Interlude: And Yet We Stand

“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.”

She cackled.

“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.”

374 thoughts on “Interlude: And Yet We Stand

  1. Another beutiful line:

    >“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.”

    IE, “I have a better measure of her than YOU, Wandering Bard”

    Liked by 13 people

  2. So… random things noticed:

    **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.**

    Pretty sure this was the exact moment when Cordelia was MEANT to get her name- according to Bard’s plan.
    WK literally walks in the door seconds too early.

    Also:
    For all that Bard is a terrifying immortal abomination… her win record in this story is actually kind of average:
    * First Liesse: convinces Will to summon Angels. Will gets murderized by Cat. Bard shrugs shoulders, wanders off. Minor loss.
    *Free cities: Bard kicks Blacks ass and gets Captain killed… but also Kiaros gets one over on her by summoning Heirarch. Major Victory.
    *2nd Liesse: Bard successfully messes up alliance between Malicia and Black. Major Victory.
    *Chat with Black: Says some ominous shit. Possibly sets up Black to be emperor. minor loss???
    *3rd Liesse: Screws over band of 5, resulting in Saints death and Heriphant losing magic… but gets soundly BEATEN by her main opponent, DK. Three minor victories, one massive loss.
    *Chat with Cat: Says some ominious shit. Tries lotsa things. Cat sidesteps. Minor loss ???
    *Plays games with a coup in Procer: gets her ass handed to her by Agnes fucking Hasenbach. Major loss(?).

    So all up…2 big wins, 2 MASSIVE losses(?) and a bunch of minor wins and losses either side… and the 2 big wins are kind of really just one win that paid off twice.
    Have I missed anything?

    … in some sense, I suspect what makes bard scary isn’t her success rate, but just the fact that she can keep rolling the dice all day. When she loses (usually) everyone else is fighting for their lives and kingdom, and she’s just like “Oh? That didn’t work. Guess I’ll try something else.”
    Except now, with DK in play, we are no longer in a world where Bard can AFFORD those losses any more… so things are starting to get… interesting.

    Liked by 18 people

    1. Insanenoodlyguy

      It tried three times, actually. First, that moment you descirbed. Second, when she grabbed the coin. That’s why Hanno was first in awe, than Ashen has she threw down the coin. He saw a name being born, and then he saw something even rarer: a name being aborted.

      It tried a third time, weakly, to give her a villian name instead since she rejected the good, making her not Warden of the West, but turning the First Prince into THE First Prince, but it was a half assed desperation move on Fate’s part and that one was much easier to throw off.

      Liked by 19 people

        1. Insanenoodlyguy

          No, there’s no precedence for that. It’s a new name Cat got as a reflection of being the Queen brought up by the Black Knight. It was specific to her. And it wasn’t calling her that anyway, it started calling her First Prince.

          Liked by 6 people

          1. Above offered Warden of The West as a Heroic Name.
            Below offered First Prince as a Villainous Name.

            Cordelia declined both.
            Though she likely would have ended up taking Above’s offer to become a Hero, the Warden of the West if Hanno had arrived even slightly later than he did, and Below never would have gotten to make an offer.

            Liked by 6 people

      1. ninegardens

        I kind of want to play some sort of multiplayer board/card game where one of the players has this: no one can get rid of them, they can act almost anywhere they like….. but all their actions are super minor…

        Meanwhile there are other players who can easily run around breaking things… BUT when they fall, they fall HARD.

        Liked by 7 people

        1. Decius

          A hidden information game where one player has access to all the information, including the content of other players’ discussions, and can privately talk to any other player, but has secret goals of their own and no ability to act, nor any ability to prove that they aren’t lying.

          Other players would have more limited knowledge, but would also be able to prove things about their goals for some kind of cost, and also to do things themselves.

          Liked by 9 people

    2. superlad64

      It’s pretty heavily implied that this rate of failure is incredibly rare for her, I think. Until very very recently Good and Evil have boiled down to Bard and Dead King and that’s shaped the continent with few exceptions.
      First comes the Black Knight who only really became an effective actor against her after he lost his name, and Cat, who is now the quintessential story-aware nameless power-that-be in the midst of a mostly-nameless band of enlightened hooligans.
      Now we’ve just added Augur Agnes and her principled, if sometimes misguided, hard-ass nameless sister Cordelia to the pot as additional competitors to the old hegemony and things are looking real damn bad for the Bard and Dead King both, not to mention the Above and Below.
      Of the mortal countries, the leaders of 4 (Cat+Cat for 2, Cordelia, and the Pilgrim) are now either directly working against the old ways or morally obliged to by the Accords as they awake to the true threat that has kept the continent back for so long. Add this to at least one Choir semi-defecting in their ‘breaking the rules’ to trust Cat to help the Pilgrim resurrect and the Fae Courts imploding and you’re basically talking total ruination.
      In summary, my take is that in the game of Chess (or Shatranj), the Bard and Dead King only lose to each-other and no-one else, but they now have a small army of people trained in the secret art of flipping over the goddamn table whenever they try to play.

      Liked by 9 people

    3. stevenneiman

      Actually, the record is better than that. The only times she’s actually lost worse than no game are now, the Heirarch (which we honestly can’t be sure was a loss), and the Dead King, assuming that what he got actually was both true and as complete as he needs it to be. Which I highly doubt, because that was an uncharacteristically stupid move otherwise, taking such meaningful risks just because she had a good chance of dealing a minor wound that won’t heal.
      First Liesse was at worst Cat deflecting a thrown knife, and at best Bard deliberately pushing Cat towards her current status as someone likely to pose a threat to the Dead King.
      She threw a fit here, but I’m honestly not sure if she lost anything worse than not gaining the Named Warden of the West. And frankly I don’t see why that’s such a big deal. Leader Named are powerful, but they aren’t all-powerful, especially when they’re new to the role. And let’s be honest, Cordelia has a shit understanding of stories, to the point she’d be more of a liability than an asset. Never mind that the best person to mentor her has an axe to grind with the Bard, and also a reason to see Cordelia abandon her Name since she’s the best leader for the Principate.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. ninegardens

        First liesse is a minor loss because even if Cat just deflected a thrown knife (Will), net result is Bard being down one knife. No big deal, but still a loss.

        Cordelia being blind to stories is an ASSET from Bard’s point of view, as it makes her easier to steer. And if she became warden of the west she is HARDER for Cat to mentor, not easier.

        Aside from that, yes- I agree. As I said- Bard’s win rate isn’t always great, but her “loss condition” is usually equivalent to “Oh well, that didn’t work. Guess I’ll try something else”

        Liked by 6 people

        1. ICSM

          I’d argue First Liesse was the biggest loss.

          Not because it mattered, mind you, but because most other losses were bought about by the awareness of Bard’s influence. And no one from Black’s generation onward appeared to have known she existed before she entered Will’s band.

          Which rases the question, why did she personally participate in that band? Nobody having heard of her means she is usually much more indirect in her scheming and apparently for good reason. She is much better at her job when people aren’t aware of her, and in first liesse she just waltzed into the limelight of a party and announced her existence to two generations of villians for literally no gain. Why?

          She is scary because she will never go away and can always try again, but with how many times she has been thwarteed, her competence is mostly a informed ability.

          Liked by 4 people

          1. Albert Wen

            She must have assumed the story was in the bag and bet that anyone aware of her involvement would soon be brainwashed by the Hashmallim.

            Like

      2. Lurch

        One of the common and key points with the Bard is that they can’t interfere outside of Named affairs. All the while Cordelia isn’t Named, the Bard is hamstrung in dealing with or using her. If she WAS Named though, the Bard can weigh in.
        So even if the exact situation isn’t perfect, a Named ruler is more useful to the Bard than one who isnt. And a Named ruler of the nation that historically stands against the Dead King, and a nation unused to having a Named ruler, would be a powerful lever to use against him because of the stories involved, and the Bard works through stories.
        It’s a big deal because they just swiped the rug out from under (some of) the Bard’s plans and stopped them having another lever, not because of the individual power of a Named ruler.

        I do love how this all left genre savvy a while a ago, and is getting increasingly meta as time goes on. Using, then subverting, then outright avoiding the influence of stories to alter the path of things.

        Liked by 5 people

    4. NerfGlastigUaine

      Exactly, in most of those losses she doesn’t really lose much. You can’t even really say it’s a loss, just an attempt that didn’t work, and when she does win, even minor ones may have huge ripples. But as you said, Dead King is now in place and that changes things. It’s no longer just throwing rocks as she used to, this time the game is for keeps.

      Also, you forgot Hierarch. First time in story Bard was blindsided.

      IMO Bard is most terrifying b/c we don’t know her game. Look at all those question marks in your post, even when she loses we’re not always sure she’s lost. No other character is as opaque and nothing is scarier. Also the idea of someone who can fuck you not with sword but with words and stories, b/c how do you prepare a defense against that? Cat’s trying but even then it’s not perfect, just an attempt at MAD.

      Liked by 4 people

    5. Lily

      It’s my opinion that the loss against the Dead King was a true and massive loss.
      The type of true and massive loss that begins a pattern of three.

      ““Good,” Marguerite smiled. “Then when he offers you a truce – and he will, that much is certain – do not put your weight behind accepting it.”” -Chapter 68: Apropos
      This seems a concession to *not* let the Dead King end this with a draw that ends the pattern.

      If they war against the Dead King, and reach an impasse where they can take a truce and walk away, that will likely come about from a draw of some sorts. The goal for Bard is to make sure that the battle doesn’t stop there.
      Making Cordelia the Warden of the West would have been a step towards that; putting a Good-Aligned Named on the throne would help immensely. Likewise, getting Catherine to make the above promise would help immensely.

      We’re seeing the Dead King be set up to die.
      Bard is a little pissed because Cordelia having other priorities could fuck it all up.

      (Notably, this relates to Catherine being “offered” the Fairfax sword. ““So this is how it goes,” I softly said. “I take up again the sword I lost in the Everdark, and bring war to the Crown of the Dead. It’s an old story. Well-worn, and strong for it.”

      King Edward had been taller than me, I thought, with broader shoulders as well. And yet, I suspected that if ripped that sword free from the earth it would fit my hand perfectly. Better than any other blade ever hand.” -Chapter 51: Twilight

      Catherine, currently nameless, rejected a chance at being the hero of this story, so the Bard went for Cordelia.)

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Big I

    Let’s hear it for the Augur, managing to con the Bard. Now that’s impressive.

    The White Knight is really screwed now, with Cordelia acknowledging the rule of law over the mandate of Heaven. That’s essentially the Hierarch’s position as well, and the Knight is responsible for unlawful killings in both the League and the Principate.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. Oh please. Hanno was acitng on request from authorities in the League. Remember how he complied with Delos’s bullshit bureaucracy, weirding Bard out?

      And of course the Choir of Judgement LET Cordelia do this. Interfering with a formulaic Aspect? They’d have burned her to crisp if they wanted. Instead she gets a brand of laurels…

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Big I

        It’s deaths in Helike/of Helikean people he’ll have to answer for, since the complaint against him came from the Tyrant. And in Procer he’s been killing people left and right throughout this interlude, including that shop owner he “saved” from looters.

        Liked by 3 people

      1. Both put the laws of man above the alleged omni-importance of the gods. Same mindset, one is just more explicit than the other.
        And given how flawed the gods of this world are, I’d say they deserve to be judged by their mortal creations.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. NerfGlastigUaine

          No, one is “stay out of my business” and the other is “I’m gonna make you bitches kneel” I’m not saying the Gods don’t deserve it, but the latter is not conducive to one’s continued existence

          Liked by 3 people

  4. I’m a little uncertain as to what the Augur actually *did.* The implication seems to be that she made the White Knight arrive sooner than he “should have”, giving Cordelia the option of doing something besides taking a Name. But the Augur is being kept in isolation, so what could she have done to get Hanno there earlier?

    Did she just call up the Bard and keep her talking, so that she wouldn’t be able to intervene and stop the White Knight from showing up? Did she win by *getting the Bard to monologue?*

    Liked by 10 people

          1. Andrew Mitchell

            Shit, that’s a good thought… Not that she’s got six, but has she got ANY?!? We haven’t seen her use any on screen. All she’s been able to do is arrive at the right time and place, and talk.

            Bard has no aspects; 98%. Therefore she’s not a real Named but something else.

            Liked by 4 people

    1. Insanenoodlyguy

      Well there’s theories about exactlyw hat she did or didn’t do, the parts we are sure of are as follows.

      1. Let this coup happen in a way that got White Knights attention and have him head towards Cordelia.
      2. Before Cordelia could take her name, have Hanno arrive, giving her other options than Name, retreat and die.
      3. Summon and then keep the Bard around and distracted long enough that she didn’t see the timing was off and step in herself to get it back on track.

      Liked by 7 people

      1. I’m not asking about the *what*, I’m asking about the *how.* The Silver Letters were keeping the Augur captive and out of contact with anyone. That was the entire reason the coup could happen in the first place – because Balthazar (with Black’s help) realized that an oracle’s warning doesn’t matter if nobody hears it. So how could the Augur control when the coup happened, or when the White Knight arrived?

        Liked by 4 people

        1. My guess? Threefold:

          1) White Knight was going to Salia on Cordelia’s invitation. Since there doesn’t seem to be an obvious reason why she’d do it, the answer is likely “Augur told her to”. So the timing of that is strike 1.

          2) Augur obviously knew about the coup in advance, but didn’t tell Cordelia. Oh she was prevented from warning her the day of, but Bard would have told her earlier, and that’s assuming the whole scheme with keeping the coup from her that Black came up with worked in the first place. Academic exercise indeed; that’s strike 2.

          3) Bard normally micromanages timing of her time-sensitive schemes. Stalling the fight in Summerholm, delaying Black&Warlock in Arcadia at Marchford, making Pilgrim wait 3 seconds at Third Liesse. If Augur had not summoned her and distracted her with conversation, she would likely have been in the palace making sure Hanno does not arrive earlier than she wants. And that’s strike 3.

          No, Agnes does not do much. But oracular powers mean she knows exactly what to do and not do to achieve the desired result.

          Liked by 8 people

          1. Shequi

            In my view the Augur’s spoiler factor was Simon; remember how he wasn’t “expected” by the Witch, but the White Knight was willing to believe that he was there for a reason?

            Well, that Reason was the Augur’s manipulation. Which is why it succeeded; as an ordinary mortal, Simon is invisible to the Wandering Bard

            Liked by 6 people

  5. quite possibly a cat

    I still think the Hole-Filled should have done their judgement by hitting Cordelia with a bucket of Light. Either she’s melted (proof she’s Evil) or she’s healed up (proof she’s not). No chance of backfire.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Insanenoodlyguy

      It doesn’t work that way. once you use holy power to cast sacred flame, it does radiant damage when it hits something. A holy shield can probably block it fairly well, but outside of named shit once it’s in the world it’s going to burn whatever it touches, good or evil or benign object.

      Liked by 8 people

      1. Also they aren’t Lanterns. Only the warrior priests of Levantine have been confirmed as having light based pyromancy.
        Your basic priest takes oaths not to harm others, to heal and protect. It’s why the whole ‘holy slaughter cages’ made of light from the battle of the camps upset so many people.

        Liked by 6 people

    2. konstantinvoncarstein

      Only Lanterns were confirmed to be able to use holy fire to kill living beings. At the Camps, the Proceran priests used the fences, not holy fire.

      And concerning the burning effect of pure Light, it burns only devils and undead, not an “evil people”, a term highly subjective.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Tenthyr

    Its mildly horrifying, that tidbit Auger just dropped: The Bard literally knows ALL stories, every single one. I suppose that’s one of her Aspects, if she even has aspects.

    But fuck YES Agnes, saving your cousins freedom to choose.

    And FUCK YES Cordelia for just becoming my second favourite character in this story.

    Liked by 9 people

  7. Thanatoss

    Best parts of this story are not epic battles between gods, but big changes made by fairy normal people. I love it. This chapter was just as or not more fun than dropping LAKE in Battle of Camps. Hell Yeah!

    Liked by 6 people

      1. ChillyPepper

        For example, the bird of misfortune is the bard, the distant bird between lone sentinel and weeping man sounds like the grey pilgrim (unlikely but it is an example.
        And there is the owl.

        Cat would be a magpie in such an analogy lol.

        Liked by 4 people

    1. Point

      I suspect that the owls are one of the Choirs, based on this passage:

      “Solemn fingers in three, the mark of the Tribunal. Not the owls, though also with wings. The White Knight was near”

      It feels a bit like she might be describing the presence of the Seraphim—”the Tribunal” seems like reasonable seer-speak for the Choir of Judgement. If that is assumed, then “also with wings” indicates that the owls might also be angels (perhaps something like the Choir of Honesty, if they’re bad with secrets).

      The weakest point in this theory is that Judgement is associated with the number six, not three.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. This is, without a doubt, the greatest chapter to come out of APGTE – the ups, the downs, the interplay between named, the scheming and plotting and the resolution; this is the kind of writing I’m screaming silently about, I’m raving mad for.

    Keep it up!

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Edit: “To come out of APGTE in a while” – I’m not gonna argue that this is the greatest chapter of all time (theres been a plathora of reeeeeally great chapters), but daumn this is a satisfying conclusion to an arc

      Liked by 6 people

  9. Lord_GM

    Okay, someone please explain to me what is going on in that garden. Does the dialogue between Augur and Bard actually have any meaning or is it just the Augur stalling for time and distracting the Bard while desperately trying to keep her mind in the here-and-now?
    To me that entire exchange of words doesn’t even qualify as dialogue because that would require that they somehow refer to whatever the other said, but all I see are two monologues about the six items from the Verse, bargains with fey, ancient cultures that might or might not have been what later became Procer and the Dead Kingdom. I fail to see the connections!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Brigsby

        Auger caught her with the classic blunder of monologues. It was subtle too, if you read again, notice how it doesn’t ever really feel like a monologue until the bit where Auger sensed danger, I think that was when the Bard almost noticed she was talking, and talking totally distracted from the task of micromanaging timing, as she usually does in her schemes.

        Liked by 3 people

    1. ICSM

      An ancent civilization called Mavii used to summon and bind Fae through voluntary human sacrifice. At first for peaceful reason, but before the end to use them in battle as commanders against arlesites. They lost, it works.

      Augur is speaking to Bard about the technique they used to bind them. She lured Bard by starting to perform it, and then kept babbling about the specifics.

      Augur was pretending intent to summon Fae to help her cousin. This would kill her. Bard went there to influence the Augur into suicide to save her cousin. The augur knew all about it. She had alrealdy somehow arranged for the WK to reach earlier than intended and kept the Bard occupied. Bard only noticed when the story started to change.

      There is also a whole lot about the nature of the Seers and a few bits about what Bard’s powers are.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. >Augur was pretending intent to summon Fae to help her cousin. This would kill her. Bard went there to influence the Augur into suicide to save her cousin.

        This is most definitely not what happened.

        I mean, to summon a fae in that manner, you need, like, someone actually hanging (rope-slain). No such thing was present, it was all abstract/metaphorical.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. maxwell wearing

          Agreed. The way I interpreted it, the fey summoning ritual was a metaphor for the way by which the Bard intended to Name Cordelia but also the way by which Agnes tricked the Bard.

          Iron to bind and rope to kill: the rebellion, binding Cordelia’s actions and killing people (admittedly with fire not rope). The inital summoning of the Bard to Agnes

          candle to blind and harp to still: Cordelia’s dance in the Highest Assembly distracting and detoothing the rebellion. Agnes’ distraction and delay of the Bard, preventing until noticing the plot twist until too late.

          bone to wind and mirror to fill: Bard thinks she has the bone of Cordelia and that she will now be named, but Agnes has the bone of her, deflecting her intentions easily.


          Its not a perfect fit, but thats what I got. Thoughts?

          Liked by 1 person

    1. She would have been a ruler regardless — as Amadeus pointed out, the Accords still had to get through negotiations. Demanding that another ruler abdicate as the price of treaty would be a no-sell for basically any ruler except Cat, who’s a power in her own right. And note that last time she offered abdication, she was facing bad-faith negotiations which sank the deal.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. olddiggy

    I… caught up? Hell I didn’t even know this wasn’t finished. I came here before reading a crossover fic with Worm so I’d have context and it’s been a hell of a ride. Certainly much longer than I anticipated and it’s still going. Outside of some Interludes that had me glaze-eyed and mostly skimming, I loved reading this story and can’t wait for more.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. 'Ladi Williams

      You really shouldn’t skip the interludes…yeah some of them can be dull compared to the main storyline where Cat is but those interludes without fail give background info that let’s you know what’s going on in the story and the world at large that Cat isn’t privy to… Go back and read them all.
      That said. Welcome to the club. ✌🏾️

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Congratulations and condolences. 😉 You’ve joined the forward wave as the story moves toward the end of this book; I’m guessing that Book V will wrap with the signing of the Accords, leaving the final fight against the Dead King (and possibly the Wandering Bard) for Book VI.

      Amen to other comments that the Interludes are well worth the trouble; basically, an Interlude is any chapter not centered around Our Ambiguous Protagonist. If you missed the “extra chapters” (which don’t appear in the main Table Of Contents), then you should read those too — they provide a great deal of background for the various characters, including origin stories for most of the front-row players. Offhand, the ones who still lack origin stories (and aren’t already dead anyhow) are all folks with a “mysterious” tag: Witch of the Woods, Rogue Sorcerer, Scribe and Assassin, and the Wandering Bard herself.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. A thought: One of the Bard’s primary tactics, one that shows up almost every time she opens her mouth, is “concern trolling”, that is to say trying to trick her opponent out of a winning position. That is indeed a powerful tactic for manipulation… but more and more players seem to be No-Selling it, specifically as they reject the verdicts and directives of Fate.

    Liked by 5 people

  12. burguulkodar

    Chapters like this remind me why this novel si #1 among all my other novels and texts.

    It is deep, compelling, extremely well-written, and each chapter is fulfilling instead of short and word-counted. Each chapter closes well in itself, consisting in beggining, middle and ending even when they are linked to a larger story.

    My kudos to you, Author. You deserve my praise, the likes of which is rarely given.

    Liked by 6 people

  13. snowy

    I rather suspect that in a hundred years, when all goes to the Bard’s plan (if it does, though this wouldn’t really be a story if it does) that tales of the Bard will be buried under the deepest rocks for the likes of men like Black and Pilgrim to discover in their age long quests and for ancient monsters like DK to quietly nurse as all else in Creation quietly fall into the rhythm of the story.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. crescentsickle

    “What a pair we are,” Catherine gestured between them. “A couple of cripple normies trying to keep the lid on gaggles of people with too much power and not enough sense.”

    Cordelia gave a slight chuckle, still surveying the amassed armies making camp in the fields, and then gave a sigh. “You were right, Catherine. I apologize.”

    Catherine looked up to Cordelia’s face in surprise, trying to suss out the deeper meaning behind the statement but finding none. “… that might be the first time I’ve ever heard that, without strings attached.”

    “Might have something to do with the company you keep,” Cordelia replied with a rare hint of snark and a slight smile before her weariness weighed down once more and washed her expression from her face.

    Catharine turned back to observe her forces arrayed on the plains, leaning heavily on her staff. “What happened, Hasenbach?”

    Cordelia was silent for a moment, before she replied in quiet tones. “I felt it. Felt them both. The mantle of the Chosen, mine for the taking… but also the madness it would impose. The same for the mantle of a Damned. I’ve come to realize that ‘Named’ is ever a better term, for they are one in the same.”

    “Madness?” Catherine asked after a pause, contemplating her counterpart’s words.

    “Stories. Named don’t just live out stories, Catherine, nor do they flow from one to the next. Stories are *imposed* on them, as if the currents of the world would hold their puppet-strings. The Warden of the West, who would brook no trespass of evil in her domain. The First Prince, who would garner loyalty in the hearts of her fellow man and strike the taint perverting her realm.” Cordelia banged her first once against the parapet in sudden outrage that had Catherine step back and to the side to look at her directly.

    “This world shouldn’t be the damned playground of the gods, of angels and devils, or of their *slaves*. This world is ours to live in, and it is a grave injustice that we mortals must suffer the consequences for the petty squabbles of tyrants beyond our ken.”

    Silence persisted for a moment as Catherine stared dumbfounded before coughing to the side and adjusting her collar with her free hand. She finally managed to clear her throat after a couple unsuccessful attempts. “The Accords, then?”

    Cordelia nodded before turning to finally face Catherine directly. “Yes. There’ll need to be *some* changes, but yes. We need them, and quickly – who knows when the next true attempt will be. I imagine both Above and Below will do everything they can to thwart them, though. It will be a struggle the likes of which few throughout history may have ever seen.”

    Catherine barked out a laugh at that before donning a savage grin and holding out her free hand. “They’ll have to get through us first, and they’ve already tried and failed a score or two.”

    Cordelia’s smirk finally returned as she reach out and grasped the offer hand and shook. “I wonder what the title of the histories will be. The First Prince and The Black Queen? Hasenbach and Foundling?”

    “Catherine and Cordelia: To Suffer No Fool.”

    “*Cordelia* and Catherine.”

    “Ah, ah, ah, alphabetical order takes precedence!”

    – Excerpt from ‘To Struggle But Never Falter, The Histories of C&C’, author unknown

    Liked by 4 people

  15. kp9999

    My new crazy theory: We, the readers, are the Bard. We keep trying to force characters into grooves. We influence the author through our feedback and guesses, but our feedback is always a rehash of other stories that we love.
    This story is the Bard trying to force the narritives of the past into this story, while the story is trying to break free of that and make something new.
    That is why I like this story so much. I keep trying to put a frame around the story, and it keeps breaking out of the frame.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Wangrin

    Awesome arc so far. Most of the implications like cordelias dual refusal of a name and agnes fake ritual have only become apparent to me through comments of other readers. What i’m trying to say is: dear author, you are obviously very smart and possess enormous control over your created world, but, please let us readers grasp implications like this more easily. All those interrupted sentences or half statements by characters that allude to deeper implications are extremely frustrating. You try to build up effect and drama but you lose most readers this way. We read this story not knowing what you know and often with longer pauses in between. Have some pity and let us know what we should. Some of your brilliance gets lost otherwise.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lord_GM

      I agree. I struggle as well and had to read the comments. And this is not the first time I had to ask what the heck is actually going on. This chapter and the not-a-dialogue between Bard and Augur is especially bad. There are four levels of communication going on, as far as I can tell.
      1. What is acutally said out loud. But they are jumping from topic to topic, use incomplete sentences and so many pronouns I have trouble connecting to the correct noun that this doesn’t make much sense to me.
      2. The implcations. Someone mentioned in the comments that Augur is starting a ritual to bind fey that would require her to sacrifice herself. Not only do I seem to have missed all the clues for that, I fail to see the reasoning that would lead Augur to such a drastic act.
      3. The name level and the visions: Augur continues to see signs throughout the conversation. But we are only told the signs themselves and maybe a hint of what they might mean. But it is up to the reader to connect them to the current situation. Again something I struggle with.
      4. The bigger picture: How this all connects to events outside this particular scene. It is implied that White Knight’s appearence was planned. But from whom? Who has sent the invitation? Why is WK in the city (which could be unrelated)? And what did Augur do to make him appear ahead of schedule?

      I can only write from my perspective, but I am sure I am not the only person struggling with the subtleties of PGTE.

      In the last chapter the conversation between the spymaster and Scribe was great. It confirmed suscpicions I already had, so I could feel clever, and informed me of things i have missed so I was brought up to speed and could contiune the story.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Andrew Mitchell

      I too know the feeling, occasionally with PGtE and sometimes with other novels as well. I too, felt a bit lost the first time I read the interactions between the Augur and the Bard. And the second time I read it too. 🙂

      Some introductory points about reading comprehension. I apologise if these are already known/obvious to you:
      – People have an extremely wide range of reading comprehension levels, all the way from to functionally illiterate.
      – So any piece of writing will, to some readers, be too basic and uninteresting to be enjoyable and, at the same time, be too difficult and incomprehensible to other readers.
      – Authors literally cannot suit everyone.
      – Successful authors have to consciously choose what level they’re aiming at before they start to write. And, if it’s a series of novels, originally meant for a teenage audience, perhaps increase the reading comprehension level of later novels. Harry Potter is an example.
      – Many, perhaps all, readers feel successful after they have struggled with a chapter and managed to understand it (or most of it). Struggle and achievement is part of everyone’s journey to be a better reader. Part of this journey from struggle to comprehension is facilitated by re-reading the challenging parts, as I did with this chapter.

      With all that in mind, my view is that Erratic Errata has got the balance right with PGtE.
      – Based on the comments, EE’s writing satisfies many readers. By this I mean that they enjoy most chapters and look forward to reading more.
      – Similarly, some high proportion of readers seem to be challenged by some chapters. And, by themselves, or with the help of other commenters, they extract more meaning and feel successful in that.
      – The level of reading comprehension has been slowly increasing book by book. Which is quite appropriate given the series is (I believe) pitched at young adults.

      One final thought: Authors often / sometimes (?) don’t have one specific interpretation in mind. They want to facilitate readers to create their own meaning, and some authors even say that every interpretation is as valid as any other. This is evident in PGtE in the repeated explorations of the bet between Above and Below and how it is playing out in Calernia; and the diversity of views about this that are seen in the comments.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Lord_GM

        I will try not to interpret your post as a diplomatically phrased: “Piss of, if you are too dumb to understand this!”

        Reading the scene with Agnes and Bard had me feel like Masego during that conversation with the two Praesi highborn at the party in Thalassina, you remember? The ones he incinerated on the spot for insulting the Woe? Like him I understand the words, but not the meaning, because context is missing. Actually I think I have it worse because sometimes even the words make no sense due to typos, bad grammar, ‘colorful speach’ and *imprecise* use of pronouns.
        So maybe it would be more correct to say I feel like Masego at that party with the two Praesi speaking with a heavy accent.
        And then there is the thing with the Agnes’ distracting visions…
        …Masego at the party with the two Praesi speaking with heavy accents and on drugs, so it’s not even sure they are talking to him or a figment behind him!

        Re-reading the chapter won’t do much against the ‘accent’ or the figment effect.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. > had me feel like Masego during that conversation with the two Praesi highborn

          I think that’s kinda the point! (I’ll also note that Masego’s response was pretty much correct for his society — Praesi who try to play “mean girl”, or even eavesdrop, on someone vastly more powerful than them… shouldn’t really expect to survive the experience.)

          Every writer of fantasy (and most of SF) eventually has to deal with the case of writing at least interactions with a character who is meant to have intelligence, insight, knowledge, biology, or other features that are simply beyond human comprehension. EE has mostly skated around such situations; for example, we haven’t had POV from any angels, demons, or even post-apotheosis gods.

          Some of the conversations and rare POVs with the Dead King come close, but it turns out he’s not quite as special as he thinks. The Wandering Bard comes close, but she’s usually trying to show a human face, and when it’s Cat she’s talking to, Cat generally explains afterwards what happened.

          But Wandering Bard versus Augur? There we had two characters whose view of the world, and their understanding of its deeper currents, are frankly superhuman, and they had no need to explain themselves to any passing mortals. In that situation, I’d say a half-incomprehensible dialogue is very much to be expected.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Andrew Mitchell

          > I will try not to interpret your post as a diplomatically phrased: “Piss of, if you are too dumb to understand this!”

          Good, because that interpretation would be wrong. I was trying to my best to be helpful and I didn’t want to mis-communicate by making assumptions about what you already knew.

          Like

          1. Wangrin

            I am happy that my feelings have created some resonance. I felt like i was the only stupid guy who does not get the obscure references. I am not a native speaker (though i am as close as it gets) and i assumed that some of the riddles get lost on me due to language intuition. I understand that bard and agnes are characters who deserve quite a bit of obscurity, but i think cordelias ascent to namehood did not. That being said, were this just another page in a finished story, i would not bother to stop and try and understand any of it. It would simply irritate me and estrange me from the story. I think EE has every right to write his story any way he wants, but were this a printed book he would need to have it appeal to a broader audience. Not just because people are stupid, but because it interrupts the formation of a red thread somewhat. If the challenge to connect the dots is to broad, you will invariably lose people on the way. One problem for me is also that i dont trust my own interpretations very much. Not that they would be correct most of the time.

            Liked by 1 person

  17. jack

    Reminds me of Monty Python.

    “Strange women lyin in ponds distributing swords, is no basis for a system of government!”

    “Supreme executive power derives from a mandate of the masses, not some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

    Granted, the ‘divine mandate to rule’ in this setting has a lot more weight behind it, but I loved seeing a character who’s actual response is ‘No, that’s not how we do things here. We already have a system of government and we don’t accept being ruled over by divinely chosen champions.
    We vote.

    Liked by 3 people

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