“There are only two sorts of freedom to be found in Praes: the tyrant’s freedom, and the freedom to do as the tyrant said.”
– Extract from the memoirs of Hiram Banu, the Ninety-Year Chancellor
Her Most Serene Highness Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer, Princess of Salia, Prince of Rhenia and Warden of the West found that her patience ran thin, these days. Not for a freshly developed failure of character, she’d decided, but rather because there was simply so much to do and so little time to see it done. Petty temporizing from others had once been something to tolerate out of courtesy, to maintain the ties of etiquette binding all to civility and so providing a common tongue, yet now ever instance was measurable loss. And never a frivolous one, either, for all the decisions of middling import she could pass on to subordinates she already had weeks ago. Therefore, when the First Prince of Procer entered her solar at a brisk pace she was quietly irked by the absence of one of the three men she’d sent for. The Principate of Procer could be said to have three great assemblies of spies, when counting those attached to the sole office of the First Prince and not the particular of who sat on the throne. The first and foremost was the Circle of Thorns, whose webs of informants abroad had been the eyes and ears of the rulers of Procer for centuries now: its current highest patron, the skeletal and balding Louis of Sartrons, rose smoothly as she entered. A noticeable moment later the other man in the room, Balthazar Serigny, followed suit.
That hirsute bear of a man, his face a bold battlefield between ferocious eyebrows and an uncompromising beard, was the head of the Silver Letters. A pack of thieves and assassins grown so successful some centuries past they were given official sanction and from then on used as the spies of the First Princes within the boundaries of the Principate itself. Balthazar the Bastard, as his subordinates called him without speaking of the circumstances of his birth, had opposed Cordelia’s rise to power during the Great War and remained in place after her crowning largely because he was too difficult to swiftly replace and the successor she’d handpicked for him was not yet ready. There should have been a third on his feet there, Simon of Gorgeault, standing in the name of the Holy Society. That one was as much a diplomat as a spy, for the Holy Society and its assembly of highborn lay brothers and sisters was at times more an informal channel of communication with the House of Light than shadowy obtainers of secrets. Gorgeault’s lateness grated on her more than it should have, Cordelia knew, for knowing the man it would not be without reason. Yet his close ties with the House and in particular the Holies – that informal assembly of the influential within the House whose equally informal decisions ever became formal policy – were doing him no favour in her eyes of late.
“A good morn to you both,” the First Prince of Procer calmly said.
She paused long enough to allow the two spymasters to return the courtesy.
“Be seated,” Cordelia Hasenbach ordered. “We will begin without Brother Simon.”
The blonde Lycaonese pressed her skirts against her legs to more elegantly sit her chair, dismissing the attending servants with a polite shake of the head when inquiries were made by silent look. She had no intention of entertaining these men long enough for refreshments to be required, much less a meal. Besides, should she offer either etiquette would require small talk be made over them before serious matters were spoken of and she had absolutely no intention of wasting half an hour on inanities when Procer was rarely more than one calamitous day away from annihilation.
“We will attend to the Iserran situation first,” Cordelia stated. “Gentlemen, am I to understand that disaster was truly averted?”
The men shared a silent glance, the rapacious-faced head of the Circle and the half-wild former fantassin who’d killed and blackmailed his way to supreme prominence in the Silver Letters. It was the latter that spoke first, first clearing his throat in a surprisingly dainty manner for a man of his looks and conduct.
“We have confirmed that the foreign forces have all begun to evacuate the plains,” Balthazar the Bastard said. “It was made known to the rank and file of both the Army of Callow and the Legions of Terror that winter quarters will be raised in Arans before they went through the gate, so I believe it likely the Black Queen intends to keep her word.”
Of that there had been little doubt in the First Prince’s mind: she’d read a transcript of these Liesse Accords, passed along by hasty scrying. It was becoming increasingly evident they’d all severely underestimated Catherine Foundling, and that her game was a long one indeed. Cordelia’s cold blue eyes moved to the other man sitting across from her, inviting elaboration.
“The League of Free Cities has agreed to begin marching south, and to the offered sale of supplies as the costs you offered,” Louis said. “The Hierarch himself is said to have granted full authority to his advisory council over the matter, though the Tyrant of Helike remains the dominant force among it.”
Though not by so large a margin as he would have been before what her people had taken to calling the Princes’ Graveyard. An ornate affectation, given only a single royal had died instead of abdicated, yet the Alamans fondness for grand appellations was not do be denied. The League’s audacious – foolish, some would call it – march through the Waning Woods to take the Principate by surprise had meant it would need to live off the land after the supplies it brought began to run out, given the lack of supply train. The situation for them was not yet dire, yet the Circle of Thorns had learned that they had perhaps two months left before their grain ran out. Which was something of an issue for the invaders, given that the Carrion Lord had already stolen or torched every granary in the heartlands of the Principate: there was nothing left for them to steal in turn. Offering just enough supplies to fend off starvation in exchange for a retreat south had been a gamble, but a necessary one. She could not let more than a hundred thousand foreigners camp in Iserre while talks took place here in Salia. For one, it was much too close to the capital. More importantly, if the League’s armies stayed in Iserre so much enough of a force to check it even if truce was currently being had.
Oh, Kairos Theodosian would no doubt turn on her as soon as the conference came at an end and he’d secured whatever prize he now sought. Yet by that time the armies of the League would be much further south, perhaps as far as Tenerife, and the military situation would have changed. The Black Queen had, after all, admitted to making bargain with the Kingdom Under concerning sale of armaments and implied to Arnaud that arrangement could be had there between herself and the Principate. That meant delaying resumption of hostilities with the League a valid tactic, for by the time the blades came out again the massed levies Cordelia had ordered in all southern and western principalities would be furnished with fresh dwarven weaponry and be ready to hold the line against the League’s treachery. It would have ruinous costs in both lives and gold, but it was either that or allowing the Tyrant of Helike to dictate the course of the war on Keter however he wished. The Prince of Rhenia had sent her own people to die and abandoned her kinsmen to the Dead – she could and would stomach Arlesite conscripts bleeding to defend their own lands. Louis of Satrons’ pause was smoothly filled by the other spymaster a heartbeat later.
“My people in Iserre had a look at the delegations when the Black Queen opened the fairy gate for them,” Balthazar said. “Getting too close was judged risky – the Jacks are sharp-eyed and there’s goblins skulking around everywhere – but we believe the agreements were honoured when it comes to soldier strength.”
Cordelia’s brow did not rise, for she was better bred than that, yet she politely expressed surprise.
“Even the Carrion Lord?” she asked.
The offer extended had been an escort of four thousand for every representative attending the conference, which Cordelia had intended to mean the Hierarch and the Queen of Callow. Now instead there was a certain ‘General Rumena’ representing the interests of the Empire Ever Dark and requiring their own escort, which was unfortunate confirmation the drow were on the move once more. The suggestion the Carrion Lord would attend as representative for the Dread Empire of Praes had been like ash in Cordelia’s mouth, given the man’s cold-blooded scheme for the death of thousands and thousands of innocents. In all fairness, Foundling seemed to have understood the… delicacy of that situation and offered a compromise: she’d be responsible for the man’s actions while in Procer, and as her dependent he would be allowed only a thousand men in escort to be deducted from her own four thousand. The blonde Lycaonese suspected the hand of Vivienne Dartwick in those terms, whose diplomatic acumen had proven greater than one would expect of a former Chosen.
“He seems to have brought only four hundred legionaries,” Balthazar said. “Though given how popular he remains with parts of the Army of Callow, he’s hardly vulnerable.”
Not that Cordelia was fool enough to entertain assassination at the moment. Not with his apprentice – who, it seemed, still remained fond enough of him to seek his release regardless of reports of their quarrelling after the Doom of Liesse – having become so crucial to the survival of the Principate and perhaps even the continent itself. The amount of forces coming close to Salia made her uneasy, in truth. Four thousand drow, possessed of strange eldritch powers at night by all reports, four thousand eastern legionaries and a mixed force of four thousand from the League whose finest were from Helike. The Dominion would bring four thousand of their own, though they’d proved unreliable allies in many ways, and the First Prince had provided four thousand of her own soldiery to stand for the Thalassocracy of Ashur under thin pretence. Salia was hardly undefended, of course, and Princess Rozala Malanza would be bringing ten thousand soldiers besides as a guarantee. Yet sixteen thousand foreign soldiers within a day’s march of the capital was not something to take lightly in any circumstances, much less these. Countries grown weak often found their allies had grown hungry.
“Then it seems we had survived the crucible,” First Prince Cordelia calmly said, “and must now begin preparing for the one waiting beyond the horizon.”
“If I may, Your Most Serene Highness?” Louis of Sartons asked, and she moved her had in concession. “Our allies in Ashur are becoming increasingly desperate, and when word of the bargain struck for the retreat of the League that despair will turn to fury.”
It would, Cordelia privately agreed, for every step that took the armies of the League further from Procer took them closer to the shores of the Thalassocracy. All the while the fleets of Nicae kept blockading the island-nation and sinking even fishing boats, very clearly aiming to starve Ashur into submission. The bargain would be seen as a betrayal, not entirely without reason, and Cordelia’s assurances that this was maneuvering would ring hollow so long as they were not paired with some manner of relief for Ashur. Which she could not provide so long as the League’s fleets had the run of the Samite Gulf, given that no Arlesite principality had a considerable military fleet to call on. Largely because of Ashuran bribes and threats, one might uncharitably add.
“We will have to exert pressure on the League during the conference,” Cordelia agreed. “Lest we lose Ashur entirely to spite or surrender. If a common front is put forward to at least allow for grain barges to be allowed through, there would be hope to offer.”
“That would require Callow to back us against the Free Cities,” Balthazar grunted. “They’re trying to get a foot in the Grand Alliance so it’s not impossible, but the Black Queen’s no fool. She’ll not let herself be brought into the fold before she squeezed us dry of every concession she can prior to alliance.”
“I am not so certain,” Louis disagreed, bony face gone pensive. “No force under her command has ever resorted to looting or foraging while campaigning in our lands. Though I would agree she has distaste for the well-bred, I would venture she’d be rather sympathetic to the plight of starving Ashurans. It is not an uncommon trait, in tyrants who have popular support.”
Cordelia was, in fact, inclined to agree with the leader of the Circle of Thorns. Catherine Foundling had a record of trying to spare commoners the worst of war even when it was inconvenient to her armies, and the Army of Callow’s regulations were perhaps the strictest on the continent when it came to civilians. Unfortunately, the First Prince found it dubious that the Back Queen would antagonize the League of Free Cities on behalf of the Grand Alliance without some manner of concession. Which was not unreasonable, given that she would be taking on risks for nations that had warred on her own, but was most definitely unfortunate. The fair-haired First Prince only had so many concessions she could make and was reluctant to begin doling them out too early in negotiations. She might have to regardless, Cordelia grimly conceded. Choices were the privilege of those mighty enough to afford choosing.
“There will be a need to approach her in private after she arrives,” the First Prince finally said.
That much had never been in doubt, truth be told, though the extent of matters in need of discussion sometimes felt like to Cordelia like it increased by the day. The First Prince found herself in the unpleasant diplomatic quagmire of having to negotiate with a need to preserve an empire’s dignity without having an empire’s might to ensure it. Whatever alliances she might have once been able to call on were now stretched thin, the Chosen so unreliable as to be worthless and to add one more complication the Silver Letters were adamant that the Black Queen had become somewhat popular with Alliance armies that’d been on the field. The entire host had been plagued with dreams, allegedly the work of the Choir of Mercy, that had shown a span of the ‘heroics’ that’d taken place in these Twilight Ways. The result had been flattering to the Queen of Callow’s reputation, to say the least, though the transcripts of some of these dreams had been disturbing to read. The cunning that Foundling had shown that night was more dangerous than the power, in Cordelia’s eyes, though the power was the stuff of nightmares as well.
Now it was good as certain that the Callowans would follow their queen with fanatical devotion into any war she chose to wage – Gods Above, even as some kind of priestess of darkness she’d received the tacit blessing of angels – which would be a great boon if these negotiations saw fruit but a cataclysm otherwise. More worrisome was the apparent oath by every great line of the Blood to support her bid for joining the Grand Alliance, as it’d received the approval of the Grey Pilgrim. To Levantines, that might carry as much weight as that of the Choir he was said to be servant of. When Rozala Malanza’s soldiers came to Salia, and the Levantines with them, they would find a city that still spoke of the Black Queen as the Arch-heretic of the East and a perfidious enemy. The survivors of the campaign in Iserre would not take well to being called liars, much less the potentially disastrous epithet of heretic. It could all turn into an ugly circumstance with frightening ease if Cordelia was not very, very careful. Merciful Heavens, what had the world come to when she could expect the Black Queen to be a calming influence on the proceedings?
The First Prince would not be blinded by relief at a withheld blade or a sudden surge of sentiment, yet she could not deny that Catherine Foundling seemed to be trying to claw back the continent from the brink of they abyss. She was a horribly inconvenient person, it was true, but she’d also proved she was capable of restraint and a degree of foresight – which Cordelia could not truthfully say of all those who had a seat in the Highest Assembly. That Calernia might end up bound by a set of treaties even more far-reaching than those of the Grand Alliance had rankled, at first, but looking upon the content of the Liesse Accords the First Prince had been forced to concede they might be of genuine help in stabilizing the continent. That the rules of behaviour they proposed were elemental meant they were likely to be functional in practice even when binding such fractious individuals, and that most Chosen and Damned would be inclined towards enforcing them: a flying fortress rarely benefited anyone but the one flying it, and so even another villain might delight in seeing it brought down along with a rival. And as for the Chosen, Cordelia was far past needing convincing they too were in need of similar restraints. That the same plague that’d wiped out a detachment of Praesi legionaries had also wiped out an entire town on the shore of Lake Artoise without a single breakout elsewhere before or since was a damning hint of who was responsible for it.
There would be consequences to that, one day.
The dawning truth of the last few days had been that the Black Queen intended to bring forth an order to Calernia, and that this order was not too inimical to the order that Cordelia Hasenbach had been trying to bring forth since she was but a girl. It was not the resounding victory for Good that the First Prince had wanted, yet it was compromise she was willing to live with. She fully intended on securing as many gains as she could for Procer and the Grand Alliance, yet she would do so with the preservation of the Accords in mind. In truth, there were some aspects she’d found thrilling. This posited city in the Red Flower Vales? It was, she hoped, an end to wars between Callow and Procer. With this Cardinal forbidding the march of armies and the only other land-route between the two realms the Stairway up north, war would become highly impractical to wage. Three kittens and a ribbon could defend the narrow pass of the Stairway against a princely army, if they had the nerve, and having a great city at the crossroads between the east and the west of Calernia would allow for trade between adjoining realms to flourish and make hostility even more costly a prospect. And there was much to gain, in having such a neutral ground where diplomacy would be had even on the darkest days. No, Cardinal would have much greater reach than even the Black Queen seemed to realize.
A sharp rap against the closed door had Cordelia raising her voice to grant entrance to the servant. A man in livery hurried in at her invitation and after courtly bows came to whisper in her ear. The First Prince of Procer’s lips slightly thinned and she nodded a dismissal.
“Brother Simon’s absence should be excused, it seems,” Cordelia Hasenbach crisply said. “For he has been detained by order of the House of Light. The Holies are calling the Highest Assembly to session.”
Two of the most skilled spymasters alive looked at her with faces betraying utter surprise.
“That’s madness,” Balthazar said.
“It’s treason,” Louis said, tone cold. “In time of war, no less. Your Most Serene Highness, this cannot be allowed to pass.”
“Nor will it,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, voice like iron. “It appears I have at last found an end to my patience.”