“Orphan am I, yet with many mothers and fathers. At once ruler and ruled, yet never only one.”
– Famous Proceran riddle, referring to the city of Salia
I’d never been all that fond of the cloying amount of ceremony that accompanied rising up the ranks.
Oh, I understood the reasons for it. I’d argued the matter with Black back in the day, when we still had our lessons in Ater. Said that it was absurd to treat a king or a general as if they were gods, that the more you set distance between the people making decisions and the people about which those decisions were made the more you ran risks of losing perspective. I still believed that, truth be told, but after years in command of armies and a few wearing a crown I could better appreciate the points my teacher had made back then. When someone was invested with a great deal of power and authority, treating them like a stranger off the street meant treating all that power and authority just as casually. That tended to foster bad habits. In Praes the lie of Malicia and Black’s invincibility had kept rebellions from flaring up because they’d just seemed beyond that: Black always ended up crushing his foes, Malicia always ended up having been three steps ahead of everyone else. It was the same principle for this, more or less: the more ceremony you surrounded someone with, the more they seemed different. Apart from the rest. And, since they were of a different breed from the common man on the street, their authority need not be fought and their power need not be questioned.
That was the reason while my morning had turned into a damned slog, when it came down to it. There were four delegations that the Principate of Procer was to welcome into Salia officially for the peace conference at the capital, and while I would have been happy with being ushered in through the city gates without first needing to bribe the guard that just wasn’t the way diplomacy was conducted between great powers. No, this had to be a show. So everyone had come with their nicest banners and their armour freshly polished, prepared a hundred empty courtesies and now Procer was going to parade us one after another through the large Griffon Gate and the broad avenue it led to. Callow had not been invited to proceed first, naturally. The Principate might be in dire need of my help but it wasn’t going to own up to that before the eyes of gods and men: no, instead it was the Dominion of Levant that was invited in first. Levant was an ally, after all, and a member of the Grand Alliance too. Still, at least we were second. General Rumena was third in line, which I took to be a rather blunt slight to the League of Free Cities in general and likely the Tyrant in particular.
It’d been made clear to me that we would be signaled when the time came for my delegation to proceed, and I’d sent Adjutant ahead to make sure everything went smoothly. That left me with rather little to do, to my rising irritation as time went by. General Abigail was, as usual, finding work for herself so she would not have to remain in my immediate vicinity and while the Third Army was laden with old War College acquaintances of mine – it had, after all, initially been raised from Nauk’s old command in the Fifteenth – there were none I could casually approach for conversation. With Archer still out there somewhere, having sent a single message through Robber’s marauders that she was ‘onto something’, that left me rather light on choices. Moreso than usual since it’d been decided neither Black nor Akua would accompany the delegation on the first day, as that was when there’d be the most eyes on us, and sadly Vivienne was further ahead of our procession. I could go to her, but it’d disturb arrangements that’d taken the better part of an hour to put in place and it felt a little pitiful to do that out of mere boredom.
There were around three hundred of us, arrayed in our finest. A full cohort of legionaries in their parade grounds best made up the heart of it, veterans from a half a dozen fields most of which were old to my service. Thirty knights of the Order of the Broken Bells added a dash of Callowan flair to it, though their hymn-inscribed armour and long lances had been proved to be anything but decorative in conflict against foes of Creation and beyond. They brought with them tall streaming banners, numbering three. The Third Army’s own golden numerals on blue, carrying with them the cognomen of Dauntless I’d granted them at Sarcella as well as the fresher addition of crow wings at the bottom corners. The broken bells of bronze set on black that were the heraldry of the sole chivalric order of Callow trailed in the wind besides it, and last of all of all my own. The laden silver balance on black, what Hakram had told me my people now called the Crown and Sword. And under it words I now longer called my own: justifications matter only to the just. I’d been considering having them struck for some time now, but it would draw questions I was not entirely ready to answer.
I’d been made just as gaudy as the rest of this procession, put up in full plate for the first time in ages though it was one without a helmet – my hair had been put up a long elaborate braid and I’d put on a crown for once. Silver set with emeralds, the practical crown I’d worn when actually moving around in Laure instead of sitting on the fancy chair in full regalia and attempting to look wise. It was not a coincidence that Lady Vivienne Dartwick, herself sitting astride her mount in a beautiful blue dress, wore a crown as well. A slight circlet of silver, without jewels and much less ornate than mine, but a crown nonetheless. She was heiress-designate to the throne, after all, and though still a lady in title arguably she had higher status than any Proceran royalty save for Cordelia Hasenbach. I’d begun to consider the virtues of outright sending for General Abigail so I could entertain myself at her exp- to consult with the senior commander of my escort, I meant, when Adjutant finally dragged his carcass back to me instead. The Procerans had finally given the signal, so as soon as Hakram was standing by my side our procession began moving forward.
For all its fame, Salia had yet to impress me. This far west it was hardly rare for a great city to expand far beyond its walls, especially if it had seen little war as the capital of the Principate had. Even southern Callow had dabbled in that bad habit. Salia, though, seemed to have more territory outside the distant Yearning Walls than behind them. It wasn’t slums, at least not near the road we were led through. But it was certainly a chaotic mess, since it seemed construction was only overseen by the sides of the large roads that led to the deeper city gates. The smell of mud and shit was staggeringly potent even in winter, and chimneys were belching smoke upwards seemingly endlessly. By the looks of it all the cattle and workers that would be out in the fields around the capital during fairer seasons had migrated to this riotous outer-city for the snows. Houses were wood and mud, rarely stone, and they’d been built in tight clusters like a thousand strange little islands separated from one another by muddy street-moats. The stone road that led towards the Griffon Gate was clean, though, and swept clear of snow. No house was every built less than forty feet away from either side though merchant carts of food or trade goods filled much of that empty room instead.
Small crowds had gathered by the side of the road, though they dared not approach soldiers. At least they seemed more in the mood to stare than throw stones. The deeper we went into Salia the more it began to resemble the Proceran towns and cities I’d seen, as if order was radiating from the centre of the capital and waned the further from it you stood. Streets began to have a semblance of order, shops with hanging signs and neat little houses raised in stone with tiled or thatched roofs. It all looked rather prosperous, though not the kind of wealthy the stories about the beating heart of Procer had led me to expect. Oh, I’d not deny the city was damned large but then so was Ater and the Wasteland’s capital was a treasure trove of grand architecture. Mind you, large swaths of Ater were half-abandoned and only filled when famine drove the desperate to the Tower’s shadow while it looked like every damned inch of the capital of Procer was crawling with a dozen people. Still, the looming cathedrals beyond the Yearning Walls in the distance were distinctly less impressive than the gargantuan horrors of the City of Gates. Procer was a younger nation than any on Calernia save for Levant, I thought, for all its great wealth and power.
It was almost an hour all told until we stood before the Griffon Gate, the great panels of bronze on its wood listing every First Prince and Princess to have ever reigned. It opened to the sound of trumpets, and beyond it was revealed the sweeping Merovins avenue. Great statues of marble flanked on us on both sides, beginning on my right with the stern gaze of Clothor Merovins – the first to ever be elected to the office of First Prince. I suspected the man’s actual furs had not been quite so rakishly cut, or offered glimpse of what was admittedly an impressively muscled chest, but that was the Alamans for you.
“They’re not all royalty, did you know?” Hakram said.
I glanced at him and cocked an eyebrow.
“Famous generals and officials can earn one as well,” he gravelled. “One of Rozala Malanza’s ancestors is further up from the days before the Malanzas were royalty. He conquered most of northern Levant for the First Prince of the time.”
“I don’t suppose anyone’s told the Blood about that?” I drily asked
“I believe it might be one of those inconvenient truths we must all politely ignore,” Hakram replied, clicking his teeth in amusement.
The brassy call of trumpets jarred us out of the conversation. The Proceran welcome was laid out before us, a riot of silken banners under brightly armoured horsemen and even more colourful highborn. Every line with a seat in the Highest Assembly had sent a representative, by the looks of it, because that was a great many banners. And an infuriatingly large amount of very nice warhorses. They could have outfitted a good company of heavy horse with that, the wasteful fucks. Ugh, this was going to be as bad as the Tower wasn’t it? All rubies the size of a fist used a bloody bench decorations and gold slapped onto things that had absolutely no need of being made of gold. Which, to be fair, was essentially everything except certain coinage and maybe crowns. A representative for the First Prince herself, an old man that carried the title of Master of Orders – one of the important officials in the Assembly, as I recalled, though he shouldn’t be royalty himself – formally greeted us. I forced a smile through the greeting and let Vivienne answer it in my place. That drew attention from our hosts, but then it’d been meant to. The sooner it was made clear to people that Vivienne was truly meant to be my successor, the better.
Advance resumed with the additional escort, though still at an agonizingly slow crawl. Salia itself was worth a second look this deep in, though, I’d admit to that. The Yearning Walls were well-built and apt to weather a siege, I’d say that much, and their shockingly rose-gold stone shining like a mirror under the sun. Hakram continued to speak in a low voice as we passed through, his own research on the city far dwarfing the few books I’d opened in expectation of my visit. Salia itself was often said to be split in two parts, the City Yearned and the City Yearning – a reference to some ancient poem that’d established the name of its walls, with the city behind them being yearned and the city outside being yearning. Passing the gate had brought us into the City Yearned, and into the portion of it known as the low districts. So named not for the poverty of their inhabitants but rather in contrast to the high districts to the west, which had been raised on high hills. The low districts covered nearly a third of the City Yearned, stretching across its south, and the knowledge that it wasn’t even the wealthy Salians that lived in these parts had my stomach clenching in envy. The houses were all stone, often several stories high – Adjutant noted that renting was common practice in these parts, and very lucrative – it was not rare so see coloured glass windows. These were artisans, I thought, traders and officials. Yet their wealth clearly rivaled that of the minor nobility of Callow, if not outright surpassed it.
How much richer would the nobles be here? I’d read that Procer was arguably the wealthiest nation on Calernia, some of its princes surpassing even the famously rich High Seats of Praes, but I’d never really understood until now how far down that wealth went. When Vivienne had told me, before the Tenth Crusade, that’d it’d been brutally expensive to bribe even the servants in the holdings of the Prince of Iserre I’d assumed the Jacks were had, or that she was exaggerating some for effect. Now I could believe that even the servants in the capital of that principality had been well-off, by my people’s standards. It was a bitter pill to swallow, that the Principate had been basking in all this while my ancestors were dying in droves just to keep Praes in its shore of the Wasaliti.
Merovins avenue led directly to the old palace and the Highest Assembly, but that was not our destination. We diverted northeast through another broad avenue, going through the districts known as Les Vendeuses. Great open-air markets, I’d been told, though we skirted the edges of them only. The route we took led through pleasant sights instead. Some streets seemed to be bordered entirely by great winter gardens artistically adorned with glasswork and sculptures, others filled with guild halls and mansions that competed for the most elegant manner of opulence. It was with some amusement I noted that not once we passed in front of a House of Light. The crowds were something of a surprise, having thickened the further in we went. I’d expected jeering and rocks, but while there certainly wasn’t any jubilant cheering we were being treated as a show rather than, well, the Enemy incarnate. The knights probably helped, I decided, for they were a popular sight with children. Orcs were as well, though more in fascinated horror than positive appreciation.
They’d probably never seen orcs before today, I thought. Or goblins, or Taghreb and Soninke. Even Callowans were rare this far west, these days. It’s another world, I thought. One that knew nothing of the blood-soaked Fields of Streges, of the eternal back and forth between knights of black and white and their grand armies that clashed every few decades. They did not understand the dread of seeing a city rise into the sky, heavy with death, or the way greenskins still flinched at the call of our knight’s horns being sounded. All we had in common with these people was worn history, slights and boons long past, and how little did that really weigh? I understand you less than I understand Praesi, I thought, watching the people of Salia. I know their truths and their conceits, their mad ambitions and dark splendours. But you? I know so little of you it could be said I know nothing at all. It was a humbling thing, to know that. A daunting one as well. The world was large and even this meagre sliver of it was vast. Could anyone really change something that… immense? A troubling thought, and not one I wanted to linger on.
It was a relief when the procession ended at last and we entered the restricted district where our provided lodgings stood. It was called the Lineal, for it’d once been the ancestral grounds of the Merovins chieftains-turned-royalty of Salia. They had kept large grounds to themselves, the seat of their power when another line claimed the title of First Prince or Princess. Now that the Merovins were long gone, the Lineal stood as almost a city within a city that was under the sole authority of the ruler of Salia. Its significant attached incomes were one of the great boons of the title, and as the old seat of power of royal line it was a beautiful place. I’d expected a manse and some attending barracks for my soldiers, something along the lines of the noble’s houses you could see in Laure’s Whitestone Quarter, but instead we were directed to what was effectively a small palace. The grounds surrounding the structure alone were larger than the palace in Laure, and I suspected this was a winter pleasure palace and not anything official.
I reined in my horse after passing through a pretty copper gate sculpted like a flock of chubby naked Cherubim playing laughingly, slowing Zombie’s stride in the courtyard. There were servants swarming all over the place, which were most likely spies, and I almost bit the inside of my cheek. It was going to be a damned pain keeping track of all these people with my limited escort, so I’d probably have to cordon off a part of the palace and have it guarded and warded at all times.
“Any chance at least one of them isn’t spying for Hasenbach?” I sighed and asked Hakram.
“Of course,” Adjutant amusedly agreed. “There’s probably a few working for other royals.”
I accepted his offered hand to dismount, wincing at the impact, and when a stablehand hesitantly approached Zombie I suppressed a grin. I glanced appreciatively at the sandy-haired man, who while approaching a winged undead fae horse looked more like he was wondering if she’d fit in the stable than if this was in any way wise.
“Don’t touch the reins, she’ll bite you,” I said. “Zombie, the man is going to show you where the stables are.”
My mount huffed, displeased.
“You can’t come in with me,” I patiently replied, “this is a very nice palace. It’d be impolite.”
I glanced at the stablehand, who was now seemingly wondering what he’d gotten himself into. I could sympathize.
“She’ll follow you to the stables,” I said. “Leave a stall open for her, but she’ll wander around for a while still. If she gets anywhere she’s not supposed to, send for me. But she’ll be good, won’t you Zombie?”
I scratched her mane and she whinnied.
“Liar,” I muttered, not entirely without affection,
I flicked a glance at the stablehand one last time.
“Don’t feed her anything,” I instructed. “Even if she whines. She always fills her stomach, but she doesn’t actually need to – you know what, just don’t feed her anything. Let’s leave it at that.”
I’d hastily amended my approach when even implicit discussion of necromancy made the man look like he was about to faint. He bowed, looking like he was one stern talking to away from weeping.
“It will all be done exactly as you say, Your Majesty,” he said.
It would have been polite to call what followed retreating, but I knew what it looked like when someone legged it.
“Don’t you say a damn thing,” I grunted without turning.
“I would never,” Hakram lied, the filthy traitor.
“I can feel your mockery without even looking at you,” I complained.
“Would it help your mood to terrify a gardener as well?” my loyal right hand said.
I turned just to flip him off, though the deepening amusement on his face – like the world’s ugliest green cat had just caught a bird seasoning itself – warned me I’d just missed something. A young woman in Salian livery had been approaching, and was now looking like she’d had no idea queens could gesture obscenely and she wasn’t sure whether she should pretend she’d never seen that or not. Godsdamnit, Hakram, I thought. You know Hasenbach’s going to read about that in a report, don’t you?
“Just say whatever it is you were sent for,” I tiredly told the woman.
“I was sent with a message scroll, Your Majesty,” she said.
As I recalled, in Proceran etiquette people weren’t supposed to hand things directly to royalty. I glanced at Hakram, who stepped forward to accept the scroll. He broke the seal – featureless, a mere press of wax – and glanced at the contents.
“An invitation,” Adjutant said.
“For?” I asked.
“Tea with the First Prince of Procer,” Hakram said. “She awaits us in this palace’s own parlour.”