“When a highborn is slain, look to who benefits and you will have learned what families the third party wants to incite strife between.”
– Extract from ‘The Behaviours of Civil Conduct’, by High Lady Mchumba Sahelian
There was only one crowned head left south of Salia, and it was Princess Rozala Malanza of Aequitan.
As a girl or, honesty compelled her to admit, as recently as a few years ago Rozala might have found such a prospect exciting. To wield such influence, to claim such authority, and with so few to check her! After her mother’s disastrous bid for First Princess during the Great War and the ruin that had befallen the Malanzas for it, Rozala had been forced to look in the eye the fact that if she did not take cover under another’s wings her family mighty yet be toppled entirely and that odds were Aequitan would not know prominence against in her lifetime. And now, not even a decade later, Princess Rozala could be argued to be the second most powerful individual in Procer: she commanded a great host, had inherited the reins of a powerful bloc within the Highest Assembly and her reputation as both general and noblewoman had reached heights she’d never before thought possible. And yet, as dawn inched ever closer the Princess of Aequitan found it all felt hollow. For all the power and influence that had been gathered to her name, Rozala Malanza found that the sum of what she could do in the face of death was look up at the sky and pray.
Pray that the Peregrine and the Regicide lived up to their legends, that the Rogue Sorcerer proved worthy of one day having such tales matched to his name. That the Tyrant’s schemes would be turned against the Crown of the Dead and, most of all, that the Black Queen would make as terrifyingly potent an ally as she had been an enemy. They’d all danced to the sounds of Catherine Foundling’s tune, this winter, found the calm-faced villain always one step ahead. Let the Hidden Horror taste of that, for once, Princess Rozala thought. Let every promise that has been made under cover of night come true, and great vengeance be visited upon the King of Death. Rozala Malanza ruled lands large and wealthy, commanded soldiers in the dozens of thousands and held power of life and death over a dozen times that – and so, left to stand stewing in her own inability to do more than hope, she pondered her growing mislike of the Chosen and the Damned. Those colourful few, cloaked in power and mystery, who would bargain with the fate of nations and the pivots of history. Who left all others in the dust of their grandiose adventures, be they great or small. What a hateful thing it was, to have your own life and death decided by the hands of others.
She was not unaware of the irony inherent to a princess of the blood pondering such things. The touch of rue jostled her out of her thoughts enough that she heard the person approaching behind her, though she did not turn. Hair loose and going down her back, Rozala tightened the warm fur cloak around her body and kept looking at the night sky brought about by the blasphemous sorceries of the drow.
“There have been another dozen,” Louis Rohanon, once Prince of Creusens, told her.
The Princess of Aequitan did not need to look to know he was exhausted beyond all words. Neither of them had slept in much, much too long – and there was only so far brandy and alchemical tonics could carry one past what one’s body could tolerate.
“Were they more coherent than the last?” she asked.
“In a manner of speaking,” Louis sighed. “It has become apparent that the… visions all concern the same journey, but the Heavens were seemingly unconcerned with the order of the revelations. It is all rather haphazard.”
Louis Rohanon had never been a particularly pious man, which was Rozala was less than surprised by his implicit criticism of the manner the Gods Above had granted their insights. No doubt if the Prince – former now, she reminded herself – of Creusens was a one of the Gods the visions would have been regularly arranged, in good order and with the proper seals affixed to bills of delivery. Less than surprised, yes, but perhaps a little amused. Not that she would show it. The mirth was short-lived, though.
“And the initial vision,” Rozala said. “Has anything happened to cast it in doubt?”
She looked at him from the corner of her eye and caught his face tightening.
“No,” Louis quietly admitted. “It still returns at least once per lot of dreamers waking, and never once have we been told of anything taking place past it. It seems to have been the end of their journey.”
The Princess of Aequitan closed her eyes. She’d not slept, so there’d been no opportunity to experience the dreams, but in the urgency after the first dreamers woke she’d had several of those blessed with the visions describe it to her in detail. It always seemed to centre around the same vivid parts: the Black Queen’s scream of denial after she realized being tricked, the Grey Pilgrim taking up the blade of the fallen Saint of Swords and then the wizened hero’s taking of his own life. All who’d dreamt the dream agreed that the Black Queen had tried to prevent the Peregrine’s death, though words failed them when they tried to explain why. Yet it seemed undeniable, by now, that both the Regicide and the Grey Pilgrim were dead. The former, if one of the growingly reoccurring visions was to be believed, having been slain by Catherine Foundling herself.
“Any word of the Dominion armies?” she asked.
“None of the Blood have returned from their seclusion,” Louis said. “The senior captains still hold command, and our people in their camps confirm their rank and file are having similar dreams.”
“It’s the Blood that’ll make decisions, not the captains or the soldiers,” Princess Rozala said. “Keep sending envoys, Louis. We can’t afford for the battle to resume.”
“Dawn will bludgeon the drow hard,” the former Prince of Creusens carefully said. “And will arrive soon. If a victory is to be seized by surprise, it would be in the coming hour.”
“Tell me, Louis,” the dark-haired princess flatly said, “even if we slew every last soldier of the Army of Callow without losing a man, what do you believe will happen when the Black Queen returns?”
“She’s already raised one army of the dead,” Louis said, though he shivered. “How many times could she truly do such a thing?”
And shiver he should, for Malanza had been told the same tale as he and it had clenched her guts to hear it. An ancient king of Callow stolen from the Dead King’s grasp and hundreds of thousands of furious wraiths summoned to deliver his wrath? Such a thing could break an army fresh and dug-in, if well-used, and Rozala Malanza’s host was tired and spread out. For all that the Black Queen had come to favour subtler tricks than those she’d plied at the Battle of the Camps, it would not to do forget for a moment that they were facing a woman capable of slaying thousands with snap of her fingers.
“Regardless, this is not a gamble we can even begin to consider with the League still on the field,” Rozala reminded him. “They may have withdrawn but they are not so far as that.”
The disparate armies of the League of Free Cities had, as of an hour past, begun to retreat. They’d put perhaps a mile between themselves and the other two great hosts on the plains, their great combined camp turning into a labyrinth of mayhem before it’d even been fully raised. Rozala had ordered envoys sent there, to probe for intentions and information, but so far all had been turned away outside the camp and the few spies she’d tried to slip in had been shot and hung from poles as a warning. She’d not even tried to get anyone inside the Army of Callow’s camp, well aware that Wasteland sorceries would make infiltration more than merely difficult, but at least there her envoys had been received by Lady Vivienne Dartwick. Who was now, it seemed, heiress to the throne of Callow. Lady Dartwick had been courteous but dclined Princess Rozala’s offer of sending a contingent of priests from the House of Light to see to her wounded, likely suspecting the additional intent of gleaning the state of her camp through it. At least the venture had confirmed that some of her soldiers were touched by the dreams too, as well as confirming that the ‘priests’ of the heretical House Insurgent were truly capable of healing. Which would not be a pleasant to hear for some of the priesthood in Salia, Rozala suspected. Last she’d heard from the capital, lines against Callow had been hardening amongst the House of Light.
“As you say, Princess Rozala,” Louis relied, inclining his head.
She grimaced, for until a few hours ago though she had been his leader they had also been peers: and while the former still held true, the latter did not. They would have to become used to that. Rozala tried to conceive of a sentence that could mend the gap she could feel growing between them, but sentiment had never been her knack and she struggled over the words until the entire debate was made moot. A messenger approached, though Rozala did not recognize her face and she was being escorted by a pair of Aequitan soldiers. The messenger bowed low, and only began to speak when Rozala gave her leave.
“Your Grace,” the woman said, her faint Alamans accent still discernible. “You have been summoned to stand before the First Prince. The Order of the Red Lion has found the restrictions on scrying lifted at last.”
Louis’ face darkened with both anger and embarrassment.
“It was ordered that any successful contact with Salia be reported immediately,” he sharply said. “How is it that I am only now hearing of this?”
“You ordered everyone under your command to do so,” the messenger politely agreed. “Yet I am here on behalf of Her Most Serene Highness’ plenipotentiary envoy Arnaud Brogloise, who answers only to the First Prince and the Highest Assembly.”
So Cordelia Hasenbach had hidden an entire set of messengers and scryers right under her nose, Rozala darkly thought. Likely among the army of the former Prince of Cantal, who until so recently she’d believed one of her most eager supporters. The Princess of Aequitan grit her teeth at the memory of Arnaud’s treachery revealed in the bloodiest of ways, though now was not the time to settle that account.
“As always, I am at the disposal of the First Prince,” Rozala replied flatly. “Guide the way, messenger.”
Louis was left with instructions to have someone inform her the moment there was movement from the Levantines, no matter who it was she was speaking with at the time. The dark-haired princess followed the messenger into the camp of the Cantal army, though she was not so foolish as to do so without a company of trustworthy Aequitan soldiers escorting her. She was well aware that the First Prince would find it much more difficult to take her head after the dust had settled and her star rose in the eyes of commons and royalty alike, and while Rozala was not certain it was in Hasenbach’s nature to so bluntly snuff out a rival these were dark days for all. Fear could do strange things to a woman: sometimes it could urge her to greatness, but it could just as easily spur her to the basest of instincts. Yet Rozala and her escort were not surrounded and slaughtered but instead guided to the former Prince of Cantal’s private pavilion where the man himself awaited. Along with a handful of wizards who took their leave when dismissed, and a basin of water large enough it could have been used as a bath. Arnaud Brogloise rose from his seat when she entered, as the fresh disparity in their ranks required, and personally introduced her.
“Her Grace Rozala Malanza, Princess of Aequitan and supreme commander of the southern armies,” he briskly said.
Cordelia Hasenbach’s cool blue eyes, framed by those perfect golden tresses, were already studying her through the waters and so Rozala offered the proper bow.
“Your Highness,” she said. “As I was summoned, I came.”
“For that promptness I thank you, and again for the services you rendered the Principate on this campaign,” the First Prince said. “You may consider me informed or recent developments in Iserre, for the purpose of this conversation.”
“So I shall,” Rozala replied, resisting the urge to glance at Brogloise. “May I then inquire, Your Highness, as to what the purpose of this conversation is? While I have matters to bring up before you, your messenger implied… pressing need.”
It was as close as she could come to chiding the First Prince for summoning her so abruptly, and the message should be twice as loudly heard for the way Rozala had kept to the courtesies while Hasenbach very clearly had not.
“As of a quarter hour ago, we have confirmed that the Dead King has withdrawn on all fronts,” the First Prince said.
Rozala’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Furthermore, while my cousin finds it difficult to see through either the Hidden Horror or the Black Queen, she has confirmed that a truce of more than one month and less than six was bought, though not at what price.”
I did not escape the dark-haired princess’ attention that Catherine Foundling had been mentioned in this, though for now she could only speculate as to why.
“You believe this is the doing of the Queen in Callow?” Princess Rozala asked.
“Queen of Callow,” she finally said. “Best we grow used to that, Your Grace, for it seems bargains will have to be struck. The Augur had gleaned that the truce is related to the Black Queen, though little more than that. Given the consequences of hostilities resuming, we cannot afford to take risks with Queen Catherine’s life – or, indeed, to risk provoking her at all for at least a month.”
A pause saw the First Prince’s tone grow heavy and solemn.
“In that spirit, Princess Rozala Malanza, as commander of the Principate’s southern armies I charge you with the preservation of Queen Catherine Foundling’s life and the safeguard of her armies and associates. Should the Dominion strike at her, you are to take any measures short of open war with Levant to prevent conflict reigniting between Callow and the Grand Alliance.”
Rozala sharply breathed in. Open war, the First Prince had said. Which was implicit endorsement of assassinating Dominion commanders over allowing the Black Queen to be put at risk. If it ever came out that Cordelia Hasenbach had given such an order, the Grand Alliance might very well splinter. The First Prince, Rozala thought, had just handed her a knife to put to her throat in years to come. The Princess of Aequitan would never like the cold-eyed woman ruling over Procer, she knew that. There was too much bad blood.
Yet there were times where she could not help but admire the other woman, in spite of all the rest.
“I understand, Your Highness,” the dark-haired princess said.
“I believe you do, Princess Rozala,” the First Prince of Procer evenly replied. “Whatever comes, the Principate must survive. Do as you must, and know you have the full weight of my authority behind you.”
The water in the basin rippled and in the heartbeat that followed Cordelia Hasenbach’s silhouette disappeared, leaving behind only tepid liquid. While the First Prince had been within her rights to take her leave so abruptly, it surprised Rozala that a woman known so far and wide for her diplomatic talents would so carelessly offer discourtesy twice on the same night. Then it occurred to her that with the audience having come to an end so swiftly she’d never had opportunity to bring up the petitions passed on to her. The dark-haired Arlesite turned to Arnaud Brogloise, who still stood in silence. His dark eyes had not ceased studying either of the princesses as they spoke, though at least he’d not bothered to put on the pretence of being a blustering fool again. In Cleves the middle-aged former prince had put on some muscle, adding it to his pudgy frame, but Rozala had never found him to have much of a presence – on occasion a sort of buffoonish swagger, but nothing to give her pause. Yet now his girth seemed less laughable, his ruddy face no longer a fool’s visage, and the Princess of Aequitan realized odds were he was physically stronger than he. It was somewhat unsettling to know that, now that she’d seen Arnaud Brogloise open the throat of royalty without batting an eye.
“You are still her envoy, I take it,” Princess Rozala said.
She was princess and he not: no longer was courtesy owed.
“I am to begin negotiations with the Queen of Callow when she returns,” the older man acknowledged. “I’ve already spoken with her right hand, to interesting result.”
“Lady Dartwick?” Rozala asked, surprised.
“Hakram Deadhand, the Adjutant,” the Alamans corrected. “He lacks formal title save for his Damnation, but wields the influence nonetheless.”
An orc, holding power in Callow? It had been one thing when the Wasteland still held sway over these lands, but it seemed rather odd that one of that land’s ancient enemies would have such authority within its borders now.
“And what did the Deadhand have to say?” the Princess of Aequitan asked.
“A great deal, on the subject of accords,” Arnaud replied, lips strangely quirking. “I have a great deal of reading ahead of me.”
“More than you believe,” Rozala said. “I have petitions to pass on to the First Prince. As you’ve demonstrated a knack for reaching her, they will be placed in your hands. Delaying would be ill-advised, Arnaud.”
The man let out a breath that straddled the line between a sigh and a chuckle.
“You have something to say?” the princess flatly said.
“I would not speak out of turn, Your Grace,” he said. “Yet I wonder – these petitions, would they be the designated succession for the abdications of the night?”
They were, though Rozala did not immediately say so. Thought it was little more than a formality, save if accusations of treason and other great crimes were to be made, the designated succession for a principality of Procer was to be submitted to the Highest Assembly. There’d only been a handful of refusals throughout the entire history of Procer, usually when villainy or civil war had split the realm asunder. Why would such a matter amuse Arnaud? Certainly the amount of crowns to be approved was unusually high, perhaps even without precedent, but… The Princess of Aequitan’s blood ran cold.
“Send for the wizards, Brogloise,” she said. “I will put the matter to the First Prince myself.”
“I will change nothing,” he replied. “An extraordinary session of the Highest Assembly was called. In times of troubles the wisdom of our predecessors is once again needed, and so the Guillermont Decree has been restored.”
It took a moment for Rozala to place it. Not the name of Guillermont, for that she could hardly ignore: it was the name of royal house that had ruled Aequitan before the Malanzas rose to prominence and set them aside. The decree in particular, though, came from the First Princess Éloïse Guillermont – best known for ending the Principate’s occupation of Callow. Before she’d been First Prince she’d been a sitter of the Highest Assembly, and her election to the office of First Princess had been… contentious. The politics of the time had been complicated, as they often were in Procer – Guillermont had been the leader of a bloc among the Assembly that held no lands in Callow and so considered the taxes levied to keep armies standing there an utter waste – but the broad lines had been that Procer in those days had been split between the royalty that wished withdrawal and those that wished to tighten Procer’s grip. Princess Éloïse had risen to power by seizing an opportunity after Callowan rebels had slain five princes in their beds in Laure, gathering her allies in the Assembly and passing her eponymous decree before succession could be arranged. It was an obscure procedural measure that specified no assermenté – that pretentious Alamans term for proxy – could be used to present one’s name for confirmation of succession. The would-be ruler had to attend in person. In practice, that’d meant that the designated heirs and heiresses of the slain royals had been forced to leave their seats in the Assembly empty for more than a year as they remained in Callow trying to keep their holdings from collapsing. Those empty seats had allowed the Princess of Aequitan to swing the balance of votes in her favour by enough of a margin she was elected First Princess and ordered the withdrawal from Callow, changing the path of history.
Yet that had been a mere procedural trick, one that First Princess Éloïse herself had been easily persuaded into rescinding when she’d ascended to the office. What Rozala was beginning to piece together was a different beast entirely. Seven crowns had been abdicated, this night. That meant that almost a third of the Highest Assembly, which held twenty-four seats, had been silenced: proxies could not vote when there was no ruling prince or princess stood behind them, for they were the voice of that ruler and had no formal decisional power of their own. That left seventeen votes, then, for the foreseeable futures. The Lycaonese principalities made four. Salia itself, the demesne of the First Prince, held a vote as well. Prince Frederic of Brus and Hasenbach’s other two foremost loyalists in Salamans and Tenerife were well known to have instructed their assermentés to follow Hasenbach in all things, which meant eight votes. Prince Beatrice of Hainaut’s lands were being defended by Lycaonese armies, which likely made for nine and with Prince Gaspard in Cleves being heavily dependent on southern supplies for his defending armies that made ten out of seventeen. A clear majority that would vote however Cordelia Hasenbach wanted it to. And it would not be broken in the coming months, for the First Prince would be able to put her chosen candidates on the abdicated thrones long before any possible designated heir presented themselves in Salia. After all, the only mages who knew the secrets of scrying in Iserre were in Hasenbach’s service, and no rider could ride quicker than sorcery.
“She has made herself the queen of Procer,” Rozala croaked, “in everything but name.”
“On doom’s approach,” Arnaud Brogloise said, “law must fall silent.”
“And you would enable this?” Princess Rozala hissed. “You were a prince, Arnaud. You understand what is at stake: the Assembly can be led, but it must never be commanded. That way lies tyranny.”
“Oh, we’ll survive a spot of tyranny,” he replied. “Yet we might not survive Keter without it.”
“What did she give, to make of you such a loyal hound?” the Princess of Aequitan hissed. “What manner of ugly bargain was made?”
“She let her kin die and her home burn, to better our chances of victory,” Arnaud said. “Loyalty is a child’s sentiment, Your Grace. I heed Her Highness’s decrees because she had proved willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary for Procer to survive.”
The scathing reply on the tip of Rozala’s tongue had to be swallowed, for another entered the pavilion. It was, the princess saw, one of her own officers.
“Captain Matias?” she asked, tone harsh.
“Your Grace,” the soldier said, bowing. “Louis Rohanon has sent word: the armies of the Dominion are gathering.”
Cursing, Princess Rozala Malanza thought, would not help in the slightest. Yet she still blasphemed several times, before sending for enough soldiers to give those damned Levantine madmen pause before they got everyone killed.