“Even the most skilled of liars are only ever wielding a lie. Truth is the superior artifice, for it will strike deeper than even the most perfect deception.”
– Princess Beatriz of Salamans, later thirteenth First Princess of Procer
“I’m not going to lie,” I muttered under my breath, “it pisses me off a little that anybody can be rich enough to have a room dedicated to tea-drinking.”
Hakram was ahead of us, engaging our guide in what sounded like idle conversation about Salian cloths and their obvious superiority to that of the despicable yet superficially similar works from Lange, so I could vent my indignation without every sentence making it straight to the First Prince’s ear.
“I expect they’ll have one filled with only spices, should we look,” Vivienne drily added. “You know, to make the one that’s just a giant gold ingot stand out less.”
“Right?” I grunted. “Hells, Vivs, you were born noble-”
“A baron line, short on land and incomes even before the Conquest,” she reminded me.
I shot her an incredulous look. Those poor nobles, so very impoverished.
“Did your house have stables?” I asked.
“I’m not dignifying that with an answer,” Lady Dartwick informed me.
“I bet your servants had matching livery too,” I scathingly said.
“You have servants with matching livery, Your Majesty,” she exasperatedly replied.
“Eh,” I said. “More like I’m borrowing them for a few years. And I’d help if any of them wanted to find real decent honest work, like running a tavern-”
“Nests of criminal activity, aside from those in better quarters,” Vivienne told me.
I almost gaped at the audacity of that.
“You’re the Queen of Thieves for Callow,” I indignantly said.
“Mere rumours,” she smoothly said, “all I’m saying is that your notion of what good, honest work is tends to be rather skewed given your…”
“We’re in Procer now, you know,” I growled. “Lese-majesty’s something they actually enforce here.”
“Everything,” Vivienne mused. “Your everything, really. Didn’t you use to participate in an illegal fighting ring?”
“I was also a waitress,” I defensively said. “That was lawful – wait why am I justifying myself to you, you used to be the bloody Thief. Have you actually ever had a job?”
“It’s sad to see one so steeped in her criminal ways rising so high, but these are dark days,” Vivienne sighed.
“That’s a lot of backtalk, coming from someone who couldn’t even murder Hakram,” I muttered.
“Is no one ever going to let that go?” she complained. “Do you all want me to murder Hakram now, you niggling harpies? Don’t you think I won’t, you’ll drive me to it.
There was a commotion in front of us, the attendant that’d been sent to guide us concernedly asking Adjutant if he was all right. He had, I grasped from context, stumbled and let out a choking sound. Merciless Gods he’d been eavesdropping with his Name the whole time, hadn’t he? My cheeks burned a little, but I cleared my throat and put on a mask of queenly dignity. Vivienne looked mildly concerned about her dear friend Hakram Deadhand having stumbled, a degree of shamelessness that was positively royal of her. We were close now, the guide told us with an unnecessary amount of bowing.
“Do you think it still counts as a labyrinth if it’s this full of tapestries and nice woodworks?” I asked.
It really was nice woodwork, too. In the same style as those in the royal palace in Laure, which I’d grimly admit to myself probably meant we’d imitated a Proceran style. They also had tapestries that weren’t about hunting, nature and warring with Praes which I’d confess was a nice change of pace.
“It’s the classic Alamans scheme, my queen,” Vivienne drily said. “If you throw enough jewels at your enemy, they’re bound slip and break something eventually.”
“They’d be in a lot less shit if they’d put some of that tapestry coin on good walls instead,” I grunted in agreement.
“Don’t be silly Your Majesty,” Lady Dartwick sardonically said. “This is the Principate, if there is need of a wall that’s what stacking peasants is for.”
I swallowed a laugh at that. I’d never heard that one before and serving drinks in a tavern that catered to both legionaries and Callowans meant I’d heard a lot of cheap jokes at the expense of Procer. Under the Empire’s occupation it’d been safer to go after Procer than to take a shot at Praes. Since not even the most quiescent of my people had been entirely free of the urge take a verbal swing at the Wasteland on occasion, Procer had been getting rough treatment among my countrymen even before the Tenth Crusade so selflessly provided them with fresh ammunition. Relentless mockery of our hosts had me in a rather pleasant mood by the time we arrived at the small hall where the First Prince of Procer was awaiting the three of us. The fair-haired woman who’d been chatting with Adjutant the whole way rapped her knuckles against the door to signal our arrival and bade us farewell, looking almost reluctant at ending her conversation with Hakram. A majordomo in tasteful silks emerged from the room and bowed, intimating he would be announcing us. As the guest of highest rank, etiquette dictated I enter first.
“Her Majesty Queen Catherine of Callow, first of her name, protector of Daoine and high priestess of the Everdark.”
He had a pleasant, ringing voice, exactly the kind you’d want in someone charged with announcements. Queen of Callow, huh? Not so long ago Hasenbach had refused to even recognize me as Queen in Callow, much less the rightful liege lady of Duchess Kegan of Daoine. And someone had been talking to drow, though that might simply be the consequence of the Pilgrim feeling chatty. I entered, the polished plate on my frame making me regret having left my staff behind with every step I took. A bit of Night smoothed the pain quick enough, but when that ended I’d be left feeling the consequences of my pride tonight. I stepped into the hall, followed by the announcement of Lady Vivienne Dartwick, heiress-designate to the Kingdom of Callow. Much as I disliked the Proceran propensity for luxuries, I could not deny that the parlour before me was a beautiful piece of work. A tall plaster ceiling led into great arched windows of glass that let in the winter midday sun, the lighting coming to rest on a long low table of painted wood covered by a perfectly transparent pane of glass. The walls and draperies were in a pleasant pale green, and the seats prepared at the table looked sinfully comfortable with their matching cushions and broad armrests. The First Prince of Procer was seated at the centre of the table, two people standing behind her in respectful deference, and I advanced to the table as behind me the announcement of Lord Hakram Deadhand of the Howling Wolves, the Adjutant sounded.
One of those two people behind Hasenbach was long familiar to me. Princess Rozala Malanza’s classic Arlesite good looks were only called into attention by the light mail and closely cut tabard she wore, but it was the sword at her hip worthy of a raised eyebrow. Few people were allowed to be armed in the presence of the First Prince: I’d worn no sword today and so divested myself of nothing, but Hakram had left behind his axe and Vivienne a surprisingly high quantity of knives before we were allowed into this wing of the palace. A point was being made by Hasenbach, one directed at me: I trust Rozala Malanza to be armed and standing behind me. Procer is not so divided as you think. The other one behind Hasenbach I did not know, though he was quite aged – if bearing that burden rather well, hair having gone a distinguished silver instead of white or falling – and wearing well-tailored but otherwise rather humble robes. On his right shoulder two pale hands intertwined had been embroidered, which struck me as priestly imagery, but I would not assume anything in a place like Salia. I imagined introductions would come soon enough, regardless.
The First Prince waited to speak until Hakram had come to stand at my right, a towering pillar of steel and muscle, and Vivienne at my left – just as whip-slender and hard-eyed as in her thieving days, but grown steady in a way she’d never been while Named.
“Welcome to Salia, Queen Catherine,” the First Prince of Procer greeted me.
It’d been about a year since I’d last seen Cordelia Hasenbach, though this would be our first meeting outside the unearthly domain of darkness and cold that I’d used as our bridge when I still stood Queen of Winter. As was often her habit she’d dressed in the dark blue that was from the heraldry of her native Rhenia, the cut of it conservative – her neckline ended an inch beneath her collarbones – but close on her frame. It was flattering, though there was no hiding that Hasenbach had been born with a warrior’s build: tall and broad-shouldered, with a strong jaw and hale complexion. Her discreet touches of cosmetics, golden eye shadow that made the vivid blue of her eyes stand out even more and the painted nails at the end of the wrists revealed by sleeves ending in an undercut of puffy lace, worked to shape her appearance rather than to change it, which I thought clever of her. If she’d tried to hide her features it would have made her look comical, while as it stood her height and haleness only enhanced the palpable weight of her presence. Her crown was as a simple circlet of pale gold, holding back long golden curls I’d always considered to be the most appealing part of Cordelia Hasenbach – rich and full, they cascaded down her back in perfect ringlets.
“Your hospitality has been impeccable, Your Most Serene Highness,” I replied.
She inclined her head in acknowledgement.
“Our honoured general Princess Rozala Malanza requires little introduction for you, I am told,” Cordelia smiled, “but I expect my other attendant is not so well-known.”
My elbow moved towards Vivienne, softly and as if by happenstance, and her own pushed back against mine. Good, so she did know.
“Lady Dartwick?” I said.
“Unless I am sorely mistaken we are in the presence of Brother Simon of Gorgeault, current head of the Holy Society,” Vivienne smiled. “It is an honour to meet such a distinguished colleague, Brother Simon.”
“As I am honoured to meet you, Lady Dartwick,” the old man replied, lips quirking.
That smile had been almost roguish, I thought. Must have been a heartbreaker in his youth, that one. Regardless he was not in priest robes, so he should be a lay brother who’d taken no vows. Interesting Hasenbach would want him here for this, though. There were implications to that. The First Prince wordlessly invited me to sit and there was a discreet shuffle as the order of seating was seen to. Myself first, as reigning queen, then Vivienne as my designated successor, then Rozala as a ruling princess in her own right and then the broad equivalence in rank between Brother Simon and Adjutant – who while Named was a villain and only actually owed lordly address under the Tower’s law. A small swarm of servants brought trays of silver bearing a tea pot of Ashuran porcelain and matching cups, as well honey to sweeten the brew.
“They are Yan Tei leaves,” Hasenbach pleasantly told me. “Bitterer than the Baalite imports and the plants of the Thalassocracy, though I find they have a richer taste.”
My own passing familiarity with tea came largely through Aisha’s stock – which was Baalite leaves mixed with cheaper Ashuran ones – and the few times Black had served some while we were in Ater. His were from another country across the Tyrian Sea, though, which I suspected to be where the Ranger’s father was from. He didn’t break out the cups often, which didn’t surprise me given the astronomical cost of even a single pot’s worth of brew. It was one of the few luxuries he indulged in, which I’d always found rather amusingly subdued of him given the sheer amount of power at his disposal. I’d brushed up on etiquette before beginning the journey to Salia and made sure all my closest companions did as well, so none of us touched the brew after it was poured for us save when Hakram sweetened his own with honey. Princess Rozala did the same, I noted with amusement, and looked somewhat discomfited that only the orc at the table shared her tastes.
“So what is this palace, if you don’t mind my asking?” I said.
“It was the winter home of the Merovins, in the days where they still numbered many,” the First Prince said. “After their line waned it became the favoured location for winter solstice balls instead, though it had not seen that use since the Great War.”
“Not been in a feasting mood?” I idly said.
“There were better uses for our coin and hours,” Hasenbach replied. “The latter is even harder to replace than the former, I have found.”
Was that an invitation to stop wasting time? I wouldn’t exactly mind. Every day spent dancing around what needed to be done was one more day tossed away as our truce with the Dead King came closer to ending. I understood the Principate had its pride and its ways, but the Principate was also on the brink of annihilation and more than slightly on fire. There was dignity and then there was idiocy.
“Ah,” I said, drawl thickening, “are we to actually talk, then, or do we continued this pleasantly inane ritual of taking each other’s measure? We were past that a year ago, as far as I’m concerned.”
Malanza let out a choking sound, but my eyes were on Hasenbach. She had presence, as much as ever, but I wasn’t feeling… weight off of her. The kind Name would bring to bear simply by being. Might be she was on the more discreet side of things, when it came to that, but that would be rather odd for a ruler. Temper tended to get ripples going, through, so it was worth a try. The Warden of the West studied me for a moment and then allowed for an amused half-smile. She seemed, I thought, tired. It only occurred to me then that the golden eye shadow might not be artifice of beauty but meant instead to hide the dark circles of someone gone too long without sleep. Still, not a hint huh. I’d be unusual for a fresh Named to have that much control over their power, but then this Cordelia Hasenbach and not a farmboy with a grudge and an old sword. She’d held the reins of the greatest empire on the surface of Calernia for years before she’d even had a Name. If she had one.
“I have spent more then twelve hours preparing for this conversation, did you know?” Cordelia ruefully said. “Some of the finest minds in my service studied ever scrap of knowledge we have of you, from your favourite wine to the tactics of your earliest battles.”
“And this is what you came up with?” I replied, brow raising as I cast a look around us.
“It all seems rather pointless, does it not?” the First Prince said. “Yet what can I possibly arrange that would bring to bear even the tenth of the wroth of an angel, or a fraction of the horrors of the Folly? We have nothing that can move if you if you do not wish to be moved, and more masterful hands than we have failed to use you. It is an unpleasant truth, this, and not one I find it easy to face.”
“We have been at war almost as long as we’ve been speaking,” I acknowledged. “And there are things about your country I despise, and likely always will. The grounds for alliance between us are not fondness or kinship.”
“Yet my people are in dire need of your help,” Hasenbach said. “And so as you have proposed let us talk.”
That was as clear an offer as I’d get, I figured, so I took her up on it.
“You do not seem to be Named,” I said.
Cordelia Hasenbach brought her porcelain cup to her mouth and inhaled from the brew before taking a cautious sip.
“I am not one of the Chosen, or the Damned,” she confirmed, elegantly setting down her cup.
I hid my relief. It might be useful to have a heroic First Prince holding up the Accords from her side, but to be honest it wasn’t worth the risks coming with the Intercessor being able to meddle with Cordelia directly. Rather less elegantly I reached for my own cup and took a sip. I didn’t grimace, because I wasn’t a damned savage, but it looked like Hakram had been showing wisdom in honeying his. Wasn’t exactly an avid admirer of sweets, though, so even then it’d be rather like trying to put out a barn fire by throwing sharpers at it.
“Have your spies passed on recent news from the northern fronts?” Cordelia asked.
“We’ve only ever had rumours from Lycaonese lands,” I frankly replied. “As for the rest, we know the general state of it – Cleves was reclaimed, Hainaut’s last lines are on the edge of collapse – but little more.”
“Prince Papenheim has used the truce to solidify the lines in Hainaut, though the Dead King has seemingly massed around six hundred thousand soldiers to break them open anew when the three months end,” the First Prince said. “Hannoven has fallen, as you likely know, and Rhenia has been scoured save for a handful of fortresses where my subjects suffer siege. Only one fortress remains standing in Twilight’s Pass, and when it falls – and fall it will, given the great host waiting before it – the Principality of Bremen will follow in short order. Only Neustria will remain then, and I am told its lowlands will be effectively impossible to defend against an enemy with such overwhelming superiority in numbers.”
A heartbeat of silence passed in the wake of the stark assessment the First Prince of Procer herself had just spoken of the war she was about to resume losing.
“Cleves has been reclaimed,” Cordelia Hasenbach acknowledged. “But at great cost. Four Chosen died and more than twenty thousand trained soldiers. Meanwhile the Enemy’s ranks swell equally with every dead, be they farmer of princess.”
The fair-haired princess sat stiff-backed, but her voice was raw.
“My generals now believe that the battles for Cleves might in fact have been trap,” she said. “The fighting was meant to bleed our number of professional soldiers, you see. To thin the number of Chosen and leave as much as a third of Procer’s armies stranded behind enemy lines when Hainaut falls and the dead hordes close the circle behind them.”
Cordelia Hasenbach raised her cup again, hand forcefully steady, and took a sip. The porcelain cup then returned to the plate with so small a sound it might as well have been silent. The reclamation of Cleves, I thought, was the closest thing the Principate had known to a victory since the Dead King had begun invading. Malanza had fought there. I looked at her now, and though her face as ashen the fact that she did not disagree spokes volumes. How much of a blow must it have been, to come to realize even that sole victory had been a greater defeat in the making?
“I will not lie to you, Queen Catherine,” she said. “You would find out regardless, given your ties to the Eyes of the Empire and the surprising skill of your Jacks. When the truce ends, if hostilities resume the Principate will fall within five months at most.”
Her frank assessment of the state of Procer’s norther fronts had rung loud in the silence, but this? Coming from her, of all people? Even Hakram stilled in surprise.
“The last strongholds of Hainaut might hold for two months, perhaps,” the First Prince evenly said. “After which the dead will tear into Brabant and the masses of refugees there, which will within another month make the numbers of the Dead King too large to successfully fight on the field. If the armies in Cleves intervene to prop up Hainaut we will lose Cleves, and Hainaut will then fall to a pincer regardless.”
“The Morgentor, the last fortress of Twilight’s Pass, will likely hold until the other fronts have collapsed,” Cordelia said, a hint of pride to her voice. “Yet it will fall, and though the truce you bought us has allowed the southernmost of my people to flee into Alamans lands we…”
Her voice broke a little there.
“We do not retreat, Catherine Foundling,” she said. “Even when we should. It is not in our nature. Some will go as ordered, but more will flock to walls and fortresses and they will die screaming defiance against the dark. It will be the end of us as a people.”
I said nothing to that, for what was there to say?
“When those fronts collapse so will Procer,” the blue-eyed woman told me. “Already the cracks have begun. I have stripped the western principalities bare of grain to feed the heartlands and bare of men to fill our ranks, but keeping the northern armies supplied has emptied our granaries and our treasury. Foreign trade has broken down and the principalities untouched by war grow weary of paying their taxes to Salia. Even if the Kingdom Under lifted its sanctions, we would not be able to afford their armaments. There will be starvation, and despite my best efforts shortages of steel ensure that we can hardly even keep our current armies in fighting fit.”
She slowly breathed out.
“I expect that the moment Salia falls the Principate will end,” she said. “Southern principalities will secede and form alliances with each other and abroad, throwing the rest of us to the dogs. To be frank, I’d expect Ariel of Arans to offer to pay you fealty for protection before it even came to that – and neither Bayeux nor Orne would be far behind.”
Cordelia Hasenbach met my eye squarely.
“You must understand, now, that I do not have a single thing to threaten you with,” she quietly said. “I have no armies to send forth, no coin to cajole or coerce with and my alliances are weaker than yours. Besides, those allies I do have would not war on you for my sake, for you have them bound by debt and respect. I have through steel and insult ended any inclination between us that could now be called on, much less between our respective peoples.”
The thing was, there was a part of me that was savouring the words. The same part that remembered my every desperate plea to this same woman to call off her armies and rapacious princes. That remembered every spurned offer of peace, every sentence of scathing dismissal and barely-veiled contempt. She’d been so godsdamned arrogant, telling me she could choose the fate of Callow because she had the swords and the righteousness and that I should just go into exile like a good little thug after shutting my mouth and abdicating. And now she needed me. They all did, her entire alliance and the heroes behind them too. Even the Grey Pilgrim had good as admitted to it. They had sneered and spat and tried to kill me, and now I fucking had them. Cordelia Hasenbach had laid out before me the death of her nation and her people, and yet I could not help but think that they’d brought this all on themselves. That if they’d left Callow alone, that if they’d let me fix it instead of hounding me every step for their own hungry purposes, they wouldn’t be tumbling down the cliff right now.
Then, to my surprise, she pushed back her seat and rose. Not well, in opposition to the understated elegance of her every other movement. It was clear her leg had been broken and not finished healing. The pain had her lips thinning as Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer and Warden of the West, knelt before me.
“I have a responsibility,” Cordelia said, “to the people of the Principate. To rule, to guide and to protect. To ease their worst inclinations and spur their finest ones. I have failed them in this.”
She was proud, Hasenbach. Not the kind of person something like this would come easily to. Not someone to do it unless she believed it to be necessary. Rozala was halfway to her feet, protesting her ruler kneeling before a foreign queen, but neither of us paid her attention.
“I have no right to ask grace of you now, and no might to compel it,” the First Prince said. “So I can only beg that you act as I did not, and help those I cannot.”
That I’d savoured this, for even a moment, tasted like ashes in my mouth. Because it wasn’t her or her reign she was begging for. It was her people. And while I might not be leading a crusade into Procer, I could not deny it felt poisonous that I could be in this moment and begged at instead of begging. Not because I enjoyed the helplessness of it, but because I’d never liked to think of myself as someone who would need to be implored to save lives.
“Get up,” I said, voice rough. “Enough. There was no need for this.”
I pushed back my own chair, rising to my feet, and the eyes of both Malanza and Brother Simon went to me. Watching, weighing.
“Get up, Hasenbach,” I said. “You and I are going for a walk.”