“I must say, Chancellor, you’ve become quite the conversationalist.”
– Dread Empress Maledicta II
The room had been a gaol, once upon a time. Not one the Fairfaxes ever owned up to having, but the ruling dynasty of Callow had not remained on the throne by being faint-hearted. Unlike the luxurious prison that was the Songbird’s Cage, this was a dark and ugly pit. Not the kind of place you sent someone if you ever expected them to come out. The late and unlamented Governor Mazus had apparently used it as dumping grounds for people he believed would cause more terror by being disappeared than known dead, and expanded what had once been a single pair of rooms to a large underground complex of seven. I’d had it sealed off before my coronation, and not a soul was allowed here now. Bare stone walls surrounded me, cleared of manacles, and the only ornament was the seat I’d brought down here myself. I closed the steel door behind me and froze it shut before taking a deep breath. Winter came easy.
It always did.
Ice crept across the walls hungrily, gaping maws of frost that devoured every nook and cranny until all that was left was a hall of glittering mirrors. It’d been as difficult as snapping a finger, and there was a part of me that delighted in using the might of my mantle. But then the world sharpened. Grew jagged. I could feel, with dim horror, everything that I was begin to calcify. To set in immovable stones. That would have been dangerous enough, but I was not merely fae. My title was Winter’s and Winter knew nothing as intimately as darkness and hunger. I sat down on the chair and forced myself to think as little as I could. It was almost cowardly, but I’d rather not have to confront the kind of thoughts that would surface if I pondered anything too deeply in this state. Gods, I could use a drink. The alcohol was one of the few things that blunted the edges of this. That made me feel like I was still human. But even if I’d been willing to embrace that crutch right now, I could not. Hakram had, before he left, exacted an oath from me.
Never while on campaign, or attending affairs of state. The oath was to end with our reunion, whenever that may be. Adjutant had expressed… worries to me in private, twice now. I’d been irritated, considering Indrani drank like a fish and no one ever lectured her, but he was right in that Archer wasn’t wearing a crown. Unlike me. The sharpness of the ache for a cup in my hand was whispering to me that Hakram might just have been right. He did have that nasty habit, didn’t he? I breathed in and out slowly, then reached for the power again. This had been an aspect, once. Fall. Now it was just a part of me, true as hair or toes. When it’d been crystallized into a single word it’d been stronger – no perhaps not that, simply more rigid – but whatever had been lost was more than made up by the breadth of what I could now achieve with this power. Before, I would never have been able to forge this half-world I was now painting over the room with brushstrokes of night. The threshold of my domain, the thought came, forged of instinct and inhuman certainty. I bit my lip, strong enough to draw blood.
Pain, that most human of sensations. It cleared out some of the ice and I let out a relieved breath. I had to see to myself before the First Prince graced me with her presence. That and play the card up my sleeve.
“I grant you leash,” I said, voice echoing. “I grant you eyes and ears, tongue and feet, at my sufferance.”
With a throaty chuckle Akua Sahelian’s shade stepped out of the Mantle of Woe. Even in this half-death, she remained beautiful. High cheekbones and perfectly styled eyebrows, her dress of red and gold tightly clinging to curves I could only envy. The only thing marring that beauty was the gaping bloody hole in her chest where I’d ripped out her heart.
“Freedom,” the Diabolist mused. “Limited, but then is that not true of all freedoms?”
“Now that I’ve let you out of the lamp,” I said, “for the first of my three wishes I would like peace for Calernia.”
She cast me a disapproving looks.
“You know very well that djinn do not grant wishes,” she said. “That is mere Callowan ignorance.”
“You make a terrible genie, Akua,” I told her. “I’m going to trade you for a lantern one of these days, you know? They’re about as useful and they don’t talk back.”
“Your insistence on levity is a mark of poor breeding, dearest,” she said. “You must overcome it.”
I had a few less than polite things to reply to that with, including a reminder that if she was so clever she wouldn’t have ended up sown into my collar, but it would have to wait. I could feel my guest arriving. The darkness shivered, and just like that the First Prince sat across from me. I’d not been sure that she’d bite when I sent Thief with the amulet I’d woven strands of my domain into, but to my pleasure she had. She was covered with so many miracles she almost glowed and she was very careful never to leave her seat, but she was here anyway. Hasenbach was not a reckless woman by nature, by my reckoning, but I knew exactly why she’d taken the risk to venture into even the outskirts of my domain: the Augur. How deeply that woman’s visions ran was still a subject of much speculation across the whole Empire, but I’d banked on her being able to tell I genuinely had no intention of turning this into a trap. I needed the First Prince too badly to ever consider taking her life, even if it’d been possible. There was a moment of silence, as the Proceran gathered her bearings. I said nothing, patiently waiting.
Her Most Serene Highness Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer, Prince of Rhenia and Princess of Salia, Warden of the West and Protector of the Realms of Man. Quite a mouthful of titles for a woman who was only twenty-six years old and had become the sovereign ruler of the largest – and arguably most powerful – nation on Calernia before the age of twenty. This was likely as close to meeting in person as we’d ever come, so as always I took a moment to study her. She was impeccably clothed in dark blue I’d been told was part of the heraldry of her home principality Rhenia, the dress rather conservative but still flattering to her frame. It made her shoulders look slimmer, I thought. Hasenbach was best known for her skill as a diplomat, but she’d been born with a warrior’s frame. Her long golden hair cascaded down her neck in perfect ringlets, needing no ornament but their own richness, but there was a discreet touch of golden eye shadow that made her blue eyes stand out even more vividly. On her brow was a circlet of white gold, tastefully understated considering the power it represented. I’d seen beautiful women in my day, some hauntingly so, and honestly would not count the First Prince among them. She was not plain, not exactly, but all the most striking parts of her appearance were careful artifice.
That did nothing to detract from her presence, even in this half-realm of mine. Though seated on a mere cushioned and sculpted chair, she radiated that… something. The unspoken pull that surrounded people like Black and Malicia, or even Juniper. That spark that made the weight they bore into something that dragged others into their orbit. No, she was not someone to ever underestimate. The more I learned about her ascension to the throne and the years that had followed, the warier I was becoming of her. The pit of vipers she ruled was as deadly as the Imperial court in many ways, and she’d retained rule of it without having a cudgel like Black to call on. She met my eyes, but did not speak. Akua softly laughed, walking around the First Prince’s silhouette with the grace of a cat before leaning her head over the Proceran’s shoulder.
“She will never speak first, my heart,” the shade of my most hated enemy said. “It would be improper, you see. Her people believe that First Prince is the greatest of all titles, and so she must never be first to offer courtesy.”
I inclined my head towards Hasenbach.
“Your Most Serene Highness,” I said, voice calm.
“Your Grace,” Cordelia Hasenbach replied.
The proper address was ‘Your Majesty’, though never once had she referred to me as such. The etiquette she employed recognized me as noble, though at best one of equal standing with any of the many princes of the Procer.
“Look at how her lip curls around the words, Catherine,” Akua laughed, moving around the unseeing First Prince to better study her. “She would prefer not to grant you them at all, but she must – and how it displeases her. To call you queen would be recognition of your legitimacy, and end to her crusade’s own. But to deny you any title at all would make any negotiation between you worthless.”
Akua rose, stretching languidly.
“And she needs you to keep speaking to her, my lovely,” the monster said silkily. “Oh yes. Even should you never come to terms, to be able to gauge you with her own eyes is priceless advantage.”
Diabolist had grown increasingly fond of using endearments with me, since I’d ripped out her heart and stolen her soul. Fucking Praesi. Fucking highborn, really.
“Let’s begin with the usual,” I said. “Terms?”
“Unchanged,” the First Prince replied. “Immediate abdication and disbanding of your armies. Your soldiery to undergo fair trial after the crusade. Yourself and no more than five of your comrades allowed exile without pursuit, under condition of never returning to Callow.”
I hummed, and idly reached for my pipe. I used the process of stuffing it with wakeleaf and striking a match as a deferral of answer to allow me to gather my thoughts. I’d half-expected Hasenbach to offer starker terms now that she’d struck the first blow and begun crossing into Callow catching me flat-footed.
“Do you feel that?” Akua murmured. “That is caution, dearest. She does not harden terms of surrender because she fears you. What you might do if cornered. Use that fear, Catherine. It is the sharpest prick of the mantle you claimed.”
I puffed at my pipe and let out a stream of smoke, making myself more comfortable in my seat.
“I’ll have to decline, for now,” I said.
Akua was useful, too useful to shove back into the box right now, but more for her perceptiveness than her advice. The terms remained unacceptable. Abdication would be a relief, to be honest, and something that was going to happen regardless if my plans came to fruition. But not like this. I couldn’t trust a crusader tribunal to pass sentence on the Praesi under my command, much less the greenskins. And that the First Prince and her allies would be deciding Callow’s fate without a single check on their decisions was the least acceptable part of it all.
“You are calmer than I expected,” Hasenbach said. “The dossiers we have of you led me to expect conversation of a harsher tone.”
Akua clucked her tongue.
“Do not let her turn this towards you, my heart,” she advised. “Any answer at all will be revealing in ways you cannot control. That is too dangerous a woman to be given the lay of your thoughts.”
I inclined my head, agreeing with Akua while masquerading it as acquiescence with the First Prince’s sentence.
“I’ve been reading about the Principate, lately,” I said. “About how it functions in practice.”
The First Prince smiled, as if she were sharing a drink with an old friend.
“Interesting,” she said. “And have you come to any conclusions?”
“It doesn’t,” I bluntly said. “Function, that is. The fault line in Procer’s foundation has been made exceedingly clear over the last twenty years.”
Not so much as a speck of emotion crossed the First Prince’s face. Akua laughed delightedly.
“See how her brow stiffened, Catherine?” she said. “That is anger, my lovely. The recognition that the Empress’ game was no great plot. That all her people ever needed to claw each other bloody was means and excuse. Feed that wroth. That is the only way for you to glimpse truth behind the mask.”
Praesi diplomacy, I was learning, was more like a pit fight with slightly pulled punches than anything I’d recognize. It was all about testing the other side, making them blink and then capitalizing on that weakness. That Akua could not recognize tussling like that with Cordelia godsdamned Hasenbach was a bad idea was a good reminder that for all her cleverness the Diabolist had heavy blinders. That was the rotten heart that always made the designs of the High Lords collapse: they could not ever conceive that they were sometimes in the inferior bargaining position. Fortunately, I’d learned that lesson early when I grew up with the Tower’s boot over my throat. No doubt I have blinders of my own, I thought. But if I knew they’d hardly be blinders, would they?
“Not overly surprising conclusion, given the manner in which you have ruled,” the First Prince said. “For all that your throne is in Laure, you have adopted many of the manners of the East.”
Ruled, I noted, not reigned. How carefully she always picked her words.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” I said. “I’m not touting the Tower as an alternative, or even how I’ve been running things. I just grafted Praesi bureaucracy to the court, and it’s a clunky solution. But I’ve gotten my hands on a history of the League Wars, and it’s not a pretty story.”
Akua clucked her tongue disapprovingly.
“This is the chorus of the losing side, dearest,” she chided me. “Beneath the dignity of one who triumphed over me.”
It was a small shift, but I saw Hasenbach’s eyes brighten with interest after I spoke. I’d been careful, during our little talks, to try to find common grounds. Something we could discuss and disagree over without it getting personal. So far, what had worked best was Proceran history. I wasn’t reading those books solely because I no longer needed to sleep, or even to get an idea of my opponent’s weaknesses.
“You refer to the Right of Iron,” she said. “I would, in fact, tend to agree with you in this matter. The prerogative of waging war without the agreement of the First Prince has been the source of much trouble over the centuries.”
“So why haven’t you tried to revoke it?” I asked, genuinely curious. “I know that’d have to go through the Highest Assembly and that means a vote, but just after your civil war people were sick enough of the killing you would have had a decent chance of pushing it through.”
“I considered this,” the First Prince admitted. “Yet in doing so, I would have created cohesive opposition to any further reform. Many of which are, as you have said, direly needed.”
“That opposition you’re talking about,” I said. “They’re the exact same people that spent nearly twenty years ravaging the Principate on Malicia’s pay.”
“A generalization,” Hasenbach said. “One with some shade of accuracy, I will concede, yet there is important difference in having been funded by the Empress and having sought to do her bidding.”
I acknowledged the point with a nod. From the corner of my eye I saw Akua meandering away from the First Prince, coming to stand at my back. Even knowing she was powerless, utterly at my mercy, having her behind me was raising the hair on my neck.
“What I’m wondering is – why listen to them at all?” I asked. “I saw the Imperial estimates for the remaining armies after the Battle of Aisne. There wasn’t a force in the Principate that could have stood against you, if you’d twisted their arms into backing your reforms. And I don’t mean the small ones, I mean everything.”
“You were taught,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, “by two of the most brutal tyrants in living memory. That is not your fault, though your embrace of their methods remains your sole responsibility. That is why your perspective on the subject is tainted. I did not attempt to make myself an absolute monarch because I believe such a manner of ruling to be dangerously flawed.”
“If you count civil wars, Procer’s been on the field more often than any other nation on Calernia,” I pointed. “That includes Praes, Your Highness.”
“You blame this on lack of centralized authority,” the First Prince said. “That is not entirely inaccurate, yet you miss the central tenet of the Principate: it is, unlike Praes, a nation built on consensus. The Highest Assembly is prone to squabbles, and inefficient. This I will not deny. That is because it is not an institution meant to empower the office of the First Prince, it is meant to check it. No single man or woman should ever be able to wield the full, unrestricted might of the Principate.”
“Now,” Akua whispered into my ear. “Now is when you slide the knife.”
I smiled pleasantly.
“Then why,” I asked, “is the host crossing into Callow made up almost entirely by your opposition in the Assembly?”
The shutters went down on the First Prince’s face, even as I pulled at my pipe and allowed smoke to stream out of my nostrils. This, I thought, moments like this. They’re why I let you out of the box, Akua. I had much to learn from Diabolist, when it came to this kind of game.
“She did not expect you to understand her intent,” Akua said, still at my side. “Watch the eyes, how she reconsiders the kind of threat you pose. She thought you a dull thug, a brute of a child with a stolen crown. Now she wonders if you’ve taken as much from these talks as she has, and it worries her.”
The shade laughed.
“Do not talk,” she said. “Let her silence damn her more the longer it stretches.”
I spat out another mouthful of smoke, studying the First Prince. When she finally spoke, her tone was perfectly calm.
“I am forced to wonder,” Hasenbach said, “what game it is you truly play, Catherine Foundling.”
“The only game I’ve ever ever played,” I said. “Keeping my people’s head above the waterline.”
“Yet you ally with monsters and murderers,” the First Prince said. “The very same whose fellows committed the single greatest massacre of Callowans since the days of Dread Empress Triumphant.”
“May she never return,” Akua murmured.
“I’m also talking with you,” I said. “The thing is, Your Highness, that right now the Tower’s my only possible bedfellow. I can’t take your crusade on my own.”
Not entirely true. Juniper was the opinion that if I was willing to let most of Callow burn while I struck deep in crusader territory, I might be able to force a draw by sheer dint of massacre. She’d played out the theory with her general staff. No part of that path was acceptable to me, though. I was not willing to pile up the bodies until no one was able to keep going. If I was ever forced to that, well… Better to abdicate. And to backstab Praes as brutally as I could beforehand, so that the crusade ended quickly and not in Callow.
“A villain ruling over Callow is not an acceptable outcome for this war,” the First Prince said.
“People I don’t trust in the slightest deciding what happens to Callow isn’t either,” I frankly replied. “If I have to cut a deal, I’d rather do it with you than Malicia. After Liesse… Well, if this is the best I can expect from the Empire, the Empire’s not an entity I can trust to uphold their part of a deal.”
“Trust has nothing do with it,” Akua dismissed. “You have power enough that the Empress cannot cross you lightly. Treaties are only ever gilding added to the deeper truth of power, dearest. This one does not consider you of sufficient might to treat with.”
“Trust,” Hasenbach said, her tone almost amused.
“Trust,” I echoed.
The First Prince smiled.
“Did you never pause to wonder, Your Grace, why the only powers willing to deal with you are monstrous?” she asked softly.
My jaw clenched.
“Did you never wonder if you belong amongst that number?”
My fingers tightened.
“Careful now,” Diabolist warned. “She goads you not by accident.”
The urge was there to lash out. To remind that sanctimonious fucking Proceran that her own hands were far from clean. She’d sent out her enemies for me to savage, and her reasons for starting this crusade weren’t nearly as squeaky clean as she’d like her allies to believe. She’d played the shadow game with Malicia for over a decade, too, and there’s wasn’t a person in Creation who’d manage to get through that without some mud on their shoes. Why were her killings less a sin than mine? Because she went to the House of Light for sermons and paid her alms? Because her intentions were some kind of nebulous greater good? Hells, so were mine. Instead I took a deep breath. Slowly, I raised my pipe and pulled at the dragonbone shaft. The wakeleaf no longer brought the sharp focus it once had, but the act itself was soothing.
“I have,” I admitted quietly, “utterly failed Callow.”
Whatever answer she’d expected, it had not been that. The flicker of surprise in her eyes did not lie. I felt Akua begin to speak, but I no longer had need of her services. All it took was an exertion of will and back into the collar she went. Blind and deaf and furious.
“After First Liesse, when the Ruling Council was formed,” I said. “No, even before that. When I did not answer Akua Sahelian being named governess with gathering an army and hanging her from the nearest tree. I betrayed everything I had set out to do the moment I allowed a woman I knew a cold butcher to be the steward of Callowan lives for the sake of political expediency.”
I’d had months, now, of sleepless nights. Of going back over everything I’d done. Thinking of the paths I could have taken that didn’t result in a hundred thousand of my people dead. And there had been so very many of them, hadn’t there?
“I fucked up the Ruling Council,” I acknowledged. “I had the leverage to make real changes, the same kind I’ve been saying I want to achieve since I was a girl, and instead I let a council stacked with High Lord cronies run Callow for me. And then got furious when they acted the same way Praesi always have, the moment I wasn’t there to make them afraid. I’ve been complicit through inaction or ignorance in every catastrophe that struck Callow since the moment I got power and did absolutely nothing with it.”
The First Prince watched me in silence, her face unreadable.
“I could make excuses,” I said. “That I was ill-prepared for that kind of authority. That I spent so much time and spilled so much blood getting on top I forgot why I wanted to be there in the first place. But that’d be hypocritical, wouldn’t it? I was given exactly what I clamoured for, and when I got it a city was turned into a graveyard. Hells, it’s on my fucking standard: justifications matter only to the just. I started out with the intention of burying anyone who tossed around sentences like that in a shallow grave, but now I’m the one having them sown on battle flags. Second Liesse made it clear that I’ve slowly crawled into being the kind of person I swore I was going to remove.”
“And yet,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, “you still wear the crown and muster your armies for war. Sentiment is only meaningful if followed by action. If your grief at all the woe you have caused changes nothing, it is merely self-pity.”
“I know exactly what I have to do, Hasenbach,” I said. “And letting you carve up Callow like side of pork isn’t part of it. Not when the people doing the carving have no real incentive to care for the realm under the knife.”
“Self-pity, then,” Hasenbach said. “You still believe you can win this war.”
“War,” I said, “is the very opposite of what I’m after.”
My pipe had finally gone out, I saw.
“We’ll talk again,” I told her, and the darkness collapsed.
I stayed in my seat for a long time, alone with my thoughts. When does a lesser evil simply become an evil? That was the line I needed to find, the one that could not be crossed. The moment where I became a greater wound than the one I was trying to prevent. I rose as the ice receded around me. It was going to be a long night.
They always were.