“If war is to be understood as the pursuit of statecraft through violence, then the Principate is a failure as a nation: the Highest Assembly has proved chronically incapable of either agreeing on or seeing through a single ambition through the undertaking of warfare.”
– Extract from ‘The Ruin of Empire, or, A Call to Reform of the Highest Assembly’ by Princess Eliza of Salamans
It would have to be Cordelia Hasenbach first. The odds were not in my favour – but when had they last been, truth be told? – yet if this could be settled without the involvement of the Pilgrim it would be infinitely preferable. Now more than ever, every interaction with the Peregrine would carry dangers beyond the obvious. A single careless conversation could see me stripped of power or afflicted with opinions just slightly to the side of my own. For all that the Gods Below were the ones with the reputation for manipulation, I’d come to suspect the reason Above wasn’t saddled with the same was just that they were better at it. Evil tended to drop the bottom of how far you were willing to compromise and allow you to dig ever deeper on your own when the consequences came calling. Even the most deluded villain, I thought, must have hade one glimmer of cold clarity when they realized they’d brought it all on themselves by crossing that one line they wouldn’t have before. Above, though? It dealt in the guise of conscience. A whisper urging you to be the person you could be, if you were just a little better. It didn’t seem so terrible a thing, until you found that first choice seamlessly leading you into the next and the next and the one after that. Pilgrim had called Evil the edge of the cliff, once, but if that was true then Good was the tired metaphor of the slippery slope. Once you started going down, you had no more control over where you were headed than a cart rolling down a hill.
The revulsion that welled in me at that notion was an old friend, and not one I was willing to part from. Black had gotten to me young enough that the thought of having my choice taken away from me brought only bone-deep disgust, even for the worst of them.
The cool darkness of my domain soothed the sharpness of the emotions as it filled the room. There would be no shade whispering advice in my ear tonight. Akua already knew too much of my plans for comfort, and though Masego assured me it was possible to learn to make her invisible to the sight of others again it would take me days to properly master the trick. Days I could not afford: an entire month would go by before my opportunity to speak with the First Prince came again. Hasenbach came out of the dark glowing with the weight of miracles in the dozens, her dark blue dress touched by long golden curls. The understated circlet of pale gold on her brow found no match on my side: I wore no regalia tonight, nothing but the worn tunic and boots of a soldier on campaign. It was a truer glimpse of who I was than jewels and gold, though it did lack the expected formality. The First Prince took a moment to gather her bearings, though it was noticeably shorter than the last time. She was getting used to it, or at least getting better at faking situational awareness. I didn’t bother with the usual duel of silence that tended to precede our conversations.
“Your Most Serene Highness,” I greeted her.
“Your Grace,” Cordelia Hasenbach replied.
I hesitated, and in that heartbeat she took the lead.
“It has been some time since we last conversed,” the First Prince said.
“I saw no need to waste either our evenings by engaging before there was resolution to the battle,” I replied. “There has been, and now here I am.”
“It would have been courteous to notify me of this intent,” Hasenbach chided me.
“War is the graveyard of courtesies,” I said in Chantant, quoting one of her predecessors.
“Julienne Merovins never truly spoke those words,” she noted in Lower Miezan, sounding somewhat amused. “It was a courtier under the reign of her successor, and the bon mot was only attributed to her fifty years after her death by a family historian.”
“It always feels snappier when it comes from someone who wore a crown,” I shrugged. “Harder to tell with Dread Emperors, though, since so many of them really were that insane.”
“Praes does tend to straddle the line between laughable and appalling,” the First Prince said. “A tragedy for us all, that these last few decades have seen it settle firmly on the latter.”
“Lots of tragedies going around, these days,” I smiled thinly. “One might argue we’re both in the business of making those.”
Cool eyes considered me in silence.
“Shall we empty the proverbial bag before speaking with purpose then, Your Grace?” Hasenbach said. “I suppose you must have recriminations to utter, if only for your personal satisfaction.”
“I left personal at the door,” I replied. “It has no place in this conversation. Looking backwards just means stepping blind. I’m here, First Prince, because I want to cut a deal. The rest is noise.”
“You have shown fondness for that measure, of late,” the blonde said mildly. “Your bargain with my subjects was a particularly vicious breed of mercy.”
“I spared lives,” I said. “Thousands of them. Your own people’s lives, it is worth remembering.”
“You removed from the campaign for several months a force that would have been too costly to destroy by violence,” the First Prince said. “It was cleverly done, and I can respect the achievement, but let us not pretend you meant to save men you attempted to drown mere days earlier.”
“That working would have been limited, and only inflicted enough casualties to force a retreat,” I said.
She did not quirk a brow, though I got the impression she very much wanted to.
“An easy assurance to make, after the attempt was foiled,” she said.
I forced my fingers to unclench and breathed out slowly. Temper, Catherine, temper.
“I have taken great pains, Your Highness, to display moderation in how I’ve waged this war,” I said flatly. “At no small cost of my own. There is a point where doubt becomes denial.”
“It has not gone unnoticed,” Hasenbach conceded, to my surprise. “You must understand, however, that you are a villain. Deception is the trade of your kind. There is a chance, however slight, that you are genuine in your intentions. Yet precedent remains a stone around your neck, as it has been around mine.”
“I’ve wrecked a third of my army to prove goodwill,” I said bluntly. “Against the advice of most my generals, it should be said. I have to ask, in your eyes what would actually prove I mean what I say?”
“Abdication,” the First Prince replied without hesitation.
“That,” I said flatly, “is the kind of demand you get to make if you’re winning. You are not. I’m offering a treaty, not serving you Callow on a silver platter.”
“Your ‘offer’ has made its way to Salia,” Hasenbach said. “Bringing our hosts to Ater through Arcadia, if I am not mistaken. A process that assumes you will not merely strand those armies in a realm of hostile fae.”
“I’m willing to swear oaths I won’t,” I told her.
“Which would yet leave the Tenth Crusade almost completely dependent on you for supplies, while its hosts bleed their strength against Praesi cities,” the First Prince said. “Assuming the occupation of the Empire can be successful under those circumstances, the war still ends with you in a fine position to massacre the weakened armies of Procer and Levant after you spent several years raising armies in peace.”
“A possibility that can be warded off,” I said calmly, “if I am a signatory of the Grand Alliance. You should have received the scroll by now.”
The Warden of the West studied me expressionlessly.
“A well-penned request, observing every requirement as set out by the current treaties,” Hasenbach said. “My compliments to Vivienne Dartwick.”
It’d actually been Black that sent us a horrifyingly thorough transcript, but I saw no need to disabuse her of the assumption.
“In case you were wondering, it’s genuine,” I said.
“I assumed as much,” the First Prince smiled. “It would, after all, involve suspension of all military action between members and subject any matters of conflict to neutral arbitrage.”
“And also involve a declaration of war on the Dread Empire,” I pointed out. “Which means Callow won’t be preparing to backstab you, it’ll be on the front with your own armies. I’m even willing to take the Blessed Isle from Malicia and hold it while your soldiers make their way east as a sign of goodwill.”
“You are being deliberately obtuse,” Hasenbach said. “I have already informed you that a villain ruling Callow is not an acceptable outcome for this crusade.”
“I’ve been told more than once it’s bad form in a negotiation for your starting position to be your only position,” I said. “A bargain does tend to involve actual bargaining, Your Highness.”
The other woman’s eyes went cold.
“You are a warlord, Catherine Foundling,” she said, pronunciation excruciatingly precise. “Your reign was built on catastrophe and butchery, and has been maintained by the same. You are not the Queen of Callow, or even the Queen in Callow. The only claim for rule you have is that of steel, and with every passing month that claim weakens. You believe I am being undiplomatic, evidently.”
She paused and her lips thinned.
“That I must even pretend you have the right to speak for the souls under your yoke is a concession greater than any you have right to ask of me,” the First Prince said. “Even a usurper would be more palatable: you have merely ridden from one field of corpses to another, waiting and swelling in might from the deaths of your own people until none were left to gainsay your crowning. Well, here we are now. Consider yourself gainsaid, Black Queen.”
Calm, I thought, as Winter raged. Calm. Insults don’t matter, if you get what you want.
“And is that the stance of every signatory of the Grand Alliance?” I asked with forced politeness.
“There is not a ruler among us who will tolerate your remaining on the throne,” Hasenbach coldly said.
I breathed out. Calm. Yelling is for children.
“Abdication within ten years of the signature,” I replied instead of screaming. “With the understanding that other nations will have no say in the succession, in exchange for which I will give assurance it won’t be another villain.”
I saw her visibly master her anger and that had me frowning. A diplomat that practiced, having a fit? It irked me I couldn’t read her heartbeat, because I was beginning to realize I might just have been played. The scathing rant had felt genuine, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t been used as a way to pressure me. Pressure me into giving something I’d been willing to give, sure, but what I’d intended to use as a bargaining chip for further concessions had just been put on the table just to keep negotiations going. Fuck. Horrid as the thought was, I wished I’d had Akua along for the ride.
“Abdication immediately following the end of the crusade,” Hasenbach said. “And binding oaths on both it and the matter of succession.”
“Five years, regardless of the crusade ending or not,” I countered. “I’ll need time to settle matters so the succession is stable. Agreed on the oaths.”
There was a beat of silence.
“An accommodation might be possible,” the First Prince finally said.
I kept my face blank even as relief welled up. Of thank the fucking Gods. I had not been looking forward to trying my hand with the Dead King. Ignoring an invitation from the Hidden Horror would likely have consequences, but I was an old hand at lesser evils.
“A truce until it’s reached, then,” I said. “Including your uncle ending digging operations in the Vales.”
“A passage there will be necessary to the prosecution of the war,” Hasenbach said.
“In can gate his entire army across the Vales in less than a week, if you don’t trust me to get them all the way to Praes,” I replied flatly. “Keeping him pointed at my belly can’t be considered anything but coercion.”
“You are being coerced,” the First Prince frankly replied. “That is the very reason we are having this conversation.”
I watched her, the strongly-cast face and the patience painted upon it.
“There is a very real chance,” I said slowly so she knew I wasn’t being flippant, “that agreeing to what you just said will lead to civil war in Callow. It will be seen as annexation, or at the very least effective vassalage. You badly underestimate how hated your people are in the kingdom.”
“You have asked me to consider you as the ruler of Callow,” Hasenbach said. “Rule, then. Exert your authority to prevent the unrest.”
Gods, she was serious.
“No,” I said. “I’ve made significant concessions. You want the pass open? Give me more than your word to work with. Withdraw the army, make the truce public. I’ll have Hierophant work on a ritual to clear the wreckage, to be used when the treaties have been signed. Otherwise, this is starting to look a lot like I’m baring my neck for the knife.”
“I am the First Prince of Procer, not a petty tyrant,” Hasenbach replied tightly. “I do not go back on my word once given.”
“And I am Callowan,” I snapped. “We have more than few songs about the worth of Proceran promises. You’re asking me to extend a lot of trust. Do the same damned thing.”
“You are overestimating the strength of your bargaining position,” she warned me.
“So are you,” I barked. “You sent two armies after me, and they both got whipped out of Callow. You have Black in your heartlands with four legions and you’d rather argue with me about not putting a knife at my throat than deal with it?”
“I have near every hero on the continent and thrice his number containing him,” Hasenbach said. “His survival is a matter of months, if not weeks.”
“So this is what it looks like,” I said quietly. “An intelligent woman making a very grave mistake.”
“Oh, spare me the heaps of praise for the murderer,” she said. “He is a skilled general and an effective killer. He is not invincible.”
“You are about to get mauled,” I said, appalled. “I don’t even know what he’s up to, but I know that. Sure as day. Gods Below, what about how this crusade has been unfolding could possibly make you this arrogant?”
“Posturing will yield nothing,” the First Prince said.
“I know what you’re trying to do, Cordelia,” I said. “You think than in a month we’ll be speaking again and I’ll have to bend my neck a little lower. Brinksmanship. I need you to believe me, because I’m begging here, that it’s not what’s going to happen. I cannot gamble this entire kingdom’s fate, start a civil war, on grounds so thin. I’m already cornered. This is as low as I go.”
“Six months ago,” she said softly, “you might have said the same. And yet here we are.”
I closed my eyes. Should I? Give her even that small assurance I was holding out for? It’d be seen as a capitulation because, to be honest, it was. There’d be riots, and at least half the Army of Callow would desert. Thief might actually kill me. She trusted Procer even less than me. Hells, she might be right to if it came to that. There were good reasons I had those contingencies in place. I opened my eyes.
“One last time,” I said. “Don’t do this. We could avoid so much death – beyond the politics and the interests and the schemes, that has to count for something.”
“Appeals to emotion,” she said, not unkindly, “are the last resort of one without argument.”
I stared at her for a long time.
“I think,” I said quietly, “that this conversation is going to haunt the both of us, in years to come.”
She hesitated for a moment.
“I am not without sympathy,” she said. “But there is more at stake than you know.”
It wasn’t an opening. Gods, I wished it was, but there was no invitation to negotiate again in the way she was looking at me.
“Woe to us both, then, Cordelia Hasenbach,” I said.
I ripped away the darkness and rose to my feet. One last try, before I went into the devil’s lair.
There were guards around the Pilgrim’s tent, a full line. I dismissed them as gently as my mood allowed, which by the way the Taghreb lieutenant paled wasn’t very. A few months ago, I thought, I would probably have been frosting everything around me. The old man was awake, even this late at night, and seated at a writing desk with a mage lamp atop it. He was penning something, I saw, on a scroll. That had me curious, however reluctantly. He wasn’t allowed letters even as an observer, so what was he writing?
“Pilgrim,” I said, lingering at the entrance of the tent. “May I?”
“Catherine,” he replied with a kindly smile. “By all means.”
I strode into the tent and moved a folding chair from his bedside to face him across the writing desk. He saw my glance at the scroll and chuckled.
“Your Marshal asked me to provide my recollections of the Battle of the Camps,” he said. “As much as can be revealed in my position. I believe she may be penning a history of the last few years.”
Juniper’s ‘Commentaries’, inspired by the second Terribilis’. I’d known about that, and that Aisha apparently kept memoirs of her own though she was very noncommittal about ever showing them to me. I supposed someone should be keeping records, since I sure as Hells wasn’t.
“I’m surprised you’re willing to contribute,” I admitted.
“I have always thought it a great disservice to all, that histories are so often written by the victors,” the hero said. “Much could be avoided by having a broader perspective. If an old man’s recollections can be of any help I am glad to provide it.”
That was the trouble with the Pilgrim, I thought. He would say those wise, beautiful things and seem to genuinely believe them. But then I’d find him on the battlefield, wielding miracles like a knife for a cause that was as empty as it got. There might be a good man, somewhere in there. I wanted to believe that. But that man answered to the Heavens before anything else. And if I could hold it against Black that he could love me but still set it aside, then I could hold it against this stranger that his pretty ideals only mattered as long as the Heavens agreed they were convenient. They weren’t really principles if they were always discarded at the first frown from Above, were they?
“You seem in a pensive mood, tonight,” the Pilgrim said.
I weighed the risks, for a moment, then took the plunge.
“I’ve just had a very exhausting conversation with the First Prince,” I said. “So I’d like to be blunt, if you don’t mind, because I don’t have a lot of coyness left in me.”
He didn’t seem surprised by the revelation that I had a way to talk directly with Hasenbach, but that meant less than nothing. The Peregrine wasn’t someone I’d want to play cards against.
“You attempted to make peace,” he said.
I smiled thinly.
“I very nearly did,” I said. “But then she pushed just a little further than I can go. And I know, Gods I know, that maybe she wasn’t out to screw me and everyone in this kingdom. That the other choices I can make are so much worse they’re indefensible.”
I met his eyes.
“I’m willing to take leaps of faith with people, Pilgrim,” I said honestly. “I have before, and I will again. But not with the Heavens. Because you don’t negotiate with Above, you obey. And I don’t think Cordelia Hasenbach holds the reins of what she unleashed nearly as tightly as she thought she would.”
“And so now you come to me,” the old man said. “With a request.”
“Do something,” I asked quietly. “Intervene. Offer to arbitrate. Thief tells me you could be king of Levant with a snap of your fingers, if you felt like it. You have influence to wield.”
“Seljun,” he said calmly. “We do not have kings, in Levant. And there is a reason I do not sit the Tattered Throne, Catherine. Your Good Kings have done well by Callow, but the Dominion… It is a different land. It would end the honour duels, the forays into the wilds, but it would be a call. To the kind of war best left in the past.”
“I’m not saying usurp your ruler,” I said. “But Gods, you’re not nobody. If you make a truce with me Levant will fall in line. That’ll force Hasenbach to reconsider.”
“It would break the Tenth Crusade,” he gently said.
“So do it behind closed doors,” I said, frustration mounting. “You’re trying to shove redemption down my throat, and don’t bother denying it. Fine. I’ll fucking lean in, even if it’ll probably get me killed. Just act. I’ll kiss the hem, quote the Book. All you need to speak up and thousands don’t have to die.”
“It would smother in the crib,” the Grey Pilgrim said sadly, “what is perhaps the last chance for peace in our time.”
“I’m offering peace,” I hissed.
“Peace on your terms would unseat the First Prince,” he said. “She has spent years forging an alliance with Levant, fighting her Assembly tooth and nail every step of the way. For that same ally to twist her arm into making a pact with one of the most famous villains alive would see her removed within the month. And everything she seeks to accomplish vanish with her.”
A long moment passed and the only sound in the tent was his steady heartbeat.
“You can’t be serious,” I said. “If you’d said the Heavens were using their veto, I would have been furious. I won’t pretend otherwise. But at least I wouldn’t be disappointed.”
He opened his mouth but Winter flared like half a world howling for blood and he closed it.
“No, disappointed is too mild a word,” I said, voice barren of any speck of warmth. “This, Pilgrim, is worthy of contempt.”
“The treaties she has made and would deepen will end wars in the west,” the old man said. “Callow restored and Praes humbled will allow Calernia to finally turn towards the true face of the Enemy. The King of the Dead. The Chain of Hunger.”
“It’s funny,” I said, smiling mirthlessly. “How it’s never the lot of you that have to make the sacrifices. Us, this entire fucking kingdom since the dawn of time? Well, that’s just how things have to be. Someone needs to take care of Praes so the rest of the continent can kill itself in peace. But then someone else has to do the bleeding, for once, and suddenly there’s all these considerations.”
“This is not fair,” the old man said. “Nor it is just. I will not pretend otherwise, child. But I will not offer you succour at the price of Cordelia Hasenbach’s dream. It is too great a good to be slain in this manner.”
“So we burn again, for the greater good of everyone else,” I laughed harshly.
I rose to my feet.
“You know, when I make decisions like that, they call me a monster,” I said, meeting his eyes without smothering a single ember of the fury I felt. “So why do you get a pass?”
“I will suffer the price of this, in time,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Service is no absolution.”
He looked old and tired and sad. But so did a lot of people, and they didn’t sign death warrants for dozens of thousands. I was out of sympathy to offer for the likes of him. I had no pithy comment to offer, no cutting parting remark. I left the tent before I could talk myself into murdering him in cold blood. I needed to talk to Hierophant.
We were, after all, going to Keter.