“I’ve found that nothing quite sets the tone for council like strangling a courtier with my bare hands just before we begin.”
– Dread Emperor Venal
I stared down at the unfurled scroll, a frown creasing my brow. When Athal had shown up along our communal breakfast with a scroll in hand I’d expected him to be bearing the Dead King’s counteroffer. Instead, what I’d gotten was a neatly-penned report about how the world had gone on without me while we journeyed to Keter. I popped a blueberry in my mouth. That it most likely came from hell did not make it taste any less sweet. Swallowing, I wiped my fingers on the tablecloth.
“How old is this?” I asked.
The dark-haired man bowed.
“If it please you, Great Majesty, the last of what is written took place eight days ago as of this morning,” he replied.
“Well,” I said, rubbing the bridge of my nose. “Fuck seems like the most appropriate reaction to that basket of stupid.”
“Catherine?” Vivienne said, from her place across the table.
I pushed the scroll across, almost toppling a pitcher of fresh milk over it before Hakram leant over to catch it. I sent him a thankful look.
“Word from Callow?” Indrani asked, half a side of pork making her cheeks bulge.
“Swallow, you godsdamned savage,” I said. “And something like that. Can someone tell me what the ‘Lanterns’ are, exactly? I think I got it from context but I’d rather be sure.”
“The Levantine equivalent to the House of Light,” Adjutant said.
Archer snorted, then finally swallowed.
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “If to become an anointed brother you had to wrestle a basilisk. They don’t have abbeys so much as warrior lodges. If they get old enough they go into the Brocelian to fight monsters until one finally beats them.”
Across the table, Vivienne flinched.
“Merciless Gods,” she said. “What was she thinking?”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Not Hasenbach’s greatest moment.”
I glanced at Masego, who did not glance back. He turned a page, blindly groping for what he probably believed to be a cup of tea but was actually a pot of cream. Well, he’d notice after drinking. Probably.
“Are we to be kept in suspense?” Akua drily asked.
“I’ve been declared Arch-heretic of the East,” I said. “By a conclave of the House of Light in Procer, the aforementioned Lanterns and a delegation of Speakers from Ashur.”
“A worthy achievement,” Diabolist praised. “This is the first I hear of the title being granted to one who has not climbed the Tower.”
“It’s a feudal disaster is what it is,” Thief said. “It means that any oaths sworn to her are dissolved by holy writ and that any who follow her are ‘estranged from the light of the Heavens’.”
“I didn’t think the First Prince would go this far just to break my truce with the northern crusade,” I admitted. “Or that she had this much influence over the priests, to be honest.”
“She should not have,” Adjutant said. “The House is highly influential in Proceran politics, and pushes back hard when attempts are made to twist its arm. Several wars were fought over it, if I remember correctly.”
“The three Liturgical Wars,” Akua said. “One of the rare Proceran squabbles to involve even the Lycaonese. The last member of House Merovins’ bloodline was slain during… the second, perhaps? I confess my Principate histories are not as comprehensive as they could be.”
“Oh fuck,” Vivienne suddenly said.
I’d told her it was the most appropriate reaction, hadn’t I?
“Laure?” I asked.
She nodded, slumping into her seat.
“I can’t even begin to parse the implications of that,” she said.
“This is getting quite tedious,” Akua noted.
“You might remember the priests back in Salia declared me an abomination, after First Liesse,” I told the shade. “That whole resurrection affair got stuck in their throats.”
The dark-skinned monster was not slow on the uptake, for all her other glaring flaws.
“You were crowned by a representative of the House of Light, in Laure,” she said.
“They’ve branded heretics all involved in the matter,” Diabolist said, and it wasn’t a guess.
“If they’d just tarred my name it wouldn’t have been too bad,” I said. “They tried something similar with Henry Landless after occupying Callow, though without foreigners signing on. But they accused Callowan priesthood of heresy. They really shouldn’t have done that.”
“We so declare the following,” Vivienne read out loud. “That all who took part in the seventy-third conclave of Salia are guilty, of: perverse service to earthly powers, false righteousness for earthly purpose and, declaration of godless sanctions.”
“That first one,” Archer decided, “will be the title of my memoirs. I feel it really captures the spirit of what I’m about.”
We decided in turn, as a family and also Akua, to pretend she had remained silent.
“All three of those are lesser heresies,” Hakram gravelled. “That’s situation’s going to get worse at a brisk pace.”
“It did,” I grimly added. “The House in Laure also retroactively declared every hero to have tread Callowan grounds to be graceless. That’s not so much protesting the verdict as setting fire to the courthouse.”
“Graceless,” Diabolist mused. “As in ‘walk without the grace of the Heavens’, I presume?”
I nodded with a grimace. That verse was from the Book of All Things, when speaking of villains who cloaked themselves in righteousness when seeing to their ‘dark purposes’. You shall know them from the true children of Above, for they walk without the grace of the Heavens. The House of Light in Laure had essentially just declared over ten heroes to be villains in disguise. And then announced as much at every street corner of the largest city of the kingdom.
“They kept their shit together in Dormer, at least,” Vivienne sighed. “They lodged a protest and want to appeal the conclave’s decisions.”
“Thief, rioters torched the House of Light in Vale when the priests refused to speak out,” I said pointedly. “This is not a situation under control. Juniper’s going to have to declare martial law, if she hasn’t already.”
“The House in Summerholm upheld Laure’s declaration,” Thief said, sounding appalled as her eyes reached the end of the scroll. “Gods. Denier’s going to fold as well, Cat, you know that. You’re popular with the merchants and the priests that far east hate it even when the crown tells that what to preach. And the only reason Marchford hasn’t declared already is that it’ll take a while for the news to reach there.”
“I have no idea what Hasenbach was thinking,” I admitted. “The northern army’s in no shape to take the passage from Kegan even if it turns around. She’s setting fire to the diplomatic options for no real gain I can see.”
“You’re assuming she is behind this,” Akua said.
“If a clever opponent makes a foolish mistake,” Hakram added, “it is either not a mistake or not that opponent’s doing.”
Grem One-Eye had written that, I recalled. In one of his treatises, when talking about how even a well-led army could blunder when the field officers were poorly trained.
“That would imply she’s lost control of the going-ons in her own capital,” Vivienne replied skeptically.
A shame that her understanding of what a crusade is was so lacking, but it is too late to leave the saddle once the lion is ridden. That was what the Dead King had said, when we’d spoken of Cordelia Hasenbach.
“They might be right,” I said.
Thief turned to me, curious.
“If this was just the House in Procer I’d agree with you, but with the Lanterns and the Speakers?” I said. “No. She can’t have that many hooks inside nations that were hostile to Procer until so recently. I think that Hasenbach might be losing her grip on parts of the Grand Alliance.”
And wasn’t that enough to have me dreading? Because Cordelia Hasenbach had, for all her brutal idealism, a pragmatic streak. The castles she wanted to built were down here, not up in the clouds. But if she was no longer leading the beast by the nose, then who was now in charge? Her refusal to offer even the slightest concession when we’d last spoken was starting to be cast in a different light. Her position was nowhere as assured as I’d believed. I clenched my fingers, then slowly unclenched them. Didn’t matter, did it?
The mess was still in my lap, I had to deal with it.
“The Empress is going to throw a banquet, when she hears,” Vivienne sighed. “Any possible bridges to the west just went up in smoke.”
“Nok did too,” I reminded her. “She’s not exactly doing great at keeping her head above the water either. Black’s wandering the countryside up to Gods know what, Warlock’s nowhere to be seen and her coasts are burning. Not a great year for either of us.”
A man cleared his throat. With a start, I realized Athal had been standing to the side this entire time. My mind whipped back, going over what we’d said with a fine comb. Had there been anything in there I’d truly hate for the Dead King to know? No, I realized after a moment. ‘Bridges to the west’ had unfortunate implications, but I doubted Neshamah was unaware I would have cut a deal with Procer instead of coming to him if I could.
“Do you have further use for me, Great Majesty?” he asked.
“I don’t,” I said. “Offer my thanks to the Dead King for his gift, Athal.”
“I will do so promptly, honoured one,” and with one last bow he left.
I popped another blueberry into my mouth. There was a clatter, like someone dropped a ceramic pot on the table.
“This is cream,” Masego said, highly offended. “Why did none of you say anything?”
Well, I mused, at least the wait until my second talk with the Hidden Horror would not be absent of entertainment.
The Hall of the Dead grew no less intimidating with repeat visits. The honour guard of Revenants had the same faces as the last time at least, so it was possible that fifty dead Named was the sum of his forces. On the other hand, it was a little too neat of a number and it wasn’t like he’d have fewer than what we’d seen. I kept the thought off my face as we were welcomed into the throne room and Neshamah graciously invited us to be seated once more. No offer of a meal, this time, and it was easy to see why. Neat stacks of parchments awaited us at the table.
“Your proposal was a worthy one, Black Queen,” the Dead King said. “Yet it needed… expansion. These are the terms I would offer instead. Take however long is necessary to familiarize yourself, I will take no offence.”
I traded a subtle look with Thief. Yeah, he could have sent us those earlier. He’d meant for us to be as little prepared as possible, and to go over them in an unfamiliar place. The throne room of ancient Sepharah was not a location that invited careful reading, though ironically enough I could think of few places where paying attention to the exact wording would be more important. The Woe sat after I did, and with a nod at Neshamah I took a look at his proposal. A single paragraph of beautifully calligraphied Lower Miezan in, I was already blinking in surprise. I’d offered him the run of three principalities. Not even halfway into the first sheet of parchment, I was being asked for eight. All existing Lycaonese lands were included, and in addition to Cleves and Hainaut as I’d already put on the table he was also asking for Lyonis and Brus. Which would give him foothold on the opposite shores of the Tomb and the Grave, but also neatly encircle Lake Pavin. More worryingly, if he took all of Lyonis it meant his southern border was Salia. The capital of Procer.
Surprise only continuing to sink in, I thumbed through the other parchments. The alliance would be required to be announced publically. The invitation need be extended to him for at least one hundred years and – well, shit. He wanted me to occupy two principalities myself, Bayeux and Orne. The very principalities facing the two passes out of the Red Flower Vales. Last time that territory had been under Callowan rule was the days of the Queen of Blades, and even then they’d been tributaries more than vassals. Hakram was paying closer attention to the details, I saw, and I left him to it. I turned to the Dead King.
“Your Majesty,” I said.
“Black Queen,” the yellow-eyed thing replied lightly.
“This is a significant expansion of the terms offered,” I said. “Which surprises me, given how amenable you seemed to the initial proposal.”
“I was,” the Hidden Horror agreed. “But then I was made a better offer.”
The world slowed, and all I heard was the quickening of my pulse. A better offer. Who – no, that wasn’t even a question worth asking was it?
“Dread Empress Malicia,” I said, voice eerily calm.
“Has been an honoured guest of mine for some time,” the Dead King said. “She also has an interest in securing an alliance, though I found it unsporting to never give you such a chance. You currently look at a transcript of her latest offer, save for the addition of the occupation of Proceran territory. That is a boon I offer you myself.”
It was no such thing, I thought. He wanted me to take a bite out of Procer so their attention would be divided when the day of reckoning came. And to ensure that no deal would be possible to make with Hasenbach or her replacement, since I’d have outright occupied part of their realm. Something that would be difficult for Malicia to achieve, since she’d need to reconquer Callow before getting anywhere near the Principate – and to do all of that while at odds with her finest generals.
“A bidding war,” Akua said thoughtfully, the first time she had even spoken in this hall.
“I prefer to think of it as an auction,” the Dead King replied. “With the face of Calernia in our time as the prize.”
I let out a long breath, forced myself to smile.
“An intriguing offer,” I said. “Might we be allowed to discuss it between ourselves before giving you an answer?”
“By all means,” Neshamah smiled. “Should you require light to be shed on any point, my Hosts are at your service. They were made aware of my intent.”
I rose to my feet, feeling like a dozen pounds of lead were tied to them. I bowed exactly as low as was required. Shooting a quelling look at Archer, who looked about to speak, I gestured for the others to follow me out.
We’d been had, but here was not the place to rage about it.
Vivienne slapped down her pile of parchments on the table the moment the wards went up.
“That fucker,” she snarled. “So much for ‘negotiations in good faith’, Hakram.”
I spent a moment wondering whether I was responsible for the fact that my closest companions could be so cavalier as to call the likes of the Dead King ‘that fucker’ while shuffling uneasily under the silent pressure of Masego’s sorcery. Being under that had not become any more pleasant with the passing of time. The itch was already under my skin, bringing restlessness with it. Whatever it was I had become, it was not meant to be contained. My eyes flicked to Ajutant, who had ignored Thief’s jibe to bring our finest map of Calernia to the table. He methodically set aside the parchments to spread it completely, then set down iron figurines at the borders the Dead King’s last proposal had outlined.
“A lot of land to evacuate, even with forewarning,” Archer noted, dragging a chair to the table.
The ugly scraping sound of wood against stone made me want to rip her hair out, but that was an almost daily occurrence with Indrani.
“Around a third of the Principate, in sum,” Akua noted. “Though the Lycaonese territories are the poorest and least populated by a wide margin. Archer’s warning is somewhat inaccurate, however. Keter’s advance will not be immediate or uncontested: it is not impossible for mass displacement to occur before the principalities fall.”
“It would mean several million refugees,” Hakram said calmly. “Hunger, sickness and weather will slay them by the thousands.”
“We’d get two principalities out of the deal, though,” Archer said cheerfully. “That’s nice of him. Good change of pace from the whole defence thing we’ve been on about. Would be pleasant to let them worry about us instead the other way around, for once.”
“We’re in no position to take or hold those lands, Indrani,” Vivienne said flatly. “And the moment we announced publically that we’re allying with the Kingdom of the Dead, half of Callow turns on us. Malicia has us beat there. The Wasteland might get worried if she announces that, but it won’t revolt.”
“It should not be impossible to remove that part if we compensate with other coin,” Hakram said. “Brabant, or perhaps Arans? The latter would significantly enlarge his border with the Golden Bloom. The elves might not take kindly to that.”
“It would also mean direct border with his expanded realm, if we take Bayeux ourselves,” Akua said. “Salia itself would be a superior bid. Let him lose a few hordes besieging the heart of Procer.”
“Or we could leave,” Hierophant said, voice slicing through the conversation.
They all turned to look at him. Slowly I took out my pipe and ripped a satchel to stuff it.
“I’ve already learned enough from perusing the city to study for decades,” Masego shrugged. “And there are more echoes to be harvested while we return. If the terms are not to our satisfaction, why do we not simply go?”
I caught his eye and looked down meaningfully at my pipe. With a sigh, he flicked his wrist and a flash of flame saw to it.
“We need a counterweight, Masego,” Vivienne said tiredly. “The crusade rolls through Callow otherwise. I don’t like that we’re playing his game, but we’re low on choices.”
“Must we?” Akua said.
My eyes turned to her, and she inclined her head.
“Let Malicia unleash the Hidden Horror,” she said. “She is a rival here, yet not necessarily a foe. She would desire the Dead King rampant no more than us. Giving ground here allows us to achieve our purpose – an invasion of Procer by the Kingdom of the Dead – without wounding our reputation the way making that pact ourselves would. On the other hand, a bidding war hurts both our positions. We would need to make greater and greater concessions, with the Dead King the only true victor of that strife.”
“We will not,” Hakram said calmly.
As he should. Of all of them, he knew me best. I inhaled the wakeleaf and blew it out, earning the odd sight of smoke going through Akua’s body.
“We will not,” I agreed. “We don’t know what terms Malicia would end up giving, but I am quite certain they won’t involve anything aimed at limiting casualties.”
“She’s right about part of it, Cat,” Thief said, sounding pained at the admission. “We can’t keep escalating our offers. We’ll end up selling out half the continent and it won’t even come in sight of the Empire’s bottom line.”
“Go a step deeper, Vivienne,” I said. “Look at how Malicia has been behaving since the crusade began. How has she been acting?”
“She hasn’t,” Hakram said, eyes sharpening.
Akua softly laughed.
“Poisoning the river when owning a well,” she mused in Mtethwa. “She does play an exquisite game, doesn’t she?”
“She let Callow bleed against the crusaders, but not to weaken the crusade like we thought,” I said. “She was weakening us. The same way she let Black bleed his loyalist legions. The point was never to deal with the Tenth Crusade, it was to cripple her internal threats enough she can handle them herself. Because it didn’t really matter to her, whether the passage or the Vales fell. It was never going to be the front she fought this war on.”
“The Dead King,” Thief said quietly. “The Dead King is her army.”
“We could bargain for a year and she’d still go deeper,” I said. “Because this is her play. This is the force she needs on the field.”
“That might be true,” Vivienne said. “But it is no solution.”
“Our offer doesn’t change,” I said calmly. “And like so many troubled young souls before us, we will let scripture guide our hands.”
“There’s stuff in the Book of All Things about this?” Archer said, leaning forward. “Damn. Maybe I should read it.”
“It’s a Wasteland foe we face,” I said. “So it’s that most sacred of Wasteland traditions we’ll turn to.”
I spat out a mouthful of smoke, let it wreath my face as I smiled.
“I speak, of course, of regicide.”