“Count them all, in the snow
Red and gold and black as night
Count them all, high and low
Seven crowns broken by rite
Brought they forth, in accord
Peace, oaths and a sword.”
-Iserran children’s rhyme
If felt like the fact that my hands were currently filled with a pipe and liquor might be detracting some from the solemnity of this occasion, but maybe it was just me. Gods, I wished I’d gotten ten hours of sleep in me before having to parse this. On the surface this seemed like a coup, but not looking further than the surface was how you lost feathers at this game. Levant was backing my bid for being a member of the Grand Alliance, and Ashur had been struck down into irrelevance by the Battle of Thalassina and then being knifed in the back by the League. I forced my tired mind to keep slogging on, but as far as I could see the heart of what this meant was that if I made a bargain with Cordelia Hasenbach – which, given the amount of things I had to trade, I should be able to – then Callow would be brought into the fold. Was this a case of putting a leash on the beast you couldn’t defeat, an attempt by the Pilgrim to bind me to his causes? It hardly mattered, though, in the end. I’d been trying to get a foothold in those treaties for years now, and if they were seeking a peace because they thought they could win that where war had failed them then I could live with that. Because I, too, sought more than my signature on declarations of alliance from this. I would get the Liesse Accords signed, and whatever else could be said of tonight it was also was a step towards that end.
Discretely as I could in this situation, which wasn’t all that much, I pressed back the flask into Hakram’s hand and hide the pipe behind my arm to empty it into the snow. Already I was half-wishing I’d drunk the whole thing, as much for the wine’s touch of warmth in the face of the cold morning air as the tonic that’d shaken off some the lethargy clawing at my thoughts. Leaning against the dead yew offering I’d found in the depths of Twilight, where lied the grave of king the world had decreed to be good, I shivered but matched their expectant gazes.
“I have one foe,” I said, “and he dwells north, behind the walls of Keter, where his tyranny lies serene. Everything else is chaff.”
Would that I had my cloak, as much for warmth as for the presence it lent.
“You have bled my people,” I said. “And we have done the same to you, every one of us dancing on damned strings. Let that end with this dawn, for we share one war still and it will not be found on this field.”
“War on Keter,” Aquiline Osena called out, voice loud and clear. “Honour in victory, and should doom find us then honour in defiance unbent.”
The last word clapped out like a challenge, proud and finding reflection in those that heard it.
“War to the north,” Razin Tanja agreed, his words ringing out. “As oath was sworn in Blood and smoke. The shames we will redeem, the graces we will earn.”
“To the Crown of the Dead we bring steel,” Itima Ifriqui smiled, hard-toothed and starved. “Through wasteland and snow, until tall walls come to echo our scorn.”
“Oath was given. War to the knife,” Yannu Marava said, eyes cold and limpid, “to ruin and carrion things and silent dusk. Let Creation know that the Dominion of Levant marches to war, and the sword will not return to the sheath until the Enemy has broken or we are dust.”
Would my countrymen have shivered this way, I wondered as I watched the fire light in the eyes of the warriors around us, if a king of the Old Kingdom had called on their oaths? I remembered still the sight of Edward Fairfax standing bedecked in bells and spite, the words that heady call that’d sounded beyond the veil of death – rise, Callowans, rise once more for we have debts yet unsettled – and called the sum of my failures to war. It was a bastard throne I had made, and bastard was the claim I had on those who had chosen to follow me into strife. This, though? It was older, purer. The stuff fables were made of. I watched it ripple through the hundreds of armsmen around us, that intangible weight that betrayed history’s gears turning. Sometimes, I thought, it didn’t have to be a scheme. Sometimes the stars were aligned and Creation let fate flow like water down the river. A hundred thousand touches too light and too small to have been seen, conspiring to shape something grim or beautiful or both. The Levantines sounded swords and axes on shield, though this was no acclamation: the rhythm sounded like a strange dirge, like grief and doom and wonder.
“The Anthem of Smoke,” Princess Rozala Malanza murmured under her breath.
It was, I remembered, one of the great story-songs of their people. Not unlike Here They Come Again for mine, or perhaps Red The Flowers. There was an anger to the tune, I thought, and why would there not be? Levant had been born of bloody, merciless rebellion. Their Named were not the white-clad knights of the Old Kingdom, the tricksters and preachers of the League or even the blinkered, colourful exemplars of Procer. No, that lot had tasted the blood in the mouth from the start, hadn’t they? Slayer, red-handed killers one and all. Binder, shackling doom to ride it to war. Brigand – that incongruous Chantant word in Levantine hands, the scornful dismissal of bandit instead turned into declaration of war. Even the Champion had stood for a people who’d preferred burning their own homes to surrendering it. And at the heart of them all a Pilgrim in grey, and how did the famous line go again? His stride rebellion and stirring ember. Oh, theirs were not the finest armies I had seen. They lacked discipline, lacked training, lacked equipment. But they were brave, I thought, and the manner of savagery I saw in their bearing I thought might be kin to the sort I’d glimpsed in another hard people. One I’d come to trust, and in many ways they was still the backbone of my armies.
One served as my right hand, too, and another as the marshal of my hosts.
Savages as they might be, I thought, striking each other at every turn and writing honour’s couplets in blood, but when the dark pivots came they wouldn’t break easy. It was slight, and fading, but there remained something in them of the people who’d humbled the Principate when it stood at the height of its power. May the Hidden Horror yet choke on it. I stood in silence until the hammering of steel on steel ended, trailing off into the clearing sky.
“So be it,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
And oh, he sounded exhausted but there was a brightness to his voice as well I’d rarely heard there before. Pride, I thought, if not without sadness. I could not blame him, for Levant had sworn anew to do the right thing and that never, ever came without a price.
“I stand witness to oaths sworn again, and let none break them while claiming honour,” he said. “Let it be remembered that when the Enemy came for the world, Levant did not shirk its duty.”
The sound of steel sliding out of its sheath drew all gazes to my side, where Rozala Malanza had drawn the slender blade at her side. In the morning’s cast the princess was a sight, long dark curls loose behind her and matched in shine only by the gleam in those equally dark eyes. Tall and curved but hard-handed, as much general as she was princess, the Princess of Aequitan breathed out mist. In war too, had that one been forged. Her mother’s war, the one whose defeat had haunted her life, but other since. The Battle of the Camps, where ambitions were ruined and I first tasted the fear that would lead me down the road to Keter. This one as well, though, had left a mark. A princes’ graveyard, Leonor of Valencis had called it, one from which only one crown emerged untouched. Her own, for having judged it less than the lives of the people it ruled over. I’d admired the gesture then, and still did now. Of all the princes and princesses of Procer I had beheld, none save the First Prince herself could be said to have character worthier of respect.
“I am not the First Prince,” she said. “Yet I stand the sole of my title in Iserre, and the south entire. I speak only to that, which is right enough to my eye.”
I studied her in silence, not alone in this: so did the four of the Blood, and the Pilgrim as well. The Peregrine had been at her side before, I remembered, when he’d led the heroes of the northern crusade.
“We have been foe before,” Rozala said, princess still but in that moment Arlesite even more, “on Levant we warred, unjustly, for many years. And to the east, across the mountains…”
She looked at me then, and I did not soften gaze or offer sympathy. I still remembered the bloody gaps left in the ranks of my army after I’d awoke from Winter’s grasp, on the last day of the Camps, and though war was war even if I did not count it grudge neither would I simply forget it.
“We spoke righteous words, and schemed that which was not,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “A fresh entry to a tally long kept of contempts offered unprovoked. I say this not to apologize, for I bear not so great a crown it can change the lay of the past, but to…”
She hesitated, struggling for the word.
“Acknowledge,” Rozala Malanza said. “That even though treaties were signed, that alliances were made and bargains stuck, we did not earn this. That in the face of the darkness what we have sown might have seen us stand alone, if you all had not chosen to heed beliefs of a higher order.”
She let out what might have been a laugh had it not been utterly without mirth.
“To acknowledge that there were choices to be made and you chose to act in honour,” she said. “Knowing that like the viper of old lore we have sunk our fangs in the flesh of our benefactors before, still you chose. And I cannot – I cannot offer anything for it that would not be insult.”
She’d stumbled, in the last sentence, like it’d been disgraceful to speak it.
“There are no honours I could grant that would be higher than those you claimed simply by making this decision,” Princess Rozala said, raising her chin. “I will not pretend that wealth or promises would be worth the blood you have and will shed, though should you wish them of me you have all I own. Yet I can, Merciful Gods, at least I can say that this was heard. That it will be remembered, that it will not slip quiet into obscurity once the menace has passed.”
She breathed out shallowly.
“Shame on us,” Rozala Malanza softly said, “if we ever forget it.”
Her sword she thrust into the ground, through snow and ice and earth, and it bit deep.
“And if ever comes to that,” she said. “On that day I, or one of my line, will come for that sword again. To take it up and wield it until the shame has been cleansed.”
My fingers clenched. That had not been small oath, I thought, or a feeble one. The Princess of Aequitan had sworn, in her own way, that should Procer turn against those who were coming to its help in its hour of need she would rise in rebellion. No, more than just her. She had sworn as a Malanza and bound her entire line to the oath.
“Rozala Malanza,” the Grey Pilgrim called out, voice clear and bright, “hail.”
Like a snake uncoiling the call spread through the Levantines, Blood and not, until the hail rang out like thunder. Softly I struck the butt of my staff against the ground, looking at the sword and wondering what manner of curse would take anyone trying to take it up save in fulfillment of the oath. There’d been a weight to the princess’ words, Named or not, and such a thing was rarely without consequence. No, they’d remember Rozala’s Oath for many years to come. After the last hail died, like the wind had gone out of all of us we began to disperse. The force that had held us all spellbound had ebbed, used to nothingness or passed afar.
And so the great battle on the plains of Iserre ended with three things: peace, oaths, and a sword in the ground.
I could feel the vigor leeching out of me as we began walking downhill, the half-scattered Levantines parting respectfully for us. Princess Rozala had made her own way down, apart from Hakram and I and directly headed towards the horse and foot she’d brought. I’d traded a meaningful look with Tariq before we parted ways, both of us aware that there would be need for talks of all sorts in the days to come. Gripping as the exchanges on the hill had been in their own way, they would amount to little and less if the diplomatic legwork did not follow behind the grand gestures. Verbal agreements at sunrise made between recent enemies were not actual treaties, though my life would be a great deal simpler of they were. Still, I’d be useless before I got some sleep in me and Tariq was in even worse state: freshly-resurrected, robbed of an aspect and with no finger on the pulse of where his people had been headed before we returned. I, at least, could rest certain that Vivienne and Juniper would keep things running as they should in my absence. With Hakram to watch over them, these days I did not need to keep nearly as close an eye on the Army of Callow’s workings as I had in the early days.
It was for the best, in my opinion. I still believed myself a fair hand as a general and an occasionally inspired tactician, but the army could not come to rely on me. Black, when he’d first forged the modern Legions of Terror, had been very careful to ensure that his presence and Name would be supplement but never required. The Legions, and now the Army, must be perfectly capable of functioning without my being involved. It freed my hand to address other perils, true, but there was also an issue of legacy – I would build no host that would be crippled by my death or abdication, whichever came first. I’d been taught better than that. Two cohorts and a pale-faced General Abigail were awaiting us when we reached the bottom of the hill, which had me casting a mildly reproachful look at Adjutant. She was far too high-placed an officer to be in command here if someone higher up the ladder had not requested it. The culprit seemed obvious, and after the general hurriedly distanced herself from us under pretence of leading the cohorts back to camp from the front, turned out to be unabashed.
“Wanted to see how she holds up under pressure,” he quietly told me in Kharsum.
“She’s held command in battles without folding in the slightest,” I pointed out in the same. “She’s a twitchy thing, mind you, I won’t deny that. But she thinks fast on her feet and she’s got the right instincts.”
“Reminds you of anyone?” Adjutant mildly said.
I rolled my eyes.
“I was never all that shy when it came to getting into scraps,” I replied. “Not every canny Callowan girl is my kin in spirit.”
“If you say so,” he teased.
“I do,” I said. “And you’re being cagey. Haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know, so what’s your actual reason for bringing her along?”
“There’s more than one kind of pressure,” Hakram said. “Many moving parts, tonight, and many ways it could have spun out of control.”
I grunted, conceding the point. Keeping the lid on the pot was different than keeping your head screwed on straight when the blades were already out.
“So?” I asked.
“She kept her head,” he said, almost approvingly. “General staff material, that one. She’d also thank you for sending her far from the frontlines.”
“She needs accolades first,” I murmured. “A few feats under her belt. Otherwise the nobles will squeeze her too easily.”
The bastard system of fresh Callowan rule I would be passing on to my successor had governors holding many of the great territories that’d once belonged to the aristocracy, but the nobles hadn’t been stamped out. Yet there were still baronies up north, Duchess Kegan in Daoine and even highborn stripped of their lands still held a lot of influence. Though the unspoken threat of my disapproval – paired with the open secret I was less than fond of aristocrats – had kept a true noble faction from forming since the effective dissolution of the Regals, there was no guarantee such a state of affairs would be maintained under whoever followed after me. Rebellions or even just unrest, would be a nasty turn after the way Callow had exhausted and would further exhaust itself prosecuting war against the Dead King. Best to nip that in the bud with a large standing army whose head would be both popular with the people and not bound to any of the great nobles and dignitaries of Callow. Whether Abigail of Summerholm could be that woman still remained to be seen, but for now she was at least the foremost candidate. I was shaken out of the reverie I’d slipped into when thinking when I caught sight of a familiar silhouette approaching. Ivah, by now well-known in the Army of Callow’s circles, found the shield wall opening for it without a comment.
General Abigail glanced askance at me, silently asking whether her presence would be required for the conversation that’d follow, but I shook my head. And tried not to be too visibly amused at her poorly-hidden relief.
“Ivah,” I greeted the drow. “Still up, I see.”
“My tasks have yet to end, Losara Queen,” it replied. “I bring forth message from your shade, as well as your mantle.”
It did, in fact, have my cloak with it. It spread it out, though not before handing me a small stripe of parchment, and I turned to the side to cast better light on it. He is one again, Akua had written me. Losses were slight. Exhaustion will keep him slumbering for a time. A tired smile stretched out my lips. It’d been a damned ride of a night, but there’d been more victories than defeats. Foremost among them was that my father’s soul had been reattached to his body and he’d wake before too long, whole and not greatly lessened by the experience. Akua had come through for me once more, as she was in the habit of doing these days. Good news. I thought I’d heard a scuffle behind, but when I glanced there was nothing out of the ordinary. Hakram laid the Mantle of Woe on my shoulders and I breathed out in comfort. It was not so warm as that, but I’d grown used to it more than I’d ever believed I would.
“Masego is stable?” I asked.
“He is,” Hakram gravelled. “And still asleep. We have him watched.”
“Archer let you post guards?” I asked. “Which brings to mind, did Roland return to the Proceran camp in the end?”
“The Rogue Sorcerer,” Adjutant frowned. “Archer was not sent out on a task?”
My stomach dropped.
“No, she wasn’t,” I said. “You haven’t seen her or the Sorcerer, I take it.”
“They did not come to our camp,” he said. “And neither were mentioned to me otherwise.”
“Shit,” I muttered. “Did anyone recently move their – no, you don’t even need to answer that.”
“Still got that flask, Hakram?” I asked.
He nodded, though his eyes were curious.
“Hand it to me,” I grunted. “I’ll need the tonic if I’m to have talks with Kairos.”