“Fifty-three: a trusted companion who, after a string of personal disappointments, begins to dress in darker colours should no longer be considered a trusted companion.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
I didn’t mind heading out to Salia for the talks, and there were so many of those to be had: the peace conference, Callow’s petition to join the Grand Alliance and the Liesse Accords themselves. The treaties making up the Grand Alliance had first been signed in the Proceran capital, so the symbolism in Callow doing the same there would be powerful, and for the rest having the Highest Assembly at hand would save a great deal of time. Considering most armies in Iserre had fought months of strenuous skirmishes and battles, I foresaw the First Prince’s invitation would be accepted. In truth, considering it was Arnaud Brogloise who’d approached me with the notion in private, odds were the Dominion had already agreed and Hasenbach was simply sounding me out to avoid public embarrassment if I refused. The First Prince was too clever not to know the moment she got everyone else to agree on Salia she’d effectively forced Kairos’ hand, since him having a fit then would mark him the enemy of everyone invested in seeing peace secured. No, I understood why Cordelia Hasenbach’s capital would be the seat of the talks and indeed preferred it that way for reasons of my own.
But we were haggling, so damned if I wouldn’t get something in exchange.
The First Prince, through her envoy, had been pushing for the Army of Callow and the Exile Legions to make camp in northwest Brabant but we flatly refused. Reports from the Jacks made it clear that the principality of Brabant was overwhelmed by refugees from the lakeside holdings to the north, and that the front against the Dead King in Hainaut had been on the edge of collapse for some time. If we raised winter quarter there my armies were the second line of defence whether they liked it or not and we’d be surrounding by hungry, desperate people. We pushed for northern Arans instead, which was more than reasonable in my opinion: it put my soldiers close enough to the northern passage they could be supplied by Callow through it while propping up the right flank of the Hainaut front. Where it got messy was my insistence that the armies be allowed to raise their camps close to a city and my soldiers be granted access to said city while on leave. Brogloise had not been particularly inclined to grant me adjacency to anything but the dead until I started hinting Salia might be a little too far for my tastes. That had the tune changing pitch, as I’d thought it might.
He still demurred from outright agreeing until Prince Ariel of Arans was consulted over the matter, though I threw in agreement to the four thousand escort and four hundred retinue in Salia to make sure it’d be worth the candle to Cordelia. I made it plain that the drow were not my slaves or minions but allies from another nation, the Empire Ever Dark, and that the Firstborn required an emissary when time came to discuss both peace and the Accords.
“You want the Highest Assembly to recognize the legitimacy of this Empire Ever Dark,” Brogloise mildly said.
“If you’d prefer,” I said, “the princes and princesses could come explain to the sigil-holders why without a vote being held in Salia they can’t belong to a real nation.”
“It’d be extending diplomatic recognition to, well,” and there the envoy looked faintly embarrassed, “the grisly minions of some wicked foreign deity.”
“I’m not asking you to trade embassies,” I patiently said. “I’m asking you to recognize that fifty thousand warriors would get the Firstborn a seat at the table even if they required newborn babies as refreshments. How many more enemies can Procer afford to make right now, Brogloise?”
There was more nuance to the situation that I would have liked, as it happened. As a rule, the Principate didn’t usually consider itself bound by treaties to entities beholden to the Hellgods. Whoever held the Tower was usually Arch-heretic of the East, which meant no agreements with them need be upheld, and neither the Kingdom of the Dead nor the Chain of Hunger offered treaties. Agreements in the Free Cities were subject to the authority of the League itself, which meant none of those cities sworn to Below were usually a direct interlocutor to the Principate save in secret pacts not admitted to. In short, there was very little precedent for Procer making any sort of treaty with a state that worshipped the Gods Below and considering it worth more than what the ink and parchment had cost. Largely, I could admit in the privacy of my own thoughts, because very few of those states ever put much stock in keeping to their word. On the other hand, as of now I was still Queen of Callow and if the Principate was incapable of negotiating with me – still a villain, regardless of the waning of my Name – then this would all head downhill rather fast. The former Prince of Cantal retreated somewhat gracefully at that, noting that even if official recognition could not be guaranteed then at least a legal equivalent could be.
It’d do. I would not expect miracles, even when the Principate was so deeply in trouble. It had been the preeminent power of Calernia, on the surface at least, for too long. The arrogance had been bred into its rulers by generations of genuinely being some of the wealthiest and most influential individuals on the continent. I’d not coddle the highborn, when the time came, but neither would I got out of my way to step on their toes. My deep personal dislike for most royalty of the west was no reason to get in my own way when it came to greater purposes. We discussed a few other details of logistics, namely where the escort of four thousand would be offered amenities – as it turned out, from towns less than a day’s march from Salia itself – and the practicalities of bringing an armed retinue into the capital. I had no intention of turning over any of my people who were alleged to break laws to Procer for trial, but I indicated I was willing to hold them to that standard while they stayed in Salia so long as it broke no laws of Callow or regulations of its army. I gave an inch on my insistence that any such lawbreaking would be dealt with by Callowan trials, allowing for an observer appointed by the First Prince to sit in on the proceedings should it come to that.
We ended the talks soon after that, since Hasenbach now needed to herd her royal cats before she could agree to what I’d required. Vivienne and Hakram both stayed with me after the man left, the three of us seated in a silence that was rather contemplative. The former thief had kept notes herself throughout most of the talks, though mostly on the exact language of what had been agreed between Brogloise and myself. It’d been a surprisingly large amount, though less than one might expect from literal hours of talking. Still, I could not help but notice that a great deal of the tediousness I associated with diplomacy vanished when I ended up in an arguable position of strength. Fancy that, I sardonically thought. I shook away the cynical amusement. Pleasant as indulging it could be, I had no time to waste on indulgence at the moment.
“You saw something, didn’t you?” I asked Hakram instead.
“Not in him, but in what he spoke,” Adjutant agreed. “It is a question of logistics, Catherine. Hasenbach cannot agree to signing the Accords without having first consulted the Highest Assembly, yes?”
I cocked my head to the side, not bothering to assent to something be both knew to be true.
“Arnaud Brogloise has had the written text of them since the night of the battle,” Hakram continued. “Which means that, up to this meeting being held, Hasenbach and the Highest Assembly had a day and a half to both read the papers, debate their content and hold a vote – the offer made, of the Carrion Lord turned over in exchange for a signature? It was lawfully binding, coming from an envoy with the man’s invested powers.”
“Which is doable,” I pointed out. “They could call session at night, if necessary. They don’t necessarily need to read the whole thing themselves, either, they can have scholars they trust sum up the contents.”
“Not if the Assembly also has to wrangle together succession for seven principalities too,” Vivienne quietly said. “Even in times of war they have conventions, Cat. And they’d have to arrange it all over scrying, too, which is faster than messengers but still a devil’s delay.”
I drummed my fingers against the table as I began thinking back on all that’d been said. They were right, these two. And more than they knew, considering all the different things Brogloise had agreed on in the First Prince’s name.”
“They’d need to vote over hosting all this in Salia,” I said. “Over the amount of soldiers allowed in the capital. Shit, that should have been a tip off shouldn’t it? That this is diplomacy and we still got so much done.”
“Bad faith negotiations?” Vivienne suggested. “Hasenbach could be making promises without having held vote over them yet, banking on confirmation afterwards.”
“That’s too sloppy for who we’re dealing with,” I grunted. “Setting aside anyone wanting her deposed would be handed a pretext if she did it, she’d be playing with fire when it comes to us – and she won’t risk that when Procer’s out in the wilds with the wolves prowling.”
“Then there remains one plausible alternative,” Hakram said. “Which is that Hasenbach has held those votes and rammed them through the Highest Assembly by virtue of having the votes to pass essentially anything she’d like without debate.”
“That can’t be the case if the royals who abdicated here got their pick of successor on their throne,” I flatly said. “There wasn’t a lot of loyalty to Cordelia Hasenbach in that crowd even before the campaign cost them their crown.”
I grimaced. That meant seven empty seats in a voting assembly of twenty-three, which was a significant chunk, and considering the main opposition to the First Prince had coalesced around Princess Rozala, who was here in Iserre there’d be no one with the influence to seriously get in her way. No, by simple arithmetic I could see Hasenbach having finagled what was essentially run of the place. Between the Lycaonese, the lakeside principalities and those in the south that were quaking in their boots at the thought of the League coming in to stay? On one hand, this meant I could actually make bargains with the First Prince and expect to see them bear fruit. On the other hand, this whole situation had the potential of turning into a nasty brew if accusations of tyranny were thrown around and enough people listened.
“Nothing we can do about that from here,” Vivienne pragmatically said. “And I’ve just begun to restore contact with the Jacks in broader Procer, so it’ll be some time before we can hear of what’s happening in Salia.”
I leaned back into my seat, closing my eyes to think. I tended to think of Hasenbach as a largely reasonable woman, when it came down to it. Arrogant and high-handed, yes, but not bloodthirsty or blind in her principles. She’d despised me and all I stood for but never closed the door to negotiation because to her diplomacy was a preferable path to war if it could lead to the same ends. I couldn’t say I liked the woman, but I held to a degree of professional respect towards her. She had, after all, held her own against Black and Malicia for years and come out ahead as often as not. So when I’d heard that she was dredging something out of Lake Artoise through Kairos I’d suspected it wouldn’t be pretty, but also been inclined to take it as a precaution on her part. A weapon to unleash if all else fail, not a stick she’d begin waving as a club near everyone else to get her way. I’d been reasonably certain, deep down, that she wouldn’t ever use what it was she was having dredged. Now, though? They were all justifiable, practical steps she was taking. I knew that. But there was a word for people who did things like seizing control of the Highest Assembly and digging up ancient weapons, and it wasn’t heroine.
“Vivienne,” I said, opening my eyes. “Lean on the Jacks, I don’t care how many you end up burning. The situation in Salia is no longer the highest priority.”
“The dredging,” Hakram gravelled, studying me closely.
“Find out what Hasenbach is fishing out of the lake, Lady Dartwick,” I said. “And find out quickly.”
The woman who was likely to be my successor nodded decisively, and we left it at that.
If there was anyone who still kept to the ancient faith that’d had had the stones on the barrow-top raised, they’d be within their rights to call this desecration. My affairs had been removed from the heart of the Mavian prayer, brought back to my tent, but given that this would be the first fireside night we held in more than a year I’d charged Adjutant with… furnishing it properly. Which was why where some olden thinning boundaries had once been arranged, now a deep and broad fire pit had been dug by legionaries with shovels. Benches were brought up, the roughly-hewn kind that regulations frowned upon but appeared just as inevitably as washerwomen – both the kind that actually washed clothes and the one that did, as well as those impressively enterprising souls that did both – and peddlers when an army stayed in the same place for a time. The only reason the benches were discouraged were because they were a waste of wood and often got in the way of the swift deployment that Legion camps were meant to enable, though so long as legionaries left them behind most officers let the matter lie. They made for a comfortable enough arrangement around the fire, and with a handful of seats they made up the heart of the arrangement.
The drinks were as broad in arraignment, Adjutant having gotten his hand on a barrel of Laure ale as well as what I suspected to be a wide array of confiscated liquors. In an exercise of nostalgia for our College days we’d killed two pigs and put them to roast on spikes, before prudently arranging skewers of horse as well given the number of greenskins among us. For those of us with ‘cow teeth’ there’d be a massive communal plate of biryani as well, out here in Procer the cumin and pepper that went with the rice almost more expensive a luxury than the rest of the meal put together. I claimed my seat there not long before night fell, abusing my queenly prerogatives to get a decent bottle of wine while I read through the last of the reports Juniper had sent me. There was speculation among our general staff that the League’s armies were less than a month away from running out of food, which would be rather interesting if it were true. Already preparations for the likely march on Arans were beginning, too, though Tariq and I would have to see to the practicalities of that. A Named or two might be able to slip in and out of Twilight on their own – especially here in Iserre, where it would be so thinly parted form Creation – but not an army. That would require a gate, and a great deal of power.
I handed back the reports to the officer who’d brought them to me in the first place just before the first two of my little band of miscreants strolled in. The first I’d seen not too long ago in this very place, though Robber had apparently since led his cohort in a reckless ambush on Levantine mages he’d somehow lived through without taking a wound. The other, though, it’d been quite a while. Senior Sapper Pickler had never been what you’d call a sociable woman even at her most convivial, and between her suddenly expanded budget in building engines and my ever-broadening duties it’d been ages since we saw each other outside our work. She had, like Robber, visibly aged – her leathery skin was more deeply creased, her angular face grown gaunter. She’d gotten bigger, too, larger in height and frame than most goblins. It was said that Matron lines – and as a Matron’s daughter, Pickler was of a purer strain of that than most could claim – grew larger and lived longer than most of their kind, though the rumours of sharper intellect as well I’d never put much stock in. It was easy to claim superior wits when the opposition was kept ignorant on purpose.
“Your Majesty,” Pickler greeted me.
To my surprise, without a hint of irony. I glanced at Robber with a cocked eyebrow.
“It is your title,” he defended.
“She’s never that deferential,” I flatly said. “None of you are ever that deferential.”
The sapper was, I noticed only then, carrying a handful of scrolls.
“Pickler,” I said, reluctantly amused, “are you trying to sweeten me up before asking funding for your latest project?”
A heartbeat passed.
“No,” she tried.
“What’s in the scrolls, Pickler?” I nonchalantly asked.
“… recipes,” she slowly said. “For cooking. Which is a pastime I took up since we last spoke.”
“I thought cooking was a strictly male thing for goblins,” I said, eyeing Robber.
“No Matron would ever eat anything another female had a hand in making,” he agreed.
“I began out of my deep respect for human culture,” Pickler said. “Which I never mentioned until now because…”
Out of genuine curiosity I let her try to think her way out of this one without interruption.
“… because I believed it so obvious it did not bear mentioning,” she triumphantly finished.
Her professed respect was slightly undermined by the way she’d said human culture instead of, you know, mentioning an actual culture. Still, I knew how to bring this to a solid finish,
“That’s a shame,” I mused, “I mean, I need to blow all that dwarven gold on something and you know how I love a good siege engine. I sure wish someone had schematics to show me.”
Robber discretely shook his head, the filthy traitor, but she wasn’t paying attention.
“I also have schematics, Your Majesty,” the Senior Sapper immediately said, voice almost visibly brightening. “For unrelated reasons.”
“So close,” Robber moaned. “So close, Pickler.”
I glanced at the cup in my hand, finding it mostly empty, then shrugged.
“What the Hells,” I said. “Drag a seat here and show me what you’ve got. So long as Robber keeps pouring me wine, anyway.”
By the time the others began drifting in we were half an entire bottle in – I’d ordered our mutinous manservant to begin cupbearer duties for her as well – and loudly arguing about the practicality of even greatly ameliorated scorpions against undead.
“It’s not like I don’t think siege has a role to play,” I said. “But bolts aren’t going to win us an engagement, Pickler. Massed catapults. That’s our force multiplier.”
“Why don’t we just pick up stones and throw them at Keter, while we’re at it,” she hissed back. “Or better yet, import a dwarven pebble and toss that. Shame on your line, Foundling.”
“And you were so sweet to me earlier,” I mourned.
“Oh, a human put on a crown and started ruling other humans,” she scathingly said. “How unprecedented. You still can’t do abstract mathematics properly, I bet.”
“I’ve had other things on my plate,” I replied, perhaps a tad defensively.
“What’s this about shaming Catherine?” a voice cheerfully called out. “I can’t believe you’d leave me out of that.”
The rest of the lot had come as a wave, it seemed. Archer, who’d just cheerfully thrown her hat into the ring, and with her Hakram and Masego. At a glance, Juniper and Aisha was further down the slope and climbing up while talking animatedly. Everyone, then. I leaned back into my seat.
“Don’t mouth off, wench,” I replied to Indrani. “I bet you can’t do abstract mathematics decently either.”
“Funny you would say that,” Archer said, and grinned like I’d just made a mistake.
Godsdamnit, I thought, and prepared to take my lumps.