“May you become the weakest link in the Chain of Hunger.”
– Ancient Lycaonese curse
Amadeus lightly tapped the mark on the map spread across the table.
“Aisne,” he said. “That’s where it’ll take place.”
The room where the Dark Council usually held session was empty save for him and Alaya, their most accurate map of the Principate spread across the table and cluttered with small figurines representing the armies being deployed. The largest concentration was around the city of Aisne, seat of the principality of the same name. The largest current alliance in Procer was mustering there to meet Cordelia Hasenbach’s forces in a pitched battle on the flatlands to northwest. Said battle, in his estimation, would take place within the month. The Lycaonese under Hasenbach didn’t have the supplies for a long campaign and the longer the war stretched the more vulnerable their borders.
“Princess Constance had to make that concession for Brabant to swing to her side,” he added. “Their prince doesn’t want whatever army loses to turn to banditry on his lands afterwards. There’s too many fantassins floating around at the moment for anyone to control after the battle.”
“The Princess of Aisne has three times Hasenbach’s numbers,” Alaya noted, sipping a cup of terrible wine in her seat. “Common military doctrine would say she’s assured a victory unless she makes a major blunder.”
It always amused Amadeus to hear her speak of ‘common military doctrine’. It wasn’t that the Empress wouldn’t make a good field commander – she had the right instincts, though she’d need seasoning – but rather that Alaya had always left the military matters to him. Most of what she knew about war she knew from books, and Praesi ones at that. The dark-haired man was of the opinion that over half the books on war written in the Empire were worthless when applied to a proper war machine. The Legions of Terror as they currently were had little to do with the unruly hordes that had been the staple of Praes military enterprises for centuries.
“She has the advantage,” he conceded. “But not by as large a margin as you’d think. About two thirds of what Aisne and her allies field are levies and fantassins, not professional soldiers.”
“Hasenbach has a much smaller population to draw from,” Alaya said. “She might have more professionals proportionally, but when it comes to hard numbers her edge is only a few thousands.”
“True,” Amadeus said calmly. “But she has three factors on her side. First, most of her soldiers are Lycaonese.”
“And so they’ve seen battle before,” Alaya frowned.
“It’s more than that,” the green-eyed man said. “The force that presses at their borders is the Chain of Hunger. Ratlings are weaker than humans on average, unless they’ve had a few decades to grow, and they’ve no true siege weaponry save for the Ancient Ones. What they do have, however, is numbers.”
It was a very rare thing for him to have to spell out anything to Alaya, and this was no exception.
“They’re used to being outnumbered,” the Soninke said.
“And in the fights the get in, retreat is not an option,” Amadeus said. “They won’t flinch when the casualties rise. Princess Constance’s soldiers will. Wars in the south of Procer just aren’t fought the way they are up north.”
The Empress sipped at her drink, mulling it over.
“The second advantage would be the Augur,” she said.
“Hasenbach’s army will know where and when the enemy will move. She showed against Lange exactly how dangerous that can be,” he said.
By the time the Lycaonese had moved to siege the city, Prince Dagobert effectively had no army. His troops had suffered three ambushes in a row, then a series of brutal night raids that butchered his best soldiers before they could fight. The Prince of Lyonis turned on him immediately and the Princess of Segovia was entertaining envoys from Hasenbach in her tent even as the city gates were being breached, her army watching passively. With Brus having capitulated within a month of the Lycaonese offensive beginning, that had brought four southern principalities to Hasenbach’s banner and turned that unknown young girl from the north into the foremost candidate for the title of First Prince. The other rulers of Procer had begun plotting against her before the dust from the last battle had settled, of course. The Princess of Aequitan, who still had backing from most southern principalities even after her repeated defeats, had temporarily joined hands with her hated enemy in Aisne. Between the two of them the coalition spanned a massive eleven principalities and covered almost as much territory as Praes and Callow combined.
“Which leads me to the third factor,” Amadeus said. “Klaus Papenheim.”
“The Prince of Hannoven,” Alaya murmured. “Her uncle.”
“Without contest the best general in Procer,” the green-eyed man said. “In terms of skill I’d rank him below Grem, but he’s the most experienced living commander on Calernia.”
A distinction always worth making, considering the existence of the Dead King.
“Hasenbach winning is the worst outcome for us, Maddie,” Alaya said. “She’s purged most of our agents out of her sphere of influence, but more importantly she’s fighting the right kind of war. She kills princes but spares commoners, her armies don’t pillage or burn fields. Wherever she goes, she knits Procer back together.”
While if the coalition led by the Princesses Constance and Aenor won, it would immediately collapse into infighting as soon as the larger threat was dealt with. Maybe even before. The women detested each other personally as well as politically, and with Dagobert of Lange out of the running they were itching to have a go at each other with their other borders secure.
“I give her better than half chances of winning at Aisne, as it stands,” Amadeus said. “I take it you’ve infiltrated the coalition?”
“I’ve applied pressure to keep it together,” Alaya agreed. “And I’ve been working on Hasenbach’s southern allies. Not all of them are steady.”
“If one of her flanks turns on her in the middle of the battle she’s done,” Amadeus noted. “Not even Papenheim could turn that around when outnumbered by this much.”
Alaya set aside her cup and rose to her feet, running a finger along the border between Callow and Procer.
“As long as the Principate is united, the Empire is threatened,” Malicia said. “Let’s make sure it doesn’t come to that.”
Mornings this far south were indolent things, in Klaus’ opinion.
In Hannoven there would be mist and biting cold keeping his men awake, but down here the lazy heat of summer was trying to drag them all back to sleep. No wonder the Alamans had no stomach for real war. Their land was soft and had made them soft in turn. So they’d turned to drinking and scheming instead of doing their duty, once more making a fucking mess of Procer until the Lycaonese came south to clean up their godsdamned mess. It made his blood boil, that this band of shit-eating buffoons had somehow managed to wage war for over a decade without one of their fat arses somehow managing to claim the throne. Made him want to thin the herd a bit so that the next generation would remember that if they kept pissing the bed until Klaus’ people had to step in there would be a price to pay. Cordelia had told him not to, though. Said they’d need the Alamans and the Arlesites in years to come and that filling a few mass graves with the arrogant twats would burn those bridges. Klaus had informed her that the day he needed an Alamans to defend the walls of Hannoven was the day he began a hike to Keter, but she’d talked him around. Somehow.
That was the thing with his niece: you start a conversation with her knowing the sky was blue and an hour later come out of that room willing to start a war over the fact it was green, never able to pinpoint exactly when she’d convinced you. It just… happened. At least it worked on other people too. The Prince of Brus had gone from being invaded to putting a rapier through a man’s belly for implying she was not the rightful First Prince in the span of a single month. The boy who now ruled Lange was eating out of her palm even after watching his own uncle sent to the headsman’s block at her orders. Klaus had always known Margaret’s child was meant for greater things. His sister had been a cast-iron bitch that scared the shit out of even the ratlings, but she’d always been meant for a soldier’s life. She’d died spitting in the eye of the Plague, as the line of Papenheim had since times immemorial, but she would not have been able to lead the Lycaonese the way her daughter did.
There’d been some who looked down on his niece when she’d been a young girl, because she wasn’t much of a fighter. Because she cared for etiquette, because she corresponded with Alamans princes and dressed in skirts instead of mail. All of those were eating their words now, watching Cordelia spin the heads of the southerners and beat them at their own game. His niece had learned their ways and she was not turning them against the arrogant princelings with a cold ruthlessness that would have made her mother proud. Not all their allies were so impressed, though. Cordelia had two princes firmly in hand, but Luisa of Segovia was a wily old fox who’d switch sides the moment she got a better offer. Segovians, he thought with distaste. They had such a hard on for coin they might as well be Ashurans. As for the Prince of Lyonis, he knew so little about loyalty he probably wouldn’t know how to spell the word. That was the one they had to watch for betrayal, when the time came.
Klaus broke off a piece of bread and thoughtfully chewed it, watching the field. He was never all that hungry before the killing began, as it happened. He broke off another piece and fed it to his horse, who licked his palm in appreciation. Ratbiter was getting a little old as well, he thought. The days where the destrier dutifully trampled whoever was in his way would soon be over. Tossing away the rest of the bread and washing away the taste with water, Klaus affectionately slapped the animal’s neck.
“We’ve still got another few in us, don’t we old boy?” the greying general said.
The horse whinnied and the prince smiled grimly. The alliance opposing them was getting ready around Lange, but he had no intention of waiting until they were ready to strike. Princess Constance was still moving in supplies to feed her horde of fuckups and the Augur had told him where and when to strike. The general adjusted his helm and unsheathed his sword, silently watching the column of horse-drawn carriages lumbering north to Aisne. They wouldn’t have expected him to move through Salia with his cavalry, he knew. Salia, as the future seat of the First Prince, had remained neutral so far. Until Cordelia had negotiated passage for him. The rest of his army was still crossing the south of Brabant, loud and visible and drawing attention. Klaus turned to his ranks of horsemen and offered them a wolf’s grin.
“All right, boys and girls,” he called out. “It seems fucking Dagobert up the arse didn’t get our message across. Those two sweet princesses are going to need a repeat performance before it sinks in, my darlings. So make sure that smoke can be seen all the way from Aisne, you hear me?”
Their call back was deafening. Feeling twenty years younger, Klaus Hasenbach brought up his shield and charged.
“He’ll win,” the Augur said. “On all paths, he wins.”
Cordelia mandated court dress for all her attendants, even the Lycaonese, but her distant cousin Agnes was something of an exception. Named, after all, lived according to their own rules. Heroes were rare in Procer, at best a once in a generation appearance, and they were treated with distant awe. By most, at least. Soldiers tended to be sceptical of them, given that the Principate had face both heroes and a handful of villains in battle and come off the better without any Named of its own. There was an institutional contempt for nations like Callow who relied on heroes to fight the enemy, and when Praes had successfully invaded the country there’d been many who’d shaken their heads and said it was an inevitable outcome for a kingdom who relied on the Heavens for protection. Which was absurd, in her opinion, since Callow had to deal with all-powerful madmen who could burn cities with a single spell while the Principate dealt mostly with mundane armies. Regardless, a Named like the Augur commanded respect from even seasoned generals.
It had been illuminating, seeing the change in how people treated her cousin. Agnes had been a lonely child and then a lonely girl, thought odd by most for her awkwardness and endless enthusiasm for bird watching. While never bullied – she was a Hasenbach, however distant from the main line – she’d been avoided. Cordelia herself had been one of the few people to make a point of spending time with her, though they never had much in common. They were blood regardless, and so she’d always made time for her cousin when her duties allowed. And then one day Agnes had casually predicted a ratling raid at dinner, absent-mindedly referring to herself as the Augur. Overnight people began bowing to her and seeking her advice, to her confusion. She’d shied away to the attention and been extremely grateful when Cordelia set aside one of the few ornamental gardens in Rhenia for her, spending her days sitting in her chair and watching the sky. Always distant, Agnes had become almost otherworldly: the cares of Creation passed her by, and even when speaking with people she seemed distracted.
The gifts of the Heavens always came at a cost, Cordelia knew.
“Does he come back safely?” the blonde asked.
“Hawks to the east, flocking,” she said.
Cordelia patted her cousin’s hand gently.
“I do not know what that means, Agnes,” she said.
“Oh,” the Augur blinked owlishly. “The Empress waits. She has knives for you.”
As expected. Malicia still had a hand to play. That she would be backing Aisne and Aequitan was a given, but the Dread Empress of Praes always had more than a single scheme at play. She’d be targeting the weak points of Cordelia’s own alliance, Segovia and Lyonis. The Prince of Lyonis was the most openly treacherous of the two, never having forgotten that he’d been a contender for the throne when he’d had his relatives in Cleves and Hainaut behind him. Princess Luisa, though, was where Cordelia thought the betrayal would come from. She had too many merchant interests, too many ways for the Empire to reward her changing sides. She’d already prepared for the eventuality, placed safeguards to remove her from play if she acted. It would have been a relief, she thought, if Procerans were all she had to deal with. But that would be a naïve expectation: all of Calernia had a vested interest in the outcome of this civil war. Praes most of all, for they had engineered it, but the other vultures were circling.
It was only a matter of time until the Dominion of Levant began eyeing the exhausted and impoverished principalities of the south. And when they began to move, everyone else would. Helike was quiet for now, its king kept occupied by gifts of gold and dancers from the Princess of Tenerife, but that would not last forever. The Free City had declined in influence too much of late, and those were the tell-tale signs of a Tyrant rising. The Chain of Hunger had not troubled Lycaonese borders overmuch, but eventually the ratlings smell weakness on the walls and assault in force. Cordelia had stripped the strength of her people bare for the war in the south, knowing the risks it entailed. She could not afford a long war, two years at most of which she had already spent half. She had to end things in Aisne so her people could return north as soon as possible, for if the princesses of Aequitan and Aisne survived this blow the fighting could stretch on for years.
A gamble, then. Cordelia had always disliked those. It felt like making light of the lives she was responsible for to risk them imprudently, but what else could she do? If she did nothing Procer would collapse. If any of the rulers aiming for the throne had any vision at all she could have supported them instead of struck out on her own, but as things stood? She’d warned them all of who stood behind the Pravus Banks, and still they took the gold. Because if they didn’t, their rivals might and they’d lose an advantage.
“Do you think it had to be this way, Agnes?” she asked quietly.
Her cousin glanced at her, then smiled.
“There’s a lot of people who ask me things, Cordelia,” she said. “Do you know why you’re the only one I always answer?”
The Prince of Rhenia shook her head.
“Because you do what you think you need to do, not what you want,” the Augur said. “That’s why you’re worth helping, even if it’s tedious.”
Cordelia sat next to her cousin in the morning sun, looking at the sky for a long time. Eventually she closed her eyes. She had planned all she could, she knew. All she could hope now was that she had, this once, planned better than the woman trying to destroy Procer.