“All are free, or none. Ye of this land, suffer no compromise in this.”
– Inscription on the founding stele of Bellerophon
My heart skipped a beat. Certainly, it was no deep secret that I had bound Akua Sahelian to the collar of the Mantle of Woe and there would be some who suspected the true nature of the ‘Advisor Kivule’. Still, none I’d not brought into the secret had ever spoken of it until now save for Kairos Theodosian. And the Tyrant could have bargained for that knowledge with the Dead King, who knew all of my deeds that Masego had known of, or even through the use of whatever aspect allowed him to be so sharply perceptive of the wants of others. Black, though? If he knew now it was either because officers of the Legions-in-Exile both knew and had passed it along since he woke, or because it’d been known to him before he was captured. Or maybe, I reluctantly thought, he’d just known me well enough from the start to tell where that story was headed.
“Flowery language, that was,” I carefully said. “Perhaps a little lacking in precision.”
His face had grown no easier to read, for all the purported insouciance he’d been carrying himself with since he woke.
“Use them,” Black said. “Our madmen, our warlocks and sorcerers. Give them laws, give them coin and great undertakings to embrace. Else they find all these on their own.”
I calmed, the slightest bit. It was still no small thing, he was speaking of – Cardinal as neutral grounds for the Accords as well as the seat of the legion that’d enforce them by steel if need be would already be costly, but to make it a centre of sorcery as well? I was no great scholar of sorcery, but I’d had a close looks at the deep pockets required for the sort of research that Masego and his father had considered to be leading-edge. The costs to both found and fund a mage’s school would be daunting, to say the last. He wasn’t wrong about the virtues of keeping Praesi mages occupied, though, especially those who would have before then spent much of their years learning the intricacies of diabolism. The notion of even a hundred furious highborn Wasteland warlocks out in the world with little left to lose was the sort of thing disasters were made of. And quite possible Named, though I’d always known that dropping this large a stone in the pond would cause ripples. I’d counted on it, in truth. If instead of ruinous wars between Good and Evil I could instead make the crux of the conflict strife between Named that heeded their laws and did not? Then it became a war of Names, not nations, and Calernia avoided another coming of Akua’s Folly.
“Did you perhaps believe I meant the shade of Akua Sahelian?” the green-eyed man casually asked, smile sudden and sharp.
His sense of humour, it seemed, had not been gentled by the loss of his Name. I supposed that’d been a little too much to hope for.
“Oh, it would please some of High Lords to have her placed in position of importance,” he conceded. “Yet when it comes to the Doom of Liesse, my advice will always remain the same: no matter how clever you believe your scheme to be, it isn’t. Kill her now, in full and beyond anyone’s mending.”
“I have a purpose for her,” I said.
“And she for you, Catherine,” he chided. “It would hardly do to forget that. If a single victory was all it took to bind the highborn to one’s cause, the Tower would not change rulers the way other lands change seasons.”
“I know that,” I said, a tad sharply. “There’s a lot you don’t know, Black. Couldn’t know, because after I told you to get your shit together you instead decided to take a walk through the heartlands of Procer with a torch in hand.”
“A calculated measure meant to ensure the Principate could not continue waging war as it had,” he said. “The morality of it I’ve no intention of debating, though I’ll say that if the First Prince of Procer intends to use massed levies to fight wars then she marked her peasantry as a war asset by her own hand.”
“You condemned hundreds of thousands to a slow death by starvation,” I flatly said. “Not innocents, perhaps, not all of them. But certainly non-combatants. There are manners in which waging war is acceptable, Black, and you used to know them. You didn’t allow sacks during the Conquest, or any of the other myriad atrocities that followed the old Legions like a loyal dog.”
“I set boundaries appropriate to the manner of outcome I desired,” Black calmly replied. “As I did in the Principate. There can be no peace settlement with a crusade, Catherine. They end when one side is no longer capable of prosecuting the war. I took the most swift and plausible path to that ending.”
“You also failed,” I told him. “Failed hard enough my Marshal had to commit Callow’s armies to bailing out your own and I had to tangle with two of the most potent heroes alive to take back your soul after they’d fucking cut it out.”
I would have thought less of him, after, if he’d made the argument that the legions under Grem had bled not long before to defend the Red Flower Vales and so relief had been owed. It was true, and the debt that lay there was one of the reasons I’d not entire lost my temper at Juniper’s adventurous western campaign. But it would have been, implicitly, an admission he’d expected someone to step in and save him. Coming from the man who’d taught me to pray at the altar of taking responsibility for one’s actions, be they righteous or wicked, that would have been… disappointing.
“Indeed,” he frankly admitted. “I significantly miscalculated in both assessing the danger posed by the Grey Pilgrim and the lay of the strategies decided by Calernia’s great powers. Marching the legions north towards the Stairway would have been the correct decision, in retrospective. Klaus Papenheim would have followed us and so arrived to bolster the defence of Hainaut in time to avoid losing the shores. The losses would still have been bloody for both him and Malanza’s hosts, still leaving the First Prince in a vulnerable position but without having committed either my legions or your Army of Callow to the field.”
The assessment was spoken clearly and concisely, like some chirurgeon slicing open the cadaver of a mistake one word at a time. At least he wasn’t shying away from admitting he could blunder. And my own hands were not clean as driven snow here. Malicia might not have told him of her attempted dealings with Keter, but neither had I, so he’d made his decisions blind. And though the famine he’d wrought on the Principate was both a lasting shame and a lasting complication, it would have been dishonest to pretend I’d not also benefited from it. And from someone else doing it, too, so that my hands would not be stained by the deed.
“Procer wouldn’t be so willing to bargain with me now if you hadn’t first broken their wealthiest and most fertile territories,” I admitted. “And I’ve reason to believe that the Grey Pilgrim went after you in particular to secure a hold on me.”
He cocked his head to the side, sharp-boned face gone pensive.
“Not a hostage,” he decided. “That would have carried… considerable risks. Forcing a confrontation on his own terms, then.”
I looked at him then, the mind at work behind the pale green eyes, and still saw the bones of the man who’d become the Carrion Lord. He’d lost a mould of power, when he’d lost his Name, but the substance of what made Amadeus of the Green Stretch dangerous remained. A fresh mould might yet be found, I thought, and if it was what came of it would not be gentle. His eyes finally flicked to staff in my hand.
“Pattern of three,” he deduced.
I dipped my head, an acknowledgement that at least I suspected as much.
“Congratulations are in order, then,” Black said, to my surprise. “You have been marked the equal of one whose influence spans more than half of Calernia.”
His lips twitched, but I’d learned to tell the difference between mockery and amusement with those and this was of the latter.
“I have higher ambitions still,” I admitted.
“Indeed,” he said. “You are aware that there are some who will say the council you propose will be the true ruler of Calernia from the shadows. Especially if your proposed enforced succeed at attracting Named as well as funding a standing army.”
“It’s not going to be a campaign army like Juniper and Grem command,” I felt compelled to say. “It’ll be meant for battles and hitting cornered Names who gathered people to their banner. For large-scale warfare we’d call on the signatories.”
“That will always be one of the weaknesses of your Accords,” Black warned. “You saw firsthand the shortcomings of a ruling council in Laure: voting blocks forming and personal interests coming to command the debates is inevitable. Forming a diplomatic council including an elected hero and villain to settle disputes will only aid so much, if every signatory’s designated representative fights for their country’s interests alone. Outside enmities and alliances will interfere with the diplomatic mechanisms functioning as intended.”
“That’s one of the reasons in need Praes to sign on and claim a seat,” I admitted. “I’m not sure the League will sign on – certainly not as long as the Hierarch lives, however long that’ll last – so without the Empire the signatories are essentially the Grand Alliance, Callow and the drow. It’ll be too imbalanced.”
“It is unlikely the Golden Bloom will deign to participate in such a treaty,” he agreed. “Or the Titanomachy, for that matter.”
Which meant Levant and Ashur, historically close allies since the Dominion’s founding, and Procer with all its wealth and influence radiating outwards. Callow and the Empire Ever Dark, as nations on the outskirts who must deal with Procer to have any significant trade presence, would inevitably end up on the outskirts of the Accords’ council as well. If the Empire was a signatory, the game changed. Ashur would have commercial interests on the Praesi coast, and the Wasteland would be closely aligned with Callow’s own interests as it would be its effective granary and strongest trade partner. If the west pulled together so would the east, and that’d prevent any bloc from commanding a strong majority in council. Which, considering that I’d set in law that such a council could call on signatories for war against a nation in breach of the Accords, was essential if I wanted them to actually function as intended. If the council in Cardinal became a way for an alliance of nations to force its influence at the expense of others, the Liesse Accords would inevitably collapse.
“A roving band of Named enforcing your laws backed by an army will earn resistance in and of itself,” Back said. “Yet combined with your insistence that Named cannot rule or own property of more than a specific total worth – which should be higher in general, by my reckoning, but significantly stricter on landholding in particular – it may very well be taken as the villain Catherine Foundling attempting to claim rulership of Calernia from behind a veil of shared laws.”
“I won’t have any particular authority under the Accords,” I pointed out. “In Cardinal itself yes, but-“
“But the Woe makes up a significant portion of living villains, you are a ruling queen with great resources at your disposal and undeniably the most famous Named of your generation,” he calmly interrupted. “It is near a certainty you will have a seat on that council as the representative for Below. That will be enough for rumours.”
“Fine,” I said. “But on the other side of the table, odds are it’ll be the Peregrine speaking for Above. The man commands a lot of trust in the west, Black.”
A moment passed.
“It has a story’s shape,” he conceded, which was praise and condemnation both. “That does not, however, change the truth that you would be risking war every time you tried to depose a popular ruler having come into a Name.”
“It’s necessary to avoid the worst Named can deal out,” I insisted. “Sure, a Good King will usually improve things more than not. And a powerful Dread Empress binds Praes together for at least part of her reign, allowing for growth. But if they share a border, what would be skirmishing between mundane rulers becomes much more prone to escalation – and capable of escalating to vicious heights no one else could reach.”
“A Good King being told to abdicate by a council mostly made up of foreigners will withdraw from the Accords and bitterly fight against any attempt to have its terms enforced upon him,” Black said. “The Dominion sees its Named as figures of religious reverence, at least those from the great lines. Even if the Pilgrim backs you, you’d be using to obtain compliance the very trait you seek to eradicate. A tower of shallow foundations, that. In Procer you might find agreement, for Named do not rule there, but where else?”
“Named are under influence,” I said. “Below or Above’s, it doesn’t matter, the judgement will always be impaired. Sometimes that impairment leads to upright deeds but even then it still remains a thinning of their ability to make clear-headed choices.”
“Will you also place law in the Accords forbidding the crowning of a drunk or an idiot?” Amadeus asked. “These, too, are impairments.”
“You know that’s not the same thing,” I said.
“I know you are attempting to dictate who can and cannot rule nations that are barely your allies if at all, nations you have not conquered or truly defeated, nation on which you are attempting to impose your personal belief in the face of centuries of culture speaking to other directions. And, most of all, this is directed at nations whose goodwill you need very badly for the Liesse Accord to exist as more than ink and fantasy,” he said, tone never rising nor ebbing low. “You are overstepping.”
My fingers clenched.
“You know we’d all be better off if we agreed on excluding Named from rule,” I said. “Gods, even just Praes getting rid of some of its-”
“Until the Dread Empire itself desires the mending of that wound, no amount of treaties will change a thing,” Black said, tone bland. “That was made plain to me, in knowing and truth. It is not enough to be correct in principle, Catherine. If you cannot offer a practical way to deliver on your beliefs, then they are wind. No one will agree on the Cardinal council having right to call signatories to war to depose a Named ruler, not even your own people once you’ve passed on the crown. It is best you make your peace with that early and prepare yourself to fight more salient battles.”
He didn’t suggest taking the articles out though, I noted. Ah, of course he wouldn’t. Since in his eyes it’d never been something worth seriously attempting, scrapping it became an easy concession in a true negotiation. I wasn’t convinced, honestly, that he was right. But I could at least consider him as a herald of the opposition I would face in days to come, and that meant at the very least some parts of this would have to be reconsidered. There was no point in making a toothless law, but one with too much bite might be even worse considering most of the signatories would have been recently at war with each other to one extent or another.
“Such as?” I asked.
“Your academy,” he said. “True, without it the Accords die with you. If your rules of engagement are not carved into a pattern all must heed, they will fade the moment the strength behind them does. Yet you must address the inherent difficulties in gathering Named and forcing lessons and laws upon them.”
“I’m not making a War College, Black,” I said. “It won’t be classes and lectures for both a fourteen-year-old Squire and a grizzled Unconquered Champion in their late thirties, that’s doomed to failure. The main purpose of the that academy is to teach the Articles of Strife – acceptable levels of violence against other Named and Nameless – and set out rules of behaviour. I expect most will attend for a few months only and wander back out into the world. But they’ll be wandering with the knowledge that seeding an undead plague in some village’s well brings Named killers down on their head, that calling an angel down on a city will get your throat slit and that city quarantined. I can’t control a continent’s worth of Named, it’d be absurd to even try. But if I can teach them rules of engagement and get them to agree that those rules should be enforced? Then the Accords have already done half of what they were meant to.”
“Short-sighted,” Black said. “Do you not realize the amount of influence Cardinal – and by extension your academy – will inevitably accrue? The Good King. The Dread Empress. The Tyrant of Helike. The Grey Pilgrim. What do all these have in commons?”
“They are or can all be the head of their nation,” I frowned.
Oh, I thought.
“The crowns of most of Calernia will spend at least half a year studying abroad in Cardinal,” I said. “Shit.”
He’d didn’t need to expand on the point any further, my mind was already spinning. If I wanted the spending of months in a foreign city to be seen as more than an imposition on a sovereign or sovereign-to-be, Cardinal needed to provide more than just an education in the intricacies of the Accords. That much could be provided by tutors when it came down to it, and that meant no one had motivation to fund Cardinal’s existence – which meant the weakening of a heart to them, and that was a death knoll in the making.
“Sorcerers,” I said. “We’ll need every damned one we can get, and any grimoire we can get our hands on. Teachers and books as well, of every subject and stripe. League histories, Ashuran atlases, Proceran poems. It can’t just be for Named, can it? It has to be the school, so that when some angry kid with a sword and growing powers is offered a chance to study there it’s an opportunity and not a chore. They have to want to come.”
“Oh, you’ll get more than Named and Named-incipient if you succeed at that,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch smiled, thin and bladelike. “Gather such fine teachers, such deep knowledge, and you’ll find even nobles sending their children there. Do you think any tutor in the Dominion could match the education you have spoken of? In Callow, in any city of the League? Highborn and diplomats and the ambitious seeking to become intimates of Named still in their rise: all these will knock at your door, demanding a place.”
“That’s…” I hesitated. “It’ll cost a fortune. And you don’t even know where the city is to be raised.”
“I am not a fool,” my father said, sounding amused, “so I do. You are still, deep in your bones, Callowan. You’ll have it carved out of the Red Flower Vales, putting neutral grounds between yourself and Procer while also opening the gate to enriching trade.”
I wondered how many more people had seen through that. It wasn’t like it’d be a mistake to do that – as Queen of Callow I could cede enough fields to support the city from my side, and given the way Procer would be gaining much from the Accord while losing less than anyone else getting an equivalent land grant on the other side of the Whitecaps shouldn’t be impossible. It was at the centre of Calernia, too the crossroads of the west and the east. Still, it would have been a lie to say I’d not intended the location of it to be boon for Callow.
“You’ll be making the capital of a new age,” Black said. “And so you must reassess your negotiating stance accordingly, or see yourself outplayed. It will not be your backyard alone, Catherine. You are founding the royal court of Calernia itself.”
And his lips were quirking as he spoke, like the world demanded that they turn into a smile regardless of his wants.
“I need you to see it through,” I admitted. “I need you at that table, speaking for Praes and signing the Accords. Gods, I need you just to have someone I can speak to about these things.”
Someone who, unlike Hakram and Vivienne, had desires sometimes estranged from my own. Who’d look at my schemes and see weaknesses I had not.
“Help me,” I asked. “Help me to break the Game of the Gods.”
He looked away, at the hung parchments that laid out my fool’s dream in ink and law.
“A better world, is it?” he pensively said.
Pale green eyes narrowed, something cold at the heart of them. Like great cogs of steel, made to half yet stuttering back into movement.
“It can be done,” Amadeus of the Green Stretch said. “And if nothing else, it ought to be an interesting way to spend my twilight years.”