“The great candour in ruling Praes is that, if you make a mistake, assassination attempts will follow. Unfortunately if you do not make a mistake assassination attempts will also follow, which admittedly makes it difficult to tell if a mistake was in fact made.”
– Dread Emperor Pernicious, the Imperiled
There were protests, though only from Hasenbach’s side as by now mine knew better, but those words might as well have been wind for the weight they carried. They were more out of principle than conviction anyway, I suspected: Princess Rozala dawn well knew that if I was moved to violence little short of a band of heroes could put me down. Spite and impulse would only carry me so far, though, so I did not enter the labyrinth of luxury that awaited outside the small hall. A knuckle rapped against the glass doors along with a sliver of Night slithering through the lock had them popping open without trouble, and beyond lay a pretty little balcony overlooking a winter garden. My boots sounded crisply against the thin layer of snow as I walked out into the cold, knowing the First Prince would not be far behind me. The coolness of the air was pleasant against my face, and as this little corner was windless the cold felt rather mild – more like a refreshing swim in the Silver Lake than winter’s hard bite.
Hasenbach followed along, her limp barely noticeable on the move, and I noted she seemed rather unmoved by the cold. Lycaonese, I reminded myself. Compared to the brutal winters of her far northern home, this must hardly be noticeable at all. The railing was an elegant thing of stone, sculpted to seem like vines and the detail of the work was only made more pleasant to the eye by the touch of frost. Disdaining the stone benches set in little alcoves to the sides of the doors, I came to lean against it and cast a curious look down into the garden.
“I’m surprised you didn’t get that leg fixed,” I said.
“I did,” Cordelia Hasenbach replied, slowly moving to stand by me.
She was too well-bred to lean against a snow-dusted railing while wearing a nice dress, apparently, or maybe just to do so in front of a foreign ruler. Regardless, standing that ramrod straight must be Hells on her leg.
“Not mage-healing, though that’s hardly surprising,” I said, eyeing the way she was standing. “Priest work, then. They’ll have fixed the bone and flesh but it’ll still feel raw for a few more days. Hasn’t the Grey Pilgrim offered to see to it? He’s a notch above what I’ve seen even the finest priest-healers do.”
“I will not accept so much as the dust of a copper more from the Peregrine than I must,” the blue-eyed woman said, tone frosty.
I almost asked to the source of that open enmity, given that Tariq might have been after my neck for a while but he’d been standing in Cordelia’s corner for as long as I’d known him, but it didn’t take much digging to put the finger on it by myself. In order to capture Black, the Pilgrim had seeded a plague in a town by the shores of Lake Artoise – it’d taken a full legion detachment, true, but that entire town too. Wiping out Proceran towns was one thing when a villain did it, but it must have cut to the bone coming from a servant of Above. Especially one it was essentially diplomatically impossible to touch at the moment.
“Fair enough,” I conceded.
“I could ask the same of yours,” the First Prince of Procer said. “I am told you are high in the council of dark powers. Such a boon would be but a small favour, no?”
“If I’d paid harsher prices for my first mistakes, I might have better learned from them,” I said. “There’s nothing free, not even for villains. Some costs are just subtler than others.”
“Then I shudder to think what the likes of the Hidden Horror have paid,” Cordelia said.
I breathed out, itching for the pipe I’d not thought to bring. Neither parade nor tea were well-matched to wakeleaf, at least not when paired with the presence of the First Prince of Procer.
“All of Sephirah, for one,” I said. “And quiet things too, I’d imagine. After all a dead thing cannot heal, cannot grow. Every wound on his power forever remains.”
The Lycaonese princess’ face was cool as she studied me, though more distant than adverse.
“Sephirah?” she asked.
“What the Kingdom of the Dead was called, before ruin took it,” I said. “Keter was the greatest of its cities and the Dead King himself its last king.”
“There are legends among my people,” Cordelia acknowledged, “though they speak not of this Sephirah but instead of the Thirteen Kings and the Time of Wolves. You are well-learned in the beginnings of the Enemy, it seems. Does the Tower share such dangerous lore freely?”
“I learned it in Arcadia,” I replied, “walking the echoes of that dead realm. I learned much, during my march to Keter.”
“Your Jacks have seeded rumours with skill as to the purpose of that journey,” Cordelia said, and it was not a compliment. “Selfless of you, to seek to break the Tower’s schemes even if you failed.”
I drummed my fingers against the snowy railing, eyes trailing the winding circles of primroses and jasmines filled with purple pansies. The patterns were oddly soothing to look at.
“Hannoven,” I said. “Cleves and Hainaut. That was my offer. I intended to warn you some months in advance, so that you could evacuate the principalities.”
“And so the gathering armies of the Tenth Crusade hurried north instead of trying your borders again,” she said, tone mild.
“The entire point of the exercise,” I admitted. “I didn’t quite grasp what it was I was dealing with, not yet. The entire journey was a trap anyway. Malicia had been in talks with Keter for months, I was being used to start a bidding war.”
“With lives and lands in my charge as the currency,” Hasenbach coldly said.
“The counter-offer was the entire northern third of Procer and Callow having to claim the eastern border principalities on its own,” I said. “I had Malicia’s host bodies assassinated – twice – but it wasn’t enough.”
“And do you expect that excuses the rest?” the First Prince said, eyes hard.
“Are you sure you want to start a conversation with me about lives and lands being used as currency, Cordelia Hasenbach?” I replied, lips quirking into a smile just as hard as her gaze.
“It was a monstrous thing, what you set out to do,” Hasenbach replied, unmoved.
She wasn’t mincing her words, and I could respect the honesty of it at least. Coming from the woman who’d put me in the corner where I’d begun to take hard measures, though, that only went so far.
“Monstrous?” I mused. “I suppose it was. But then so was your refusal to entertain peace even on egregiously favourable terms when I repeatedly offered it. Not even for moral reasons, but simply because it was politically inconvenient for you. Does my wearing a black cloak somehow make my atrocities worse than yours? As I recall, only one of us actually went through with it and it’s not the villain.”
Her body was tightly wound as a spring, though not as a warrior’s would be – it was the mark of emotions mastered I was looking at, not violence in the making.
“I do not say this to create strife between us,” Hasenbach said, voice forcefully calm. “Yet you must understand that the truth you tried to barter away part of the Principate nary a year ago is not to be taken lightly.”
Probably shouldn’t tell her I’d once tried to bribe Rumena into treachery with another chunk of it then, even if it’d been a jest.
“I didn’t expect it would be,” I frankly replied. “But I’d rather you hear it from me than have it revealed as some dark secret.”
As for Praes’ involvement in the coup that’d nearly unseated and killer her, what the Circle of Thorns had told her was factually correct: Scribe had helped shape the early plot but later set out to crush Malicia’s continuation of it at the order of the Carrion Lord. I saw no need to tell her more than that, especially not while my own teacher was still being kept in the dark.
“So now that we’re being all nice and honest,” I said, “anything you’d care to tell me?”
We could have kept on arguing about this, I knew and so did she, but there was no gain in it for either of us. I very much doubted she’d forgive what I had admitted to anytime soon, much less forget, but then I wasn’t interested in the forgiveness of Cordelia Hasenbach. That she was worthy of admiration in some ways did not mean I no longer remembered why it had come to this. Me with my hands ever redder, Procer dancing ever closer to annihilation. None of it was truly behind us, and perhaps never would be, but neither of us were inclined to chase the stag off the cliff. And so we moved on, however grudgingly. Now the boot was on the other foot, though, and it was time for her to unwrap her own dirty little secrets – some of which I knew, and more that I suspected.
“I funded the Truebloods, through intermediaries,” Cordelia reluctantly said. “High Lady Tasia Sahelian in particular, as the Empress’ foremost rival.”
It’d been a long time since I’d been so utterly taken by surprise. It made sense, I thought. Procer was wealthy, Praes infamously prone to backstabbing its way into civil wars and there was harsh irony in giving Malicia a taste of her own medicine after the way she’d meddled in the Proceran civil war. My fingers clenched hard against the stone, though, not because of any of that. It was a smaller, slighter branch splitting from what I’d just been told.
“You bankrolled the Doom of Liesse,” I said, tone perfectly mild.
“Not knowingly, or directly,” she said. “Yet that is not untrue.”
I could kill her in the blink of an eye, I thought. No need for anything elegant or skillful, I could just pour so much Night in her body that the skin sloughed off and the bones melted and her head fucking popped off. Akua Sahelian had been the architect of that folly, and she would even that ledger in time. So would Dread Empress Malicia, for having allowed the madness and even helped it along. But now it seemed that even the Warden of the West had put coin to the butchery of my people, good Proceran silver turned into a wound on the south that’d last century and a city so broken that not even being the heart of a newborn Court had mended its ruin. She’d not known. It did not absolve her, but she had not known. Hasenbach stirred, and I knew deep as I knew my own breath that if she opened her mouth to compared her funding the Folly to a pact I’d never made with Keter, Sve Noc bless my hand if she did I would rip out her fucking tongue and she could crawl on her knees to Tariq to have it put back on.
“You already know of my involvement in the Liesse Rebellion, I take it,” she said.
I breathed out slowly and mastered myself. Rage I could allow myself to feel later, if I decided it was still warranted. But I’d come dangerously close to allowing my control to slip, just then. It genuinely might have, in other circumstances, which was why this conversation was needed in the first place. I would have been much, much worse to hear it after an insulting Proceran blunder and revealed by the Tyrant’s cruelly taunting voice.
“I am,” I said. “Your intentions in that I will not speak to, yet though that rebellion might have had your coin and your puppet-candidate to kingship it was not fought for you purposes. I’ll call it a clean slate.”
Duke Gaston of Liesse might have been the figurehead all gathered around, but it’d been the Countess of Marchford and the Lone Swordsman who’d done the bloody work of the uprising. Neither had been in the First Prince’s service, or all that well inclined towards her. Gaston Caen had been a pretext, not a motive, and regardless none if it would have come to pass if I’d not spared William’s life in Summerholm that fateful night. Still, for all I would not quibble over the Liesse Rebellion I was less pleased about what Cordelia was keeping silence over.
“Once silent is reluctance, or mistake,” I said. “Twice is a lie of omission.”
“I own an empire’s worth of secrets, Black Queen,” the First Prince said. “And so very few of them are fair to behold.”
Which might just be true but was no more an answer for it.
“Lake Artoise,” I flatly said.
“A weapon to wield against the Enemy,” Hasenbach reluctantly. “Should all else fail.”
My eyes narrowed. It’d been in the lake, what she was talking about, because even though Vivienne’s people had failed to penetrate Proceran operations there they’d at least confirmed there’d been ships and dredging involved. The Order of the Red Lion as well, and in numbers too great for them to be a mere scrying relay. But if she had in her hands a weapon that could give the Dead King pause – which it actually wouldn’t, from what I knew of the King of Death, but that was besides the point – then Procer was not in so dire a situation as she’d implied. Unless it’s not functional, I thought. Unless she needs to build something or arrange rituals.
“There’s consequences to using armaments like those,” I said. “And I don’t mean in a moral sense, either. High stakes and a single point of failure are to Named like honey to flies. Heroes moreso than villains, but even they get to have the wind in their sails sometimes.”
“It is not something I would use lightly,” the First Prince said. “Or at all, if I can avoid it.”
“But you won’t burn it until the Dead King’s been driven back either,” I grunted. “You’ve read the Accords, Hasenbach. Ensuring no one ever has their hands on a lever that opens a Greater Breach of brutalizes the souls of an entire city is exactly what they’re for.”
“And should the Liesse Accords be signed and enforced, I will gladly let you destroy every last trace of that weapon,” the blonde princess replied. “Yet until Keter has been sealed or the Dead King destroyed, I cannot justify tossing away the sole tool at my disposal that could possibly turn the tide.”
Frustration spiked in me, but she was not being unreasonable. I’d been raised in the shade of a royal palace built from stones taken from a flying fortress brought down, taught from the moment I’d had a Name that massive rituals and grand artefacts always failed in the end, and still I’d sided with Malicia near the end of the Folly. The dead were already dead, I’d thought, and if from that tragedy peace could be forged then I’d shoulder the hatred of my own people and do what I must. It would have been, I now recognize, a terrible mistake. My father’s handling of the situation remained singularly botched but given the Intercessor’s involvement that was perhaps not entirely his fault. Cordelia Hasenbach was not Named, did not come from a people who held them in high esteem or deeply studied their lore. And while she might have matched wits with Malicia for years with more than a few successes to her name, it had been a very different sort of game. I could not be angry at her making a mistake I had also made while laden with advantages she was not.
“Having a weapon like that carries risks in ways you have not been taught to understand,” I said, forcing patience. “Especially in a situation thick with Named, like any war with Keter will be. This isn’t won with a flying fortress, Hasenbach, it’s won with a coalition binding the east and west.”
“And I will do everything in my power to see that coalition assembled and bound by treaties,” the First Prince said. “Yet I cannot disarm when those alliances are still wind, no ink has touched the parchment for treaties and the Dead mass to the north in numbers beyond reason.”
“When Callow joins the Grand Alliance,” I said, “and the Accords begin accruing signatories; will you then agree to torching whatever the Hells you dredged up?”
I’d be willing to cough up the goblinfire myself, if that was what it took. And still she hesitated.
“Merciless Gods,” I said. “What is it that you even got your hands on? Tell me it’s not a Hell Egg, Hasenbach. It’d be utter lunacy to send a demon after the great mage ever born to Calernia, dead or not.”
“It is not,” the blue-eyed royal stiffly replied. “I will speak no more to the nature of it, save that it holds no truck with Below.”
It was probably an angel, then, I grimly thought. Some not-corpse like the one the Lone Swordsman had leaned on in Liesse to bring down Contrition, and later Diabolist to create her gate-maker. The Choirs were forever fixed, the way Masego told it, so there could be no such thing as an angel’s corpse – or at least there’d been no real precedent for it, and not for lack of Praesi trying – but one’s death would still leave marks. And something to use, if you knew how. It’d still need a hero though, I suspected, or at least a massive number of priests capable of using Light. One was easier for the First Prince of Procer to get her hands on, especially now that the House of Light’s leadership had been discredited and was likely undergoing a through purge. Who would dare argue with Hasenbach now, if she gave priests orders? I need to speak with Masego, I grimly thought. I wasn’t even sure what such a weapon would do, practically speaking. Would the Choir it had belonged to change the effect? Contrition had been the writ of corpse and Named both, when the Hashmallim were called down at First Liesse.
So what would happen if the corpse was from one of the Ophanim or the Seraphim? Somehow I doubted it would be as simple as calling down a great storm of Light on the enemy. This was a mistake, no matter how I looked at it, but then if there was one thing that today had made very clear it was that Cordelia Hasenbach was afraid. She was afraid enough for the Principate that she’d knelt to a woman she considered a brutal murderous warlord to beg for help, and a few moments of private conversation on a balcony weren’t going to magically fix this. It was frustrating as Hells, considering that not so long ago she’d been on her knees begging for my help, but throwing around ultimatums on the first day of talks wasn’t going to accomplish anything – save maybe mark me as exactly the kind of tyrant they’d all feared I would be. And still part of me was quietly furious at the notion that I’d have to allow a mistake to keep going right under my eyes because it would be too heavy-handed of me to force the issue. It was not a coincidence, I’d admit, that so much of Black’s teachings still resonated with me.
No matter what Vivienne said, Below was always going to be the banner I raised. There wasn’t enough give in me for it to be any other way. If I couldn’t push without blowing on the house of cards that the Accords still was, then I’d have to try pulling instead. Time to start showing the cards I’d been hiding up my sleeve.
“You don’t believe we can win this war conventionally,” I said. “Yet we can, Hasenbach. I have made pact with the Kingdom Under.”
“The resumption of arms sales will help, though Procer will need to borrow heavily to afford them,” the First Prince acknowledged.
“That’s part of it,” I said. “More practical is that I have oaths the Kingdom Under will launch offensives on every front to seize all underground territory of the Dead King if a sufficient force is gathered to war against him above.”
Cordelia Hasenbach went still.
“In addition,” I continued, “arrangements have been made as to the supply of armaments and foodstuffs. Any force engaged in warfare against Keter will see steel provided at two tenths of the usual price, and foodstuffs at cost. Loans offers will be extended to the Principate, though I’m afraid they refused to do the same for the Dominion. Too likely to be unable to repay, I’m told.”
“You do not jest,” the First Prince croaked, sounding dry-mouthed.
“I wouldn’t take the loans, they offer pretty cutthroat terms,” I said. “We might be able to strongarm Mercantis instead, if the entire coalition brings pressure. They live and die on trade, and we have everybody but the League at the table.”
“The dwarves would use us as their own fantassins,” Cordelia realized, eyes narrowing. “Tying down the forces of the Hidden Horror above-ground as they strike below. Only we would emerge in their debt instead of owed.”
I didn’t deny it, as it was essentially true.
“If their advance is successful all the way to Keter, a siege of the city becomes feasible,” I told her. “Our supply lines would be underground and untouchable, so long as we have the coin. I’d we willing to endorse the creation of a Grand Alliance treasury for the duration of the war against the Dead King, and to provide grain for your principalities from Callow granaries on loan – with interest on the value of the goods, I’m not a saint.”
“The Kingdom Under would not make such offers without a prince, Black Queen,” the blue-eyed princess said. “What did you offer in return?”
“The Everdark,” I said.
The bluntness of the answer took her aback.
“I believed you to be allied with the drow,” the First Prince said, grown wary.
“I am,” I said. “This was done in the name of their goddesses, the bargain struck with the dwarf Named known as the Herald of the Deeps.”
“They have submitted to the Kingdom Under?” Cordelia asked.
I almost laughed at that.
“No, they have not,” I replied, smiling thinly. “The Everdark is empty.”
Cordelia Hasenbach was not slow of wits, and so she understood the implication quick enough.
“They are marching against the Kingdom of the Dead,” she said, almost breathlessly.
“All of them,” I agreed. “The entire Empire Ever Dark is marching on the Dead King’s back, led by Sve Noc themselves, and I believe he still has no idea.”