“Though official records state that the Principate fought a mere score civil wars, it should be noted that this does not include wars fought between less than five principalities. Should the definition be amended, Procer has on average fought a civil war every decade since the year of its founding. No single nation has ever spilled so much Proceran blood as the Principate itself.”
– Extract from ‘The Labyrinth Empire, or, A Short History of Procer’, by Princess Eliza of Salamans
The trouble with this war, Prince Klaus Papenheim had told his niece since the first day, wasn’t that it wasn’t going to be a war. It was going to be half a dozen of them, fought all across Calernia more or less simultaneously. That was the great danger looming within the Tenth Crusade, that once all the forces had been put in motion there was no adjusting the blows. Cordelia, bless her soul, had taken his warnings seriously. The face of warfare had changed while the Principate clawed itself bloody, and now Procer had to change with it or be left behind. He’d never asked how his niece had gotten her hands on the Praesi. It was for the best, he’d decided. The Prince of Hannoven had been raised with death as mother’s milk, but the fight against the Plague was clean in a way the games in the south weren’t. They made sport of men’s lives, down here, and he’d never had the stomach for that. Regardless, the ten Wastelanders had offered up the most precious secret of the East: the rituals of scrying, that old Praesi trick turned into a lethal tool of war by the Carrion Lord. The spells that allowed armies with entire kingdoms between them to move as one, taking apart hosts twice their size with surgical precision.
Gathering wizards to learn them had been costly, he suspected, and it must have been more so to keep the magelings in the Principate’s service after. Though in Lycaonese lands spellcasters were prized, for their sorcery was a mighty thing wielded from walls against the ratling hordes, the southerners had a more complicated relationship with spellslingers. Wizards and witches had once owned a seat on the Highest Assembly, in recognition of their great contributions in easing the alliance between Arlesites and Alamans that first founded the Principate. Yet in the centuries since they had fallen out of favour. Their great influence, often second only to the rulers of principalities, had been seen as a threat by the royals of the south. Meddling in an election had turned on them when the candidate they opposed, Louis Merovins, managed a narrow victory. The man had spent most his reign suppressing them after revoking their Assembly seat in retaliation, a struggle finally brought to an end two rulers down the line when the mage association known as L’Oeuil D’Or was forcefully disbanded.
Since then the casters had become tradesmen like any other, offering charms and potions for coin – though never healing, as the House of Light frowned upon any infringing upon their hold in that domain. Some cities in the south still had informal assemblies, he’d been told, but they were toothless things and kept that way by ancient decrees banning the collection of dues while still imposing heavy taxes. Until now. First Prince Cordelia Hasenbach of Procer had, in the wake of her speech announcing the Tenth Crusade, founded the Order of the Red Lion. An congregation of wizards and witches exempted from the old decrees, in exchange for sworn service to the crown. Hundreds of them, who might be passable war casters at best but all knew how to scry with a degree of skill. Klaus had a hard laugh, when he learned the charter binding the Grand Alliance together had specific provisions for such an order without ever naming it. His niece had been moving her pieces into place for near a decade now.
The Prince of Hannoven was pleased with the addition of the mages to his war council, though not because of their pleasant personalities. Near all of them were strutting Alamans pups, drunk on the shiny new heraldry and fresh importance. None of them seemed to understand they were not the sudden dawn of wizardly resurgence but instead a glorified pack of messengers. They had no say in where they were deployed, Klaus having decided the arrangements himself after consulting some of his own – much more trustworthy – Lycaonese mages. Dozens had been sent south to the Dominion, to keep the mustering armies of Levant pointed in the right direction, and near a hundred sent in little linked clusters his wizards called ‘relays’ to make it possible to keep the lines open to the Ashuran fleets even as they sailed. The rest had been spread with measured weighing of priorities, linking first to Salia where his niece ruled but also to the forces that Prince Amadis had schemed his way to leading. The Iserran weasel needed a close eye kept on him, and Klaus would have preferred to lead those armies himself if he could. He knew why he could not, though.
In the Red Flower Vales awaited the two men he considered to be the greatest field commanders of this era: Marshal Grem One-Eye and the Carrion Lord.
Sending the likes of Amadis against them would have been like throwing oil at a fire, and Cordelia had reluctantly told him that the man had intrigued too well to be entirely side-lined from command. The Prince of Iserre, however, had been too clever for his own good. With him were the armies of the remainder of his pack of intriguing malcontents, and every unruly fantassin his niece had been able to scrape together. Nearly fifty thousand in total, a host almost as large as the one Klaus was commanding. But it would be the Queen of Callow that Amadis tangled with, and the Prince of Hannoven had heard much about that one of late. He’d once dismissed her as a nobody, during the Liesse Rebellion, but he’d been made to eat that dismissal raw since. She’d gone from victory to victory in the last few years, and if half the rumours about what her pack of villains was doing to heroes making their way into Callow were true… Well, there was one in every generation. Klaus’ had borne the Black Knight that awaited him in the Vales, and the great monster of Cordelia’s own looked to be the murderous orphan who’d set her throne atop a sea of corpses.
Prince Amadis would win, he suspected. The shit had more than a dozen heroes at his back, and two old forces of nature among them. It’d been a pleasant surprise to find out that Laurence was still alive, old sack of piss and vinegar that she was. The Saint of Swords was an army unto herself, and the Grey Pilgrim that went with her was supposed to be some kind of legend in Levant. No, Amadis would come out ahead. But the villains would bloody him and wreck the armies of his allies – and as the commander of that host, all the blame would fall on his shoulders afterwards. There’d be no more agitating the Highest Assembly for the Prince of Iserre, after that disgrace. Klaus spat to the side in disapproval, alone in his tent with the latest correspondence. It was sinful that good, honest soldiers would die in that mess but that was the nature of war. The Veiled Lady not discern between deserving and not when she claimed the butcher’s bill. Enough of Amadis’ backers knew their way around a battlefield that a real debacle would be avoided, at least. There was noise outside the prince’s tent and he set down the latest supply census – Brabant had cut corners on what they brought, the fucking cheapskates – to rise to his feet.
“What’s the racket, men?” he called out.
“Your Grace, I have-“
The voice yelped instead of finishing, preceded by the sound of a spear’s butt hitting a foot none too gently. Klaus passed a hand through greying hair and sighed. That was one of his wizards, he was certain. The eager shits were still under the impression that military protocol did not apply to them since they served under the First Prince instead of the army itself.
“Victoria, let him in,” the Prince of Hannoven said.
“Bertrand de Guison, officer of the Order of the Red Lion,” his guard announced, her tone darkly amused as she parted the tent’s folds.
Klaus would need to have a talk with her. Her dislike for southerners was well-earned – her two sons had died on Alamans fields fighting to put Cordelia on the throne – but the magelings were too useful to be roughed up over petty offenses. The wizard entered limping, his heavy robes emblazoned with a rampant red lion on pale. He couldn’t have been more than thirty, Klaus thought, and that he believed that to be young suddenly reminded him how old he’d gotten. Even his niece was closer to thirty than twenty, now. A Papenheim hold vigil until death relieves them, his father had always told him, but the Veiled Lady had seen fit to spare Klaus longer than he’d believed possible. So few of his time were left, save for enemies.
“Your Grace,” the mage bowed. “I herald news of great import.”
He’d called out in Reitz when he was outside the tent, but now the boy was speaking Chantant. The Prince of Hannoven squinted. He’d had lessons as a child and spoke the Alamans tongue well enough, but never quite managed to shed his Lycaonese accent. It made him sound like an ignorant brute, he was well aware. Just for that, the mage got to stand throughout the conversation.
“I’m listening,” Klaus said.
“The chapter of the Order assigned to the Rightful Due has contacted us,” Bertrand eagerly said. “Admiral Hadast has struck the first blow of the Tenth Crusade.”
That would be Magon Hadast’s son, Klaus noted, not the Ashuran ruler himself. The head of the Thalassocracy was too old and fragile to campaign himself. The ‘Rightful Due’ – Gods, the fucking Ashurans and their ship names – was the flagship of the Thalassocracy’s first war fleet. It’d set sail more than a month ago, and true to their reputation the Ashuran ships and their wind mages were striking with impossible haste.
“A victory, is it?” Klaus asked.
The mage nodded.
“One for the ages, Your Grace,” he said. “The Tideless Isles were seized with but a handful of Ashuran ships sunk, and ten times as many prize hulls seized from the corsairs. What few are not dead or in chains fled for the Wasteland.”
And so the first battle of the Tenth Crusade was fought hundreds of miles away from the Empire, Ashur snatching anchorage for its fleets before it began attacking Praes from the coast. It was beginning, Klaus thought. Now the Praesi would have to move troops to protect their coastal cities, denying reinforcements to the western front even as Ashur burned and looted everything within earshot of waves. Now that Hadast was in place, armies could finally begin to march.
“Contact your fellows in the Northern Army,” Klaus told the mage. “Pass this message to Prince Amadis: the seal is broken, climb the stairs.”
“By your will, Your Grace,” the man bowed elaborately.
Gods, Alamans. They turned every conversation into a bloody play.
“That aside,” Bertrand continued, “your guard-“
“I didn’t see anything,” Klaus grunted. “There’s a war on, boy. Get moving.”
The wizard looked like he’d swallowed a lemon, but learning some humility would do him good. The prince waited until the mage was gone before speaking again.
“Victoria,” he called out. “Get yourself relieved and come in to pour yourself a drink.”
Prince Klaus Papenheim frowned.
“And find the White Knight and his gaggle too, while you’re at it,” he said. “I’ll want a word with them before we march on the Vales.”
Prince Amadis Milenan’s fingers drummed the table lightly. The sound of it was soothing, and well worth the expense of having brought the furniture from his summer palace in Iserre. Amadis had ruled his principality for more than twenty years now, and steered it unfailingly through troubles and civil war largely because he had a knack for telling which way the wind was blowing. At the peak of the civil war, he’d been considered a key supporter of Princess Aenor of Aequitan while secretly corresponding with both Princess Constance of Aisne and Prince Dagobert of Lange – before the latter’s grisly demise at the hands of Hasenbach’s northern savages, anyway. No matter who triumphed he had been positioned to become one of the most influential princes in the Highest Assembly. By refraining from pressing his own claim while keeping close ties with neighbouring principalities, he’d ensured that Iserre would come out of the strife wealthy and pristine: from there, it would have been child’s play to trade marriages for concessions and arrange for his kin to rule Procer when the time came. Then the Battle of Aisne happened, and Cordelia Hasenbach broke the board.
He’d not been there himself, preferring to send one of his many cousins to command the levies he had sent to aid the coalition. But he’d heard stories. Of entire allied armies turning against princesses he’d considered among the most cunning and dangerous alive halfway through the battle. Of the brutal slaughter the Lycaonese had visited upon the flower of the south’s manhood. That defeat sounded across all of Procer, and in the wake of that sound Amadis found his careful plans lay shattered on the ground. Still, he’d come out of the disaster better than any of his former allies and set to work leveraging that sudden prominence. His ties in Orne and Cantal served him well, soon bolstered by generously termed loans to Creusens and wedding his youngest daughter to the heir to Segovia. The aging Princess Luisa has sided with Hasenbach after she broke Prince Dagobert and remained a close ally after, reaping the benefits of her early support, but her son had greater ambitions than being the loyal dog of a northerner First Prince. Princess Aenor’s successor, Princess Rozala, eventually joined his alignment as well after she found her mother’s old supporters closing their doors to her in an attempt to curry favour with Hasenbach.
Six principalities stood behind him, out of the twenty-three that formed Procer. Twenty-four, counting Salia, but as it was the seat and personal domain of whoever claimed the crown its officials avoided partisanship. It was a greater portion of the realm than it seemed. The four Lycaonese principalities to the north were ardent Hasenbach supporters, but estranged from the courts of the south and forced to spend what little coin they had seeing to their borders with the Chain of Hunger. Cleves and Hainault had turned inwards after their disastrous adventures in the civil war, fearing the Kingdom of the Dead would catch scent of their weakness and begin raiding their shores again. Over a third of the principalities still relevant to rule of Procer stood behind him. Amadis did not have the votes in the Highest Assembly to dismantle Hasenbach’s position, not unless she blundered and angered rulers keeping aloft. But he was now widely considered the second most powerful ruler in the Principate, and even the hint of his displeasure gave other princes pause.
Not that the First Prince had been idle all this time. She was, Amadis would concede, a much defter hand at the Ebb and the Flow than any Lycaonese should be. That clever bit of diplomacy with Levant had tied Orense to her with a debt of gratitude, and his own admittedly lacklustre military record meant that Salamans and Tenerife preferred looking for protection against Helike with the First Prince than his own faction. Their support had borne fruit, with twenty thousand men being sent south to guard the border even as the rest of the Principate gathered for war. Yet for all her cleverness, Hasenbach was not beloved. Her heavy-handed reforms of the bureaucracy in Salia had won her no friends among the highborn who had once enjoyed lucrative sinecures close to the heart of Procer’s power. The decrees she had passed trough the Highest Assembly to disburse funds for the upkeep of fortresses guarding the borders with the Chain of Hunger and the Dead King’s realm were similarly unpopular with the impoverished south, though she’d had the votes to force them through regardless.
Still, Amadis had never considered the woman a true threat to his rising ascendance. Watching the massive undertaking she had apparently managed to prepare under his nose without a single soul noticing, however, he was coming to reconsider that assessment.
There must have been at least five hundred mages involved, he thought as he left his tent and came to stand in the field. That meant easily thrice that number in servants and tradesmen supporting them, the sum of it making a sizeable town on its own. And there must have been soldiers, to ward off anyone curious even in this distant stretch of the Principate. The Prince of Arans must have been involved as well, for all this was taking place amidst his lands, and never had Amadis unearthed so much as a hint that the man was one of Hasenbach’s. Neither had his people in the treasury found trace of the sizeable amount of coin that must have been allocated in seeing such an undertaking through. Had the gold come through the Lycaonese principalities? Fielding their armies south in the civil war should have nearly beggared them, it should not have been possible. Unless, of course, Hasenbach had falsified the books in Salia. The Prince of Iserre hummed. He could have her censured for that. The measure was mostly symbolic, and required simple majority to pass. Would it be worth it to call in the favours? It would certainly blacken her name, but to make such a play as a crusade unfolded might do the same for his own.
Someone came to stand by his side, and a low whistle was let out.
“She plays a deeper game than we thought,” Princess Rozala of Aequitan said.
Barely twenty, Amadis thought, with all her mother’s beauty yet none of the grace. Being raised in a time of war had done nothing for her manners, a shame given the past glories of her hallowed line. Iserre and Aequitan had been foes as often as they were allies, over the centuries, a complicated dance of love and hate that saw the lines between rivalry and alliance ever blurred. No one understood better than his people that a skilled enemy could serve as better ally than a friend.
“I discern the Prince of Hannoven’s hand in this,” Amadis said. “It is too… martial a measure to be the First Prince’s own thought.”
“It certainly explains why she had us getting drunk near the border with Bayeux instead of mustering with the Iron Prince in Orne, anyway,” Princess Rozala mused. “And here I thought she merely wanted to keep you from getting your grubby paws all over her allies.”
“A mark of weakness, that she would find it needful to do so,” Amadis said with a thin smile. “Too many of her backers see the sense in what I say.”
“There’s no great brilliance in pointing out that Callow is ripe for the taking, Amadis,” the Princess of Aequitan snorted. “Anyone with eyes can see it. It’s the division of the spoils that’s going to set tongues wagging. Assuming we can even wrest the right to dispose of them.”
“Enough of the Highest Assembly took command of their armies we can convoke a session in Callow without her,” the Prince of Iserre murmured. “With the right promises we could circumvent her entirely.”
Neither needed to say that if this took place, Hasenbach’s reign would never recover from the blow. It was one thing for a decree to be defeated in the Assembly – not even the most beloved of First Princes had avoided that indignity at least once – but for a ruling First Prince’s known intent to be defied that openly? She would barely even qualify as a figurehead, after. The disgrace might be enough for her to abdicate and flee back north with her tail between her legs. There were other ways to chance the face of the Principate’s rule than mere warfare. The two of them stood in uneasy silence afterwards, looking at the work of the mages. The ritual had begun with dawn yet was not even half-done by his reckoning. The harsh slopes of the mountains separating Procer from Callow burned away under constant sorcerous fire, leaving behind smoking steps of stone stretching ever further. Now that the Prince of Hannoven had given his leave, Amadis had been filled in on the full details of this little scheme of the First Prince’s. Though no great commander himself, the Prince of Iserre knew enough of martial endeavours to be aware that the Kingdom of Callow’s great advantage in war had always been that the only path of entry from the west was the Red Flower Vales. Narrow passes and valleys, whose fortifications had only grown more expansive since the Wastelanders had annexed Callow.
This was no longer true.
The Stairway, as Hasenbach’s lieutenant among the mages called it, was the work of years in ritual preparation and planning: an exhausting labour that would carve a way through the mountains between the principality of Arans and northern Callow at the narrowest point in the mountains. The planned point of emergence was to the north of the city of Harrow – which was, he’d been assured, essentially undefended. Amadis had been ordered to take his host through the Stairway and begin a march south, shattering every army in his path until he took the defences of the Red Flower Vales from behind while the host of Prince Klaus Papenheim assaulted them from the front. He’d also been mandated to establish negotiations with the Duchy of Daoine, though it had been made clear to him treating with Duchess Kegan would be handled by one of the First Prince’s personal envoys. In this, he was not worried. Callow was such a lawless place, these days. Envoys could meet with all sorts of accidents as they journeyed. And if they did, well, was it not his duty as a loyal subject of Procer to fill that void? A diplomatic victory with the Deoraithe would do much to solidify his position before he convoked the Highest Assembly within Callow. The higher is fortunes rose, the lower Hasenbach’s fell.
“The wizards tell me the ritual will be completed within two days,” Prince Amadis of Iserre told his accomplice. “We must swiftly steal a march afterwards.”
“Steal a march,” Princess Rozala repeated mockingly. “My, how commandingly you speak to me. One would almost believe you to be the leader of this glorious host of ours.”
Amadis smiled at her.
“How is your brother these days?” he asked. “I hear his talents as an orator have thawed even the First Prince’s disposition.”
The woman’s face turned dark, and she looked away. Rozala did need the occasional reminder of how flimsy her position in Aequitan truly was, with her younger brother currying favour at court. Hasenbach was unlikely to be so gauche as to directly intervene in a principality’s affairs of succession, but she could do a great deal to help the boy’s cause without tipping her hand.
“Let us not quarrel, Your Grace,” Amadis said. “Can you not feel it? We are going to make history, you and I.”
The Prince of Iserre’s smile broadened as he watched the Stairway grow. The world, he knew, was on the eve of great changes. And Amadis Milenan would be at the heart of them.