“It was written in faraway Mieza that law is what separates men and beasts. We know better, in Praes: law is what separates the beasts wild and tame.”
– Dread Emperor Terribilis I, the Lawgiver
It was tempting to send for Hakram and Vivienne, who in some ways were just as much the architects of the Liesse Accords as I might claim to be. The shape of them had come from me, but it was Adjutant who’d discretely gathered jurists from Callow and Praes and pressed them for understanding until a cohesive body of law could be put together. Vivienne herself had been at our side the entire way, spreading out her Jacks far and wide to obtain the practical knowledge that was needed to make any of our fancies a functioning reality – yet burning, ardently, to see it done. Some days I suspected she’d spent more hours working out how the Accords could be made to hold up than either of us, moved by sheer want of seeing them take hold. It wasn’t like they wouldn’t be of use when arguing, either. Hakram had a ludic way with cold logic, and a mastery of details I’d never be able to match. And Vivienne’s brand of argument, half ruthlessly pragmatic and half genuinely passionate, did tend to reach people neither Adjutant nor myself would get to. I didn’t, though, because it would be missing the point of this exercise. Black wasn’t simply demanding that I convince him, he was giving me the opportunity to cut my teeth on selling the Accords to a foreign ruler in a relatively safe manner. Here, if I stumbled, it would not be a disaster that struck at all I’d fought for.
Even now, I thought, he was a sort of teacher still. Some things you never entirely outgrew.
Still, in the end it would be me that carried the Accords to the shore if they were to ever reach it. Vivienne, while heiress-designate to Callow, was still deep in my shadow from an outsider’s eyes. And Hakram, and Gods it was unfair, but Hakram wouldn’t be taken seriously by any of them save if he had a knife at their throat. Because he was villain, because he was an orc, because he had chosen to stand at my side instead of raising his own banner. It angered me, the suspicion that in centuries to come the Liesse Accords would likely be written of as my work alone and other names with claims just as deep would be allowed to fall to the wayside. History, I thought, would shortchange Hakram of the Howling Wolves Clan. I’d fight it every way I could, even when he might wish I did not, but I did not believe it would be enough. For too many out there the story would feel neater without him – less challenging of what they thought they knew – and I well knew the knots people were willing to tie themselves into to allow their view of the world to go unchanged. Yet it was undeniable truth that when the deal was brought to the table where Hasenbach and the Blood and Ashur’s committees sat, it would live or die by the wagging of my tongue. And so I dare not call on the others now, less that same tongue fail me on a day mistake would mean lasting calamity.
Still, it was past noon and we both kept to some of the Wasteland’s ways: though I did not send for the others, I did send for wine. And so Black and I claimed that old Mavian prayer for ourselves, breaking out bottles of some sharp Iserran wine – Prière de Fou, it was called – that lingered on the tongue like sin or vengeance. In the afternoon’s light he seemed strangely vital, for all the greying marks of age in his once-dark locks. With a loose white shirt on his frame and woolen dark trousers going into Legion-issue boots, he honestly seemed more… carefree than I could remember ever seeing him. There’d been a heavy jacket of linen on his frame when I first came, but by the second cup of wine it was on the back of my seat to my own cloak’s side.
“The throne of Callow recognizes Lord Amadeus of the Green Stretch, Praesi dignitary,” I began.
I was toasted with a rough clay cup holding wine of which a singe bottle could likely but a whole bag of. He was seated at the edge of our heavy wooden table, ignoring the perfectly good seat I’d left
“The Dread Empire of Praes deigns to recognize the Queen of Callow, Catherine Foundling,” he allowed, lips twitching. “In the depths of our mercy, keeping with our well-known concern for the fellowship of nations.”
“Kind of you, eastern devil,” I drily replied, leaning on my staff as I took a sip of my own shoddy cup. “Now, I assume you’ve read the proposed treaties that were sent to you.”
“These so-called Accords, yes,” Black easily replied. “A blatant attempt to weaken, isolate and starve the Dread Empire. And you expect us to sign these? You should be grateful our answer wasn’t releasing a plague in Laure and setting your granaries aflame.”
Threats, huh. It was true that while I arguably stood the greater victor on the fields of Iserre, Callow was not untouchable and despite the best efforts of my companions in fact remained rather fragile. Praes had other fires to put out, at the moment – a goblin rebellion that’d taken Foramen, the sack of Nok by Ashuran fleets and the annihilation of its largest port Thalassina along with every living soul in that great city save one – but Malicia might be able to get a handle on the mess, or whoever murdered her and claimed the Tower might. That meant Praes, though wounded, could turn its attentions on the fledgling goblin nation to its south and a very vulnerable Callow whose armies were largely abroad and had been for months. There shouldn’t be food shortages though the winter, though there’d certainly be a rationing of the handouts by the royal granaries Hakram had created. If those went up in flames, though? It’d be more than a lean winter we were dealing with. No, the Dread Empire was not entirely without answers if cornered. On the other hand, there was a reason that even though Black was speaking like some arrogant Wasteland highborn even in that pretence he’d not ‘actually’ struck at my kingdom. The current lack of open hostilities was something very much in the Tower’s interest to maintain, lest I turn my attention to it instead of the Dead King.
“If you strike across the border, I’ll dismantle Praes after we’re done up north,” I said. “The Grand Alliance already wants to, we both know that. The only thing that’s truly been standing in their way is trust and distance, both of which will be sufficiently seen to if Callow becomes a signatory.”
“When you are done up north,” Black repeated. “And there is the arrogance. Even should you beat Trismegistus on the field, will the Alliance not be ruined in achieving this? You threaten me with soldiers already sworn to die very far away. Your own armies are abroad, and their loyalties complex besides. If you do no want my concern to be how to break Callow before you return, or how to break it when you are returned, then offer terms other than submission or the sword.”
I drained the rest of my cup and tossed it at his head. He caught it, though a lot more narrowly than he would have a few years back, and filled it with the Iserran red even as I considered my answer. So he was making it clear my position in the Tower’s eyes was not so strong as one might think at first glance. I could concede to part of that, at least. After a costly campaign against Keter, I couldn’t see the current signatories of the Alliance eagerly embarking on a second military enterprise immediately after. In Praes, the prevailing belief among the High Lords might very well end up being that Callow was the only threat to worry of if it came to war. They might not even be wrong, I thought. I was not so sure the Sisters would send a great army of Firstborn to aid me again, if blades came out in the east.
“Then let’s see to your worries,” I said. “You said that the Accords would weaken, isolate and starve the Dread Empire.”
“When paired with your declared intent and seemingly imminent achievement of becoming a signatory of the Grand Alliance,” Black specified.
I inclined my head in agreement. Wasn’t going to be a secret for long, assuming it even was at the moment, so I did not mind the boundaries of our debate including it.
“I’m listening,” I said.
He rose to his feet and strode across the thinning snow, pressing the filled cup into my hand as he passed, and came to stand by one of the raised stones. He tapped the parchments hung there with a finger.
“Weakening,” he told me. “Your proposed laws would forbid the summoning for extra-Creational entities, save for peaceful purposes, and even then under restriction. These are specifically stated to include angels, devils and demons.”
“They are,” I said. “Cutting through the legalese, civilian labour and advice-giving is fine for angels and devils. Demons are forbidden under all circumstances save if all signatories of the Accords agree such an act is necessary.”
“And so you roughly enforce parity of means between Named,” Black said. “Which will be pleasing to some Named, mostly those incapable of actually doing any of this, but you seek to remove those same Named from positions of rule. As for lordly concerns, since those matter foremost under your laws, you would highly disadvantage Praes as a military power. Centuries of accumulated grimoires and contracts, which are potent soldiery when called on, are suddenly made invalid. Demons have been an integral part of the defences of our cities for ages, as deterrent and blade both. Some lasting presences of their kind would be difficult to dispose of even were we so inclined.”
“I’ve made provisions for that last part,” I said.
“Yes, heroic Named under villainous supervision would remove lingering mistakes such as Hell Eggs,” he mildly said. “If that supervision were Praesi in nature, such an act might even be only mildly offensive foreign intervention in our affairs. Yet you do not address the most essential of imbalances: the Dread Empire would be surrendering a great deal of strength while other signatories would not. What does the limiting of angels mean to Procer or Ashur? To Levant? By weakening the Empire, you strengthen all its rivals at its expense. There is no nation in existence that would agree to such a thing unless forced – and treaties thrust upon a realm by force of arms rarely last.”
“Demons,” I flatly said, “damage the fabric of Creation. Every time one is used, it is an act of war waged on every other sentient being. That the Empire has been practicing that sort of diabolism for centuries is not an excuse to continue, it is something to expiate.”
“Regardless of such concerns, it remains an advantage surrendered for no given rationale,” he pointed out.
“You do get something from this,” I said. “You get to no longer be the Dread Empire.”
His brow rose.
“Look,” I said. “I’ve read Malicia’s treatise. The famous one, I man, ‘The Death of the Age of Wonders’. The touchstone of what she makes her foreign policy is making alliances abroad beyond the traditional Good and Evil lines, with the Thalassocracy of Ashur being the keystone. It’s skillful politics, using it as counterbalance for Procer since raditionally it keeps the Principate in check by strengthening Levant and ensuring the League of Free Cities is pointed west.”
“That,” Black said, “and alliance with Ashur means that sea trade lanes and the grain they represent would be effectively untouchable.”
“It’s a nice thought, but Ashur jumped into bed with Cordelia and just spent the better part of a year putting everything in Praes within walking distance of the sea to the torch,” I said. “Hasenbach is good, Black, but she’s not that good and Malicia had decades at the game before she was even born. Why did the Thalassocracy pick her over a risen but since restrained Praes as their ally?”
“Because the Tower can’t be trusted,” he replied. “Mind you, we had the effective heir to the Thalassocracy and some of their foremost admirals willing to back alliance after the death of Magon Hadast. But a powerful Praes – and we were, in those days, perceived to have largely assimilated Callow – will always be seen as a continental threat.”
“And if you sign the Accords,” I said, “you get to shed that like old skin. Oh, I don’t mean that suddenly the Wasteland will be trusted and the Tower will be the sudden beloved of people it spent centuries sending flying fortresses at. But when decisions are made, high up? They’ll know that the Empire is sitting at the same table as everyone else, following the same rules. The moment other crowns no longer have to worry about whether the latest Emperor is going to feed a few thousand babies to a snake to summon an army of devils, then they become a much more palatable ally. Then interests begin to matter again, and if that’s the game then Praes brings quite a bit to the table. You ask what signing the Accords give you? Proof that you’re a reasonable actor. And Black, how else are you ever going to get that?”
He studied me for a time, then gave half a nod.
“Some of the Empire’s highborn might be swayed by such an argument,” he noted. “Not the better part, but enough to make civil war feasible to win. Which brings us to an issue born of your Accords, yet not part of them.”
“Callow,” I said.
“Starvation,” my father agreed. “Having largely forsworn diabolism, the Wasteland might not longer be able to conquer the Kingdom of Callow to secure grain supply. Even less so should Callow be a member of the Grand Alliance, which involves clauses of mutual protection against non-signatory aggression. Praes would surrender the means through which to forcefully acquire grain without having first secured other means for that acquisition.”
“Praes can’t sign the Grand Alliance,” I admitted. “I can’t see that ever going through.”
“Neither can I,” Black replied, amused.
“So we cut out the middle man,” I said. “Praes and Callow, bound in a treaty of trade and peace. It’s not like we don’t take losses selling the crops south and west, anyway. The Principate has fertile plains and Mercantis gouges us habitually. Besides, in everything magical we’re at least half a century behind the Empire, if not more, so it’s not like you have nothing to trade aside from precious metals.”
“You would be tying our nations at their very heart,” he warned me.
“Good,” I snarled. “I want it to be that the Tower can never war on Laure again without starving itself. I want the fucking stained glass in the windows of our palaces not to be imported from Procer. All these centuries of taxes and steel and young soldiers we’ve spent moving the same border back and forth can be put to better use. Gods, Black, just imagine what Praes could do if it didn’t waste its talents on magical plagues and flying fortresses and bleeding its own people for fields! Imagine what Callow might become, if half the yearly taxes didn’t go to raising knights and raising walls to the east – we could be so much more.”
I laughed, harshly.
“Did you know that the cathedral in Laure, the one Elizabeth Alban had built spending Alamans treasures, is the reason why the House of Light is allowed to ask coin of the faithful?” I said. “Because there were points in Callowan history where the crown was too poor to pay for its damned upkeep while also raising armies and fighting wars in the east. Gods, Black, as nations we’ve spent more of – name it! – on killing each other than any single other thing in the span of our history. And while we were busy biting each other’s tails, the world moved on.”
“There will be those,” he said, “for whom those truths will not be enough.”
“Aye,” I said. “I had a few of those too, back home. I hung the sloppy ones and murdered the rest.”
“Those poor Regals,” he said, lips twitching. “The fought as barons challenging a queen and found themselves instead having slighted the Dread Empress of Callow.”
That there was a fond pride to his tone was not enough to prevent my wince. There was some truth to that and I knew it, for I had not learned the lessons of rule from my distant predecessors the Fairfaxes and the Albans. I’d wielded knife and scheme like one reigning from the Tower, tyrant no matter my good intentions. So be it. The Fairfaxes had failed, in the end, and I would not suffer that of myself after the myriad lines I had crossed.
“Your meaning is taken,” the green-eyed man said. “Thought here are objections still.”
“You trade the weakening for strength elsewhere,” I said. “Your feared starvation will be sworn away. That leaves what, isolation? Praes is already isolated, by virtue of having pissed away every possible alliance it could have struck. What fault of that is mine, or the Accords?”
“Don’t be childish,” Black chided. “You would require of the Empire that it willingly embraced your new age – you must then make a place for it amongst that age.”
“When did the High Lords and Ladies of Praes become lost children I must lead out of the woods?” I mockingly said.
A true speaker for those highborn might have taken offence to that, but while my father was hardly the source of my disdain for nobility he’d certainly reinforced the leaning.
“When you sought to place your will above even the Tower’s,” he easily replied. “In this world you would make, Praes must have a role to play. Else its energies will be spent unmaking what you have made.”
“To be honest, I expect that within thirty years it’ll be at war with the Free Cities,” I admitted. “They’ll not be Grand Alliance, and maybe not even Accord signatories.”
“War is one thing,” he said. “Inevitable, no matter what treaties are written. Yet more is required. Which brings me to this.”
Striding forward, wine cup in hand, he gestured at another raised stone. One holding parchments regarding the to-be city of Cardinal, and the academy it was to hold within its bounds. An academy unlike any other Calernia had ever seen.
“The school,” I said.
“It was,” Black said, “a stroke of brilliance. Forcing Named to attend there, teaching them the articles of the Accords as well as manners of villainy and heroism? The academy is the means through which your dream lasts longer than your life’s span. But it does not go far enough.”
In truth the academy was more Vivienne’s notion than mine – I’d been more concerned with enforcement, which had led me to the founding of Cardinal itself – but it truly was a stroke of brilliance. Oh, all those young Named would get practical lessons in how to accomplish what they wanted but they’d also get an education in the Articles of Strife: the manners of violence that were allowed of Named, depending on situation. How to keep mortals away from the damage, when it was allowable to kill another Named over a disagreement and what methods were legal to employ in that killing. And what methods would instead bring down on your head the wrath of the signatories, including the Named sworn to lethal enforcement of the Accords for a period of ten years at a time. I would leave behind a world where someone using a magic plague to wipe out a city would be met with heroes and villains from all over Calernia coming down on your head like the wrath of the Gods, where someone breaking the acceptable rules of warfare would be barred from Cardinal, from the Twilight Ways, from receiving support by any signatory government. Shatranj was a horrid metaphor for war, as war wasn’t a game. But the strife between Named I fully intended on making a continent-wide tourney, a pit fight that’d allow the Gods to claim their due and the rest of us to keep on moving.
“You named these very accords after a tragedy wrought by sorcery – it was a Named practitioner, to be certain, but it was still magic that brought the madness,” Black said. “Shaping Named is not enough.”
“You want me to regulate sorcery,” I frowned.
“I want you to make this Cardinal of yours the greatest centre of magical learning on Calernia,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch said. “And to crown it the thief of our worst follies, made to serve higher purpose.”