“Reputation is as a wild horse; gone at a gallop and returned at a trot.”
– Arlesite saying
“Tell me what you’ve learned,” I ordered.
The small town they envoys of the First Prince had led us to was called Roque-Faillie, and though it was not particularly pretty or luxurious it did have the benefit of being mostly empty. Apparently during winter most of the countryside around Salia went empty with the seasonal labourers or farms and fields the locals called manants migrating into the capital with whatever coin they’d saved up. The Callowan in me balked at the notion that good honest farmers could be effectively forced by poverty to take refuge in a large city, but Hakram had noted it was a little more complicated than that. Unlike my own people, who tended to leave the family home and strike out on their own unless they were in line to inherit property or trade, Alamans apparently tended to form in closely-knit clans of kin that bought property belonging to the family itself and not individuals. The young and fit worked fields during the warm seasons, the returned to the family’s house or houses in Salia with that wealth once winter rolled in. It was all very communal, and rather strange to my own sensibilities. Still, practically speaking it meant that there’d been a large string of mostly empty towns and villages within a day’s march of the capital where all the many envoys and armies could be settled.
According to my scouting lines – and Robber, who I’d let loose to skulk with for sole instruction not to start a diplomatic incident that wasn’t fairly deniable – and the chatter amongst us diplomats, settling my men in Roque-Faillie meant I was between the League’s town and the Dominion’s. Amusingly enough they’d put General Rumena and its drow past the Dominion, possibly in an attempt to separate them from the rest of my delegation. Considering most of the Firstborn were prompt to violence and spoke not a whit of Chantant, I suspected anyone trying to negotiate with them on the sly would have ended up having a rough time even if I’d not been the First Under the Night. Still, Heavens take pity on whatever poor fucker Hasenbach would send to probe the intentions of the drow before it came to negotiation. Princess Rozala had garrisoned her larger army in between us and the capital, though she’d had to split them into three smaller forces in different towns. Not that her soldiers would complain much, I imagined. Much like mine, after so many months of campaigning they’d find sleeping in an actual bed surrounded by actual walls to be the height of luxury. Worryingly, though, Malanza had promptly vanished into the city. So had the Grey Pilgrim, my watchers told me.
At a guess, it might relate to the fact that someone had set the damned capital on fire since we’d last spoken with the First Prince. The smoke was lingering over a large chunk of Salia, visible even from miles away, and if the capital of Procer was anything like Laure an uncomfortably large amount of it must have been made of wood. Probably even more, I grimly guessed. Salia was said to be the largest city on Calernia, large than even Ater which boasted around five hundred thousand souls. You couldn’t house that many people in stone: no empire in Creation was so extravagantly rich. Whatever it was that’d happened, though, I needed to know of it. If I was about to be blamed for yet another fucking fire I’d not started, best I know of it before I ended up accused before Gods and men. Thankfully, we’d had Jacks in the city and Vivienne had been very far from idle these last few weeks. There was a reason I’d seen so little of her.
“There was an attempted coup,” Vivienne Dartwick bluntly said.
For all that these days she was Lady Dartwick in more than an honorary sense, as my heiress-designate to the throne of Callow, she was still the head of the Jacks. I was genuinely unsure if the Fairfaxes had kept spies of their own before the Conquest, though I assumed they must have. If there’d been such a web of informants Black had long destroyed or suborned it, which meant we’d had to start very much from scratch. As a result, though the quality of the reports of the Jacks was fairly solid the eclectic nature of the organisations they’d been put together from meant there were some glaring blind spots in our tradecraft and that our people were usually very much outmatched by the spies of other nations. Not least, I’d admit, for what was likely the same reason the Fairfaxes had not had a reputation for being particularly well-informed: spies were expensive. Even without getting into bribes and hirelings, just keeping the Jacks fed and clothes and paid was painfully costly. If trade with Praes and Procer didn’t pick up after the wars came to an end, we might have to disband parts of the Jacks simply because we couldn’t afford to keep such a sprawling array of agents.
For now, though, dwarven gold would prop us up. It’d certainly opened more than a few doors in Salia that would otherwise have been closed to us, not to mention loosened a few tongues. East or west, everyone liked to make a little coin on the side.
“Fuck,” I eloquently said.
This was an informal council, without even the full roster of the Woe – Masego had gone to speak with the Rogue Sorcerer and Archer had mentioned she was, Sisters bless, ‘just going for a walk’ – though in truth all those with an interest or proper role in the proceedings were there. Vivienne as my heiress and the head of the Jacks, Hakram as my right hand and Akua as, well, Akua Sahelian. Whether that was a good or terrible thing had wildly carried depending on the time and situation since I’d first met her, but at the very least she’d never been slow on the uptake.
“Pretty much,” Vivienne agreed, brushing back a strand that’d slipped below her milkmaid braid. “City’s boiling over with rumours and we don’t have anyone anywhere close to the First Prince’s inner circle, but we’ve gathered at least a little more than your average man in the street. For one, the House of Light and the Silver Letters were heavily involved.”
The Silver Letters were one of the Principate’s several informant networks – Merciless Gods, how much must it cost to run a solid network across even just the span of Procer, much less three? – and said to be in particular the one concerned with the affairs of Procer itself. The Circle of Thorns, the second, were charged with gathering secrets abroad. We’d caught a few of their people trying to get into my court and even the Regals before they’d been gelded, and most likely missed a few more. The Eyes of the Empire had continued to out them to me even after relations between Malicia and myself had cooled all the way to ice, though there was no telling of those had been the Tower’s people or Scribe’s. It was the third and last that was surprising me, though, because if the House had been part of the coup then they should have been as well.
“Not the Holy Society?” I asked. “I though their whole mandate was keeping an eye on the House.”
“Their nominal head, a certain Brother Simon de Gorgeault, was sought by parts of the city guard on charges of murder and heresy for some time before the First Prince crushed the coup,” Vivienne replied. “It seems he was fooled but not complicit.”
“As I recall the head of the Silver Letters was an interesting little man by the name of Balthazar Serigny,” Akua said. “Unless that changed?”
She glanced at Vivienne, who had not hidden her dislike in the slightest but remained professional. My spymistress shook her head.
“Interesting how?” Hakram asked.
“As in ‘the Eyes have been working on him for more than a decade’. I know not to what purpose, however,” Akua said. “None of my mother’s spies ever rose high enough in the ranks to be brought into the scheme, though the Lady Scribe would know.”
Fuck, I thought, this time at least refraining from speaking it out loud. We couldn’t be blamed for the bloody House of Light deciding now was the time to start a fourth Liturgical War, but if the Silver Letters were the fault of the Scribe then that put us in the deeps as well. Black was viciously loyal to those he considered his own, at once both one of his best and worst traits. He likely wouldn’t have agreed to throw her to the hounds even if she deserved it a few years ago, much less now that the Calamities had begun dropping like flies.
“That makes for spies and priests,” Adjutant noted in his gravelling voice. “Which princes were involved? They would have needed a candidate to replace Hasenbach.”
“It’s not common knowledge yet, not in the streets, but apparently this was all in the name of Princess Rozala,” Vivienne said.
Akua’s fine eyebrow arched, as if to remind me she had predicted the possibility of strife between the First Prince and the first halfway-decent princess I’d ever met. It didn’t fit, though, not to me. We’d discussed how the two rulers might skirmish through the Highest Assembly and debate over the Accords, but neither Akua nor Hakram had ever brought up a coup as a possibility. Neither knew Cordelia had effectively stacked the Assembly in her favour, back then, I then reminded myself. Even still, I had a hard time reconciling the same princess who’d been the first to toss her crown, the princess who’d plunged her sword in the earth and sworn oaths of gratitude, with someone who’d risk the madness that a coup in the narrow window where we had a truce with Keter might bring on us all. She would have to know that the Lycaonese would take is a betrayal beyond forgiveness if the first First Prince of their people was deposed not even halfway through a war with the Hidden Horror.
“She left the for the capital not long after settling her soldiers,” I said. “I don’t suppose you know on what terms?”
“We have someone in Louis Rohanon’s serving staff,” Vivienne smiled. “She went livid, when it was intimated this was from her hand, and threatened something called the ‘liar’s leash’ on anyone who’d repeat such slander. She left with hardly an escort, too.”
“Don’t suppose you know what this leash is?” I frowned.
My heiress shook her head.
“From context, it is likely to be unpleasant,” the former thief said.
“It is an ancient Arlesite punishment for one who speaks calumny of a real,” Akua conversationally provided. “A hook tied to a long line of twine is put through the tongue of the liar and tied to the tail of a horse, which the real then rides for a mile. If the liar survives the mile without the hook ripping through their tongue, the Gods Above have judged their lie to have been accidental. Otherwise, what is left of their tongue is to be carved out and buried beneath the gate of the real’s fortress.”
Vivienne looked split between sharp irritation at being shown up on even such a slight detail and disgust as the old Arlesite ways of justice. Mind you Akua had said real and not prince, which was a telling detail: it meant it predated the founding of the Principate. Which for all its many, many flaws, was significantly less prone to elaborate executions than its predecessor-states. Mind you, I could cast no stones there without being a hypocrite. My people had indulged in some excruciatingly brutal ways of killing prove traitors, especially those who struck bargains with Praes. It’d been delightfully horrible to read about public drawing and quarterings, or even the rarer red hangings as a kid – I’d taken me year to realize the unlikeliness of books about the worst excesses of Callowan ‘justice’ being so easy to get your hands on, Black you prick – but as I aged I’d been left to wonder at the monstrosity of hurting even a traitor so carefully they could be hanged by their entrails. Even the Deoraithe had dabbled in impalement whenever the Clans made a run at the Wall, though their worst they’d always kept for whenever they got their hands on a Dread Emperor. I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised Akua knew about this, given that the Praesi had quite literally written the definitive books on this, but why would she have cared about some Arlesite… oh.
“You looked into bits like that for all over, didn’t you?” I said, reluctantly amused. “When you still believed you were going to conquer the whole continent.”
Akua looked only mildly embarrassed.
“Attention to ironic detail is the difference between a Triumphant and a Nihilis,” she defended.
Gods, I could not wait to pass that on to Indrani and see the utter mockery that would follow. That ought to be weeks’ worth of entertainment right there, maybe even a full month if Robber was dragged into it. Adjutant cleared his throat, which I allowed without resistance to drag me back to the matters at hand. As amusing as that had been, we did have more pressing matters on our hands: like the fact that someone had torched part of Salia and that someone I must by extension answer for might have been involved. Hells, assuming I wasn’t just blamed on general principle. Although, the commander of the legionaries I’d brought was General Abigail so who knew? Maybe this time she’d get the blame, regardless of involvement or general infeasibility. Fucking William, I couldn’t believe people still thought I was responsible for Marchford. Both times, too, thank you very much Chider.
“Cordelia Hasenbach remains First Prince, however,” Hakram half-asked.
Like me, he’d assumed that if she wasn’t that news would have been the first thing spoken.
“She is,” Vivienne confirmed. “She also came out of the mess smelling like roses with the Highest Assembly and highly popular in Salia itself. Rumour has it she prevented the summary execution of the conspirators so they could stand proper trial instead right after they tried to assassinate her. Which brings me to another important part.”
She drew breath.
“Both the White Knight and the Witch of the Woods are in the city,” she said, blue-grey eyes narrowing. “The White Knight was the one attempting to pass judgement on the conspirators, before Hasenbach interrupted him.”
I leaned forward in my seat, feeling a mixture of surprise and respect ripple through the other two as well.
“She told the hatchet man of the Choir of Judgement to step out?” I said, and a heartbeat later my stomach sunk. “Shit. Shit.”
“Catherine?” Vivienne asked, sounding surprise. “I thought you’d be pleased. It shows great adherence to principles in accord with, well, the Accords.”
Hakram had been with me longest and was most familiar with my way of thinking. He got it first.
“It shows will and fearlessness, as well as strong belief,” Adjutant said. “And it is a powerful story: we know what brew these are the ingredient for.”
“Better than even odds she got a Name out of that,” I cursed. “Can you really see the White Knight backing down otherwise?”
And that was an issue, because if Cordelia had come into a Name then the Wandering Bard could now reach her at will. Fresh off her transition she’d be flush with power and confidence, if hers was anything like mine, which would make her harder to influence in some ways and significantly easier in others. Especially if the Augur vouched for the Bard, which unfortunately seemed quite possible. Hasenbach wouldn’t have years of history with the Intercessor, though, no ironclad trust. I could work with that if I moved quick enough, which it seemed I’d have to.
“That is the end of the notion of Named being excluded from ruling, I’d say,” Akua calmly mused. “That clause is dead in the water, if First Prince is now more than a mere title.”
Wouldn’t be First Prince, I thought. Too weak a story, too many strings attached. A Name that could be made illegitimate by a vote of the Highest Assembly, that had to be sanctioned by such a vote in the first place? No, it’d never form properly unless. It’d be something along one of the few lines the disparate peoples of Procer had in common belief. If not for the House of Light apparently being part of the conspiracy I would have bet on it being from holy scripture, but as things stood it’d probably drawn on a narrower stripe of commonality. The Fair Prince, maybe? Procer didn’t really have any strong unifying stories, which made it difficult to predict. No point in guessing when I knew so little.
“We’ll see,” I grunted. “There’s rule and then there’s rule.”
Wizards of the West had been the royal wizards of Callow for centuries and wielded both wealth and influence as well as their magic, but they’d not owned land and only rarely commanded armies. I might have to compromise on the degree of power Named were allowed in rulership, but simply flying a white flag over the matter wasn’t in the cards.
“Rumours are split as to who is responsible for all this,” Vivienne said. “You are prominent among them, Catherine, but both the Black Knight and the Dead King are preferred culprits. My people believe that the First Prince is actively encouraging the perception this was the work of the Hidden Horror, for both political and diplomatic reasons.”
“She’s discrediting the priests,” Adjutant said, huffing out soft laughter. “They can’t be holy men, if they were the pawns of the Dead King.”
“Preparing for a purge, you think?” I asked. “She hangs the Holies and the House of Light in Procer is essentially leaderless. Given the times, the House might look to a hero or the Assembly for leadership until they’ve managed to name a fresh batch of replacements.”
I cocked my head to the side. There weren’t a lot of prominent priestly Named, at the moment. The Grey Pilgrim, arguably, but he was effectively Levantine royalty so it was doubtful Procerans would fall behind him. Roland was Alamans, but also a wizard, and what Proceran heroes were there aside from him? There’d been some knightly man at the Battle of the Camps, if he was still alive, and I vaguely remembered the Forsworn Healer working with Proceran priests on the shield trick that’d fucked us on the first day, but I knew next to nothing about that hero save for the obvious.
“The diplomatic benefits are obvious,” Akua said. “If these Holies – ah, claiming for the silent Heavens, now there’s a lovely swindle – were the pawns of Keter, then everything they have done in the last few years is suspect. Including naming you as Arch-heretic of the East.”
“You sound a little sad,” I accused.
“Oh, it’ll be useful for negotiations,” the shade said. “But such an epithet is quite prestigious in certain parts, you know.”
“The benefits of a retraction with Calernia at large outweigh the prestige it gained her in Praes,” Hakram said.
“I would not dare imply otherwise, Adjutant,” Akua said, gracefully dipping her head.
“It’ll cost them, though,” Vivienne suddenly said. “It was a greater conclave that declared you Arch-heretic, not just the Procerans: the Speakers from Ashur and the Lanterns from the Dominion were also involved.”
“If I’m reading the Pilgrim right, the Lanterns might actually be grateful for the excuse,” I said. “They’re having a hard time reconciling it with Mercy not smiting me to ash. Their only way out is saying I tricked the Ophanim, which no one wants to roll the dice one while they’re here to disagree.”
“She’s still effectively saying that her priesthood alone, of all the western ones, was compromised by the Dead King before making it shoulder the whole blame for the nomination,” Vivienne said. “It’s a massive loss of face for the Proceran House, Cat.”
“You believe the First Prince wants to revisit the balance of power set by the Liturgical Wars,” Akua said, sounding surprised but also a tad intrigued. “Arguably, Cordelia Hasenbach has been scrupulously observant of the authority of the House of Light until now. Even when it was at her detriment.”
“That was before they took a swing at her,” I said. “And they’ve been at odds with her policies for some time, too. I’m not necessarily agreeing with what Vivienne is saying but measures she would have balked at a few months ago might be on the table now.”
“It would go some way in explaining her insistence on strict lawfulness in dealing with the conspiracy,” Hakram said. “It allows her to drag the Holies through trials before the Highest Assembly, bringing out the ugly details of how they tried to meddle with the secular powers. She’ll get support from powers that might usually be on the fence, even the royals close to the House won’t want to let it stay in a position to try this again.”
“Public trials of priests while we’re at war with the Dead King?” I said. “That could get messy. Not sure she’d risk that. Traitors or not, they’re House. People won’t be comfortable with priests in front of a tribunal when the Dead are the gate.”
“I’d expect her to go for property over privileges, if she does act,” Akua noted. “All those monasteries and abbeys with attendant lands. The tax emptions as well. The war efforts would justify the measures and leave the appearance of the old order intact while severely curtailing the influence of the House in truth.”
“Ultimately, so long as it does not affect her ability to negotiate with us it is only somewhat relevant to our affairs,” Hakram finally said.
“Our stance going forward hasn’t changed,” I agreed. “An additional degree of caution, maybe, but if Hasenbach is able to keep the White Knight under control it’s not a major concern.”
“I’d prefer if he wasn’t there at all,” Vivienne sighed. “Now the Tyrant gets his trial. We could have put him off for months if the Knight had stayed away.”
“Not sure I’d want to find out what Kairos might do to get him to hurry up, considering he began a war with Procer just to get him there,” I said. “Obviously we’ll need to keep a close eye on him, Vivs, which is why your Jacks-”
It was a pleasant surprise to have a door to be knocked on, after the Everdark and the fields of Iserre. Adjutant bade our sentry to enter, and the young orc in legionary armour passed a message. The Carrion Lord requested audience and had mentioned he was bringing an old friend. Well now, I thought. The Jacks had done admirably well, all things considered, but it wouldn’t beat hearing of this madness straight from the horse’s mouth.
Time to see what the Scribe had to say for herself.