“Do I even need to give the order?”
– Dread Empress Massacre
“Mobility is how they have survived, Your Most Serene Highness,” General Altraste said. “We have easily five times their number on the field, but divided and constantly forced to march in different directions. The moment the Legions are trapped we have won the battle.”
The man’s long and elaborate mustache moved distractingly as he spoke, though Cordelia forced herself to ignore it. Diego Altraste had duly embraced the Arlesite practice of turning his facial hair into a spectacle, keeping it waxed and curved with near-religious dedication. The First Prince had always thought the custom made men look like buffoons, though it would not be diplomatic to voice as much. Her court in Salia had scrupulously observed the latest fervours of southern nobility, as it would have been too easy to dismiss her as a barbarous Lycaonese otherwise. She herself rarely partook. A First Prince set fashion, they did not bow to it. Watching dainty Alamans ladies weave their hair into Rhenian war braids after she’d adopted the style for a few months had been a rare source of amusement in a year that had provided precious little of that.
“I am aware of the numbers, general,” she replied. “And of how they have failed to lead to victories, no matter how oft repeated to me.”
“I understand you are displeased by the fall of Lutes,” the man delicately said.
Quite the understatement, that. Iserre’s northern border was not a heavily armed one, as its ruling family’s relations with Cantal had been more than cordial for decades. Their lines had intertwined so often it was a popular jest in Procer that to split the difference between the royalty of Cantal and Iserre one would need a very sharp knife. The Carrion’s Lord descent into the Principality of Iserre had only one sharp obstacle, the old fortress-town of Lutes. A remnant of the days when ancient Arlesite tribes had pushed deep into Alamans territory, Lutes was a spit of rock with tall wall and taller towers. One that boasted fewer than ten thousand souls, but unlike most of Iserre the town had been garrisoned. Bandits had tried to take it more than once in the past, and so Prince Amadis had found it prudent to station troops there after the Great War. Disaffected fantassins were but a hungry day away from banditry, after all, and there’d been quite a few of them in Procer after Cordelia ascended the throne.
None of the First Prince’s commanders had kept to the illusion that Lutes would hold indefinitely, but there had been an expectation that it would slow down Praesi advance into Iserre. Perhaps long enough for the Levantine reinforcing army to make shore southwards enough it would be able to reinforce the gathering forces in the capital of Iserre, preventing its loss to the Legions. Instead the town had fallen literally overnight. The Carrion Lord had struck bargain with bandits, who’d infiltrated the fortress and opened the gates to his forces after night fell in exchange for the lion’s share of the loot. The defenders were caught unawares and half-asleep, bloody massacre ensued and when dawn rose the Legions of Terror were marching south once more. Worse, the fact that the Black Knight had kept to his terms with the bandits had spread across the entire region. The temptation of treachery would only deepen, and the Silver Letters were not responding near swiftly enough for her tastes.
“I know little of matters of war,” Cordelia said. “Yet it occurs to me that with the fall of that fortress, we have effectively lost the northern half of the principality. They cannot occupy it, of course, but more importantly we cannot defend it. And now you come to me with a scheme that involves abandoning yet another city to the enemy.”
That this conversation even needed to be had was infuriating. A mere sixteen thousand men had escaped the Red Flower Vales to wage war on the greatest nation of Calernia’s surface and yet the last four months had brought only word of defeat after defeat. Exiled vagabonds were burning a swath through the heartlands of Procer, which was a disaster in too many ways to count. Cordelia knew better than anyone how fragile the Principate truly was, at the moment. The land had not yet truly recovered from two decades of civil war, though she’d had few other choice than to wage yet another conflict – it would have been near-impossible to rebuild if the mass of fantassins left from the Great War were still there to agitate. Cantal being made a ruin had been a heavy blow, and if Iserre was put to the torch as well would mean starvation in the south-east come winter. The bloody Praesi were burning every granary they couldn’t carry, after all, years of accumulated grain going up into smoke.
The most aggravating part was, she thought, that she still had armies to field but that she could not send them after the Black Knight. Now that Catherine Foundling had made it clear the Dead King’s assault was imminent and not months away, the host under Uncle Klaus had to hurry north at the expense of all else. The northern invasion force under Princess Malanza was already marching towards Cleves, but the woman had made it clear that the Callowan campaign had left the army a wreck. The Black Queen had apparently assassinated almost every professional officer in it, then butchered her way through a significant portion of the most reputable fantassin companies. Malanza had described her host as having more generals than lieutenants, and the First Prince did not need to be a seasoned veteran to understand the dangers of that. If Malanza held tall walls, she might weather the storm long enough for Uncle Klaus to arrive. If she did not make it to Cleves swiftly enough, the shores of the Tomb would fall and the Dead King would gain solid foothold in Procer.
The last significant Proceran force was guarding the border with the League of Free Cities, and it could not be moved. The political consequences of that would be dire enough – if Cordelia could no longer offer protection the Princess of Tenerife would seek another patron and further damage the First Prince’s position in the Highest Assembly – but the strategic ones were worse. The League had yet to declare war, but it had mustered its armies. The moment the twenty thousand soldiers in Tenerife left the south became wide open to invasion. She’d attempted correspondence with the Hierarch to probe intentions and six months past the man had finally deigned to reply. Cordelia almost wished he hadn’t. The missive had been three pages long, most of which castigating the notion of inherited rule as Wicked Tyranny, Procer itself as A Rapacious Pack Of Foreign Oligarchs and her suggestion of formal truce talks as Treason Against The Will Of The People. Which people in particular, she’d noted, he had not specified. He’d at least recognized her title of First Prince, as it was the result of an election.
The Tyrant of Helike had sent a secret missive along the other letter, swearing eternal friendship and making assurances that he’d increased the size of Helike’s army twofold as a ‘purely defensive measure’. He went on writing of his deep regrets for the recent civil war in the League, which he was apparently trying to cast himself as mournful of after single-handedly starting and winning. The First Prince had not known until then it was possible for someone’s calligraphy to come across as blatantly insincere, but her horizons had since been expanded.
“Your Highness,” General Altraste said, “may I be frank?”
“I expect all my officers to offer me truth, no matter how unpalatable,” Cordelia replied, and meant it.
“If we try to defend the city with every force at our disposal, we may very well still lose it,” he said. “And that defeat would be the end of Iserre. I will not pretend the plan I offer is pleasant to behold: it will require ugly sacrifice. But if we do not cut the rot before it spreads, it is not only Iserre we risk losing.”
Cordelia did not answer. She looked out the windows instead, watched Salia below her. The tall bell towers of the many churches, the mansions and palaces of royalty. The people still filling every nook and cranny of the largest city on Calernia when autumn was painting leaves red and gold. She thought of a cold night in Rhenia, when she’d been seven and come across her mother drinking alone in the hall. Mother had still been half a goddess in her eyes, back then, implacable and undaunted. She’d asked her why she looked so sad. Sometimes survival is an ugly affair, my sweet, Mother had told her. It would be years until she learned that her mother had just ordered a pass collapsed and every village beyond it abandoned to the ratlings. Too many soldiers had gone to Hannoven to aid in turning back the warbands come with spring thaw. Hundreds of Rhenians had been left to die to tooth and claw, abandoned in the cold. The thousands that would have died had the ratling made it through the pass were spared.
“Do what needs to be done, general,” Cordelia Hasenbach quietly said.
“Interesting,” Amadeus said.
The others insisted on treating him like he was made of glass, yet for all that his body had become pale and sickly his mind had not dulled. Spreading an aspect across sixteen thousand soldiers – closer to fifteen now, he corrected – exhausted him to the extent he could barely stand, most days. Being carried like on a litter an invalid had been a private humiliation, though he was not one to let petty pride get in the way of necessity. He was currently more useful as a logistical asset than a field one. Still, the sweat and shivers had been an unpleasant surprise. He’d not known sickness in a very long time, and this was perhaps as close as a Named could come to it.
“We won’t get to plunder a waystation twice,” Scribe said. “The Circle of Thorns is recalling all assets in the region and the Silver Letters are withdrawing everything but observers.”
Those two organizations were, respectively, the foreign and domestic intelligence apparatuses of the Principate. The Silver Letters occasionally also dabbled in assassination or a spot of sabotage in the past, though under Hasenbach they’re curtailed those activities to Praesi agents only. He had great respect for the Circle of Thorns, personally. They were one of the most skillful and well-funded spy networks in the history of Calernia, and had been pursuing Procer’s interests abroad with regular success for centuries. It also operated with only middling oversight from the throne: even at the height of the Proceran civil war, the Eyes of the Empire had been forced to fight them tooth and nail for every success in the Free Cities. Their information was, as a rule, reliable and delivered to the appropriate individuals in a timely manner. The Silver Letters, on the other hand, had been made sport of by Imperial agents for decades. They had connections with the gutter and the servants as well as the ruthlessness to properly use them, but they lacked the professional training and arcane tools the Eyes of the Empire had gained since Alaya climbed the Tower. Their internal squables had been exploited by Scribe’s agents with relish, though only ever through careful intermediaries – they despised the Eyes to the bone.
“It does not matter,” Amadeus finally said. “From what we have learned we can deduce more, and sooner or later we will succeed at getting our hands on royal correspondence.”
The household guard of Cantal had burned their ruler’s personal papers when it became evident the capital would fall, which was good and clever service yet somewhat inconvenient to the Black Knight. He’d personally commended the captain responsible and offered the man an officer’s commission in the Legions, though sadly he’d refused. Out of respect he’d allowed the captain poison instead of the blade, though the execution had been a given. Amadeus was fond of talent, yet not so fond he would leave it in the service of his foes. Grem strode into the tent moments later, parting the flap and letting in the scent of smoke and blood. Two villages had been sacked today, though legionaries had only ever marched on one. It remained a matter of great amusement to Amadeus that the Proceran campaign was yielding a greater harvest of traitors than the civil war in Praes ever had.
There was reason to it, of course. The fresh auxiliaries gained by his host were bandits who’d been at odds with local authorities long before he ever came, and who intended to melt back into the countryside with their loot the moment the Legions left. His army was seen as a passing storm here, an opportunity to be exploited. When he’d fought to put Alaya on the throne it had been with the stated intent to crush every significant Praesi power block underfoot and have them remain in that state for the foreseeable future. That he’d been a Duni backed largely by orcs and goblins in the initial stretch of the war had only added to the perception that Alaya’s supporters were hungry outsiders that would throw away all old privileges and influences in order to rise. Few Praesi of authority had been willing to lend their aid to a faction so estranged from traditional avenues of power, not until it became exceedingly clear it would win the war.
“Heard you found the letters of some Proceran spies,” Grem said, striding towards a seat.
The one-eyed orc glanced at him first, lips thinning in dismay. Amadeus kept his irritation off his face. He was exhausted, not dying.
“A waystation belonging to the Circle of Thorns,” Eudokia specified. “The letters were meant to be carried to Salia at least a week back, but our advance disrupted the journey.”
“News from abroad, then,” Grem grunted. “Shame. Knowing what the Silver Letters are up to would be a great deal more useful. That’s twice we ran into bandit groups fighting over succession, now, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”
“Damage control by Hasenbach, most likely,” Amadeus agreed. “Yet their correspondence has been… enlightening. Klaus Papenheim is on the march.”
The orc’s hairless brows rose.
“He’s finally willing to chase us?” he said. “I didn’t think his niece’s position in the Assembly was that weak. Would Iserre falling really unseat her?”
“He’s marching north, old friend,” Amadeus said. “The letters also mentioned that an eye needed to be kept on the Stairway in case Duchess Kegan decided to raid into Arans. It was deemed unlikely – and I agree – but the implication that there was need of a watch at all is telling.”
“It means Malanza’s not going to be holding the pass from their end,” Grem said. “That’s their two largest field armies on the move.”
“Shit,” he finally said. “You’re sure?”
“We are,” Eudokia said.
“Then the entire north is about to be hip-deep in dead men,” Grem bluntly said. “I can’t think of another reason for Hasenbach to pull out. The Iron Prince only let us burn our way through the heartlands without lifting a finger because he judged toppling Callow as quick as possible was how the war would be turned around. He wouldn’t leave the Vales if he had any another choice, not after committing for so long.”
“That is my assessment as well,” Amadeus said. “And it means our horizons have just expanded a great deal.”
“Hainaut’s the longer coast, and it’s a maze of cliffs and passes,” Grem continued, thinking out loud. “No, Malanza won’t head there. Your apprentice ripped through her officers, that army’s running on fumes and fantassins. If it’s spread out for coastal defence half of it will bolt when the Dead King comes out. She’ll head for Cleves. It’s where Keter aims for, whenever they try to land a force, and it’s fortified almost as heavily as a Callowan city. She’ll count on the walls to hold the army together and wait until Papenheim makes it north to contest Hainaut.”
“Both those forces will not return south for years,” the Black Knight said. “That leaves them conscripts and Levantines. The army in Tenerife is unlikely to budge so long as the League doesn’t declare for anyone.”
“The Dominions has two field armies of thirty thousand,” Grem said. “I’m not worried around the one going around the lakes through Salamans, it’s not going to pursue unless we tweak their nose. But if we scrap with the one that just made shore, this campaign is finished.”
Amadeus had, in a rare flight of fancy, called this war an invasion when speaking to Ranker. It was not, practically speaking. No territory taken had been held, and this entire affair could more accurately be termed a large-scale raid. One pursued in a manner that would shake the First Prince’s position in the Highest Assembly while also aiming to damage the Principate’s ability to wage war past winter, but those were deeper strategic pursuits. Tactically, the Legions of Terror were behaving as a roving force avoiding field battles and attacking only soft positions. Raiders, by any definition. That the countryside and cities had been emptied by the massive conscription preceding the Tenth Crusade allowed Amadeus’ army to draw on its comprehensive siege experience to breach and sack cities a more traditional force would avoid, but that ability should not be mistaken for actual fighting strength. If the Legions engaged a Levantine army outnumbering them twofold, even a victory would be so costly his forces would be effectively knocked out of the war. That would be the beginning of a death spiral, Amadeus knew: without the strength necessary to forage his army would begin to starve, further slowing and weakening it until even thinned city garrisons would be enough to stamp it out.
“We know for a fact they’ve slowed down to a crawl,” Scribe said. “Even if they began a forced march tonight we should be able to take the city of Iserre and withdraw before they arrive.”
“It’s a tempting target,” Amadeus noted. “The food stores would keep us fed through winter easily and the treasury would allow us to significantly expand the ranks of our auxiliaries. Prince Milenan’s capital was spared by the civil war: it’s one of the wealthiest cities in Procer at the moment.”
“My very point,” Grem said. “If it’s that good a prize, why is Hasenbach botching its defence so badly?”
“I suspect it is beyond her control,” Scribe said. “The Dominion has expressed doubt that the terms of alliance signed cover the defence of Procer itself.”
“They can’t seriously expect that to hold up,” the orc growled. “They’d be stabbing an ally in broad daylight. If they screw another crusader in the middle of a crusade their reputation is dust.”
“Eudokia is of the opinion that they’re shaking down the First Prince for concessions,” Amadeus said. “Letting Iserre burn would make her fold quick enough, no matter her objections.”
The orc’s sole eye turned to him.
“Six months ago, the Ashuran committee liaising with the Grand Alliance formally requested access to the Thalassocracy’s most accurate maps of Praes as well as the tally of trade goods compiled by its merchant captains,” Amadeus said. “There can be no doubt that the signatories are already debating how best to partition Praes after the crusade. There are also known proponents of the extermination of all humans within Imperial borders in the Dominion’s upper ranks, though they remain a loud minority for now. They still represent a significant portion of the Levantine armies we are facing at this very moment, which grants them leverage. The First Prince is currently losing control of the Highest Assembly, desperately in need of reinforcements to face both us and the Dead King and it’s an open secret she fought against the results of the conclave in Salia and lost. If Levant was ever going to turn the screws on her for concessions, now is the time. All the stars are aligned.”
“Queen Catherine is also still unaccounted for,” Scribe said. “In a way she’s the most immediate threat of all. She could appear on the outskirts of Salia with the entire Army of Callow, and even if the Augur warns Hasenbach in advance her armies cannot magically cross half of Procer to arrive in time. Every single plan they make has to take that under consideration.”
“They can fight a better war than this,” Marshal Grem One-Eye said. “I won’t deny anything you said, but you both know I’m speaking the truth. There’s the scent of hubris in the air, Black. I don’t like it.”
“So there is,” Amadeus murmured. “I suppose there’s only one question left to ask, then.”
“And what’s that?” the orc said, eye narrowed.
“Shall we roll the dice one more time, old friend?” the Carrion Lord smiled, slow and thin and utterly cold.