“Heed my warning princes and princesses of Procer: for every empire laid low by Evil, a hundred were wrecked by mere greed and stupidity.”
– Extract from ‘The Ruin of Empire, or, a Call to Reform of the Highest Assembly’, by Princess Eliza of Salamans
They kept telling him he had servants now.
The League of Free Cities had no official seat even when a Hierarch ruled since Prokopia Lakene, first of that Name, had never established one. Her native Penthes was too far from the heart of the Free Cities, and she’d preferred playing off cities against each other to aligning with a single one. In the end Nicae was where the Conclave was called, with the Tyrant’s armies still camped outside the recently-breached walls. Delegations from the cities arrived within days of each other, begun to travel long before the Siege of Nicae came to its bloody end. They all came to answer the call to elect the Hierarch of the Free Cities. Atalante, now freed of Helikean occupation for the price of its vote. Delos, whose Secretariat had sent a swarm of askretis to harass him with scrolls before the Conclave even confirmed his ascension. Magisters of Stygia from the ruling faction in their Magisterium, politely inquiring if he desired slaves to run his household affairs. The filthy Penthesians had sent five claimants to the title of Exarch of their wretched city, all demanding his arbitrage. The Strategos of Nicae was dead, slain in battle while she fought the Helikeans, and until one could be appointed the Basileus of the city had seize power in full. The man had granted him the ancient palace of the Strategoi as a residence, as much a bribe to Anaxares as a slight to the office that was ancient rival to his own. For Helike the Tyrant stood alone, and the Republic had sent only one diplomat. The rest of the delegation were kanenas that followed him like a second shadow wherever he went.
He’d refused it. The palace, the servants – servants, as if any soul in Creation was suborned to anything but the Will Of The People – the soft bed and the draperies. Anaxares would have naught to do with this madness. He could not return to Bellerophon, to the Republic, and so he had tried to find work in the city. But the fishermen knelt and shook when he’d asked if hands were needed, and the fields outside the city went without tilling for they were still covered by soldiers. He knew nothing of smithing or shoemaking, for his entire life he had been nothing but a diplomat for his people and he had learned no trade. And so he had wandered into the ruined parts of the city, freshly sacked, and sat in the ashes with a begging bowl. For warmth he burnt trash, for unlike civilized Bellerophon where such things could only be done where an assembly of citizens from the quarter decided to allow in Nicae anyone could do so wherever they wished. He had a threadbare blanket ripped from a burnt house for his bed, and the sea for bathing water. It was a wretched living, but better than this talk of palace.
Anaxares had become a curiosity, to his distaste. Noblemen and functionaries came to his alley to drop coins in the bowl and attempt conversation, though he never replied. Some left gold, and that he tossed aside for other vagrants to have. Copper he took as alms, and silver if there were few enough, not that merchants accepted to take his coin. He had to leave it on their stalls over their protests, and some even tried to force it back into his hands. Mighty Hierarch, they wept. Glorious One. All I have is yours. When he first heard the words he threw up in an alley afterwards, shaken to his core. It was wrong. All wrong, and there was nothing he could do to fix it. There was no hope some delegation would come to its senses at the last moment and gave the single vote against that was needed to prevent his election. The Gods had elected him before men ever spoke their piece, cursing him with a Name regardless of his desires. The Tyrant had been their instrument in this, and for that Anaxares was glad he had seen nothing of him since the night where Nicae fell.
Kairos had ordered dragged at his feet a bloodied hunk of meat that he said was the White Knight, a hero anointed by the Heavens. Taken prisoner in the fight, he said, and now it was the Hierarch who must decided his fate. The Tyrant was, the boy grinned, ever the head of the League’s loyal servant.
“I give no orders,” Anaxares had said.
“Silence is an order as well, old friend,” the Tyrant laughed. “Your will be done.”
The diplomat had washed his hands of the affair, walked away, and in the days that followed men and women of import had come in his alley to praise his mercy. Called his restraint in allowing the heroes to leave unmolested a beginning to mending the wounds of the League. He did not reply, but learned even his silences had weight now. Consequences. There is no escaping this, he thought. Even when I do nothing, it is something. He tried regardless. Decades under the watchful gaze of the kanenas had taught Anaxares to think along grooves already learned, to stay within the path decided upon by the People, but he went further. Eyes open, breathing steady, the diplomat tried to think of nothing at all. To abnegate life, for he was forbidden from taking his own. Hours became mere blinks of blank absence but Creation, Creation always dragged him back. Through hunger or heat or a myriad other little pulls that there was nothing he could do about. Never before had the diplomat so despised that he was but a sack of blood, bound together by bones and skin. He leaked and scraped like a peach, years of soft living having made him too tender by far.
The scrolls from the Secretariat kept coming, and though he was tempted to use them to feed the flames he refrained. That would be statement as well. He let them pile up at his side instead, pretending they did no exist and ignoring anyone telling him otherwise. He only understood his mistake too late. Anaxares had made himself a story, and stories were the beating heart of Names. He bit his tongue until it bled to avoid saying the word, but it sounded in his mind anyway. Receive. Another curse forced upon him, beyond his control. To his eyes and ears came whispers and images on the wind, and there was no avoiding them. There was no rhyme or reason to the aspect – it came and went as it wished, sometimes twice in an hour and sometimes absent for two days.
“You’re sure he’s just staying there?” a man in Penthesian robes said.
“Our men say so,” some kneeling figure replied. “The Hierarch has gone mad.”
“All Bellerophans are mad,” the Penthesian said. “This is… something else.”
The morning after the man he’d glimpsed came and left gold in the begging bowl, speaking of supporting him as Exarch to restore order to Penthes.
“The third request for war reparations had been delivered,” a plain-faced woman said.
Her face was tattooed with lines of blue and black ink, marking her as appointed askretis of the twelth rank.
“It was ignored?” a man asked.
His own tattoos were but two thin stripes, black and blue. Anaxares had never seen a member of the Secretariat so highly placed as to have only two lines, not even as an envoy.
“But not burned,” the woman said.
“There must be some manner of proper method for submission we are unaware of,” the man said. “Send a scroll requesting it.”
The woman he’d seen stood before him before an hour had passed with a scroll in hand, and Anaxares was forced to admit the visions were true and not merely torment set upon him by the Gods. The next vision he received, there was no mystery as to who he saw. The Basileus of Nicae had visited him before, a young olive-skinned man with perfect teeth and braided black hair.
“It would be improper to appoint a Strategos before the Conclave has taken place,” the Basileus told an assembly of nobles. “We must not slight the Hierarch by proceeding without his guidance.”
“A Strategos would best represent us at the Conclave,” an old man in armour bit back.
“The Bellerophan’s demented, Your Excellency,” a woman intervened soothingly, addressing the Basileus. “The Tyrant will be the power behind the throne.”
“No one knows what the Tyrant wants,” the Basileus said, looking wary. “He could have seized the Free Cities by force, if he so wished, yet he’s withdrawn from all his conquests. I will not act recklessly before knowing his plan.”
Bickering erupted after and Anaxares was reminded of the debates in the Republic, for a moment. It passed. These were richly dressed, in some closed room away from the people they claimed to rule for. There was not even an empty space left for the Gods Below to fill, should they care to vote – they never had in the history of Bellerophon, but the right had been granted and so it remained. The vision did not die, it merely shifted to another sight. The diplomat felt his fingers clench. Kairos Theodosian was seated alone in his tent, sipping at a goblet of water with a slice of lemon in it. His hand shook like a lead as he added some pale powder to the water from a satchel. A pair of gargoyles were fanning him with long feathered fans, though not very well. Their movements were too choppy. His red eye closed as he sighed in pleasure, drinking deep, but when it opened it was looking straight at Anaxares.
“So which one is this?” the Tyrant grinned. “Bard likes the personal touch and scrying’s not that subtle. Is it you, my glorious liege?”
The monster cackled.
“Already an aspect,” he crowed. “I knew you’d take well to this. Belief, Hierarch. That’s what makes Names, and it’s not something you can fight.”
The vision ended, and Anaxares was unsure whether it had ended naturally or been broken. He forced himself not to consider the ways of his ‘aspect’ more closely. It would have been leaning into the madness to embrace this Name even slightly. Once begun, there was no going back. In the end, two week passed before the Conclave was held. Every delegation sent messenger to inform him of it, the Basileus even coming to the alley. The young man looked at the filth and ashes with barely veiled-distaste, repeating the hour and location thrice as Anaxares ignored him. It would be in the palace, he said one last time as he dropped coppers into the bowl.
The day came and Anaxares did not go.
It was near nightfall when they sought him out in the alley. Servants preceded them, a swarm carrying carpets and wooden seats so that no part of the representatives would have to be soiled. Only Bellerophon, he saw, did not bother. When the diplomat came, she sat on the ground. Anaxares spared her a glance, but did not recognize her. She was too young to have served with him. In that broken alley, a crowd of the most powerful men and women in the Free Cities assembled around him. Five Exarch claimants from Penthes. Two two-striped askretis of the Secretariat. The Basileus and the Tyrant, and from Atalante a pair of grim-faced preachers clutching beads representing the seven Heavenly Choirs the city claimed as patrons. From Stygia a familiar face watched him: Magister Zoe, the only other delegate spared when Helike first began the war. Mercantis had no representative. The Consortium had right to sit on on League session, but this was not one like the others – the City of Bought and Sold had no say in the election of a Hierarch, as it was not member of the League. In the end, the Basileus was the first to speak. It was his right as host.
“A powerful message, my lord,” the young man said. “Making us come to you.”
Anaxares’ fingers clenched.
“If I cut out my tongue,” he bitterly said, “you would expect me to give verdict in ink. If I cut off my hands, you would demand I blink my agreement. Were I but a burnt husk, still answers would be asked of me.”
He bared his teeth.
“Fine, then,” he said. “I will speak. I am no lord, Nicaean. The very existence of that title is offensive to me. Do not ever call me such again.”
The man’s face flushed with anger, but he mastered himself. Young, the diplomat thought. He was too young and green to participate in such matters. Ambition had blinded him.
“No offence was meant,” the Basileus said through gritted teeth. “I misspoke.”
The moment of silence that followed was broken by the Bellerophan diplomat. Once upon a time, Anaxares thought, he might have been the one sitting there.
“The People have decreed the Republic is to put forward motion for the election of Anaxares the Diplomat as Hierarch of the Free Cities,” she said.
“Would that I could rip that treason from their mouths,” he replied harshly.
“Delos vote for,” the askretis he’d seen in the vision said.
“Atalante votes for,” one of the preachers said. “Mercy smile on us all.”
“Penthes-“ an Exarch claimant began, but he was interrupted.
“Votes for,” another barrelled through.
“Nicae votes for,” the Basileus flatly added.
“I bear mandate from the Magisterium to vote in favour,” Magister Zoe said.
“Helike,” the Tyrant smiled, red eye shining in triumph, “votes for.”
“Damn you all,” the Hierarch whispered hoarsely.
“All rise for the Hierarch,” the Bellerophan diplomat said.
The sheer wrongness of watching one of his own people honour a Foreign Despot – for what else could he be called, now? – saw bile rise in his throat. The delegates rose one and all, bowing low. Kairos was the first to be seated again, allowing a gargoyle to feed him grapes. It kept hitting his chin instead and chattering in anguish, but of anything it brought the boy enjoyment.
“The League of Free Cities now stands united again,” the other two-striped askretis said, her voice solemn. “And so Delos now presents a matter for the Hierarch’s arbitrage.”
None of the delegates showed surprise. This, he thought, had been arranged before they ever came here.
“First Prince Hasenbach has been corresponding with the Secretariat,” she said. “And most other cities as well. She seeks truce, and alliance if she may. This is no longer a matter that can be settled by the cities.”
Years as a diplomat had taught Anaxares the ways of the League, and so he knew she spoke truth. In the absence of a Hierarch, the only way for every city-state to be bound to a treaty was if it was agreed upon by member majority vote. Otherwise every city chose for itself. The passed motion to make truce with the Principate had been what first drove the Tyrant to begin his war, and now that the war was over the point of contention was resurfacing. Worse, after the election of a Hierarch precedent dictated they alone held authority to make such treaties for the League as a whole. The head of the League held no more sway than allowed within the walls of the Free Cities, but they spoke for the League as a whole – Prokopia Lakene, his only predecessor, was said to have believed this to be the only way the Free Cities would stand equal to powers like the Principate and the Thalassocracy. Her opponents had whispered she sought to make another Procer out of the Free Cities, and her work had collapsed after her death and the round of wars that followed.
“Procer’s itching for a crusade,” Magister Zoe drawled. “’tis nothing unexpected. Let them cut their teeth on the Empire. Whoever wins, we can extract concessions from the loser.”
“A Stygian preaching opportunism,” the Basileus bit out. “Speaking of expectations. Some of us had the fucking Calamities raining hellfire on our cities but a month ago. Where is your talk of cranes now, Magister? Where are my people’s retribution and redress?”
“You had the Sovereign of Red Skies wrecking your city,” Zoe said slowly, her tone implying she was addressing an imbecile. “And now that you survived this, you want to give him reason to come back? Boy, appoint a Strategos and let someone with godsdamned sense do the speaking for Nicae.”
“Language, my friends,” the Tyrant chided cheerfully. “In front of our Hierarch, no less. For shame.”
Half-hearted apologies were muttered at Anaxares.
“Praes is a den of darkness and iniquity,” one of the Atalantian preachers said. “Let us walk in the light of the Heavens, and join the First Prince’s righteous enterprise.”
“This and a slave’s pisspot for your Heavens, priestling,” Magister Zoe replied tartly, her following gesture highly obscene.
Kairos frowned at the sight, but did not repeat himself.
“There are still three Calamities left,” the male askretis said. “This is not a war to be undertaken lightly. What do we stand to gain, by fighting monsters in their own lair? Let us make truce with Hasenbach and wash our hands of it.”
“Truce doesn’t mean the end of trade,” a Penthesian claimant said. “The Empire will be hungry for grain and steel. Procer will need truce before it feels safe to invade, but we need not grant them more. The longer the war lasts, the greater our profits.”
“And if Procer wins?” another claimant sneered. “Will Hasenbach think fondly of us, then? Best we side with her now, and avoid trouble after the dust settles.”
“It is the belief of the People that nothing is owed,” the Bellerophan diplomat said. “The wars in the north are of no import to Mighty Bellerophon, First and Greatest of the Free Cities. Involvement is unnecessary.”
“Spoken as a delegate whose city shares no river with the Praesi,” the female askretis said. “Isolation is a valid choice only for those who are isolated.”
“There’ll be a flood of refugees going south if Procer manages to take the Vales,” a Penthesian predicted. “The Wastelanders will dig in and flip open the grimoires, but the Callowans? We’ve all heard the rumours. Open rebellion followed by the fae, and they’ve got some girl villain stirring the pot. The place is a wreck, and it’ll bleed people down the Hwaerte and the Wasiliti on every boat they can find.”
“Mercantis will take in many,” Magister Zoe said.
“The Consortium will welcome the rich and send the desperate on their way,” the Basileus replied flatly. “Save for those they force into slavery.”
“The Red Flower Vales are not so easily breached,” the male askretis said. “And the Legions of Terror are no mere footmen. None of us believed Callow would fall, twenty yeas ago, yet the Dread Empress surprised us. She may yet again.”
“The Vales are only one flank, Delosi,” a preacher said. “If Ashur lands an expeditionary force on the coast of Praes, the Empire may well collapse from the inside. As is ever the lot of Evil.”
“We do not know for a fact the Thalassocracy’s siding with the Principate,” the Basileus warned. “Ashurans are a treacherous people by nature, it springs from the Baalite blood.”
“Magon Hadast pulled the rug out from under Levant to her benefit last year,” a Penthesian snorted. “The man’s made his choice, and the rest of the citizenship tiers will follow his word like heavenly decree.”
“Blasphemy,” an Atalantian hissed.
“Kiss angel feet all you like, priest, it makes you no holier,” the Penthesian sneered.
Anaxares let the squabbling wash over him and studied the envoys, tightening the blanket around his shoulders. The diplomat from Bellerophon had not spoken again, and watching her he had no trouble guessing wise. The Republic had not granted her right of negotiation, only to present its position – her hands were tied. Two of the cities, he understood, were truly married to their stances. Stygia pushed for absence of treaty, because it desired to raid the losing side for slaves. It had no real allies in this, but Magister Zoe was unmoved. The Magisterium must have given her strict orders. Atalante, though fresh out of Helikean occupation, was intent on joining the shaping crusade. Why? The city was broken: he had seen it with his own eyes. Was it truly faith guiding the preachers, or the need for plunder to fill the coffers for the rebuilding? It may be both. Atalantians were an emotional breed, and now that they were forbidden revenge on Helike they might be seeking to even the scales with the Tyrant’s allies. Foolishness. They should be seeing to the harvest, not talking of war. The Hierarch watched them, and saw the lines. The words he needed to speak to sway them to war or peace, to alliance or enmity. They were on the tip of his tongue. He bit down on it until it bled.
There was no greater sin than to rob the free of their freedom, and he would have no part in it.
“Ladies, gentlemen,” Kairos Theodosian said. “Lend me your ears.”
The silence that followed as absolute. There’d been many among those present who’d mocked the Tyrant, once, but that had been before the war. In the span of a year the Tyrant of Helike had sacked two cities of the League, forced a third to surrender and forced the election of his chosen candidate as Hierarch. For all that – horrifying as it was – Anaxares had been named head of the League, the true power within it was a crippled boy with shaking hands and too broad a smile. When he spoke now, men listened.
“All this talk of the crusade whispers that we are but accessories to it,” the boy said mildly. “Witnesses and servants, not truly of import. Without even knowing it, you have surrendered the fate of Calernia to Cordelia Hasenbach and Dread Empress Malicia.”
His good eye twitched, a spasm he did not control.
“Does this not shame you?” he smiled. “To have learned the lesson of our irrelevance so deeply you no longer question it?”
“No one wants to follow you into war with Procer, Theodosian,” the Basileus said.
Brave young man, Anaxares thought, but not a very clever one.
“Leo, Leo, Leo,” the Tyrant sighed. “Is silver truly all that is needed for you to become Hasenbach’s pet?”
“The days of Tyrant Theodosius are past,” Magister Zoe interrupted, cutting of the Nicaean. “No one disputes your… achievements, my lord. But Procer is no longer a loose confederation of warring princes. Should we strike at one principality, we bring the full weight of the Principate down on our heads. No amount of lightning will turn back that tide.”
“Then your objection is one of capacity,” Kairos said. “Not intent.”
“The Magisterium has no love for the Principate,” she snorted. “Neither does anyone here with any sense.”
“Procer is the bulwark against Evil to the north,” the Basileus barked.
“The Lycaonese have served such a purpose with distinction,” the female askretis said. “This does not erase the many bloody deeds of the Arlesites. Many a war has the League fought against the principalities of the south.”
“The League of Free Cities,” the Tyrant said smilingly, “is pathetic. We have held on to our borders by the skin of our teeth, but what great power has not humbled us? Praes occupied half our cities for two decades under the second Maleficent. Ashur strangles our trade whenever it pleases and Procer, oh Procer – have you all forgotten why this League exists at all? How close we came to being under the rule of princes.”
“Tyrants ever speak of war,” an Atalantian said. “Yet always defeat finds them. How many of our people need die for your ambitions?”
“Look at the world, my friends,” Kairos chuckled. “Look at the lay of the land. The Empire stands besieged, Procer prepares to bleed breaching it. Ashur is led by an old man who would send the Thalassocracy’s fleets to war very, very far away.”
The boy’s eye shone red, red like blood, and his grin was a villain’s grin.
“When has such an opportunity ever come to us?” he asked. “Never before, and it may never come again. Do you want to be remembered as the men and women who had a chance to bring greatness to their people but flinched away out of mere fear?”
His bad hand was steady now, curled like claws.
“Are you not tired, my friends,” he asked, “of kneeling to these greater nations? Are you content with forever remaining pressed between titans, hoping none turns and rolls over us?”
He bared his teeth.
“I want the Samite Gulf,” he said. “I want Tenerife and Salamans and Valencis to be cities freed, brought into our league. I want Praesi and Procerans to cease warring over who rules our own streets.”
He raised his hand.
“And so I call for war,” he hissed. “A good old war, my friends, the kind that carves up a continent forever. I want sieges and desperate charges, I want hosts breaking and smoke darkening the sky. I want the rivers to run red and palaces to burn. Give me the sound of horns and shields shattering, the sound of arrows falling like a rain of steel. Give want victories so great they will tremble to hear of us from Smyrna to Rhenia.”
The red was deepening, Anaxares thought, to unearthly crimson. The boy’s words hung in the air like a haze, silvery as a fae’s glamour.
“And those victories I promise you, true as my Name,” the Tyrant grinned. “There is a fate just within our reach, if we dare to grasp it.”
Kairos turned to him then, and inclined his head in a gesture of respect that was anything but.
“Your arbitrage, Hierarch,” he said.
There was no greater sin, Anaxares of Bellerophon thought, than to rob the free of their freedom.
“I give no orders,” he said. “You may all do as you wish.”
The man looked in Kairos Theodosian’s red eye, and wondered if he was imagining the faint sound of laughter ringing in his years.