Candle to blind
And harp to still.”
– Second of the three so-called ‘Mavian Entreaties
Les Horizons Lugubres was a tavern in the same sense that silk was cloth.
None could lay foot within its glass and stone gardens without first having been vouched for by three patrons, and though the hall’s outside looked rather trivial its insides were a maze of shifting private alcoves: they changed with the sun and the moon, the season and the weather, so that no two hours spent there would be quite the same. The nature of the establishment had made it a favourite of the Circle of Thorns since decades before Louis of Satrons’ tenure at the head of the league began, though it was under his stewardship that the Circle became the hidden proprietors of it. Tonight’s surroundings were the work of a young woman from the principality of Orne, he’d been told, an artist who had one walked the fields of the Red Flowers Vales seeking inspiration. The influence was plain to the eye, though for all the provincial origins it was exquisite to the eye. Redwood tables and sculptures of colours glass – angled so that the moon’s shifting radiance and shadows would mimic the touch of wind on grass – were flanked by panes of green and grey painted in the Bourdonnier manner, with the occasional glinting metal thrown in pêle-mêle to hint at the armour of fallen knights and fantassins. It was all rather appropriate, given the reason the Circle was convening, and the tart Lange red the affair had been paired with by their sommelier lent the hasty proceedings a much-needed touch of civility.
After the last of them arrived and took a seat, being poured their glass by the colleague to their left rather than a servant according to one of the Circle’s more practical traditions, Louis of Sartrons rose to his feet. His glass went up, matched by that of the other twelve men and women in the room, and he cleared his throat.
“To Procer, and Her Most Serene Highness,” he toasted.
His words were politely echoed, and as one they drank before settling into their seats. Louis waited a few moments, tinted light casting red shadows like claws on his skeletal face, before addressing his peers.
“It would appear a coup is underway,” the spymaster said. “As of now the involvement of the Holies of the House of Light and the Silver Letters under Balthazar Serigny have been confirmed. The extent of the conspiracy beyond this is unclear, though a degree of royal involvement is only to be expected.”
At the other end of the table, the comfortably withered Antonie of Bientaillant rapped her knuckles against the table to signify a desire to address the table. Louis acceded to the request with a sight inclination of the head.
“My friends in city guard tell me the conspiracy claims to be acting on the behalf of Princess Rozala Malanza, though they have not made this widely known,” Antonie said.
Bertrand de Gonfallond, sharp-eyed and younger than most in this room, rapped his knuckles but a moment later. Louis paused for a moment longer than necessary before allowing him to speak, an unspoken reminder that lack of courtesy to a fellow patron of the Circle had no excuse.
“Given the prominence of Balthazar Serigny within the coup,” Bertrand said, “we must consider that this was made known to Antonie’s friends on purpose. Balthazar has some knowledge of our laws, as you all know.”
It was not impossible, Louis thought, or in truth even unlikely. The Circle of Thorns served no master but the Principate itself, that was its governing principle and foremost law. Not the First Prince, not the Highest Assembly and certainly not the House of Light. Given that the highest office in Procer was not hereditary, it had been understood by wise minds early in the nation’s history that the Principate’s spies abroad could be beholden to any one family or institution. The Circle must ever be above the fray of schemes within the bounds of Procer, intervening only when there was foreign involvement. If the Circle took sides in the Assembly’s little squabbles, it risked endangering itself and therefore the Principate’s eyes abroad. In truth that vaunted neutrality had been bent, on occasion, but never too far. Those who would have the ambition of playing throne-maker in the Assembly were weeded out early in their tenure with the Circle, long before reaching positions of true influence. Were these years of peace, or even less strenuous a war, an attempt to dethrone Cordelia Hasenbach by another princess would merit no debate. And it was undeniable that even in these… delicate times the only acceptable successor to the First Prince was Rozala Malanza, as no one else had the support or popularity to keep the Principate from falling apart.
Yet Procer had come upon the antechamber of the end times, and now the lines between the foreign and the domestic had blurred. It did not help that the Bastard might be behind what Antonie’s people had learned, as their young colleague had noted. The head of the Silver Letters had learned too much for comfort of their laws and methods during the Great War, and he was in no way above using Princess Malanza’s name as a shield to keep the Circle out of this affair until the dust had settled. To his left another knuckle rapped the table, Alejandra of Cuenera departing from her usual sullen silence to raise her voice.
“It matters not if Seregny attempts to trifle with us,” she said, voice faintly accented. “It is not ours to decided whether Cordelia Hasenbach or Rozala Malanza will rule. It is ours to unearth whether the attempted transition of power is free of the Enemy’s meddling.”
There was a rippling murmur at the table at that, as much in consternation as approbation. Several knuckles rapped, though Louis chose that of Joachim of Essenrer – one of the elders among them, and the sole Lycaonese. The Circle had been careful that there should always be at least one from the northern principalities among them, though recruitment was oft difficult. They could not claim to speak to the interests of Procer without the rearguard of their empire having a voice at their table.
“It will be necessary to carve into the Silver Letters,” Joachim said, voice oddly powerful for a man so old his skin looked paper-thin. “They are the weak link. The House will have everything of import in cloisters and basilicas, but the letter-openers brought in too many for every safehouse to truly be secure.”
Louis hid his amused smirk at the dig at their opposition behind a sip of wine, as many others at the table. Letter-openers, Joachim had mocked them as, for the head of the Circle at the time of their rise to legal employ had mocked the thugs as a ‘confederacy of letter-openers and cutpurses’. There were some who said the name of Silver Letters itself had come from the way their first founders had made much of their wealth opening the correspondence of the wealthy and powerful to extort coin by blackmail. The smirk faded along with the taste of the wine on his palate as Louis de Satrons digested the rest of his colleague had said. It was true but it would also carry consequences unless acted on properly.
“It appears I will have to be led astray by my personal loyalty to Her Highness,” the head of the Circle of Thorns calmly said. “As is our way, I will depart early to allow you to write the denunciation without my presence.”
He paused a moment. Louis supposed he should mayhaps be moved to say more, as if it proved that the Silver Letters or their fellow conspirators had not been induced by a foreign power this would be the last time he addressed the Circle as its leader. Perhaps at all. Yet he had never been particularly prone to such flights of fancy, in truth, and he had known everyone at this table for decades. Theirs was not a profession that allowed for sentiment, and he would not insult their common service to the Principate by looking back upon it with unnecessary nostalgia. Theirs was grim and often foul work, and those who carried it out oft came to grim and foul ends. They had all known that long before earning a seat at this table.
“You know of my endorsement for my successor,” Louis said. “And for the seat my removal would leace empty. As for the rest…”
He rose to his feet once more and raised his glass.
“Let none lay hand on this land,” Louis de Sartrons said.
Glass roses to match his, as one.
“Without bleeding for it,” they replied, every last hard-eyed.
You will be as a circle of thorns set around Procer, their ancient founder Clément Merovins had charged, so that none may lay hand on this land without bleeding for it. If there was rot in the flesh, if the Enemy prowled Salia on this night, then they would rip it out root and stem.
Balthazar had not taken a seat at the table, instead leaning against the wall of the ornate Hall of Herons as he indulged himself by studying those seated.
He’d not known the full breadth of their plot, as was not unusual in such things, yet at this hour of truth the masks had come down when this council had brought out those who wished to form the heart of the coming reign. It was no small company, near a hundred to his count. His Silver Letters and the Holies had formed the heart of the conspiracy so he had known the involvement of near everyone of import, but now the rest of the lot had come slinking into the palace he’d taken for them to gather like maggots on a corpse he found the disparity of those involved to be somewhat troubling. That they’d run thin in matters princely was only to be expected, given that near every royal that remained in Procer was on one of the northern fronts, but a harvest of two was not so trifling a thing: Prince Arsene of Bayeux, one of Amadis’ old hounds now trained to heed Malanza’s hand, had been the easy mark.
He had much to gain from the Princess of Aequitan rising to higher office, as one of her inherited partisans. Princess Cotilde of Aisne had been a surprise when he’d first learned of her, and even now she seemed highly uncomfortable in the company of the others. It was principle that’d turned her against Hasenbach, he gathered. The consolidation of the Highest Assembly into a tame thing had smacked to her of tyranny, and she’d approached the Holies for moral guidance and advice – only to be brought into the fold of the conspiracy instead. There were only two other royals in the city, Renato of Salamans and Ariel of Arans, neither of which had been judged safe enough to invite.
Prince Renato was one of Hasenbach’s loyalists, now more than ever as a war against the League of Free Cities had miraculously spared his lands, and while Prince Ariel was more ambiguous in his allegiances he also had a great many soldiers marching on his lands through these ‘Twilight Ways’. Both had only reluctantly accepted the summons to a session of the Highest Assembly, and immediately begun delaying on actually moving towards the physical assembly until their spies could have better notion of what was taking place. They’d learn little, Balthazar had seen to that. Between the bloody chaos in the streets of Salia and the mysterious deaths of the few captains and officials best known in the right circles to trade whispers for bribes the easiest ways to gather information had been neatly closed.
The true trouble with those two was that now that Hasenbach had made a fool of him and escaped his own damned hands it was quite possible she’d taken refuge in the manse of one of them. Both princes had refused entrance to both the city guard and the House of Light, Prince Renato’s captain of the guard splitting open the head of an overly ambitious city watch officer without batting an eye. Those manses could be taken, the conspirators had the numbers for it, but it’d be hard fighting and neither of the royals part of the coup were willing to agree to it.
The precedent might be dangerous to their kind, after all.
A motion passed in the Highest Assembly could pry open those gates, most likely, but the masquerade there had to be played out first. For all that the conspiracy was currently lacking princes, with a little enthusiasm it could begin the work of making a few. There were candidates on hand, Hasenbach had seen to that when she’d begun her little trick with the restored Guillermont Decree – she’d had men and women of the right blood and birth to serve as successor-candidates for every principality left leaderless by the Princes’ Graveyard. Much like how those who’d plotted to unseat the Lycaonese savage had enjoyed the very refreshments in this hall that Hasenbach had arranged for her own captains, these royal candidates would now be crowned and made the conspiracy’s creatures instead of the First Prince’s.
It would begin soon, for the summons to the Highest Assembly would soon have been sent a full bell ago and when that time was reached the sessions could begin even with the absent. A mere two votes would not be enough to pass anything, of course, but there the Holies had come of some use. While the crowned heads were away from Salia they had left behind assermentés, sworn surrogates who could vote in their stead. By oath these surrogates were to vote only by the will of their prince or princess, yet the House of Light had applied both fear and faith to good effect.
It was the will of the Heavens that certain measures be passed, and to vote even by oathbreaking was sinless. To refuse was to serve the Enemy, whose dark hands had touched the heart of Cordelia Hasenbach and corrupted her body and soul. Those priests could not convince Balthazar had seen to himself, now that the Augur was no longer an issue: hostages, blackmail and naked threats had been enough to secure a narrow majority. He’d have preferred to hold the session without even waiting for the whole bell to pass, but both the royals and the Holies had refused to hear of it. Rozala Malanza’s ascension to holy rule was not to be marred by even the slightest of procedural faults. The former fantassin thought them fools for it, for though they worried of such details being used to overthrow Malanza down the line they were forgetting they first had to get the fucking princess on the throne.
Which he suspected would be harder to achieve than expected, given the discordance of conspirators he was looking at. There were Salians there, officers in the city guard and the garrison as well as bureaucratic officials. Hasenbach’s harsh measures against corruption in the capital had seen kinsmen from most great families in the region lose a sinecure and the assorted income, and as she’d refrained from purging the old guard that’d acted with probity quite a few had nursed private hatreds of the First Prince for years and only now come out to settle them. It’d been Balthazar himself who dug out half of those malcontents, having his fresh flush of agents in the capital find out who had grudges while ostensibly looking for ‘Praesi infiltrators’, yet Prince Arsene and the Holies had stumbled across quite a few themselves.
It’d been the realization of exactly how many enemies Cordelia Hasenbach has made that’d prompted the conspiracy to act, as well as the understanding that the window of opportunity was slight. A coup could not be had while there were foreign armies within marching distance of the capital, and Malanza had been exceedingly clear that she could not be seen to be doing the overthrowing herself: it had to be settled before she arrived in Salia. Still, the Gods had smiled on them when the time came. Some scrivener in the House had unearthed a precedent from the Liturgical Wars about a priestess’ regency in Segovia that’d had one of the holdover faction in the Holies swing over into the camp preaching direct action, swinging the House of Light’s influence entirely behind the coup just in time.
Some agents of Prince Arsene had caught sight of the priests moving guards into the city and the Prince of Bayeux had tentatively reached out to the Holies, adding the weight of his own growing conspiracy to their own. It’d all fallen into place, just before the last chance any of them would have for years if ever, and so Balthazar had set aside his own wariness of Princess Rozala in favour of backing the coup to the hilt. Never again would he have such an opportunity and Balthazar Serigny would not let that fucking murdering savage rule one moment longer than he had to. Not when his own sister had never even gotten a grave in Brus, just gotten thrown into a mass grave with the rest of the fantassins by the northern butchers.
He might have suffered through that, in truth, even if that’d been the day where he’d thrown his support entirely behind Princess Constance of Aisne. But Salieri getting an arrow in the back for coming too close of the Neustrian camp after dark? Balthazar considered himself a callous man and did so with some pride. Callouses were what grew from rough use, honest use, and though poets and highborn could afford sentiment the likes of him found just as costly as any other luxury. Yet even for him, a sister and a husband was too much. It’d been like poison in his veins every time he looked at Hasenbach, the knowledge that if she’d just stayed in her fucking frozen wasteland like Lycaonese were meant to then someone proper could have put an end to the Great War and the only two people he’d ever slightly cared about would still be alive.
And he could do nothing, for even intent would be smelled out by Hasenbach’s pet oracle Chosen. So he’d smiled and served and waited, even as she made plain she meant to replace him with some twit from Lyonis. He’d kept it all inside him and placed men and women he owed in useful places because one day, one day, there would be an opening. And it had come, hadn’t it? Because there truly had been Eyes of the Empire in the Salia, and his people had caught them along with their papers – including a dated suggestion of how to arrange the murder of the First Prince, mentioning the Carrion Lord’s own theories of how the powers of the Augur worked.
Given that the eastern monster had run a merry chase around the heartlans while making a fool of every force in the west until the Peregrine caught him by surprise, Balthazar had read those ‘theories’ with great interest. And, upon deciding they were reasonable, finally reached out to the Holies afterwards, to… lend a hand, and perhaps a few suggestions. Not that they’d ever trusted him, which was admittedly not unwise of them. Seven priests from the very upper ranks of the Holies were in attendance now, representing the House of Light along with their swarm of lesser priest attendants. The priests had been scheming for longer than any of them, as it turned out. Balthazar had seen some of their correspondence with Malanza, and while it’d begun innocently enough also it’d begun months ago and grown increasingly treasonous as it went.
The Princess of Aequitan had struck gold when she’d raised the notion of restoring the House’s seat in the Highest Assembly, by his reckoning. That’d been enough to move the ambitious to begin convincing the not, and after that it’d only been a matter of time until enough priests fell on her side. I’d been bold of her to use the royal seal of Aequitan on some of the correspondence, though Balthazar had noted she’d been clever enough to do so only on those letters which were seemingly innocent. Not all had been penned by her, for perhaps a third were identical to the samples of former prince Louis Rohanon’s handwriting the Silver Letters had in their possession. Yet given how deep the once-ruler of Creusens was known to be in her councils that was not unexpected, if surprisingly trusting of her. It might be that Rohanon was to be her formal consort after her election.
It was unfortunate that the situation in Iserre had made it impossible to send someone directly in the army camp – Sophie of Lyonis was watching Malanza like a hawk for exactly such a thing – but it had been observed by his agents that the letters were in fact coming from the heart of the coalition army. He’d even intercepted one, and used it as an introduction to begin his own private correspondence with the princess. That’d been the last confirmation needed for Balthazar, as while someone else might be willing to offer him an empty pardon there was no one else who should be interested in very obliquely suggesting that Rozala Malanza’s younger brother and rival claimant, at court here in Salia, should perhaps meet with an unfortunate accident in the chaos of the events to come. She likely had her own agents to arrange such a thing, Balthazar knew, so he’d taken the request for what it was: an extension of trust to bring him more fully into her camp.
It would be a pleasure to work with a woman such a deft hand at the Ebb and Flow, especially one who had the foresight to hide it unlike so many of her peers.
“- and so the House of Light had begun to debate whether the actions of Simon of Gorgeault have made him graceless, as the known murderer of lay brothers of the House.”
The spymaster’s eyes snapped up at the old man who’d been speaking, of the Holies from the south.
“A clarification,” Balthazar the Bastard said. “Was Brother Simon harmed before being returned to confinement?”
Gods, let them not have bled the old man. Balthazar was not particularly fond of him, but the Holy Society had friends in many high places and if they began whining about their leader being harmed during the coup there’d be an outrage. The Arlesite priest purpled at being questioned in such a manner, but there was no one in this hall who did not know who Balthazar Serigny was now – or why crossing him would be a costly mistake.
“He was not,” the Holy said.
Balthazar’s brow rose in surprise. Gorgeault was long past his prime, but it was known in some circles he’d had quite the adventurous youth. He would not have gone quietly.
“He was not harmed at all?” the spymaster pressed.
The priest spoke through gritted teeth.
“He was not returned to confinement, cutthroat,” the Holy reluctantly said. “He escaped.”
Oh. Oh, those fucking fools. Did they not realize how that changed things? Balthazar, much as it burned to admit it, had blundered when he’d failed to seize Hasenbach more forcefully. But now the Silver Letters were out in force, every priest in the city was keeping an eye out for her and the manses of her supporters were under constant watch. It was known she’d fled into the high districts after making it out of the palace, and those had been closed down by guards and garrison so it was a certainty she was still in there. If she was in anywhere but the manses, it was only a matter of time before she was found. If she was in one of the manses, she could only wait helplessly there. It was still a dangerous situation, given the cunning of their quarry, but one that could be salvaged: especially if the Highest Assembly came through. But now Gorgeault would be out in the streets, and all his little friends and their little hiding places that no one else knew about would be opened to Hasenbach the fucking moment the other spy found her. Which he would, because for an old sack of bones he was sharp as goblin steel.
“Serigny,” Prince Arsene said, voice cutting through the room and demanding silence by simple virtues of his station. “What troubles you?”
“It troubles me that our friends in the cloth have let slip one of the few individuals capable pf smuggling Cordelia Hasenbach out of the capital,” the head of the Silver Letter flatly said.
The silence that fell was deafening.
“That cannot be allowed,” another of the Holies said. “She is to stand judgement before the Heavens and the Highest Assembly.”
“Shall either bother themselves to fetch her?” Balthazar cuttingly replied.
Anger from the priests, which like most of them was growing rather tiresome.
“Enough,” Prince Arsene yelled, and when heeded lowered his voice. “You have a suggestion to make, I take it?”
“I’ll need at least two thousand men,” the spymaster said. “Retinues, city guard or garrison it matters not so long as they are steady and will obey orders.”
“And what will they be ordered?” a Salian captain suspiciously asked.
“We know what part of the city Hasenbach has fled into, and we’ve sealed it off,” Balthazar Serigny evenly said. “Yet I have received fresh information that, in her despair, the Wicked Prince has struck a bargain with Below and is now attempting to bring forth demons into the city.”
There was a pause.
“For the sake of Salia,” the Bastard smiled, “we shall have to burn her out.”
Wearing heavy cloaks, in deference to the last winter chill and not any great need for discretion, two tall silhouettes strode within the southernmost gate of Salia. The Witch of the Woods frowned, smelling blood and smoke, and inclined her head to the side questioningly.
“Order must be restored,” the White Knight calmly agreed.