“You who pass this gate, know yourself beyond hope.”
– Written above the gates of Keter, earthly seat of the Dead King
He would not speak to her until he was no longer in a vulnerable position. Alaya had known this because she knew the man, how his mind functioned. Amadeus did not treat from position of weakness. Her Black Knight arrived a few days earlier than anticipated at the Red Flower Vales, taking refuge with the loyal legions that garrisoned it in the face of Procer. The empress had found a degree of dark amusement in the way that Catherine Foundling’s armies now lay between the armed forces most loyal to the two most powerful villains of Praes. Almost like a matron breaking up a childish squabble between her wards. As always, the girl thought the worst of them. A civil war would not have been an acceptable outcome even if had a crusade not been in the making. The coming struggle would be steep enough without wasting soldiers in settling a matter best addressed privately. The current assessment of the younger villain’s loyalties was growing clearer with every movement she made in the absence of instructions from the Tower, and the picture painted was not promising.
The remains of two legions had been suborned to the insolently named Army of Callow, followed by the announcement of large-scale recruitment across the kingdom. The girl’s return to Laure had been followed by an energetic centralization of power around the yet-unbestowed crown, though it seemed she had learned from her previous blunder. A bureaucracy was forcefully being assembled by drafting any remotely competent Callowan and withdrawing talents from the Fifteenth. Given the girl’s propensity for charging at the first battlefield in sight, the power would effectively be wielded by Baroness Anne Kendal over the next few years. A former rebel with close ties to the House of Light and the last remnants of Callowan aristocracy. In the optic of consolidation of power within the kingdom, it was not a blunder. From the greater understanding of Callow within the Empire, it was a warning sign. A cohesive power bloc capable of ruling was being formed in Laure, one with bone-deep enmity towards the East.
That the Duchy of Daoine seemed to have turned into one of the crown’s backers was also worth a second look. It was a well-positioned source of manpower with hard borders and a history of resisting Praesi rule. The girl would need to squeeze the northern baronies for coin, however, or risk leaving the upset south in the lurch. An angle to use, if necessary. If it came to rebellion, further partition of Callow was now a feasible solution. When the south had been bound together by noble rule and marriage alliances it would have been a misstep, the seed of a rebellious Kingdom of Liesse being sown, but now that the city was wrecked and the aristocracy decapitated matters had changed. A southern vassal state dependent on Tower subsidies to recover would remain largely tranquil. It was what had once been the calm centre of Callow that was now trouble, the cities built by the shores of the Silver Lake. Large urban populations, strategic trade location and now a fledgling bureaucracy indebted to the crown made them the beating heart of Catherine’s power within Callow. Alaya had stayed her hand, for the moment. Killing the girl would ignite country-wide rebellion and besides she had yet to overstep the tentative terms reached in Liesse. Pressure could be applied through the promised reparations and the precarious western border.
Which was not in the empress’s hand at the moment, strictly speaking, but in those of her Black Knight. One of several matters in need of settling. Alaya thought of the raised hand, the word spoken that had unmade over a decade of careful planning, and grew cold. Dread Empress Malicia set the unnecessary emotional spasm aside. A mistake had been made, in placing blind trust. The extent that leaning should ever be indulged was in trusting individuals to act according to their nature. Anything more than that was asinine sentiment, a weakness on her part. When the mirror flickered with life, she was awaiting it. Dressed blood red, a sprawling dress with long sleeves and a neckline that was more suggestive than revealing. The golden circlet on her brow was almost an unnecessary touch – the dress alone would be enough for Amadeus to understand that it was the Dread Empress of Praes that had given audience, not Alaya. The silver mirror revealed the sight of a man unarmoured. A loose white shirt did not quite cover the sight of bandages covering his abdomen, but the pale green eyes were as sharp as she had ever seen them. Alaya felt a surge of fury. It was the Empress that had given audience, but it was Amadeus that had come.
“You are wounded,” she said, smoothing away the emotion.
“So I am,” the man agreed, tone almost amused. “It has been a year of sharp lessons, and this one sharper than most.”
“The girl,” Malicia said, and it was not a question.
Even now, after it all, the fury returned. Not directed at him but at the arrogant child who dared believe she had even the shadow of a claim on her Black Knight’s life. In this, she had overstepped. Catherine Foundling had never been properly taught the precarity of her position.
“A point,” Black said, “on the nature of trust. How that blade cuts both ways.”
“She has earned no trust,” Malicia coldly said. “The ability to kill is the grace of a killer, not a qualification to rule. Whatever measures she now takes are no erasure of past failures.”
“Yet I wonder,” the man mused. “Regardless, she is not the reason for this audience. The matter is best set aside for now.”
“Is it?” the Empress said, voice smooth as silk. “Your wayward apprentice raises armies and appoints officials loyal to only her. The matter is not to be dismissed as a mere detail. It is a pressing reality, and a liability in the making.”
“I had hoped,” Black said, “to avoid the losing game that is the attribution of fault. That line of conversation would ensure otherwise.”
The unspoken read thus: her loyalties were shaken by the Diabolist’s massacre, and it was your inaction that allowed this to unfold.
“I have always known fault to be as much a matter of nature as opportunity,” Malicia replied.
The unspoken read thus: you gifted great power to a nobody and never bothered to instil loyalty more than skin deep, this was inevitable.
“Do you not find it tiresome?” he said. “To leave so much within the margins?”
Malicia’s face was a frozen mask of disdain.
“You have lost the right to make that request,” Alaya said.
“Shall we speak of trust, then, my Empress?” Black softly replied. “I am not without words to offer on that subject.”
Guilt never came. She would not apologize for taking measures preventing him from throwing away his life in a hopeless war, however slighted he felt by the truth that he had become a foe to his own survival. That was on his own head. Not even love would make her neck if she was in the right.
“Warlock agrees that the weapon should have been kept untouched,” Malicia said, and there was a part of her that enjoyed the flicker of dismay on Black’s face.
“Wekesa would eat every child in Callow if it allowed him to research without interruptions,” he replied. “That endorsement rings empty.”
It was also first blood. He was not, she knew, plotting to seize the Tower from her. But the knowledge that if he had the Warlock would not have stood at his side was a crack in the certainty that lay at the heart of him. What she need break to salvage even shards of what they had once been.
“And who whispers agreement in your ear, Black?” the Empress asked. “Scribe? If you slit her own throat she would assume you had reason. She has made a virtue of being a tool.”
It was not a mistake to have spoken that, though Alaya regretted the sharpness of the words. But Malicia knew that the cruelty was necessary to lower the worth of the unconditional support in his eyes. The Duni’s face grew cold, the first stirrings of anger.
“You speak of matters you understand precious little,” he said. “There is no part of you that does not come with condition.”
Malicia met his eyes with equanimity. Alaya flinched at the old whisper spoken aloud. Black tiredly passed a hand through his air.
“I should not have said that,” he said, the threshold of an apology.
“You rarely speak without meaning,” the Empress said, refusing the crossing.
Something passed in the man’s eyes she could not put a word to, and that was a rare thing.
“We were better than this, once,” Amadeus said.
“Were we?” Malicia wondered. “Forty years, and never once did we cease dancing around that single truth.”
Her eyes went hooded.
“There is only one throne in this empire,” the Empress said. “You are not sitting on it. There is a reason for that.”
“Empresses who thought crown meant right have often reigned, in Praes,” the Black Knight said. “Rarely, I remember, for long. A mould unbroken ever only makes one thing.”
“Don’t you speak to me of making,” Alaya hissed. “Twenty years you made Callow your playground, only ever returning to take lives and let me clean up the messes while you gallivanted back. You only ever remember the necessities of rule when they get in the way of your games. You make plans without ever bothering with the actual people, writing them off as liabilities to dispose of if they do not immediately obey. Praes is not an essay. You cannot unmake everything of it because it strikes you as inconvenient.”
“It is worse than inconvenient,” Black said. “It is flawed. The Wasteland has made a religion out of mutilating itself. We speak of it with pride. Gods, iron sharpens iron? We have grown so enamoured with bleeding our own we have sayings about it. Centuries ago, field sacrifices were a way to fend off starvation. Now they are a staple of our way of life, so deeply ingrained we cling to them given alternative. Alaya, we consistently blunder so badly we need to rely on demons to stay off destruction. We would rather irreparably damage the fabric of Creation than admit we can be wrong. There is nothing holy about our culture, it needs to be ripped out root and stem as matter of bare survival. Forty years I have been trying to prove success can be achieved without utter raving madness, and what comes at the end?”
His tone grew harsh.
“The only person I ever thought actually understood this put her seal to the destruction of two decades of gruelling work to acquire a fucking magic fortress,” he hissed. “Some godsdamned throwback from the Age of Wonders that will go down in flames and take the Empire with it.”
“Your way,” Malicia coldly said, “is insufficient.”
Now that he’d opened his wound, she could bare her own.
“The Legions will fail,” she said. “The Calamities will fail. Your ramshackle effort at successors will fail. Did you think that just because you were clever, just because it was hard, it would be enough? We took Callow, Black. We put chalk to the slate. The Heavens will throw crusade after crusade at us until the mark made is erased, because we are not allowed to win that fight. The only way to survive is not to fight at all, and for that I needed a tool.”
Malicia stood ramrod straight.
“A hundred thousand dead?” she said. “I would bleed thrice that number without batting an eye, because without the tool we lose. We break, we end, we come at an end. I warned you off Akua Sahelian because she provided what I needed: a strong enough deterrent to keep the wolves at bay. And I did this behind your back, because if I did not you would have gotten in my way. Because you have fallen in love with your own legend. The Black Knight, undefeated. How far is that from invincible, Amadeus? Shall we talk history on that subject?”
“This makes us a leech,” Black replied coldly. “And that is exactly how we lose. If we are a net drain, we are removed. That is a fact. There is no keeping Callow if by the sheer act of keeping it we foster constant rebellion. And if we lose Callow, it all comes down on our heads.”
“We have already lost Callow,” Malicia replied harshly, “and three legions with it, all thrown into the lap of some fucking orphan girl because you thought you could be cleverer than Fate. Do you truly not realize that the terms of the occupation both failed to pacify Callowans and fostered unrest in the Wasteland? One does not conquer an entire kingdom to grant it effective independence twenty years down the line, Black. We were meant to profit from it.”
“They were meant to profit from it, were they?” he said. “After fighting tooth and nail against every measure that made is possible, they still deserve spoils because – what, they were born to that privilege? That they were even spared was a concession. But they were allowed to grow fat off a conquest they actively hindered. I held my tongue because you used their rapaciousness for your own purposes, but oh what a mistake that was. The point isn’t to make Callow a pack of plundered provinces, it has never been that. It’s to ensure we never again destroy ourselves invading that country. Are we so enamoured with that kingdom’s crown we cannot allow anyone else to wear it? We win by slipping the noose, not moving the border. By breaking the pattern that has whipped us ever since Maleficent made an empire out of Praes. It is irrelevant who actually rules Callow so long as we no longer need to invade to avoid starving. From that moment on, we start to grow. To change. To be anything but a snake cursed to eat its own tail and choke. Anything less than that is defeat. Anything more than that is expendable.”
He was panting, after. A sac of venom decades in the swelling finally emptied.
“There have been bad nights, since I took the throne,” Alaya said. “Nights where I wondered if it would not have been better had you become Emperor and I your Chancellor. You have laid those fear to rest. This, this is why you cannot rule. Because you’re not interested in ruling Praes, only in securing a war camp for your pissing match with the Heavens. You cannot butcher your way into having a different homeland, Black. It’s a pretty plan you laid out. But you are not the only living man in Praes, and so it fails. Because the Empire is not an instrument, it is a nation and that nation wants things. It will not docilely wait until your point is made.”
“Enough,” Black said. “Gods, enough. There comes a time where the wound is no lanced, just bled.”
“Agreed,” Malicia said. “There will be no further argument. You have made a mess, and as always I will clean it up. You remain in command as my Black Knight. You will hold the border as best you can, and rein in your apprentice as necessary. As for me, I will take the measures necessary for survival. You will not approve of them. I no longer care.”
The Empress would have ended it there, but Alaya could not.
“We will survive,” she said. “And when the danger has passed, as much as it ever can, you will come home. I will not throw you away, Maddie. We are not beyond mending.”
He smiled, ruefully.
“Can you feel it, Allie?” he asked.
The Empress frowned.
“It’s quiet,” he said. “Subtle. I suppose it always starts out that way, when one loses control.”
“The Tower will not fall,” Malicia said.
“It may not,” he said. “I genuinely don’t know. For the first time in decades, Alaya, I don’t know.”
“It’s strangely invigorating,” he said. “To have every plan you ever made ripped apart. Do you remember what it was like, when we were young? When we still felt wonder?”
“Black, you are worrying me,” she said.
“Your terms are accepted,” Amadeus said. “Not that there was any doubt. I will come home, in the end.”’
He looked away, and strangely smiled.
“I wonder what it would look like,” he murmured. “A better world.”
The mirror darkened. Alaya went still, something like grief but deeper than the word could ever mean taking hold of her. Dread Empress Malicia rose to her feet.
There was no rest, the old saying went, for the wicked.
Brandon Talbot had only stood in the throne room once before as a child, when King Robert still ruled and his aunt had introduced him to the royal court. He’d been so young he barely remembered any of it, and in those days he had been of precious little import. Aunt Elizabeth was to be engaged to the Shining Prince, so he’d warranted an official introduction but nothing else. In those days there had been no talk of him ever becoming Count of Marchford. The union of Elizabeth Talbot and King Robert’s eldest son had been expected to be fruitful, leaving him only the head of a cadet branch meant for knighthood and little else. How strangely the world spun, that he now stood at the side of the Queen of Callow instead of kneeling with the guests. Those he had to share that distinction with were, admittedly, something of a mixed bag. None could deny that Baroness Anne Kendall was a patriot and a woman of great wisdom, and though her surrender in the wake of the Liesse Rebellion had lowered her esteem in the eyes of some he did not share those misgivings. The Governess-General, he knew, was nearly as influential as the queen in some parts. If not more. Chancellor in all but Name, men whispered. Queen Catherine’s open fondness for the baroness had been taken by many a sign she was not determined to wage war to he bitter end on the aristocracy.
At the baroness’ side stood the argument for the opposite belief, the newly-appointed Marshal of Callow. The title left him a strange taste in the mouth. There had never been any man or woman titled such in the history of the kingdom, as supreme command of the hosts was always held by the royal family or the paladins of the White Hand. It was a Praesi title and not even an old one, created during the Reforms. That a greenskin not even twenty-five was now second only to the queen in the command of Callow’s armies had been oft commented upon, and openly mocked in the north. Popular sentiment, though, had not been incensed. The ‘Hellhound’ had no small place in the legends already being peddled of the Arcadian War and Akua’s Folly. The orc was seen as the second coming of the still-feared Grem One-Eye, and one that had proved it would protect the innocent even in the face of the hordes of Hell. Brandon was no fool, and so had never tried to speak against the appointment. The heart of the Army of Callow was still the Fifteeenth, and it would be months before any of his countrymen rose to true positions of influence in those massively expanded ranks.
To the queen’s right was the same man as always, that tower of burnt steel and fangs that was Hakram Deadhand. The Adjutant. Even when the old crowd spoke of the unseemly predominance of orcs in Queen Catherine’s court over cups of brandy, there were few who dared slight this one. The skeletal hand of the Named was said to snatch the life out of fae and mortals alike, the steel of his axe gone stark red for all the blood he’d spilled with it. Grandmaster Talbot had spoken with him occasionally while on campaign and more often now that precarious peace was restored, and found him both personable and polite. More dangerously, he was also very attentive to details the queen was known to have little patience for – though in truth Brandon had judged her not nearly as disinterested as the rumours implied. The Deadhand had taken to building the kingdom’s court with the same savage enthusiasm his forebears had displayed raiding Callowan farmland: the new offices overseeing the nation’s granaries and treasury had been highly unpopular with the aristocracy at first, but their undeniable efficiency in mending the south had done much to quiet the grumbling. The Grandmaster was one of the few of his people high enough in rank to understand what was being built, though. A war machine unlike any he had ever seen. Callow was being put on war footing long before the first blade left the sheath.
There was a reason the Order of the Broken Bell had been charged with recruiting every youth in the kingdom that could swing a blade and ride a horse.
The last man to share the queen’s side was the only he could muster true dislike for. Hasan Qara, who for some godforsaken reason insisted on being called Ratface, had been named Lord Treasurer of Callow after resigning his commission from the Fifteenth Legion. The Taghreb was said to be some Wasteland lordling’s bastard, though bastardy was considered a lesser taint in the East. He was also, as far as Grandmaster Talbot was concerned, a crook and a criminal. His lordly title remained a pure courtesy one, at least, without any lands attached. It was still a bloody disgrace that a Peer of the Realm would meet with the likes of smugglers and hedges mages in broad daylight. The Bastard Lord, as some already called him, had begun what he termed a ‘much-needed reform of the hellish nightmare that is Callowan tax collection’. That governors no longer paid taxes directly to the Tower or even the short-lived Ruling Council had thrown the old system into disarray, every governor and noble trying to short-change the crown whenever they could. Lord Qara’s taxmen and their Legion escorts were already a dreaded sight, and the complicated maze of exemptions and tariffs he’d had the queen put her seal to always seemed to have her allies come out wealthier and her enemies poorer. He was clever, Brandon disdainfully thought, but in the way Taghreb usurers so often were.
As the admittedly tedious ceremony chugged on towards the moment of proper coronation, Brandon turned his eyes to the crowd that stood witness. Baron Darlington of Hedges and Baroness Morley of Harrow were of the highest rank among those, surrounded by kin and lickspittles. Both, he’d been told, had declined the queen’s invitation to her coronation by telling her envoys their health would not allow them the journey. The second envoys she had sent came with a minstrel, and as the tune of of the Lord’s Lament played in their halls the nobles had reconsidered their refusal. The pointed reminder that Queen Catherine was not above having even royalty shot when it suited her had struck true. The last landed nobles of Callow had faces to solemn to be truly pleased of being in attendance, but rumours of the crown’s young reforms had seen them hurry south so they would not be made to feel the sting of disobedience through their coffers. As far as nobility went, the only others worth the note were the envoys of Duchess Kegan of Daoine.
That the ruler of the last duchy in Callow had sent her own eldest son and high-ranking officer of the Watch to attend had rightly been seen by many as endorsement of the queen’s reign by the Deoraithe. Ties had been made there, Grandmaster Talbot thought, that he knew little about. Inquiries were in order. The queen had yet to appoint a Chamberlain for her household or a Keeper of the Seals to have her decrees upheld and her courts of law put to order, after all. It was no certainty that Queen Catherine the First would keep all the seats of the old King’s Council, but if she did Brandon intended on seeing the remaining seats filled with proper Callowans, not Daoine interlopers. Neither did it escape his notice that Kegan’s son was a handsome lad, not much older than the still-unmarried queen. Another matter to ensure never came to fruition, though he could hardly blame her for trying. He had himself ensured that his representatives at court were well-bred young men and women of comely appearance, merely to have that avenue… open, should it take the queen’s fancy.
The rest of the guests in attendance were the representatives of governors and guilds, as well as every elderman in Laure. Brandon had expected trouble when their ancient prerogatives inside the city began being taken over by the crown, but the Deadhand was a clever sort. They’d been offered appointments in the new offices, and with enough accepting their influence came to benefit the reforms instead of being plied against them. The stood there with awe befitting commoners being allowed to witness the birth of a dynasty, however fragile its line of succession. As the sister sent by the House of Light finally ended her droning and recitation of old phrases, Queen Catherine bent her head to accept her crown – though, in all honesty, given her height she had not strictly speaking needed to do so. Eyes flicking to the crown, Brandon grimly smiled. No gold or jewels in this one. It was a jagged circlet of iron that sat heavy on her brow. A warlike crown for a warlike queen. The old regalia of House Fairfax would not see use again, the cloak of black and patchwork that Queen Catherine wore a dark replacement for the old ermine-bordered mantle of the Fairfaxes. Rumours had spread that Akua Sahelian’s own soul had been added to the banners of the defeated, that the Wastelander witch could be heard screaming in torment if one listened closely enough.
A saying was born of it that had Grandmaster Talbot shivering every time he heard the words: crowned by dread and cloaked by woe.
“Before you stands the ordained Queen of Callow,” the sister said. “Kneel.”
One after another, they did. Only standing by the throne like him were spared that, as Catherine Foundling slowly sat the ancient throne of the kingdom. Brandon was not the first to notice – he first saw when he followed the queen’s gaze, the raised eyebrow on her cold face. It was difficult to tell how many there were. A few dozens? Less than a hundred, surely. Brandon had fought their like before, but their garments were no longer the same. On unearthly steeds of every shade the fae rode through the hall, the Fair Folk as terrible and beautiful as they’d always been. Brandon found he could not look away from the fae at their head. Riding a horse of ebony, the man was soberly dressed for his kind. A simple tunic, though the buttons seemed made of shade, and over a pale and narrow face a black silken blindfold covered an eye. There was a sword at his hip, without a sheath, and even looking at it hurt the knight’s eyes. It was that one the queen addresses.
“The Prince of Nightfall,” she drawled. “An unexpected… well, pleasure’s a strong word.”
The procession of fae ended when the prince reined in his mount before the queen, inclining his head in respectful greeting.
“Prince no longer,” the fae smiled. “I have abdicated my title, as have all with me. The Hunt claims no lord amongst its hunters.”
Brandon’s breath hitched. The Hunt. Was he speaking of the Wild Hunt? The rapacious fairies that made sport of mortals fools enough to wander into the Waning Woods, or walk ancient mounds under pale moonlight.
“Should I call you Larat, then?” the Queen mused, and her voice echoed with something eldritch when she spoke the name. “Why do you darken my hall, Nightfall?”
“Do we not stand before a queen, forged of Winter?” the fae asked.
“I paid the price for that, thrice over,” Catherine Foundling said. “If you think the mantle can be taken back, we’re about to have a conversation on the subject of fatal mistakes.”
The fae laughed, and it was like the tinkle of silver bells.
“You mistake me,” he said, and his sword rose.
It clattered against the stone, laid at the feet of the queen. One after another the fae passed and threw their own blade, a pile of death rising. Brandon Talbot was living a fever dream, witness to a scene ripped straight from legend. It was all too vivid to be real.
“We swear to your service, Queen of the Hunt,” the fae said. “Queen of Air and Darkness, Sovereign of Moonless Nights. We swear ‘til the day of last ruin, ‘til all debts are paid. We would ride beneath your banner, in this world and every other.”
The Queen of Callow rose to her feet, as bright and terrible as any of them, and softly laughed.
“What clever foxes you are,” she said. “Your oaths I accept, in the spirit they were given.”
Her sword hissed as it left the sheath, and she stood before the fae.
“Kneel, and rise in my service.”
The Hunt knelt, the Hunt rose, and Brandon Talbot knew he would never forget the sight of this so long as he lived.
A crusade, Cordelia Hasenbach thought, should be decided in a manner grander than this. There would be speeches in the coming months, every herald in Procer and beyond speaking the writ of the Mandate of Heaven handed down to the children of the Gods. Spreading the call to the Tenth Crusade wherever there were ears to hear it. The First Prince herself would address the Highest Assembly on the morrow’s eve, giving an oration she had first prepared years ago. The motion would not warrant a vote from the Assembly, though she knew it would pass should it presented. By tradition only the highest office in the Principate could call for a crusade, though it would be an empty thing if no other nation joined their voice to it. Procer had fought crusades alone before, but every one a disaster. She would not repeat that mistake. The young woman had dedicated the span of her life to ensuring it would never be made again. For all the pageantry that was to come, the Tenth Crusade was born in one of the lesser halls of the palace in Salia, with barely a dozen people seated at the table.
For Procer, only she and Uncle Klaus were present. The Prince of Hannoven had not been granted seat as a prince but as the future commander of Procer’s armies in the campaign to come. The grizzled old soldiers had spent more time drinking mead than speaking, so far, save when matters military were raised. Assurances had been needed that the Principate’s armies were readied for war, no matter how righteous the cause or urgent the need. The Thalassocracy of Ashur had sent three representatives only, members in good standing of their foremost War Committee. Citizens of the Fourth tier one and all, most of which would take command of Ashur’s fleets when the hostilities began. Their very presence had been leverage for Cordelia to use, a gift from Magon Hadast. The only citizen of the Second tier in all of Ashur had not sent diplomats but soldiers, the agreement to join the crusade implicit to that decision. The envoys, after all, would not have leave to negotiate diplomatic matters. Only those pertaining to war.
The Dominion of Levant had sent the most envoys, in her judgement a consequence of its ever-fractious people. The current Seljun, the figurehead ruler of the Dominion, had officially deferred the decision of whether or not to join the Tenth Crusade to the Majilis. Though literature often drew comparison between the Highest Assembly and the Majilis, for they were both councils composed of the highest nobility in their respective nations, Cordelia had never found much similarity beyond the surface trappings. The Levantine council was a toothless and ineffectual beast, with every lord and lady among it having right of veto and every interest in ensuring power was never centralized within the Dominion lest their own privileges be curbed. Princess Eliza of Salamans had fought two wars and died an attainted traitor to ensure the Highest Assembly would never be such a plague on Procer, or the First Prince relegated to being little more than a first among equals. As it was, the entire Majilis had come to Salia to treat with her. The five lords and ladies of Levant, all descended from heroes. Cordelia’s agents suspected every one of them had applied veto if a smaller delegation did not involve them personally, and she was inclined to believe it.
They only ever ceased their squabbles when they perceived her to be high-handed, the old and well-deserved hatred of her people the true mortar that kept their nation together. They had been the most difficult to speak with, ever looking for slight or arrogance in every sentence of hers. It was for the best Uncle Klaus had spoken little, given his mild contempt for a nation he liked to say existed only because the Thalassocracy willed it so. This was, to an extent, true. Some of Cordelia’s predecessors would have waged war upon war to claim the lands, had Ashuran fleets not made seaborne invasion of Procer’s old principalities a fool’s errand to attempt. It was still less than courteous to say as much, and the Levantines had easily ruffled feathers when the hands involved were Proceran. Invitations had been sent to the Titanomachy through the Dominion, as the Gigantes killed on sight even diplomats of Procer, but the giants had declined to send even an observer. Their borders would remain closed, it seemed, no matter how dire the threats to the east. Cordelia had ruled for too long to be disappointed by the confirmation of her fatalism. That bridge had been burned too thoroughly to be rebuilt, even several centuries after the betrayal known as the Humbling of Titans.
The Gigantes had long memories.
The elves of the Golden Bloom greeted visitors with arrows if they were not heroes, and were said to have removed their domain from Creation besides. Even were it otherwise, Cordelia would not have sought them out. They had never joined their number to any of the crusades, and their inclusion in the Tenth would have had stark diplomatic consequences when it came to dealing with the Duchy of Daoine. Entrenching opposition in Callow would be needlessly costly for what the Hasenbach desired to be a war fought mostly in Praes itself. Popular sentiment in Callow was rather difficult to read, these days, but they were a people of long grudges who had never quite forgiven their occupation by the Principate. Should foreign soldiers fight over their fields for too long, there was no telling if the Callowans would turn on the crusaders.
Still, it was the League of Free Cities that troubled Cordelia. She’d come so very close to securing a truce and south-eastern border with it, until the Tyrant of Helike began his war. Even that had been an acceptable outcome, if she was to be honest. After the initial victory of Helikean forces over Atalante and the brutally effective Praesi intervention that took Penthes out of the war, heroes had created a deadlock over the siege of Delos without easy resolution. Though the loss of life involved was regrettable, it had given Cordelia opportunity to exhaust the strength of a dangerous element outside her borders by funding and arming Nicae. She’d even lightened the burden of restless soldiery within her realm by sending a few thousand into the war. She had believed Helike triumphant and ruling the League to be the worst possible outcome, and so when the forces of the Tyrant and the Magisterium moved against Nicae she had considered direct intervention. That a Hierarch would be elected in the wake of the city’s fall had been beyond her predictions, and more worryingly the Augur’s as well. Now no ruler in the region would treat with her, even privately, as usurping the Hierarch’s prerogative might see the rest of the League turn on them.
Attempts to begin diplomatic correspondence with the man himself had been utterly ineffective. That her agents reported Anaxares of Bellerophon to be a long-serving diplomat, even if one in the service of an Evil polity, had been a promising beginning. Yet the man had put every missive she sent to the flame, and had reportedly been personally offended when her envoys tried to speak with him in person. Whether or not the Hierarch was the puppet of the ruler of Helike had yet to be determined, but the head of the League seemed disinclined to rein his member-states. Or even speak of the matter. Perhaps the only redemption of the situation there was to be had was that the Hierarch had not spoken in the favour of war, and his absence of a grip on the cities meant it was unlikely a unified League would march against her. It was still a liability. Her uncle had made it plain that at least twenty thousand men would have to be left south to discourage incursions from the Free Cities while the crusade was being fought. A loss, she would admit, but not a crippling one. Ashur and Levant would both contribute much larger hosts to the war when they gathered their strength.
“Late spring at the earliest,” Lady Itima of Vaccei announced. “But we will march, First Prince. All of us. There can be no other choice.”
Set on the table before all the representatives were two reports form her agents in Callow, speaking of the same city. Liesse, though it had been ripped from its ancient grounds and dragged across the kingdom. The first report detailed what sparse information she had been able to gather about these strange undead the Diabolist had been able to make. Wights, the Praesi called them. One had even been obtained and smuggled across the border, and examinations by wizards had established the alchemical nature of the transition into undeath. The Empire had unveiled two weapons through their civil war, and though this was the subtlest of the two it was perhaps also the most terrifying. If all the Empire needed to sow undeath was access to a city’s cisterns, none of them were safe. The Empress’ reputation for having a large and extremely effective web of spies had cost her dearly in this. A less demonstrably far-reaching ruler would not have seemed so immediate a threat. The other report held mostly technical notes, but it was the sheet of parchment with the drawing that had truly stuck a blow. The sight of the city of Liesse with a mass of dead above it, and the Greater Breach the weapon had opened on a Callowan field.
A Hellgate, and not a passing one. Gods, Cordelia had known there was great madness waiting in the east but even she had underestimated the depth. No crusade had ever managed to land even a glancing blow on the Hellgate that lay within the depths of Keter. It alone had been enough to maintain the terrible grip of the Dead King for untold centuries even with entire battalions of heroes failing to end him. The thought of the Tower with the ability to create Hellgates at will was enough to put a shiver up anyone’s spine. She’d been open about the weapon being either damaged or destroyed during the civil war, the truth of that was still uncertain, but she’d not even had to raise the notion of it being possible to repair herself. The Levantines had done so without prompting, and pressed for a dismantling of the Empire to ensure it would never be capable of making the likes of it again.
“As for the charter you proposed, we are in agreement as well,” the lord of Tartessos said. “It will require the signature of the Seljun to be binding, but the Majilis can provisionally ratify it. Your… appreciation of our concerns has been noted, and does you honour.”
Cordelia was very careful not to let the triumph show in her eyes. This was the true victory she had won today, the founding of her Grand Alliance. Though it had been presented as a council of nations participating in the Tenth Crusade that could adjudicate internal disputes, there was no clause forcing the alliance to end after Praes was laid low. Years of diplomacy had finally borne fruit. The treaties would prevent Procer from attempting to expand into the Dominion again long after she died, and with this foundation she could forge ever closer ties over the length of her reign. With the three great powers of the west so aligned, the Principate’s attention could be turned to the true enemies. The Chain of Hunger. The Kingdom of the Dead. The Everdark. The treaties were not even a pale shadow of those that bound together the League of Free Cities, but they could be built on. They would be.
Cordelia knew she would not see the continent know true peace in her lifetime, but she could lay the foundations for those that would come after her.
The envoys were entertained for refreshments after the negotiations closed, yet the First Prince did not linger overlong. She had spoken to the Augur, last night, and been given prophecy. Fortune comes to you unnanounced, her cousin had whispered. You may yet grasp it. Some of the White Knight’s band had survived the struggle against the Calamities in the Free Cities, and were said to be heading for Salia with the man himself. Crusades, Cordelia knew, were a call few heroes let pass them by. Though no formal declaration had yet been made, the ways of Named were not easily understood. The Heavens may have whispered secrets in their ears, as they did the Augur. The flaxen-haired prince dismissed her attendants after retiring to her rooms, unweaving her braid herself. She was not unaware that it softened her features when unbound, and though she knew she was no great beauty she could sometimes pass as one with the right ministrations. She did not hear the window open, and was frowning at letter from the Princess of Tenerife when someone cleared their throat.
Cordelia froze. It was a woman. Short of hair, pale of skin with blue-grey eyes. Her leathers were loose over a slender frame. Callowan, the First Prince thought. She has the look.
“Would you like a drink?” Cordelia Hasenbach asked.
The woman snorted.
“I wish,” she said. “But getting into this place was hard enough sober. Have you ever tripped into a moat? It’s honestly the worst.”
The First Prince smiled pleasantly.
“I will take your word on it,” she said. “I would be remiss if I did not ask who you are, of course.”
The stranger plopped down onto a seat across from her.
“I am a halfway decent thief,” the woman said. “A patriot, when I can afford to be. But, most importantly-“
She sharply smiled.
“- I am an envoy from the Queen of Callow.”
“Are you now?” Cordelia said. “I believe I will be having that drink, myself. We have much to talk about.”
The Hierarch saw many things, close and faraway. Deals being struck behind closed doors in this very city, armies mustered and betrayals paid for. In a cold room of black stone, he watched the most beautiful woman he’d ever glimpsed wipe away a tear and clench her teeth. By the crackling hearth of an inn he saw a knight and a champion clasp arms with older heroes, whispering of Heaven’s Mandate. He saw a young girl on an ill-fitting throne, lost but unwilling to retreat. He saw the fields of a Hell tilled and strewn with villages, its people never having known a blue sky. He saw knives bared beneath the earth, north and south, skins of black and green ghosting through tunnels. He saw a green-eyed man grinning in the face of havoc, alone with well-worn maps. He saw… a silent young girl, her skin pale as porcelain. Her blue dress was light and her hair cut in a short bob. Her eyes met his, impossibly.
“Curious,” the Augur said. “You were not within the sparrows.”
“The People have decreed omens to be ignorant superstition,” Anaxares told her.
“Ah,” Agnes Hasenbach murmured “You too. No star left uncharted.”
Hierarch woke in a dirty alley, huddled under a threadbare blanket. It had been the clink of coppers being dropped in his begging bowl that woke him. Anaxares was not alone. At his side, leaning back against the husk of a wall, a woman sat with her knees gathered to her chest. She smelled of liquor and sweat, though the black curls he could see framing her face were pristine. The stranger drank loudly from a silver flask before turning to him, and when he saw her face he recognized her. Aoede of Nicae. The Wandering Bard. The heroine offered him the flask, wiggling it in a farce of temptation.
“It’s the good stuff, for once,” the Bard grinned. “Don’t skip, doesn’t happen often.”
The Hierarch of the League of Free Cities, anointed temporal ruler of a hundreds of thousands of souls, tightened his blanket around his frame. He looked aside and pretended the woman did not exist. He had gained much practice in this skill of late, with envoys from the Free Cities and beyond.
“You know, when the second wave of Baalite settles came to Ashur they brought animals from home with them,” the woman said. “One of them was a large flightless bird, called an ostrich. Odd creatures. Liked to bury their heads in the ground, a feeling I can empathize with. When the first famine came, though, the big fat ostriches were slaughtered like poultry. Even though their heads were in the sand.”
Anaxares stared ahead, silent.
“Tough crowd, huh,” the Bard mused. “It’s too late to stay out of it, Hierarch. You’re Named, now. Means you’re fair game.”
“I did not choose this,” Anaxares said.
“So I’ve heard,” the Bard said. “Kairos has that thing villains often do, where they confuse symmetry with humour. Probably got a giggle out of waving an old mistake in my face.”
The diplomat eyed the woman, who was drinking again. After so long not being able to afford wine, the sight of the liquor being guzzled had his body feeling pangs.
“None of this was meant for you,” he finally said.
“Oh, that touch was probably just a drop of arsenic in the wine,” Aoede shrugged. “But I made your Name, sweetcakes. Back in the days before I knew better.”
“Prokopia Lakene was rightfully elected,” the Hierarch frowned.
“Right’s a pretty broad word, when it comes down to it,” the Bard said. “She was silvertongued like you wouldn’t believe, true, but that’s where I went wrong. The moment the tongue was gone, so was the Name.”
“The League survived her,” he said.
“The League’s skin deep,” the Bard said. “None of the forces behind moved any differently after it was formed.”
The heroine offered the flask again, and this time Anaxares took it. The liquor within was sweet and tangy, tasting of apples. Much stronger than wine, or anything he’d ever drank before.
“Or it was, anyway,” Aoede said. “But now here you are. And you’ve got a lot of – well, people is a bit of stretch but you get my drift – puzzled. Both upstairs and down. So here I am too, welcoming you to the neighbourhood. Instead of fresh bread and a bottle of wine, you get overly personal questions and maybe a dollop of sinister threats. Depending on how it all pans out. Have another pull, diplomat. It’s the sweetest thing either of us will taste for a while.”
Anaxares did, before handing it back.
“I abstain,” he said.
The woman sighed.
“That’s not how it works,” she told him, as if he were a witless child. “Right now you’re sucking at the teat but you’re not swallowing. There’s always a side picked, Anaxares. Always.”
The Bard waved her flask enthusiastically.
“See, that’s where you’re raising questions,” she said. “’cause Kairos forged you, and Kairos is in deep with the folks Below. But you let the White Knight and the Champion go, sparing me a deal that would have been… costly. Your people like a bit of sulphur on the altar, it’s true, but their idea of worship does little more than keep those in a fresh coat of red. And I’m sorry to say, but you’re what we call a mumbler. You speak the words when the right stars are out but there’s no real meat to the faith, you get me?”
The Bard leaned closer.
“It’s fine if you want to fuck around like a raft on the tide for a while, Hierarch, but keep in mind sooner or later you’re going to hit shore,” she said.
That, Anaxares thought, or drown.
“What,” he asked patiently, “do you want from me?”
“I want you to stop taking a nap in the middle of the board,” the Wandering Bard said. “Stepping around you is already getting tedious, and Kairos is better at it. I don’t mind having a few layabouts around, sweetcakes, but only when I put them there. You’re no work of mine.”
Anaxares studied the woman for a long moment then shook his head.
“I do not answer to your Gods,” he said. “They drew no lots and hold no appointment.”
Something like surprise flickered across the woman’s face.
“You’re Named,” she reminded him.
“I am citizen of the Republic of Bellerophon,” he replied.
“You were created with purpose,” the Bard said flatly. “Fulfil it.”
“This purpose was not voted upon by the People,” Anaxares said. “I do not recognize it. Forcing it upon me is unlawful.”
“Look, the puppet show in your backwater dump is good for the occasional laugh,” Aoede patiently said. “But you’ve been sent up a rung, Hierarch. That’s not the game you’re playing anymore.”
The Hierarch smiled.
“I know you,” he said.
“We’ve met before,” the Wandering Bard agreed warily. “Had tea and everything.”
“No,” Anaxares said. “I know you, old thing. You are the sound of the lash, the deal in the dark. You are the servant of stillness. I deny all you peddle.”
“You are mad,” the Bard said. “And putting a knife to your own throat. They will take you apart.”
“If the Heavens seek to impose their will, they will be made to stand before a tribunal of the People,” the Hierarch serenely said.
“Your own fucking Gods will bleed you like a pig,” the Wandering Bard hissed.
“Then they, too, will be hanged,” Anaxares noted. “As honorary citizens of the Republic, they are subject to its laws.”
“Aoede of Nicae, I charge you with treason,” he said, rising to his feet. “Collaboration with foreign oligarchs and agitation in the name of wretched tyrants.”
“You can’t be serious,” the Bard said.
“Should you fail to be present at your trial,” the Hierarch continued calmly, inexorably, “you will be tried and convicted in absentia. As per League law, you may petition the Basileus of Nicae to request amnesty on your behalf.”
He looked down at the woman.
“It will be denied,” he told her. “But to petition is your right.”
Eyes wide, the Wandering Bard opened her mouth to reply but between two heartbeats’ span she… disappeared. As if she had never been there at all.
“This,” the Hierarch of the Free Cities said, “will be added to the record as an indication of guilt.”
He left the alley, the quarter, the city until he found the boy awaiting him. Kairos Theodosian took one look at him and laughed, his red eye burning.
“Now there,” the Tyrant grinned, “is the madman I was waiting for. We are going to have such fun, you and I.”
In the depths of a Hell that had long lost its name and number, a monster opened his eyes. In Keter, a stone that was an old and treasured gift shone red. It had not done this since the days of Dread Empress Triumphant. The Dead King laughed.