“Never once have I betrayed, for such an act first requires the extension of trust.”
– Dread Empress Foul II, the Forthright
Now, far be it from me to even remotely imply Kairos Theodosian was not at best the worst ally anyone would ever have and at worst essentially a malignant disease inflicted on Creation. That said when it came to, uh, the sheer number of crowned heads gathering in the Principate at any given time then he almost had a point. I’d had Hakram drill me on the names and attendant principalities, and still I was pretty sure I had at least two of them confused. Both Princess Bertille of Lange and Princess Leonor of Valencis were women in their late forties with dark hair and tan skin, which considering I’d never spoken a word to either did not make differentiating them at a glance easy. Still, it wasn’t them that’d matter in that throng of royalty. The keystones here were two, princesses both. One of them familiar by now: Princess Rozala Malanza of Aequitan, who was still glaring at the Tyrant of Helike for his casual murder of her illusory form. Kairos seemed genuinely delighted at the prospect of having made yet another powerful enemy. The other I’d met only once before, when we’d had that pleasant chat under afternoon sun where I’d politely asked her and a few thousand riders to turn back. Princess Sophie Louvroy of Lyonis, one of Hasenbach’s staunchest partisans in Procer and I suspected the check sent on Rozala in case her command of a large army so close to Salia prompted… ambitions.
Where Princess Rozala was dark-haired and dark-eyed, tall yet curvy in the way that classical Arlesite beauties tended to be, Princess Sophie was a pale blonder with blue eyes and a narrow face. The Princess of Lyonis was a few years older, I knew from the reports of the Jacks, but it was hard to tell at a glance. They were not the oldest of the seven royals standing revealed in the eclipse’s gloom, nor those ruling the wealthiest or most influential principalities, yet there were no denying it was they who shared the reins of authority. Princess Sophie did so as the First Prince’s eyes and ear in the south, while if Vivienne’s spies had it right then Princess Rozala was considered the informal heiress to the coalition of crowns that Prince Amadis Milenan had laboriously assembled. Since the Battle of the Camps said Prince of Iserre had been cooling his heels in the hands of the Kingdom of Callow as a prisoner, so given the ever-fluid nature of Proceran politics it was only natural a successor had emerged. They could do worse, silently conceded. Malanza was a skilled commander, and though no great diplomat she was not without allure. It would be easy enough to contrast her solid military record to Cordelia Hasenbach’s own lack of anything similar and reliance on her uncle the Iron Prince for all things warfare.
I doubted they’d ever have the votes to seriously threaten Cordelia in the Highest Assembly, but as a bloc of opposition headed by Princess Rozala they could be a force to reckon with.
“This is rank madness,” a dark-haired woman said.
That accent was Alamans, not Arlesite, which should mean I was looking at Princess Bertille of Lange.
“It is certainly dubious,” Princess Sophie of Lyonis agreed, watching me warily.
That sounded like a refusal in the making, and from one of the two people I would much prefer to be in agreement instead of opposition. It would establish whether what followed would be known as a grave diplomatic incident or a heroic bargain struck in the face of despair.
“The exact meaning of giving away a crown are still unclear,” Prince Louis of Creusens calmly said.
The Prince of Creusens was one of Amadis’ – now Rozala’s perhaps – and somehow managed to make a suit of armour quite obviously fitted to him look too large for his frame. He had a scholarly look about him, and his russet eyes were calm even if half his face was a swelling bruise and he was being careful not to put weight on one of his legs. Too delicate-looking a man for me to find him attractive, I thought, but he was not unpleasant to look at.
“Would it mean abdication, Your Majesty?” he asked me outright. “The surrender of our sovereign lands to one of the fae, or even yourself? An offer so imprecise cannot truly be entertained.”
“A trinket will have to be offered,” I said. “But what you will be surrendering, in truth, is rather more abstract: it is you ‘right to rule’.”
“To clarify,” Prince Louis calmly said, “such a gesture will not in and of itself mean abdication?”
“It most definitely does not,” the Tyrant grinned. “And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
“It will, save if you are fools,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
For once, the sight of every prince and princess there unconsciously shifting to face him more fully did not bring out irritation. The respect that Tariq commanded and one of the oldest and perhaps the most famous living hero on Calernia was, for once, aiding me.
“Chosen,” Princess Rozala said, “I would request your guidance in understanding this. I cannot and will not condemn the people of Aequitan to a grisly fate, not even for victory this day.”
“Hardly a victory, that we dance one and all to the Black Queen’s tune,” the Prince of Orense scoffed.
Early fifties, this one, and the long brown hair that went down to his shoulders was also bound in a bun behind his head. Prince Rodrigo of Orense, of who I knew very little save that his open scorning of the First Prince in a formal vote had been the talk of the Principate in my absence – and not in a manner that was flattering for him, considering it was Cordelia Hasenbach who’d put an end to the Levantine raids that’d ravaged the south of his principality.
“You never were much of dancer, Rodrigo,” Prince Arnaud of Cantal disdainfully said. “Leave this to your betters, would you?”
Ah, that fucker. Though not one of the royals here with true authority, Prince Arnaud Brogloise had raised my hackles more than once in the past. He was, at the very least, a prodigiously skilled actor. After the Battle of the Camps, when I’d still had the benefit of fae senses, I’d noted that his heartbeat never rose even when he was seemingly furious or busy shouting.
“Arnaud,” Princess Rozala sharply bit out. “Chosen, I apologize for the interruption.”
The Prince of Cantal look appropriately chided, though a mite resentful, and once more I wondered how much of it was an act if not the whole cloth. Rodrigo of Orense’s lips quirked a tad smugly, but seemingly content with that intervening victory he pursued the conversation no further.
“You are forgiven,” the Tyrant magnanimously allowed.
“Though the earthly crown will not be taken from your brow, save if you yourself do so, you will have lost the authority of a ruler in the eyes of the Heavens,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Lingering in that role after discarding it before Gods and men can only bring calamity.”
“I figure it’d be subtle at first,” I said. “Small nudges. Crops get a little worse, people listen a little less. If you keep holding, though, then it’s a different story.”
“Disease and strife,” the Peregrine said, “and they will only grow, so long as authority is kept.”
“To clarify,” Prince Louis spoke once more, echoing his own words, “abdicating in favour of kin would ward off this… curse?”
“It would,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “Though ever bearing another crown would birth it anew.”
The Prince of Creusens then, to my surprise, turned to me as if seeking confirmation. I nodded, as to the best of my knowledge it was true. His lips thinned, and I caught his muscles twitching as he stopped himself from looking at someone for guidance. By the looks of it, I mused as I gauged the angle, it would have been Princess Rozala. One of hers, then. Said Princess of Aequitan was standing tall, fingers clenched, and met my gaze eye to eye.
“Foundling,” she said.
“Rozala,” I replied.
“This… lunacy of a land you speak of making,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “Will you allow passage through it to any who would use it to fight the Dead King?”
“That will not be mine to decide,” I said, “but I will bare sword to enforce such a term, should it come to that.”
“The Kingdom of Callow and its allies will refrain from making war on the Grand Alliance, until the peace conference is ended?” Princess Rozala pressed.
“Safe in Callow’s defence, or that of its allies,” I agreed.
The other woman’s jaw grew tight, eyes burning with something that was half fear and half fury.
“There is horror to the north, Catherine Foundling, the likes of which you cannot yet grasp,” Princess Rozala Malanza said. “We war now against the Crown of the Dead not for pride or right or faith, but for the ugly prize of scant survival. In that struggle, Black Queen, do you claim to be friend or foe?”
“If your Grand Alliance makes accord with me, Princess of Aequitan,” I softly said, “oh, what howling ruin I will visit upon the King of Death. I have dooms in my arsenal that the world will shake of them.”
She breathed out shakily and straightened her back.
“Your word, Foundling,” Rozala Malanza asked, eyes on mine.
“On my oath,” I quietly replied.
Fingers steady, she unmade the claps of her helmet and ripped it off her head. Tossed, it flew and landed at my feet in a sprawl a snow.
“That’s one,” the Princess of Aequitan. “Ram it down his fucking throat, Black Queen. Hard enough that even in Keter they will hear the sound of our coming wroth.”
“Malanza,” Princess Sophie hissed, “you cannot simply-”
“It would be,” Rozala said, “cheap at twice the price.”
In the heartbeat that followed, I saw the lay of the royalty around them clear as day. Those whose gaze held admiration, but also misgivings: Louis of Creusens, Leonor of Valencis. Those who were moved to contempt instead, Bertille of Lange and Rodrigo of Orense. Arnaud of Cantal’s face was befuddlement incarnate, though the sudden turn had surprised him enough the confusion for once did not reach his eyes. As for Sophie of Lyonis, she was a battlefield of fear and shame. This, I thought, is why you are followers. Why even though the First Prince fears and mislikes her, it Rozala Malanza who was given the command. And I would not let bravery, let sacrifice, pass unremarked. Not when I had the means of doing otherwise. Leaning on my staff, I limped forward and bent the knee long enough to catch the edge of Malanza’s helmet. Catching her eye with mine, I tossed it back. She caught it, I thought, out of reflex.
“Foundling-” she began.
“Ivah,” I simply said.
My Lord of Silent Steps without a word, and stepped out of my shadow as if it’d been laying within it. In its hands was held a crown of ivory and gold, the front set with a heavy topaz upon which a heraldic griffin had been carved. Behind me, Kairos began softly laughing. I held out my hand, and the drow placed the crown on it before offering a bow and vanishing behind a fresh veil of illusions.
“The crown of Iserre, offered by Amadis Milenan,” I said. “Rozala Malanza alone of seven did not flinch, when sacrifice was asked. For that, she keeps her crown.”
I could have waited until the others had been talked or coerced into giving their own crowns, but I’d felt in my gut I should not. I was not certain, though, whether this was one of the instincts that’d served me so well when navigating stories or simply because it would have been beneath all involved to give Rozala Malanza the honour her due as a trick instead of a forthright display.
“Connerie,” Princess Bertille sneered. “You do not dictate to sitters of the Highest Assembly, Damned. Let Malanza waste her rights as she so desired, for I will not give mine.”
“You presume much, Bertille,” Prince Rodrigo snorted. “Not even ally to her cause, and you are to be exempt? I think not. At least I-”
“Enough,” Princess Sophie snarled. “I will not have such disorder. The Princess of Lange is correct in that a foreigner may not speak to the affairs of the Principate. We will, among ourselves, discuss who should be exempt.”
I looked at the Princess of Aequitan, then and what I saw on her face grieved me. Nothing in the loss of a crown moved me to sorrow, for I had little taste for mine and no reverence for those who’d earned their own by mere happenstance of birth. It was the raw, bleak disappointment I saw in a respected adversary as she stared the truth of her home in the eye. That, even as the sky was falling down on their heads, there were princes and princesses of Procer who would rather squabble than look up.
“It could be put to a vote,” Princess Leonor of Valencis hesitantly said. “As is our way.”
Something in Rozala Malanza’s eye dimmed a little as the fourth voice of seven gave weight to the dispute. From the corner of my eye I saw the Tyrant of Helike writhing as if having a harsh episode of the shakes, but it was only barely held in laughter that had him convulsing. He silently mouthed thanks at me.
“Shame on you all,” the Grey Pilgrim quietly said.
For a moment, the old man’s resounding disappointment gave them pause. But only for a moment, because even a hero’s chiding weighed short of a crown kept on the scales of the powerful.
“Chosen do not rule, in the Principate,” the Prince of Orense said. “Much less those born in Levant. With all due respect, Grey Pilgrim, you have already overstepped tonight in presuming to speak for the First Prince of Procer. Let us not further-”
A bundle fell at my feet with dull thump. A straight-edge cavalry sword, wrapped in a cloak.
“I had,” Louis Rohanon pensively said, “genuinely believed myself to be a decent man, until tonight.”
The silence in the wake of his words was loud.
“And still I hesitated,” the man who’d been the Prince of Creusens ruefully said. “If this is the truth of us, my friends, then we have no business wearing crowns.”
“A delicate heart ever bleeds,” Princess Bertille snorted. “Bled all the way out, it seems. Keep your empty sentimentalities to yourself, Rohanon-“
“Shame on you all,” the Grey Pilgrim said, and the light in his eyes as he spoke was the coldest manner of mercy.
The old man took one step forward, the butt of his staff leaving the ground.
“Raise your hand to a sitter of the Highest Assembly and there will be war, Levantine,” Prince Rodrigo warned.
“He’s right,” the Saint of Swords casually said, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Go for a walk, Tariq.”
“You, Sorcerer,” the Princess of Lange barked, face gone pale with fright. “Are you not a chosen of the Heavens? Will you simply allow this lunatic thug to murder-”
The knife sliced her throat open without much of a spill, for Prince Arnaud Brogloise of Cantal had a steady hand.
“Arnaud?” the Prince of Orense gulped out.
The Prince of Cantal waited until the Princess of Lange had fallen to the ground before kneeling at her side, ignoring her dying gasps in favour of opening the clasp of her sheathed sword and taking it off her belt. He tossed it at my feet.
“Will this suffice?” he calmly asked, wiping his bloody knife on his forearm.
“It will,” I agreed.
“You’ll get the Regal Kindness for this, Brogloise,” Princess Sophie darkly said. “I’ll ask the First Prince the right to force it down your throat myself.”
“Unlikely,” the Prince of Cantal noted, pawing at his armour and producing a small scroll stamped with a seal. “By the decree of Her Most Serene Highness Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer and Warden of the West, I have been granted prior and absolute amnesty for all actions taken in the preservation of the Principate, as well as plenipotentiary power to treat with foreign powers in her name.”
“You were one of hers,” Princess Rozala faintly said. “Gods, Arnaud, for how long?”
“Hers, yours, Milenan’s,” the Prince of Cantal bitingly said. “What childish way of thinking. My only concern, Rozala Malanza, is the preservation of the Principate of Procer. What could possibly matter even remotely as much?”
Cool eyes turned to the other royals who had been bickering, until moments ago.
“Must I murder every last one of you, or will a blade at your throat prompt a sudden swell of heroism?” Prince Arnaud mildly asked.
“I like him,” Kairos mused. “He’s got that, what do you call it?”
“Cold-blooded ruthlessness,” I said.
“No, that’s not it. Ah, a knife,” the Tyrant of Helike said. “He’s got a knife.”
Princess Leonor of Valencis had taken off her gauntlets, and her fingers were working on her ornate silver-enamelled helm. What I had taken for a decorative circlet soldered onto it turned out to be a silver tiara cleverly set into furrows. The Arlesite princess tossed it onto the pile at my feet, smile mirthless.
“What a slaughter of thrones you have made of this night, Black Queen,” she bitterly said. “A princes’ graveyard, shallow dug at your behest.”
I looked at her then, truly looked at her. She had been among those who had admired Malanza’s character even as she balked at emulating it, and for that she had earned more than simply my contempt. No layabout royal, this one, for closer survey revealed hands calloused from the arts of war and scars on her skin that had the make of blades. Her eyes were not cowed, even in loss, and even in her earlier quibblings she had not been spineless. And yet. I looked at Leonor of Valencis and what I saw was good blood, old blood, conqueror’s blood – gilded history, ancient triumphs erected into throne. I saw a woman who’d been taught of rights alongside right, privilege perhaps not unkindly borne but never once questioned. I thought of the High Lords, then, and of something Hakram had once told me under a moonlit sky. And they expected to win, too, he’d said, speaking of our enemy. Don’t they always? Sooner or later, better blood wins out.
And I couldn’t mend that, I knew, because it was not in my hands to shape this world like clay – and it was, perhaps, for the best that it was not. It belonged to more than me, that sprawl of terror and wonderment, of pettiness and valour. It would take more than an orphan girl from Laure to make something new of it, no matter what powers I came to wield. But now and then, I thought, now and then I could wield the knife my father had pressed into my hand all those years ago. And if it was not always given to me to bring something beautiful into Creation, then at least I could expunge some unseemly piece of it. You are part of this, Leonor of Valencis, I thought. Of this land of robber princes and hungry wars, of a tapestry of rapacious ambition so despised it took Akua’s Folly for you to be trusted again. It might be that among your kind you are one of the betters ones, but even should you not be guilty you would remain complicit.
Let them be thankful I had only taken crowns, for I could have taken a great deal more and lost not sleep over it. The only inheritance I’d ever cared to claim was steady hand and an indignant rage that had cowed kingdoms, and within it there was not a speck of mercy for the likes of Leonor of Valencis.
“Tremble then, o ye mighty,” I coldly replied, “for a new age is upon you.”
Rodrigo Trastanes wrapped his sword in a banner, before adding it to the pile. Sophie Louvroy ripped twin ornate silver wings off her gorget and shot me a burning glare after dropping them. Arnaud Brogloise, face betraying not a flicker of amusement, offered the knife still freshly touched by the lifeblood of the Princess of Lange. And with that, seven crowns had been laid at my feet – they were, now, mine to pass on if I so wished. I went looking through my cloak, producing a bundle of wakeleaf that ended up nestled nicely in my pipe. I passed a palm over it, added a flicker of Night shaped into flame and inhaled with a little sigh of pleasure. Expectant gazes had been turned on me, now that my scheme had borne first fruit. Pilgrim, Saint, Sorcerer, Tyrant. And myself, nameless but high priestess of unruly goddesses. I blew out a stream of smoke.
“Now,” I said, “shall we go on an adventure?”
Behind me a breach into Arcadia tore opened.
So it began.