“There are some who will, for what was writ in this volume, call me traitor. Name me a hater of all that we are. But it is untrue. I weep at what we are for I see what we could be, what we tried to be until we lost our way: an empire unlike any other, where the law is just and measured and rule belongs not to one but many. It is not hatred of the patient, to despise the disease.”
– Extract from the conclusion ‘The Ruin of Empire, or, a Call to Reform of the Highest Assembly’, by Princess Eliza of Salamans
Agnes still missed the tall peaks and blue skies of Rhenia, but sometimes in this particular garden it felt like she had never left. It was the bareness of it, she supposed. The palace was filled with gardens each competing to be more ornate and opulent than the last, and this one had lost the contest. A handful of bare trees, a broken headless statue of a man Cordelia insisted was First Prince Clothor Merovins, and two roughly uncomfortable stone benches. Agnes Hasenbach liked the one by the statue best, for she could glimpse the skies while enjoying the familiar sensation of being surrounded by the tall walls of the open courtyard.
The traitor-guards owned by Balthazar Serigny had allowed her to return to the garden from her rooms, and even allowed her some illusion of privacy: though every way in and out was heavily guarded, within she had been left alone. It would change nothing, of course. Not with her. The sky told her the hour was near – hunter ascendant, the hound’s eye waning – but not quite there yet. And so the Augur tread softly on the snow to the bottom of a dying tree and bent to pick up a thin and long branch. She returned to sit on her bench and, leaning forward, began to trace signs in the snow.
Iron. Rope. Candle. Harp. Bone. Mirror.
And as she finished the last stroke on the old symbol some called the verdant mirror, she came. Leaning forward as well from her seat, the Wandering Bard gazed at the signs in the snow.
“That old Mavii trick?” the Bard chuckled. “Gods, it’s been ages.”
And so, Agnes Hasenbach thought, it begins.
Balthazar drew his sword before the savage was even finished speaking. Surprise gave way to rage at having been made sport of in such a manner: she’d never even left the palace, had she? Some servants must have hidden her in their quarters while the soldiers who’d save her ran off towards the high districts carrying some other blonde woman in her clothes. His Silver Letters dropped the bench they’d been meaning to use as a ram and reached for their own blades even as the tall spy suppressed a grimace. He had four of his own and he was fair hand with a blade himself, but Hasenbach had a fully twenty soldiers spread out in the Chamber of Assembly – all of them Salian garrison, from their tabard.
Prince Arsene of Bayeux did know his way around a sword, from what Balthazar remembered, but the Princess of Aisne would be dead weight in the fight. The priests even worse, though some might serve as healers at least, and damn Hasenbach but even though the amount of sworn delegates and royal candidates with his group meant they outnumbered her significantly few of those would be willing to draw a blade on the First Prince even if they had one, or knew how to wield it. One of the Holies – Sister Adelie, he recognized – strode forward bold as you please even as the soldiers unsheathed their own swords in response to his people.
“Cordelia Hasenbach, Prince of Rhenia, you stand accused of heresy,” Sister Adelie announced, voice echoing across the chamber. “All of you, throw down your swords and-”
“The House of Light has not yet been given leave to speak,” the Master of Orders cut through. “Be silent or be removed from this Chamber.”
“Rosalie,” Balthazar spoke softly without turning, eye on the enemy soldiers even as the priests began blustering. “Fetch reinforcements. Now. At least sixty, we may need to force the room.”
His agent whispered assent and she began a slow retreat, though she’d break into a run the moment she passed the corner. Cordelia Hasenbach’s blue eyes followed her leaving, but she said nothing. Did she have them surrounded, he wondered, and so did not care because Rosalie was about to be slain? Or did she truly think that he wouldn’t have her dragged out of the Chamber and stabbed the moment he had the men? The woman was a northerner but not without cunning, so she could not possibly believe the latter could she?
“The Highest Assembly has been convened,” Cordelia Hasenbach said. “Assermentés, sit the thrones to which you are sworn. I will brook no more delays.”
“You’ve been accused of treason, heresy and tyranny,” Princess Clotilde of Aisne said. “You have no right to sit that throne, Cordelia Hasenbach.”
“Such accusations may be brought only before the Assembly, when it is convened,” the blonde royal said. “It is not convened until the sworn delegates and the sitters present have claimed their seats. Unless, of course, you intend to give the House of Light right of trial over Proceran royalty.”
Fuck, Balthazar thought, for though the trick itself was mere procedure it would –
“The Heavens spare none their judgement, be they high or low,” Brother Bertran proclaimed.
“Curb your tongue, priest,” Prince Arsene of Bayeux said. “We come to unseat a tyrant, not crown the Holies in her stead.”
In mere moments one of the priest with a better head on their shoulder would step in and retract the hasty claim, or at least nudge it to the side, but the damage had already been done. Hasenbach had been aiming at neither the House nor the two royals in the Chamber: it was the sworn delegates she’d had in her sights. Who’d just seen the two great legitimate powers of the conspiracy, the crowns and the robes, turn on each other without hesitation. They’re losing trust in this coup, Balthazar cursed as he saw many of them fall into blank expressions.
The priests had converted some by conscience but others he’d seen to with threats and those threats lost power if it did not look like Balthazar Serigny would be able to carry them out by the time dawn rose. Glaring Heavens, Rosalie needed to hurry with the reinforcements or their support would melt like snow in summer sun – and if he had to put a sword behind every neck before the votes were taken, would the White Knight truly stay his hand when he broke through the lines? Balthazar suspected not.
“The House of Light would not venture to pass judgement over royalty without the consent of the Highest Assembly,” Brother Philippe of the Holies said. “This is a-”
Hasenbach gestured discreetly at the soldiers flanking her and spears were slammed into the floor with deafening fracas.
“The House of Light has yet to be given leave to speak, priest,” the Master of Orders said. “Wait until your petition is brought forth, or see yourself expelled form the Chamber. Assermentés, to your thrones or you will be taken as abstaining from the session.”
The sworn delegates, to the silence of the priests and the dismay of the other two royals in the chamber, moved towards their thrones in charged silence. Balthazar eyed Hasenbacg closely, gauging whether he might be able to close distance with her without the soldiers getting in the way, but no: he was being watched and his agents with him. Why haven’t you removed me from the Chamber yet? he wondered. Or taken him prisoner, or anything else realty. Hasenbach had the advantage right now, before his reinforcements arrived, so why was she not acting?
“She’ll pull through, your cousin,” the Bard said, comfortingly. “Don’t you worry about it.”
Agnes wanly smiled.
“I have known Cordelia since we were girls,” she said. “I have better measure of her than anyone else alive.”
That was not a boast, though Agnes would not claim that she was closest to her royal cousin of all their kin. Yet the oracle had seen her across many choices, many fates, many mistakes. And across none of these did Cordelia Hasenbach cease to be fundamentally the same woman she’d been when, fresh to her throne and strangled by her many responsibilities, she’d still made time for her odd cousin who liked to speak of flocks and stars. The same woman who’d sent her handmaids to look at the wares of southern merchants for birdwatching almanacs, and on Agnes’ seventeenth nameday even obtained for her a Baalite eye. The truth at the heart of Cordelia Hasenbach was that she always chose kindness, when there was a choice to be made.
Agnes glanced at the play of shadows on the wall, moonlight and starlight and the denial of both, glimpsing what might yet be: crossroads, crucible, hallowing. The oldest treachery in the guise of the writ of angels. How tired she was, of walking on the line between abyss and abyss, of measuring her words as if ear was leant to every single one. How long had she been waiting for the end, now? Sometimes she got lost in the blue sky and the distant winds, listening to distant cries carried by the wind and the truths they whispered of. There were days where Agnes no longer knew her age, or the face of her mother. What had her father whispered in her ear, before he died? But she knew truths, and the coming of more, and in the end that would be enough. Her choices had been made before she was even given the opportunity to make them.
“Iron to bind, and rope to kill,” the Augur quoted.
“At first they reddened those altars for blessings, for revels,” the Bard said, “but it was desperation, later on. The Arlesites knew the secrets of steel, and though the Mavii were wonder-makers in stone theirs were wonders of peace.”
“Fetters for hand and feet, the slow death of a night and day,” the Augur said. “To call forth the lords and ladies of the fae.”
“They were a thing of beauty, leading their supplicants in battle,” the Bard fondly remembered. “Yet even that was not enough to turn the tide. The Arlesites had simply learned too well at the feet of the titans.”
“The legends say they went willing, those who hung,” Agnes said.
“There was a time,” the Bard softly agreed. “When the days of the Mavii darkened, though, so did the practice. Oathbreakers, first. Then the craven. Then the defenceless. And bitter seeds bore bitter fruits.”
“But they went willing, once upon a time,” Agnes murmured.
The Bard nodded, silent.
“Sometimes there is a need for bleeding,” the Augur said, looking up at the horizon.
Plumes of smoke had begun to rise, for Salia was burning. She would ask the Gods to forgive her, but she sought no absolution.
Let her silence drag her all the way to the Hells, if it was what she deserved.
The numbers in the Assembly were still in their favour, if the delegates they’d twisted the arms of held. Balthazar saw there were as many thrones empty as not, within, and if they crowned their royal candidates then Hasenbach was done for. She still had the votes for Rhenia and Salia, but the other three Lycaonese principalities had no representatives and neither did Prince Renato and Prince Ariel. The conspiracy had the rulers of Bayeux and Aisne as well as sworn delegates for more than enough: Aequitan, Tenerife, Segovia, Brabant, Orne, Cleves and Hainaut.
Using those votes they could crown another six princes and princesses, the same who’d abdicated at the Princes’ Graveyard, and from there they would have a majority of votes even in the absolute sense. The legality of the proceedings would be much harder to deny. If the sworn delegates held. If Hasenbach did not clutter the session with other matters so no such votes could be taken. It doesn’t matter, Balthazar the Bastard thought, eyeing the soldiers still keeping watch. Let her play queen for a little longer, it will matter not a whit when I have more swords than her. The moment could not come too soon.
“As is ancient law, a representative for the House of Light may now come forward and speak to the petition being put to the Highest Assembly,” the Master of Orders said. “Let the second order of the evening begin.”
Second? What had she – if she was keeping to the pretence of legality when what could she even – oh, fuck. The summons by the House of Light meant the formal session had begun hours ago, when Hasenbach was the only sitter in the room. As long as she kept to majority votes that didn’t require a quorum or to matters in simple need of formal recognition – without voting – then she could have done a great many things without breaking the letter of the law. Potentially, Balthazar Serigny grimly realized, every empty throne in the Chamber now had a formally recognized sworn delegate in the person of Cordelia Hasenbach. It’d never hold up to a serious contest when a full session was held, true, but then it hardly needed to.
So long as she survived the night, Hasenbach would no doubt be perfectly willing to have everything on the record for this session struck and maybe even express apologies for her abuse of procedure. If she sounded highly unapologetic while making such repentance, it might actually improve her popularity with some of the Alamans royalty: they did enjoy a brisk turn of fortune in the Ebb and Flow. The House of Light put forward Sister Adelie as their speaker, which the spymaster held his breath over. At leas they’d had the sense to name someone broadly familiar with the Assembly’s procedures, by the looks of it. When they had the advantage the Holies could afford to break such rules as a show of power, but if they did the same on this night it would instead reek of uncouthness and desperation.
“The House of Light, in the name of the Gods Above, brings forward charges of greater heresy against the First Prince Cordelia Hasenbach,” Sister Adelia announced. “Let all in Creation know that the line of Hasenbach has fallen and estranged itself from the grace of the Heavens.”
“And what proof does the House of Light bring for these claims?” the Master of Order asked.
“She has made peace with the Arch-heretic of the East, declared so by a great holy conclave,” Sister Adelie said, voice rising in pitch and heat. “She has forgiven the Carrion Lord’s great slaughter of Procerans and even offered truce to the wicked Tyrant of Helike and his master the butchering Hierarch.”
The priestess had turned to address the delegates instead of Hasenbach and her bearded creature, to his approval: she too understood that if they were to keep the veneer of legality for all this it would be by keeping that petty lot on their side. Yet they were not without qualms, Balthazar saw, for they feared setting a precedent. If the delegates vote here, on formal record, that the House could unseat a First Prince for not obeying the dictates of a conclave then they were going to have to answer very pointed questions by their own masters as to why they’d ever allow the House such power over the Assembly. Yet Sister Adelie did speak for the House, which was very much respected in moral and holy matters, and it could not be denied that Hasenbach was making pacts with an awful lot of Damned.
“Point of order,” the Master of Order said. “The First Prince, after seeking the assent of this very Highest Assembly, offered truce to the Queen of Callow and the League of Free Cities. Not peace. No formal agreement was reached over the fate of the Carrion Lord.”
A technicality, Balthazar thought, which shouldn’t matter. If the sworn delegates were going to be swayed by the accusations of heresy, they’d not care about such quibbling. If they weren’t, they’d hardly care anyway. Yet Hasenbach was being very careful to keep every part of this as lawful as she could.
What was her game, and where were his damned reinforcements?
“They were such vain, temperamental creatures,” the Bard mused. “Even at the heyday of their influence. I suppose we all are, in our own way, but the fae were always a kind apart.”
“Candle to blind,” Agnes quoted, “and harp to still.”
“They despise being in debt, you see, even such a small one as rope-slain in their name would induce,” the Bard amusedly said. “But a circle of candles would make them mindless when they witnessed it, and then beautiful songs soothed them into a more amenable disposition. Boons could be wheedled out, then, or lesser oaths.”
The Augur had taken different lesson from them. A candle in the dark drew everyone’s eye, even when it was what was unfolding in the shadows that needed to be seen. And a sweet song, a beloved pleasure? That was a diversion one did not want to see through, even when they could. Never trust a man who smiles easy. Had those been the last words of her father? No, it couldn’t be. Frost had crept across a branch, in the shape of a hawk with wings extended: providence was smiling down on her. Some nights, some days, she could look until her eyes watered and hardly catch glimpses of anything. Tonight the signs were overflowing, crowding her senses like eager courtiers even when she sought no answers. The wind sang songs – death, death rising with the smoke and schemes over a treacherous altar of jade – but Agnes shook her head. She needed to centre herself, or she would be lost.
“I am Agnes Hasenbach,” she murmured. “I am Agnes Hasenbach, and I am here and I am now.”
She tightened her fingers around the stick she still held, proof of her claims, and breathed out. The secrets, the signs, slowly ebbed away.
“Oracles always have it the worse,” the Bard said, sympathetic. “Mortals aren’t meant to see the way you do, so close to the deeper truth of things. The kind of foes you have to fight can’t be slain.”
And they always win, Agnes thought. There would be a day where she went too deep, glimpsed things so far beyond her understanding, that there would be no coming back. Not whole, not even close to it. And she was already touching the limits of what she could do: trying to peer around the edges of the darkness that shrouded the Dead King was a thin of horror, the endless chorus of screams and crazed laughter. Or even worse, deeper in, the chilling serenity of the voices worshipping him as a god. Yet she had seen things, learned things. The Black Queen, at least, was brutally straightforward in her refusal to be seen: thrice the Augur had woken up fallen in the snow, livid claw marks that soon faded on her arms and the taste of blood in her mouth.
Yet she had learned from that too, and from that learning shaped finer sight. Or had it been the other way around? Had she first glimpsed the Wandering Bard, and learned from this? Or had she only seen the shadow of any of this, and taken all sides of the crossroads in other lives? It was hard to tell the difference, sometimes.
“You are seer as well,” the Augur said.
“I see things,” the Bard snorted. “But a seer I am not.”
“Like a bird of misfortune perched atop the tower, you see it all below,” Agnes said, and her own voice sounded distant. “Stories.”
“I know many stories,” the other woman agreed.
“You know stories,” the Augur softly laughed. “All the stories, all the time, as if they unfolded beneath your wings and you need only look down to see the lay of them. You pick, and choose, and swoop and how does it not drive you mad.”
Moonlight on frost – lizard, yawning – a distant bird in the night, halfway between the lone sentinel and the weeping man. Danger, the world whispered, tread lightly. As if she needed be told. She should not have spoken so much.
“It has been a very long time,” the Bard lightly said, “since someone grasped that.”
“It must have been about family,” Agnes frowned. “He always talked about family. He was a terrible father, but he never knew it.”
Eyes studied her, then looked away. The icicle it was melting and it was weakening and it would break in three, two –
“Vain, temperamental creatures,” the Bard mused. “As are we all.”
Broken. For now.
Oh, it had been a mistake to let her speak. Balthazar understood it now. Better they had all fled and only returned when they had the soldiers to drag Hasenbach out, rather than this. It was like watching a nine-sun Arlesite duellist toying with a notchless swaggerer. Seated on the seat that had once been that of Clothor Merovins, the founder of the Principate, Cordelia Hasebach kept silent as if this was all beneath her. The Master of Orders answered in her stead, never once hesitating.
The priests went first, Sister Adalie leading the charge. The Holies set out their case for the unseating of Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer, and though they were not without cleverness they were methodically taken apart. Dealing with villains, they said, was moral taint. It made her unfit for the office. And even the Hidden Horror had held his blow, which was clear indication of bargain struck with the abomination.
“No treaty of peace has been signed, and the Dead King’s withdrawal was effected by the Black Queen and not the First Prince. This is of her own admission, confirmed by the Augur.”
She was shown herself to be without mandate from the Heavens by failing to bring the Tenth Crusade to success, both in Callow and in Iserre.
“Princess Rozala Malanza held command at both the Battle of the Camps and the Princes’ Graveyard.”
She’d intervened in the affairs of the House of Light, which was beyond the authority of any mortal ruler, and schemed to pervert the decision of a greater holy conclave.
“No such decree has ever been passed and it would require the consent of the Highest Assembly to act against the House of Light.”
She was a tyrant, having stacked the Highest Assembly with her associates in clear perversion of the rightful order of Procer as set by its founders. At that Hasenbach finally made a noise: sharp, scornful laughter as she eyed the procession of royal candidates standing to the side of the thrones. Shame burned more than a few faces. The House of Light then tried to make an argument using a precedent from the Liturgical Wars for a regency of the realm by the Holies, but unfortunately it relied on the premise of the First Prince being prisoner and so fell apart when it was pointed out that Hasenbach clearly was not and so no regency could be considered as needed. They priests were, after this, visibly at a loss.
Prince Arsene and Princess Clotilde, like Balthazar sensing that they were losing the reins, then tried as well. Arsene of Bayeux boldly suggested that the chaos in the capital was proof she had lost the trust of the people, and so of the Assembly, and that the election of another First Prince was necessary for the stability of the realm in these dark times.
“The lawful procedures to unseat a First Prince are known, and have not been attempted, which begs the question of what the Prince of Bayeux intends if it is not the lawful manner.”
The Princess of Aisne instead stated that Hasenbach had overreached her authority and made a mockery of the procedures of the Highest Assembly, naming specific instances: repeated emergency votes held in quick succession, the granting of broad authority and precautionary amnesty to Arnaud Brogloise that even included the power to negotiate diplomatic settlements with Damned. Assigning the former Princess of Lyonis under the command of Princess Malanza while granting her authority over Princess Malanza, which undermined the very appointment made by the Highest Assembly.
None of these, Clotilde of Aisne conceded, were strictly speaking unlawful. But they were perversions of the intended meaning of the procedures of the Highest Assembly, and to allow them to happen without consequence would inevitably lead to the collapse of the Principate of its reduction into a mere kingdom. That struck a note with some of the sworn delegates, but not enough to recover from the continued verbal slaughter. The grievances were solid in their eyes, Balthazar suspected, but not worth all this strife and not in time of war.
Prince Arsene tried his hand again, insinuating that the foreign troops marching on Salia were meant to force the will of Hasenbach on even princes, but at last the savage bestirred herself. The Master of Orders hastily recognized her right to speak, cutting straight through the Prince of Bayeux’s rising speech.
“Are you quite finished?” Cordelia Hasenbach calmly asked, blue eyes like ice.
Hands on the arms of the ancient throne of Salia, the blonde princess’ gaze swept across the Assembly.
“For near an hour now I have sat here, awaiting a single justification for the way the capital outside this palace is burning to the ground,” she said, voice like the crack of a whip. “For the deaths that continue to happen even now. For the loss of trust this will cause in the allies we require for our very survival. For the way our enemies will see weakness and tear at our throats.”
She drummed her fingers, scathingly.
“Well?” she said. “I await still. Speak, if any of you can.”
Silence reigned, and not merely for reason of procedure.
“I thought not,” Cordelia tiredly said.
She breathed out slowly.
“This farce is at an end,” she said. “There is not even the slightest of pretences for you to legitimately take power in Procer, and you have not the strength to do so illegitimately. Surrender now, before I am required by law to have you all put to the sword.”
And then, the sweetest of sounds: armoured boots treading fast on a wooden floor. Balthazar discreetly glanced back. Rosalie was at the head of them, and though there were less men than he’d wanted – barely forty – it would be enough.
She was good at talking, Hasenbach, but it was hard to talk when you had a sword through the throat.
“Ah,” the Bard hummed. “There we are.”
“Bone to wind,” the Augur said, “and mirror to fill.”
“Still on that, are you?” the Bard amusedly said.
“The bone is twofold, yes,” Agnes said. “It took me long to understand. Sometimes they open barrows and there are fingerbones. Around them twine was wound, very long ago. I was told this, by a tribunal of owls from Hannoven.”
“Owls,” the Bard slowly repeated, as if dubious.
“Owls are terrible gossips,” the Augur said. “Never tell one your secrets. The twine was an oath, they told me.”
“Owls, huh,” the Bard muttered. “I’ll have to remember that. They had it right: the twine was an oath’s length. They learned to keep count, after the first few times one of the lords stayed longer than the oath lasted. Even the gentlest of the fae have sharp humour.”
“Bone is also the bone of man,” Agnes solemnly told her. “We stand not without it. We move not, act not. It is…”
The word stalled. Had the shadow always touched the tree at that angle? No, stars moved here. The moon did not blink, it circled. Ah! Solemn fingers in three, the mark of the Tribunal. Not the owls, though also with wings. The White Knight was near, and the three fingers were touching one of her own footsteps leading north. Ah, the front of the foot and not the back: forward, coming, grim ending. Yes, it was as she had seen.
“Quintessential,” the Bard said.
“Yes,” Agnes smiled. “To have the bone of them is to own them, to have them wound around your fingers like twine. Clever Mavii.”
“Nature can be shaped,” the Bard disagreed. “It can change. It doesn’t even take all that much: sometimes all you need to do is throw a stone in the pond and the ripples will see it done.”
Ah, the Augur thought, is this what you believe we have done?
Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer, Prince of Rhenia, Princess of Salia and Warden of the West, did not stand as the Silver Letters entered the Chamber of Assembly and began spreading out. She had expected this, known it was coming since the moment she decided against leaving the palace. They would try strength, when all else failed. And there were enough foes here her twenty Salians were likely to lose. And yet she stayed seated. Rhenian blue dress going down to her feet, high-collared and match for the sapphire-set circled of white gold she’d chosen to wear over her golden curls, she simply stared down at the spies that had turned on her and made all of this possible.
“And here we are,” Cordelia said. “The true face of all this: swords and ambition, both bare for all to see.”
“Surrender and I won’t need to have you dragged out by the hair,” Balthazar said, smiling wide. “Your Highness.”
Him she ignored, instead looking at the Silver Letters behind him.
“If you obey him, if you truly bare swords and spill blood on the grounds of the Chamber of Assembly, it will be the end of you,” she told them.
Threats would not cow the likes of them, so she need make it plain this was no such thing.
“It does not matter if I live or die,” she said. “Whoever takes my place, whoever sits this Assembly, they will need to see you all dead. Publicly, loudly, excruciatingly painfully. Because if they do not make an example that resounds through the ages, one that quells the very thought of anyone ever doing something like this again, they will never be able to safely sit this hall again.”
She gestured at the Holies.
“Do you believe they will protect you?” she said. “The House of Light will not even be able to protect itself from the consequences of this. Every priest in this room will be sacrificed by the rest of the Holies, for they have openly committed rebellion and no First Prince could countenance such of the House. Do you understand, now? If you obey Balthazar, he has killed you.”
Silence struck once more, until Balthazar cleared his throat.
“She’s right,” he said. “Savage that she is, she’s right. This got botched, so now we need to tie up all the loose ends.”
The tall, hirsute killer cleared his throat.
“Hasenbach went mad, having made pacts with devils, and used her wicked powers to slaughter the entire Highest Assembly,” Balthazar the Bastard announced. “We’ll torch it after just to be sure.”
The Silver Letters hesitated. But then they started to advance, swords high, and two began to close the doors so no one would escape. It was madness, Cordelia thought. She’d known Serigny might go mad, try to burn her out, and made certain the secret passage out was unencumbered. But this was madness. No, it was worse than that: it was service to the Enemy. It was every ugly, dark impulse she had tried to smooth out of Procer, growling and lunging for her throat. And now she was to flee from it, again? As if swords and brutality were enough to rule the heart of the Principate? No. No, she would not have it. She would not skitter away once more, abandoning good men to swords, this realm to the heedless animals that would rule it. She was the Warden of the West, not-
Before the doors of the Chamber could close, a sword was slid through them. As if the heavy oaken gates were light as feathers, they were forced open and a tall man in plate and a trailing cloak advanced.
“My apologies for disturbing the proceedings,” the White Knight politely said. “I am looking for Balthazar Serigny.”
The Wandering Bard went still.
“What have you done?” she hissed.
Agnes laughed, laughed, laughed.
“Exactly what you wanted me to,” the Augur wheezed. “Just a little too quickly.”
“She was meant to-”
“Meant,” Agnes hissed. “Meant. As if you did not meddle, Bird of Misfortune. As if you did not pull long strings.”
“You changed nothing,” the Bard said.
“I changed everything,” the Augur said. “She has a choice, now.”
“They always make the same choices,” the Bard said. “You’ll learn.”
“Mirror to fill,” Agnes said. “With iron and rope we died, and you came. With candle and harp we danced, and you stayed.”
“But I have the bone of you, Wandering Bard,” she said. “I have the bone of you and in my mirror you found nothing but your own reflection. You have not fooled me, Longstrings.”
“You may just have destroyed everything,” the Bard said. “Everything, child. The Dead King-”
“There is one truth in this world that cannot be broken,” Agnes Hasenbach, the Augur, calmly said. “I have learned this from portents many and varied, spoken to birds from strange and distant skies as well as consulted with the secret whisperers of the winds and clouds.”
She leaned forward, erasing the six symbols she had drawn in the snow.
“Would you like to know them, Bird of Misfortune?” she asked.
And then, only then, did Cordelia rise to her feet. She nearly fell, face paling for the pain of leaning on that broken leg. This, she knew, was the White Knight. The Sword of Judgement made to walk the grounds of Creation, silver coin in one hand and death in the other. She advanced.
“Chosen,” Brother Bertran called out, sounding both relieved and expectant. “These Silver Letters conspirators would murder us. Bring to them the judgement of the Seraphim, in the name of the Heavens!”
The White Knight cocked his head to the side, rolling a silver coin between his fingers.
“You are one of these that call themselves the Holies, yes?” the man asked.
“The Heavens have bestowed this honour upon us,” Brother Bertran proudly agreed.
“That is certainly possible,” the dark-skinned Chosen agreeably replied.
A flick and the coin went spinning, up and up and up. Cordelia’s hand moved quicker than her mind, than her flesh, and she snatched it out of the air. It burned against her palm, scorching. She swallowed the pain.
“Enough,” the First Prince of Procer said. “There will be no killing.”
The Chosen was watching her with wide eyes, before something like surprise and awe flickered across his face.
“You are…” he said, sounding moved. “I have never seen it with my own eyes.”
And she felt it too, pulsing through her veins, the mantle that was within her reach. His judgement she had ended for there was only one fit to pass it in these chambers, and it was the Warden of the West. Even the burning against her palm seemed distant, like her flesh was being filled with something – no. No. She fought the pull, the inevitability, everything it entailed. She fought it tooth and nail. There was nothing greater than this, this flesh, this moment and this place and the laws that bound them all. She had only one master, and it was the Principate of Procer. The coin burned into her flesh and she cast it down. The White Knight’s face went ashen.
“This is,” Cordelia said, “the Principate of Procer. We rule with accord and law, we mete out the same justice to the highest soul and the lowest. We fail that principle, often and utterly, as men and women have failed principles since the First Dawn. But I will not renounce it: not for a day, not for an hour, nor for a single breath. This land will know no queen, no empress, no pale-clad warden to stand above all others.”
In her palm the laurels had been burned black, a wound she knew would never heal so long as she lived.
“Conspiracy will be tried by our laws,” Cordelia Hasenbach. “And no one else’s.”
She could be the law, the First Prince knew. After this, looking in the eyes of those around her, seeing the loyalty that was blooming there. The faith. She could take it, and First Prince or not she would be the only law Procer would need. With scheme and knife, with ruthless will, she could purge the rot and turn Procer into what it should be instead of… this. No, Cordelia thought once more, and this time it was barely a struggle at all.
She returned to her throne, and the moment she sat the conspiracy was finished.
“It does not matter,” the Augur said, “if on the other side stand kings and monsters and all the gods that stride this earth. It does not matter if the odds are paltry and the signs scream of defeat with every silent voice.”
Blue eyes and a warm embrace. Of course you’ll live with us now. You are family. You always will be. This, this she would not forget until that final venture beyond where she was meant to go.
“I will,” Agnes said, “always, always bet on Cordelia Hasenbach.”