“All law is upheld through violence, but when violence itself becomes the law then only disorder can come of it. As prosperity requires order, to ensure prosperity a ruler must therefore suborn violence to law.”
– Extract from the memoirs of Dread Emperor Terribilis II
Razin Tanja was not yet lord of Malaga, and in truth might never be. Father had named him heir, before they left Levant, and so of all that could lay claim his right would be the foremost and hardest to dispute. Yet he remained only heir, until he’d stood the ancestral grounds of the Tanja and been acclaimed to lordship by his closest kin. Razin had no right to call on the oaths once sworn to his father and so the captains of Malaga could defy him his orders if they so wished, though on war-grounds with the death of Akil Tanja still fresh they’d chosen to follow his commands nonetheless. It was because of that frail arrangement and the rights of his Blood he was considered to have voice equal to the other three standing at this council, though it would be foolish to assume the others did not regard his standing to be the lowest among them. Yet here they were nonetheless, the four of highest authority among the Dominion’s armies, having woken from the waking-dreams the Peregrine had sent them to hold these talks.
There were only seats and a deep-dug firepit within the tent, for though it belonged to Lord Yannu Marave it was not the same they’d before used for war councils. This one was rather smaller and behind ancient ward-stones brought from Levant, gifts from the Gigantes that had been rarely made and were even more rarely taken away from ancestral grounds There they kept veiled from sorcery and spying the affairs of the families owning them, as it should be. Though the stones could have been set around a larger tent, Razin knew enough of sorcery to know that certain patterns must be kept arithmetically exact to exert their full strength. The wonder-makers of the Titanomachy were free in speaking the secrets of use when they granted gits, though never the secrets of making, and no two such gifts were ever truly the same. If the Lord of Alava had chosen this lesser tent, it would be for good reason. Razin would acknowledge, in the quiet of his own thoughts, that the closer seats and crackling flames set to the talks a different tone than that of the battle-councils.
It was easier to see the truth of the others this way. Lord Yannu Marave – Careful Yannu, as the man was known in Levant – had not personally taken the field, yet the general of the Champion’s Blood looked drained under his sweat-flecked facepaint. For him Razin found little compassion, for the man had slain his father even if the matter had been settled in fair and honourable duel. He found near as little for Lady Itima Ifriqui of the Brigand’s Blood, who had held command of the Vaccei warriors but left her eldest son to lead the vanguard that’d tried the fortifications of the Callowans. Moro of the Brigand’s Blood had been made to sleep again, fed herbal potions concocted by binders so that if there was more to be seen in dreams one of the Blood would see it. He might yet be allowed entrance to this tent, should he come with pressing knowledge. Though Lord Yannu sat on the other side of the flames and Lady Itima to Razin’s right, to his left was the only person in this tent he counted as more companion than foe. Lady Aquiline Osena, who twice had tried to see him slain before they had shared strife against the drow. He found his gaze drawn to her bronze-green paint, the sinuous lay of it covering every inch of skin not covered by her tanned leather vest.
He’d not forgot the sight of her running over moonlit snow like a whisper of smoke over water, beautiful and terrible like some ancient goddess of the hunt from olden days. Ashen Gods, how could he? He might as well been branded with a hot iron. Aquiline found his gaze, for he’d allowed himself to linger too long, and though the cast of her face was difficult to read under the colours she did not seem displeased in the slightest. Though Razin had known women before, something of the wicked glint in her eye had him feeling like he should blush. He looked away, careful not do display undue haste in doing so that would draw attention from the others but found he had to force down something like a smile.
“The Peregrine is dead,” Yannu Marave said, voice shattering the silence. “We have all seen it.”
And more besides, Razin thought. The journey the five Bestowed who’d gone to fight the Dead King had not been shared in full, he thought, but enough had been offered to know what need be known. The Grey Pilgrim had gone to death for the sake of all the world, and though the Black Queen was wicked and scheming she had not schemed his death nor broken the bargains she had made. The same could not be said of the Regicide, which had troubled all. Laurence de Montfort, though unfortunately Proceran, had been held in high esteem by most of them. Rarely had the Heavens known so righteous or unyielding a servant.
“The Tyrant of Helike must die,” Lady Itima of the Brigand’s Blood harshly said. “The Theodosian line should be ended for good, lest the viper keep biting again and again.”
“Are we to wage war on the League, then?” Aquiline replied, unconvinced. “The One-Eyed King is poison to all he touches, but still surrounded by a great host.”
“We can petition the Grand Alliance for soldiers,” Lady Itima insisted.
“Which ally would you petition, Ifriqui?” Razin calmly said. “Ashur, broken at Thalassina and besieged on its own island by the fleets of Nicae? Or perhaps Procer, who even now makes desperate war on the Hidden Horror?”
“You would let this go unavenged, Tanza?” the Lady of Vaccei sneered. “All knew you without magic, but are you without honour as well? You talk like a coward.”
His teeth clenched, his anger rose.
“Razin Tanja rode with a slayer band and fought death steel in hand,” Aquiline sharply said. “Can you claim the same tonight, Itima Ifriqui? Did you even come close enough to drow or legionaries to loose a single arrow?”
“I have nothing to prove to you, girl,” Lady Itima replied, tone just as sharp. “When you’ve fought in half as many battles as I have, then you-”
“The Peregrine is dead,” Yannu Marave repeated, calmvoice cutting through the rising voice. “And so, without his wise hand to guide us, we must decide where the honour of Levant lies.”
Though neither of the two ladies were pleased with the interruption, they allowed it nonetheless. There would be other nights to pursue their feuds.
“Dangerous words, Marave,” Aquiline warned. “It is the Holy Seljun who keeps the Dominion’s honour, on behalf of the Majilis.”
“Must we keep to that pretence even now that he is dead?” Lord Yannu asked, tone exhausted. “Custom is custom, yet we all knew who was the Isbili we followed – stripped of that name or not. In this tent are four of the five that would be seated if the Majilis was called to session. The fifth has not been more than a decoration in my lifetime.”
“Hasn’t been a ruler of the Pilgrim’s line worth the name since Yasa Isbili,” Lady Itima conceded.
“What it is you suggested, Lord Marave?” Razin stiffly asked.
“That decision must be made as to the fate of this Grand Alliance,” the Lord of Alava said. “What has it brought us, to warrant what we’ve lost in its name?”
“You’d abandon the Tenth Crusade?” Aquiline asked, genuinely surprised.
“What Tenth Crusade is that?” Yannu Marave asked. “We’ve marched for more than a year now, and I’ve yet to see it. We have fought soldiers of Callow, soldiers of the League and now the drow servants of the Black Queen. Was it not the Tower we swore to war upon? Pretty words were spoken yet the truth is plain: only Ashur tread Wasteland soil, and it has been defeated. The Tenth Crusade is done, and if there can be said to have been so much as a thimble’s worth victory to it then it belongs to the Queen of Callow.”
“Let us go home,” he said. “Let us bury our dead and see to our lands, instead of chasing shadows for Cordelia Hasenbach’s sake.”
“Oaths were made,” Lady Itima said.
“To march,” Lord Yannu said. “March we have, and fought too. How much more can be owed? Aid was given, oaths kept.”
“And what will happen, when the Dead King devours the entire Principate and raises it as an army that’ll outnumber grains of sand?” Razin said. “Do you suppose he’ll simply stop at our borders and turn around?”
“The Red Snake Wall has never been breached,” the Lady of Vaccei said.
Her Blood knew the great work better than any other, having often snuck past it to raid Arlesite lands, but this was foolishness. Aquiline agreed, it seemed.
“Never has the Hidden Horror tried it,” the Lady of Tartessos said. “Mighty as the enchantments of the spellsingers are, the Crown of the Dead is a spawning pool of endless fresh horrors. What manner of abomination might be made from the corpse of an empire? Best not find out, for all our sakes.”
“It is not written in stone that Procer will fall,” Lord Yannu said. “Bestowed have flocked to the north, and now both the Black Queen and the League offer truce to the First Prince. Let Procerans see to the defence of their own lands, and if friendship so compels your souls we may offer other bounty than the blood of our people. Foodstuffs and arms, loans of gold to fund their war.”
“And so when the war for Calernia’s survival is ended, we shall be remembered as those that crawled back to our own lands after the first taste of bloodshed,” Aquiline scathingly said. “Or, even as the continent dies around us, we’ll be cursed as the cowards who might have preserved it – if not for the wisdom of Yannu Marave.”
“Thousands have been lost already,” the Lord of Alava said. “Our old ally the Thalassocracy is ruined for at least a generation even if it shakes the Nicaean boot off its throat, which is hardly certain. Would you exhaust our every army as well so that Salia can reclaim Levant after the war end? We all know how much alliance meant to princes, after Callow lost its armies in the last eastern crusade.”
“The First Prince is an honourable woman,” Lady Itima said with a grimace, looking like it cost her to admit it.
Though the Brigand’s Blood was fervent in its hatred of enemies abroad and Procerans in particular, the Lady of Vaccei had spoken of Cordelia Hasenbach with respect more than once. The peace forged between Vaccei and Procer by its First Prince could have been so costly as to ruin the Ifriqui, for none had stood behind Lady Itima in her warmongering and would have protested heavy reparations overmuch, but Hasenbach had been restrained and allowed for honour in peace. That’d been remembered just as much as the many treacheries of the Principate.
“Will her successor be as well?” Lord Yannu retorted. “Or will our spent lands be hungrily eyed by Arlesite crowns and a would-be conqueror be elected after her?”
“To ward off a betrayal that might be,” Razin mildly said, “you instead offer a betrayal that is. I see no honour in this, Marave. Only fear.”
“Hear hear,” Aquiline said. “It might be the Tower we declared war on, but it is the Dead King that now seeks our end. Until the Last Dusk that old thing will be our enemy, and I will not retreat without even catching sight of his armies once.”
The Lord of Alava turned to fix Itima of the Brigand’s Blood with a steady look.
“Your judgement, Lady Itima?” Lord Yannu asked.
The older woman hesitated.
“It is not the war we agreed to fight, no denying that,” she said. “And you speak sense in being wary of Arlesite friendship. Yet honour must be observed. Some may remain, but others should return.”
Lord Yannu said nothing, gazing at them over the fire.
“Then let it be remembered that when the Enemy marched, Vaccei flinched and Alava turned tail,” Lady Aquiline Osena said, tone cold and contemptuous. “Tartessos will not shame itself in such a manner. My captains will remain, and I with them. Run back behind tall walls, if that is the sum of you.”
The gaze moved to him.
“Malaga stays,” Razin simply said.
“You’re not lord, boy,” Lady Itima replied. “You’ve no call to make that decision. It will be put to the captains.”
“I imagine it will,” Razin Tanja of the Grim Binder’s line replied. “I will be certain to tell them the Lady of Vaccei believes them so cowardly as to flee. No doubt they’ll be eager to prove you right.”
It might have been enough, Razin suspected, just for the captains to be told that retreat was Lord Yannu Marave’s own notion. His slaying of Father had seen him politely despised among the men and women who’d spent decades in the service of Akil Tanja. Now that one of the Brigand’s Blood had called their bravery into doubt this way? Gods, there might be honour-duels over insinuations they’d even considered returning south. Lord Yannu gazed at him for a long and silent moment, until he tiredly sighed.
“Has your shoulder been fully healed, Razin Tanja of Binder’s Blood?” the Lord of Alava asked.
It had been. Though the drow’s blow had been hard enough it was still tender, the healing of his binders had ensured that within perhaps a day he would perfectly hale. As it was, save for a mild ache when he moved there was naught left to fix. Still, a strange amusement took him when he realized they were not even speaking of the same shoulder wound as the previous time – it was not a goblin blade that’d hurt him last but a monstrous drow appendage.
“It has,” Razin acknowledged.
He would not lower himself to lying over the matter, even if Yannu Marave meant now to kill him just as he’d killed Father.
“By smoke add dust you vowed enmity between us,” Lord Yannu said. “To be set aside until healing was seen to.”
The Lord of Alava rose from his seat, graceful for all his exhaustion.
“Let us settle matters of honour, then,” Yannu of the Champion’s Blood said.
“As was sworn,” Razin calmly agreed, rising to match him.
The tent was not large, he thought, yet neither was it so small it could not be put to use as duelling-grounds. It would best to keep this away from the eyes of their captains, regardless.
“Will either of you require an officiant?” Lady Itima drawled. “I’ve no horse in this race, and so put forward my name.”
Razin declined, as did Lord Yannu. Theirs would be a duel to the death, not first blood or first wound, and so there was no need of another pair of eyes to adjudicate when to call a halt. Aquiline had risen as well, and leaned closer so her whisper would not be overheard.
“I’ve seen the two of you fight, Razin,” she said. “You’re one of the finest blades I know, but he is finer still and experienced in such duels besides. You will not be the victor in this.”
“He is tired,” Razin replied.
“So are you,” she said.
“I vowed enmity nonetheless,” he told her.
She studied him in silence.
“So you did,” Aquiline conceded.
She leaned closer still, and for a heartbeat he believed she might kiss him. Instead he swallowed a gasp when he felt a knife slide into his lower belly. He’d not even seen her draw. Still studying him, the Lady of Tartessos nodded approvingly.
“You didn’t scream,” she said, sounding proud. “Good. You may consider this the formal beginning of our courtship.”
“Well,” Razin croaked, “you’ve certainly made an impression.”
“Lady Aquiline, what is your meaning by intervening here?” Lord Yannu coldly asked.
Aquiline graced his reply with a twitch of the lips before turning to the Lord of Alava.
“As Razin Tanja is injured, he may not fight you,” the Lady of Tartessos said.
That was one way to delay the matter, he conceded. She’d even been kind enough to slide the blade somewhere that had little risk of killing him. Yet it would amount to little, for Yannu Marave’s intent remained: the man would slay either himself or Aquiline, and so ensure that few enough captains remained that those of Malaga or Tartessos would follow the rest home simply not to be stranded without allies in the midst of the Principate. Before long, there would be one more-
“And so I claim his right as his champion,” Aquiline Osena casually continued. “Any may contest this claim if they so wish, but it will have to be blade in hand.”
“Aquiline,” he began, “don’t-”
“Alas, he has become delirious from the pain,” she said. “And so his word can no longer be taken over the matter.”
Lord Yannu’s cool eyes moved from him to the Lady of Tartessos, assessing.
“So it seems,” the Lord of Alava agreed.
The choice was clear, Razin supposed, between a mere unacclaimed heir like himself and a true ruling lady like Aquiline. If one of them had to die, in Yannu’s eye she would be the better choice for unlike him, she could call on oaths to force her decisions onto captains. Knowing there was no point, he set aside the urge to continue protesting. Both duellists moved to the side of the tent, where they would have more room to move, and the other two of the Blood were invited to withdraw to the opposite end of the tent. Knife still in his belly, Razin obeyed.
“Even if she is the victor,” Lady Itima casually told him. “I’ve not agreed to your own decision.”
“What do you want, Ifriqui?” he grunted.
“The Tyrant of Helike,” she murmured. “If not the annihilation of his line, then at least his head.”
Aquiline and Yannu unsheathed their long, hooked swords and bowed. The Lord of Alava was taller than her, he could not help but notice. Larger and heavier with a great deal more blood on his hands. The Slayer’s Blood were unnaturally skilled duellists, it was true, and Aquiline skilled even compared to her kin. Yet the Champion’s Blood were known to reap lives like wheat and laugh through wounds great and small. There was no telling who would be the winner.
“We’ve no soldiers for that reckoning,” Razin said. “And no ally to borrow them from.”
“You know my terms, boy,” the Lady of Vaccei simply replied. “They will not change. If you and the girl want my warriors, earn them.”
The unspoken threat being that otherwise she would leave with her host, and perhaps the Alava men as well. If Yannu was slain and no other captains left, the Alavans might be shamed into remaining with the greater army – lest they be known as the sole warriors of the Dominion to have fled. It the Vaccei swords left with them, however, there could not be talk of dishonour. Or at least not quite as pointed, which for men who wanted to leave would suffice. Of course, this meant nothing unless Aquiline won. The two duellists had begun to move, he saw, yet blades had yet to clash. They were fighting over position, for now, looking for an opening to end it quick and clean. They were both tired and well-aware of it. The Alavan captains would be hard to keep, he thought, if Lord Yannu was killed. The hill-folk of Alava disliked taking orders from any save the Champion’s Blood, and were prouder than most. Aquiline suddenly lunged forward, blade flickering forward, but Lord Yannu calmly parried and withdrew, with the hook of his blade scoring a long cut on the Lady of Tartessos’ cheek. Red blood trailed down onto paint of green and bronze.
This would only end when one of them died, Razin thought, and in that moment the though disgusted him. The Peregrine’s corpse was hardly cold that already the children of others lines were killing each other over disputes of honour. Was there really any honour to be found in this? Razin wondered, watching Aquiline deftly manoeuvre around the fire pit to avoid a blow that would have taken her hand and scoring a cut of her own on Lord Yannu’s face – above his brow, where the blood might trickle down onto his eye if he was not careful. There was skill, that much was certain. Admirable skill. But honour? It was his own father being avenged, Razin reminded himself. His father who had been slain in a honour-duel much like this one, disagreeing over a decision of great import. Theirs were hard ways, Razin Tanja knew, but he’d been taught that they were also honest ways. Unlike Procerans who poisoned and schemed, unlike the Free Cities and their empty trials, those of Levant did not leave the rot to fester. The brought it out, cut it out, settled the matters so they would not grow and settled them in honour. Honour-duels, he thought. Honour-wars. So much honour was there to be found in the Dominion, and all of it derived from blood.
“If he kills her, the Osena will feud with the Marave,” he quietly said.
And, though it would be early and almost presumptuous of him to say, the Tanja as well.
“So they will,” Lady Itima shrugged.
She was unmoved, for this was simply the way of the world. Steel touched steel, as they watched, as a quick exchange that had Razin’s heard racing saw Aquiline avoiding a cut throat but taking a blow to the side of the head from Lord Yannu’s heavy pommel. She seemed dizzied, and so his stomach clenched in fear. Razin Tanja had stood just like he was standing now and watched his own father be slain, because this was an honourable way to settle things and it would be dishonourable of him to do otherwise. This settles nothing, he thought. It is rule by the blade, and it brings ever more the same. If Aquiline slew Yannu, avenging Razin’s own father, then some other Marave would one day come for her to avenge Yannu. And then in years after someone would come for her killer, and on and on and on it would go until either Levant died or the Last Dusk came to pass. Razin felt as if he were standing on the edge of a tall precipice, as if he were about to fall, and every inch of him wanted to retreat. To take a step back. But he thought, in that moment, not of anything his father or teachers had ever said but of a pair of cool brown eyes and a cutting grin wreathed in smoke. You mock yourself, the great monster of their age had told him almost gently, by pretending today did not happen. It did. Learn from it, or die in a ditch somewhere blaming everything but yourself.
“Enough,” Razin Tanja of the Binder’s Blood said.
Lady Itima eyed him curiously, but nothing else came of it.
“Enough,” Razin hissed, and he ripped the knife out of his own guts.
Even when the blade clattered on the ground they did not cease their fighting, though when bleeding and wincing he stepped in between them the blades were held back.
“Razin,” Aquiline harshly said, “do not-”
“How many years has it been, since the Dominion was founded?” he interrupted. “Three hundred and change, I’d say. That is how long it has been since Procerans ceased killing us and we’ve started doing it to ourselves. Enough, damn you.”
“You dishonour yourself,” Yannu Marave scorned him. “Fearing defeat-”
“The Valiant Champion took up arms to end tyrants, didn’t she?” Razin said. “Rulers who forced their will through force of arms. I wonder how much difference she’d really see, between you and a prince.”
The Lord of Alava paled, either in dismay or white-hot fury.
“If there is honour to be lost,” Razin said, scorning the very word as he had himself been scorned, “then let it be mine.”
“You would let your father’s death go unavenged?” Aquiline asked, and there was something like contempt in her voice.
That wounded, it did, but still he must press on. Learn from it, or die, he told himself.
“Someone has to,” he snarled back. “What does this change? What does any of this change?”
Something in him snapped, for if he’d been able to see this why hadn’t they? Why did it have to be him, bearing those disdainful looks like he’d somehow spewed in their cup by arguing that more killing wasn’t going to get them out of the put killing had first dug.
“It settles our disagreement,” Lord Yannu said. “Move aside, Tanja, or be struck down.”
“Do it,” he said, extending his arms and wincing from the wound in his gut being stretched. “Is this what we are now? Even when the world is half-ended we kill each other over battle plans and decisions and how we’ve killed each other over the last two. Are we truly that… little?”
“I will not warn you again,” Yannu Marave calmly told him.
“Move, Razin,” Aquiline said, and though there was still disdain in the voice there was more worry.
It was not much of a balm, but it was not nothing.
“No,” Razin said. “If you want to force this through look it in the eye, Yannu Marave – admit that you are willing to cut down an unarmed man to get your way.”
“Damn you, boy,” Lord Yannu hoarsely said, but raised his sword anyway.
The knife came to rest against his throat without anyone having it heard unsheathed. The Lord of Alava stilled.
“Keep talking, Tanja,” Lady Itima said.
A convulsive chuckle ripped its way free of his throat.
“Do I truly need to make some great argument,” he said, absurdly amused, “of why we should cease slaughtering each other at least on the same night when the sky almost fell on our heads?”
There was a heartbeat of silence.
“Gods Above,” Razin said. “Look at us. We might as well be an Alamans farce: the four fools who duelled on the night the world almost ended. We’ve fought half a score in battles and skirmishes against the Army of Callow and the League and the drow, yet the closest the Dominion’s armies have come to breaking this winter is this very hour. Think on that, for a moment. We’ve wounded ourselves more viciously than the Black Queen and all her heretic cohorts put together.”
“Much have you chided us,” Aquiline said, “yet you’ve said nothing of how to mend the wound.”
“We bring back the Peregrine’s corpse,” Razin Tanja said. “And we put it to a proper pyre. And when that’s done? We don’t butcher ourselves like fucking animals. If we are to decide the fate of Levant, then let Levant have a say.”
“The Holy Seljun?” Lady Itima said, sounding surprised.
“No,” Lord Yannu softly said. “He means the captains. He means that we speak our case to an assembly of our soldiers, and choose our way by acclamation.”
“And if the soldiers choose to go home?” Aquiline pointedly asked.
“Then we go home,” Razin said. “We have to be willing to lose, Aquiline, to bend. Otherwise this only ever ends with swords bared.”
“That has been our way,” she replied, “and it has served us well.”
“Has it?” he softly asked. “The Grey Pilgrim has been dead for nary an hour, and already in this tent the seeds of a decade of war have been sown. Can you truly say our way has served us well?”
“I will agree,” Yannu Marave said, “to sending warriors to bring back the Peregrine in honour.”
Razin admired, against his will, how calm the man’s tone was when Itima’s knife had yet to leave his throat.
“The escort and the assembly both have my agreement,” Lady Itima of the Brigand’s Blood said. “Be it battle or retreat, let it be chosen before Gods and men.”
“The escort and the assembly,” Aquiline agreed after a moment, tone brisk. “The right decision will be clear to all that are not craven fools.”
Razin Tanja idly wondered if it would be ill-taken to send for a priest or a binder for his stomach wound before an honour guard of warriors was assembled to take the Peregrine back to his kin.
“The escort and the assembly,” he said, as if there’d been any doubt.
He was still bleeding from the belly when they left the tent, but at least no one had died. That was, he decided, better than he’d had any right to hope for.