“I fear the man of one book, even if that book is about the pastoral habits of the common Callowan cow. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a cow? They are a depthless abyss of cold nihilism.”
– King Edward IV of Callow, the Sufficiently Paranoid
In the days before the founding of the Principate, Salia had been little more than the ancient tribal grounds of the Merovins. Though rich in game and copper – mined, one no longer admitted in polite company, by slaves from rival Alamans tribes – it’d been a modest village of less than five thousand. The Merovins were known as hunters and warriors, not farmers, and had preferred to raise lodges in now-cut forests rather than gather in a city-fortress as the Arlesites to the south had practiced since times immemorial. That it’d been chosen as the seat of the council that founded the Principate had been due to a potent mixture of luck and politicking by Clothor Merovins. Salia had been well placed to host the armies returned victorious from the First Crusade and the fall of Triumphant, and had represented something of a compromised between the already-squabbling factions of Alamans chiefs and Arlesites kings who both desired the council closer to their own holdings. It was a famous story that Clothor had sold all his possessions, down to his last pair of boots, to bribe the recalcitrant into agreeing.
Like so many stories on which the foundation of realms were built, it was a lie. Clothor had been one of the wealthiest men in the not-yet-Principate, having discretely stolen the Callowan tributes meant for Dread Empress Triumphant that were getting readied when the continent-wide rebellion against her reign began. Still, there was a grain of truth to the story: the man had near-beggared himself buying alliances with lavish gifts and promises, though he had kept his boots. And still Cantal had nearly been chosen at the site instead. It would be a very difference Principate that now stood, Cordelia thought, if the chieftess of Cantal had succeeded at her own intrigues. But Clothor had been both wilier and the better speaker, going on to win the contest and then the crown itself: the very first of the First Princes of Procer. One of his very first orders had been to raise what was now the Chamber of Assembly on the grounds where the celebrated council had taken place, and it was surrounded by those centuries of history that Cordelia Hasenbach now sat.
Salia was now the largest city of Calernia: when winter came around and the labouring manants who’d toiled on the fields throughout spring and summer flocked to city with their seasonal wages, near nine hundred thousand souls dwelled within the boundaries of Procer’s capital. The city had been turned into a work of art by First Princes and Princesses, spires and churches and sprawling gardens – some of those meant only for winter, even, built so that the frost and snow themselves would become adornments. There was ugliness as well, entire districts of huts where the peasants took sick and died in their own wastes while the wealthy partook in exotic banquets mere miles away. And yet Cordelia had found she loved Salia, for all its flaws, with the same depth she loved the Rhenia of her birth. It was a city unlike any other on the continent, the ever-beating heart of an empire that risen from nothing to stand above all realms that saw the sun. Where else could one find Arlesite poet-duellists declaiming in contest with Alamans lay brothers in gardens that depicted different acts of a play with every season? Or grim-faced Lycaonese veterans trading drinks and war stories with fantassins who’d served in wars halfway across the continent?
The wealth of Salia was in the people, not the coin or the facades, and it was a rare day where the First Prince of Procer did not wake humbled that they had been placed in her care.
Yet in that sprawling, glorious and riotous mess there was one place of utter stillness. One that had not changed since the savage days of Procer’s founding, where it had been hard men and women wearing furs and stolen riches – never without a blade, even when bathing – who had changed the world: the Chamber of Assembly, seat of the Highest Assembly of the Principate. The walls were naught but whitewashed limestone, the rafters were ancient oak that creaked when touched and the chamber had carried a faint scent of wood smoke ever since the palace around it caught fire during the second Liturgical War. A halfway-skillful merchant would own finer hall than this after a decade’s work, and yet never once had the royalty of Procer asked the chamber should be built anew or replaced. For within there stood twenty-four thrones, none younger than six centuries. One for every principality in the realm, dragged from all over the Principate to stand forever in this room. Princes and princesses ruled from palaces all over Procer, but there was only one Chamber and one Highest Assembly: the words spoken in this smoky hall resounded to every corner of Calernia.
Cordelia’s own seat was the same that had been set by Clothor Merovins himself. A spit of grey granite polished by the waters of the lake it’d been dredged from, without even a back to lean against. Cunning Clothor was said to have mourned before all that he’d emptied his treasury so deeply bestowing gifts upon his allies he could not even afford to have a proper throne carved. The blonde prince rather admired the man who’d been her earliest predecessor. A great warlord, yes, but one of the rare examples of that breed who’d understood the worth of the softer ways of statecraft. Many kings and chiefs came to that council with thrones that now stood before her, gilded and set with jewels or made of enchanted stones and rare trees from the Waning Woods. Yet Clothor Merovins’ humble spit of granite was the only one that stood on a dais, an inch higher than all the others. In truth, two seats in the chamber rightfully belonged to Cordelia. The same she now sat, and another far to the back.
One of the triplet thrones of Rhenia, Hannoven and Bremen, famously carved from the same pale chalkstone on which First Princess Frederonne Merovins had wed the Prince of Hannoven, sealing her conquest of the Lycaonese principalities by twining bloodlines. Her own father had died assaulting the walls of Rhenia, where even after the fall of every other Lycaonese principality the hosts had held out with desperate defiance, but Frederonne had shown enough foresight to predict that fighting the Lycaonese to the bitter end would leave her own people to defend against the Plague and the Dead in their stead. Cordelia’s Rhenian throne was covered by a silk banner displaying the Hasenbach heraldry of crowned bronze mountain peak on deep blue, signifying that she had named no sworn delegate and still held the voting rights for the principality. The technical matter was complex, and relied on the legal fiction that she was two different people: the Prince of Rhenia, her birthright, and the Princess of Salia which was a title bound to the greater one of First Prince. Before the last of the Merovins died the principality of Salia had been its own realm and remained under their rule even when one not of their bloodline was First Prince, though the ruler of Procer had right of administration over the city, by custom.
It had been over a hundred years since then, however, and Cordelia had come to benefit from the additional vote and attendant legalities more than she’d ever expected she would.
“The assembly recognizes l’assermenté for Prince Amadis Milenan of Iserre,” the Master of Orders announced, thickly-accented Lycaonese voice perfectly pronouncing the Old Chantant term.
The white-haired Master was one of her own Rhenians, one with a talent for languages she’d put into place within a month of ascending the throne. In this battlefield of courtesies and ceremonies, there were few advantages more precious than an arbiter of ceremonies entirely loyal to her. Cordelia’s eyes blue eyes flicked at the sworn delegate of Iserre, one of Prince Amadis’ seemingly never-ending parade of kinsmen of middling talent. Olivier Milenan was young, barely in his twenties, and handsome in much the same way as his very distant uncle. Not the sharpest of intriguers, this one, though hardly slow. She suspected he’d been chosen by Amadis largely because while of princely blood Olivier’s branch of the family was impoverished and so the sum entire of his fortunes rested on the goodwill of his crowned kinsman. This one would not cross his uncle, lest he got back to rotting in the gutted mansion where he’d been raised in utter obscurity. Rising to his feet, Olivier Milenan straightened his back.
“By ancient oath, I speak only the words of my prince and none other,” he said.
“You were heard by these hallowed grounds,” the Master of Orders replied. “Let no lie mar your tongue, no heresy your soul and may the Heavens grant you righteous purpose in this exchange of words.”
Every individual in the chamber save those two repeated the sentences with practiced cadence. As First Prince, Cordelia was exempt from such proceedings. As Prince of Rhenia, she was not. Other royals were few in attendance, in this particular session. The rulers Creusens, Orense and Valencis had graced the capital with their presence, as well as her old ally the Prince of Brus, yet every other was a sworn delegate. It mattered little: their instructions would be royal, if not their bearing.
“My countrymen,” Olivier Milenan spoke, his voice well-trained and pleasant to the ear, “I stand before you today to speak of grave matters. The Principate has upheld its duties to Creation and undertaken the waging of just war against the wicked crowns of the East, yet in doing so a heavy price has been exacted. While our armies manoeuvre and quibble, Dread Empress Malicia’s hungriest hound pillages and rapes his way through our realm heedlessly. Already Cantal has suffered such depredations, and now my own native Iserre seems destined for the same savage fate.”
It had not taken long, Cordelia mused, for the first instruction of the Master of Orders to be disregarded – let no lie mar your tongue. The Carrion Lord’s horde of murderous vagrants might be looting everything granary in sight, but they at least observed their own regulations: rapists and murderers were hung. The man’s rhetorical flourishes were not of great import, though what would follow them was. The First Prince had already deduced the gist of the motion the man would present. She had, after all, a letter addressed to a bastard among her papers. It was the number of those willing to support the motion that truly mattered. This was the first formal session held since the defeats in Callow, though half a dozen informal ones had taken place. The important difference between the two was that in a formal session, any motion put to the First Prince would enter the public records. Including the votes and if her personal Right of Refusal was used afterwards. That she would be driven to that was unlikely, as she should still have enough support they would fail to secure a majority, but it was possible for her and her allies to be forced to vote in a manner that would damage their reputation with the people. If you have the votes to corner me, Milenan, she thought. Do you?
“Our cities are empty, our fortresses gather dust,” Olivier orated, voice resounding. “Why? Because we have sent our soldiers to war, observing the decree of our anointed First Prince. Do not mistake this for intriguing, my friends, for none stand more loyal to Her Most Serene Highness than the braves of Iserre. I merely weep for the fate of my people, who must wither and die even as their valiantly crusading cousins stand leashed and impotent mere weeks of march away. Where is the Iron Prince, I ask you? What right does the Prince of Hannoven have to part kin from besieged kin by such cruel decree?”
There were murmurs of approval at that. Uncle Klaus had never been popular down south, in part because he’d led her armies in their crushing of theirs yet also because he himself made no mystery that he held most of them in contempt. His decision – though it had been presented as hers – to let the Legions of Terror march into Procer without pursuit had only deepened the enmity. The sworn delegate from Bremen loudly spat on the floor, scarred face purple with anger, much to the distaste of the closest southerners. Uncle Klaus had carried her crippled cousin back through five leagues of marshlands under ratling pursuit after a skirmish went south, Cordelia knew. If blades were allowed into the chamber, she might very well have drawn. The Iron Prince was misliked here, but he was fiercely loved by his own people.
“The Prince of Iserre asks not for glory or reward, though for this realm he has greatly bled,” Olivier said. “He only asks for loyalty to be repaid in kind, and the heart of Procer to be protected from the foul works of the Praesi. Iserre motions for a formal petition to be presented to the First Prince, requesting that the army under the command of Prince Klaus Papenheim be tasked with the defense of Procer itself.”
Cordelia kept her face unruffled. The choice of a petition petition had been a clever trick of procedure, she had to admit, and one that’d surprised her. Milenan was within his rights to make a direct request to the First Prince, though not a demand – the Principate had joined a crusade, which meant she had supreme authority over all armed men and any attempting to wrest it from her would be committing treason. Would that her opponents were such fools. If it had been a direct request, every delegate and royal casting their vote in favour of it would be effectively declaring they had lost faith in her ability to prosecute this war. In the middle of a crusade, that would be costly to their popularity at home as the people’s mood had grown distinctly vengeful. A petition to request, on the other hand, would produce a formal document open to any attending sitter’s signature that would be presented to her after the session. The vote over the motion itself would not be added to the record, keeping the implicit rebuke to her entirely private.
It was clever in the sense that it allowed principalities neither in her camp nor Prince Amadis’ to express their dissatisfaction: they could back the motion to have the petition, then withhold their signature on the document. Young Olivier had been busy in his uncle’s service, she realized, and moreso than she had thought. He’d never have presented the motion if he did not believe it would pass. And when that petition is made passed along to every prince in Procer, Cordelia thought, which we both know you will do, the unity of your uncle’s own faction will be brought in contrast with my own dying alliances. With a single act he was forcing her to publicly deny a petition that would be very popular in certain parts of her realm, wounded her prestige in the Highest Assembly and signaled to fence-sitters it might be time to place their coin on the horse pulling ahead. Alamans intrigue at is finest, this: three birds with a single stone, all headed for the thrower’s own kitchen. How best to strangle this, then, before the blow caused a bruise?
“The assembly recognizes l’assermentée for Prince Arnaud Brogloise of Cantal,” the Master of Orders announced.
The sworn delegate, her dress and apparel perfect to the extent that even Cordelia could only be admiring, inclined her head respectfully before speaking.
“The Prince of Cantal seconds the motion to petition the First Prince, and moves for immediate vote over it,” she simply said.
Striking swift, was it? They had succeeded at arranging this under her nose, but assuming victory could be won by simple haste was rather bold of them. The Master of Orders glanced at her and she cleared her throat. His eyes went down to her lap, where he found her hands folded primly.
“The assembly recognizes the Prince of Rhenia,” he smoothly said.
There was a ripple at that. The three Lycaonese in the back wore open smiles, and her old comrade Prince Frederic of Brus was leaning forward eagerly.
“The Principality of Rhenia thirds the presented motion,” she smiled calmly. “Moreover, it requests for both the vote and preceding address to be entered into the formal public record.”
A glint of amusement passed in the Master of Orders’ rheumy eyes.
“As per law, such a request can only be granted by the First Prince of Procer,” he said. “I now put the question to Her Most Serene Highness, First Prince of Procer, Princess of Salia.”
Cordelia inclined her head.
“I grant the request,” she simply said.
The blonde prince felt every eye in the room turn to her. Faces had blanked, eyes gone thoughtfully. Even Olivier Amadis had been visibly taken aback before mastering himself and was now staring at her warily. Wonder now, boy, she thought. What I know that you do not. Uncle Klaus was preparing for a march north even as session was held, after all. Let the record show Amadis Milenan’s own nephew dragging his name through the mud even as the Iron Prince gathered supplies for his march to turn back the Dead King. Let every single one of these vultures be named as the handful that would abandon all of northern Procer to salvage their granaries. Scrape me raw if you dare, Milenan. I am willing to lose a little skin if in exchange I can have you and your fellows flayed in song in every tavern from Rhenia to Tenerife by the year’s end. The men who sold Procer. It has a ring to it, does it not? She met the boy eyes and smiled pleasantly.
“Shall we proceed with the vote?” she asked.
Her gaze swept the rest of the room. And now we find out what worth are the bargains you made, Olivier. Will they stick with you, when they smell a trap? There is no one in this room unware that he who rides the Ebb must beware of the Flow. Her prompting added to the sworn delegate from Cantal’s had made it inevitable vote would immediately follow before any further discussion could be had. The Master of Orders called on the thrones in sequence, and it was an effort for Cordelia’s face not to grow grim. Most of the supporters were expected. Iserre, Cantal, Orne, Creusens, Segovia and Aequitan. Prince Amadis and his closest supporters, those who had been defeated at the Battle of the Camps and were well aware that if the Iserran cause sunk they would soon follow it into the depths. Bayeux she’d expected as well, as parts of its countryside had been torched by the Carrion Lord. Orense, however, was an unpleasant surprise. She had saved its evidently ingrate prince from brutal Levantine raids barely more than a year ago. How quickly gratitude turned to naught. The sworn delegate from Valencis hesitated before abstaining, which was telling. If not for her ploy that would have been another vote in favour. Eight in favour, out of twenty four votes, and it could very easily have been nine. How many others had simply hidden their late change of heart more skillfully?
The motion failed, and she had scored a wound that would not show for months yet, but she could feel the wind turning. The matter of the coming conclave needed to be squashed, lest today’s abstentions become tomorrow’s knives.
Cordelia was not one to easily discard etiquette. Rules were the birthing bed of civilization: common foundation could only be found when people agreed on the most essential standards of behaviour. Etiquette was merely the regulation of relationships between individuals, and while it could be used to oppress it could also be used to free. Rules always cut both ways
Yet if there was one particular set she could grind into dust, it was the stringent courtesies governing audience between the Holies and the First Prince of Procer. It was a throwback of the Liturgical Wars, one no ruler of Procer had every felt quite secure enough to revisit. She was ushered into the Starlit Cloister by a handful of sisters who had taken vows of silence, her personal guard forced to remain outside, and led to a private garden. There she was guided in removing her dress and regalia before submitting to hour-long ablutions that left her without a single speck of artifice. Even her hair was unbraided, made to course down her shoulders without the slightest of stylings. It was wearing a white shift unflattering to her Hasenbach frame and barefoot that a brother finally sought her out, bowing low before informing her she was to be received.
The entire process was said to be symbolic, a stripping of earthly trappings before she could be allowed to speak with souls untainted by such matters. Cordelia herself was of the opinion that the point of the exercise was to humble the ruler of Procer and disarray them before taking them into the very seat of power of the Holies. It was a gauntlet of rather unsubtle pressure, and one she resented. The Holies, after all, were a purely Proceran notion: an assembly of the leading priests of the House of Light’s basilicas and cathedrals, with a smatter of administrators and highborn lay people added to the mixture. Still, unpleasant as this was it was a necessary unpleasantness. While the Holies might not wield authority in any official sense – their very existence was informal, and the requirements for counting among their number opaque to any outside of the House of Light – their influence assured that anything they agreed on would miraculously become policy shortly afterwards.
They must be convinced, at all costs.
The corpulent brother guiding her did so through a handful of sunlit corridors before pausing before a thick oaken gate. He bowed once more, observing the required angle perfectly, and left without a word. Cordelia allowed herself the weakness of a moment’s rest to gather her bearings. She silently marshalled her arguments, brought to mind faces and names and associated interests. They could be moved, as all men could be moved. Through the wood she heard a spatter of female laughter and the sound of cup being dropped, brow rising in response. Her hand rose to the heavy iron ring on the door, knocking thrice before pulling. The absence of a footpad to serve that purpose in her stead was yet another petty little test for any seeking audience. The door creaked open, and immediately Cordelia’s face stilled. She’d had audience with the Holies only once before, shortly before her coronation, and this was not the ornate hall where she had then been received.
It was instead a cramped arched dining room, filled with only a long table and a handful of seats. In the back a woman was leaning her seat so far back half the legs were off the floor, feet resting atop the table. She was old, skin creased and her forehead mottled with spots under a braid of stark white hair. The eyes, though, the eyes were sharp. Dark and patient.
“Good evening, Your Highness,” the Saint of Swords nonchalantly call out.
Her mind spun. She’d set out aiming to find out which of the Chosen had demanded the conclave, and already she had her answer. She absent-mindedly noted a handful of details in quick succession – there were two cups, not one, and one had been toppled. It’d spilled liquor all over the table. The other goblet was in the hands of the heroine, inclined at an angle that allowed her to recognize water within. They were alone in the room, the only other door behind the Saint, and the chandeliers casting light allowed moving shadows to be cast into the corners.
“Laurence de Montfort,” Cordelia calmly replied, inclining her head by the barest of fractions. “An unexpected pleasure. I was led to believe I would be addressing the Holies.”
“I sent them away for a walk,” the heroine still known in Procer as the Regicide shrugged. “This is a talk for adults, not squabbling children.”
Most royalty in her position, Cordelia thought, would be wondering if they were about to be carved up. She knew better. There were matters in which the First Prince did not trust the judgement of her uncle – tax policy, trade, putting his seal to a budget that did not overwhelmingly favour the army – but he was a very sharp judge of character. A hard woman, he’d said of the Saint, but she always means well. The blonde prince claimed a seat at the opposite end of the table without waiting for an invitation. The Chosen was not the host, here, only another guest.
“I take it this conclave is your work,” Cordelia said, settling down and forcing herself to ignore the unpleasant itch of her shift against her skin. “Should I expect the Grey Pilgrim to join us as well?”
“Tariq’s busy skinning of the many cats making a racket in your backyard,” the old woman dismissed. “I’ll be following him as soon as this business is finished.”
“And what business would that be, exactly?” she asked. “Your reputation does not mention an interest in statecraft.”
The Saint of Swords set down her cup on the table, then dragged her legs down. Her chair returned to the stone floor with a sharp clack.
“I find I am disappointed in you, Cordelia Hasenbach,” the Regicide said. “You’re promising in a lot of ways, I won’t deny. You’re taking a hatchet to the rot, however politely, and you’ve been herding the crowned wolves well enough. But this? You should know better. You’re Lycaonese. You know the Enemy’s face.”
Cordelia cocked her head to the side, keeping the pretence of calm in truth rapidly leaving her.
“Not merely the conclave,” she deduced. “It is your own notion to have the Black Queen named Arch-heretic of the East.”
The old woman grinned harshly.
“They were eager enough, truth be told,” the Saint said. “Just needed a little push. That I needed to give it at all is what got me in such a meddling mood. You’re flinching, Hasenbach. You’ve been down here too long, the iron’s beginning to rust.”
The First Prince’s lips thinned. It had been a very long time since she’d been offered such blatant disrespect.
“You know less than you think,” she said.
“‘Ol King Bones is stirring, you mean,” the Chosen replied.
Cordelia’s fingers tightened in her lap, a rare lapse of control on her part. How did she know? Had the Heavens whispered the secret in her ear? No, it did not matter. If she did know, why would she act so recklessly?
“You should be aware, then, that further prosecuting the war against Callow is unwise,” the First Prince said. “War on two fronts is foolish at the best of times. War on two fronts when one is the Kingdom of the Dead is lunacy. We cannot start a life and death struggle with the Black Queen when the marching dead gather north. It will be the ruin of the Principate, Saint. No amount of miracles can make hosts fight two battles simultaneously.”
“You mean,” Laurence de Montfort said softly, “to make truce with the Enemy. Listen to yourself, girl. Your ancestors would cut your bloody throat for this.”
“My ancestors were guarding a handful of passes and crossings,” Cordelia sharply replied. “I am charged with the entirety of Procer, and my failure would mean the slaughter of millions. I would rather be censured by the blind dead than watch the risen kind butcher half the Principate. You are gambling with the lives of more people than you have ever seen, Saint. What worth will your soft sentences be, when the Army of Callow falls on our flank and Keter devours the rest?”
“You don’t understand what this is, do you?” the Saint smiled. “This is not the War of the Grand Alliance or the second invasion of Callow. It’s the Tenth Crusade. You slapped the gauntlet down, girl, and now Below’s picking it up. There is no compromise to be had anymore, no subtle manoeuvering. You declared war on the Hellgods, and the sword will not return to the sheath until one side falls.”
“A crusade can be waged intelligently,” the First Prince said. “It must, or it will fail like those before it.”
“That’s where you misunderstand,” the Saint amiably said. “You think all of this…”
Her hand moved to encompass their surroundings.
“Is inviolable,” she continued. “It’s an understandable weakness. You rule here, after all, and love for your people is no sin. But everything dies, Cordelia Hasenbach. Even empires.”
The blond woman paled.
“This is treason,” she coldly said. “As good as a confession you seek the destruction of the Principate.”
“This whole damned house is rotten to the bone, girl,” the Saint said. “You’ve toiled and troubled and fought like lion, but it’ll die with you. You know that already, deep down. Maybe the Principate was what it should be, ages ago, but it has not been in a very long time. It’s greed and power and lies, hungry wars and treachery made into the mortar of palaces. The sickness is all it knows, now.”
“You are mad,” Cordelia spoke in a hushed whisper. “Gods Above, your mind has gone and you would take all of us with it.”
“Oh, we’ll bleed,” the Saint mused. “We’ll lose badly, at first. And then we’ll claw our way back up, inch by inch. Evil always wins at the start, but it’s us who owns the conclusion. And from the ruins something better will rise. This empire’s already a corpse, but we’ll send it off with a pyre glorious enough it’ll redeem the old faults.”
“I will have you arrested,” the First Prince of Procer said. “I will have you killed, if that is what it takes.”
“You just worry about getting the armies marching,” Laurence de Montfort dismissed. “Odds are I won’t survive the scrap, but that’s all right. It’s a good war to die in. It’ll be the crusade that settles it, you see: too many old monsters came crawling out on both sides. Won’t be the kind of losses a side can recover from.”
“You are not listening to a word I say,” Cordelia whispered, aghast.
The Saint of Swords rose to her feet jauntily. The First Prince’s muscles clenched, though she managed to flinch when the Chosen approached her. The old woman clapped her shoulder.
“Keep your chin up, girl,” she said. “Sacrifice is always ugly business, but we’ll come through in the end. To rise from the ashes, there needs to be a fire first.”
The Saint of Swords strolled out, boots slapping against the stone, and the sound of the door closing behind her was the death cry of an era.