“Salvation is ever an act of violence, be it within or without.”
– Dread Emperor Reprobate the First
The Woe, Brandon Talbot had learned, had some very peculiar oddities. Queen Catherine’s disdain for luxuries was infamous – and had made her popular in some quarters, when it’d spread she’d sold off some of the more ostentatious Praesi inheritances to invest the sum in the army – but each of her companions has their… unusual habits. Lady Thief, he knew, could shift from displaying the manners of a noble of the old blood to those of a mocking thug in a heartbeat. And the least said about her tendency to steal for sport the better. The Archer was, by all reports, a dissolute hard-drinking brute. Yet she could also quote the classics in three languages, and seemed to be the only person in the Kingdom of Callow that could hold a conversation with the Hierophant on the subject of sorcery. Brandon would have preferred a life where he’d never heard the Lay of Lothian’s Passing strategically quoted to be perverted into a ribald comment about the skills of fair-haired men in bed, but that’d she’d done it in flawless High Miezan was rather impressive. The language was, after all, long dead. The Lord Hierophant was perhaps the least unsettling, in that he reminded Brandon of the stories once told of the Wizards of the West. Absent-minded, prone to discourse few others could understand and blatantly disinterested in anything even remotely connected to statecraft.
He also held conversations while looking at his interlocutors through the back of his head with magical eyes, which was a little less traditional.
Hakram of the Howling Wolves, the Lord Adjutant, had embraced a different sort of oddity. The even-tempered orc was, by objective study, the second most powerful individual in Callow. The queen had made it clear that when he spoke it was with her full authority, and though he lacked an official title besides his Name he had a seat on sessions of the Queen’s Council whenever he so wished. He stood higher in the court’s hierarchy than either the Governess-General or the Lord Treasurer, and if so inclined could have claimed the traditional luxurious office and rooms of either. Instead, the greenskin passed his hours in the cramped and crooked room that had once belonged to King Robert’s personal scribe. Brandon had never once seen the man that the Army of Callow openly considered the heir-apparent to Catherine Foundling either turn his back to the door or allow his axe to be further than hand’s reach. The Grandmaster’s allies had been incensed, when they’d first learned that the army would back the orc as heir if anything happened to the Her Majesty. He was, after all, a greenskin. And it would have been a lie to say that the Regals had not been attempting to position themselves for ascension should the luck of the battlefield turn against the queen.
Only the fact that the Deadhead had shown no interest in rule and that Anne Kendall was almost as unpalatable an alternative had prevented the situation from escalating. That, and Brandon’s harsh and continued reminders that any attempt to remove the orc from power would be met by brutal and unrelenting violence from Her Majesty. The Grandmaster dismissed the thoughts from his mind, schooling his face into serene pleasantness as he bowed to the orc. Hakram Deadhand, after all, outranked him in both military and courtly ranks.
“Grandmaster Talbot,” the orc gravelled, shuffling parchments aside. “Take a seat.”
The bow had been returned with a simple nod, one that matched the requirements of etiquette under the assumption that the man was of equal standing to sitting members of the Queen’s Council. Humility at work, though with an unspoken edge. Brandon claimed the chair across the parchment-covered desk, eyes flicking to the movement as the Adjutant used a paring knife to work on the tip of a quill. The orc had unusual finesse, for one with such large fingers.
“I thank you for the audience, Lord Adjutant,” Brandon replied. “I know your duties stretch your hours.”
The greenskin’s maw flicked open, revealing a swift flash of fangs in what could have either been threat or amusement. The Callowan had not made study enough of orcs to be able to tell, thought perhaps he should. For all that the Regals saw him as the authority on the newborn Foundling dynasty and its greats, that was more a reflection on the little exposure they’d had to the key members of the regime than of his own deep understanding.
“No rest for the wicked,” the Adjutant said. “Well. Should we pretend I don’t know why you requested this talk, or will we skip the usual song and dance?”
The tone was mild, as if the orc did not care either way. There was no impatience there, Brandon grasped. The Deadhand was perfectly willing to… indulge in the demands of their rank, as if they were some children’s game. The unspoken dismissal of centuries of established etiquette rankled, but did not surprise. None of the most powerful people in Callow these days had risen to rank by observing the proper niceties. Smoothing away the wrinkle of irritation, Brandon forced a smile.
“I am not opposed to bluntness on occasion,” the Callowan aristocrat said. “Campaign has taught me the virtues of it even in civil matters.”
The reminder that Brandon Talbot had fought unflinchingly for the queen on fields foreign and domestic both would not be askew, here. Now that the blades had been temporarily sheathed, his Regals were too often treated as the enemy for his tastes. The orc’s hairless brows twitched, the thick ridges of skin in movement implying mirth. As expected, the unspoken part had not been lost on him.
“Thief’s people will be combing through the court for whoever talked,” the Adjutant said. “Catherine was understandably furious that something under seal was leaked.”
Brandon kept his face calm, though worry spiked. The Jacks were skilful and thorough: it was only a matter of time until the culprit was found. After that, the only thing awaiting was the noose.
“There would be no need for any of this,” the Grandmaster said, “if any of my people were kept appraised of large developments.”
“I reminded her as much,” the orc bluntly admitted. “But you’ve also managed to cast into doubt every single appointment your people achieved. The Governess-General was pushing for a general dismissal, and it took me the better part of an hour to get that off the table.”
Under the desk, the dark-haired man’s fist clenched. He’d warned them, he had. That the moment the Regals became the enemy in Her Majesty’s eyes, she would strike thoroughly and without mercy. Having Kendall whispering in her ear would only make her less forgiving. And we can’t even claim that such a measure would result in civil war, he thought. The Regals were influential, that much was undeniable, but they did not enjoy the kind of support that the Queen’s Men or the queen herself did with the lower and merchant classes. Their power was one of tradition and wealth. At court, it made them strong. But no city would rise in rebellion if the Regals were purged from civil appointments, and the threat of gold only held when the other side did not have the men to take that gold if they wanted to.
“Your moderating influence is appreciated,” the aristocrat stiffly said, inclining his head.
“Don’t take it as a sign of approval,” the orc said. “Your clique is beginning to overstep. If removing it didn’t mean handing over the run of the kingdom to the Queen’s Men, I would have let you hang from your own noose.”
Brutal but honest. That was the reputation Lord Deadhand had, in matters such as these. While more open to compromise than the rest of the queen’s most trusted, the orc’s willingness to be diplomatic only went so far. Yet he remained aloof from the partisan politics of the court, and as a voice of reason that made him priceless – as did the fact that he had the queen’s ear more than anyone else. Brandon calmed his breathing. He was not insulted by the bluntness, because that bluntness had not been meant an insult: the Adjutant was merely clarifying his position so no confusion would ensue in the following conversation. The Callowan, swallowing years of lessons on the subject of proper behaviour, decided to follow suit. The Woe, it should not be forgot, had been mostly paupers and vagrants before their rise to power. Their appreciation for directness had deep roots, and could be used.
“It is appreciated regardless,” Brandon said. “To be frank, my people have been restless for some time. This planned partition of Liesse is only the droplet threatening to tip the cup. I hope I will not offend by pointing out that the Regals have been thrown scraps from the high table, and then expected to remain docile and quiet for that privilege.”
The greenskin’s dark eyes studied him silently. As always, the Callowan made an effort not to glance at the hand of bones that was resting atop the desk.
“Then I’ll be frank as well,” the orc replied, fangs bared for longer than previously before they were hidden behind the lips. “Your people have not proven loyal or useful enough to get the kind of appointments you’re pushing for.”
“And Kendall’s are?” Brandon flatly asked.
“No,” the Adjutant said. “We’re well aware they look to the Governess-General for instructions. But they also know that they’ll be tossed out the moment your Regals gain influence, and it’s keeping them in line. As a hanging sword, your people have proved usable. But the accompanying agitation is proving more trouble than that lever is worth, and I will not defend unreliable actors.”
Which, the aristocrat thought, you now suspect we might be considering we’re willing to have our people pass information under seal. It was infuriating, because if any of the Regals were on the Queen’s Council there would have been no such ploy. As long as Talbot’s allies knew they had a voice at the table, they would have been worried about losing accumulated influence by stepping out of line. But they did not have a seat, so more desperate means had to be used to remain relevant. And using those means disqualifies us in Her Majesty’s eyes from having a seat in the first place. It was a vicious circle, without any obvious solution but allowing what influence the Regals had to wane and hope the queen looked well upon them for it. Certain loss for uncertain gain. It was a solution that, if Brandon was to be honest with himself, he would not even attempt to put forward at a council. Not least because he did not truly believe in it himself.
“If we are removed,” the Grandmaster said, “the balance of power in the kingdom collapses.”
“Yes,” the orc agreed. “And so Catherine told me to report this conversation directly to her, instead of having Hierophant dig through the brains of your allies for a name. This is the part, Brandon Talbot, where you make your case for the continued usefulness of the Regals.”
The man’s blood ran cold. He’d sought this meeting to arrange for compromise and concessions, but he’d been reading the lay of the land wrong. His people were not the only ones running out of patience. The orc’s broad and ugly face was serene, but the warning ran clear. If he reported to the queen that there was nothing salvageable about the situation, it would not be dismissals that followed. It would be the Jacks taking people in the middle of the night never to be seen again. And Governess-General Anne Kendall would be the sole truly Callowan voice to decide the kingdom’s legacy. The roof of his mouth was dry.
“You would lose the Order of Broken Bells,” Brandon said.
The orc frowned.
“I presume this is not the threat it sounds like,” he said.
The aristocrat shook his head.
“Knights,” he said, “do not grow on trees. They are raised through rigorous training. Through learned traditions. And by allowing the existence of families that can afford to equip and support one of their own with the accoutrements of knighthood. Guildsmen and eldermen have neither the knowledge nor the capacity to replace us in this regard.”
“A mark in your favour,” the Adjutant said. “In the short term. It is not sufficient to make the unruliness of your people a pill sweet enough to swallow.”
It took a conscious effort not to react visibly. Careful now, Brandon. This is the knife’s edge. The Grandmaster knew, without needing to question it, that the Regals were necessary to the kingdom. He simply needed to make the queen see it as he did, and there lay the thorn. Marriage alliances? No, that was a dead end. To be worth wedding in the eyes of foreigners his fellows would need titles the queen refused to bestow. And marriage alliances both within Callow and into other nations would form power blocs Her Majesty would frown upon. Military officers? It had already been made clear that the Army of Callow was barred to nobility save if it rose through the ranks after enrolling in the lowest ranks – an unacceptable condition to most his allies, who would not tolerate their kin taking orders from Praesi and peasants. Ties to the House of Light? This one, he suspected, might even be a mark against them. The queen’s dealings with the priests would be much eased if she was the only possible interlocutor. He was going about this the wrong way, Brandon realized. Why were his people needed, from the perspective of Her Majesty? From three heartbeats he met the calm stare of the Deadhand, until the answer finally came.
“Ability,” he said.
“Talented officials we can’t trust or use are more danger than boon,” the orc stated flatly.
“Lord Adjutant,” Brandon said. “In all of Callow, how many guildsmen and eldermen do you believe are actually literate? Or familiar with more than basic arithmetic?”
“The upper ranks of every major city and holding,” the Deadhand said.
“Let us be generous and assume half these individuals can be spared from their current responsibilities for court and civil appointments,” the Grandmaster said. “That is a very shallow pool.”
The orc’s eyes narrowed in thought.
“You believe the Queen’s Men are running out of competent candidates,” he gravelled.
“Education, the sort that is required for the bureaucracy you are raising, is expensive,” Brandon said. “The amount of such taught individuals that can be taken from their existing occupations is limited, if you want to avoid harming the kingdom. The only group that can consistently afford to provide these people are the Regals. No one else has the tradition, the learning and the coin. Do you believe it coincidence, that the Praesi purges focused on the nobility? It was not only to quell rebellion. It was to make Callow dependent on the Empire for able rule.”
“A dependency that needs to be excised if the kingdom is to remain independent,” the Adjutant finished mildly. “You are aware, I believe, of Catherine’s opinion on rule by right of birth. What you describe could be considered informal return to aristocracy.”
“There will always be wealthy men and women,” Brandon calmly replied. “This cannot and should not be avoided. Without the ancient privileges of titled nobles checking her actions, the queen maintains supremacy by right of unquestioned appointment and dismissal. What worth is there in robbing yourself of talent for empty antipathy?”
The orc’s fangs flicked into view for a heartbeat before being sheathed again.
“Well argued,” the Deadhand said.
Brandon inclined his head in thanks, mostly to hide the relief on his face.
“All of this, of course, is contingent on the Regals moderating their actions,” the Adjutant added calmly.
The Grandmaster’s jaw clenched. He had come seeking concession, and would be leaving forced to promise them instead.
“I understand your worries,” Lord Hakram said. “Command without success is a stone around your neck. A promise to you, then: get your house in order, and the partition of Liesse will be a matter reopened to debate.”
Brandon met the greenskin’s eyes, finding only patience and calculation there.
“It will do,” he replied.
Gods, it would have to.
Lady Julienne tightened the cloak around her. She’d had to sneak out of her own home in servant’s livery with her face hidden, like a sneak thief. It was mortifying, but she was not in a position to refuse instructions when given. She was being held by the throat, and the slightest flick of the wrist could see her neck snapped. The tavern she’d been told to enter had no sign hanging above the door, the sure sign of miserliness and filth awaiting, and the smell of piss wafted from the nearly alley. She’d not even entered and already she was nauseous. The inside was barely better. A disgusting dirt floor lay at the bottom of a single large common room with a wooden counter at the back. A few tables with ramshackle benches took up most of it, with a pair of alcoves made of hanging cloth flanking each side. Left side, last alcove. That was what the message had said. The aristocrat hurried there, dismayed at the filth her riding boots was being stained with. Within awaited a woman, seated on a seat without even a cushion by a low table that was nothing more than a wheel on likely stolen pavestones. She doubted the owner of this tavern had ever paid taxes in their entire life.
“Should I order a tankard?” the Thief asked, smiling thinly.
“That will not be necessary,” Lady Julienne stiffly replied.
She took the seat across, certain she was going to need to have the cloak burned after she returned to her mansion. The Named seemed indifferent to her reply, drinking deeply from a tankard of dark and thick ale. Disgusting.
“Business, then,” the other woman drawled. “How’s your knitting circle coming along?”
The aristocrat frowned, glancing meaningfully at the common room. It was only half full, with perhaps two dozen people pouring trash down their throats, but speaking of private matters in the open was pure foolishness.
“Oh, you don’t need to worry about,” the Thief said.
“With due respect,” Lady Julienne began.
The Named rolled her eyes and sharply whistled. Without a word, every single person in the room rose to their feet and walked out the door. Including the bald, one-eyed man she presumed to be the owner by the looks of the ragged apron he wore. The sight of it had her blood running cold. Not a single one had hesitated, or spoken a word. Even the drinks were still on the table.
“I own everyone in this street, one way or another,” the Thief cheerfully said, but her eyes remained cold. “Even you, Julienne Guilford. Now tell me about the Regals.”
“I did as you bid,” she replied darkly. “Whenever Talbot is elsewhere I encourage Farron to take harder lines, and when we hold council I stand by him whenever it is not suspicious.”
“And our dear friend Samuel Farron,” the monster said. “He’s still intent on his little coup?”
“He still wants to oust Talbot, yes,” Lady Julienne said. “His support is not broad enough, but it is growing.”
“Good,” the Thief nodded. “You’re going to continue supporting him. Gather all the hardliners behind him. Every last one, no matter what bribes or cajoling it takes.”
“I know what you’re doing,” the aristocrat hissed. “You’re setting him up. Forging a pretext for a purge.”
“Come now, don’t be absurd,” the villain chuckled. “We already have one of those. The moment your clique got their hands on a matter under seal, there was going to be blood. That one is on your heads, not ours.”
“This is murder,” Lady Julien accused.
“No,” the Named replied. “Murder’s what I want to ask you about. Tell me about Valerie Hadley.”
“Brandon Talbot’s steadiest ally in council,” the aristocrat said. “She argues for moderation and seeking the queen’s favour, as a rule.”
“That’s interesting,” the Thief mused. “Since she’s been moving around large sums of gold she shouldn’t have without visibly purchasing anything. When Farron went on about having Ratface killed, what was her stance?”
Lady Julienne frowned, scouring her memory.
“She did not speak on the subject of Lord Qara’s assassination,” she finally said. “It was Grandmaster Talbot that went on a tirade against.”
“You’re going to pay very close attention to who she talks to,” the other woman ordered. “Especially if she’d been in contact with foreigners.”
“Half the Queen’s Council is foreigners,” Lady Julienne sneered.
“That’s an interesting hill for you to make a stand on, Julienne,” the Thief noted. “If you’d extended that beautiful patriotism to foreign money, we might not be having this conversation.”
“I didn’t know,” the aristocrat protested. “They presented themselves as-“
“Guild-certified merchants, I’m well aware,” the blue-eyed woman shrugged. “Shame that was a Proceran front, and you ended up both in debt and guilty of high treason. Funny how these things go, isn’t it?”
“I am no traitor,” Lady Julienne insisted. “My only fault is being fooled.”
“One of your several faults was telling Cordelia Hasenbach about the state of the smithies in Vale in great detail,” the Thief corrected. “Which allowed her to learn we were funding them, which in turn allowed her to deduce the Tower’s been tight-fisted with equipment. Congratulations, you’ve passed information about the war readiness of the Army of Callow to a nation about to invade us.”
The noble had thought the terms of her deal with the merchants were perhaps too lenient, and so been compliant when a very reasonable request about information on Vale blacksmiths had come. Her interlocutors were debating opening a smithy of their own, she’d been told. That one mistake was all it had taken for the monsters to take hold of her.
“I erred, perhaps,” Lady Julienne darkly said. “But that is a lesser sin in the face of your actions.”
“People keep telling me there’s only of those,” the blue-eye woman drawled. “It’s called defeat, allegedly.”
The aristocrat’s fingers clenched.
“I know who you are, Vivienne Dartwick,” Lady Julienne said. “Your house is still respected, in the right circles. You shame it by being the servant of butchery.”
The Named drank from her tankard, then lightly set it down.
“You ever gardened, Julienne?” she asked.
Warily, the noblewoman shook her head.
“Neither have I,” the Thief mused. “Not the kind of dirt I like to have under my nails. My father, though? He loved it. Wouldn’t hear of hiring a gardener, spent hours kneeling in dirt. There was this one tree he loved most of all, a gift from my mother. One morning, I found him in our garden. And to my surprise, he was taking a hatchet to that tree. I asked him why, and do you know what he told me?”
Lady Julienne shook her head again. The monster smiled.
“Sometimes,” the Thief said. “The healthiest thing for a tree is to prune it.”