“There’s only a thousand of them, I don’t care if they’re on a hill. This will be over by midday, Black Knight, mark my words.”
– Dread Empress Sulphurous, the Technically Correct
As midnight neared, two women on opposite sides of the same continent found themselves looking up at the sky at the same time by Fate or coincidence.
Dread Empress Malicia, First of Her Name, tugged her modest cotton nightgown closer together and watched the crescent moon from her rooms above the clouds, near the summit of the Tower. Soninke called it Sorcerous’ Grin, for the eldritch rituals the Emperor had concocted in its light had not been seen since the days of the Miezans. Some said a sliver of the man was still up there, scheming his escape from death.
Cordelia Hasenbach, claimant to the throne of Procer, had been looking through one of the few windows in Rhenia’s main hall for hours. She’d seen the moon rise, and thought it fitting. Lycaonese soldiers called it the Ratbane: the crescent in the sky heralded the beginning of the fight to crush the ratling warbands that crossed the northern rivers every month. There would be blood, soon. The fate of Procer demanded it.
Neither of them would find sleep that night. Malicia quietly poured herself a cup of truly terrible wine, the taste of it bittersweet. Cordelia stirred the embers in the fireplace with an iron poker and eyed the dancing red motes, her mind faraway.
In Aisne, the game began.
This would haunt her until the day she died, Therese knew. The foulness of what she had to do would be a lash on her back for the rest of her life. But what choice did she have? They had her wife. They had her children. The Lycaonese woman crept softly to Klaus Papenheim’s tent, where a single candle still burned. Twenty years, she’d fought for the prince. She’d followed him unflinchingly when he’d charged two hundred cataphracts into the meat of a ratling army of thousands, backwhen the Longtooth Lord had tried to breach the walls of Hannoven. She’d pulled him out of the mouth of an Ancient One when the tower-sized monstrous rat had been about to bite clean through his plate, the year after. She’d gone through a hundred battles and skirmishes at his side, fighting for a duty no one south of Neustria would ever understand.
And now she was going to murder him her prince in cold blood. The tent’s flap parted silently under her hand and she reached for her knife with a knot in her throat, the knowledge of what she was about to do like ashes in her mouth. There was a single lit candle at the table, Therese saw with a blink of surprise, but no sign of Prince Klaus himself. Not at the table, and not in his bed. The first stroke of the sword took her in the back of the knee and she fell with a grunt of pain. Looking up she saw two old comrades, soldiers she’d bled with, looking down at her with grief. One kicked the knife out of her hands and she did not attempt to get up.
“I’m sorry, Therese,” one said.
“So am I,” she said, and closed her eyes.
She had failed. Would they kill her family anyway? Maybe not, if she died for this. She heard the blade come down, and she almost smiled. The Enemy had worked through her but found House Hasenbach ready for them. There was satisfaction in that.
“And Yet We Stand,” she whispered, a heartbeat before the sword took her life.
He would not be remembered as a hero, Louis knew. By taking one life tonight he would save tens of thousands tomorrow, but he would win no praise for it. His name would be a byword for treachery for decades, the servant who had turned on his mistress at the behest of her enemy. He knew this, but still he carried the dagger under his clothes. He had no wife, no children, but he did have a sister. Barely more than a child, the sweetest little girl. And he’d known, when the First Prince’s man had come to him, what kind of Procer he wanted her to grow up in. Not one where anyone old enough to bear a weapon was handed a pike and sent to the grinder. Not one where armies roamed the land, burning everything as they passed while their rulers spent lives they should be guarding like coppers. He could make a better world, and he would. Not matter the cost.
Princess Constance of Aisne would be deep in slumber: the wine she’d indulged in would make sure she did not stir. Louis slipped in through the servant entrance and stepped quietly into his ruler’s chambers. The tall glass doors leading to the balcony were open, pale drapes fluttering in the wind as the moon’s light coated everything in a soft glow. The princess’ body was wrapped in her covers, her lover of the month pressed close. Both still asleep. Taking out the knife, Louis let out a soft breath. He could do this. He had to. He was already nervous and froze when he glimpsed two silhouettes from the corner of his eye, though he relaxed when they did not move. They were… two other servants. Dead, their throats slit and blood dripping onto their clothes. One corpse’s hands had been angled to cover his eyes, the other’s her eyes. What?
The last thing Louis ever felt was a blade opening his throat in perfect silence.
Jacques was set for life, after this. A single night’s work and he would live like a prince for the rest of his days. He supposed what he’d been told to do was treason, but what the fuck did he care? Treason was for crowned heads to debate. Fantassins like him were just meant to die obediently while the owners of Procer traded a few acres of land still covered in blood, keeping it for maybe a decade. Then the call came again, sons dying for the exact same godsdamned acres their fathers had: no one won at this game save for the princes, and he was fucking sick of it. He’d been offered a way out, a real future, and he was going to take it. They weren’t asking anything he wasn’t glad to do, anyway. The Prince of Brus might be suckling at the Hasenbach tit, nowadays, but some of Jacques’ friends had died keeping the savages out of their land. He had not forgotten that, unlike their cockless wonder of a prince.
A few free drinks had been enough for him to learn when the patrols would go by, and any idiot could get his hands on a torch. The Lycaonese restricted use of fire on campaign, but their writ ran no further than their own camps. The presumptuous bastards were outnumbered by Alamans already, and after tomorrow the gap would widen further. Good riddance. Let them crawl back to their barren wasteland of a home and resume mating with ratlings. The torch in his hand was dripping oil, so it had been a good notion to wrap his hand with a cloth first. The fantassin didn’t bother to try to break padlock on the granary, instead taking a step back and pressing his torch against the wooden wall until it caught fire. He did the same on the three others before tossing away his torch and making his exit. Screams of alarm spread eventually, but far too late. The grain would burn. Let the fucking Lycaonese dine on the ashes.
Jacques whistled as he returned to his tent, already thinking of the nice little shop he was going to open in Brus when all this mess settled down.
Annette’s hands were shaking. She hated doing this, she really did. The horses hadn’t done anything to anyone. They were innocent, and no matter what the House of Light said she wasn’t convinced they didn’t have souls. They were such wonderful creatures, so gentle and affectionate if you had a way with them. Annette did, as her father before her, though unlike him she’d not become the stablemaster for the Princess of Aequitan. The others respected her know how, though. She was the one they went to, when one of the horses got sick and no one knew why. Even mages listened when she spoke. They’d be waking her up before dawn, she thought, to ask her to treat the very wrong she was about to commit. If only there was another way! But there wasn’t, and she must. For love.
She still couldn’t believe a man like Antoine had fallen for her. He was a servant too, of course, but part of the household of the Prince of Cantal. Not a muckabout like her. You could see it just by the way he talked, the way he dressed so cleanly and wore his elegantly styled beard. They’d been together for two months now, and after the war they would get married. He’d promised, and he wouldn’t have gotten her those white roses if he didn’t mean it. But now some wicked person was threatening his life unless he did an equally wicked thing, and doing it so unreasonably. There was no way Antoine could have gotten to the Princess of Aequitan’s horses, her guards beat anyone who even got close. But Annette could.
Her shaking hands poured the exact number of drops she was supposed to into the trough before moving on to the next one, the translucent liquid disappearing without a trace in the water.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the horses. “But they’ll kill him if I don’t.”
Lucien Hauteville, chief cook for the army of the Princess of Segovia, was not in fact called this at all. He’d been born Jacob of Satus, though he’d left both the name and the faint Praesi accent behind when he’d joined the Eyes of the Empire. He wasn’t technically one of those anymore, having long ago graduated from skulking in taverns with a compromising tattoo on his arm while the real agents did the work. Having survived his infiltration of a resistance group in Denier, he’d been raised from the ranks at the order of Webweaver herself and sent to Procer. That had been decades ago, when the Conquest was still fresh. He’d dug deep roots in Segovia since, married and become a respectable member of the Princess’ household. And never had he ceased sliding a monthly detailed report between two loose stones outside the palace for another agent to pick up.
One did not cross the likes of the Lady Scribe, no matter how comfortable abroad one became. Unlike the Carrion Lord, the Webweaver would not crucify you: you’d just suddenly… disappear, along with everyone you ever cared about. Besides, if he was careful he could maintain his cover and return to Segovia after this. It’d been a while since he’d carved up anyone, though he’d once had a talent for it, so it was for the best that the task he’d been given was slightly more indirect. Princess Luisa’s highest-ranked commanders had a habit of unofficially gathering for drinks and wakeleaf on pleasant evenings, and had not broken the pattern even on this campaign. That was the kind of target of opportunity an Eye would never outgrow sinking their teeth into.
Jacob silently barred the door of peasant house the officers had commandeered, smiling at the sound of raucous laughter coming from inside. He splashed oil over the wood, then selected another five places around the house to help the fire get started. Humming under his breath, he struck a pinewood match and set the first point ablaze. They didn’t notice until he was getting started on the fourth – too drunk, he thought – and by then they were as good as dead. Ignoring the panicked screaming and the desperate attempts to hack through the door, Jacob finished his work and melted into the darkness. The smell of cooking flesh on the wind brought fond memories, but also ideas. Pork for supper tomorrow, perhaps? He’d recently learned to make Levantine sauce, with the little peppers. He’d ask Princess Luisa.
When dawn came, two women on opposite sides of the same continent broke their fast with parchment laid out in front of them. Reports, one set received through messenger pigeons and the other through an elaborate scrying relay.
Dread Empress Malicia allowed herself a smile, as she was alone in the dining room. Princess Constance of Aisne was still alive and the coalition held. A victory, mitigated only by the horses of the Princess of Aequitan’s entire cataphract contingent being poisoned. Assassinating Klaus Papenheim would have been a coup, but she had never thought the attempt likely to succeed. And with a third of their supplies gone, Hasenbach’s armies would be forced to give battle soon. With one of their flanks shaky, as the senior staff of the Princess of Segovia had quite literally gone up in smoke.
Prince Cordelia Hasenbach frowned at the letters in front of her, delicately eating a spoonful of broth as her attendants stood silent. Aequitan had been significantly weakened, but aside from that she’d failed to make an effect. Her most important victories had been defensive in nature, protecting her forces instead of weakening her enemy’s. The loss of the granaries was not a major setback, she decided, as Uncle Klaus had intended on giving battle soon, but it meant retreat was no longer a feasible option even if necessary. This round, she silently conceded, went to the Empress.
In Aisne, the game continued.
By Klaus’ reckoning, the Battle of Aisne begun when the enemy caught sight of his outriders on the plains to the northwest of the city. His boys had immediately retreated when the coalition had sent out a larger cavalry force after them, but by then the horns had been sounded. The massive armies of the two reluctantly allied princesses begun their lumbering march to the battlefield, even as the Prince of Hannoven’s own soldiers spread into formation. It was nearing noon when the enemy arrived, and by then Klaus had arranged his forces in a broad forward triangle. To the surprise of the coalition, the centre of his formation was not made out of Lycaonese infantry but of the armies of Lyonis and Segovia, themselves bordered by Brus and Lange while his northerners formed the wings on both sides. From atop his horse, the Prince of Hannoven watched mockery erupt among the staff of the Princess of Aisne.
They probably thought that he’d positioned the troops that way because he believed that Lyonis and Segovia would run at the first opportunity if not flanked by more loyal armies. He would have believed the same, in their place. Messengers immediately began going back and forth between the armies of the princesses of Aisne and Aequitan, and he knew exactly what they’d be talking about. Instead of a thick battering ram, the commanders in both armies would be arguing in favour of spreading out coalition lines so that they could envelop Klaus’ smaller army. It was the best way to make their superior numbers count. Now we see if you were right, Cordelia. Another hour passed and then the coalition army began moving forward as they’d been, to the grey-haired man’s dark amusement. His niece had read the opposition like a book.
Neither princess, in the end, was willing to allow the other one’s armies too far from her sight. There was always the risk that the other ruler would delay the attack on their flank just long enough that the other racked up the most casualties, only striking after Klau’s formation was already broken. They already thought victory was in the bag, he realized, so they were planning for the aftermath. There was a devent chance that a second pitched battle would erupt the moment his army was scattered, between the two ‘allied’ princesses. An old Alamans proverb that came to mind: victors should not offer their back to the door. Just after your enemy had won was the best time to slide in the knife. Even if spreading out would have been better tactics, politics were making them stupid. And the wretches wondered why there was a need for a Lycaonese on the throne.
The Prince of Hannoven watched the enemy infantry advance for some time, then glanced north. Both Klaus and the coalition had massed their cavalry into a single force and sent it to the side, as had been the norm in Proceran warfare since the days of Isabella the Mad. The coalition cavalry, trusting in their larger numbers – though that advantage had shrunk somewhat with Aequitan’s horses being poisoned, something that still had the old soldier grinning – moved forward first. The two masses met in furious charge to the side the main armies, and for the first time that day the difference between Lycaonese and southern warfare was made clear. In Alamans and Arlesites wars, cataphracts either fought other cataphracts or ran down infantry out of formation. Mobility was key, and so light armour was favoured. Lycaonese cataphracts, on the other hand, fought against ratlings. The barbed arrows and spears used by the Chain of Hunger, which were often poisoned as well, meant that plate armour had become the standard.
When the cavalries impacted it was a massacre. His Lycaonese horsemen tore straight through the tip of the enemy wedge before beginning to slow, and in close quarters the gap between plate and chain mail took its toll. The melee lasted for the better part of an hour until the coalition cavalry broke and fled, having lost perhaps a third of their number. Klaus doubted they would be seen again for the rest of the engagement, though he’d keep eyes on them just in case.
The sight must have been a shock to the princesses of Aisne and Aequitan, he decided, but now it would not be enough to give them pause. The two princesses were smelling a victory right now. When the ranks of infantry had met the sound of shield walls colliding was like thunder, but after an initial valiant effort by the centre of Klaus’ formation the sheer mass of the coalition army began to push the soldiers of Lyonis and Segovia back. That impact reverberated until it turned into an actual retreat, the arranged triangle of his formation slowly caving inwards. All that, he had planned for. He kept a close on on the centre since they were the most important part of his strategy. The Segovians, he noted, were fighting like devils. They were making the coalition bleed for every inch as they retreated.
He owed Princess Luisa an apology, it seemed. The old fox was keeping her part of the bargain and more. Slowly his outwards triangle was turning into an arc of the opposite curvature, the Lycaonese he’d placed at the two back wings of the triangle now turning into the tips of the arc as the coalition pushed deeper and deeper. Then the soldiers under the Prince of Lyonis turned their slow retreat into something more like a rout, leaving a hole in the formation, and Klaus cursed loudly.
“Fabien, you weaselling fuck,” he said through gritted teeth. “I hope they spit roast you in the Furthest Hell for that.”
Prince Fabien of Lyonis pressed his horse forward, his troops keeping pace as well as they could. No doubt the old brute from Hannoven was pissing his pants about now. Without Lyonis holding the centre with the Segovians, there was a gaping hole in the centre of Papenheim’s formation. Now the coalition would flow into the room, splitting their enemies into two smaller forces and overwhelming them individually. The decision to turn his cloak had been quite easy, as it happened. While his cousins in Cleves and Hainaut were no longer willing or able to support his bid for the throne, his correspondence in Arans had begun yielding results of late. The moment Hasenbach retreated to the mountains with her tail between her legs he could seize Brus and strongarm the boy in Lange into backing him, putting Fabien back at the head of an alliance to rival any of the others.
Both Constance of Aisne and Aenor of Aequitan had offered to pay him for the privilege of becoming their rival, amusingly enough, and securing another loan from the Pravus Bank had been child’s play. Whether it was the Praesi furnishing that gold or not ultimately mattered little to him: after he became First Prince he could default on the debt and what would they be able to do about it? Invade the Principate to collect? Laughable. It could be argued by that emptying the Empire’s coffers he was doing the work of the Heavens, he’d decided. Besides, if he didn’t take the coin his enemies would. That kind of an advantage could be enough to bury him even if he was careful. All that was left, he thought, was to decide was whether or not the army of Lyonis would strike the soldiers of Lange on its way out of the killing field. He was inclined to do so. If he could grab the boy prince, that entire principality was as good as his.
“Brother,” he heard from the side.
Ah, Sophie. Still playing the soldier, he saw, with her plate armour and pretty white horse. The youngest of his sisters always did have a fancy for the military life.
“An auspicious day, Sophie,” he smiled. “We’ve just won the Battle of Aisne.”
“So I see,” the dark-haired girl replied. “Are you sure turning on Hasenbach is wise?”
As their horses pulled side by side, Fabien snorted contemptuously.
“She’s a decent hand at the Ebb and Flow, for a Lycaonese,” he conceded. “But she’s a long way from home. The girl must learn her place.”
“I happen to have a notion of where that is,” Lady Sophie agreed.
Before he could blink her sword was out of her scabbard and buried in his throat.
“On the throne,” his sister said calmly. “The First Prince sends her regards, brother.”
Sagging on his horse, the last thing the Prince of Lyonis ever heard was his sister taking command of the army and ordering it back into formation.
Prince Etienne of Brabant watched the army of Lyonis fall back into line, and in that moment made his decision. He still believed that Princess Constance would make for a good First Princess, and not just because she’d promised to wed her son to his eldest daughter. She had the connections, the experience and the vision to bring the Principate into a golden age. But he’d been ruminating Hasenbach’s letter for months now, and come to the conclusion that the girl was right. It was no longer important who took the throne: Procer could not afford to go without a supreme leader anymore. The divides were beginning to run too deep. If he kept supporting the Princess of Aisne, the end of the civil war was nowhere in sight. Aenor of Aequitan had comparable backing and would never bow to a woman she despised so much – but she had no personal enmity with Hasenbach. None of them did.
That was, he supposed, the best reason he could think of for putting the Lycaonese girl on the throne. She would not be an effective First Prince, he thought: she didn’t haven enough allies among the Alamans and the Arlesites to keep the Highest Assembly in line. But she had just enough backers to be crowned, and with her as a figurehead the healing could begin. Hasenbach was unmarried and had shown no interest in remedying that, so her dynasty need not last longer than a generation. An Alamans could reclaim the throne in a few decades and Procer could move on from these ruinous days. All Etienne had to do for this to come true was betray an ally. Ah, well, he thought. The waters ebb and flow, but the tide is eternal. There was no changing the nature of this game, harsh as it could be at times. He gestured for his page to sound the clarion.
Coming late to Princess Constance’s cause had meant she’d sweetened his alignment with quite a few perks, including the forces of Brabant being positioned to the back of the coalition army. No doubt she’d come to regret that decision now. His army paused, realigned at the exhortations of the serjeants and then charged into the back of the coalition forces. It was only then that he noticed it: in the distance, the Princess of Orne was doing the very same thing. In the span of a few heartbeats, the situation of the two princesses leading the coalition had turned from the eve of victory to the better part of an encirclement. Just enough of a way out was left that the coalition soldiers would have a path to flee instead of fight to the death, he noted. The Prince of Hannoven’s experience at work.
Slowly, Papenheim’s cataphracts wheeled behind the coalition and formed a wedge, preparing for a charge into the exposed back. Weeping Heavens, he thought, all the pieces coming together. This is going to be a massacre. Perhaps Hasenbach did have it in her to be more than a figurehead, if she could be this ruthless.
Klaus Papenheim had more than a few battles under his belt. The campaign into Lange had seen precious few pitched engagements – ambushes and raids had been the way he’d picked, making use of the Augur’s powers to find vulnerable moments – but he’d fought ratlings by the shores of Lake Netzach many a time to prevent them from putting enough warbands together to threaten Hannoven. This, though? This was something else. The ranks of the coalition began shrinking until the entire force… crumpled. After sending his cataphracts charging into their backs twice he had to hold the riders back or risk them being swept away by the human torrent of fleeing soldiers. They had orders to make sure neither the princesses of Aisne or Aequitan managed to flee the field, and the veteran knew that before nightfall he’d have both women as prisoners in his camp. The Augur’s foretelling of where they’d go had made sure of that.
He might have just ended the Proceran civil war today.
Some principalities would refuse to bend their knees still, but there would be enough rulers backing Cordelia that she could be elected First Prince legally. He’d never really doubted that his niece could do it, could lead them to victory, but there’d always been a sense that the victory was a distant thing. Years ahead, after long and hard struggles. Instead he’d campaigned for a little over a year and the entire south of Procer had burst open like an overripe fruit. The grey-haired man almost shivered. He knew that the Lycaonese armies were not, in the end, overwhelmingly stronger than those of the Alamans and Arlesites. They had advantages, but so did the southerners. For the first time he truly realized what Cordelia meant, when she’d said that the Empress was in the process of destroying Procer. She was making us brittle, beyond repair, and no one had even noticed.
Prince Klaus Papenheim found his gaze turning to the east, where in the distance the shape of the tall mountains separating the Principate from Callow could almost be glimpsed. This wasn’t over. Not even close to it.
When nightfall came, two women on opposite sides of the continent found themselves looking down at hastily-brought reports.
Cordelia Hasenbach, now First Prince of Procer in all but name, put the sheaf of parchment down and allowed herself to savour the feeling for a moment. She’d won. By the skin of her teeth, but she had won. She’d proved that a mere mortal could take on the all-seeing monster in the Tower and come out ahead. The Principate was not dead and Calernia would not sink into anarchy. Then the moment passed, and the Prince of Rhenia composed herself. There was work to do. There would always be work to do, and more now than ever before.
Dread Empress Malicia’s face remained serene even as she put aside the letter and rose to her feet. Contingencies would have to be implemented. The throne could not be denied to Hasenbach, but it could be weakened. The dark-skinned woman came to stand by an old shatranj board, her Name glimpsing the shivering souls that Dread Emperor Sorcerous had bound to the pieces.
“This one goes to you, darling,” she murmured. “Shall we play another?”
Without waiting for a reply, she nudged forward a pawn.