“You should listen to the devil on your shoulder, my friend. I had it nailed onto there for a reason.”
– Dread Emperor Abominable, the Thrice-Struck
It went like this: the opposition insisted they could not hold diplomatic talks while one of their own was being held up by the throat. In response, I somewhat politely cast aspersions on their grasp of matters such as reality and remembering who’d tried to kill me under truce banner literally moments ago, then told them it’d be rather absurd to stand there in silence while the Grey Pilgrim went to fetch my teacher’s unconscious body. I spoke the word ‘unconscious’ with a heavy wink, because what was a little borderline necromancy between ‘friends’? Lord Yannu promptly told me talks couldn’t be had without the Peregrine, who in turn suggested that his word was enough for me to order General Rumena to release his personal Heaven-endorsed attack hound. He would then join my conversation with Malanza and the other Levantine.
“That’s an interesting suggestion, Tariq,” I smiled politely, showing a great deal of teeth. “Especially since it implies I still hold your word to be of any worth at all.”
“Mind your tongue, villain,” the Lord of Alava hissed. “To cast doubt on the honour of the Pilgrim’s Blood is to insult the Dominion of Levant itself.”
“Will the Grey Pilgrim be surrendering himself into my custody immediately, then?” I pointedly asked. “Honour might be at least in part satisfied by that.”
There was a moment of pained silence, though from certain quarters there’d been understandably no surprise. After all, Princess Rozala had been in the tent when the treaties were first drafted and signed while the Grey Pilgrim had been an actual guarantor of the terms as well as part of them.
“You overreach, Black Queen,” Lord Yannu said. “Such demands are beyond your ability to enforce, to say little of your right to them.”
“My right?” I curtly repeated. “Did they not tell you, Lord Yannu, that I have written treatises signed by both your Peregrine and the Prince of Iserre to this nature? Treatises including terms that placed the Pilgrim in the Kingdom of Callow’s hands for a time as hostage, and that your honourable Peregrine instead fled my capital in the night last year? Oaths and promises were broken, and he’s since shown no willingness to make reparations for this or even acknowledge it happened.”
“There was greater need for me elsewhere,” the Grey Pilgrim replied. “Duties whose call was keener than what had been arranged.”
“The oaths were inconvenient, so you broke them,” I translated with a beaming smile. “But that’s all right, because I’m just a villain after all. Charming.”
“I would make amends, Black Queen,” the Pilgrim offered.
“Sure,” I replied without hesitation, “surrender yourself, right now. You’ll be put to trial according to Callowan law and dealt with accordingly.”
“I cannot do this,” Tariq said, “so long as you lead an army against the Grand Alliance.”
“Ah,” I mused. “It was a platitude, then, and your word remains dust to me. Let us discard this notion of my putting faith in the promises of a man who does not afford anyone else the same courtesy and move on, shall we?”
None of them liked that, but Malanza steered the conversation away from the fact that both she and the Pilgrim had already broken terms of a bargain made with me before they lost any more feathers. The arrangements ended up being kicked down the line: talks would end until I’d received the body and released the Saint, then resume with the Grey Pilgrim in attendance. A waste of time, in my eyes, so I turned my gaze on Princess Rozala instead.
“I’m willing to bargain with you without them in attendance,” I bluntly said. “You strike me as the most trustworthy of the three, at the moment, though admittedly that doesn’t mean all that much.”
The Princess of Aequitan hesitated, while in the back of my mind I gauged her situation. There were more Dominion soldiers than Proceran ones in the western coalition army she was fighting with, so it wasn’t a given that she had the most clout in whatever power-sharing arrangement made up that host’s command. On the other hand, if she was here then it was with the First Prince’s backing and this remained the Principate of Procer: she had legitimacy the other two did not, being foreigners.
“We can speak,” Princess Rozala said, “while other matters are seen to.”
The large Lord of Alava stirred, face openly displeased, but the princess raised a hand in appeasement.
“I will not negotiate, or offer terms,” the dark-haired woman said. “Only speak. Diplomacy can take place when all are in attendance.”
The Grey Pilgrim spoke softly, in a language I did not know – a Levantine tongue, most likely, since Lord Yannu seemed to have no trouble understanding it. They conferred softly, and I watched Princess Rozala from the corner of my eyes. She seemed as much in the dark about what was being said as I, and not particularly pleased about it. Adjutant leaned in closer.
“Murcadan, I think,” the orc whispered in Kharsum. “Spoken mostly around the region of Alava city. I’m not surprised Rozala wouldn’t know it, it’s their least widespread tongue.”
I slowly nodded. Might be true that the language had never seemed worth learning for the Princess of Aequitan. Although her principality was deep to the south of Procer and closer to the Dominion than any other foreign nation, Ceseo or Lunara would have been more useful picks if she meant to dabble in learning something of narrower use than tradertalk. Whatever the truth of it, the side conference between the Levantines did not take long. Quiet words were exchanged with Princess Rozala herself, and there must have been agreement as the Pilgrim sought my eyes once more and when denied that withdrew without another word. Lord Yannu inquired to the practical aspects of the trade, namely how the unconscious body would be carried, so I glanced meaningfully at Hakram. Adjutant moved to speak with the Levantine aristocrat, leaving Princess Rozala Malanza to speak with me alone. Well, not exactly: Komena drew her talons against my shoulder for a moment before lazily flapping away to perch herself on the shoulder of her favourite, General Rumena. The old drow showed no sign of tiring from holding up the Saint of Swords by the throat, and overall had seemed rather unimpressed by her glaring even before half of Sve Noc claimed its shoulder. The crow taking flight drew Malanza’s attention to the one still on my shoulder, though she couldn’t seem to gaze at Andronike directly.
“I wouldn’t recommending looking at either too close,” I said.
“Demons,” Princess Rozala said, lips tightening into a line.
Andronike let out loud gurgling caws that might have been taken as laughter, and certainly rang of mockery.
“Sve Noc,” I corrected. “Or their attention, anyway. No summons these, Rozala Malanza, bound and bargained for. Though if that makes you fear them less, I’ll count you a fool for it.”
The Proceran princess studied me for a moment, dark eyes inscrutable.
“What does it mean?” she asked. “Sve Noc.”
“It means your learning is shallow, Rozala Malanza, while this world’s roots run deep,” Andronike spoke in perfect Chantant from my shoulder. “It will be amusing, to see how little of you the adjustment allows to remain. Already the cracks are showing, aren’t they?”
The Princess of Aequitan turned ghastly pale.
“It will take more than brandy and poppy leaves for the digging to stop,” the goddess on my shoulder laughed. “Hands and picks and tireless flesh, pulling aside the –”
“Andronike,” I calmly said. “Enough.”
“The clever little things would turn on you in a heartbeat, my herald, if they believed they would triumph in that strife,” she said. “In their wanton arrogance they prance about, blind to their utter fragility.”
“Are we not all fragile, in your eyes?” I retorted.
“Some more than others,” Andronike said, but left it at that.
Wings spreading, the crow-goddess took flight and left me to face a shaken Princess of Aequitan. Her tanned visage had turned ashen, and a tremor was running down her arm. Not, I noted, the one that clutched the handle of her sword.
“What is that thing, Black Queen?” Princess Rozala croaked.
“Desperate measures made altar,” I said. “Apotheosis is not a gentle affair, and they were not gentle before it.”
“Riddles,” she accused.
“I’ve given you truths,” I shrugged. “What you make of them, in the end, is not my concern. I am not your keeper, or for that matter your empire’s.”
That last sentence had blood returning to her face, and iron returned to her spine. I studied Rozala Malanza under the gentle light of the moon, waited as she put herself back together. It was absurd, I thought, to think of her as young when she was older than me. But she couldn’t even be thirty, and it struck me that in different times she would have been considered much too young for the importance of the duties thrust upon her. As Hasenbach’s commander in Iserre, she was arguably on par with the Iron Prince in authority within the ever-fluid military hierarchy of Procer. Perhaps even higher. Young and worn before her time, I thought. The chorus of our age.
“Procer is on the verge of collapse,” Princess Rozala told me.
I hid my surprise at the fact that she’d outright admit that. The blood was in the water for anyone to see, and here in Iserre there were ingredients enough to cook the death of empire, but there was still life in the beast.
“In different circumstances, I might have celebrated that,” I frankly said. “Not, however, today.”
“You cannot afford for the lines up north to break, Black Queen,” the princess told me, tone cool. “Too many of the refugees south would die, the sheer amount of corpses to be raised would effectively make the Dead King unstoppable.”
Gods, I wished. Unstoppable was the prelude to some adolescent in colourful clothes bringing down the flying fortress, or inexplicably stabbing a villain’s soul. Unfortunately, I doubted Neshamah would make any mistake so easily exploitable by the Heavens and their chosen.
“I didn’t come to Iserre to fight any of you,” I pointed out. “I’m extracting my forces.”
“Do so,” the princess said. “You will not be hindered.”
“Including the Legions of Terror,” I flatly said.
“That,” Princess Rozala said, “cannot be allowed to happen.”
I already had a biting reply on the tip of my tongue when I forced myself to bite it instead, eyes narrowing as I looked closer at the dark-haired Arlesite. She wasn’t being high-handed, I thought, or refusing to recognize the realities of her situation. There wasn’t defiance or righteous anger on her face, only a sort of tired resignation. Rozala Malanza was essentially telling me, without outright speaking the word, that if the Legions left with my forces there would be dire consequences for the Principate.
“How bad?” I asked.
“Bad,” she replied, tone grim.
“I can’t give them to you,” I frankly told her. “I won’t backstab an ally and it’d make a bloody mess for me besides.”
“If you were to escape with them,” Princess Rozala delicately said, “after being defeated, that would be a different story. Or so I am told.”
My fingers tightened around my reins and Zombie whinnied.
“That’s not a small favour you’re asking,” I said. “Or a harmless one.”
It wasn’t an exaggeration to say that a great deal of my legitimacy – insofar as I had any – as the Queen of Callow came from my largely uninterrupted string of battlefield victories. I’d had political defeats aplenty, and strategic drubbings more than once, but even the worst of my days commanding an army could be argued to be at least draws. As the First Prince had once put it I was a warlord, and those only rules so long as they kept winning. It’d also put me in a weaker position when pushing for the Liesse Accords, coming from the cold as an already beaten foe instead of a victor, and that was without even getting in the practical aspects of being ‘defeated’. Even if I were willing to waste soldiers over such theatre, which I honestly wasn’t sure I was, this would be a risky business even if I trusted the opposition well. Which I did not. Malanza wasn’t unreasonable, but a year ago she’d been invading my homeland and she’d never bothered to hide the despised me personally. That left the Levantines, which as long as the Pilgrim was around couldn’t be trusted to do anything but what he ‘advised’. How could I be sure that halfway through the withdrawal of my forces they wouldn’t try to turn the face victory into a real one?
“I do not have room to negotiate, Black Queen,” Princess Rozala murmured. “I would prefer if I did, but what do I have to bargain with save doom and despair?”
“I’d be taking on heavy risks,” I reminded her. “On the account of people who are still my enemies.”
“There is a greater enemy still,” she told me, eyes serious. “The Enemy, and he comes for us all.”
“I’m not unaware of that,” I patiently said. “It’s not that I’m unwilling to avoid setting fire to what’s left of Procer, Malanza. It’s that I’m not convinced if I try to help you your fellows won’t stick a knife in my back halfway through.”
“I don’t suppose,” she said, “that my word of honour as the Princess of Aequitan would mean anything to you.”
“More than nothing,” I finally said. “But it only matters if you’re in command of the army on the other side of this field, and I don’t believe that’s the case.”
“I hold supreme command over all armies of the Principate in Iserre,” she said.
“And the Levantines?”
“This half their forces answers to Lord Yannu, for the most part,” Rozala said. “We make plans by council.”
“Then you can’t speak for the army,” I said, not unkindly. “If the Grey Pilgrim asked the man to turn cannibal he actually might. Turning on a villain? That wouldn’t even merit hesitation.”
“You need to set aside your grudge against the Chosen, Foundling,” the other woman told me. “Though I understand he broke faith with you, it was a shallow betrayal.”
“He disappeared to hunt down my mentor, whose soulless body I’ve just had to trade for,” I flatly said. “He’d didn’t leave to take a nice stroll down a promenade, Malanza.”
“The Carrion Lord killed thousand on the field, and dozens of thousands through the burning of them,” the Princess of Aequitan spoke evenly. “I can only grieve the Peregrine did not simply slit the man’s throat instead of resorting to such theatrics.”
I could have argued this, truth be told. There was no denying Black was a monster, but he hadn’t decided to torch his way through the Proceran heartlands for the pleasure of it on a sunny morning where he’d had nothing else planned. It’d been a calculated attack at the manpower and stability of an enemy nation who’d been in the process of invading my homeland and his. While I wouldn’t defend his actions, or the validity of his methods even if they appeared to be working – to everyone’s loss – he’d not committed that atrocity in a vacuum. It’d be a direct response to the Tenth Crusade, whose stated goal was the destruction of Praes. Black’s policy had been to avoid war against Procer for decades before I’d known him, and it seemed rather rich of all these righteous folk to go out of their way declare war on one of the most infamous monsters of our age and then be appalled and surprised when he behaved monstrously. If you shoved your fingers in a brazier, at the very least you should expect to get burned. On the other hand, I was disinclined to defend an atrocity I didn’t believe in and was currently screwing all of us over. Let her talk: if that was all she did, I had no issue with it. The talk was hardly undeserved.
“My point is that he’s not ever going to consider promises binding, Malanza,” I said. “Not if they get in the way of what he believes needs to be done.”
“That is rather reassuring to me,” the princess said. “Considering he’s one of the most decent men I’ve met.”
“I’m not going to argue whether the Pilgrim’s anything with you,” I flatly said. “But you can, at least, recognize why I’d hesitated to trust in him given his history of both breaking oaths and attempting to kill me.”
“Make your peace with it,” Princess Rozala said, rather unmoved.
It occurred to me, then, that from the Princess of Aequitan’s perspective I was angry over simply our battlefield encounters and the Pilgrim’s escape from Liesse. She did not know that I’d good as begged the man to make any path but going to Keter feasible only to be turned down. Or that his wriggling into a role through the treaty after the Camps had essentially been an attempt to get me killed through a redemption story, after having spent that entire diplomatic conference trying to manoeuvre me into a story that’d get me either slain or sidelined. I wondered if she’d believe me, should I tell her. Likely not. Part of that I suspected only Named could truly understand, and then not even all of that rarefied breed. As for the rest, why would the Black Queen’s word be taken for anything? No, I was simply expected to take the word of my fucking betters while everyone dragged my own through the mud. I pushed down the sharp flare of anger I felt at that. It would be of no use to me here.
“There’s more there than you know,” I finally said. “I am not unwilling to bargain with him, but trust him blindly when the stakes are so high? No.”
“You would refuse without even giving reason?” Malanza said.
“Where’d you learn what would happen if the Legions were allowed to walk?” I replied.
She didn’t answer. Yeah, we all had our little secrets. Might be the Augur, I figured, but other things as well. Tariq had Mercy whispering in his hear, it seemed, and I wouldn’t write off the possibility that Tyrant had offered some sort of deal – or made of threat – either.
“Trust is a funny thing, isn’t?” I murmured.
I considered, for a moment, telling her about what was taking shape in Arcadia. It’d be a danger to her side as well, I figured, though not an immediate one. I knew I should tell her, because if it came out later that I had known a catastrophe was forming there and said nothing there would a price to pay in many ways. But there’d been hellgates, in that broken place. And what I believed might have been High Arcana. It was possible for it to be the work of the Dead King, who had been known to use both these things, but that wasn’t where the shape of this story – Masego missing, Liesse disappeared, everything coming to a head in Iserre – was leading. If I told any of the crusaders that knowledge would make it to the Grey Pilgrim. And more dangerously to the Saint of Swords, who I’d just humiliated and used as coin in a bargain, who I’d have to release before too long lest this situation be turned on me. If Laurence de Montfort learned that the Hierophant was meddling with these kinds of forces, she’d have a pretext to kill him. And I did not doubt for a single fucking moment that she’d try. Would she succeed? I honestly wasn’t sure.
But I was certain I wasn’t willing to gamble with Masego’s life, so I kept my mouth shut.
“There’s no point in holding talks over this, is there?” I finally said. “Not unless you’re willing to offer me hostages and other forms of safeguard, which you won’t be.”
“You know the appearances of that would make it impossible,” Princess Rozala calmly replied.
“Then we appear to have nothing left to speak about,” I said. “I’ll be marching my armies out of Iserre, Malanza.”
I met her eyes, smiling ruefully.
“I’d suggest you get yours out of my way, for all our sakes.”