“There is enough room to fit the entire span of Creation between the Heavens and the mouths of priests.”
– Antoine Merovins, twenty-second First Prince of Procer
It’d been the Battle of the Camps that started the fire.
Cordelia, in retrospect, could see how it had all unfolded. If the army under Amadis Milenan had been defeated by mortal arms it might have been possible to smother the first flames before they caught, but the Black Queen had not deigned to offer that opportunity. The Prince of Iserre could have been ruined in the High Assembly if he’d blundered and lost dozens of thousands on some Callowan field to a superior general, but who could castigate him for deaths borne from the sky opening over his army? You might as well blame a man for a storm or an earthquake. Milenan had then made pacts with the Callowans and promptly surrendered himself into their hands as a guarantor of that truce. He was a folk hero in Alamans lands, now. The selfless prince who had put his life in the hands of the savages to spare his soldiers a slow and painful death. A true exemplar of Proceran noblesse oblige. His royal confederates had not even waited until they returned to the Principate before beginning to lionize the man through letters and songs. Even rats could man a ship, when the alternative was sinking.
There could be no serious effort to place the blame on the Grey Pilgrim, either, even if he had been the informal leader of the Chosen with the northern host. Aside from the Levantine hero’s own leave of absence as a hostage in Laure, it would have hollowed the Grand Alliance from within to besmirch the reputation the Dominion’s favourite son. Alienated quite a few heroes as well, and not only those that shared his origins. Every report Cordelia had received about the short assembly of every Chosen before they split between armies had hammered home the implication that the White Knight might be the presumptive leader of the heroes of the Tenth Crusade but that the Peregrine was highly influential. Mobilizing Chosen was like herding cats at the best of times, and the First Prince felt ill at the notion of having to do so after having publicly disgraced their communal kindly grandfather. In the face of earthly powers, the heroes tended to close ranks: they would see this as an outright attack.
In the end, no one could be blamed – which meant everyone was to blame. Especially the Black Queen and her cadre of wicked fae and perfidious villains, served willingly by her armies of Callowan heretics, but there’d been no lack of fault thrown about within the Principate. Most of it had been laid at her feet. She was losing grip on the princes, she’d said. After all, her own subjects had preferred making truce with the Black Queen to fighting until the end. The Levantines had snickered in the beards, making sly comments about the worth of Proceran soldiery. Cordelia had spent many a sleepless night containing the damage, making pacts across the entire eastern belt of principalities to ensure the retreating army would be supplied and reinforced on its march south to join her uncle in waging war against the Carrion Lord. It had all come to nothing, as not even a fortnight passed before the news of the bloody draw at the Red Flower Vales reached Salia.
In terms of fighting forces, the battle had been costly yet no great wound. Military superiority had been maintained by a wide enough margin the remaining armies of the Black Knight could be ground to dust on an open field. In matters of reputation, however? It had been a crippling blow. Uncle Klaus’ repute would not be so fragile a single reversal would upend it, but the Lycaonese had enemies in the south. Like poison in the wine the rumours had spread that the Iron Prince had grown doddering in his old age. That Cordelia had known of his senility yet ignored in an attempt to bring glory to her kin. It had been a crack in her pedestal, and now the jackals had bared their teeth. The coalition of royalty that had seen her rise to the throne, Lycaonese and northern Alamans, had remained loyal. But the the edges of her majority in the Highest Assembly had frayed. The tipping point had been one of the harshest arguments she’d had with her uncle that she could remember. She’d wanted him to split the army at the Vales and send half of it in pursuit of the Carrion Lord’s legions, but he had flatly refused. Bayeux would burn, he’d said, and perhaps Aisne as well – but then the Praesi would find themselves surrounded and crushed. By remaining at the Vales he was forcing Callow to remain on the defensive and readying the snatch the initiative as soon as the passes were cleared.
In matters of military strategy, Cordelia trusted none more than Klaus Papenheim. Yet he was failing to see the broader canvas in which he took action: the Prince of Bayeux had signified that his vote could no longer be counted on the very evening he’d learned that his principality would see no reinforcements. His kinswoman in Aisne put forward a motion of protest in the Assembly the following day, and though it was defeated it could be understood from the public denunciation that her vote would no longer be for sale at further sessions. In the wake of that blow, like carrion to carnage, the self-proclaimed Kingdom of Callow had sent formal request to join the Grand Alliance.
The feeding frenzy that ensued was a heinous thing.
It’d been impossible to keep it quiet. Half a dozen Ashuran committees would be presented with the papers, and it was a certainty at least one of the sitters among them would have a loose tongue – and that was without even considering the Levantines, whose lords and ladies argued about even their own state secrets in broad daylight. The viciousness of the rhetoric that followed surprised even the First Prince, who had once believed she knew the worst the Assembly had to peddle. The Arlesites principalities had been lukewarm at the notion, many more concerned by the massing armies of the League than any matters Callowan, but the Alamans? Three different princes spent half an Assembly session railing at the heresy inherent in treating with a woman the House of Light had declared abomination. War on Callow must be prosecuted to the last holdout, every trace of Evil scoured from that backwards kingdom even if it took torches to see the business done. A choice had to be made, then, in how Cordelia would spend her influence. She could either make quiet concessions and assurances behind closed doors so that no coalition of princes numerous enough to unseat her formed, or she could call in every favour she’d accumulated since her crowning to have the proposal shoved through the Highest Assembly’s throat.
She’d been teetering on the brink of a decision, when Catherine Foundling called on her. That hard-eyed young woman bearing a mantle of power with eerie nonchalance, speaking of peace and treaties and alliances even as she raised thousands from the dead and split the sky asunder with her wrath. The greatest warlord of their age, with a string of impossible victories to her name – against her own people, yes, but also the Wasteland and the legendary hosts of the fae. She’d murdered a god, it was whispered. She had tricked a Choir into resurrecting her, laughed in the face of the mercy it offered. It took will, Cordelia knew, to deny even the shadow of the Heavens. That smiling girl in faded plate had borne the full weight of their hatred and walked away whole. Her madness must be one beyond measure. What kind of titanic arrogance did it take for a young girl to believe she knew better than even the Gods? And yet when she had sat across Cordelia in that strange shadowed world, she had made a reasonable offer. Abdication, if on her own terms. Alliance against the Empire, for assurances of Callowan independence. And so the First Prince had hesitated.
Then reality had come calling, of course. It was a tempting offer, as devils were wont to provide, but it would shatter the Grand Alliance. The Dominion’s highborn would never brook such a compromise willingly, and twisting their arm into accepting it would make it certain Levant would withdraw from the Alliance the moment the Tenth Crusade ended. The Thalassocracy might agree, as Magon Hadast misliked having his finest war fleets abroad while Nicae stirred near his belly, but it was no sure thing. And if Cordelia accepted the Callowan offer, backed it in the Highest Assembly and proposed it to the Grand Alliance only for it to be spurned by her own allies? She would be unseated within the month. For a moment she dared to walk the line anyway, to try to secure such an overwhelming diplomatic triumph that not a soul would be able to deny she had won the war with words instead of swords. It failed, of course. Foundling trusted her no more than Cordelia trusted the other woman, and seemed to have grown more reluctant to slay her people since the Liesse Rebellion – even if such a sacrifice would ultimately result in a lesser loss of lives. It had been the correct choice, she knew.
And still, sometimes, she thought of the cold bleakness in the Black Queen’s eye. Of the woeful oath she’d spoken. She did not sleep well, on those nights, if she slept at all. Her attendants had grown skilful at masking the circles around her eyes with powders, and brews by the palace alchemists kept her sharp when rest eluded her. Cordelia felt a well of gratitude for her handmaidens, smiling at the envoys she was sharing tea with. They would have pounced on even the smallest hint of weakness. Ashurans of the sixth citizenship tier were notoriously cutthroat.
“The matter of partition will need to be addressed in writing sooner or later, Your Most Serene Highness,” the tanned young man said.
Ahirom Seneqart, his name was. He was a frequent patron of the pleasure house nearest to the palace, and quite loquacious after sharing a bed with nubile young men. Never less than two. A man of great appetites, this one. Cordelia, as the ruling Princess of Salia, had naturally inherited the ancient web of informants that counted every madam and bawd in the capital. It was ancient Proceran custom to sift through the pillow-talk of foreign envoys to better outwit them.
“You are most correct, Sitter Ahirom,” the First Prince said.
No coquettish smile for this one. His tastes ran exclusively to the other sex, if his spending habits were any indication. Instead she sipped daintily at her cup – an Ashuran leaf from Smyrna, as a courtesy – before setting down the porcelain.
“Yet it strikes me as premature to set in stone such terms before the end of the crusade has come in sight,” she continued. “I have long admired the methods of the people of Ashur, who ever choose steady deliberation over hasty mistakes.”
“The people of Ashur have deliberated over this matter, First Prince,” Ahirom’s grim-faced companion replied. “The conclusion is being presented to you.”
The other speaker for the committee assigned the task of overseeing the Thalassocracy’s actions within the Grand Alliance. A woman, this one, and in Cordelia’s opinion quite the incompetent. Sitter Adonia had quite the imposing presence, tall and well-proportioned with long dark hair going down to the small of her back. She’d been a fleet commander of some renown, before rising two tiers in the wake of her crushing of a small armada of corsairs form the Tideless Isle. Quite good with a cutlass, allegedly, but in matters of diplomacy she was the proverbial stone hitting the glass house. She’d been appointed to the committee as a voice for the fleets, Cordelia reminded herself. She was not meant to be a proper envoy, merely the eyes of Ashur’s soldiery in the Grand Alliance.
“It was my understanding that Thalassina has yet to be breached,” Cordelia said, keeping her pleasant smile. “And that High Admiral Hadast’s glorious victory at Nok was followed by a withdrawal.”
A polite way to remind the jackals that requesting that the Wasteland’s only two ports be ceded to Ashur after the conquest of the Empire was somewhat laughable considering the Ashurans had yet to establish any significant presence on the ground. The raids from the coast had to be costing Malicia quite a bit, but they were only that – costly. The Empire still had nearly all its legions in the field, and the sack of Nok had evidently failed to trigger a war of usurpation.
“Let me be clearer,” Sitter Adonia said bluntly. “There will be no repeat of the crusader kingdoms. That method of dismantling Praes has failed. The Thalassocracy agrees with the Dominion’s proposal of forced deportation. When this is implemented, it is only natural for Ashur to inherit the coastal lands of Praes. No other are fit to hold them.”
Cordelia sipped at her tea in silence, eyeing Sitter Ahirom and his uncomfortable look. The implication that the other two signatories of the Grand Alliance would force Procer to agree to certain terms after the Tenth Crusade was impolitical to speak, even if it might be true in essence. Sitter Adonia had failed to mention, naturally, that the Levantines were not all behind that deportation proposal. A significant portion of the Majilis was arguing for the more moderate position of Praes being purged of its aristocracy and portioned into small Alliance protectorates. A few were arguing for outright massacre, but they had yet to gain any real support. Thank the Gods for that.
“My fellow sitter meant no slight, Most Serene Highness,” Sitter Ahirom said, smiling embarrassedly. “Ashur remains committed to all treaties signed, and would never seek to influence the decisions of the Alliance in an unseemly manner. We merely request that the Principate begin to consider the shape of the crusade’s aftermath.”
“A most reasonable request,” Cordelia mildly said. “Yet a full session of the Highest Assembly is not feasible to call with so many princes and princesses warring far from Salia. A treaty of this magnitude would require more than two thirds of the Assembly to be present and acquiescent, without any surrogate casting. You may rest assured, however, that I will raise the matter with the appropriate parties to prepare the grounds.”
“There’s no need to play coy, First Prince,” Sitter Adonia sneered. “We understand how these matters proceed. The committee is willing to recommend to Magon Hadast that the Red Flower Vales, along with Ankou and all attendant lands, be recognized as a natural extension of the Principate.”
It had been a very long time, Cordelia thought, since anyone had tried to bribe her with such open contempt. Setting aside that any occupation of Callowan land would turn into a brutal grind of constant banditry and rebellions – they were, for the Heavens’ sake, a people that prided themselves on inheriting grudges from generation to generation – Cordelia had absolutely no intention of annexing any part of Callow. Would she split it into several kingdoms? Absolutely. It was necessary to ensure that the Black Queen’s surviving partisans would not be able to mount any significant bid for power until her memory had faded among the populace and could no longer serve as an effective rallying cry. There were already separatist currents within the region, anyway. The northern baronies were near a kingdom of their own, the Duchy of Daoine was independent even when it bothered to pretend otherwise, and most the south had remained under aristocratic rule until mere years ago: the people there, unlike those who’d lived for decades under Imperial governors, had never entirely abandoned the old Callowan way of life. In the face of the insolent sitter’s gaffe, Cordelia allowed displeasure to touch her face for the first time since they’d begun this audience. She cocked an eyebrow and glanced at the other Ashuran.
“An interesting position,” she said, a mite coldly, “for the Thalassocracy to take. I am not in the habit of carelessly disposing of lands, nor do I take kindly to attempted bribes.”
The man looked like he’d plunged his hand into a brazier, and the look her sent at his colleague promised a hard conversation.
“My fellow sitter misspoke, Most Serene Highness,” he said. “It appears the coldness of these lands had inflicted her with some manner of fever. Please forget anything that was said.”
“I am saddened to hear that the weather has left Sitter Adonia indisposed,” Cordelia said pleasantly. “Perhaps she should be allowed to rest, I simply could not bear to be responsible for the ill-health of a treasured ally.”
The woman looked furious, but after locking eyes with the other envoy she bit her tongue.
“We would not impose on your patience any longer, First Prince,” the man said. “Yet before we take our leave, might I raise a small matter?”
Cordelia debated instructing them to pass the request along to one of her officials as a polite chiding for the utter lack of manners Adonia had offered, but after a moment decided against it. Best to have Sitter Ahirom owe her a small favour instead. He was more malleable clay than most among his committee, and holding the debt without ever calling it in would make him more hesitant to contradict her in sessions where the Levantines were in attendance.
“It would be my pleasure,” she said, demurely inclining her head.
Ahirom’s smile was rueful. He knew very well what he’d just surrendered.
“A delegation of Speakers from the homeland has recently arrived in the city,” he said, if she hadn’t known they were coming months before they ever came in sight of Salia. “They mean to consult with the House of Light on some matter of theology. Might I trouble you for the throne’s permission?”
The blonde Lycaonese brought the teacup to her lips, mind spinning. This was, in truth, something of an offered courtesy. She did not have the authority to forbid Proceran priests from holding council with the Ashuran cultists. Yet granting official permission would change the nature of the sessions held. It might become an official conclave, however unlikely such an affair was to take place – the Speakers were mystics prone to speaking in riddles, and had no patience for the many scriptures and theologies of the House of Light. In truth, the council would take place whatever she said. Best to give sanction, and in hosting the event on palace grounds ensure she had eyes and ears at the proceedings. If they turned to one of the many Salian cathedrals instead, inserting agents would be a tricky affair to accomplish without ruffling the feathers of the priests.
“You have it, of course,” Cordelia smiled. “It is but a small matter, Sitter Ahirom. I will naturally arrange accommodations, for I would not slight the famous sage-priests of Ashur.”
She set the affair aside, after the sitter left. She would keep an eye on the proceedings to ensure that whatever priestly squabble emerge did not threaten to spill over into Grand Alliance, but there were more pressing matters to see to. The Levantines were making noises about it being a breach of terms for their hosts to protect Proceran lands instead of taking the war to the Wasteland, ignoring the fact that they’d been asked to march on a Praesi army led by the Empress’ two finest generals, and she needed to convince the Princess of Tenerife she still had the full support of the throne without committing any more troops to the border with the League. Agnes sent for her just before nightfall. Cordelia did not hurry in a manner that would be unseemly, but immediately set aside any duties that were not essential. The moon was out when she joined her cousin in the palace gardens.
“Woe, Cordelia,” the Augur said. “Woe to the north and to the south. Sit and listen, before it is too late.”