“That slip of a girl from Rhenia is playing ruler, coming south with her pretty little army. I’ll have driven her out of Brus by winter, then we can turn our attentions to real threats like the Princess of Aisne.”
– Extract from the correspondence of Prince Dagobert of Lange, dated four months before the fall of Lange
Routine was something Cordelia embraced.
There were only so many hours in a day, to her regret, which made it important to regiment them so she could get the most out of what she had. Rising with dawn, she broke her fast with her closest advisors and took measure of any difficulties they might have encountered. Afterwards she walked the length of the fortress-city’s ramparts, allowing the brisk morning air to finish waking her as she paused to talk with soldiers. It was important, particularly in Lycaonese lands, to have the love of the army. The principality of Rhenia as she’d inherited it was more an army with a land than a land with an army, every institution in it shaped so that they could support country-wide mobilization at any moment. It had been decades since the Chain of Hunger had crossed the Three Rivers in numbers larger than a few hundreds, but her people had long memories: there’d been a time where every spring had thousands of hungry ratlings throwing themselves at the walls. Those days would come again, she knew as every Hasenbach before her had known deep in their bones. And when they did, her principality would be prepared.
For all that, in the two years since she’d become the Prince of Rhenia she had attempted to broaden the horizons of her people. While Lycaonese soldiers fought and died to keep the rest of Procer pristine, southern princes feasted and grew rich while sneering at the coarseness of the very soldiery saving them from the perils of the north. Their lands were fertile, compared to the rocky northern fields, and the numbers of southerners had been swelling for generations. Until recently, anyway. Since the First Prince had died, the rest of the Principate had taken to devouring itself with ugly zeal. The reforms Cordelia had dreamed of as a child, of tying the Lycaonese principalities together through common trade laws and the absence of borders, had been burnt up by the fires of civil war. None of the northern rulers were interested in implementing economic or diplomatic reforms when there might be an Alamans army at their doorstep demanding submission any day. Clearly, any progress to be made would have to wait until a First Prince of Princess was elected.
Or so Cordelia had thought when she was still a child of ten, her mother serving as her regent after a ratling raid took her father’s life. Margaret Hasenbach, once Margaret Papenheim, had never been entirely comfortable ruling the principality. She’d been a field commander for her brother in Hannoven until her marriage and had always balked at having to rule Rhenia when others did the fighting for her. Cordelia had begun taking on responsibilities as seneschal of the keep by age twelve, and by age thirteen effectively ran the fortress and its dependencies while Margaret Ironhand rooted out the ratling nests infesting the mountains. She’d died when Cordelia was fourteen, not by the blades of her enemies but by the affliction known as the bloodless heart. Priests could not heal what had been born weak: they could soothe the pains of the children of the Heavens, but not reverse what the Gods Above had wrought. Cordelia’s uncle, the Prince of Hannoven, had served as her regent for the last year before she came of age but he’d never presumed to contradict her in anything.
Uncle Klaus, a childless widower who’d flatly refused to remarry after the death of his deeply -loved wife, had always treated her more as a daughter than a niece. He’d gone as far as naming her his heir presumptive above any of the branch Papenheims, a decision that had caused some unrest when made official. Even now he was in Rhenia as often as Hannoven, the most trusted of all her councillors. She’d not been shy in leveraging her uncle’s fame as a military commander when forging the four Lyaonese principalities into a single united front, one that would give pause to any southern prince who would command the allegiance of any single Lycaonese ruler by force of arms. In some ways the reforms she’d sought as a youth had come to pass: in her correspondence she now spoke not only for Rhenia and Hannoven but also for Bremen and Neustria, an alliance the match of any of those setting the rest of the Principate aflame. And yet the Alamans and Arlesite rulers she wrote to insisted on treating her as an idiot child, to be deceived into supporting them by honeyed words and empty promises.
Cordelia Hasenbach was nineteen and well-bred, so she did not throw tantrums, but some of the letters she received made her wish she could choke the southerners the same way her mother had famously done to a ratling warlord. Correspondences, as it happened, was what occupied her time for half a bell after touring the fortress walls. On this particular morning she chose to read her missives in the squat hall overlooking the training yard, allowing the sound of drilling recruits to wash over her. A single cup of watered-down wine stood by the sheaths of parchment covering her table, sparsely indulged in. Uncle Klaus was ‘keeping her company’ as she worked, which meant he was resting his elbows on the balustrade, on his third skin of mead and regularly heckling the recruits below. Decorum was rarely a skill Lycaonese rulers prized, to her despair. Cordelia put down the letter she’d been reading and reached for the wine, allowing herself a fuller sip than usual.
A shame she despised the sensation of being drunk. After that letter, it felt almost warranted.
“Your father got that same look on his face, whenever people wanted him to arbitrate farming disputes,” Uncle Klaus said, laughter in his eyes.
The Prince of Rhenia put down her cup gingerly, touching her pristine lips with a cloth as etiquette dictated when a highborn lady drank spirits.
“Not an inapt metaphor, considering the pettiness of what was put to ink,” she admitted.
Klaus snorted, fingers coming up to put a semblance of order to his salt-and-pepper beard. It was getting shaggy, Cordelia noted. She’d have to arrange for a barber to attend him tonight, one that would not be cowed by her uncle’s ferocious scowling.
“You’re still talking to those idiots down south?” he said. “I don’t know where you got that patience of yours from, because it’s certainly not your mother.”
“One of those southern princes is likely to rule Procer in the years to come,” Cordelia said. “Cultivating a civil relationship before the ascension can only be to our benefit.”
The older man chuckled, dropping down on the seat across from her and bringing the skin of mead to his mouth to pull at it.
“And how is that civility going?” he asked.
Well-bred ladies did not scowl, Cordelia told herself. They were not, however, above having a man’s favourite fur coverlet disappeared and replaced with a fancy velour one. She’d even see to it it was embroidered in the Arlesite way, with fragments of courtly poetry and scenes of duels fought for praise and honour.
“Cleves and Hainaut pledge neutrality in all fights to come,” she said. “If they take any more losses they will no longer be able to effectively watch over the Tomb.”
“They never should have sent men south,” Uncle Klaus growled. “Just because the Dead King’s being quiet doesn’t mean he’s not watching. They have a duty, like we do.”
Cordelia rather thought he uncle was doing those particular princes injustice, but she did not comment. The principalities of Cleves and Hainaut formed, with Rhenia and Hannoven, what should be considered Procer’s most vital line of defence. If the Kingdom of the Dead began looking outwards again, they would be the ones charged with holding the line until southern armies could be mustered. The fair-haired Prince of Rhenia agreed with her uncle that above all those rulers should look to seeing their walls fully manned, but these were ultimately Alamans princes. They were more involved in the Ebb and the Flow than northerners, bound by the intricate webs of alliance that spanned the centre of the Principate. Neutrality from the onset would have been difficult for them to maintain, with their cousins and nephews taking up arms so close to their own borders.
“Those pledges are the only pleasant news this day has brought,” Cordelia said. “The rest is… unpromising.”
“Aequitan and their allies got whipped all the way out of Creusens,” Klaus frowned. “That should knock them out of the war. With his back secure, Lange will go after Aisne – the winner of that tussle will get the crown, by my reckoning.”
“Princess Aenor of Aequitan raised another army as of the last fortnight,” the fair-haired prince said. “Levies armed with dwarven weapons. They will resume their offensive as soon as they have gathered in sufficient numbers.”
The Prince of Hannoven scowled.
“That’s the third host she wrecked on the field,” he said. “Who’d be fool enough to lend her the coin for a fourth?”
“The Pravus Bank,” Cordelia replied quietly.
Fury flickered across the older man’s face until he mastered it.
“You told them it’s Praesi gold, Cordelia,” he hissed. “This flirts with godsdamned treason.”
It had taken her years, to ferret out that it was the Tower pouring gold into the defeated princes of Procer. Years and the help of her cousin, become the Augur by the grace of the Heavens. She’d related that truth to every ruler in Procer within the month after she’d acquired solid proof, to warn them from allowing the Dread Empress to continue fanning the flames of civil war. To no avail. The still took loans, still raised armies with them, and after near two decades of strife hatreds now ran so deep princes would rather be up to their neck in Praesi debt rather than allow their rivals to triumph. It was madness, the worst kind of madness. The first fluctuating alliances had eventually turned into a handful of steady blocs that bloodied each other on the field every summer without ever coming closer to the crown, ruining the very Principate they wanted to rule. Fields were going fallow, trade was effectively dead and rulers spent peasants like coin. The sheer disregard princes where showing to the men and women they were supposed to rule disgusted her deeply.
“They will not listen, Uncle Klaus,” she said tiredly. “They do not care anymore. Dagobert of Lange demands we raise our armies and support his claim, or suffer brutal taxes under his reign. Constance of Aisne offers to recognize me as overlord of all Lycaonese if I assault Dagobert’s back, as if this sort of splintering would not effectively dismantle the Principate.”
“So let them mutilate each other,” Klaus said. “They don’t deserve our help.”
Cordelia allowed herself to sigh. This kind of thinking, she knew, was common among Lycaonese. Let the southerners kill each other, what did the people of the mountains care for it? It would also be the death of the greatest nation Calernia had ever seen. A brutal but swift civil war would not have allowed for entire regions of the Principate to grow to despise each other. This drawn-out farce, however? As of this moment, Procer was effectively divided between four or five kingdoms that would rather see their cities burn than allow one of the others to rule over them. Another decade of this and it would be the end of the Principate. The fracture lines were already visible and growing deeper by the year.
“We have a duty, Uncle,” Cordelia said.
“To fucking Dagobert of Lange?” Klaus laughed. “I wouldn’t toss the bastard a copper if he was begging on the street. We owe that man nothing.”
“Think beyond our borders,” the blonde woman said. “Think of what it means, if Procer splinters.”
“It means we don’t send coin south ever again to men who’ve never seen the Grave,” the Prince of Hannoven said coldly. “It means green boys who’ve never fought a ratling don’t get to feast away spring while my people die for their sake.”
“Levant will gobble up at least Orense,” Cordelia assessed clinically. “Likely Segovia as well. Tenerife will become either one of the Free Cities or a dependency of Helike. The Dread Empire will take Bayeux and Orne before a decade has passed.”
“And why is that our business?” Klaus grunted.
“When the Dead King rouses his armies and crosses the lakes,” Cordelia said quietly, “who stands with us?”
She met her uncle’s eyes.
“When the Chain of Hunger gathers the might for an invasion, who bolsters our strength?” she said.
“We’ve held them back since before there was a Principate,” her uncle replied.
“We turned them a way as a nation that spreads from here to Valencis,” Cordelia said. “That is why Procer exists, Uncle. Because Triumphant slaughtered so many of us we had to band together as a nation or see ourselves devoured by our neighbours.”
“So now you want us to bleed for some princeling in silk,” Klaus said bitterly. “That’s always the way, isn’t it? The south makes a mess and we foot the bill.”
There was a truth in that, and for all that Cordelia had eschewed many of her people’s customs she was not beyond feeling that bitterness herself. Was she to entrust the fate of her people to a grasping idiot like the Prince of Lange? To the Princess of Aequitan, who would rather take Praesi gold than bow her head for the sake of the Principate?
“No,” she said. “Not this time.”
“Cordelia?” her uncle said.
Cordelia Hasenbach felt serenity take hold of her, for the first time in years. Her path was clear, finally. If no one else, then I.
“Send messengers,” she ordered. “To every tower, every hold, every fortress. We gather for war. Anyone we can afford to take from the defences comes with us.”
The greying man frowned.
“And who do we fight for?”
“The First Prince of Procer,” she said. “Cordelia Hasenbach, first of her name.”
Gods save them all, but she would salvage a nation out of this madness. No matter the cost.