“Diplomacy is war without all the clumsiness.”
– First Princess Eugénie of Lange
If it came to a fight, Lord Yannu Marave decided, they would likely lose. He did not fear the Proceran horse, for its charge would break against a shield wall strong and unflinching. Neither did he balk at the numbers, for though legionaries were skilled soldiers and men-at-arms brave neither were match for armsmen of the Blood holding high ground. It was the Callowan sappers that tipped the balance to the opposition’s side, for he had seen with his own eyes what their munitions could do when lobbed at a tight formation. The word shredding came to mind. Torture of Callowan prisoners had yielded knowledge that these ‘sharpers’ were both commonly used and in large supply, which made it likely the packs of sappers he’d seen shoot out of the torch light and into the darkness would be carrying them. No, if the Procerans and the easterners had ridden forth to betray them then every son and daughter of Levant on this hill would be dead before reinforcements could arrive from the camps. Had they?
“That is Rozala Malanza’s personal banner,” Lady Aquiline said. “Arlesite she might be, but she’s no foe of ours – she has behaved honourably since taking command in Iserre.”
“I see cavalry and foot coming for us, not bread and honey,” Lady Itima replied. “This has an ill cast to it, girl.”
Spoken, Yannu thought, as a woman whose lands shared border with Arlesites. Unlike Aquiline Osena, whose main preoccupations as Lady of Tartessos had always been rivals of other Blood and the prowling creatures of the Brocelian.
“The Black Queen’s banner flies as well,” Razin Tanja mentioned, eyes narrowed. “One of the Woe might be with the legionaries.”
The Lord of Alava considered that. Though the visions the Peregrine’s last will had carried to them had told much of what happened within the nightmare of dead Liesse, it had not revealed where the Archer and the Hierophant had gone. They should both be alive, though the great Soninke warlock had been stripped of his power, so it would be possible for them to be riding with the cohorts. Yet it seemed unlikely, after the night’s troubles, for the Archer’s death was still seared in Yannu’s own memory and the Hierophant had been put to slumber as an act of mercy. No, if any of the Woe rode under that banner it would the Adjutant or the Thief – and there had long been rumours that the latter had lost her Bestowal by stepping into the responsibilities of rule.
“If it is the Archer and they mean to slay us, then we are all dead,” Yannu Marave noted. “She will kill ourselves and our officers as the opening stroke, and our only answer would be to charge down onto sapper-prepared grounds.”
Everybody held in a wince at that, for all here had suffered of the vicious devilries goblins could prepare when given opportunity. Razin Tanja most of all, from what he’d heard, for the Third Army under General Abigail was said to have turned the streets of Sarcella into a slaughter yard even before the Black Queen arrived.
“No one’s sprouted an arrow in the forehead,” Lady Itima of the Brigand’s Blood said. “I’ll take that as a hint that either the Archer’s not there or they’re not baying for blood.”
If it were only the Callowans coming none of them would have batted an eye, for when the Peregrine’s body was returned it would be by Catherine Foundling’s hands if by any. Yet the Procerans coming out had muddied the waters, for they had no business with what would come by morning’s light. They had even been told as much, for their messengers had insisted on audience beyond politeness, yet here they were. More suspicious yet, their advance had come to be matched to that of the Army of Callow’s legionaries: together they were heading towards flanking positions that would be difficult to push back if assault was given.
“The Praesi crossbowmen could be firing by now,” Lady Aquiline pointed out. “Not to great effect, but at least to soften our defence before assault.”
Lord Yannu was inclined to agree this was sign of peaceful intent, yet this was a delicate situation. It was likely that canny old Itima Ifriqui had noticed already, even if she’d held her tongue, yet the younger two among them might not have: save for Itima’s own two sons, every individual of any Blood in Procer was standing atop this hill. And given both the Brigand’s line poor reputation and recently-mauled forces – their assault on the Callowan camp had been costly – it was unlikely that they would be able to sway even most captains into following them through diplomacy or threats. A strike here and now would be decapitating the armies of the Dominion abroad, and even when word trickled back home months from now any retribution for the treachery would have to wait until matters off succession were settled and a session of the Majilis convened. The Lord of Alava was not certain why betrayal would be had here and now, but there was no denying the opportunity was there. Had the Procerans or the Callowans peered into their private councils and then decided removing the Blood to be in either their interests? It seemed a senseless thing, truth be told, but easterners were willing in a villain’s service and Procerans lied as easily as they breathed.
“Silence serves us not,” Razin Tanja said. “It is unseemly to treat with foreigners before the Grey Pilgrim’s body has been given to the flame, yet strife would be even more so.”
“Shall we give them voice in our councils as well, Tanja?” Yannu said, voice hard cast. “We have our wats for reasons, though it seems you have forgotten both. Blood can wash out, unlike honour tarnished.”
It was more than simply unseemly to play politics with foreigners now, it was dishonoring a great man’s death. That Proceran royalty would not be willing to discard their precious Ebb and Flow even long enough for the Peregrine to be put to pyre was…
“If the Black Queen’s the one bringing back the Peregrine, the Callowans at least are already part of this,” Tanja replied.
“Speaking to them and not the Procerans might split them,” Lady Itima noted, sounding approving. “There can’t be a lot of trust between them.”
Akil Tanja’s son seemed as if he wanted to argue that’d not been his intent at all but restrained himself in the end. Young Razin was not so stubborn as to toss away victory he’d already earned, then. For victory he had indeed earned, Yannu had silently acknowledged the moment Lady Itima spoke in favour of audience. For Lady Aquiline had made her preference for talks clear already, and if only the Lord of Alava stood alone of the four against words being bandied then his growing isolation among the Blood in Iserre would only be set in stone. Neither Razin Tanja’s words nor a knife at his own throat would have stayed Yannu’s hands after he’d set out to guide the Dominion away from disaster through duel, as he had. He’d taken a step back simply because Lady Itima Ifriqui, who had every reason to stay out of the affair for dislike of the Osena, had chosen to put that knife to his throat anyway. Though it was a proud old boast in the lands of his birth that Alava had stood alone even when the rest of the Dominion fell to the Principate, and that the hill-folk needed no ally save the bravery of their own kin, the reality was that the city and lands he ruled could be starved of coin and goods and even many foodstuffs if it broke with every other great line. At the very least, alignment between the other three would see him removed from the highest command of Levant’s armies even if killed one.
He could kill them all, perhaps, but that would be just as dangerous a roll of the dice and he was a careful man by nature. No, best to take step back then and now so that he might arrange victory on his own terms when the opportunity was ripe.
“It seems there will not be a choice,” Lady Aquiline suddenly said. “Look.”
Under three banners – Aequitan, Foundling and truce white – a party had approached the foot of the hill as they spoke. Two riders were behind Princess Rozala’s familiar silhouette, one carrying her heraldry and the other a torch. Behind a tall orc in darkened plate two smaller humans were carrying the other two trailing cloths, a mere six souls in whole. Unlikely to be an ambush, then, even though the burnt plate was as good as announcement that the orc among them was the Adjutant.
“We can send an invitation to the Deadhand alone to stand before us,” Itima said, smile gone hard.
It could be a fine line between envoy and hostage. Razin Tanja cast her a considering look, and for a moment Yannu was reminded of the boy’s father. Lord Akil had been known for his keen wits, and though he’d been no great general under his reign the Binder’s Blood has seen their influence rise through careful bargains and treaties. It was an old jape back home that the true talent of the Tanjas was not the magic of their famous ancestress but in truth the wealth that flowed through the canals of Malaga, yet few before Akil Tanja had been so skilled at making use of that wealth. More than once Yannu had seen the same look he now saw in young Razin’s eyes in his father’s own, just before someone was goaded into making a costly mistake on the floor of the Majilis.
“Alone would be insultingly obvious,” Razin said. “Let him bring an attendant, at least.”
Itima’s agreement was the sound of the decision being made, and Yannu Marave began to wonder if it might not be better for the realm to kill the boy than Lady Aquiline after all.
Princess Rozala was more than passingly familiar with bravery. She would not consider herself a great paragon of that virtue, though neither was she a coward. Rozala, for all that she did not shy from battle, was still a princess of the blood: she went to war surrounded by loyal bodyguard and with priests ready to bring her back from death’s door should wound be taken. It was natural this be the case, though perhaps not fair in a godly sense, for her death would herald a great deal more trouble than a fantassin’s. Yet it was easier to brave, the Princess of Aequitan privately thought, when so many were sworn to keep her alive. Yet she’d seen purer strains of bravery in other men and women. Soldiers who volunteered to hold border positions in the face of the Enemy, knowing no reinforcements could be spared. Conscripts running back under arrows and spellfire to drag fallen friends back to safety behind the lines, boys and girls not even eighteen summers old stilling their shaking hands and raising their shields steady as the dead charged howling at them. The Arlesite princess had even seen many whose fearlessness had been hollow, a spectacle put on for myriad reasons ranging from stiffening moral to preserving reputation. And yet Rozala Malanza could not for the life of her tell if Hakram Deadhand’s serene disregard for the danger surrounding them was genuine or not.
The orc’s helmet was held in the crook of his handless arm, revealing the thick leathery skin and the troublingly large teeth of his kind. Greenskins were not well-known to Rozala, and so discerning one’s sentiments did not come naturally to her, yet he’d not hesitated a moment when invited to walk into the wolf’s den atop the hill nor expressed particular concern since. It was as if he could not see the hundreds of flaring heavily armed soldiers around them, whose gaze lingered on the truce banner Rozala was carrying with open antipathy. She would have preferred to come in riding, truth be told, but Deadhand had spooked her destrier something fierce when he’d come close. That instinctive dislike by animals was said to be natural to greenskins, though until recently Rozala had believed it to be one of those commonly accepted falsehoods like Praesi being liars from the cradle or Callowans being physically incapable of halfway edible cooking. It seemed there was truth to it, however, for all horses had grown unruly when the Adjutant had been upwind of them.
“The banner’s dipping, Your Grace,” Hakram Deadhand said.
His coarse voice betrayed the slightest hint of what she took to be amusement. Gritting her teeth, the Princess of Aequitan raised back to full height the banner she’d been made to carry like some sort of, well, attendant. Which the Adjutant had not hesitated to designate her as when the summons had come from the Levantines. To her dismay, she’d even had to play along for the sake of being there when the talks were held. As if leaving alone an orc and a foursome of quarrelsome Dominion lordlings could end in anything but bodies on the floor.
“Is your line known among your people to be of particular dignity?” Princess Rozala tried.
This would be slightly less wounding of her dignity if at least he was the orc surrogate for highborn. Otherwise, she was carrying a banner for one of the Damned plucked out from some northern waste to serve the Black Queen. A heartbeat passed.
“My mother famously made the finest Callowan meat stew in the clan,” the Adjutant replied.
She was being mocked, Rozala realized. Wait, Callowan meat stew? Surely he could not mean…
“I’d never heard of this delicacy,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “May I ask what it contains?”
Surely not Callowans, she thought, for the Black Queen would not have made so important a dignitary of him were it the case.
“Not humans, of course,” Hakram Deadhand nonchalantly replied.
She mastered herself so that she would not breathe out in relief. At the very least she was not being made to consort with a bloody-fanged cannibal.
“Much too expensive, that far out in the Steppes,” the Adjutant continued just as nonchalantly. “Never ate it done the traditional way until I came to Ater.”
Before Rozala could conceive of a gracious way to ask the Damned at her side whether or not the ‘traditional way’ involved human flesh, they were ushered past one last ring of armsmen and came to stand before the four heads of the Dominion’s armies abroad. The older two she was most familiar with: Lord Yannu Marave of Alava and Lady Itima Ifriqui of Vaccei. The latter had particularly poor reputation among Arlesites for her vicious and unprovoked raids into Orense in the years before the Tenth Crusade. The First Prince might have made peace there, but the looting and burning of southern Orense had not been forgot. Lord Yannu she did not much like, but at least respected. The Lord of Alava, who claimed descent from the Valiant Champion, was a cautious and ferocious man who displayed little of the famed recklessness of his line. The Princess of Aequitan had misliked that by virtue of being the foremost Levantine commander he’d effectively seized command of the Iserran campaign, especially considering unlike her and several of her generals he’d never fought either Queen Catherine or Marshal Juniper. Yet the Dominion had provided the greater part of the host, and so claimed greater influence. If the Battle of the Camps had been a victory perhaps Rozala could have argued otherwise, but while those brutal three days had been many things they had not been that.
The younger pair she only through reports, though the Levantine fascination with war paint and bloodline colours made their identities easy enough to deduce. The young man in iron grey and crimson would be Razin Tanja, son and heir to the fresh-slain Lord Akil Tanja of Malaga. The peculiarities of Dominion inheritance laws meant he would not be Lord of Malaga until his kin had acclaimed him on the grounds of that very city, assuming his right was not challenged, so among the four highborn here his authority was the weakest. His own captains could defy him without breaking oath, at the moment, though if he ever ascended to lordship that’d be a poor decision indeed. The impressively-shaped young woman to his side would be Lady Aquiline Osena of Tartessos, by repute rival to the Tanjas and deathly foe to the Ifriquis for reason of kinslaying twice over. Dominion political affairs were fluid even by Proceran standards, for they shifted with the feuds of every generation of the Blood, but it was usually to be expected that their highborn would be feuding with whoever’s lands bordered their own and seeking cordial ties with whoever’s did not. The Maraves of Alava did have a reputation as proud lunatics staying out of politics save when offended, which had made it both surprising and not when Lord Yannu became informal head of the Dominion’s armies abroad. Rozala was not unfamiliar with the trick of putting those that could not be called to heel in charge.
The four lordlings were standing and fully armed. And, by the visible wounds on the Osena and the Marave, had recently fought some manner of duel among themselves.
“You stand before four lines of the Blood,” Lady Itima said in heavily-accented Lower Miezan. “You may kneel.”
“You stand before the Queen of Callow’s right hand,” the Adjutant calmly replied in Chantant. “You may bow.”
Princess Rozala would have appreciated the insolent confidence a great deal more if it hadn’t run the risk of getting them both killed. Lady Aquiline’s lips twitched in amusement, as did Lady Itima’s, but Tanja’s lips thinned and Lord Yannu’s face remained inscrutable.
“Princess Malanza,” the Lord of Alava said. “Are you now attendant to one of Below’s servants?”
“I am sworn envoy speaking for the First Prince of Procer,” the Princess of Aequitan replied. “Who also happens to temporarily attend to the Lord Adjutant.”
If he expected to shame her into retiring, he would have to do better than that. Rozala had been the ruling princess of principality that’d half-beggared itself fighting to the death with the current ruling First Prince, the daughter of a woman who’d once laughingly boasted she would send Cordelia Hasenbach running back north with her tail between her legs to ‘suckle on icicles and brood’. She’d had to wade through seas of scorn and mockery to rise to the height’s she now stood at, all of it dealt by peers – which not a single individual here could claim to be.
“What an unlikely coincidence,” Lady Itima sardonically said.
For some reason, she shot Razin Tanja a half-approving look afterwards.
“You interrupt sacred ceremony, Bestowed,” Lady Aquiline said, eyeing the orc curiously. “Withdraw your warriors and let nothing more be spoken of this.”
Rozala found herself almost shamefully glad that there’d been no talk about claiming the Black Queen’s head in some sort of doomed attempt at vengeance. Near enough to every highborn of the Dominion was here, if some dimwit among them took a swing at Catherine Foundling the entire Levantine host could be decapitated. It wasn’t as if the Princess of Aequitan had sallied forth to protect the Black Queen, for what would that monster fear from not even a thousand soldiers? The Queen of Callow had looked more than eight thousand horse in the eye, drawn a line in the snow and dared them to cross it. And when Rozala had offered her challenge, after, it’d not been met with fear or defiance. It’d been met, chillingly enough, with a sort of vague irritation. Like Foundling had already done them all a favour by refraining from slaughtering them like animals and anything aside from withdrawal from that point on had been trying an already thinning patience. That, more than threats or promises, had seen Rozala Malanza order a retreat. And rumour had since trickled in that the Black Queen had, for having struck at her legionaries, broken two fingers from every cataphract of Helike and sent them marching back to the Tyrant stripped of arms and armour. It might be that the Lanterns and the armsmen might kill the villainous queen, if they struck at her. It’d been a long and arduous night.
More likely, though, Catherine Foundling would lose patience at the attempt and kill them all without batting an eye.
“You have claimed the grounds where my warlord will return,” Hakram Deadhand said. “That will not be brooked.”
“We’ve no interest in your queen,” Lord Yannu bluntly said. “We await the arrival of the Peregrine’s remains.”
“I’ve no interest in the remains of the Grey Pilgrim,” the orc replied. “I await the arrival of my queen.”
“Perhaps a simple honour guard can be arranged,” Rozala suggested.
The Lord of Alava fixed her with a steady look.
“Sons and daughters will bring the Peregrine to the flame,” he flatly said. “None other.”
“The Queen of Callow will not return from saving all your lives to a ring of foreign soldiers,” the Adjutant replied just as flatly.
Rozala would have hissed at him in an other language, if she shared any with him that the Levantines would not.
“It was the Grey Pilgrim who sacrificed himself for all who stand here,” Lady Aquiline sharply said.
“It was the Black Queen who made truce where you sought war, and led the band of five to victory,” the Adjutant said. “Do you deny this?”
“That the Queen of Callow acted honourably this night is not in doubt,” Lady Itima said. “Bargains made were kept.”
There was agreement from the others, some of it more reluctant than others.
“Yet you diminish the sacrifice made by the Peregrine through your words,” the Lady of Vaccei continued. “Curb your tongue, Damned.”
“Damned you call me, but my honour lies in the service of my queen,” the orc unflinchingly replied. “I will not suffer her return being a circle of swords bared.”
In that moment, Rozala Malanza grasped that the Adjutant had been playing them all. Gods, he’d been trying to extract something from them from the start.
“No offence is meant,” Razin Tanja said.
“Then why do you insist on giving it?” Hakram Deadhand said.
There was a rumble of discontent from the Levantines.
“What offence is this, orc?” Lord Yannu bluntly asked.
“Though under truce, you are enemies still,” the Adjutant said. “How can your surrounding my queen be taken as anything but slight?”
“The Peregrine’s last escort will not be opened to Callowans or Wastelanders,” Lady Aquiline firmly said. “This will not be argued.”
“Then to avoid slighting Callow’s honour, you must no longer be enemies to its queen but instead allies,” the Adjutant said.
“Are we to swear oaths to the void?” Lady Itima mocked. “Even were we willing, there is nothing to be done.”
“There is,” the Adjutant replied, offering a fanged grin. “Years ago, Queen Catherine requested to become a member of the Grand Alliance. All that would be required for friendship to be established is your agreement to this suit.”
“It would mean nothing, without the First Prince’s approval and the Majilis’ agreement,” Razin Tanja said.
“It would satisfy honour nonetheless,” the orc said.
Rozala’s pulse quickened. Should she intervene, she wondered? For all that the Foundling Queen had declared her intention to join the war against the Dead King, that was not the same as her becoming signatory of the Grand Alliance. If four of the five greatest aristocrats in Levant agreed to back Callow’s bid to become part of the Alliance, its chances would become more than merely good. The consequences of that were… hard to foresee. Gods, this was too great a decision too swiftly made. Rozala Malanza bit her lip.
A heartbeat later, dawn began and a gate tore open before all of them.
Two people hobbled through it, and just like that the Princess of Aequitan felt the world change.