Bone to wind
And mirror to fill.”
-Third of the three so-called ‘Mavian Entreaties’
Louis de Sartrons had been speculating to himself as to how long he would have to wait before his guest arrived and had ultimately settled for ‘less than an hour’. Which, given the sheer bloody chaos in the city and the difficulty to move around the streets – and so have information carried through them – he’d felt was generous of him. Which was why his face went blank when he entered the private alcove at Les Horizons Lugubres and he found someone already seated a the table.
“You are late,” the Scribe said, her Chantant flawless.
The head of the Circle of Thorns, for the first time laying eyes on a woman he’d crossed blades and wits with across half of Calernia, immediately tried to commit her appearance to memory. Obtaining a description of the Webweaver had so far proved impossible, but now he saw that she was –
– and ink-stained hands. Louis was debating how to pass the knowledge to one of his helpers as soon as possible when he realized he had nothing to pass. The moment his eyes left the Scribe he knew nothing of her: height, colour of the eyes, even if her hair was long or short. He knew not whether her skin was dark or pale, or indeed anything at all save that she had ink-stained hands. Fuck, Louis thought, made unusually vulgar by the depths of his irritation.
“I would apologize, but I see you helped yourself to the wine,” the spymaster replied.
Two cups had been filled, hers already touched, and though he had no intention of putting his mouth anywhere near something the Webweaver had poured he accepted the delicate crystal glass when she offered it. He settled into his seat, the two of them surrounded by swirling panels of bottle-green glass and hanging stone lanterns that seemed to transmute all of Creation in jade.
“Shall I begin by reminding you that your presence in Salia uninvited is an act of war when truce has been declared?” Louis mused.
“Then it is for the best I am not here,” the Scribe replied. “Given the seriousness of the situation, shall we dispense with the preliminaries?”
Louis felt rather cheated that after all these years of wanting to meet one of his few peers in the trade he’d have to set aside the games of their kind, but he had to admit there was little time to spare. Despite what appeared to be the Webweaver’s best efforts, Salia was on fire. Several of them, in fact.
“It would be judicious of us,” the thin man conceded. “It appears that you are looking for something, my friend.”
He’d been told the Eyes – or at least the faction among them not attempting to set the city increasingly more on fire – had hit yet another warehouse of the Silver Letters while taking a carriage to the Horizons. Whatever it was that Scribe was seeking, she was seeking it urgently.
“I am,” the Scribe said. “Two things, as a matter of fact. I will require your aid in finding them.”
Brother Simon watched the man drop, bleeding from the throat, and fall into the filth of the sewers.
Age was catching up to him, after his exertions in leaving behind the hospitality of the Holies, so he’d gone and rounded up a few friends. They had, in turn, sent for friends of theirs. One of the several results of that unfolding awareness had been Simon of Gorgeault’s presence in the sewers of the high districts, under the escort of thirty well-armed fantassins. The friendly young woman who’d just snuck up to the Silver Letter who’d failed to hear them approach and decisively dispatched him sheathed her short sword then waved the others forward.
The lay brother cast a lingering look at the corpse floating on the surface of the river of excrement and trash, grimly thinking that with the amount of corpses his band had sown tonight the rats down here would be rather well-fed. He’d been breathing from his nose from the moment his escorts had ripped open the grid over the river of filth flowing into the muddy fields of the Petite Oblique – better known as Constant’s Arse by Salians, as the drop into the Old River and rain-channels meant many threw their waste there for it to be washed away – and been grateful for the hurried pace into the sewers proper.
There’d been precious little crawling, for which he was thoughtful, for later in the underground tunnels the wealthy and highborn of Salia had built the sewers at near a man’s height so that whenever blockage was had it could be dealt with promptly and not stink up their beautiful manses should the wind grow capricious. Balthazar was not a fool, so the Silver Letters were keeping watch in the tunnels, but a quick and heavily armed group could tear through such a cordon if it struck without hesitation. They’d met with success so far, though Brother Simon had silently tempered the victories with the knowledge that it was only a matter of time until a corpse was found.
And the moment one was, the Silver Letters would come down here in force. Perhaps even with garrison soldiers, which given their better arms and armour would be even more troublesome to deal with. No, while his group had been able to enter the high districts by the sewers but leaving through them would be another story entirely. As it happened Simon had some notion, though the risks would not be small. Yet there must be a part of the district where the blaze was weaker, and given enough wet blankets and snow… It had better chances of success than assault, anyhow, given the numbers the conspirators had surrounded the districts with.
“Here,” a voice whispered.
Simon followed the gesture with his eyes and found indentations in the wall, with rusting iron grips above them. A makeshift ladder to return above, thank the Gods.
“Where will we be?” the old man asked.
“Maybe a street away from Prince Renato’s manse,” the same fantassin who’d been guiding them through the sewer said. “Can’t be sure if there’ll be people, so we have to move fast.”
It was agreed upon in murmurs, and one of the fantassins took the lead in climbing up. A heavy wooden trapdoor barded in steel was opened and lowered as quietly as possible and they all fled upwards one after another. The night wind was a blessing after the stink of below, Simon thought, even though it carried the scent of burning in the distance. There were soldiers in the distance to the side, piling up wood, but they were busy with their work and did not look their way. The infiltrators hurried regardless, closing the trapdoor as quick as they could and fleeing for the shadows. They were hailed the moment they arrived in sight of the walls of the Prince of Salamans, and even earlier than Brother Simon had believed they would be: Renato’s retinue was out in the streets in great numbers, as if preparing to leave.
Simon was not unknown to the prince himself, though none of the officers among the soldiers knew him by sight, yet the lingering stink of his travels by sewer earned him some consideration when he claimed to be at odds with the conspirators. The head of the Holy Society had attempted to have the Prince of Salamans warned that he would be coming, but the messengers must have been waylaid for he was unexpected. Prince Renato himself was having his horse saddled when Simon was brought to him in the outer courtyard.
“Brother Simon,” the moustachioed Arlesite said. “I am told that the Holy Society has been protesting this lunacy.”
“It did even when I was still prisoner of the House of Light, Your Grace,” Simon agreed. “I am pleased to see you of a like mind.”
“There will be a reckoning for tonight,” Prince Renato warned. “One way or another.”
The lay brother mutedly nodded.
“I may have a method to smuggle Her Most Serene Highness out of the districts, if I may be allowed to speak with her,” Simon said.
The Arlesite prince’s face flickered with surprise.
“You do not know, then,” Renato said. “She is not here, Brother Simon. It was a ruse.”
Before Simon could ask where the First Prince had then gone, genuinely bemused, both of them turned when soldiers in the courtyard began to yell in surprise. The lay brother swallowed drily, when he saw what appeared to be an entire manse rise high in the night sky before being suddenly smashed downwards to a chorus of screams.
That, Simon of Gorgeault thought, rather changed things.
“It would be easier to look if I knew what to send my colleagues looking for,” Louis mildly said.
He’d promised nothing, not that his word given in such a situation would be of any worth at all. His duty was to Procer and Procer alone. Everything else was noise.
“The first is correspondence taken from one of the Empire’s safehouses,” she said. “It includes an entirely academic exercise by the Black Knight as to how one might arrange the assassination of Cordelia Hasenbach past of the vigilance of the Augur.”
Academic, was it? Louis knew of no less than twelve plots aimed at the murder of the First Prince since her coronation that could be traced back to either the woman in front of him or the black-cloaked devil she answered to. They’d been thwarted in part by the Circle, in part by Agnes Hasenbach’s unerring guidance and in part by the quality of guards Cordelia Hasenbach surrounded herself with. The only surprise here was that, if the Scribe was so desperately seeking to get her hands on the scroll that’d entice Balthazar into treason, it might genuinely be the Carrion Lord’s own words. It was a feasible explanation for why she might be trying so hard to find it: the revelation would be damaging to her master.
Or, his naturally suspicious mind whispered, after planting that ruinous seed the Scribe was now attempting to remove the evidence. Yet she had revealed that scroll’s existence to him while she must be uncertain of whether he knew of it or not, which meant whatever drove her was urgent enough she was willing to take the risk that the Circle would take the correspondence itself. Or that she infiltrated the Circle deeply enough she already knew of our awareness, he mused. In which case she is building credibility for a later lie. Ah, but he’d not felt this vital in in decades. It was like a stiff tonic dragging him back to the days of his youth, when the burning in his bones had not yet calmed. It was quite exhilarating, to want to crush someone so very utterly as he did the Scribe.
“As for the second, it is stolen imperial property currently held in a Silver Letters warehouse,” the Webweaver said. “Which is why you will help me, Louis de Sartrons.”
“There can be no legal theft of Praesi property while in a state of war with the Dread Empire,” Louis noted. “And that is a bold claim besides.”
“Also an accurate one,” the Scribe said. “For after the legionary detachment accompanying the Carrion Lord onto Lake Artoise by barge was wiped out, the boats were brought back to shore. And the Silver Letters had hired hands there, ready to claim first pick of what lay in the holds.”
The old spymaster forced himself to recall what he knew of the force that’d been found dead to the last on the barges, allegedly through some terrible miracle of the Grey Pilgrim’s. Numbers had been moderate, the only officer of note had been the veteran from the Conquest known as Marshal Ranker – Ranker, yes. A goblin.
“Goblin munitions,” Louis said with feigned serenity. “They seized goblin munitions.”
“The Silver Letters have been contracting alchemists in attempts to divine the recipe for our traditional munitions,” the Scribe agreed. “They have also brought into the city what I estimate to be three full cart’s worth of goblinfire.”
Prince Renato brought only a small escort when they sallied out, all mounted, and provided a mount for Simon as well. There was no point in bringing great strength, for they’d seen rise in the sky how such would be answered. No, best to flee if things went badly and for that horses and few soldiers were best. Brother Simon felt almost guilty of such wariness against what could only be one of the Chosen but not all such souls were kindly ones, much less kindly hands. The Regicide had famously held no compunctions in tearing through whoever stood in her way when she pursued a quarry and the lay brother had heard… troubling things about the Grey Pilgrim. Long before the man became involved with the Black Queen, too. The ten riders went down the street at a brisk trot, finding a graveyard of broken stone and corpses among which two silhouettes stood. One turned towards them, masked and cloaked in green, while the other spoke to a kneeling man. Simon spurred his mount onwards, casting his voice loudly.
“Hail, Chosen,” the lay brother said.
The hero who’d been speaking with a soldier glanced back, revealing dark skin to the torchlight, and Simon was thus able to name him: this would be the Ashuran hero that had been summoned by the First Prince, the White Knight. Whispered, among some priestly circles, to be in the service of the Choir of Judgement. The Chosen look back at the kneeling soldier, and before Simon could so much as speak another word the kneeling man’s head was rolling among the stones. Some of the soldiers behind him breathed in sharply at the sight, either shocked or afraid.
“You are not of these Silver Letters,” the other Chosen stated, her voice a woman’s. “Who then are you?”
There was something about the words that had Simon’s mind askew. Almost like the heroine had not been speaking Chantant, though obviously she had been.
“I am Brother Simon of Gorgeault, from the Holy Society,” the diplomat introduced himself.
“Prince Renato of Salamans,” the prince introduced himself, leading his mount to stand by Simon’s.
Brave man, the prince. Arlesites often were, though they had a way of turning that virtue into a vice.
“I am the Witch of the Woods,” the heroine said. “He is the White Knight. We seek the man called Balthazar Serigny. Do you know where he is?”
The White Knight turned to look at them, eyes utterly serene even as his sword dripped blood.
“We are here for a reason, Antigone,” the Ashuran said, almost chidingly. “To meet them, perhaps. Do you know where the First Prince is being held?”
“She has freed herself from the trap of the traitors,” Prince Renato said. “Have you then come to support her cause?”
“There is no cause,” the White Knight said. “She is the First Prince, that is fact. What more need be said?”
“Then you must help us,” Brother Simon says. “For my colleagues will have gathered every sword they can from the city guard and the garrison, every loyal man and woman in the city, but even with the help of loyal princes and the retinues we will find it hard to take the palace.”
“See?” the White Knight smiled, glancing at his comrade. “Always a reason.”
Oh, Louis thought, those utter fools. Like no one had ever tried to piece together the goblin’s recipes. The Stygian Magisterium was said to have spent a fortune in repeated failed attempts, the Thalassocracy had a standing reward for any goblin munitions in any state and even the First Prince herself had briefly tried to have alchemists reproduce the ones known as ‘sharpers’ before admitting that whatever the process involved was the Principate simply did not have the sorcerous know-how to match it. And now a significant portion of the Eyes of the Empire was going around the city setting fires, when they should be well aware that all it’d take was a single drop touching flame and… and the city would burn green. As was the telltale mark of the Black Queen bringing her enemies to heel.
“Malicia wants to sink the Liesse Accords,” Louis said. “Yet you are attempting to protect them. Why?”
“Because I have been ordered to,” the Scribe replied.
Her closeness to the Black Knight was well-documented, true enough, and with the lifting of the veil over Iserre it had become possible to scry again days ago. All it would have taken was a face-to-face conversation with the Carrion Lord and the matter would have been settled. Of course, that much implied she had already been in Salia. That she had been here and that the Eyes of the Empire in the service of Lady Ime instead of herself had somehow succeeded at fomenting such schemes without her knowledge. Which was, in a word, absurd. The strife between Praesi spies was too recent, Louis decided. And though he dared not underestimate the Eyes of the Empire, neither would he overestimate them: the way Balthazar Serigny had been played, and likely other conspirators as well, was beyond the reach of most Praesi spies.
“It was your scheme, wasn’t it?” Louis de Sartrons suddenly said. “All of this was plotted in concert with the Tower. And then the Carrion Lord pulled your leash.”
The bones of the aftermath of the initial plot might have taken were still there. Cordelia Hasenbach dead, the House of Light irreparably discredited by the fire and the coup, Rozala Malanza crowned First Princess but illegitimately so in the eyes of most. Large swaths of the Principate would outright rebel, and even if the Dead King was beaten back there would be no keeping the Lycaonese in Procer after this. They’d fight bitterly to secede and many of Prince Cordelia’s steadiest allies with them. Either Keter devoured us whole or we’d collapse in the wake of our survival, Louis thought half-admiringly. And with the House perhaps purged and inevitably disgraced, there would be no one left to mediate between the combatants. It’d been a very comprehensive scheme. Terrifyingly so. Until part of the schemers had turned against it, anyway.
“If that were the case, such a plan would have been made when Lord Black was held prisoner by heroes,” the Scribe said.
“You need our help,” the spymaster smiled. “To find those munitions before half the capital burns green and your master ends up being held responsible.”
“You need my help,” the Scribe replied, “before half your capital burns green and hundreds of thousands die.”
“It will cost you,” Louis de Sartrons nonchalantly said.
Her eyes narrowed, but she answered through gritted teeth. Resigned. Oh, this was delicious turn indeed.
“What do you want?” she asked.
Praes had attempted to lay hand on Procer, Louis mused with a thin smile. As the charge of the Circle of Thorns ordered, it was time for the Dread Empire to bleed for presumption.
Balthazar felt his face turn ashen. His mind stalled, for a moment, in utter surprise and dismay. He nodded at Rosalie in acknowledgement afterwards, who once more this might had been appointed the carrier of ill news. This time, though, much worse than the last.
“You would do well to listen for once in your misbegotten life, you jumped-up fantassin,” Brother Bertran sneered, Arlesite accent thick. “If you expect to keep your station after Princess Rozala’s election you should learn-”
“Shut your fucking mouth, priest,” Balthazar the Bastard said, voice gone flat. “The rest of you, listen to me closely.”
There was a ripple of surprise among the crowd. They’d agreed to speak with him when he’d insisted that the damned door to the Highest Assembly needed to be battered down because of his prominence within the conspiracy, but none of these were used to being spoken to in such a manner.
“You dare speak-” Brother Betran began.
Balthazar glanced at one of his men and the priest’s nose broke with a wet crunch a heartbeat later. A sheath weighed quite a bit, especially with the sword still in it.
“If we do not enter the Highest Assembly and depose Hasenbach within the hour, everyone here is dead,” the large spymaster calmly said. “The princes of Salamans and Arans broke through the encirclement of the high districts and gathered a crowd of armed malcontents. They’re coming for the palace.”
“We have the run of the palace, Serigny,” Princess Clotilde replied. “We’ve retinues of our own and loyalists, as well as the walls. We could hold ten times our number, and I’ve doubts they have gathered such.”
“If that was all they had, I’d hardly care,” Balthazar grunted. “We could break them all at once. But there are two Chosen with them – the White Knight and the Witch of the Woods.”
“This is good news, Serigny,” Sister Adelie dismissed. “We need only send an envoy and they will come to our side, perhaps even bearing Hasenbach herself. She is a heretic.”
“The two of them have killed somewhere around three hundred people since they’ve entered the city, best my people can tell,” Balthazar said. “At least a dozen were priests. They are coming for our heads, ladies and gentlemen, not to lend a hand.”
A great deal of consternation ensued. The Holies, in particular, remained unconvinced that the Chosen would not embrace their cause. Amusingly enough there was talk of Hasenbach having seduced the White Knight, or the Witch of the Woods, or both as well as the less salacious talk that she might have lied to them so they would misunderstand the situation. One even suggested they were in truth Damned and not Chosen, though there were few takers. The more practical suggested envoys be sent to the Chosen regardless, to ‘clarify the situation’ to which Balthazar agreed mostly so they’d cease their shrill whining. Fear, though, finally got the lot of them moving. They all knew that so long as Hasenbach was the First Prince, they were all rebels. Deposition followed by an election, even a hasty and dubious one, would change the situation. The White Knight was said to be a scrupulous observer of the law, when there was law to be had, and even a parchment hat was better than none at all when it was raining outside. Their soldiers and guards were sent to hold the fortifications around the palace, key parts of the inside carefully garrisoned as well, and then they finally marched on the Chamber of Assembly. A strange procession of priests, highborn and spies. Only four soldiers, enough to carry a large bench that they immediately began ramming into the ancient doors. Once, twice, thrice and then the doors opened. Seated on the tall seat of her office, flanked by soldiers and the bearded Master of Orders, the First Prince of Procer awaited them all in the full and resplendent regalia of her rank.
“Hasenbach,” Balthazar snarled. “Why are you here?”
“The Highest Assembly is in session, traitor,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, face a mask of frigid contempt. “Where else would I be?”