“Proceran promises should be treated like stew: unless you know every ingredient, best not swallow.”
– King Charles Fairfax of Callow, the Rightfully Wary
Archer’s elbow was pressing into my eye. I blinked and craned back my neck before she could smack me again, turning in the bed. I carefully extracted myself from the pile of limbs over me, careful not to wake either of them. It was easier than I’d thought, since somewhat unsurprisingly Indrani was hogging the covers. Masego was laying back with his face towards the ceiling, still like he’d been put to rest in a coffin instead of passing out by my side when we came back from his mind. The eye cloth had been tugged down at some point, baring an eerie glass eye and partly covering one of his cheeks. I wrinkled my nose. Archer reeked of yesterday’s fighting, so clearly she’d not bothered to clean up before piling on top of us. She murmured in her sleep in a tongue I’d didn’t recognize, then promptly spread her legs where I’d been before. She was not, I noted with amusement, granting Masego any more room in the process. If anything she was coming closer to edging him off the bed.
I’d not taken off my tunic before falling asleep last night – and it still surprised me I’d felt the need to sleep at all – but I sat to pull on my boots. I splashed my face with the water basin more out of habit than any real need, the tepid liquid doing nothing to wake me up. A dreamless night, huh. Been a while since I’d had one of those. I made my way out of the tent quietly, stretching my frame when the sun bore down on me. If felt rested. Like I’d been tired and no longer was. It was a small pleasure I allowed myself a moment to properly savour. The Army of Callow’s camp was only beginning to wake, dawn fresh to the sky, and I wouldn’t truly be needed for at least an hour. If Hakram were around there’d be a meal waiting for me somewhere, along with the night’s reports, but he was very far away. Last I’d heard he was bringing the latest recruits up Quicksilver River, intending to link up with Kegan’s host before joining us.
The camp fire closest to my tent was deserted save for a single person, tending to a kettle hung over the flames. I didn’t need to look twice to recognize Vivienne. She did not turn, though I was certain she’d heard me approach, instead putting down a pair of cups on a flat stone and reaching for the kettle. I raised an eyebrow. The twin bells set on silver made it pretty clear where she’d gotten those. Had she nabbed old Fairfax dinner sets? I smothered a fond smile. Of course she had. Why would even bother to ask? I dropped down at her side, glimpsing the leaves inside the cups. Tea, though not the Praesi stuff. Smelled… Ashuran, maybe? Wasn’t the stuff Aisha got imported from across the Tyrian Sea anyway. Wordlessly, she poured the boiling water into them without spilling a drop. I claimed one, inhaling the scent. I tended to enjoy that more than the drink itself.
“I hope that was part of the tenth,” I said. “If there’s silver missing, the palace seneschal is going to be pissed.”
Thief smiled, using a long spoon of silver to stir her tea.
“Stealing from the palace is a hanging offence,” she said.
“Not since we revoked Mazus’ decrees,” I objected. “It’s a whipping and a fine now, I think?”
“As Her Majesty says,” Vivienne drawled.
She’d never actually denied it, had she? I sighed.
“All right,” I said. “You were waiting for me. Out with it.”
“We’ll be sitting with the Procerans at noon,” she replied before taking a sip from her cup. “Addressing our diplomatic approach is in order.”
I hummed, inhaling the fragrant steam again.
“Our strategic objectives are still more or less the same as when we started to march,” I said. “We need them on the other side of the passage, and to stay there long enough we have breathing room to refit while we prepare our next move. Coin too, if possible. I doubt they’ll agree to actualt war indemnities, so we’ll have to get that through the supplies if we get it at all.”
“I’ve been in contact with the Observatory,” Vivienne said. “The situation abroad is evolving.”
“The Dominion’s armies should be in southern Procer, by now,” I said. “But I’m guessing there’s more to tell.”
“Klaus Papenheim has finally begun his offensive in the Red Flower Vales,” my spymistress said. “No word as to the results of the first battles yet, but the Carrion Lord seems to be holding.”
“He’d better,” I said. “If the crusaders punch through, our army’s in no shape to take them on.”
“I’ve also had word from Praes, though the news is a fortnight old,” Vivienne said. “Nok was sacked by the Ashuran war fleet.”
I let out a low whistle. I wasn’t exactly pleased at the loss of life that’d be involved there, but it was an impressive achievement for the Thalassocracy nonetheless. Praesi cities were layered with centuries of wards and sorcery, not to mention the pack of horrors the aristocrats kept bound in the basement for rainy days. I’d known the Ashurans weren’t exactly pushovers, considering they had the largest fleet in Calernia, but most their wars had been fought at sea. Last large-scale engagement I could recall they’d fought on land was when they’d landed armies to help Levant rise against the Principate, and it’d been the incipient Dominion that’d done the heavy lifting there.
“They withdrew after?” I asked.
“Set half the city on fire in the process, after looting it,” Vivienne said. “The Wasteland legions arrived two days too late to help with the defence. The Empress is taking a beating at court over it. Thalassina’s threatened to rebel if they don’t get a Legion garrison. “
“Whoever’s in charge of the fleet isn’t a fool,” I mused. “Nok’s the easiest target in the Empire, relatively speaking. They spent most their history under the thumb of one city or another. It’s nowhere as crucial to Praes as Thalassina, but they made the Tower bleed. All the wolves will be drawn out by the scent of it.”
“I would not wager that the Empress is too preoccupied to sabotage us if she so wishes,” Thief said. “But the real pivot remains the battle in the Vales.”
“You think Milenan and Malanza will want to stretch the diplomacy out until they know the outcome down south,” I frowned.
“If the Carrion Lord is driven back, their negotiating position significantly improves,” Vivienne noted. “If he wins, they are no longer sole bearers of the shame of defeat should they make bargain with us. From their perspective, delay has no drawback.”
“Except for starving,” I said.
She nodded, sipping at her cup.
“I would expect Prince Milenant to state the ongoing continuation of yesterday’s arrangement is a condition for continuing to negotiate,” Vivienne said. “Something along the lines of coercion souring the process of peacemaking.”
“I’ve got no reason to – ah,” I said. “They’ll fold early on something major, then argue I’m negotiating in bad faith if I’m not willing to agree.”
“Precisely,” she said.
“We’re not even peacemaking, not really,” I sighed. “They don’t have the authority to call off the Tenth Crusade. The most we can get is a very narrow truce that doesn’t violate the letter of Proceran laws on contributing to crusades.”
“It would be reputational disaster for them to agree to even that much without something to show for their retreat,” Vivienne said. “We’ll need to give them something.”
“I can’t move on them having a presence on our side of the passage,” I stated flatly. “You know very well how much trouble that’d be for us.”
She shook her head.
“Their ambitions to expand into Callow are checked, for the moment,” she said. “I find it dubious they will attempt to overturn that state of affairs given their weak position. What they need, Catherine, is a way to save face. A way to accept terms that will not make them pariahs in the Highest Assembly.”
“Reputation, huh,” I mused.
I drank from the tea, though its pleasant fragrance did not extend to the taste in my mouth. Whether it was eating or drinking, the enjoyable parts of it were mostly gone.
“The way I see it, what they’re most afraid of back home is Hasenbach,” I finally said. “It’s horrible for their reputation to make a deal with me, but won’t see them overthrown. The First Prince, though, she’ll toss their asses out in the cold if she has half an excuse.”
“It would greatly consolidate her hold on Procer if the largest opposition bloc was publicly disgraced,” Vivienne agreed. “Your point?”
“We hand them a way to kick the mess upstairs,” I said, eyes narrowing as I stared into the flames. “Like you said, they don’t have the authority to negotiate for the entire crusade. Just themselves. So if they’re presented with something they can’t accept or refuse without Hasenbach…”
“It is her reputation at stake, not theirs,” Vivienne mused.
I set down the cup.
“I think it’s time we brought Aisha in on this,” I said. “Unless you became fluent in Proceran legalities since we last spoke.”
She rolled her eyes. That was a no, then. With a groan, I got up. Time to get to work.
Seven tenths of diplomacy, as far as I could tell, was bickering over symbolic or largely irrelevant details. We wasted a full hour trading envoys with the crusaders just to the order the issues would be addressed in. That and the language that would be used for the negotiations. They pushed for Chantant, but I was having none of that. My knowledge of it wasn’t good enough for easy conversation, and I wasn’t using a translator for something this important when nearly all the opposite royalty could speak Lower Miezan without trouble. I folded on it being their pavilion and tables we met at, then conceded to their proposal of only twenty attendants in exchange for picking the tongue andthe first issue. At least Aisha managed to horse-trade the give on attendants for a limitation on the number of attending heroes. Five was more than I wanted, but there was no realistic chance of the Pilgrim and his sharpest knives not being at the table. All of the Woe save for Hakram would be attending, regardless, so I wasn’t feeling overly cornered when it came to the balance of Named power.
My delegation ended up split more or less half and half between Praesi and Callowans. For my homeland the two heavyweights were Grandmaster Brandon Talbot and Baroness Ainsley Morley of – currently occupied – Harrow. I wasn’t eager to involve the latter, since she was not a well-known quantity, but it wasn’t feasible not to. She was the ranking noble in my army and her holdings would be a point of negotiation. Even if it wouldn’t have been a grave insult to keep her away from the table, I would have involved her. Baroness Ainsley had already proved she wanted to look after her people. She deserved a seat, no matter my personal misgivings. On the Praesi side, the most important were Marshal Juniper of Callow and Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara. The latter had picked out everyone else in our delegation save for the Woe, keeping the balance between provenances while digging out the scribes and learned officers that served as the closest thing the Kingdom of Callow currently had to trained diplomats.
The Proceran delegation was, in comparison, a gallery of royalty. Prince Amadis and Princess Rozala had always been a given, but there were a full six crowned heads in attendance. Thief provided names and sparse details quietly. Prince Arnaud of Cantal, by reputation a loudmouthed idiot. Princess Adeline of Orne, whose brother and predecessor had been killed at Black’s orders. Prince Alejandro of Segovia, who’d publicly broken with his mother’s old alliance with Hasenbach. Prince Louis of Creusens, allegedly so badly in debt to Amadis he couldn’t even take a piss without the older man’s permission. Save for the heroes, the other attendants were all kinsmen to one royal or another. It was the Named I studied most closely. The Grey Pilgrim’s face was the usual serene mask but there were younger heroes with him. The sorcerer I’d fought before, which formal introductions revealed to be Rogue Sorcerer. A woman bearing sword and board and watching me unblinkingly was introduced as the Silent Guardian, while the woman with the red face paint I’d once cut the arm of was the Painted Knife. The last was the Forsworn Healer, and I frowned at the sight of him.
No Saint. That was only half a relief. If she was here, she’d be trouble but I’d at least know where she was for sure. I glanced at the heroes, frown deepening. Silent Guardian to hold me, Painted Knife to check Thief and the Sorcerer to delay Masego. The Healer to keep them going, and the Pilgrim to tip the scales. The five heroes had been chosen so they’d be able to hold up against the Woe in a fight. But if they think it’s going to turn to violence, why is the Saint not here?
“… and Her Majesty, Queen Catherine of Callow, First of Her Name,” Aisha finished, and I offered a polite nod to the Procerans watching me.
There’d been a Catherine Alban that served as queen regent for her son, actually, but by Callowan tradition that did not count as reigning precedent. Prince Amadis took a seat first. At the centre of his side of the table, before I did. The etiquette of that was against him – as the ruling sovereign of a nation, I had the highest status here and none should be seated before me. I didn’t feel particularly insulted, on a personal level, but it was an insult. Offered right after the introductions. While I was less than invested in etiquette, I was invested in this negotiation not being a complete shitshow. So, as Prince Amadis leaned back into his seat, I met his eyes. Silence stretched under the silken pavilion. Slowly, I cocked an eyebrow.
“I was under the impression Arlesites were a mannerly people,” I said, then waited a beat. “Your Grace.”
I let another moment pass before sitting down and gesturing for my entire delegation to do the same, regardless of the higher status of the royals on the other side.
“You have a reputation for preferring familiar manners, Your Majesty,” the Prince of Iserre smiled. “I apologize if offense was taken.”
I did not think it a coincidence that familiarity breeds contempt was a common saying in both our homelands. Procerans had a reputation for being able to speak flowery flattery while meaning the opposite that was apparently well-earned.
“With friends, certainly,” I smiled back as the Proceran delegation sat in proper order. “Are we friends now, Prince Amadis?”
“Rulers sharing an alignment of interests, mayhaps,” the older man said, his Lower Miezan without trace of accent. “Yet is that not the cradle of all great friendships?”
I inclined my head, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. I flicked a glance at the heroes, which were all seated at the left edge of the table save for the Pilgrim. He was at Malanza’s side, between her and the Prince of Cantal. Aisha made up my right side, Thief my left. Rank had not been the prime consideration in those arrangements.
“Before beginning, I believe it necessary for the nature of the involvement of your Named to be clarified,” I said.
Aisha’s notion. Prince Amadis had been introduced as the head of the Proceran delegation, as we’d expected, but the status of the heroes today was vague. Legally speaking, anyway. Several of them weren’t even Proceran, and those that were should have no authority to speak of if this was considered a negotiation between Proceran royalty and the Queen of Callow. If it was a conference between representatives of the Tenth Crusade and a villain queen, however, that was a whole other matter. My Staff Tribune had predicted it would be the latter and not the former – otherwise they’d have no legal authority to stand on without the permission of the First Prince and the other sovereigns at the head of the crusade.
“The Chosen have graced us with their presence in an advisory role,” Prince Amadis replied.
Good, I thought. Then it was the Prince of Iserre and his fellows I had to settle with, not representatives of the Heavens. We had, at least, the legal prerequisites for any treaty made here to be binding. Not that it assured the deal would be respected. Aisha had reluctantly informed me that the most prominent precedent for treaties between Procerans and an Evil polity was attempts at deals with the Kingdom of the Dead – which were broken by either side as often as not. There were treaties with Helike as well, but none relevant since the League of Free Cities had been founded. It would be shaky grounds to try using those as a yardstick. I nodded at Aisha, who bowed deep in her seat and addressed the table with a graceful smile.
“We would now open formal negotiations between the Kingdom of Callow and the lawful leadership of the invading army currently standing on its sovereign territory,” she said.
There were too many people for me to watch them all, so I kept my gaze on the two I knew best: Amadis and Rozala. The Prince of Iserre’s friendly smile did not waver in the slightest, but Malanza’s brow twitched. Not pleased. The language as presented by Aisha treated the crusaders coming here like any other foreign invasion, the kind the Principate had tried for centuries with various degrees of success. It stripped the Procerans of the handy excuse of ‘the Heavens told me to’, which might allow them to wiggle out some responsibility for their actions. They weren’t going to accept that, of course. But now the bargaining started. Prince Amadis glanced at one of his diplomats, the middle-aged man bowing just as deep before responding.
“We cannot treat in good faith under these terms,” the man replied. “We can, however open formal negotiations between the Praesi vassal state of Callow and the mandated expeditionary force of Her Most Serene Highness Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer.”
Not presenting themselves as crusaders, but still as being here on Hasenbach’s orders. I kept a frown off my face. They knew we weren’t going to accept Callow being termed as a vassal state, since they’d effectively be making a deal with the Tower by intermediary if we did. I was fairly sure they could break any terms made if ordered to do so by the First Prince, if it unfolded like that, since the Highest Assembly had formally passed a motion to declare a crusade against Praes and a vassal state would be considered within the scope of that. It went back and forth for a while, until something like a compromise was reached: negotiations were now being held between the Queen in Callow and the mandated expeditionary force of the First Prince. Aisha had tried for Queen of Callow, but they’d gotten out of that by pointing out that unless the Highest Assembly passed a motion or Hasenbach recognized it by decree, they couldn’t legally recognize Callow as a sovereign state with me as its ruler.
Legitimacy was the issue here. My only claim to the throne was conquest, really, and even that was a little iffy. As it stood the treaty would still be binding, theoretically speaking, but it was made with me as an entity and not Callow itself. It became worthless ink if someone put my head on a pike. Thief flicked me an unsurprised look after, having predicted the implication of the other part of the terms. The Procerans, by presenting themselves as an expeditionary force, were paving the grounds for any bill incurred over supplies to be sent to Hasenbach’s court instead of coming out of their own pockets. I sincerely doubted that Cordelia would flip me so much as a copper if anything less than an oath to the Heavens was involved, so we’d have to get creative about getting the coin if we were going to get any at all. Still, that they were trying to extricate from this at all meant they were taking the process seriously. A good sign, after that tumultuous opening. I caught the subtle movement of Prince Amadis’ hand before anyone else on my side.
“The delegation recognizes the Chosen known as the Grey Pilgrim, formal advisor to the Prince of Iserre,” the middle-aged diplomat announced.
The old man rose to his feet.
“I seek clarification from the Queen in Callow,” he said calmly, “on matters of intent.”
I looked up and fought back a sigh.
Wasn’t it traditional that things had to at least go well for the villain before the tables were turned?