“Rebel prisoners, Black Knight? Ah, you must mean the fresh orc rations.”
– Dread Emperor Foul I, the Frugal
Under moonlight Ivah of the Losara sat at my side, wielding ink and parchment, and made record of oaths.
We begun with the Zoitsa, for they were the reason of my coming as well as the first attempt to make old stones into a fledgling temple. I had given this crucible of acclamation the shape of their singing-rites, and that aspect they embraced with relish. It was not merely oaths that were offered to the many waiting ears of the Zoitsa Sigil but verses crafted with deft hands and heady cadence. The first pledges were mundane, enemies that would be defeated and protections that would be ensured. One ispe then hazarded the pledge of sharing the sigil’s Night with all Zoitsa, and though the oath was met with shocked and disapproving silence, the words had broken the levee. It was not merely prudent, if well-spoken, promises that were made but instead ambitions unveiled. A jawor spoke of raising a city where no pale light would ever reach for the Zoitsa to live in, another of arming even every dzulu with coats of steel and shining blades. The rylleh, older hand and the subtler games of sigils, let others come forward to gauge the sigil’s wants before speaking their own oaths.
The same drow that’d not presumed to speak to me before now swore to swell the ranks of the Zoitsa so it would become one of the great sigils, while the ambitious one who’d invited me to pass judgement instead swore that the Night of every Zoitsa to die in the wars would be passed to a dzulu proving themselves worthy. I felt through the Night the last oath earned the most approval, at least until the fourth rylleh, the one who had not even stood forward to lay claim to the sigil until now, spoke its own pledge-
“host of empire will we be,
servants first to right
if Zoitsa bend the knee
let it be only to Night”
The Night thrummed with approval, and not only from those drow who bore the colours of the Zoitsa. Morovoy was the name of the rylleh that had made the oath, and it had been clever in its shaping. The verses of it made it clear that for its span of nine years it would have the sigil suborn its own ambitions to the needs of the reborn Empire Ever Dark, serving as army and obeying the orders of leaders appointed by the Night. The other Firstborn had sought to earn acclaim through pretty ambitions and heady boasts, but Morovoy’s pledge instead harkened back to the old dream: a nation of drow, proud and mighty under darkened sky. It was opening the door to any who wanted to bare blade for that purpose, at least for a span of nine years, and in offering such selfless oath was making all the pledges of those that’d spoken before it seem… base. Almost petty. When tokens were set down to match oaths, Morovoy earned more than half those cast and more than double of its closest rival. I sent Ivah to bestow the Night I had shaped into a sigil, after that chosen oath was written down, and so the first crucible of the nigh was passed.
The hurdle, after that, was that those already holding sigils need take oaths of their own. It’d taken hours to gather fifty thousand drown and even longer to clear room for them all to stand, so I’d had time to do more than ponder the shape of the reformation I wanted to offer. I’d made arrangements as well, quietly reaching out to those in the Southern Expedition that were most beholden to me. It was why the Losara had not stirred, when I set them apart from the rest of the kind and charged them to never rise too high nor fall too low. It was why though many of the sigil-holders were taken by surprise by the changing tides, not all were. In the silence that followed the ascension of Morovoy, Mighty Jindrich strode forward. The same hard-headed, choleric warrior that Rumena and I had taken to using as a battering ram whenever we needed something dead or broken. It was feckless and brutal, though prone to forgiving those that amused it. Yet its faith in Sve Noc was deep and militant, and it thought nothing of making oath if it was the will of the Night. And so Mighty Jindrich stood before tens of thousands of its kind, white-toothed and red-handed, and it sang a pledge-
“to be the point of the spear
ever furthest from the rear;
to battle under veil of night
and the glare of palest light;
hear me: nine years’ spread
a hundred victories tread!”
I’d expected the Jindrich Sigil to flinch at the pledge, of fighting as the vanguard wherever fight was to be found and to forge a hundred victories in nine years, but that was not what I felt from them. Oh, far form it. They were burning with the kind of hard pride that would have any people but the Firstborn howling. In the Jindrich, their faces painted azure and white with the jagged fang-like wings of their sigil-symbol, I found boiling blood and a thirst for blood. The took after their sigil-holder, and other drow listened to such an oath with envy – oh, some would leave the sigil, but there would be twice as many petitioning for entry. One after another, the sigil-holders who had once been of my Peerage followed suit. Mighty Soln’s pledge to found a cabal with any other sigil willing to help raise another Tvarigu in the heart of the Burning Lands had the crowd rippling in approval and a few feet stomping down, but when after it finished speaking Rumena stepped up fifty thousand drow went still as statues. The old drow laughed, softly, and offered the trace of a bow at the crows on my shoulder. It spoke simply, cadenced but with an implacability that was beyond boast-
“before nine years have passed,
Keter’s gates will lie broken
as trembles Death’s holdfast.”
I breathed out sharply at the oath the general had just made. A heartbeat passed and the sheer wave of fervour that raged through the Night had me leaning against my staff for support. Drow raised their voices in an ululating cry, honouring the old monster who’d promised it would lead any following it to smash down the gates of the Crown of the Dead. The ancient creature closed its eyes, breathed the cool air of Procer’s winter night, and smiled the smile of one who would cast their wroth against even gods. And still Ivah wrote, ink on parchment, for the Losara would keep records so long as there were records to be kept. I only left the Firstborn two hours before dawn, having granted delay to those few sigil-holders who had no oath yet to pledge, but that number was few. Before dawn my Lord of Silent Steps would have begun transcribing its records to a book whose pages would be the one of the greatest things I had ever made.
Whether it would be a great triumph or disaster, only time would tell.
Hakram and I found our way back through the dark, passing legionaries on watch and the odd still-lit tent, but it was a surprise to find that my own was lit up with sprites and magelights. My feet slowed as I heard laughter from inside, glimpsing two silhouettes – one on a bed, the other seated by its side. A man and woman, I thought, and though the words were indistinct Indrani’s voice was a familiar drawl.
“I can hear what they’re saying,” Adjutant murmured, the offer implicit.
I’d be able to as well, if I drew on the Night. Instead I breathed out slowly and shook my head.
“Leave them to it,” I said.
The orc’s eyes moved to me, unreadable.
“They have their own matters to settle,” I said. “And if I’m there…”
“The war follows you,” Hakram completed, clicking his fangs.
I shrugged, affecting nonchalance, though I held out little hope so shallow a deception would not be seen through by my Adjutant.
“Hells, Hakram,” I said, “I might as well be the war, to those two. No, let them have a night without red on the horizon and talk of plans.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” he gently told me.
I thought of Vivienne, scared she would be cast out and left out in the wilds, and the way I’d used that fear to bring her a little closer to the woman I needed her to be. Not lightly, not without qualms, not for selfish reasons. But I’d still done it.
“It does,” I disagreed.
There might come a day where that was no longer the case, but until the continent no longer teetered on the brink then the queen’s needs were more important than the woman’s wants. I clapped Hakram’s shoulder, and together we went to find somewhere else for me to sleep.
I woke up with Morning Bell, still tired but knowing there was too much on my plate to be able to justify sleeping any longer. Adjutant, already awake, passed along that both Masego and Indrani were still sleeping in so instead I broke fast with Juniper and Vivienne. The Hellhound had always been – rather despicably so, in my opinion – a morning person so while cheer was no more in the cards than usual she was still noticeably more animated than either myself or Vivienne. Who, I’d noted over the years, had never really gotten used to staying awake most of the day. Neither thieving nor heroics were always work to be done under the sun, at least not in an occupied Callow. So while Vivienne and I blearily drank our morning brews and poked at porridge, Juniper sprinkled bits of jerky into hers and dug in with relish as she began expounding on this Proceran book she’d found. Some history of the First League War penned by a prince of Lyonis she’d found a Lower Miezan translation of. The title – one of those long, elaborate ones highborn Proceran scholars were so fond of – she spoke scathingly of, but apparently it was a fascinating look at the events and much less drily written than most histories. Vivienne leaned towards me as the Hellhound told us all about how Helikean kataphraktoi had actually begun as a tradition before Theodosius, contrary to popular belief.
“This is torture,” the heiress-designate to Callow murmured.
“Just don’t mention the Commentaries,” I whispered back. “It’d be like tossing meat at a wolf.”
Usually it only got this way when we drank, though, so I was somewhat surprised. By now Aisha should have… Ah, I thought, looking at the empty seat where Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara would usually be seated. There’s your trouble. The living and breathing person that served as the better part of Juniper’s social graces was missing, and so we were being subjected to the full Hellhound treatment.
“Fascinating,” I lied, just after a sentence. “Where’s Aisha, by the way?”
“Liaising with the Legions-in-Exile,” Juniper growled. “We’re taking full stock of the armies down to company size so we can adjust the doctrine for whatever battles are ahead.”
Ah, and there was no one else in the Hellhound’s general staff that’d get that done nearly as quickly or neatly as Aisha so there she went. She’d probably been absent form general staff meetings too, which would only make the Hellhound grumpier.
“I’m sure it’ll be done soon,” I said.
“It’d help if you could tell us where winter quarters will be,” the orc bluntly said.
“I’ll see if I can get that settled today,” I sighed, then sipped at my tea.
The warmth of it seeped into me, and I glanced at the other Callowan at the table. As much out of need as out of mercy, I threw Vivienne a bone.
“I’ll need you to send a messenger to Arnaud Brogloise,” I said. “Today will be convenient for the audience he requested. I’ll be expecting you at that table, Lady Dartwick.”
“And the Dominion?” she asked.
I glanced at Juniper.
“We’re overdue a fireside evening, the lot of us,” I said. “I expect at some point during that evening the Pilgrim will swing by for a chat, if he’s ready to talk.”
“Tonight?” the Hellhound asked. “We’ve all got-”
“Competent subordinates,” I interrupted. “We can afford a few hours by a fire, Juniper. If you believe your staff so incompetent that if you have a drink they’ll be lost-”
“I never said that,” the Hellhound bristled.
“Good,” I smiled, “then you can bring the aragh.”
I hadn’t had a taste of that since becoming mortal again and I was curious if my recollections from the old days were still accurate.
“You baited me,” Juniper growled.
“Can’t win them all, Marshal,” I grinned, and toasted her with my steaming mug.
Vivienne shot me an amused look before making her retreat, and a wise woman she was. This time, when Juniper began to talk about the logistics of the Army of Callow, the glint in her eye made it very clear the torture was entirely on purpose.
It was not until Noon Bell that I met with Arnaud Brogloise, plenipotentiary envoy for the First Prince of Procer. I’d been ready for talks earlier, but the other side had not. Apparently the Grand Alliance’s camp was like an anthill that’d been just gotten a good kick now that scrying was restored to Iserre and Hasenbach’s Order of the Red Lion could arrange talks with Salia. Not just Salia, though, likely most of the Alliance’s signatories. No doubt the Blood wanted to speak with Levante and their Holy Seljun, if only to gain a veneer of lawfulness for whatever they’d get up to regardless of what their figurehead ruler wanted. Given the number of highborn of all stripes who’d want access to scrying and what must be a highly limited amount of mages that could use such sorcery – as well as spell formulas a generation behind the Empire’s, which meant the further two-way scrying went the more relays would be required and the more prone to failure the magic would be – I wouldn’t be surprised if they were working their practitioners to the edge of burning out. Still, at least the development meant I could rely on the former Prince of Cantal having freshly spoken with Hasenbach.
This was the closest I’d get to speaking directly with the First Prince before getting to Salia, I suspected.
This was not a formal negotiation, only a private audience, so I’d seen no need to overburden this with ceremony and entourages. On the side of the oaken table I’d claimed Hakram sat at my right and Vivienne at my left, while Arnaud Brogloise had brought with him only a pale redheaded scribe whose accessories seemed to indicate was meant to serve as both note-keeper and scholarly expert. The ink and quill made the first plain, while the veritable pile of tomes and scrolls he’d brought in with a legionary’s help implied the second. I knew from experience that someone well-learned in where the writing you were looking for tended to shave hours off of discussions such as these, so I rather appreciated the expertise the Alamans had brought with him.
“Your Majesty,” Arnaud Brogloise greeted me. “Lady Dartwick, Lord Adjutant.”
I craned my neck back.
“I’m unfamiliar with the proper address for a plenipotentiary envoy,” I admitted.
“It is ‘lord envoy’, though it is only a courtesy title,” the middle-aged replied, smiling amicably. “Yet if I may be bold?”
My brow rose and I nodded permission.
“It is my understanding that you are not partial to formalities,” Brogloise said. “We could dispense with them, if you would allow it, and you could simply call me Arnaud.”
I smiled back.
“Did you know that I could hear heartbeats, back when I was Sovereign of Moonless Nights?” I mildly said. “If I pricked my ear, I could ever hear blood flowing in someone’s veins. Smell their fear and anger.”
His face expressed only confusion. He really was, I thought, one of the finest actors I’d ever seen. The Alamans might even be better at it than Akua, which was impressive in all the worst ways.
“I’m aware I’ll find about as much genuine emotion at the heart of you than I would in door hinge, my lord envoy,” I said. “So spare us both the affability.”
The ruddy face slackened, moving towards blankness though not quite reaching it. To be entirely vacant would have been an effort as well, while this was simply the release of a pretence.
“If you’d prefer, Your Majesty,” he calmly said. “Shall we attend the matters at hand?”
“If you would,” I agreed.
“Her Most Serene Highness has, after consideration, decided to honour the Grey Pilgrim’s non-binding promise of a peace conference,” Brogloise stated.
How magnanimous of her, I drily thought. I’d grown more diplomatic in my old age, so I refrained from rolling my eyes. Hasenbach might not be happy about Tariq agreeing in her name to anything, but she needed the truce and conference badly. Refusing to honour the Pilgrim’s agreement with the Tyrant would have been cutting off her nose to spite her face, considering it’d set the League back on the warpath and mortally offend the Dominion.
“And the guarantee of truce until the conference has ended?” Vivienne asked.
“Will be honoured in full,” the Alamans agreed.
“Including the Legions-in-Exile?” Hakram asked.
“So long as the Queen of Callow formally agrees to take responsibility for their actions while they remain on Proceran soil,” Brogloise said.
Mhm. So, Cordelia had recognized that at this point she didn’t have the strength or influence to push the issue when it came to the Exile Legions. Making them my problem was a way to deal with it, since she knew by now I needed the goodwill of the Grand Alliance for the Accords and letting the Praesi loose anywhere in Procer was a good way to throw away every inch of progress I’d made there. Still, I’d take it.
“Agreed,” I said.
The redhead scribe’s quill scratched against parchment.
“However,” the former prince said, “the Highest Assembly formally requests that the escaped prisoner of war Amadeus of the Green Stretch be turned over for trial.”
“The Highest Assembly has been heard,” I mildly said. “Though I will caution that considering he never surrendered to the Principate and was tortured while in custody, by Callowan law you have no grounds for such a request.”
“Indeed, this has been acknowledged,” Arnaud Brogloise said, to my surprise.
That, I thought, had been much too easy considering how despised Black was in these parts. Was Cordelia sparing him as a favour to me so she could call that favour in elsewhere? Shit, if it came to that I might actually have to agree.
“However, as a Named military commander who carried out plans of mass murder of civilians he would be considered in egregious breach of the Liesse Accords,” the former prince said.
Ah, I thought. And there it was.
“Procer has not signed the Liesse Accords,” I said.
“It will, if you agree to apply them to the Black Knight,” Arnaud Brogloise plainly said.
The bluntness of it jolted me. He was actually serious, I realized, and he wasn’t just speaking hot air: the powers Cordelia had invested in him meant he could sign agreements in her name in a legally binding manner.
“It would be selective application of the articles, unless you also intend to pursue the trial of the Grey Pilgrim for the massacre of a port town and an entire half-legion of Praesi legionaries,” Vivienne noted. “Or of the Queen of Callow for the particulars of the Battle of the Camps.”
“Guarantees can be made that this will not be the case,” the envoy said.
“You’re missing the point,” I flatly said. “If the Accords are used from the very moment they’re signed as a tool to pursue enmities, they’ll not last the decade.”
Hakram, at my right, was looking intently at our Alamans friend. He’d noticed something, then.
“A matter to be discussed in more detail at a later date, then,” Brogloise said. “The First Prince is offering to host the conference in Salia, Your Majesty, and seeks your opinion on the matter.”
Adjutant moved a fraction, and so I stilled my tongue. I inclined my head towards him without looking.
“In the eventuality this is agreed on, where does the First Prince suggest the Army of Callow and the Legions-in-Exile march on?” Hakram asked.
“Escort would be allowed up to four thousand for every ruler attending the conference,” the envoy replied. “Four hundred into the city itself.”
“And the armies themselves?” I asked.
Arnaud Brogloise glanced at his scribe, who bowed at him then myself before rising to snatch a half-dozen scrolls from the pile. Maps, I realized, reading the letters on the seals.
“In this matter,” the former Prince of Cantal said, “Her Most Serene Highness is willing to entertain your proposals.”
I grinned. I’d been a while since I last had a good haggle, I mused, so this ought to get interesting.