“Invading Callow is much like drunkenly playing dice: the odds are never as good as you believe, and you know you’ve reached bottom when snake eyes are involved.”
– Dread Emperor Malevolent III, the Pithy
I pricked my ears, gauging the enemy. Most of the Proceran delegation had either skipped a beat or seen their pulse quicken when the Pilgrim rose to his feet. That was telling. Since it was dubious anyone that high up in the Proceran pecking order was faint of heart, the implication was that this particular play had been kept close to the chest. There were only four who’d not had a physical reaction of fear or surprise: Prince Amadis, Princess Rozala, Prince Arnaud and the middle-aged diplomat who’d been the mouthpiece for the opposition so far. The first two were only to be expected, and the last a given, but the third? That was interesting. Arnaud of Cantal did not strike me as the kind of man the other two royals would keep deep in their confidence. Has he found out on his own? If he was spying on the leaders of the northern crusade, that was a possible angle for Thief to exploit. Turning him seemed unlikely, but if his spying apparatus could be infiltrated… Something to discuss with her later. I made a note to have Vivienne dig deeper into the man, as there was apparently more to him than his reputation. The Grey Pilgrim’s words were followed by heavy silence and I did not hurry to respond.
This, I knew, was the beginning of the deeper game. The war behind the war, where Named would claw at each other like animals to get the morsels of narrative they needed for the final victory. The thing was, as it stood, I was winning that fight. I’d repeatedly made overtures for peace, brought up whenever I could that the enemy was invading my homeland for mostly petty reasons and avoided – as much as feasible – falling into the kind of villainous stand that would get me winning in the short term and killed in the long one. As long as this remained a negotiation between mortals, for mortal motives, I came out ahead. Sure, they were a better hand at diplomacy and likely I’d end up unable to capitalize on several of my advantages. But that was fine, in the greater scheme of things, so long as I walked out of this pavilion with some gains and my narrative intact. There were earthly logistics to this, and Black had made an entire career out of proving those could win a war regardless of the subtler workings of Creation, but I was confident that as long as I held my ground story-wise I’d emerge in a position to begin the sequence of events that’d get me to my objective.
Which meant that I had to avoid engaging the Pilgrim as much as I could. I had a knack for stories, twisting them and using them. It came naturally to me. But the opposition had actually lived through hundreds of them. The experience gap between us was overwhelming, and that was without even taking into consideration whatever tricks the Heavens were sure to have bestowed upon him to make sure he’d keep coming out ahead. I could not confidently state I would win against the Grey Pilgrim, so my safest path was not to fight him at all. Ironically, my sharpest tool in ensuring that was something I generally had little patience for: etiquette. Instead of replying to the old Levantine, I leaned towards Aisha.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said. “But isn’t it a severe breach of decorum for someone without a formal role in negotiations to directly address a queen?”
The lovely Taghreb’s lips quirked.
“That is so,” she said, pitching her voice so it would be heard by all. “Under Tower law, such a transgression is punishable by flaying of the left hand and foot.”
Several of the Procerans’ hearts quivered.
“It has been the stance of your delegation to advance the Queen in Callow as an entity separate from the Tower’s rule,” the Pilgrim said, face serene. “Was this a misrepresentation?”
I did one the things I hated most in the world: I kept my fucking mouth shut. The moment I got involved the narrative was back in play. Lose, I told myself. Let him win the small things, so long as you get what you came for.
“Observations on the nature of Praesi law are no admission of anything else,” Thief coldly noted. “To pretend otherwise is disingenuous, and might be taken as an attempt to sink honest negotiations. Is that the intent of the Proceran delegation?”
I sat straighter in my chair. Thief was one of the Woe, and the Woe were under me. Would anything coming out of her mouth contribute to the tapestry the Pilgrim was trying to weave? Not if I contradicted her, I suspected, but if I was remaining silent… Best to stay on the safe side. Picking out a sliver of Winter, I formed a ring around her index on the hand beneath the table and squeezed it lightly. She inclined her head slightly to the left, acknowledging my warning as I allowed the construct to dissipate.
“A curious thing, that seeking clarity would be taken as offence,” the Pilgrim said. “Regardless, there is precedent.”
The Proceran mouthpiece bowed again.
“As far as the year seventy-four, Chosen recognized as titled advisors have been allowed to address to the Highest Assembly directly,” the man said. “As far one hundred and eleven, the same have been granted right of involvement with negotiations held with foreign powers.”
Seventy-four, huh. That was the year eight hundred ninety, by the Imperial calendar – Procerans begun theirs after the founding of the Principate, which had only taken place a year after Triumphant’s fall. Considering the current Imperial year was thirteen hundred and twenty-seven, that was not a young precedent. It shouldn’t matter, though, and if I’d picked up on that, Aisha should have as well. Living up to my expectation, the Staff Tribune advanced where we remained silent.
“Proceran custom is not universally binding,” she pointed out. “There is no such precedent for our delegation. Regardless, right of involvement would not equate right of interrogation.”
The middle-aged diplomat smothered a smile. A mistake had been made.
“Queen Eleanor Fairfax granted privilege to voice thoughts and questions freely to the contemporary Wizard of the West, after her coronation,” the man said. “This is a matter of public record. That privilege has been maintained through every known Choosing since.”
I kept my face rigid. Was that true? It might very well be. Records were sparse about the Old Kingdom, nowadays, save those that related to mundane matters – where the Empire’s rule tended to come out as a more prosperous, if also more tyrannical, alternative. My teacher had been thorough in taking the knife to anything that could feasibly become fodder for a hero’s rise, and knowledge about past Wizards of the West would have been high on that list of proscriptions. Except he wouldn’t have been able expunge Proceran records, not in depth anyway. The man’s heartbeat was steady, which could be an indication he was telling the truth – or merely that he was a very good liar.
“The Proceran delegation has not recognized ours as being representative of the Kingdom of Callow,” Grandmaster Talbot said, cool voice cutting clearly through the hesitation. “Only of the Queen in Callow, making such precedent irrelevant. Which it would be even if otherwise, unless by some labyrinthine exercise of reason an equivalence between the attempted murderer of Queen Catherine and the ancient servants of the now-extinct House Fairfax was established. Which it was not.”
Brandon fucking Talbot, I thought, smothering a grin. Riding in lance high at the last moment, proper knight that he was.
“Lack of recognition for Proceran law endangers the entire process of treaty-making,” the middle-aged diplomat warned.
“Forceful imposition of foreign customs on the same process is not a standard this delegation is willing to establish,” Aisha replied pleasantly. “We do not recognize the attempt to establish precedent by the Proceran delegation, and move the first issue on the program should now be addressed.”
“Is this to be who you truly are, Catherine Foundling?” the Grey Pilgrim said, soft voice carrying across the pavilion. “A villain hiding behind petty excuses, unwilling to even speak with those you deem foes?”
My fingers clenched. The fucker. He had a lot of nerves saying that, after he’d tacitly allowed the Saint to try to kill me under a godsdamned truce banner. I leaned forward to – let him win the small things, so long as you get what you came for. My teeth came down and I bit off my tongue, knowing I would not be able to keep silent otherwise. If Masego’s weakness was the need for utter precision, then mine was the inability to just keep my fucking mouth shut. Blood filled my mouth as Winter lazily coursed through my veins, repairing the self-inflicted damage. I swallowed as discretely as I could. The violent urge to respond was not gone, but the immediacy had ebbed. I kept my eyes on Prince Amadis, who was eyeing me with a mixture of disgust and fascination. I bared reddened teeth at him, watching his muscles clench to suppress a flinch.
“Shall we proceed, Your Grace?” I asked.
He inclined his head by a fraction. Good. I’d weathered the first blow, but if I knew anything about patterns that was the first of three. I would have to remain wary. Aisha had thought it odd that the Procerans had not fought back harder on the terms of truce and retreat being the first subject addressed, but now we knew why. They’d intended on flipping the table before it even came to that. Now, though, they were stuck actually discussing it. Withdrawal from the Tenth Crusade for the royals had never been in the cards, much as it irked me. For them to put their seal to a treaty binding them to that would be high treason and sustained heresy under Proceran law. One of the ancient First Princes had passed that motion through the Highest Assembly, after a few Arlesite principalities dropped out of one of the crusades against the Kingdom of the Dead. Their agitations in the south while the rest of the Principate was busy dying up north had been so deeply despised by the surviving princes they’d been willing to limit their own prerogatives to see the deserters punished. No, our wiggle room was narrower than that. The first opening was that, technically speaking, the Tenth Crusade had been declared on Praes. It would be damaging to their reputation to make a deal with me, but not actually illegal.
The second was that I wasn’t asking for peace, only a truce. The terms we were after were eighteen months where none of the signatories or soldiers under their command could enter Callow, which was where we first got shafted by the premises agreed on. They managed to have it defined as ‘the lands under the rule of the Queen in Callow’, which gave them some flexibility. The moment a part of the kingdom renounced my rule, it was fair game again and they could get involved without breaking the letter of the agreement. Or, and I was just guessing here, if a disavowed heroine like the Saint just happened cut my head off – well, it would be convenient coincidence that there were no longer any lands under the rule of the Queen in Callow, wouldn’t it? I was going to have to watch my back very, very carefully in the coming months. Eve more so than usual. Aisha began bargaining forthree years of truce and slowly allowed herself to be whittled down to fourteen months, though at least she got a concession out of it. The fantassins across the field were in the employment of the princes and princesses attending, but that was a matter of contract. Those could be released, at which point the terms would no longer apply to them. Horse-trading for six months less of truce, Aisha managed to extract they’d sign the treaty as well. None of the companies would be able to just sign up with the Iron Prince’s host instead.
A goodwill clause forbidding the fantassins to simply disband their companies and reform under a different name was written in, because even I had seen that loophole coming. It was when we moved to the second subject, supplies, that Thief’s predictions came true and they began their attempt to fuck us in earnest. You’d think they’d at least provide dinner first. Bad form, Amadis. Going at it with only wine made it look like they thought we were easy.
“As a sign of good faith, we would require that the Army of Callow continue to provide supplies while negotiations are ongoing, at the previously agreed cost,” Prince Amadis requested, meeting my eyes directly.
It wasn’t the first time they’d tried that. Fairly early on they’d narrowed in on the fact that my diplomatic training was lacking compared to Aisha’s or Talbot’s, and since they’d tried to get me involved as much as possible. Best way for them to do that was to ditch the mouthpiece and let the Prince of Iserre do the talking: he had enough status that etiquette dictated I couldn’t just foist the thing off to Aisha if he spoke to me directly. It was a play on their part, we both knew that. But it also left me with no real reason to call them out, and if these talks imploded because I’d walked out without a damned good reason? That was the story of a villain queen so arrogant she was willing to starve dozens of thousands for perceived insults. It did not bode well for me. This was going to be a pivot, I knew that and the Pilgrim most definitely did. It meant every word spoken today had weight. I’d be eroding at my own gains if I pulled out now, and even if it likely wouldn’t be enough to flip the entire story the opposition didn’t need that, strictly speaking. Just my position being weakened would make it much easier to kill me. Was this the second blow? No, the confrontation was too indirect. The Pilgrim had made himself the speaker for Above, it wasn’t something that could be handed to Amadis like a plate of pastries.
“While we are not willing to make that concession, we share your worry on the appearance of coercion,” I blandly replied.
Meaning it wouldn’t look good if it appeared we were negotiating with a loaded crossbow pointed at their balls, though we were both aware there were plenty crossbows today to go around. The Jacks had confirmed Hasenbach had her own scrying-capable mages in play, called the Order of the Red Lion. We also knew, from Masego, that they were at least a decade behind Praesi spell formulas when it came to that, which meant they couldn’t do relays and their range was limited: they could chain the reports manually, but that was tricky business. Hierophant’s best guess for the crusaders getting news from the battle at the Red Flower Vales was a delay of two days. Knowing Black, he was very unlikely to gamble it all on the first day. He’d stretch it out through series of fortifications, made even more efficient by the narrow valleys and steep slopes of the Vales. That provided us with some room to manoeuver.
“We are willing to immediately provide three days’ worth of supplies, at the agreed on cost, to prevent that misunderstanding,” I continued calmly.
Prince Amadis’ heartbeat quickened. Anger. Yeah, you princely shit. We saw that one coming. There was still risk involved, should Papenheim somehow win an immediate and crushing victory – or, more probably, if Black decided a strategic retreat out of the Vales was the correct decision – but odds were the crusaders would have to make the deal without knowing the outcome. They really wanted to avoid that, of course. But outright feeding them for three days yanked away their pretext to push for better terms. They could still delay until the days were past, but then we’d be the ones with grounds to protest bad faith. And we both know Kegan is coming. Your window of opportunity is narrow. If they failed to make terms before the Deoraithe arrived, their bargaining position took a hit. Juniper had urged me to send Larat to fetch Kegan’s host, and I’d already made up my mind to agree if we didn’t walk out with a deal by the day’s end. It was a naked threat, sure, and before the meeting began I’d worried about souring the process by resorting to it. But they were aready pushing back pretty hard, and if they were stretching things out on purpose threats were not a line I was unwilling to cross.
“The gesture is appreciated,” Amadis said evenly. “However, I worry this could be misconstrued as impropriety. Rumours of bribery would damage the reputation of all involved.”
My eyes narrowed. We were making the crusaders pay for the supplies, it was hardly a fucking bribe. Princes were touchy about their reputation, though, so while it wasn’t a good reason it was a halfway plausible one. And it wasn’t a reply we anticipated, though we should have. I glanced at Aisha, but she could be no help. Fuck. There was probably a way out of this, but I couldn’t think of one at the moment.
“We can table the matter for the moment,” I conceded grudgingly.
“As you say,” the Prince of Iserre replied, the hint of a smile on his lips as he inclined his head.
Aisha bowed in her seat, then addressed the table.
“We now address the third subject on the program,” the Supply Tribune said, “as requested by the Callowan delegation. Provenance and direction of promised coin.”
In other words, who was going to foot the bill for the supplies they were getting. That was going to be one of the trickier bits, Vivienne had told me. The Procerans were going to try to pass it all to Hasenbach, but we might have a way around that. For ‘practical reasons’ we were going to suggest they provide the coin themselves, though it would be framed as a loan on the part of the First Prince towards them. Our turn to screw them over the negotiation premises, for this one. As an expeditionary force of the First Prince, they had legal grounds to agree to that – if they were Hasenbach’s mandated minions, anything falling under war reparations was ultimately her responsibility to pay for. Aisha had noted some of them might consider it a worthwhile trade off to have the First Prince owe them money, since by leveraging that debt they might avoid political retaliation for a retreat. Thief had been more dubious, arguing that they’d balk since Cordelia might manage to get out of paying them anything back. It was going to come down to finesse.
“The delegation recognizes the Chosen known as the Grey Pilgrim, formal advisor to the Prince of Iserre,” the mouthpiece intoned.
Well, shit. We were halfway through the list now, so in retrospective I should have seen it coming.
“In matter of direction, I seek clarification,” the Pilgrim said. “The Principate of Procer is currently at war with the Dread Empire of Praes. As it could be considered treason for any coin paid through this treaty to come to gild Imperial coffers through either commerce or tribute, a question must first be addressed. Does the Queen in Callow intend to pursue formal independence from the Tower?”
I closed my eyes and thought. Why would he care about the gold? Coin didn’t mean shit to heroes. No, he had a reason to ask this that shaped a story. Independence from the Tower. Callow already was independent, effectively speaking, but there’d been no open break. Malicia and I knew it was just a matter of time, but the current fiction it wasn’t was useful for us both. If it was discarded, what was the result? Most likely, Malicia had to declare I was in rebellion even if she did nothing immediate about it. That was the part that had me wary, though. She couldn’t do anything about it right now, not with Ashur marauding the coasts and a city freshly sacked. So why would the old man be after that? Pilgrim might not know about Nok, though, I mused. No, wrong way to think about this. If this was a political play it’d be the Procerans doing the talking. Since it was the Pilgrim, he was leaning on the pivot for some reason. Malicia declared me a rebel. What did that mean, in the greater scheme of things? Ah, shit. Evil turns on Evil. That was his play. And it was a story old as the First Dawn, too, so if I caught even the hem of it in my fingers it was going to drag me through seventy fucking Hells. Stories repeated so often they were considered self-evident truths had a way of pushing themselves to the fore no matter what the people involved wanted.
All right, then. What could I do to avoid the pitfall?
Couldn’t argue there was no need to have the talk, this time, since that could be taken as me trying to frame the Procerans for treason. It’d turn this from truce talks to ‘Evil queen lays a cunning trap’, and that fucked everything up. I couldn’t lie in front of the Pilgrim, he’d see through it and that got me back in the deep even if ‘the Heavens told me it was untrue’ might not hold up too well as a negotiating position. Flatly admitting I was going to just led me to a different problem, so that was straight out. Could I maybe keep this contained, force an oath whatever was spoken on the subject wouldn’t get out of this pavilion? No, I decided. I didn’t have enough of a leg to stand on, and it wasn’t like the Procerans would jump for joy at the prospect of being oath-bound to someone holding a fae mantle. If you can’t dodge, attack, I thought. Instead of avoiding his story, what story could I make? Liberating rebel wouldn’t hold, not while I was wearing a crown. I’d only ever managed to squeak into heroic Roles when the opposition was… less than flexible, anyway. Treacherous lieutenant to Malicia? I could fit the boots, but it wouldn’t get me anywhere I wanted to be. Praesi stories would just make it worse, as a rule, so it had to be either Callowan or old and worn enough it was up for grabs by anyone.
Unless… Akua. She’d been on her own idea of good behaviour since Second Liesse, which had taken a while for me to puzzle out. She should have been scheming to get out, and to be frank she probably was, but she was also very much trying to be useful. To get out of the box more often, in part, but there were deeper reasons. I had beaten her, or at least she believed as much. According to the sack full of razor blades that was Praesi philosophy, that meant she was my follower now. That was an old story, and though the Wasteland had practically turned it into a religion it wasn’t just a Wasteland favourite. Or Evil’s in general. Early crew of heroes runs into a seeming enemy they fight out of misunderstanding, then fall together either facing a common foe or when the misunderstanding is finally cleared. Everyone’s friends, some cackling villain gets stabbed in unison and the Heavens pat everyone’s ass approvingly. Hells, that was more or less how Archer had ended up joining the Woe now that I thought about it. So I needed to be metaphorical Archer, fighting the crusaders out of a silly misunderstanding somehow involving three bloody days of battle and at least thirty thousand dead.
I am a crusader, I thought. What did I want? To fuck over the Wasteland, a sentiment I wasn’t exactly unsympathetic to. Kill Catherine Foundling, since she’s an abomination and also an asshole who keeps killing our guys. How did I cease being the asshole who kept killing their guys? Well, maybe if they stopped trying to kill m- no, not productive. Plenty of heroes were guy-killing assholes, I reminded myself, in and of itself it wasn’t a deal breaker. Larger perspective. Looking down from Above, what was happening in Callow? Praes is still in charge, I thought. The borders, the separate laws and the coinage wouldn’t matter to something like the Hashmallim. A villain was still on the throne, the former apprentice of the Black Knight. My army was more than half Callowan, these days, but I still had a detachment of mass-murdering Praesi household troops and the greenskins. Goblins had an unfortunate propensity for stabbing, and orcs did eat people. Wasn’t even that large a part of their diet, and it wasn’t like they ate people alive – it was illegal, if nothing else – but even occasional corpse-eating did tend to disqualify people from standing on the shiny side of the fence. As far as Above was concerned, I was a Dread Empress wearing the Queen of Blades’ clothes.
But I was in charge in their eyes, wasn’t I? The legalities we’d been quibbling about all day didn’t mean dust in the eyes of the Gods. That was the whole reason to remove me, wasn’t it? A villainous ruler for Callow was bad for business, regardless of the earthly practicalities involved. Which meant that if I made a choice, Above took that as a choice for all of Callow. There was an opening there. If I pulled the rug out from under the heroes, it worked for the entire kingdom. My eyes narrowed. I didn’t have to stop being a – unfairly characterized, I believed – murderous asshole. I just had to be their murderous asshole. Metaphorically speaking. Probably. And the way to achieve that… what was the name of Cordelia’s Friendly League of Upstanding Nations again? Ah, right. I cleared my throat, meeting the Grey Pilgrim’s eyes with a grin that was all teeth.
“To answer your question,” I said, “I intend to seek signatory status with the Grand Alliance within the year.”
Pandemonium erupted, the Pilgrim’s face went blank and my grin only got wider.