Iron to bind
And rope to kill.”
-First of the three so-called ‘Mavian Entreaties’, found on raised stones across much of eastern and Procer
The anger had come, white-hot and blinding, but it did not last for Cordelia had learned calm at her mother’s knee. Mother might have never held an audience or passed judgement without swallowing a sigh of impatience at been the bare bones ceremony of a Lycaonese court, but then she’d never been a creature of halls and laws. The Rhenian blonde still remembered being taken on her first hunt out in the mountains, her ever-restless mother still as a statue for half a night as they waited for the stray ratling to come into arrow’s reach. Patience, sparrow, Mother had whispered. Patience and quiet and take your kill only when the time is ripe. The arrow had taken the ratling in the flank instead of the neck and even at seven Cordelia had been ashamed at the mistake, but the lesson of the night had lasted longer than the chagrin. It had been years since the First Prince had held a blade larger than a knife, much less strung and fired one of the sturdy shortbows her people kept for children and the weak, but unlike Margaret Hasenbach – once Papenheim – she’d not been born for the song of steel and strife. These halls, these laws, were the blades she knew how to wield.
And it seemed someone had begun quite the ambitious game, just under her nose.
The thought lingered and spread after she sent out her messengers, summoning to the ancient palace of the Merovins every trustworthy sword and spear she had in Salia. After that release of anger, the venting of frustration, her temper cooled and she began considering the details of this apparent folly. The Holies had called into session the Highest Assembly, which while truly a power they held if only obliquely – the House of Light had the right to present petitions directly to the Assembly on any day of the year, even on days where no session had been called, which meant the act presenting such a petition could turn into functional summons to one – had been used only sparingly since the Liturgical Wars. They had also ordered the arrest of Brother Simon by their own guards, along with consignment to one of the House’s basilicas in the capital. The summons themselves were not an overreach on the surface, though likely in practice, yet the arrest of one of Cordelia’s own spymasters and formal court official was a direct challenge to the office of First Prince. One done in wartime, when she held an absolute majority in the Assembly that could not easily be shaken.
Using Simon of Gorgeault’s arrest and detainment as a pretext to discipline the Holies would not be a popular measure, not when darkness loomed to the north and faith in Above was the last comfort for so many, but neither would it be the stuff riots were made of. Not when Cordelia had paid lips to whisper her preferred telling of the tale in every great tavern and brothel of Salia, which the priests knew well she had. They had, in the past, complained of her savaging of the reputation of Amadis Milenan and his allies through such means by the intermediary of the now-arrested Brother Simon. They would know that so long as sanctions were fair and artfully phrased, she would be able to lay them without much trouble. And that after such lasting conflict she would settle for nothing less than a crippling: confiscation of wealth, grain and lands. Every priest not serving provable purpose in their current position sent to the norther fronts to provide healing and moral succour. Cordelia had been pressing for these measures or milder manners of them for some time now and been denied again and again. There was no true short-term gain the First Prince could think of that would be worth the bleeding she would inflict on them in its wake. That was concerning as it meant, in all likelihood, that the House of Light intended to force her to abdicate.
Agnes would have warned me, Cordelia thought. Though her cousin’s peering eyes had been on the darkness to the north and the madness in Iserre, she would not have missed so glaring an attack. And mentioned it even if it were doomed to failure, which the fair-haired prince was unwilling to believe out of hand. There was always a way to end a reign, even if it was a simple as a knife in unscrupulous hands. And so the deeper game she’d glimpsed began to take shape for while one failing was a mistake and two ineptitude, but three could only be deliberate. Of that sudden awareness Cordelia gave no outwards sign, though assessing her current situation she felt her stomach clench. The Rhenian princess had moved from her solar to the beautiful Gallerie des Hérons after sending out her summons, for the gallery with the great windows overlooked the outer courtyard where her trusted soldiers would be coming to gather. It was large enough to accommodate an assembly of captains before they set out as well, which she’d been giving instructions in arranging even as she considered the words she’d speak when addressing them. She’d had servants fetching tablecloths and refreshments to make the entire affair seem less of a hasty arrangement, but the great gallery was rather empty of other company.
The First Prince idly strode towards the great open glass window, a time-worn but still powerful enchantment on the windowsill keeping out most of the wind and cold from winter’s last gasps. Cordelia pretended to enjoy the view, though in truth she’d been gazing to see if any of her Lycaonese soldiers had come. They had not, and the soldiers in the courtyard below were all in the livery of Salia itself – which meant they were little more than city guard, and of suspect loyalty. Half a step had her body angled so she could study the gallery through its reflection on the glass, as she casually set a hand on the lukewarm windowsill and allowed fatigue she truly felt to reach her face. Eight, nine, ten servants in the hall. All with an Alamans look to them, none that she’d brought with her from Rhenia. Louis of Sartrons had departed some time ago to reach out to any Circle of Thorns agents in the capital, yet the second of her three spymasters had remained at her side. Balthazar the Bastard had taken being so surprised by the Holies poorly and been in constant conference with some of his spies since. He offered fresh reports to Cordelia regularly, having early on found out where Brother Simon was being held and confirmed that ever current sitter of the Assembly had been sent for by the House of Light.
Even as the First Prince watched, a woman in rough fantassin leathers was allowed in by the guards guarding the southern entry to the gallery and made her way to where the head of the Sliver Letters was seated to whisper in his ear. The ferocious-looking spymaster heard her out, replied in a low tone and sent her off. Cordelia looked away before her scrutiny could be noticed, instead assessing the guards surrounding her. Eight at the southern and northern entrances, all in Salian livery. There were another three discreet doors in the gallery, from what the tall blonde could recall, though through the glass reflection she could only see two. Servant entrances for two of the three, and the last would lead to a privy room for guests too inebriated to stray far to relieve themselves when feasts where held in this gallery. She knew which of the three was the first servant door – one of the maids she had sent for cloths mere moments had left through it – yet did not know the other two, which meant attempting to leave through one risky. Cordelia knew there would not be two chances to slip the noose, which was why she studied the soldiers assembling below in the courtyard. Near fifty now, still all Salians. Could that many truly have turned their cloak?
Were she trying to isolate the First Prince of Procer within her own palace she would have only moved after ensuring she had enough conspirators to do so, yet there was no telling if her enemies had been forced to move early. Having kept the jaws closing around her hidden so far might mean as much, springing from fear of what she might do were she aware, or it might simply be consequence of a preference for discretion. The odds were better down there, she thought, than with the guards at the entrances. The courtyard must be at least ten feet below, and solid stone. Her blue dress, while not so impractical as to make it impossible for her to move quickly, would still be ungainly. The First Prince of Procer kept herself from stiffening when her spymaster’s recognizably heavy gait was heard before her. She turned to glance at the approaching Balthazar, allowing the faintest hint of impatience to touch her face.
“Your Most Serene Highness,” the black-haired man said. “I’ve news from the city.”
“Speak,” Cordelia invited.
“There have been riots in the streets,” he grimaced. “The priests have claimed that you mean to crown yourself queen and incited the people to violence.”
“Unfortunate,” the First Prince of Procer said. “They will have to be dispersed, by club if not by speech. Best to act promptly before the unrest can spread. How many soldiers have arrived?”
“Two hundred in the palace barracks, and those that can be seen below,” Balthazar said. “I would starkly advise against taking to the street with numbers less than five hundred, Your Highness. Salian riots see stones thrown and knives bared even in times of plenty.”
And there it was, she thought. A feasible reason for her to stay here in this hall, cooling her heels as the city went to the dogs around her and conspirators carried out their coup. Balthazar Serigny was one of them, of that there can be no doubt. The Holies could not have her unseated without a vote in the Highest Assembly, and they could not possibly be so foolish as to expect that such a vote could be won without preparation. The House of Light must have reached out to fence-sitters and the discontent, which the Silver Letters should not have missed given their heavy presence in Salia. And to think that Cordelia herself had ordered them to strengthen their presence, in order to expunge the last of the Eyes of the Empire from the capital. She’d invited the wolf at her table, believing it a hound. At least, the Rhenian thought, the conspirators had failed to secure enough votes to unseat her properly. They would not be resorting to such methods if they could use legitimate ones instead. On the other hand, if she was made prisoner and another candidate for her office presented how many of her allies would truly stay with her? Cordelia’s grip on the Highest Assembly had not been gentle, though she had been careful never to ruffle feathers without good reason. Some would turn, though, she knew. Some already had under her very nose.
“Send for Captain Haas,” she said, making her face imply restrained desire for a frown.
Balthazar would not accede to that, for Andrea Haas was the head of her personal retinue and a hardened killer besides. Cordelia’s heart clenched when she realized that her old compatriot had likely been assassinated as a prelude to the coup, though it could not be certain. Agnes… no, they would not touch Agnes. The Augur was too important a strategic asset for them to hurt even if she was Cordelia’s cousin. I can do nothing for anyone from the bear’s den, the First Prince thought. First I must escape. Balthazar grimaced, as if reluctant, and she gazed at him with polite impatience until he gave answer.
“Captain Haas had been drinking,” the spymaster said. “And is half in a stupor, at the moment. I would send for a priest to sober her, Your Highness, but given the circumstances…”
“As you say,” the First Prince of Procer said. “The entire priesthood is suspect until proven otherwise.”
“I’ll send for the current ranking officer, if you’d like,” Balthazar offered. “A Lieutenant Beringer, I believe.”
So the conspirators had even sunk hooks in one of hers, Cordelia thought with distaste. It could be a hostage had been taken, she considered, but then she would not glorify the stuff her people were made of. They could be just as venal and treacherous as anyone else, and there were some who might say that the way Cordelia Hasenbach had sent no host to bolster the defence of the Lycaonese realms meant she’d betrayed them first. All of her soldiers here had kin who had either fought at Twilight’s Pass or died there. No, their loyalties were no so ironclad as they might have been a year past.
“So long as it does not detract from muster,” she idly said. “It seems the Hellgods have my plans in their eye, tonight.”
“We’ll crush them as soon as we have our forces in order, Your Highness,” Balthazar Serigny said. “It is a matter of an hour at most.”
Cordelia inclined her head by a fraction and then looked back down into the courtyard, a clear if silent dismissal. There were perhaps a hundred soldier now, some of which had noticed her presence. Not a single one wore anything other than a Salian tabard. There was movement in the corner of her eye, and the First Prince almost tensed before she forced herself not to – and then Balthazar nailed the windowsill with a dagger, biting into the wood, just as her fingers clenched against the wood until they paled.
“Always were sharp, weren’t you? For a savage,” the man casually said, and whistled.
Half the servants unsheathed knives, while a pair of guard on the southern entrance and a single one to the north were slain by their comrades without hesitation. One of the maids tried to run for a door, but a thin man in servant’s livery threw a blade without missing a beat and it went through the back of her skull. The others screamed, and obeyed when told to sit on the ground with their hands behind their head.
“It was the lack of a flinch, was is not?” Cordelia calmly asked.
“It’s a good trick, when you’re dealing with a scheming one,” Balthazar grinned. “Anyone would flinch, expect someone thinking they might have a reason not to. What was it that gave us away?”
“Agnes would have warned me,” the First Prince said. “If she did not, it was because someone prevented her from doing so.”
And only the Silver Letters, of all the many possible conspirators in the city, had the means of doing that. They had, in the end, caught the most damning of the weakness in an oracle: a warning meant nothing if it went unheard. It had been four days, since Cordelia last spoke to her cousin. She’d meant to do so, she truly had, yet there was so much to do and if the Augur had an important insight she’d send a messenger to say as much. The servant who were not Silver Letters had all obeyed and knelt, and Cordelia felt her blood turn cold when she saw Balthazar trade a look with one of the assassins.
“No,” she hurried said. “Do not-”
Throats cut the servants dropped to the side, one after another, as they twitched and gurgled the last of their life away. Cordelia did not look away. She had not known their names, not one of them. Yet she would learn them, if she survived, these innocents who had lost their lives because she’d not been quite as clever as she thought she was.
“That was unnecessary,” the First Prince said, voice raw.
The bearded man chortled.
“Going soft, are you?” Balthazar said. “Can’t have witnesses to this, Hasenbach, lest the priests find their scruples after the deed is done and decide to turn on me.”
“So the Holies truly are in revolt,” Cordelia said, forcing calm. “You did not simply suborn some of my people and feed me a lie.”
“Wouldn’t move without them,” the spymaster said. “No, without the righteous sort at my back this would have been mere wickedness.”
The man grinned, revealing crooked teeth.
“This is Above’s work, though, or I’ve been assured,” Balthazar said. “Though the full amnesty was more to my taste than some old fool’s early absolution, I’ll tell no lie.”
Amnesty. And there it was, why she’d kept speaking to this stain of a person even as the blood of innocents spread across the panelled floor. Balthazar Serigny was a gloater, and one who had a particular distaste for his social superiors as well as Lycaonese – though the second came as a surprise to her, truth be told. There’d nary been a hint of it before today. Amnesty over killings within the bounds of the capital could only be extended by the ruler of the principality of Salia, which was however happened to be the First Prince or Princess of Procer. This was, currently, Cordelia herself. The conspirators had therefore a clear successor for her in mind, one that’d gone as far as putting their name to a pardon before the bloody work of dethroning Cordelia had even begun. And there were only a very few people in Procer who could feasibly fill her seat so smoothly. Amadis Milenan might have, before his abdication, and now in his stead Princess Rozala Malanza – who in truth had become a stronger candidate than Amadis had ever been even at the peak of his influence.
Her own uncle, Prince Klaus Papenheim, might also gather such support as the foremost general in the Principate as that realm lay on the brink of destruction. Prince Ariel of Arans might squeak through as a compromise candidate, but the man lacked strong ties outside the eastern Principate. Not the kind of figurehead around which a coup would be birthed, and certainly not when hundreds of thousands of soldiers were marching through eldritch paths into his lands. No, of all these the only practicable candidate was Rozala Malanza. Who, aside from middling talent in scheming, had spent most of the last year on campaign in a principality where scrying was impossible. Which meant either Princess Rozala had hidden her cunning very skillfully, someone of influence was behind her or this was a foreign plot to cripple Procer just as it seemed possible for it to be saved. Cordelia’s heart whispered of Malicia, the old enemy in the East, but the Dead King was conceivable foe as well – though through clandestine intermediaries, for the Rhenian doubted even the lowest of the low would strike bargain with the Hidden Horror directly.
Or, Cordelia grimly thought, they might be fools. They grew scared of what they saw on the horizon, rustled up someone of high enough birth and used them as a figurehead for this ill-advised butchery. That the Holies might truly be so arrogant as to presume they’d be able to force the election of their chosen candidate without any real support seemed unconvincing, but Cordelia Hasenbach was not so conceited as to deny that the measures she’d taken to ensure the survival of Procer might lead others to act against her this dramatically. Out of fear or principle, or perhaps even the heady potion that could be brewed from both together. It did not matter, in the end. Order would be restored, and everyone who’d lent their hand to this utter lunacy made to dance at the end of a rope. Balthazar, sure he had her in hand, moved away from the window.
“Now be a good girl and sit down in a corner, Cordelia,” the spymaster grinned. “You might even make it out of this alive, if you do as you’re told.”
He’d left the knife in the windowsill, she saw. That simplified matters. The blonde princess snatched the dagger’s handle, ripping it clear of the wood. The large bearded man looked at her with a mixture of contempt and amusement. He was a former soldier, a hardened killer and significantly larger than her. There were more than a dozen soldiers and Silver Letters as well, now all casting eyes on her. Uncle Klaus, she thought, would have said something outrageously obscene before baring his sword and attempting to fight his way through. And, brave stubborn old warhorse that he was, he would have died trying.
“I suppose even the runt of the litter will know a little fighting,” Balthazar Serigny laughed. “Go on then, First Prince. Impress me.”
The princess’ cool blue gaze swept the room, burning every face into her mind. Names she might not have, but this would suffice. Patience, sparrow, her mother’s voice rang. Patience and quiet and take your kill only when the time is ripe.
“Before spring comes,” Cordelia Hasenbach calmly said, “I will see you all hang.”
Before they could reply she slashed as her own breast before dropping the dagger. Shallow but long, the wound bled vividly and began soaking her dress. Even as surprise and confusion bloomed across the faces of those looking at her, the First Prince climbed the windowsill and threw herself down into the courtyard. The landing was painful, and she did not suppress her scream as she felt her leg crack.
“Murder,” Cordelia called out to the crowd of soldiers looking at her. “Treason! Serigny tried to assassinate me!”
It was time to find out, she thought, whether Alamans gallantry was an empty boast or not.