“What poison is to medicine, war is to empire: apportionment is the balance of life and death.”
– Extract from ‘The Ruin of Empire, or, a Call to Reform of the Highest Assembly’, by Princess Eliza of Salamans
Word of the surrender had rippled through the ranks, drawing out cries of dismay and anger before they both turned to disbelief.
There’d been tension between the Legions and the Army of Callow, when some loudmouths in the former had started to say this was just an elaborate way to sell out the Legions of Terror to the Grand Alliance, but Vivienne had been ready to quell such stupidity. Plants in the ranks had done as instructed, gone on the offensive and accused the complainers of being traitors in Grand Alliance employ. Enough of those arguments had turned to brawl that sergeants got involved, so now the most volatile of the rank and file were cooling their heels under arrest until this could be played out to the end. On the side of the Army of Callow there’d been mostly outrage and laying blame, which to Vivienne’s mix of grief and amusement had been laid along predictable lines. Callowan recruits blamed the Hellhound, or more frequently Marshal Grem One-Eye – whose role in the Conquest still had him closely associated to national wounded pride. Most of the eastern recruits, though, both the fresh and those brought in from gutted legions after the Doom, tended to point the finger at Vivienne Dartwick.
Hardly unexpected: she the most visible civilian authority over the Army of Callow, a known former noble and former heroine. And for the greenskins, most damnably of all she had no famous feat of violence to her name. It was something to look into remedying, in the long term, though it was hardly a priority at the moment. The amusing part of all this, of course, was that while it’d been Catherine who’d pulled the rug out under everyone’s feet with that sudden turn no one seemed to be blaming her in the slightest. Vivienne had absolutely no intention of changing that, since there were only a few things keeping the Kingdom of Callow together and one of them was the myth of the Black Queen undefeated, the kingdom’s own crowned villain whose uninterrupted string of victories had become the backbone of a nation. It would have to be maintained, Vivienne thought, in the years to come – marshals and generals and even the Woe could lose, but the Black Queen could not. But that was beyond the horizon, and Vivienne Dartwick’s troubles were current.
The solution she’d found had been to let the current of older faith guide the rumours she sowed. This was not a defeat, it was a trick being played by Queen Catherine on her enemies. And Gods be merciful, Vivienne thought, but she couldn’t even be sure that was a lie. The drow had been laid low by that sudden star in the sky, all but the most powerful of them battered into slumber for at least a few moments, and even the highest of these ‘Mighty’ had been forced to flee in the face of the enemy’s swiftly resuming advance. Legionaries had moved to hold the walls in good order, but within moments of that Marshal Juniper had been informed that surrender had been offered to the Grey Pilgrim and then accepted, bringing this battle to a close. Vivienne had spent the following hour putting out fires, but now the situation was stable enough she’d finally been able to head the general staff’s pavilion. Truthfully she could have done more, and would have preferred keeping her finger on the Army of Callow’s pulse, but Juniper’s last messenger had mentioned a message from Catherine with the royal seal. Those summons she could not deny, and so she had come.
“Adjutant’s still missing?”
Marshal Juniper looked vaguely irked at her immediate question, though not enough to chide her for it. What Vivienne had expected to be a formal war council in how to deal with the fact that the Grand Alliance had fully surrounded the camp and was now ordering disarmament and the bringing down of the palisade turned out to be rather less crowded. Marshal Juniper, with her perennial accessory Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara, Grandmaster Brandon Talbot for the Order of Broken Bells and Marshal Grem for what some had begun to call the Legions-in-Exile.
“Whatever duty Her Majesty sent him out on, Lord Adjutant is still discharging it,” Tribune Bishara said.
Vivienne kept herself from grimacing. Hakram had been a useful interpreter of Catherine’s occasionally seemingly outlandish decisions even before the Everdark, but nowadays the orc’s talent for understanding the thoughts of their leader had become a priceless asset. The journey into that dark place had changed Cat in deep ways, and much could be argued of whether all these changes had been for the best, but regardless of debate it was undeniable Catherine kept her cards a lot closer to the chest than she’d used to. Adjutant’s presence would have been a boon, Vivienne already suspected, for what was to come. None of the others were seated, so she remained standing as well and simply joined them at the table.
“Now that everyone’s in attendance,” the Hellhound said, flicking a displeased glance at Vivienne that was met with a raised brow. “This was handed to me by a rider of the Wild Hunt, along with knowledge of the surrender and instruction to abide by it.”
The orc tossed out a leather sheath bearing the royal seal of Callow, which Tribune Bishara daintily picked up afterwards.
“Unless there is an objection?” the Taghreb politely asked.
A round of shaking heads. Talbot might have objected, Vivienne thought, it if it’d been another officer but he’d always been a little sweet on the Hellhound’s helper. The wax seal was broken, parchment taken from the sheath and carefully unfurled. The dark-haired Callowan caught a glimpse of the curved, eye-pleasing calligraphy and repressed a snort. Hakram’s hand, that, not their queen’s. Which might be for the best, considering most of the time Catherine’s handwriting only skirted the edge legibility. She’d actually been taught properly at the orphanage, Vivienne knew, but Cat had always written like her thoughts were trying to crawl out through a hand too slow to keep up.
“I, Catherine Foundling, anointed queen of Callow by the grace of the Heavens and first of my name-” Tribune Bishara began.
Marshal Juniper cleared her throat.
“The meat, Aisha,” she growled.
The Taghreb’s head dipped in acknowledgement and she shifted halfway through the sentence.
“So, there’s an old story about the Ol’ Unconquered,” Aisha Bishara said, “that they call Theodosius’ Dilemma.”
The Taghreb’s tone was cultured and elegant, if so very eastern, but the words she spoke reeked of Catherine’s slow, almost lazy drawl. Vivienne knew it to be at least in part an affectation, as their queen was perfectly capable of formal address in her crisp Laure accent. She liked to use the casualness, the thuggish country bumpkin swagger, to prey on people’s expectations. Noble expectations, mostly, Vivienne privately admitted. Their queen had spent most her life carrying a sharp contempt for the aristocracy that becoming the foremost aristocrat in Callow didn’t seem to have changed in the slightest. Something wordless fluttered through the pavilion at the tribune’s words, though, sparing only Grem One-Eye. Backs straightening, shoulders loosening, even half a vicious smirk tugging at Grandmaster Talbot’s lips. They had not been left behind, that was what their stance said.
The Black Queen had a plan in the works, and someone else was about to have a very bad night.
“So in the First League War – which is a horribly inaccurate name, actually, because the League of Free Cities proper hadn’t even been founded yet and, wait, Hakram, scratch that whole part out, they don’t need the history lesson,” Tribune Bishara said.
She added, in a carefully unamused undertone, that the Lord Adjutant had not in fact scratched out anything.
“So in the First League War, Theodosius kept slapping around southern Procer like it was his deeply unloved goblin stepchild until it’d lost so many battles it’d gotten physically impossible for the princes to deny they were losing the war,” the Taghreb read. “At that point, the First Prince was getting worried about losing a third of Procer without war even having formally been declared, so you all know what happens: the Highest Assembly votes to ‘defend the south from foreign invasion’, everyone sends armies to reinforce and the First Prince makes a pointed suggestion that someone be appointed to run this mess that Theodosius hasn’t already cheerfully brutalized.”
Vivienne’ eyes swept the tent, and found most were raptly listening even though most should already know of this bit of history. It was certainly… colourfully narrated, but otherwise common knowledge in those who had some learning of history. And even beyond that. The life and deeds of Theodosius the Unconquered were a favourite of young boys and girls with dreams of military glory even in cities where no Helikean had visited in living memory.
“That gets us Isabella the Mad, and sets up Theodosius’ Dilemma,” Tribune Bishara spoke. “Because Isabella, she doesn’t offer a pitched battle or take back principalities: she just tosses one wave of soldiers after another at any forces that splits from Theodosius’ main army. And Hells, his people win most of those skirmishes and Ol’ Theo gets a few ambushes in himself. But every time he wins, he loses soldiers and Isabella loses nothing much. He’s winning so much it’s destroying his army, and so he has to make a choice.”
Vivienne’s mind raced ahead, for while she was not great student of military affairs she could see the shape of the dilemma outlined. It was not as important, she reflected, as the fact that instead of instructions Catherine had chosen to repeat a lesson that most of the people in this pavilion already knew. Would Marshal Grem? Maybe, as odds were that the Hellhound and Tribune Bishara had learned of this at the War College and the older orc was said to have been influential on the lay of the lessons taught there. Which meant the story was most likely meant for her or Brandon Talbot.
“Theodosius could fight a battle that couldn’t be won against nearly five times his number,” Aisha Bishara said, “to force a decisive outcome to the war. Or he could keep tearing through Isabella’s detachments for months and months, hoping for a better chance as his own numbers dwindled with every victory. We all know, famously, the choice he made.”
The Maddened Fields, to this day considered the only defeat ever inflicted on the first Tyrant of Helike.
“Theodosius bet on his legend, on being able to beat the odds and forge a miracle,” Tribune Bishara continued. “Isabella bet that she could ride attrition to a symbolic victory, and it was a brutal wager but she got what she wanted. They say that when Theodosius’ army retreated in good order, there were more than a hundred thousand corpses on the field.”
The tribune’s brow rose in surprise.
“Less than twenty years later, Jehan the Wise hung seven princes and one,” Bishara said.
Before the implications of that could properly sink in, the Taghreb repeated a stroke of madness.
“I grant to Vivienne Dartwick the title of Lady Dartwick, with all assorted honours and privileges; in addition I name Lady Dartwick the heiress-designate to the crown of Callow.”
Vivienne closed her eyes, ignoring the stir from the others in the tent. Why? No, that could be picked at later. Why now? The granted titled was clearly just a way to legally allow the second part without making her a member of the ironically-named House of Foundling. So what, as heiress-designate of Callow, could Vivienne do that she hadn’t been able to do a moment ago?
“Lady Dartwick,” Grandmaster Talbot quietly said. “The Royal Guard no longer exists, nor any knightly order save mine, yet-”
Yet I am, theoretically, equal in status to a princess of Callow and first the line of succession, Vivienne thought, opening her eyes. The Shining Prince, in all but name, and those were the Marshals of Callow before such a title existed.
“- yet the laws never excluded the Army of Callow nor any other addition to our forces,” she finished softly. “Which means I am, in the queen’s absence, the supreme commander of all armies sworn to Queen Catherine.”
“You can revoke the surrender,” Juniper said.
In the moment that followed, Vivienne almost did. It might just be Catherine’s plan, a surrender to check some advantage of the Pilgrim’s while she schemed some way that allowed her to both surrender in good faith yet keep her armies fighting. Diabolist could still use the wretched ritual that would bring back the drow to the field, and now the enemy’s armies would be surprised and in disarray. Less than twenty years later, Vivienne thought, Jehan the Wise hung seven princes and one. That was a warning. About winning wars at any price, about what came after. About Callow further humbling a weakened Procer and-
“Oh,” Vivienne Dartwick breathed out. “Oh.”
“Lady Dartwick?” Marshal Grem asked, brow cocked.
“I’ll need a horse and an escort,” she said. “I’ll need to talk with the Grey Pilgrim and Lord Marave besides.”
“Why?” Juniper asked.
“Delay disarming as long as possible,” Vivienne instructed the Hellhound absent-mindedly, “and keep the soldiers ready for fighting.”
“Dartwick,” the Marshal of Callow growled, “what are you doing?”
“If I’m right,” Vivienne said, “then I’m about to trade the full release of our armies for our help against the League of Free Cities.”
“Now, Hakram, I want to be perfectly clear,” the Tyrant of Helike announced.
Adjutant was still hung upside down by his feet, though given that the tripod was now being carried forward at a brisk pace by a swarm of chittering gargoyles the motion had set him to rotating. He patiently waited until the turn brought him face to face with Kairos Theodosian before solemnly nodding.
“Your mistress, I fear, intends to betray me most immediately,” the Tyrant said, not entirely succeeding at hiding his tone of deep approval.
“That does not seem like her at all,” Hakram lied.
The boy gestured dismissively, though with a trembling hand.
“It was a delightful bit of pettiness from her to send me someone whose fingers I cannot meaningfully break, after that little affair with my kataphraktoi,” Lord Kairos idly continued, “but that is that and this is this. Should the Black Queen turn on me – and she will – I will brutally murder you, if you’ll forgive my language”
“You are forgiven,” Hakram calmly said. “Though this seems absurd. Catherine Foundling has ever been a close and trusted ally to you, my lord.”
“You’re not even afraid,” the odd-eyed king complained. “I really should have listened to what my father said about Callowan spite, this is most unreasonable of her.”
“Your father had words on the subject of Callowan spite?” Adjutant asked, cocking his head curiously.
“I wouldn’t know,” the Tyrant cheerfully said. “After I cut his throat all he could manage was wet gurgling noises.”
Hakram made a mental note of the admission. It would go into the growing archive the Jacks kept on the Tyrant of Helike, though whether what the boy had said was true or not remained debatable. The orc found him exceedingly hard to read even for a human. Silence lingered between them, though in the distance the hum of raging storms served as canvas for it.
“I cannot help but notice, Lord Tyrant, that we are not heading out into Creation,” the orc ventured after a moment.
Unlike the rest of the League’s armies, he left unsaid. The last of the armies, a ramshackle mob moving in old infantry formations Hakram was fairly sure hadn’t seen use since the Humbling of Titans, had marched through a well-illuminated breach almost half an hour past. Of the hosts of the Free Cities, all that seemed to be left was the Tyrant’s own personal guard of a thousand. And gargoyles, admittedly, too many and too similar in appearance for the orc to be able to count. Kairos Theodosian looked amused, his red eye suddenly twitching shut and remaining that way.
“I have sent all I need to send,” the Tyrant of Helike said. “General Basilia is more than a match for the Pilgrim’s pet countrymen and the unpleasant surprise your mistress is still sitting on.”
“Might I inquire as to our purpose, then?” Hakram politely asked.
“It would be a terrible blunder to feed a spy my most secret schemes,” Lord Kairos chided him. “Do you expect me, Deadhand, to immediately unveil my every furtive advance merely because you showed a modicum of polite interest?”
A moment passed.
“Yes,” Adjutant replied.
“Is this what loves feels like?” the Tyrant mused, then raised a hand. “Don’t answer, Hakram, it’s not like you’d know.”
The orc cocked his head to the side. The insult did not particularly sting. Perhaps if it’d been slung in the early days of the Fifteenth, when he’d still wondered if the wariness in Juniper’s eyes when she looked at him was not uncalled for, but now? Those doubts were long buried, and it would take more than a madman’s jeering to unearth them. It was not, however, the first time the Tyrant of Helike jibed of Hakram’s leanings towards detachment. That he would keep prodding from an angle that would yield nothing was interesting, and suggested two things: first, that Catherine had been right on the subject of Kairos Theodosian having some skill related to perception of others. Second, that what the Tyrant was seeing in Adjutant unsettled him enough to keep picking at it like a scab.
“Soon, I do think,” the Tyrant of Helike said, looking up at the ruinous sky.
“Soon what?” Hakram dutifully asked.
“You see, Adjutant, the histories will speak of tonight as a triumvirate of treachery,” Kairos Theodosian airily explained, “but that will be most inaccurate. Your mistress and I are having the most delightful match of shatranj while the Pilgrim and his kingdoms of the blind stumble around waving swords and miracles.”
“But, Lord Tyrant, is the Grey Pilgrim not the Named currently closest to victory?” Hakram asked, purposefully keeping his tone as dull and unenthused as possible.
He was, the orc guilty admitted to himself, beginning to enjoy this a little too much.
“You would be most wrong, Adjutant, most wrong,” the Tyrant said. “Tariq Isbili’s mistake is that he believes because he set the initial terms of this fight he still knows all of them. And so he putters around down in the snow and mud, while the real prize of the night is around us. He could get everything he desires, Hakram – and indeed I suspect your mistress is inclined to grant most his wishes, save those that inconvenience her – and still be made of fool of.”
Adjutant kept his face calm, though for the first time that night his heartbeat had quickened.
“Oh yes, my dear green friend,” Kairos Theodosian grinned. “I know what your mistress is up to. Seven crowns and one, yes? She has the recipe for the making of a Court, and the Hierophant provided the final ingredient of that heady brew by cutting an unclaimed realm from the fabric of Arcadia and casting it down towards Creation.”
Hakram stayed silent, unwilling to risk revealing too much through the lie he chose to speak.
“Here’s a secret for you, Adjutant,” the Tyrant of Helike whispered, leaning closer. “The thing that waits for you in the depths of Liesse stolen isn’t just your friend. I would be a great deal more wary of what it intends, were I you. For if this night does not go to the Black Queen or to myself, well, it is another friend of mine that will get his due.”
The boy retreated, loudly cackling.
“Ah, but I digress,” he said. “I did say that your mistress and I were playing shatranj while poor old Tariq was stumbling, did I not? Allow me to elaborate. The Pilgrim anticipated there would be trouble in Creation, Hakram, and so tossed a ball up and out of sight so that providence might allow it to land when it was needed, should it be needed.”
“You are saying,” Adjutant said, “that he sent a force through Arcadia.”
“Exactly,” Lord Kairos agreed. “And, old hand that he is at turning tides, he kept a heroic charge up his sleeve in case matters were truly dire.”
The orc’s jaw tightened. In the distance, coming out of the storms with tall banners, a glittering tide of horsemen advanced. Proceran banners, Levantine banners, the full horse of the Grand Alliance’s armies. Including, Hakram thought, every prince and princess in the hosts.
“What is that delightful Callowan saying again?” the Tyrant of Helike mused. “Ah, yes, I remember now.”
The boy’s eye shone wet crimson, when he turned to grin at Adjutant, as if it had already partaken of the blood about to be spilled.
“Finders keepers,” Kairos Theodosian said.