“What is it if not sorcery, that I can tax a single belltower in Salia and set half a dozen cities ablaze?”
– First Princess Anaïs of Cantal, referring to the incident that began the First Liturgical War. Later became the Proceran shorthand of ‘Salian belltower’, referring to a small act carrying disastrous consequences.
As a girl Cordelia had made a deep study of ruling, knowing that she would day inherit Rhenia and intending to serve her people as best she could. Her few journeys south had made her feel the limits of Lycaonese wisdom acutely, and so she had sought answer beyond the traditions of her people: not to simply discard the lessons of her forbears, but to pair them with the learning of other realms. She had looked far, in acquiring tomes. There was little literature of worth out of Callow, save for Jehan the Wise’s sharply-tongued memoirs, but the the Free Cities and the Thalassocracy had borne greater fruit. The Ashurans had led a remarkably stable state for centuries in the face of episodic warfare with Nicae and its allies, and their admittedly dry records were worth the reading if one could stomach the tediousness of the minutia. The islanders, however, had few lessons to offer beyond those touching on the establishment and maintenance of a strong bureaucracy. In matters of ruling philosophy, they either parroted the faraway Baalite Hegemony’s onw sages or lapsed into the mysticism particular to their national cult. The League, on the other hand, was a treasure trove of learning and scholarship.
Of contradictions also, though that was only to be expected of such a fractious people. The asekretis of Delos had bled rivers of ink on the subject of the ideal state, attempting myriad reforms as opposing factions of the ruling Secretariat came to power, and from both failures and success there had been much to learn. Cordelia had modelled the examinations now necessary to enter civil service in Salia on those required to rise higher in the Secretariat, and found them more than adequate a method to root out the highborn parasites who’d infested the city and replace with previously unknown talents. From faraway Penthes, ever bickering with its two closest neighbours and stirring uneasy in the Empire’s shadow, she had learned the value of leveraging gold and treaties where force of arms would fail. By the most famous Tyrants of Helike, Theodosius and his always ambitious brood, Cordelia was taught the art of sowing dissent and fear to humble greater opponents.
She considered herself to have first crossed a line when she’d obtained Praesi works, all of which were illegal to possess within the Principate.
Yet there had been wisdom in those as well. Not in the rants and rambles of the most colourful foolsto climb the Tower, but in the likes of the first Dread Emperor Terribilis and Dread Empress Maleficent the Second. It would only be years later, after she was crowned Prince of Rhenia, that her reach grew long enough to acquire more recent Praesi works. Dread Empress Malicia’s treatise ‘The Death of the Age of Wonders’ had cost her a fortune and over sixty dead to acquire a mere incomplete transcription, and what she’d found had been a chilling read. It’d been a lucid, strategic look at the historical failures of the Dread Empire followed by laying out foreign policy that would prevent such disasters from happening again. The suggested rapprochement with Ashur had been the greatest danger among those put to ink, and the cause of many a sleepless night after Cordelia became First Prince. To her dismay, the Prince of Rhenia had found that much the Empress deemed the path to a better Praes was eerily similar to what she herself intended for the Lycaonese principalities. Strengthened internal trade, central oversight of crucial resources, the establishment of common institutions that would make old regional conflicts irrelevant.
The Evil now dwelling in the Tower was unlike any the Principate had faced before, she’d then understood. She had learned what she could from the enemy, and kept those lessons close. Even in those days she’d known there would be a reckoning with the East.
When she’d grown old enough to undertake the diplomatic missions her mother had always disdained and largely allowed to lapse under her reign, Cordelia had immersed herself in the teachings of broader Procer. There was an old and proud contempt for southern squabbling, among her people, and Lycaonese as a rule paid little heed to the ways of the Alamans and the Arlesites. What did the debates of the Highest Assembly matter to them, they argued, when no matter the ruler no soldiers ever marched north to help hold the passes against the dead and the rats? There was truth in that, but also bitterness that blinded. Beyond the complex tapestry of marriage alliances and shifting interests, Cordelia had found the the heart of Procer’s art of rule had been birthed by two books. The first, and oldest, was the work of Sister Salienta of the House of Light. Once royalty in Salamans, after taking her vows she had spent years penning her life’s work, the Faith of Crowns. One hundred and three pages over which the former princess had attempted to lay out the duties and responsibilities of one ruling over others as a child of the Heavens. It was beautiful prose, in truth, and thought at times it was more liturgy than practical it had very much been intended as manual for blessed rule.
Salienta had been the first to argue that the Right of Iron, the ancient prerogative by which the princes of Procer could war as they wished, was no simple allowance: that regardless of permission, only a just war should ever be waged. She’d spoken of the right of those who toiled over land to own it, of the unholy greed behind taxes serving to enrich instead of serve. It’d been highly contentious at the time, but after open endorsement by the House of Light it had grown wildly popular and the book had since grown to permeate political discourse in Procer. Cordelia herself had drawn on the Faith of Crowns when declaring the Tenth Crusade, qualifying it as a just war according to the third definition laid out by Salienta. Still, as much as the writings had resonated with her it was what had come from them she’d studied closest. How, in essence, the royalty of Procer had found ways to follow its instructions to the letter while violating their spirit. The manufacture of ‘just cause’ to enable wars of expansion, allowing common folk to own the land yet to keep it only for a fee, the complex array of moral pretexts to justify often gouging taxes.
Salienta’s work had always been closely linked with the power of the House of Light, and so in a way it was no surprise that its first written rebuttal was offered after the last of the Liturgical Wars came to a close. None had ever claimed authorship of the small work simply titled On Rule, yet it was an open secret in Procer that its father was Prince Bastien of Arans, the same man who later became the very first of his homeland to be elected First Prince of Procer. Where the Faith of Crowns had been a religious and moral guide to dominion, On Rule was a dispassionate study of the acquisition and preservation of power. To this day, it was considered impious to a copy of the book, for within it Prince Bastien baldly observed that the House of Light was an earthly force like any other, with interests and obligations, and should be treated no differently. The book pragmatically advised that guile and treachery were functional tools, if sparsely used, and that it was usually better to be a victor of ill-repute than a saintly cadaver. Going even further, it argued that moral law was a matter different from a ruler’s interests and on occasion even opposed to them. There were few princes and princess in Procer who would admit to having such a volume.
Cordelia had never met any royalty south of Neustria who did not.
Therein lay the dichotomy at the heart of the Principate, she’d thought, and she was hardly the first. To have Salienta’s tongue and Bastien’s hand, the saying went. Spoken like an insult, an implicit accusation of hypocrisy, yet it was observed more scrupulously than many laws among Alamans and Arlesites. And herself as well, she was honest enough to admit. There was beauty in the Faith of Crowns, but it was no shield for the vicious intrigues that thrived in the Highest Assembly. As the years passed, however, the blue-eyed prince had come to look at the treatises differently. Less as exercises of philosophy and more as inheritances from different eras of Procer. One where the House of Light had been entwined with the ruling class of the realm, another where it had stood rival and opponent. Since the year On Rule had been written, the nature of the pillars holding up the Principate had shifted. Though in many ways the victors of the Liturgical Wars, the priests had been estranged from the halls of power just as the once-powerful mages had been. They had kept their wealth, their ancient rights, but their foes had not forgotten the dangers of allowing the House too much influence and so slowly uprooted it from the tallest peaks of Proceran authority. Cordelia had scrupulously observed this habit, save in one matter.
That mistake, she thought, was now coming home to roost.
“Someone organized this,” the First Prince of Procer spoke with deliberate calm. “Of that there can be no doubt. The last recorded conclave involving the full priesthoods of the west dates to Triumphant’s conquest, gentlemen. This is not happenstance.”
Three men shared her solar, this morning, none of them younger than fifty. All were Alamans whose tenure as the heads of the informal triumvirate of largest Proceran spy networks preceded her second crowning. Her eyes lingered on Louis de Sartrons, a skeleton of a man with rapacious features and a bald head. As far as the Principate’s records were concerned, he was a middling official in the lower ranks of Salia’s diplomatic service. In truth man was the highest patron of the Circle of Thorns, an ancient cabal of Salian officials whose charge was to run the foreign spies of Procer. The Circle had a long tradition of abstaining from politics, providing unflinching service no matter who sat the highest throne of Procer: at the height of the Great War, before it had been clear Cordelia would triumph, the man across from her had provided regular briefings to all major contenders without playing favourites. The blonde did not particularly like him, but she could respect his dedication and sharp competence. The depths of his failure in this particular instance was made deeper disappointment for it.
“We were blindsided,” the old man admitted in a rasp. “I’ve had my people in the Thalassocracy and the Dominion scrambling for answers, but as far as we can tell there is no Ashuran committee behind it and we all know the Majilis has not held session in months. Or even informal council, for that matter. It could be the Seljun, Your Highness, but his position remains weak. He should not have the pull or coin to arrange something so far-reaching.”
The Seljun of Levant carried a dozen fantastical titles, though the only one that truly mattered to Levantines themselves was the last: First of the Pilgrim’s Blood. Direct descent from the most revered of the Dominion’s ancient founders made the ruling line of Levant effectively sacrosanct to its people, but that respect did not historically extend to lords and ladies obeying a Seljun’s instructions beyond half-hearted lip service, if even that. The current figurehead ruler of the Dominion, the Most Holy Wazim Isbili, was impotent even by the standards of his predecessors. He was an unlikely culprit in this, Cordelia was inclined to agree. If there was a foreign agent at work, she suspected it would be a committee buried somewhere in the convoluted maze the Ashurans called a government. Still, the failure now at her door was not the Circle of Thorns’ alone. Cordelia’s gaze shifted to Balthazar Serigny, a hirsute bear of a man with a thick black beard and eyebrows almost defiantly large. Balthazar the Bastard, as his subordinates often called him without a speck of fondness, was former fantassin of common birth who’d ruthlessly risen to the top of the Silver Letters by blackmailing and discrediting his every rival.
He’d thrived there, unsurprisingly, as the Silver Letters were a vicious band of thieves and murderers who’d been skilled enough at the work that over a century ago they became the left hand of the rulers of Procer. The Cordelia’s most recent predecessors had used them to keep an eye on the unrulier princes and occasionally sow internal dissent when a faction in the Highest Assembly grew dangerous, though she herself employed them as knives only to remove Eyes of the Empire. Of this shadowy triumvirate, it was Serigny she had the worst relation with. Unlike the Circle, the Silver Letters had taken sides during the Great War and several times tried to assassinate members of her inner circle on Constance of Aisne’s behalf. She’d given serious thought to having him hanged after taking the throne, but it would have antagonized the web of informants she now needed the most to remain in power. Instead she’d made it clear he was on a very thin leash, and that he would immediately begin training the successor she had chosen for him.
“It’s not us, First Prince,” Balthazar the Bastard grunted, unmoved by the unspoken reproach. “I’ve shaken every tree in the Highest Assembly and nothing fell out. The Lanterns almost caused a diplomatic accident when they passed through Orense, so they weren’t expected in the slightest. Been keeping an eye on our own temple rats ever since, but they’re closing ranks. Not a peep out of the priests. They’ve got a hand in this, sure as day.”
“There hasn’t been a word out of the House because your pack of thugs was caught out, you blundering fool,” Simon de Gorgeault hissed. “Do you know how many pointed questions I’ve had to answer?”
The man was in his seventies, closely-cropped silver hair topping an angular face that had been a poor fit when he’d still been named Simone but a reputably popular one after the oversight was corrected. He was a lay brother of the House of Light, and unlike the other two men the organization he oversaw was only one foot in the shadows. The Holy Society was more informal channel to the leadership of the House of Light than true web of spies, an association of nobleborn lay brothers and sisters who facilitated dialogue with the throne and occasionally passed along whispers the priests did not prove willing to surrender on their own. He was diplomat as much as he was a spymaster, and Cordelia had sometimes wondered where the man’s loyalty truly lay. He’d been in her service for only a few years, while his friendships in the House were decades old.
“I have some questions of my own, Brother Simon,” the First Prince said. “It is somewhat offensive that before arranging a conclave the House would not reach out to me.”
The silver-haired man grimaced.
“I’ve told them as much myself,” he said. “Yet it appears they consider this to be a religious matter, not a political one, and so consider the throne’s involvement to be unnecessary.”
“Which begs the question of what exactly that matter is, Simon,” Louis de Satrons’ reedy voice mused. “It’s customary for a conclave to be proclaimed openly and the subject of debate announced beforehand.”
The leader of the Holy Society sucked at a loose tooth, as if hesitant.
“I am told this is to be a closed session,” Brother Simon said. “By the request of a Chosen.”
Cordelia stilled. One of the heroes? The Chosen had no formal authority over any priesthood, save for those come of it, yet it would be a lie to say they had no influence. And yet none of the Chosen had caused ripples, when they had first gathered in Procer at the eve of the crusade’s first assaults.
“Which one?” the First Prince coldly asked.
“I was refused that knowledge,” the silver-haired man admitted. “And warned any meddling by the throne would be severely censured by all participants.”
The House of Light could be handled, Cordelia thought, and the Speakers were more mystics than political force, but the Lanterns? The Levantine priesthood considered strife to be a holy duty. If prodded too harshly, they would bare blades without hesitation. That would be utter disaster, the kind of diplomatic incident that could begin a breakdown of the Grand Alliance if it was not carefully handled.
“We will set that offered slight aside for now,” she said. “What is the to be the subject of the closed session?”
“Heresy,” Brother Simon said. “As pertaining to Callow.”
Cordelia did not close her eyes or sigh. She was better-mannered than that, and showing weakness in front of these men would bring no good. The temptation remained there, however, even as her mind raced. A lesser conclave in Salia had already declared Catherine Foundling to be an abomination in the eyes of the Heavens for perverting the sacred act of resurrection for the purposes of Below. This was not a minor thing, yet it carried no true legal consequences and was essentially empty censure unless the declaration was also adopted by the House of Light in Callow. Which it had not been.
Unlike its Proceran cousin, the priesthood of Callow was no monolith of shared practices and beliefs. Distant regions of the kingdom stubbornly denied the leadership of the influential cohort of priests in Laure, who had seen said influence sharply decline with the end of House Fairfax. In the latter years of the imperial occupation, the priesthood of the southern half of Callow had effectively become a separate entity from the rest. The Doom of Liesse had shattered that state of affairs, however, leaving behind disparate packs of clergy preaching stances on the Black Queen that were just as disparate. The centre had largely fallen behind her reign, and parts of the east as well – Marchford heart and soul, as she remained wildly popular there, Summerholm more reluctantly and she was mostly spoken of there as a preferable alternative to Praes. The rest was lukewarm of opinion, though many priests in the south had involved themselves with Hakram Deadhand’s care of the refugee tent cities.
Proceran priesthood often spoke of its eastern counterpart as a backwards cousin, considering its refusal to bestow titles to its own greater than Brother or Sister as archaic and its insistence to rely only on the Book of All Things as scripture as rather misguided. Callowan priests were ever quick to remind their western cousins that their practiced dated back to the founding of the kingdom, when the Principate had been nothing but a mess of warring tribes, and did not shy from sharp reminders that faith could only be tainted by involvement in earthly matters. Still, save for the occasional minor squabble the relationship between the priesthoods had been largely cordial over the last two centuries. It helped, Cordelia, had often thought, that Callowans priests were often more interested in arguing with each other than foreigners. Off-hand, she could think of only one thing that would make them band together.
“Dread Empress Malicia is Arch-heretic of the East,” the First Prince carefully said. “Only one person can carry such censure at a time.”
“She is presumptive Arch-heretic, as the woman who holds the Tower,” Brother Simon corrected. “In the absence of a formal declaration, the matter is not writ in stone. And even if it was, the decision of a Proceran lesser conclave would be overturned by a true conclave’s own proclamation.”
The man was not a fool. He’d immediately understood the first measure she would turn to in order to prevent the blunder: rustling up enough Proceran priests to declare the Empress the current Arch-heretic, preventing the same title from being granted to the Black Queen.
“Atalante is a renowned stronghold of faith in the Gods Above,” Cordelia said. “Could such a debate be delayed until representatives from its priesthood arrive?”
They would have to travel by land, the Lycaonese thought, likely through Tenerife. The ruling princess of that principality was a close and trusted ally, who could be counted on to arrange gentle delays. If the First Prince was able to slow down the proceedings, the conclave could still be persuaded to turn aside from this mistake.
“That matter was already settled by secret ballot,” Brother Simon said ruefully. “As the Hierarch of the League is of Bellerophon, a city long in the service of Below, it was determined that the priests of Atalante should be considered lapsing in the faith. The same holds for Delos and Nicae, much less Penthes – which all known to be suborned by the Empire.”
No word was spoken of the Titanomachy, yet Cordelia knew better than to try that particular avenue. Levant had ancestral ties to the Gigantes, while the giants still slew every Proceran to approach their lands. Any approach there by a First Prince would carry great dangers.
“Then the House of Light in Callow should be sent for,” Cordelia said, struggling to sound calm. “To justify its anointing of the warlord Catherine Foundling.”
“That cannot be,” the silver-haired man said quietly. “For I am told the priesthood of Callow is to stand judgement as well, for that very blasphemy.”
Her worst fears in this, confirmed.
“Brother Simon, this is a grave blunder,” the First Prince quietly said. “There are better ways to return Callow to the embrace of the Heavens. This will be seen as an attack, a spiteful blow in the wake of defeats on the field.”
The man stiffened like an angry cat.
“We speak of holy conclave, Your Most Serene Highness,” he woodenly replied. “Servants of the Heavens do not concern themselves with the sentiments of mundane powers, only that their acts are just in the eyes of Above.”
What is this, if not an act of mundane purpose? Cordelia thought. She could not treat with the Black Queen, if she was condemned a heretic by every signatory of the Grand Alliance. Worse, there would be no treating with Callow. The pattern of history there would cut too close to home. After the Fourth Crusade, when a young Principate had turned on Callow after being unceremoniously thrown out of the Wasteland by Dread Emperor Terribilis the Second, there had been attempts to crown one the the slain king’s children as a puppet to ease occupation until the pretence could be safely discarded. Juliana Fairfax had instead cut her own throat at her own coronation, immediately after declaring her rebelling cousin as heir. King Henry Fairfax the Landless had promptly been declared to be Damned by a lesser conclave in Salia, a plot that was deeply reviled in Callow to this day. The recipe here was different, yet too many ingredients were the same: a young ruler who’d fought Praes with distinction, heavy defeat followed by a Salian proclamation of heresy and the perceived collusion of priesthood with an invading force. That the Lanterns and the Speakers joined their voiced to the conclave would change little, she thought. How many Callowans had ever seen an Ashuran or Levantine? The kingdom had been closed, under Praes, and now the only living memory of either people was as a Proceran ally. Even those who despised the Black Queen’s reign would have to bow to popular sentiment and fall in line, lest they be accused of collusion with the Principate. And worse yet…
Woe, Cordelia. Woe to the north and to the south.
“I must urgently address the conclave, Brother Simon,” the First Prince said.
The old man frowned.
“That would be difficult to arrange,” he said.
“Allow me to be perfectly clear,” Cordelia Hasenbach said. “It matters not to me how many favours you must call upon, how many bridges must be burned and quiet threats made. This is no longer a question of diplomacy. It is now a question of survival.”
Brother Simon’s face smoothed out, though not before she read scepticism in the cast of it.
“I understand that the Callowan question of of import to the throne,” he slowly said.
He paused to choose his words carefully, and as as backhanded reminder of who answered to the other Cordelia smoothly placed answer to a reply unfinished.
“There is more to this than the affairs of Callow,” the First Prince said. “See it done, Brother Simon. By evening tomorrow. Or choose the abbey to which you will retire, after designating a successor less prone to dithering.”
She would not allow the Kingdom of Callow to be driven into the arms of Below. She could not.
Not after Agnes had told her the Dead King would be on the march by winter solstice.