Court I

“Ruling is to promise a man a boat and his brother the river while owning neither.”
– Kind Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand

“This Liessen business is fucking unacceptable, Brandon,” the woman said, fist pounding the table.

Grandmaster Brandon Talbot of the Order of Broken Bells, arguably the second most influential officer in the Army of Callow after the Marshal herself, hid his displeasure with the ease of long practice. Though he understood Lady Julienne’s outrage, and indeed shared it himself, theatrics such as these would get them absolutely nowhere.

“This reeks of Kendall’s doing,” Samuel Farron said. “She’s been gathering the malcontents under her banner, and now she’ll get an entire duchy to hand out piecemeal.”

The man was the oldest among them, and though his grandfather had been only a baron in the days before the Conquest he was perhaps the most influential of the Regals – who boasted men and women of greater lines, not the least Brandon himself. What his line had lost in title, they had reclaimed in wealth and alliances. This did nothing to make him any more likeable, no matter how useful he might be: Samuel Farron had learned the unfortunate lesson that he was always right, and grew indignant whenever Creation had the gall to disagree with that state of affairs.

“Chewing off Brandon’s ear gets us nowhere, my friends,” Valerie Hadley calmly intervened. “You have all read the proposed arrangements. I suspect this comes from higher up than the Governess-General.”

The unspoken shadow of the queen brought silence, however short, and Brandon nodded his thanks at the woman who had just spoken. House Hadley had been middling retainers to the Marquesses of Vale once, little more than jumped up landed knights, but of all the Regals it was Valerie Hadley that Brandon most enjoyed working with. The calm competence married to stark humility was refreshing, considering some of the egos he must corral. Her seat in this council of the greatest of the Regals came more because she was the only person of note from Vale to have joined them than because of her skills, unfortunately. Something Farron was not above reminding her of whenever they disagreed, which was frequently.

“The queen’s not used to thinking in terms of land,” Samuel replied flatly. “She was a damned penniless orphan for most her life. This is Anne Kendall trying to fuck us, and anyone who’s not a fool can see it.”

“Clearly I am a fool, then,” Hadley said. “For the fact that land grants would in large part go to retiring legionaries does not strike as a ploy of the Queen’s Men.”

“Greenskin and Praesi owning Callowan land, this is what the court had simmering,” Lady Julienne sharply said. “I held my tongue when the queen settled goblins in Marchford, Brandon, because it is her demesne and you raised no objection. But this? This goes too far.”

I held my tongue because objecting would have served no purpose but irritating Her Majesty, Brandon thought. And because the Snake Eater Tribe brought us both badly needed coin and a workforce capable of making siege weapons without relying on the Tower’s charity. Neither thought had it made it more palatable that lands by House Talbot for over five hundred years were now infested with skulking vermin, but the Grandmaster had learned early that the queen’s tolerance for protest only stretched so far.

“Lodging protest through the court is not possible,” Brandon sighed.

None of them were supposed to have even seen the proposal they were now discussing, though a concerned citizen had written a copy from memory and sent it to them. Someone would be sent to the gallows before the day was done, if Catherine Foundling believed her own court was leaking documents under seal.

“We can express our displeasure through intermediaries,” Samuel Farron said. “Nothing touching us directly.”

“If we do we’ll be swimming in Jacks before the next bell,” Lady Julienne grunted. “I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of finding my good bottles open and my papers slightly askew.”

Brandon grimaced. He had already expressed to Lady Thief his misgivings about these little reminders to the Regals that they were being watched, but the Named had only been amused. It’s good for fine folk such as you to be reminded about the consequences of wickedness, she’d said. His favourite hunting knife had disappeared the same night, though Lord Deadhand had later returned it with a seemingly sincere apology.

“We can’t do nothing, Julienne,” Farron barked. “I will not watch silently as Callow is handed away piece by piece to foreigners and toadies.”

“He’s right,” Valerie Hadley reluctantly said. “Her Majesty’s open favour already emboldens the Queen’s Men. If we stay our hand on so large a matter, we will suffer defections.”

“Favoured or not, the queen has been… pragmatic on the issue of Baroness Kendall’s supporters,” Brandon reminded them. “One of ours leads the city guard in Summerholm, and we hold the docks in Southpool. My attempts to broach the matter of the governorship in Denier have not been rebuffed, either. I question the wisdom of surrendering a gain so close to our hand for what promises to be a losing battle.”

“So she hasn’t outright handed the keys to the kingdom to some southern collaborator,” Lady Julienne snorted. “Must we must praise Her Majesty for this? She’s still having her Taghreb dig into our coffers.”

Considering none but Brandon at this table was not a landowner of more than comfortable means, the Bastard Lord’s property taxes had gotten stuck in the throat of most Regals. That the baronies in the north had been spared the sword by virtue of still being true nobles had only added insult to injury. It’d been bad enough there had been talk of arranging the Taghreb’s disappearance, but Brandon had been uncompromising in squashing such scheming. Her Majesty was viciously protective of any she considered friends, and striking at a man who’d followed her since her early days as the Squire was a recipe for every Regal in Callow swinging from a noose. And that was assuming the mood did not take her to make another example, as she had of the sorcerers sworn to the Diabolist. Brandon had ridden down the Road of Woe, before they took the corpses down. He still shivered at the memory of bloodied corpses propped up as milestones as far as the eye could see. None of the other Regals had been on the Arcadian Campaign, or Second Liesse. They did not know the kind of monstrosity the queen was willing to unleash when she believed herself threated.

“She’s shutting us out of the army too,” Samuel Farron growled. “I’m getting tired of having fine officers refused by a fucking greenskin.”

“We cannot try to force that,” Hadley said. “You should know this by now, Samuel. I’m not happy nearly all the senior officers are former Legion either, but she won the throne with the Fifteenth at her back. If we try to wedge ourselves into that, we chance Her Majesty seeing it as an attack.”

“A certain level of intrigue will be tolerated, that much has been made clear,” Brandon said. “But let it always remain polite and lawful. Let us not forget the ending of that… ill-considered attempt to bribe the Lord Treasurer.”

The queen’s mercy in that matter had almost been cruel, he thought. The fines had ruined the eldermen financially and the mark of the throne’s wroth had ensured they would never hold a position of influence ever again. Considering the rising influence of officials in Laure, having been kicked off the boat just as the tide began to lift it must have stung even worse than the gallows.

“Petty Laure officials,” Farron scoffed. “Mudfoots with no sophistication. That game is played with favours, not coin. We just need to find out what the orc is truly after and she’ll bargain like everyone else.”

Brandon Talbot had campaigned with Marshal Juniper twice now, and he suspected on most days what the Hellhound desired most was Samuel Farron’s guts on her plate. It was not worth the expense of his influence to try to end an initiative that might yield some success, however. Down the line it could be suggested to the queen that reverses in other matters might be reconciled by some… strategic appointments in the Army of Callow. Having candidates already on the record would only strengthen their position. Already Brandon’s freedom to do as he saw fit with the Broken Bells had been expanded greatly, so it was not a matter without precedent.

“We’re certain that Her Majesty raising a new Duke of Liesse is out of question?” Hadley pressed. “I know inquiries were made, but we never petitioned the court.”

The queen had to be talked out of striking down the titles to the northern baronies, Brandon thought. No duchy will be raised in her lifetime, my friend. That one is a lost cause.

“Given the involvement of Lord Adjutant’s new offices with the refugees, I suspect it would come too close to curtailing the crown’s power to be even seriously considered,” Talbot admitted. “And while I share your disdain for this notion of turning the entire Duchy of Liesse into freeholds, we must admit that the region had been well taken in hand.”

Grain, tents and clothes had begun flowing south within hours of the queen’s coronation. The Deadhand was nothing if not efficient, that much must be conceded. That about nine in ten refugees had so far survived winter in the face of cold and starvation was nearly miraculous. Even if that miracle had been woven from Praesi gold.

“They screwed Old Darlington out of making a killing with his wool, too,” Lady Julienne smiled coldly. “Always a pleasure to see we are not lowest in the queen’s esteem.”

“There is only so much distinction between bottom-feeders,” Valerie Hadley said. “We have shown restraint, Brandon, but our gains remain limited. I am not fool enough to talk rebellion, but something must be done.”

There was a thread of frustration in the woman’s voice, and the Grandmaster sympathized. He felt it too. Yet he also knew that what they considered stewardship of Callow earned by right and blood was seen by Her Majesty as infuriating arrogance. Now that peace had returned, however fleeting, the queen had ceased putting the heads of all opposition on pikes. Farron and Lady Julienne saw this as their ruler softening, but Brandon knew better. The Queen of Callow was trying to outgrow the savage teachings of her eastern mentors and return Callow to what it should be, but all she did she did with an eye on the looming war with Procer. Disagreement would be tolerated, but anything construed as obstructionism would see the blades come out.

“We are only worth appeasing so long as we are more useful than troublesome, my friends,” Brandon quietly said. “We should all remember that, before raising our voices too loud. Catherine Foundling is not a Fairfax. She will not balk at sending the Jacks to abduct us in the middle of the night, if she deems it necessary.”

“Then she shouldn’t be-“ Farron began, but Hadley smacker her palm against the table.

“Let us not drift too far from the subject at hand,” the woman said. “Brandon, by your continuing calm I take it you have a notion as to how we should proceed?”

“Tolerance continues so long as we remain within set bounds,” Brandon said. “Let us wok within these bounds, then. Anne Kendall is no friend of ours, but there is one that stands above even the Queen’s Council. One who takes no sides.”

The others watched him with considering eyes.

“I will talk,” Brandon Talbot said, “with Hakram Deadhand.”

There were too few hours in a day. Hakram had, on one of those rare instances where Archer managed to drag Masego away from supervising he building of the Observatory, asked Hierophant if it was feasible to work in Arcadia to get around the span of time. He’d said yes, then added so many qualifiers to that agreement the conversation became unintelligible. Unfortunate. Instead he’d gotten to explore the limits of how little sleep he could live on before becoming sloppy. The orc poured himself a cup of aragh and shuffled through the piles on parchment on his oaken desk.

“Drinking on the job, Hakram?” Ratface teased. “How irresponsible of you.”

The orc growled, not that it scared the fucking Taghreb. The former quartermaster had not become any less of a pest now that some Callowan honorary address had been tacked on to his name.

“Can’t drink with Catherine anymore,” he admitted. “I’m trying to wean her off.”

Amusement slid off the Lord Treasurer’s face.

“I know she’s traded wine for liquor since Liesse, but I was under the impression Named couldn’t get drunk unless they wanted to,” the man said.

“Her body’s all fucked,” Hakram said. “The warlock’s get wants to write a treatise about it, which should tell you everything. I think it takes the edge off Winter, though. And there’s not much else that accomplishes that.”

“We never talked about what went down in the city,” Ratface slowly said. “But what bits I dug up hint it was… bad.”

“Malicia crossed a line,” Hakram said. “And the Black Knight broke her trust. The second of those cut a lot deeper.”

“There is an old story, I believe, about scorpions and trust,” Ratface murmured.

More than one, as it happened. The one they told in Callow was charmingly moral, a warning about men’s nature and how they followed it even at their own expense. The Praesi tale was not a warning but a lesson: the scorpion swam to the shore, after stinging the frog. Never assume weakness, never trust anyone with your back. Like most Praesi stories it idolized cleverness and treachery without addressing the inherent stupidity of killing someone willing to help you.

“We’ve all had mentors,” Hakram said. “Smart doesn’t come into it.”

“Let us hope Procer ties up that loose end, then,” the Taghreb said. “We cannot afford to be stung twice.”

The orc drank from the cup, savouring the muted burn down his throat, and rolled his shoulders.

“All right, spit it out,” Adjutant said. “What are you after, Lord Treasurer?”

The olive-skinned man cast a dubious glance at the sheaths of parchment and opened scrolls that covered nearly every surface of Hakram’s solar.

“If I asked you for a report, would you even be able to find it?” he snorted.

“Finding’s a specialty of mine,” the orc replied with a fanged grin. “Now spare me the dancing around.”

The Taghreb sighed.

“This cannot be put to ink,” he said.

Hakram’s hairless brows rose. The Jacks were being forced to keep much off parchment out of fear of Imperial infiltration – particularly Vivienne’s people since there was a decent choice the Eyes didn’t know who those were, unlike most their other spies – but Ratface did not often bring anything off the record.

“Your guildsmen or the friends in low places?” Adjutant asked.

Ratface shook his head.

“I had drinks with Pickler, a few nights ago,” he said.

The orc’s chin lowered, a hint of fangs revealed. With the Fifteenth being folded into the Army of Callow he hadn’t seen much of the old crew lately, since the Hellhound was running them ragged. Pickler had it worst than most, trying to form a halfway decent expanded sapper corps out of Marchford goblins who’d never set foot at the College. That had seen her journeying back and forth to the settlement the Snake Eater Tribe had founded in Marchford, out of the tunnels the giant devil snake Catherine killed had dug. The rent the tribe offered had been badly needed income and goblin manpower was a balm now that the Empress had ended their recruiting rights in Praes – and therefore both the Steppes and the Eyries. They were a complication as well, though. Even on their best behaviour goblins tended to piss off humans, which was the last thing Callow needed at the moment, but there had also been… larger implications. The tribe currently had no proper Matron. It was ruled by a pack of matron-attendants until that could be settled, but if there was anyone out there who made Praesi looking like amateur dabblers at backstabbing it was female goblins. There was a reason for the lack of Matron, as he understood it.

Pickler’s mother, the Matron of the High Ridge Tribe, intended for her daughter to retire from the Legions and lead the only goblin tribe living outside of the Grey Eyries.

Hakram suspected the amount of murder and backroom dealing that must have gone on for other Matrons to accept that was horrifying. Pickler had an edge over any candidate, admittedly, because of her close working relationship to the highest reaches of Callow. No other goblin would get half as much sufferance from Catherine. On the other hand, the Senior Sapper had run away to the War College exactly to be spared this kind of position. What Adjutant knew of goblin politics was sparse, mostly cobbled together form bitter comments Robber made when in his cups, but he’d gathered that Pickler was essentially the goblin equivalent of a High Lady’s daughter. If she’d stayed with High Ridge she’d be a matron-attendant by now, murdering her fellows in preparation for succeeding her mother. Apparently Matron Wither had decided to secure a tribe for her eldest daughter no matter how far she ran away. You could run from honours, but you couldn’t run from blood. All orcs knew that, true as they knew their own breath.

“If they try to force her retirement just before a crusade there’s going to be blood,” Hakram grimly said.

“If that were the angle, I’d be less worried,” Ratface murmured. “She was dragged into a meeting with the matron-attendants, where she was interrogated about Cat’s intentions for the Empire if she ends up on top when the dust settles.”

Hakram’s breath caught. Did they know about the Accords? They’d just begun drafting them, it shouldn’t be possible. If the Matrons knew then the Dread Empress might, and if Malicia learned about those…

“Some people might consider that treason,” the orc said.

The Taghreb met his eyes squarely.

“I know her too, Hakram,” he said. “She doesn’t forgive things like Liesse. The Empress didn’t make that doomsday weapon, but it doesn’t take a High Lord to figure out she made a grab for it. There’s a reason the Black Knight hasn’t set foot in Praes since the battle.”

There was much more to that than his old friend knew, but that was not knowledge to idly spread around.

“They’re smelling weakness,” the orc gravelled. “With the Carrion Lord estranged and Callow garrisoning borders, they think the Empress is on the way out.”

“No deal was offered,” Ratface cautioned. “People who underestimate Her Dread Majesty tend to turn up dead and the Matrons didn’t last this long by being reckless. They’re opportunists at heart.”

“She hates them, Ratface,” Hakram bluntly said. “She’s fine with goblins, but the Matrons everything she despises about highborn incarnate. And I agree with her, frankly. They’re snakes, and they’ll bite us just as surely as they will the Empress if it gets them what they want.”

“I am Taghreb,” Ratface smiled coldly. “Bastard, but still Taghreb. We know the Matrons better than any of you, the dangers of getting into bed with them. But we don’t have to get into bed with them. We just have to promise to stay out of it.”

The orc grit his teeth.

“There’s already too many moving parts in the Tenth Crusade,” he finally said. “A goblin rebellion on top of it is tossing a sharper into the fire.”

“Think on it,” Ratface said. “Talk to her. But we can’t dally for too long, if we’re making overtures.”

The Taghreb rose to his feet.

“A sharper’s only ever trouble if you’re the one it’s tossed at,” the Lord Treasurer said quietly.

Hakram grimaced. Ratface had never taken sapper courses, so he might not know that one sharper in twenty blew before ever making it into Imperial supply stores.

Adjutant did, and he thought the metaphor more apt for it.

29 thoughts on “Court I

    1. Un-Metaphorical Grapevine

      politik chapters is where the drama happens; battles become boring when you start to realize as you grow older that you know the end result.

      Liked by 17 people

        1. WeeMadCanuck

          I must still be young enough that no matter the outcome, it’s the fight itself that I enjoy. And her fight scenes are the most cathartic I’ve read in years.

          Like

          1. usernamesbco

            I kind of enjoy both, although I admit I get bored when either drags on for too long. The rationale and politics behind the violence adds to the realism, and watching Cat learn to do something besides stab problems until they stop being a problem is part of her character development.

            Although if diplomacy fails in the face of Stupid Good and Stupid Evil I’m okay with the stabbing, too.

            Ultima ratio regum.

            Liked by 1 person

        1. therealgridlock

          Force is the spring from which all other power flows, so much more with political power. If one cannot abide by rules, then force is all that remains, as if one cannot enforce their will through law or conniving, it is with violence that one must force their opponent to bend to their will.

          This is why democratic republics in the real world work for the most part, the government is accountable, and all the citizens are accountable, the law is enforced no matter who breaks it, and every citizen has a vote, the smallest unit of political power. It is those that wish to destroy the system itself that reject or refuse the power of the vote, those seeking communist revolutions do not end in anything but violence, as the revolutionaries must force their will upon everyone they disagree with to achieve their failed utopia.

          Like

          1. jflb96

            >The law is enforced no matter who breaks it

            Are you dangerously naïve or dangerously ill-educated?

            >Non-sequitur to regurgitate anti-communist propaganda

            Ah, the latter.

            Like

      1. Snowfire1224

        Because extra chapters are never listed in table of contents, they’re under extra chapters. When I wrote that last comment, ch8 was listed twice and the interlude that had just been posted wasn’t listed at all. It’s been fixed now, though.

        Like

    1. jflb96

      >The law is enforced no matter who breaks it

      Are you dangerously naïve or dangerously ill-educated?

      >Non-sequitur to regurgitate anti-communist propaganda

      Ah, the latter.

      Like

  1. Fern

    Four interludes with two of my favorite characters, each managing entirely different bundles of snakes. These interludes, at least, are gonna be great.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Seabornia

    Just noticed – the Snake Eater Tribe and “Matrons … are snakes, and they’ll bite us just as surely “
    Interesting whether it is a Chekhov’s gun or not.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Samuel Farron had learned the unfortunate lesson that he was always right, and grew indignant whenever Creation had the gall to disagree with that state of affairs.

    This is now my favourite sentence. Ever.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Letouriste

    So…the matrons will struck the first blow apparently. I expected cat to somehow provoke them but she doesn’t even need to do this for the robber cleaning in the mountains .

    Like

  5. Raved Thrad

    With all the repeated emphasis on how Winter is eating away at Cat’s humanity, does this possibly portend the return to the spotlight (and Catherine’s arms, and bed) of everybody’s (well, mine, anyway) favorite redheaded Senior Mage? Kilian’s the only other human-faery hybrid around, and with her ostensibly having Summer in her blood (the red hair just doesn’t seem a Winter thing) who better to provide balance for Cat?

    Of course, barring an apotheosis of some sort — perhaps the mantle of Summer falling to her? — Kilian is just so much soft human meat. Then again, if she should die, with or without a reconciliation with Cat, I dare say the Black Queen’s retribution would be wondrous, and horrific, to see. Does Calernia have any legends similar to Fimbulvetr, I wonder…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Then she shouldn’t be-“ Farron began, but Hadley smacker her palm against the table.
      Change smacker to smacked

      Let us wok within these bounds
      Change wok to work

      unlike most their other spies
      Add “of” after “most”

      but the Matrons everything she despises
      Add “are” after “the”

      Like

      1. I mean, interpreting it as “wok” makes the whole scene a lot funnier :p Imagine: everyone discussing politics and war while making a delicious meal, it’s hilarious

        Like

  6. Shouldn’t this be labeled as an interlude? After over 100 chapters, it’s pretty set that the story is first-person with third-person interludes. Why did that change all of a sudden?

    The olive-skinned man cast a dubious glance at the sheaths of parchment and opened scrolls that covered nearly every surface of Hakram’s solar.

    No, this is wrong. I’ve been trying not to criticize or be negative in comments, but this is ridiculous.

    Ratface DID NOT go and open so many scrolls that he covered nearly every surface. This is called a misplaced modifier, and it makes for extremely confusing reading.

    How can you expect readers to comprehend a scene correctly as it’s written, then make them go back and try to forget what they just imagined? It pulls you completely out of the story, ending your suspension of disbelief. It ruins Hakram’s line about finding things, which should have been witty and clever! You’re undermining the success of your own story here, ee.

    Like

    1. Onos

      1. It’s an Extra Chapter, not an Interlude. But then, it’s pretty clear from literally any of your comments that you have no clue about the Guide in general.

      2. Regarding typos, EE plans to publish the Guide, thus some typo threads are probably fairly handy.

      3. Have you written much lately? Anything close to as successful as the Guide? Then don’t try to tell EE how to write, dude has some serious talent.

      4. In what way have you been trying not to be negative? Literally every single comment I see from you is pissing and moaning about stuff.

      5. Please fuck off and stop commenting, you utter waste of space.

      Like

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