“There is no absolute virtue to peace. To avoid war out of petty fear is the exact same moral failure as waging war in name of it.”
– Clément Merovins, fourth First Prince of Procer
“They’re up to something,” Princess Rozala of Aequitan said.
She had, that very morning, received a second report on enemy movements that baffled her. Unlike Amadis, who already saw their victory as writ in the sky and was positioning to benefit from the aftermath, the only daughter of Aenor of Aequitan had made deep study of their enemy. Oh, the Prince of Iserre was not a fool. Ambitious beyond reason, perhaps, but no imbecile. He’d be much easier to deal with if he were. Yet he only ever saw war as the pursuit of political advantage through steel, and that blinded him to the nature of the foe before them. Rozala was an Arlesite of ancient line, and her kind were as distinguished with the sword as they were with verse. Her people had fought and fought well in almost every major war since the founding of the Principate, and the Malanzas had been famed as generals long before they rose to royalty. Which was why this ‘Army of Callow’ worried her. The Legions of Terror, in their current incarnation, were admittedly one of the finest military machines on Calernia – second in lethality perhaps only to the army of Helike, though much more numerous. Yet that was not what she was facing: more than half the Army of Callow was foot from that same kingdom, and more worryingly under the Black Queen’s banner rode knights.
Prince Papenheim had taught her mother a bloody lesson in the dangers of engaging heavy cavalry with light, at the Battle of Aisne. Rozala had no intention of repeating the mistakes that forced Aenor of Aequitan to drink mandrake extract. She had seen the aftermath of the Regal Kindness, and it was neither of those things.
“Praesi are known to have a certain low cunning,” Prince Arnaud of Cantal mused. “No doubt they’ve some sort of parlour trick in the works.”
Rozala eyed the middle-aged man with open distaste. The man was the living justification of every prejudice about Alamans arrogance, and she would have disliked him for that even if her agents had not learned about his… proclivities. She was no Lycaonese prude, but someone taking a knife to that man’s cock would have been a boon to Creation.
“We underestimate the Empire at our own risk,” Princess Adeline of Orne sharply replied.
Rozala inclined her head in thanks and the other young woman offered the ghost of a smile in return. Adeline had already hinted that she was not so securely under Amadis’ thumb as the prince seemed to believe, through subtle intermediaries. Of all the royals to have crossed the Stairway, the Princess of Aequitan was fondest of this one. Adeline had ruled Orne for less than a year now, ascending to the throne after the assassination of her brother at the hands of what was speculated to be the Assassin himself. The princess understood the dangers of tangling with the Tower better than most. She also despised the First Prince to the bone. The Augur had, after all, not seen fit to give warning about her beloved brother’s coming death. Cordelia Hasenbach, they were learning, could kill simply by staying silent.
“It is unseemly for women of your standing to quake at the coming of the Carrion Lord’s bastard,” Prince Arnaud sneered.
Rozala’s lips thinned. There were persistent rumours that the Black Queen was the villain’s illegitimate daughter, though she put no more stock in those than the speculation she was some distant Fairfax spared after the Conquest and reared in secret over the decades that followed.
“It is unseemly for a ‘man’ of your standing to be such a relentless jackass, Arnaud,” Princess Adeline replied with a lightness that belied the anger beneath it. “But you don’t hear us snipe about it, do you?”
Rozala sighed almost inaudibly. The Princess of Orne needed to learn to leash her temper, else they would eat her alive in the Highest Assembly. An ally this easy to bait was more liability than grace. She would have intervened to soothe the tempers, but Amadis finally decided to grace them with his presence. He was not, she saw, alone. The kindly wizened face of the Grey Pilgrim was a welcome addition to this council, but the other silhouette flanking the Prince of Iserre was not. Laurence de Montfort was short and skinny, for so infamous a woman, and her creased cheeks were showing the mottled spots of creeping age. They did nothing to detract from the austere presence of the Saint of Swords. The Princess of Aequitan stiffened, though she forced her shoulders to loosen before anyone could notice. Not royalty could ever be comfortable in the presence of the Regicide.
“I do hope my lateness caused no offence,” Amadis Milenan affably smiled. “It occurred to me that an infusion of wisdom to this council would benefit us all, hence my company.”
The smile was a little too broad, Rozala decided, to be entirely truthful. Had the heroes strong-armed him into inviting them along? They had certainly begun wielding their influence more strongly since the crossing. For all that the Saint was the one who brought sharp discomfort, it had been the Grey Pilgrim that brought terms back from the failed attempt at diplomacy in the south. The man was much more influential than his easy manners suggested.
“We are honoured to be offered seat at his table,” the Pilgrim smiled, inclining his head.
“Honoured, yes,” the Saint drawled, a hard smile splitting her face.
The Regicide had been exceedingly clear about her low esteem for royalty as a whole, which cast interesting light to the rumours she’d once been the lover of Klaus Papenheim. It would take someone with stomach as steady as the Iron Prince’s to bed that one, Rozala silently conceded. For all they knew all there was down there was more swords, though for a Lycaonese that might just be spice in the wine.
“No offence at all,” Prince Arnaud smiled brightly. “We always welcome the advice of those Chosen by the Heavens.”
Rozala hid her derisive snort behind a sip of wine as the heroes and their glorious leader took their seats.
“Princess Rozala was expressing worries about Praesi scheming,” Princess Adeline spoke up.
More to break the heavy silence than anything else, the ruler of Aequitan suspected. She did not grudge her the distraction.
“Ah,” the Grey Pilgrim smiled gently. “Always a subject worthy of interest, yet I would caution you that it is not Praesi we face. It would be a mistake, Your Graces, to believe the army to the south anything but Callowan.”
Rozala disliked the notion of taking military advice from priestly vagrant, however high his repute, but the circumstances warranted prudence. It was a villain that led the Army of Callow, and she knew little of their breed compared to the old man.
“Callowan she may be, but her throne was built on sand,” Amadis languidly added. “Her grasp on the kingdom remains shallow. Duchess Kegan Iarsmai has already replied to my envoys.”
Rozala hid her surprise. For all of Amadis’ swagger, she’d fully expected the House of Iarsmai to remain aloof from the crusade until a clear winner could be discerned. The Prince of Iserre’s smile broadened as he looked at her, the unspoken gloating ringing loud.
“Though she will not declare for us openly at the moment, she was willing to send a detachment of the Watch to join our forces,” Amadis revealed. “They’ve already begun to sail across the Silver Lake, and I expect they will swell our ranks in time for battle.”
The Arlesite princess frowned, displeased she’d been cut out of negotiations involving military matters.
“And how many of the Watch did she pledge?” she asked.
“A full thousand,” Amadis said. “Easily worth thrice that number, if the old histories are to be believed.”
And what did you have to promise that Deoraithe fox to get them, I wonder? Rozala thought. Amadis Milenan had been rather generous of late in partitioning the kingdom he expected her to conquer for him.
“You really should have been smacked more often as a child, Amadis,” the Saint of Swords idly said. “Gods know a few bruises would have done wonders for your character.”
The silence in the tent was so absolute it was nearly palpable. Rozala smothered a very unseemly grin.
“Pardon?” the Prince of Iserre coldly said.
“You heard me just fine, you repulsive little wart,” Laurence de Montfort said. “Kegan Iarsmai fought a campaign with the Black Queen less than a year ago and you think that, what? Your viper tongue befuddled a Duchess of Daoine? That house was putting Praesi heads on pikes back when your ancestors were shitting in their own huts. She’s playing you like a spectacularly dim fiddle.”
Amadis Milenan’s face purpled with fury. It was unlikely, Rozala mused with dark delight, that anyone had insulted him this bluntly even once in his life. The Grey Pilgrim cleared his throat.
“Laurence,” he reproached.
The Saint of Swords sighed.
“Fine,” she said. “The honourable Prince of Iserre is displaying the intellectual faculties of an averagely dim fiddle.”
The Grey Pilgrim looked pained.
“What my blunt-spoken friend means, Your Grace,” he intervened, “is that Catherine Foundling belongs to a very specific breed of villainy. The nature of her Bestowal is what my people call a thresher. One who separates the wheat from the chaff. She will earn great enmity, but also great loyalty. And she has fought by the side of Duchess Kegan before, against common foe.”
Rozala was honest enough to admit that watching the Prince of Iserre having to swallow his cold fury to avoid beginning a feud with heroes was making her evening. Perhaps even her month.
“The Duchess bargained well,” the prince stiffly said. “And extracted great concessions in rights and territory. The Queen of Callow has naught to offer of equivalent value.”
So, land had been sold. Rozala wondered how far he’d gone. Had Laure been offered up? Denieralmost certainly, it was the old dagger the Fairfaxes had kept pointed at Daoine’s belly in case the Deoraithe began talking of independence again. The Princess of Aequitan quietly cleared her throat, gaining everyone’d attention.
“I’ll be blunt,” she said. “The Black Queen should scare everyone in this tent. She has displayed surprising restraint so far, but this is the same woman who crucified a few hundred mages after the Doom to make a point. We are cornering her, and she has a reputation for baring her fangs when cornered.”
Rozala sipped at her wine, drawing out her point in a reminder that in matters military it was her word that counted most.
“We marched out believing she’d come after the first bait we set out,” she continued. “The failure of the trap at Harrow makes it very clear we were wrong in our assessment. And that is without considering she not only knew about the overtures to Baron Darlington, but turned that debacle into an offer of her own. I expected she scares the Duchess a lot more than we do, at the moment. Any contribution from her is suspect.”
I’m not going to let you forget the Darlington failure any time soon, Amadis, she thought, smiling at the Prince of Iserre. So much for the north rising up behind the Black Queen.
“Making terms with the Enemy is always a fucking blunder,” the Saint of Swords said. “Mark my words, the moment she feels the noose tightening the usual horrors are coming out. You should have smoked her then and there.”
“She spoke truth, Laurence,” the Grey Pilgrim stated, and there was iron beneath the mildness. “Do not gainsay me on this. I find it deeply shameful that any of us would hesitate at an opportunity to lessen the bloodbath, no matter the provenance.”
“You’ve always been soft, Tariq,” the Saint said. “The only thing I agree on with this band of clucking hens is that the east is in need of a good cleansing. The rot will only spread if we spare the flame. We go in half-hearted, and you know we’ll have to come back in twenty years. Assuming we’re still around.”
Something pale and cold roiled in the Grey Pilgrim’s eyes. Rozala felt the taste of a storm against the roof of her mouth. It unsettled her enough she spared no irritation for having been called a hen.
“You should know better,” the hero quietly said, “than to question how far I will go to spare this world pain. You, of all people.”
The old woman looked uncomfortable, then chastised. Rozala’s eyes sharpened with interest. Of all the Named gathered under the banner of her army, these two were known to be first among equals. That they would quarrel at all had interesting implications. Until now, the politics of the heroes had been utterly opaque to her save for the fact that the other Levantines took the Pilgrim’s words as sacred writ. All of the Named had resisted attempts to induce them into a deeper relationship so far, but if this rift before her was exploitable there were… possibilities to keep in mind. Known ties to a Chosen would silence her brother’s ambitions for good, no matter his schemes.
“Apologies,” the Saint finally said. “You know my temper.”
“Like a bear with a bad tooth,” the Pilgrim fondly said, patting her hand. “Already forgotten. We are all worried about the young ones in the south.”
Princess Adeline cleared her throat daintily.
“Apologies, Chosen,” she said. “But if I may ask, are you speaking of the heroes marching for the Vales?”
“I was under the impression the remaining Calamities were expected to fold,” Rozala added warily.
If the Red Flower Vales held, their position up north became exceedingly precarious. Their supply lines would be effectively impossible to maintain as soon as they passed Hedges, and the First Prince had indicated she would be displeased if the crusaders turned to foraging in Callow. The Arlesite princess wasn’t going to starve her army out of fear of offending Hasenbach, but she’d also rather avoid kicking that nest of wasps for a while still.
“In matters of might, the Carrion Lord is outmatched,” the Pilgrim agreed. “So, we suspect, is the Warlock.”
The Saint snorted inelegantly.
“The Witch is from Brocelian Forest,” she said. “What she learned, she learned from the Gigantes. And that lot ruled the roost while the Praesi were still busy figuring what cocks are for. She’ll pulp his ass across the valley floor, if they go spell for spell.”
“Young Hanno has already fought the Black Knight once,” the Pilgrim smiled. “He will not repeat previous mistakes. Yet the opponents are villains grown old, and this is a rare thing for a reason. It will not be an easy victory.”
“The man is one of Ranger’s toys,” the Saint conceded. “And that ornery old bitch plays rough. He won’t go down without making a mess.”
The Levantine flicked an amused glance at his companion, but did not comment.
“We thank you for your guidance,” Prince Amadis said calmly. “Yet I fear we have strayed from the purpose of this council. Princess Malanza was expressing worries, I believe?”
“It’s clear that the Black Queen is expecting to give battle on the outskirts of the Barony of Hedges,” she said. “But I’ve been getting reports of her splitting up her host, and that honestly baffles me. We outnumber her by more than two to one. She should be the one attempting defeat in detail, not the one offering me that opportunity on a silver platter.”
“She is barely more than a child,” Prince Arnaud shrugged. “Blunders are to be expected.”
And there went the only Alamans royalty in the tent, breaking his silence to offer idiocy.
“She’s a girl that never lost a battle,” Prince Amadis warned. “In matters of statecraft poor judgement is to be expected, but she is not unskilled at war.”
“She could have gotten arrogant,” Rozala admitted. “It’s not uncommon in undefeated commanders, and that she was confident enough to offer limiting rules of engagement when so heavily outnumbered is telling. But I imagine the Exiled Prince and the Summer Court told themselves much the same right before she ripped out their guts.”
“Though her nature is undeniably warped,” the Grey Pilgrim said, “she struck me as remarkably clear-sighted in some regards. Not a woman prone to blind mistakes.”
“There’s a whole city of dead Callowans that begs to disagree,” the Saint drawled.
“It is not only the children of the Heavens that can learn from their mistakes,” the Pilgrim chided her. “She will be wary of being burned in that manner again.”
“Perhaps she intends to gather her forces through the fairy gates,” Princess Adeline suggested.
“We know there’s a delay for journeying through Arcadia,” Rozala replied, shaking her head. “And she can only take one host at a time. There are three columns marching towards us. Even if she timed it perfectly, she’d still have a third of her army in the wrong place when the battle begins. Which, to put it bluntly, she cannot afford if she wants even a shadow of a chance of winning.”
“We know the Wild Hunt is sworn to her,” Prince Arnaud said. “Perhaps she can make multiple gates.”
“I can’t dismiss that possibility out of hand,” the Princess of Aequitan agreed. “But that still begs the question of why she’d split her forces in the first place. She has to know we’ll be expecting gates to appear at our flanks and back when we engage. There would be no element of surprise, and that is half the advantage to be had with them. And if our foot moves quickly enough towards the gates, we could even keep her penned inside Arcadia. It is risking disaster for no gain I can discern.”
“That is worrying,” the Grey Pilgrim admitted. “I must see to the children, Your Graces, but I will seek guidance from Above on the matter. Perhaps a meaning to this can be divined.”
Rozala hid her surprise. She’d been under the impression that future-telling was rare even among heroes, and often too vague to be of any practical use. The Augur was rumoured to be speaking in tongues half the time, and that Hasenbach was constantly struggling to turn her attention to threats instead of weather patterns. If the Grey Pilgrim could truly discern the workings of Fate, however, this was major advantage. It was irritating that such a thing would only now be revealed, but then Rozala was hardly in a position to chide the man for it.
“We will look forward to hearing your wisdom, Chosen,” the Princess of Aequitan said.
The man rose, and bowed deep. He cast a look at the Saint, who smiled but shook her head. Rozala schooled her face into calm. She had an inkling that what would follow would not be pleasant. Silence followed in the wake of the departing Pilgrim, until the Saint of Swords sighed.
“He’s a good man, you know,” Laurence de Montfort said. “Likes to see the best in people.”
“A-“ Prince Arnaud began, but he was interrupted.
The Saint raked her fingers across the table, leaving deep gouges in the wood that no mortal fingers could have made. The sound was deafening, an ugly grind of steel.
“Shut the fuck up, you insignificant toady,” the Saint said. “Now, Tariq chooses to believe in your moral fibre but I know better. I know the wickedness that you crave, that sweet whisper of earthly power. There are some among you, even now, that believe holy war can be made tool of ambition.”
The old woman smiled at them, cold and terrible and utterly indifferent to their survival.
“You will not disappoint this nice old man,” she said. “You will keep to the terms, and not seek to work around them. And if you seek otherwise?”
The Saint barked out a harsh laugh.
“You might be under the delusion that the consequences of ripping you animals to pieces would give me pause,” she mused. “Discard that notion, princelings. The only people I answer to are up Above, and they exactly what you are made of.”
Laurence de Montfort rose to her feet, shrugging.
“Think of me as the angel on your shoulders,” she suggested. “You know, the one that says ‘be Good, my children, or I will fucking dine on your entrails like an orc.”
The Saint of Swords smiled at them, wagging a finger.
“I think we have an understanding, don’t we?”
No one nodded.
No one needed to.