“Here’s the only justice I care to bring across the Vales: a sword in a just hand.”
– Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow, the Queen of Blades
The stone hit the man square in the cheek and he screamed in pain as bone broke blood began trickling down. Another few followed, though most were detritus snatched off the street instead of loose pavement. This was the first time Sister Marie ever saw a stoning with her own eyes, though some of the older scriptures did mention the practice in specific circumstances – traitors in Salamans had been dealt with in such a manner, in those ancient days when the Arlesen Confederacy stood and the Gigantes still tried to bring their rebellious escaped slaves to heel on occasion. A case could be made, Sister Marie decided, that in these troubled days a northern in Salia was close enough to a traitor for… this not to be without precedent.
“Please,” the man begged. “I’m not even Lycaonese, it’s a-”
A clump of thrown ice interrupted the man’s words. Was that a tooth Sister Marie had glimpsed? Hard to tell, for the torches cast only wavering light and the screams of the crowd were distracting. Odds were the man truly wasn’t Lycaonese – he’d hardly be the first one with a vaguely northern name to be dragged out of his shop tonight to stand before the judgement of the crowd – but it hardly mattered. The young priestess’ sermon had whipped up a frenzy in the odd hundred Salians who attended her temple regularly, and it was not an easily quelled thing. Brother Rémi, who stood between her and the Holies, had been clear that nothing must be said that would temper the righteous wrath of the people against Princess Hasenbach’s attempt to make herself a queen.
“Procer is no queendom,” Sister Marie screamed, to the approving roar of the crowd, “it is an assembly of the highest in the eyes of the Heavens, and let all tyrants-”
Her eye caught sight of a glinting thing, spinning. She turned in surprise as a dark-skinned man caught a coin with an open palm. The crowd had parted around him without even realizing it, Sister Marie realized. Like a school of small fish around a larger one. Calm eyes found her own, serene in the midst of the screaming chaos. A heartbeat later there was a burn of blinding Light and she felt searing pain going through her skull before she felt nothing at all. Sister Marie’s headless corpse fell to the ground, everything about the neck turned to ash.
“Disperse,” the White Knight evenly told the crowd.
Louis de Satrons found, to his surprise, that he must have missed field work. He did not consider himself a sentimental sort, but there was a strange pleasure to seeing to the necessities by your own hand. Like filing a nail, he thought, or cracking a joint. The man before him the dark room was awake, though the hood on his face had been enough to cow him into stillness for now. Perhaps the Silver Letter agent even believed that by keeping his focus he’d be able to retrace his steps to this particular safehouse. If so, the head of the Circle of Thorns commended him for his dedication. Not that it would help.
“Proceed,” Louis ordered.
The hood was ripped off by one of his helpers, and the unremarkable face of a middle-aged man with luxurious blond curls was revealed. The spy blinked at the sudden restoration of his sight, but found he could not see well: surrounded by glowing magelight orbs, the man was bound sitting in the sole island of light within the interrogation room. Louis’ own presence would be reduced to a voice from the dark until he wished it otherwise.
“You’re making a fucking mistake, whoever you are,” the spy called out.
“My mother,” Louis said, voice dry as dust, “was a huntress of great skill. Stag, boar – even geese and swans in our lands by the shores of Lake Artoise. She insisted I learn, but I never succeeded at sharing her enthusiasm for the affair.”
“They’ll know I’m missing,” the man said, fear beginning to win over anger in his tone.
Few good things ever happened to bound men in dark rooms being told wistful stories.
“If you return me to my people I’ll argue leniency,” the spy tried. “Otherwise they’ll fucking rip you apart, I don’t care how high your birth is. I’m a Silver-”
“Letter,” one of Louis’ helpers completed from behind the prisoner. “We know.”
“Then what do you want?” the prisoner hissed.
“From you?” Louis said. “Nothing you will not give soon enough.”
He slowly rose to his feet, then glanced to the side. There was quite the selection awaiting, for the Circle’s facilities in the city were well-equipped.
“But there is one part of her insistence I thank my mother for, to this day,” Louis de Sartrons mused out loud. “For she was old-fashioned, and demanded I skin and cut my kills myself instead of allowing a servant to do so in my stead.”
His fingers closed around the flensing knife, elegantly inlaid with silver.
“Look, I’m willing to talk,” the spy hastily said. “Just tell me what you want to know and-”
“You know nothing of import,” the helper said. “Your position is that of a bottom-feeder in Balthazar’s band of beasts.”
“Then what is it you want?” the spy desperately said.
“For you to scream loudly enough that it will carry to our other prisoners,” Louis mildly said.
It truly had been kind of Mother, to ensure he would learn young to have a precise hand with a knife. And how to use it, too: there was surprisingly little difference between a stag and a man.
Under the skin, anyway.
“What’s the damned holdup?” Prince Arsene yelled from atop his horse.
Balthazar Serigny supressed a sneer. The man had insisted on coming yet barely left the palace grounds before beginning to complain about every little thing. The tall spymaster discreetly palmed a knife in the long sleeve of his greatcoat and barreled forward on foot, elbowing the soldiers ahead of him so he could reach the front of the column. There was little difficulty in finding out what the trouble was when he’d arrived there, however. The men and women in their way were a ramshackle bunch, a patchwork of different arms and uniforms when they even had either. There was Salian city guard in there, and garrison as well, but others were civilians: many fair-haired and older, Lycaonese veterans who’d dragged themselves awake and into the streets in the name of one of their own. The loyalty Hasenbach still commanded among her kind even after abandoning them to the wolves was outright disturbing. Some youths in elaborate arms and armour, clearly highborn and perhaps even distant royalty, had gallantly gathered as well. They were the loudest by far. Their challenges to the soldiers that were in principle led by Prince Arsene of Bayeux – and in practice by Captain Julien, who Balthazar owned – were both boastful and improbable, as was Alamans custom.
The spymaster was reluctantly impressed by the young woman who baldly asserted she would kill them all with half an icicle, one handed, if they dared to take another step forward.
Still, this was a waste of time and time was his most dangerous foe at the moment. With every passing moment that old fuck Simon had been loose in the capital for longer and the chances he’d found Hasenbach rose. And though Balthazar’s middling esteem for the man had dropped even further when he’d failed to sniff out such a large conspiracy amongst the Holies, there was no denying that the Holy Society had a wide array of friends and hiding holes in the city: if Brother Simon got his hands on the savage, the coup was unlikely to recover from it. Which meant there was no time to humour the fools who’d raised a ramshackle barricade across the street, barring the way to the near three thousand men the conspiracy had gathered to smother any chance of Hasenbach’s escape in the crib. There were a few hundreds at most and would be swept away in moments if it came to blades. The head of the Silver Letters shoved aside one of his own soldiers, who was standing around hesitantly as insults were hurled at her. Fucking Salian garrison, they had no spine and hardly more pride. The former fantassin approached the barricade and raised his voice.
“By order of the Highest Assembly, you are charged to disperse,” Balthazar called out. “You are aiding treason and heresy by standing in our way.”
That saw some hesitating, for both offences he’d named were capital ones and there tended to be generous in doling out death when it came to rooting them out. A hirstute, bearded old man – drunk, by the looks of him, leapt over the barricade with only a long knife in hand.
“Crook,” the man said, Lycaonese accent thick. “Crook and servant of crooks. Hannoven fell for you and now you slide the knife.”
“You will not get another warning,” Balthazar called out, ignoring him in favour of the crowd.
“Lest dawn fail,” the old man screamed, and hundreds roared it out with him.
Fools that they were, they charged out from the barricade. Balthazar hastily retreated, loudly calling for a shield wall to be formed, and the slaughter began.
Francesco grit his teeth and struck again, finally smashing through the wooden shutters. The others let out a whoop of joy and Anselme helped him clear away the broken remains before going through the window. Moments later the other man opened the door from the inside and the lot of them went into the shop, a few looking for any coin that might be kept by the drapier but less ambitious looters simply grabbing every roll of cloth and displayed tapestries they could. It was all a sin, Francesco knew, but virtue did not fill stomachs. That pretty tapestry displaying verses from the Book of All Things might, though, so while ashamed he carefully unhooked it before folding it under his arm. From the ripping sound to his side, not all his fellows had been so delicate in taking it. What waste.
“Drop everything,” a woman’s voice called out. “Or you’ll not leave here alive!”
The drapier herself had come out from the back, he saw when he turned. She was overweight and long past fifty, so the sight of her brandishing a slender duellist’s sword while in a nightdress was more laughable than worrying.
“We’ll take the sword too, thank you,” Alessandra chortled, mocking the woman they were robbing.
It was a hard crowd he ran with these days, but with a crime to his name the city guard ran him off whenever he tried to attend the First Prince’s alms-givings. Who else was he to run with, if he did not want to starve or die of cold out in the streets? Francesco caught a flicker from the corner of his eye and saw a coin spinning up – and though it spun so well and high it should have touched the ceiling instead it vanished. There was some hooded figured leaning against the doorsill behind them all, but Francesco barely noticed for the silhouette that’d spun the coin moved like the wind and then Alessandra’s head was rolling on the floor. The man, for Francesco now saw it was a man, paused to take a look at Anselme before killing him too.
One stroke of his longsword, that was all it took, and as the looters began to flee the stranger repeated the process again and again. A look, a strike, a death. The drapier had pissed herself at the sight, though he could hardly judge her since he’d done the same. The man finally turned to him, tall and dark-skinned and with eyes that Francesco met entirely by accident. Within he saw a spinning coin, silver, one side bearing crossed swords and the other laurels. And then it ceased, and laurels was what he came back to himself and knew this to be a glimpse of madness. The stranger’s sword rested against his neck, and he tapped it lightly with the flat side.
“Amend your ways,” the White Knight said. “While you still can.”
Then he moved to the side and Francesco flinched in anticipation of a changed mind or a cruel game coming at an end, but the man instead took a look at the drapier – who’d fallen on her knees and dropped the sword, trembling in terror.
“You have reason to be afraid,” the stranger coldly said. “They see all.”
There was a flash of light and the drapier’s charred corpse tumbled back, half the face whispering ash. The man took a last glance around before walking out of the charnel yard, the hooded figure following him without a word.
Francesco threw up and nearly choked on the filth, for he was weeping in relief.
“Interesting,” Louis de Sartrons said, washing his hands clean in a water basin.
He dried them with a silk cloth before setting it aside. The full weight of his attention went to the woman at his side and the report she had recited by memory. Promising that she would have such talent for recall without any notes, though Louis was in no position to make an official commendation. If it turned out that the Silver Letters had not been used by a foreign power, then his ordered abductions and torture of their members would be taken a gross overreach of the Circle’s mandate. Should this be the case, he would confess to having abused the resources of the organization out of his deep personal loyalty for Cordelia Hasenbach and take full responsibility. For that fiction to be kept, however, it must appear as if he’d acted on his own unknown to his peers. A commendation on record would rather strike a discordant note.
“It appears that as far back as five months ago the Silver Letters began unearthing Praesi infiltration,” his helper said. “Interrogation of a captured spy yielded information that led them to several safehouses, including two holding scrolls and correspondence. Balthazar Serigny is said to have taken great personal interest in the findings of the second one.”
“And we missed operations of this scale?” Louis frowned. “How?”
“Of all these, only the two Eyes of the Empire in Madame Soucillon’s brothel were known to us. Their capture and death were made to look like criminal activity, however, so they raised no alarms,” the woman replied. “As for the rest, the Silver Letters appear to have found a genuine Praesi spy chain unknown to us.”
That the Bastard had not passed along everything related to the Dread Empire to the Circle of Thorns at first opportunity was impolite, but not outright damning. It could be argued that the Circle’s inability to ferret out the Praesi had voided obligation for the Silver Letters, and this incident in and of itself was not enough to justify the assault on them Louis had ordered. As he had said earlier, however, it was an interesting detail.
“Have every known and suspected Praesi infiltrator in the city looked in on, immediately,” Louis de Satrons finally said. “And it is time we deploy all our… acquisition assets.”
“Sir?” she murmured, sounding surprised.
“Find me someone who had a notion of what was in that correspondence the Bastard took,” the spymaster order. “Neither gentleness nor discretion are any longer a concern in achieving this.”
“Are the firebreaks ready?” Balthazar asked.
The wind had picked up, though by the standards of Salian winter this was still a rather mild night. Though the tall killer knew that decisive action was needed for Hasenbach to be put down, he had no intention of burning down the entire capital. Though Princess Malanza might be grateful for what he’d done, she’d still have to order him killed to appease the mob. Not being a fool, he’d ordered firebreaks to be dug around the high districts and great masses of snow carted up to prevent the fires about to be lit from spreading. It would be enough, most likely. With a little luck it’d even snow later that night or come morning, and even the embers would be put out.
“They are,” Captain Julien agreed. “Are you certain this is wise, sir? Lots of royals have manses in this part of the capital. They might take issue with returning to ashes instead of a nice salon.”
“These are hard times, Julien,” Balthazar mildly said. “And we’ve confirmed that Prince Cordelia has set mages to summoning demons to take back the city somewhere within the districts. The ritual must be disrupted no matter the costs.”
The other man did not believe him the slightest, though he was wise enough to keep silent. In truth, though for those of some learning this was a wild accusation Balthazar had not chosen that particular excuse without reason. Few Procerans knew much of magic and it was well known that Hasenbach had brought some of the magickers back to prominence by founding her Order of the Red Lion. Those with little knowledge of sorcery, which happened to be the overwhelming majority of the Principate, would find it believable enough. As for the learned, they would know well enough not the cross a broadly popular First Princess with great command of the Highest Assembly and the enthusiastic backing of the House of Light.
“So be it,” Captain Julien said, murmuring Gods save us all under his breath.
For all his dithering, he was prompt in having the fires started. Balthazar had ordered they begin with the northmost sections and rake their way down, to flush out Hasenbach if it was possible: it was still best to have her imprisoned instead of dead if possible, though not so such a great extent he’d let an opportunity to put an arrow in her pass. The high districts had sewers, which he had watched by his people, and every way out of them was currently held by soldiers and guards. The noose would not be slipped, not by a woman who was suspected to have a broken leg. The torches hit the oil-soaked bundles of wood and roared out, beginning to spread into the attached manse. As the fire crackled merrily Balthazar the Bastard smiled, for he’d have the savage in chains before dawn even if he had to go street by damned street.
Lieutenant Pauline had been feeling nauseous for near half an hour, now, and emptying her stomach had helped absolutely nothing. She was city guard, she told herself, she wasn’t meant to handle messes like this. There must have been at least two hundred corpses scattered around the street where the ‘authorities’ had clashed with the ‘rebels’, most of them belonging to the poor fuckers who’d gone after garrison soldiers under Julien while armed about as well as your average street tough. The shield wall had scythed through them like wheat, though stubbornly quite a few had kept coming. Some old veterans and garrison men stayed loyalist had tried to get a shield wall of their own going, but Captain Julien had brought archers and there weren’t enough shields on the rebel side to be able to even remotely take an organized volley.
The whole thing had been a massacre, and the smell of it was now lingering in her nose and mouth even when she covered it with cloth and faced wind blowing the other way. Gods, if only she’d not had a taste for poppy brew. If her debts had not been so deep the Silver Letters would never… It mattered not. They were deep as could be, and she owed to the wrong sort of folks. Hasenbach had been a decent enough sort to the people of the capital but not so saintly Pauline would burn down her own life for the First Prince’s sake. Weren’t no saints anywhere in Salia, as far as she could tell, and a woman had to take care of herself when the going got rough. She just wished the stench would go away.
“Stack the bodies together properly,” she yelled through the cloth. “The carts need to be able to pass through the street when they’re carried out. And all of you just standing around, lend a fucking hand would you?”
Only her own guards heeded the instruction, the idling soldiers and fantassins – Silver Letters, most likely – ignoring her outright. Considering they made for half the hundred she’d been left with, it was no surprise this bloody mess was going on forever. Even if the damned carts did finally get here they’d all be stuck waiting until guts and corpses no longer clogged the way. The Bastard ran this coup, looked liked, and he’d not trusted her enough to let her guards handle this alone. Fair enough, but the man could at least have left her with more than godsdamned watchers if she was to have this street cleaned up enough it didn’t look like a butcher’s yard under morning light.
“Half of them,” a man’s voice calmly said, “were hardly even armed.”
Lieutenant Pauline nearly jumped out of her own skin. The man who’d talked was some tall foreign fucker, though well-dressed. Probably one of Balthazar’s, if he’d made it through the other blockades unimpeded. Maybe he’d know when the carts would be coming. There was a hooded woman at his side, the guard then noted, and she could see bits of a mask in the shadows beneath. Yeah, definitely some sort of spies.
“They were armed enough,” Pauline grunted. “And you’re sounding awful judgy for one of theirs, I got to say.”
“I do not judge,” the dark-skinned man refuted. “Though judgement has been passed on you nonetheless.”
“You’re not one of Balthazar’s,” Lieutenant Pauline said, stomach sinking.
“No,” the White Knight said. “Though I expect we shall meet in due time. I shall mark the exculpated, Antigone. For the rest, do as you will.”
The woman cocked her hooded head to the side as the wind suddenly picked up, and the last thing Pauline ever saw as a blade shining like the sun.
“And you are quite certain,” Louis de Sartrons said, “that it concerned the Augur’s limitations?”
“Yes,” the dark-haired prisoner said. “I saw only part of the scroll, but it claimed to contain the Carrion Lord’s own thoughts on the matter.”
And there it was, the trap the Tower had laid. It’d been done cleverly enough, the emaciated spymaster had to admit. If that scroll had been found on the first foray of the Silver Letters, Balthazar would have recognized it for the dangled bait that it was. Instead it’d been a progressive, heady climb for the other spymaster: information extracted that led to more, operations successful but never too easily, until he’d found quite the cache of compromising documents including this particular scroll. Likely Serigny had held some doubts as well, but ultimately decided that not even the Empire was so callous as to sacrifice near a hundred spies and hirelings altogether to simply feed someone information. He never quite had gotten the measure of the Eyes of the Empire, had he? Oh Balthazar had prevented their successes on occasion but there was a reason that the Webweaver’s pawns were for Louis and his peers to deal with and not the Bastard. Clever as Balthazar could be on occasion, he was used to the deceptions of the Ebb and Flow: shifting alliances and secrecy, the labyrinthine procedures and precedents of the Highest Assembly paired with blackmail and the occasional assassination.
And the Tower did use those means, it was true. But the Tower was a cursed beast that swallowed its own tail, there was no gambit too ruthless for it. Worse, after the Scribe and the mysterious Lady Ime had wrested the reins from the hands of their predecessors they had proved to be exquisitely deft hands at the game. Some of the ways the Circle’s agents in Mercantis had been dislodged had been so superbly executed that Louis had been more admiring than angry when reading the reports. Under the tenure of those two, the Eyes of the Empire had become the peer of the Circle of Thorns in every way. He had a great deal of respect for that society, and he’d studied them for decades: this had the telltale marks of a Praesi conspiracy all over it. It was always their preference to fund and empower local turncoats rather than to introduce a plot of their own whenever possible. Under Dread Empress Malicia the Empire had turned again and again its wealth into poison flowing through the veins of the Principate, and this was no different.
Yet when the reports from the other order had had given began to pour in, what had been clear instead became muddled.
“Pardon me,” Louis said. “I don’t believe I heard you correctly.”
“They are killing each other, sir,” the helper said. “It is not a coincidence, we’ve ten separate instances confirmed of known or suspected Imperial agents fighting.”
A factional struggle between the Eyes? It was said that the Black Knight and the Dread Empress had sundered ties, but the Circle had been dubious given the lack of follow-through on either side. It would not be the first time that those two feigned quarrels to draw out foes and slay them. It was not, however, impossible.
“In seven out of ten instances, the party being attacked was trying to start a fire in the city,” the helper recited. “In two out of the seven, magic was used by the attackers. In all ten instances the attackers won and retreated. We have several being followed.”
The mages, Louis thought, were the trouble here. The great advantage of Praes spies was the ability to transmit what they learned by scrying, which greatly complicated ascertaining if a suspect individual was truly in contact with handlers. Which was why the Eyes so carefully guarded the identities of their mages in Procer, often preferring to lose an entire band of spies on the ground rather than endanger that more important component. Two had already been outed tonight, and more might follow. Which meant either this gambit, whatever its meaning, was worth burning them and potentially a very significant potion of the Eyes of the Empire in Salia – if not all of Procer.
Or, he grimly conceded, there truly was factional fighting within the Eyes. Between the Empress and the Carrion Lord, or more practically speaking Lady Ime and the Scribe. The former was said to never leave the Tower, if she even truly existed, but the latter… She was alleged to have been in the heartlands at some point in the past, though the information had been judged unreliable. It was not impossible for her to be in Salia at this very moment. One side was attempting to start fires, another to prevent such actions. It could not be that arson itself was the liability, for given the utter chaos in the capital it’d be nearly impossible to seriously contend that Praes had been responsible for the fires. Not when Balthazar’s band of pawns was happily starting a few without prompting.
“The riots will grow worse, if the fires take hold,” Louis frowned, thinking out loud. “Both those of the First Prince’s partisans and those of the conspirators.”
More specifically the House of Light, who could stir the people to anger like few others. Still, Cordelia Hasenbach was not without friends in Salia and remained popular with the people – in particular soldiers, retired or otherwise, but also artisans and the poor.
“Fighting has begun in earnest between our own people and the Silver Letters,” his helped noted. “As well as the Eyes and the Silver Letters, though that has been infrequent and we believe possibly accidental.”
Louis de Sartrons’ eyes sharpened.
“Where?” he asked. “Where are the Eyes and the Letters clashing?”
The particulars had to be sent for, but the ember of inspiration had struck and slowly he followed the thought to its conclusion. As always, the devil was in the details. One might credibly conjecture that at the moment there were four assemblies of spies in Salia: the Silver Letters, the Circle of Thorns, and what one might venture to term the Praesi arsonists and the Praesi hatchets. The hatchets, as it happened, were the key. Because as descriptions were confirmed it became clear that there were significantly less of them than the arsonists – this was known because some of their executioner crews were sighted several times.
The Praesi arsonists were being clipped away by the hatchets with methodical precision before they could light fires in vulnerable parts of the cities, where it might easily spread. Now, the hatchets did not intervene when Silver Letters and arsonists fought but they themselves had raided several Silver Letters safehouses. Which meant that the Praesi ‘hatchets’ were trying to prevent the ‘arsonists’ from carrying out a plot, while most likely trying to get their hands on some damning piece of evidence. Meanwhile the Silver Letters were being fallen upon from all sides, including the Circle’s more martial assets, while lashing out essentially blindly.
The hatchets were being used to contain and clean up a plot someone had evidently judged ill-advised. Given their small numbers but efficiency and eerily skilled coordination, as well as their precise strikes at Silver Letters safehouses, Louis believed he knew who was heading them. He sent for his coat and arranged for an escort to accompany him back to Les Horizons Lugubres. The other members of the Circle would be long gone, by now, but it was not they he intended to meet.
“Sir,” the helper said as he was led out, “I had a room set aside as you ordered. Who should I let the watchers expect?”
“Oh, you might say she’s an old friend,” Louis de Sartrons smiled, “Though I expect she’ll let herself in.”
The princes were folding, and Balthazar could almost taste the victory in the air.
The last two royals in the city that were not already at the Highest Assembly had sent messengers expressing they would not be setting out to attend, and that they would go accompanied by their retinue given the disorder in the city. They’d ordered that the blockade was to move aside for them and their escort when they arrived, which Balthazar had arrived – so long as only men on foot and by horse came, and every single one was inspected before being allowed to pass. They’d grown desperate now, enough that neither Prince Renato of Salamans nor Prince Ariel of Arans had even brought up that the head of the Silver Letters was torching the district where their own manses stood. They’d recognized it for a lost cause, and they were falling in line. Captain Julien had protested letting the retinues out in the city, but they were less than two thousand in whole so Balthazar had disagreed. They were elite soldiers, true enough, but they could not seize the city with so few. If they took the palace they might be able to hold it against greater numbers, but Balthazar had ordered than only twenty soldiers be let in by prince and any attempt to force entry with more be met with violence.
Given that the conspiracy’s own soldiers were the ones on the right side of walls and gates, at the moment, even if the two princes had struck an unlikely alliance they simply did not have the strength to take the palace with steel. And even if they did, by some miracle, they could not defend it: while it might be true that the servants in the palace had been fond of Hasenbach, and some even protested her seizing, he had Silver Letters among their number that’d open secret ways into the palace if it need be retaken. Watching another manse burn down, the ferocious-looking man waited at the edge of the blaze’s warmth for the latest word out of the palace. By now the Holies and Princess Clotilde ought to have crowned their pet princes, and the decrees could start being passed in earnest. Cordelia Hasenbach’s deposition would likely be the first. The soldiers had begun piling the wood by the walls of another manse, while another detachment briskly inspected the servants and lesser nobles that’d come out of the last before sending them south in small groups, when the messenger did arrive. One of his own Silver Letters, he noticed, Rosalie. Less than pleasant a person, but utterly without scruples and so reliable for all manners of work.
“Have I missed the election of First Princess Rozala Malanza?” Balthazar amusedly asked.
The red-haired woman grimaced.
“You haven’t,” she said. “The Highest Assembly hasn’t even officially convened yet.”
He was, for once, more utterly surprised than furious. For a moment, at least, then fury claimed its due.
“What?” Balthazar hissed. “Are they all drunk? It’s been most of a bell, what could possibly be taking so long?”
“They can’t enter the Chamber of Assembly,” Rosalie said.
He blinked, unsure how to respond to that. Had some enchantment been laid upon the threshold?
“They don’t have the key,” she explained. “There was only one, in the hands of the Master of Orders-”
“One of Hasenbach’s,” Balthazar frowned.
“No one can find him,” Rosalie said. “He must have fled the palace. I have our people looking for him, but he could be anywhere by now.”
In principle that was a blow, as the Highest Assembly could only hold session within the Chamber and any motion passed outside of it would not be binding, but only in principle.
“Are you telling me no one can simply batter down those doors?” the spymaster growled. “Given their age a few good soldiers ought to be enough.”
“Princess Clotilde has refused,” Rosalie darkly said. “And the Holies have agreed. They say it would cast into doubt the legitimacy of Malanza’s ascension to break open the Chamber.”
“Of all the bouts of bloody lunacy,” Balthazar cursed.
He called for a horse, after that, and for Prince Arsene as well. This part of the city was under control, now it seemed they were needed back in the palace. Balthazar Serigny would see this coup succeed even if he had to batter down the fucking doors himself.