put some order to the mob that ruled the city. Stygia… No. She was weak in that city and the Empire owned the ruling coalition of magisters body and soul. Literally, in some cases. Stygia would lean in the direction Malicia wanted it to.
Who would win the war? Stygia and Helike had the two largest armies, but Nicae had the largest population and Penthes was the richest. Both sides would be emptying Mercantis of mercenaries before the month was done, lining the pockets of the Consortium with their bidding wars. As things currently stood, Cordelia would be inclined to believe that the Good League would beat the Evil League. And yet the Tyrant had triggered this war. The boy had something up his sleeve, something more deadly than a mere Name. More than that, it was a certainty that Praes would intervene. They would not send one of the Legions south, but the First Prince suspected the Calamities would be coming down. A counterweight was needed, Cordelia knew, but she did not need to trouble herself with that. The Heavens had already provided: a fortnight ago a ship had docked in Nicae carrying the White Knight, returned from his years in the Titanomachy. The survivors of the Lone Swordsman’s band of heroes would cluster around the new one, though how many had survived Liesse she did not know.
The Thief was still reportedly alive, but no one had seen the Wandering Bard in weeks. Liesse had been such a mess she was still trying to sort out exactly what had happened there. Devils had been summoned, then disarmed. The Squire had forced the surrender of the Baroness Dormer then spared the woman. She’d killed the Lone Swordsman and apparently returned from the dead, which the House of Light adamantly maintained was impossible. There was already talk in Salia of naming her an abomination in the eyes of the Heavens. The entire Liesse Rebellion had died an ugly death at the hands of this Callowan slip of a girl and her master, killed with a whimper instead of the bang Cordelia had been hoping for. Daoine had never entered the war, and was now on the back foot with the Tower since one of Duchess Kegan’s relatives had been caught helping a hero.
Had her observers not gotten a close look at the Legions of Terror in action, Cordelia would have called the entire affair a detestable waste of silver and lives. Several books’ worth of reports were already being compiled into a combat doctrine that would see use in the crusade, but she’d failed to meet all her other objectives. Praesi hegemony in Callow was stronger than ever and the Empress had killed unrest for good with her masterstroke of a “ruling council”. Considering there would be four Praesi sitting on that council, Malicia had come out of this rebellion with tighter control over her foreign holdings than she’d started with. Trying to hobble the Empress was like cutting off a hydra’s head: every time two more grew, more vicious and cunning than the last. At least the woman’s nobility was giving her trouble. As well they should: Cordelia had been sinking coin into their cause for half a decade using a labyrinthine series of intermediaries. Her payback for the depredations of the Pravus Bank.
Things were unfolding all across of Calernia and Cordelia could not longer afford to grant the Dominion the lion’s share of her attention. It was time to end this. Setting aside her correspondence, the First Prince of Procer took a fresh sheet of parchment and dipped her quill in the ink.
“We’re too close to the wall, I don’t like it,” Prince Klaus Hasenbach announced for a third time.
“They need specific conditions to wake the snake,” Cordelia said calmly. “Which we do not meet.”
In a concession to the heat of summer, the First Prince had worn a dress of a much paler blue than was present on the heraldry of Rhenia. It ended conservatively above her collarbone, tailored to hide the way her Hasenbach blood had seen her born with shoulders better fit for a lumberjack than a noble. The cloth of gold bordering the cut suggested the outline of her chest without lingering inappropriately, as the belt of sapphires set in gold that hung loosely on her hip did for that curve. Her long blond tresses had been carefully combed and bound with a brooch that had been in her family since days before the Principate, a beautiful little piece shaped like the spearman that was the emblem of the Hasenbachs. The crown, though, was from Salia. A simple circlet made from white gold, a metal only the First Prince could wear in public by ancient law. It was meant to subtly set the aside the ruler of Procer from all others.
The pavilion Cordelia had ordered raised was not close enough to the Red Snake wall to be in its shadow at this time of day, but in a bell it would be. The structure was impressive, seen from this close. The foundations only stood ten feet tall, limestone painted over red, but the bulk of it was the titanic sculpted red granite snake that stretched from the sea to the beginning of Brocelian Forest. The sheer scale of it was absurd, the largest project ever undertaken by the gigantes outside of the borders of the Titanomachy. That it was enchanted to protect the Dominion of Levant from any who would seek to pass it was arguably even more absurd: enchantment on that scale was almost without precedent. Only the Miezans had ever cast magic on that scale, as far as she knew. It made assailing the Dominion by land impossible, though landing ships far enough down the coast was still an option.
Lady Itima of the Champion’s Blood, ruler of Vaccei, would know this. The other members of the Majilis had already told her she would get no support from the rest of the Dominion in a closed session so she’d had to look for support elsewhere. Her bloodline’s ancient ties to the gigantes weren’t strong enough for them to break their enforced isolationism, which had seen her turn to Ashur instead. The Thalassocracy was the natural choice for an ally, really. The Ashurans had supported the war of independence that had seen Levant form out of former Proceran principalities and it was a central tenet of their foreign policy to ensure Procer never became a sea power. The Thalassocracy’s war fleet dwarfed the Proceran one by a rapport of ten to one, all of them lifelong sailors who could only rise through the citizenship tiers by uninterrupted service. Some of them would even have experience in naval warfare, as two decades ago Nicea’s latest attempt to gain primacy in the Samite Gulf had been bloodily suppressed by their captains. In comparison, the Principate had never fought a single major naval engagement in the nation’s entire history.
As long as Ashur backed Vaccei, it was untouchable.
Itima would know this, and when she came it would be with the swagger of a woman who knew the Principate would beggar itself if its armies camped out in southern Orense until she got bored. She would expect concessions, perhaps even angle for the ceding of territory. This was a negotiation now, though. Cordelia’s uncle had spent his days learning the trade of war and come out of it one of the finest generals on Calernia, but swords had never been the First Prince’s way. She’d learned diplomacy and intrigue, spent years sharpening her mind by fighting the most dangerous woman on Calernia across the continent in a hundred different simultaneous battlefields. Itima of the Champion’s Blood had picked the wrong battlefield to challenge her on. When the ruler in question arrived, her favourite refreshments had already been set up – chilled wine from Alava – and attendants swarmed around her delegation like hummingbirds around nectar. Uncle Klaus has wanted to remain seated when she arrived as a sign of his disdain, but Cordelia had given him a steady look until he conceded the matter. When it came to etiquette, he usually did.
Itima was a middle-aged woman with tanned skin, startling blue eyes and hair cut so closely it might as well have been shaved. Her two sons followed her closely, tall young men with hard faces and the scars of people who had seen battle before. Likely they’d been the ones leading the raids their mother had ordered. Cordelia smiled sweetly at them and the younger of the two gave a startled blush before he blanked his face. Their mother was not so easily charmed and eyed the goblet of wine presented to her with distrust before turning her attention to the First Prince. Who stood there and said nothing. Silence fell across the pavilion, broken only by the murmured of Cordelia’s attendants seating the rest of the delegation and plying them with treats and flattery.
“Your Most Serene Highness,” Itima finally said.
Good. An acknowledgement of Cordelia’s superior rank was the right tone to set for this conversation.
“Lady Itima of the Champion’s Blood,” Cordelia replied, elegantly taking the seat at the head of the table before the woman could slight her before doing it first.
The ruler of Vaccei took the seat facing her, the two sons looming behind the chair in a rather meagre attempt at intimidation tactics.
“If I may introduce Prince Klaus Papenheim of Hannoven,” she said, nodding at her uncle.
Said uncle was drinking from the cider cup she’d arranged for him to get specifically so he wouldn’t talk.
“My sons, Moro and Tarif of the Champion’s Blood,” the blue-eye woman replied, not bothering to specify which was which.
Not that she needed to. Cordelia had extensive files on every member of Itima’s allies and family. Tarif was the younger one who’d blushed, and had a well-documented fondness for blondes. He was quite good in bed, the agent who’d sent the report had assured her. The First Prince found him handsome enough, but a dalliance with someone of his rank might have an expectation of marriage – which she’d made a point of avoiding. It gave her much leverage in Procer.
“Would any of you care for a meal before we begin negotiations?” she offered.
“I’d care for you to stop wasting my time,” Itima said. “We’re here because I’ve got you in a corner and you know it. I have my demands. Most of them are not negotiable.”
Cordelia smiled politely, then gesture for one of the attendants to step forward. The young girl bowed and lightly set a scroll on the table. Lady Itima seemed about to say something scathing until she noticed the seal keeping it closed. A ship with a crown for a sail, seven coins forming a half-circle above it. The official seal of the Thalassocracy of Ashur, used only on formal diplomatic documents.
“What is this?” the Levantine asked.
“A reassessment of our respective positions,” Cordelia said.
Itima broke it open and began reading, skipping the first few paragraphs and the inevitable niceties and title-trading they consisted of. The fair-haired Lycaonese knew the moment Itima first arrived to the actual treaty terms because the tan woman’s face dropped.
“This is a fake,” the Levantine said accusingly.
“You know it is not,” the First Prince said calmly. “The Thalassocracy will remain neutral in the event of a war between you and the Principate, so long as the borders remain unchanged afterwards.”
“I have assurances for half of the third tier citizen’s they’ll sack your entire coast,” Itima barked.
“Yes, and that was cleverly done,” Cordelia conceded. “Yet all of them fall silent when the only second tier citizen speaks.”
Ashur’s citizenship tiers were a maze to outsiders, as there were over twenty of them, but it could be understood that the dozen or so third tier citizens ran the Thalassocracy on a day-to-day basis. The only individual to stand above them was Magon Hadast, a man in his seventies whose ancestor had been the captain of the initial ship of settlers to populate the island. There could only be one second tier citizen for any colony of the Baalite Hegemony – which Ashur still technically was – at any time, and there was no rising any higher than that: first tier citizens could only be born in Tyre, the city to have spawned the entire Hegemony. Magon’s word was law in Ashur, and though he was not a heavy-handed ruler he’d been displeased at the idea of getting in a slugging match with the Principate over the ambitions of a single woman from the Dominion.
“The old man doesn’t speak,” the Levantine said.
“Not to you,” Cordelia said. “You are a skilled diplomat, Lady Itima, and an intelligent woman. I am both those things, but I also happen to have the resources of the greatest surface nation on the continent at my disposal. This defeat does not speak of incompetence but of a mere disparity of means.”
“We’ll hold the beaches against you,” the ruler of Vaccei said, anger glittering in her eyes.
“The first time, perhaps,” the First Prince said. “But the time after that? Or the next? We will land eventually. And we will bury you in numbers until Vaccei falls.”
“The rest of the Majilis will side with me the moment you tread Dominion soil,” she said.
“The rest of the Majilis are already considering which of their relatives should rule Vaccei after the removal of your dynasty,” Cordelia explained gently. “I am not invading Levant, Lady Itima, I am ending a threat to Procer.”
“And you’ll just leave after you take back your old principality, will you?” Moro sneered.
Cordelia met his eyes and smiled kindly.
“I do not want a war, Lord Moro,” she said. “I am not the one who crossed borders and sacked towns. Frankly, the loss of so much life needlessly appals me.”
“There’s a reason we have the wall in the first place, Proceran,” Itima said. “We know your kind.”
There was a truth in that, Cordelia knew. Many a First Prince or Princess had looked south and pondered the fresh conquest of old territory, their hands stayed only by the attention of Ashur and the impossibility of taking the Red Snake Wall.
“The Principate has done foul things in the past, it is true,” she said. “Taking Levant – and then trying to keep it – was one. The occupation of Callow after the Third Crusade was another.”
“The League Wars,” Tarif counted out quietly. “The Humbling of Titans. The Red Flower Massacre.”
And hadn’t they paid grand prices, for all those foreign adventures? Just like Dread Empress Triumphant’s red-handed madness had directly led to the formation of the Principate after her fall, Procer had given birth to its own enemies. The Principate was more distrusted in Callow than any other nation save for the Empire, the gigantes killed Procerans on sight south of Valencis and old Arlesite warmongering was the reason there was a League of Free Cities at all. Cordelia believed the Principate had grown as large as it would ever be. All that further wars would accomplish was set the rest of the continent against them, and they could not afford that. Alamans and Arlesites principalities had the luxury to believe the might of Procer was unchallenged, safe in their southern domains, but Cordelia knew differently. She was Lycaonese, from the tip of her toes to the crown of her head, and all of her people knew one truth as sure as they knew their own breath: Evil is real. It is not a story or a lesson, it is a piece of Creation as true as rain or music. Evil is on the other side of the mountain, of the lake, and when spring comes it will march for your home. And it will never, ever stop unless you make it.
“When I became First Prince,” Cordelia said, “I gained another title. Warden of the West.”
“Aye, your kind have claimed to be ‘wardens’ of our land for a long time,” Itima said with a hard look.
“I do not think that it was that title should mean,” the fair-haired woman said. “Not anymore. Gods, Lady Itima, we were so busy squabbling over a crown that we allowed Praes to conquer an entire kingdom. That is not what the Principate should be.”
“And what is that, exactly?” Moro asked with a thin smile.
“We are the wall,” Cordelia said, and she spoke with the ironclad belief of a hundred generations of Hasenbachs before her. “We are the bulwark between the West and the monsters. We have been looking south all those years, and now Evil wakes. Do you think the Tower will stand alone, when their Legions spill out onto the continent? The Dead King will rise from his slumber and drown the world in death. The Everdark will band under a single banner and etch the Tenets of Night in blood across our cities. The Chain of Hunger grows larger and bolder every spring, and when they come it will not be in warbands – their hordes will blot out the horizon.”
She leaned forward.
“So please,” she said, speaking as sincerely as she ever had. “Do not make me fight you, Lady Itima. There will be only one war that matters in my lifetime, and it will not be in the south.”
The tanned woman looked shaken.
“You ask me to ignore centuries of bad blood,” she said hesitatingly.
“I ask you to stand with me,” Cordelia replied quietly. “Not as a subject or a vassal, but as an ally.”
She could see it in the sons’ eyes, that they understood. What was coming, crawling closer to them every day.
“They say there is only one choice we can make that ever really matters,” the First Prince of Procer said. “I beg you, for all our sakes. Make the right one.”
She offered a hand, and after a long moment the ruler of Vaccei took it. The rest of the Dominion would follow, Cordelia knew. It would not be enough. Gods forgive her, but it would not be enough. She’d have to intervene in the Free Cities, to make peace between Ashur and its rivals, to somehow mend bridges with the Titanomachy. Cordelia would have to lie and scheme and strike deals in the dark of night until her desperate, ramshackle alliance stood together.
Because the madmen were coming. The monsters of legend. The ones that cast shadows on the world from their flying fortresses, who broke the very fabric of Creation with their sorceries. They were coming, and while the Principate had bled itself in a hundred wars they had learned. Cordelia had always loved the words of her mother’s family, the quietly dignified Pappenheim boast thrown in the face of the Enemy, but in the end she was a Hasenbach first. It ran in her blood, the old duty no one had given them but they had taken up anyway. Because it was right, because they could, because no one else would.
Because We Must.
Gods Above, let that be enough.