Chapter 78: Trenchant

“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.”

143 thoughts on “Chapter 78: Trenchant

    1. caoimhinh

      “Details will be provided as and when the plot requires”, I’m sure there’s a trope out there that encompasses this concept. We are likely to find out more of that deal even when the final attack is being launched.
      Same as with the Liesse Accords, given that Amadeus and Cat’s debate about them (which is the most enlightening conversation about the Accords we have so far) didn’t cover all the points because Black hadn’t read it all; and points will need to be added and removed when other countries are brought to sign.

      Those unrevealed details will present us quite a few good surprises, interesting conversations and even plot twists in the future, I’m sure of it.

      Liked by 6 people

    2. KageLupus

      Eh. I don’t think that the details revealed here are really all that shocking or important, in the grand scheme of things. Sure, knowing more about what the Dwarves are providing is cool, but how cheap the steel and food is going to be wasn’t really something I was staying up at night thinking about.

      The biggest part of the deal is that it exists and that the Dwarves are willing to make war on Keter underground. That frees up the Alliance to only worry about things topside, which is way better than they have had it during the various sieges.

      And the real kicker here is that Cordelia gets to see exactly how much Cat has been planning on bringing war to Keter. It is not just sidling into the Grand Alliance and then joining them in the fight. She has singlehandedly also gotten two extra armies to join in the battle, one of which might be a surprise and is led by a pair of goddesses, and the also secured a supply train for the whole thing.

      Cat has done more for the war effort before she was ever a part of it than Cordelia and the Grand Alliance could ever hope to accomplish.

      Liked by 11 people

    3. Jeffery Wells

      I honestly thought that was pretty clear after Cat’s meeting with the Herald after Sve Noc’s apotheosis. The drow army is only 50k of its warriors, there are hundreds of thousands more, and they had agreed to leave the Everdark immediately. The rest of the drow and most of Sve Noc are parked in the hills above where they lived below ground, preparing for the assault in Keter. Remember too that the two crows are just a sliver of Sve Noc, the rest is with their people.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. caoimhinh

      Typos found:

      1. Rozala dawn well knew =>Rozala damn well knew
      2. if she opened her mouth to compared => compare
      3. It genuinely might have => I genuinely might have
      4. I would have been much, much worse => It would have been much, much worse
      5. for you purposes => for your purposes
      6. none if it => none of it
      7. Hasenbach reluctantly. => Hasenbach reluctantly said/answered
      8. of brutalizes the souls => or brutalizes the souls
      9. the great mage ever born to Calernia => the greatest mage ever born to Calernia
      10. a through purge => a thorough purge
      11. steel provided at two tenths of the usual price, and foodstuffs at cost ~> at two-tenths of the usual price and foodstuffs at no cost(?)
      12. offers without a prince => offers without a price

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Morgenstern

        Does “no cost”, in financial terms, mean “(no extra costs, but) covering expenditures”?

        ( Bc. foodstuffs “at cost” means just that: They will give them away for recompensation of the expenditures they themselves have accrued (to create, preserve, transport(,…?)) those foodstuffs.
        They’re not giving them as gifts, essentially; everyone will have to pay what the Kingdom Under itself would pay, so to speak. )

        Liked by 3 people

        1. caoimhinh

          I had that doubt, that’s why I put the (?) on that possible typo.

          At least the foodstuff of the Drow is provided by Dwarves completely free, as was stated by Catherine dozens of chapters ago. But yeah, it would be weird if they gave the food free to the rest of the coalition.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. caoimhinh

    The Dead King when he finds the entirety of the Empire Ever Dark marching against him, as he was about to get a victory over Proceran forces (and probably as night falls, to make a stark contrast to the heroic arrival of GandalfPilgrim:

    Liked by 14 people

    1. edrey

      i am pretty sure he already found out, after that divination magic at Liese along with the bard plan, on the other hand i just thinking why not push the night to the chain of hunger, that truly would surprise the DK

      Liked by 5 people

      1. caoimhinh

        He should already know about the Drow marching with Cat, since he saw them fighting in the Princes’ Graveyard and was temporarily grasped by Sve Noc.
        However, he shouldn’t know the degree of investment the Drow have in this conflict; as far as he knows Catherine struck a bargain to have a few tens of thousands of Drow with her, he must suspect there’s more to it, but at this point he should not be aware that the entirety of the Drow Species is marching against him. That’s the big surprise for him.

        Liked by 8 people

      2. How would that help though? The CoH doesn’t seem like a people that would be open for talks, and even _if_ he knows about the drow, they would still be pressure on his back that was not there before. Couple that with the massing dwarven forces from below and you have an almost full encirclement. Entirely complete if you count the CoH as hostile, even if they wouldn’t follow the others orders

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Big Brother

    The Dwarves, the Drow and all the Surface Nations of Calernia marching on the Dead King. The 11th Crusade in all but name, a union of peoples Above and Below to end the greatest threat to the living.

    Liked by 15 people

      1. Death Knight

        I think those racist, xenophobically genocidal assholes in the Bloom will join the Alliance if and when they learn that almost every nation in Calernia is marching on Keter with the same Story that ended Triumphant at their back.

        Vengeance for the capture and death of the Spellblade.

        Hmm, wonder of Cat (or Hanno and Antigone most likely) can convince the Titans to join up as well? If they can the Dead King is properly fucked I’d say.

        We’ve seen the devastation the Witch could bring to bare and she’s relies on her aspect to force the working. So, how much power could the oldest and most powerful Named Titan spellsinger bring to bare? Remember, EE said that of the top 5 sorcerers in the Land, the number three has never been shown onscreen. This individual can only be a Titan since no other character fits the bill. Likely this Titan was Antigone’s teacher.

        Whoowhee Book 6 gone be lit af boi!

        Liked by 5 people

        1. sutortyrannus

          You know, while I’m hoping that that they do join, I gained new perspective on the relations between Procer and the Titanomachy once I learned that the Gigantes had been keeping them as slaves. Puts the Humbling of Titans in far more positive light.

          I agree though – number 3 on the list is probably a spellsinger.

          Liked by 4 people

        2. Quite Possibly A Cat

          All you would need to get the Elves to accept is a few fertility miracles.
          “Our priests have a miracle for immaculate conception! We can clear your fertility problems right up.”

          Which I guess would mean that Good takes a page out of Evil’s guidebook and is trading babies for firepower.

          Liked by 3 people

    1. Let’s not call it a Crusade.
      First, that has religious implications that most of the involved parties would object to.

      Second, and possibly more important, the Story behind Crusades – especially ones against the Dead King – is that they fail.
      The only Crusades that haven’t been massive failures are probably 1 and 2 … and since I think 1 might have been trying to stop Triumphant while 2 was the rebellion … though we don’t actually have much information on them. Crusades 3 and 4 got crushed so hard by one of the Praesi Dread Emperor Terribilis’s that they decided they weren’t going after Praes anymore and decided to send the next 5 against the Dead King … and they all failed miserably, I’m not sure any of them even got to the gates of Keter. And, well, the 10th Crusade has done even worse.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Shveiran

        Is it though? It has changed target, gained a new member (the Empire Ever Dark) previously uninvolved, and now include either half or all the previous targets. You can’t really shake it up more than this.
        Not to mention, it was previously a faction fo Good aligned nations and now include two to three powers sworn to Below. Calling it the Tenth Crusade is not quite squinting and more like blindfolding yourself and going for a spin.

        Liked by 4 people

    2. Zgggt

      I mean, as far as Crusades go, it isn’t just a regular one, it’s the (by far) largest and deadliest one. Remember how Black explained to Cat that humans on the continent are basically barbarians compared to the much stronger races like the Kingdom Under or places further away? Just the dwarves probably bring more firepower to the table than has been available since Triumphant, there is a case that this is also true for the Drow.

      Cat has organized the deadliest force on Calernia, possibly the most of all times. Of course, it won’t help her from the stabs in the back that are expected to come, but it does put more people between her and the Dead King, so hooray for relative safety!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Someguy

    >“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.”

    Dammit Cat! You should know better! The moment you speak it, he now knows or will find out!

    Liked by 10 people

      1. Oshi

        It’s not much of a risk. Sve Noc still cloaks them and at least for now the Dead King can’t see into the heart of Procer without a lot of friggin risk. Way to many choirs and what not ready to fuck him up.

        Liked by 9 people

        1. Shveiran

          True, yet the point is that that now the narrative will ensure he has a response whether or not he found out, because a revealed plan cannot unfold smoothly… where would the twist be, if things went according to plan?

          Then again, this being Cat, she could point out that since NO ONE expects it to work smoothly because of that trope, it going smoothly would be precisely the most unpredictable twist ever.

          Liked by 7 people

    1. Oshi

      But a conventional alliance not one heralded by powers on High. No Hero king to lead a crusade but an alliance of many to end a threat. A different story all together and one that’s a lot harder to “not lose” against. If Keter falls and is cleansed the Dead King will survive but he will lose his foothold on Creation. It will be bloody but would be a change deep and true. Cat’s spent a lot of time making sure it works out that way. A story to bind them all 😛

      Liked by 9 people

      1. JJR

        You say this, but what if he asks to sign onto the Liesse Accords?

        There’s also that thing he learned about Bard which, being some sort of dark secret, is guaranteed to blow up at the worst time.

        Liked by 4 people

          1. Sparsebeard

            Personaly, I think the biggest mistake would be to push him to far beyond his bottom line.

            I mean, it’s one thing to diminish him, but if you push him into a corner… It isn’t a huge assumption to think that he’s got a few cards in his sleeves that could make sure that everybody loses…

            Kind of the same way that you can’t really push a nuclear power too far in our world.

            Still, pushing the DK to the point of mutually assured destruction where he HAS to sign the accords (and perhaps a separate a treaty with reparations and stuff before that) would already be a huge victory.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Except the Dead King has no incentive to follow the rules. The enforcement mechanism is more or less his status quo.
              All letting him join the Accords/Alliance does is kick the can down the road. And time is on his side – he can afford to wait for the urgency of the threat he poses to fade. Remember his offer to give Cat a decade or a century of peace? It’s a poison pill.
              He can afford to play a game that his next move won’t happen in hundreds of years. That is, he can afford to wait until every mortal currently alive is dead and every mortal who ever knew them is also dead.

              Also … I’m pretty sure letting him sign up would violate the deal with the Dwarves. And that’s a tremendously bad thing.

              Liked by 7 people

              1. Sparsebeard

                Having the mortals pay every price (even the destruction of their nations and peoples) is pretty much what the Saint (and perhaps Bard) wanted though.

                I man, since every loss is permanent to the DK, it’s in his own interest to accept a deal that would ensure his own survival (and after that to maintain the status quo).

                And yeah diminish him enough that he can’t theaten the whole of Calernia without insuring his owm doom is probably a good idea. Pushing him to believe that desperate methods are warrented since he’ll be destroyed anyways is probably not a good idea (that’s how you get demons, hell gates and other WMDs).

                Liked by 2 people

                1. Except magical WMDs in the hands of a Villain are basically Hero-fodder.

                  Bard’s goal was to set the Dead King up to suffer the fate of Triumphant (crushing victory and total conquest, only for everything to fall apart and be destroyed in short order).

                  Destroying the Dead King is the goal of Heroes like Tariq.
                  Cat will settle for removing his foothold on Creation and fortifying the permanent Hellgate to Serenity on the Creation side.
                  Invading Serenity is basically a nonstarter, and Cat knows it … which is why she won’t do it.

                  Liked by 5 people

                2. Shveiran

                  I agree in principle, but I think you are not factoring in how Neshamah works. The guy is all about contingencies and playing it safe, he is centered about his own survival. Triumphant was the kind of Villain that brought the Tower down on her slayers, but I don’t think the DK would.
                  Maybe as an ultimatum to force people NOT to slay him, I guess; you know, a dead-man switch. But not out of spite. He’d see no point in it, I don’t think.

                  Liked by 6 people

              2. Sparsebeard

                Also, there isn’t much to support your claim that the DK wouldn’t follow that rules, he seemed to be a stickler for respecting deals in fact.

                Sure the 100 years deal was bad, but not because of any perceived untrustwortiness but rather because it would leave him undamaged to fight at a later date.

                A deal lasting “forever” on the other hand could insure the perenity af the agreement,

                Liked by 2 people

                1. Thing is, the Accords don’t stop warfare, and aren’t intended to. They’re primarily rules of engagement for Named.
                  The Dead King being allowed to become a signatory would mean allowing him continuous active involvement with the rest of Calernia. And lessened capacity on behalf of the rest of Calernia to stop him from doing things they don’t want him doing.

                  The Dead King cannot be allowed to remain an active player in Calernia and Calernian affairs. That’s an even less acceptable outcome than Malicia remaining in power over Praes.

                  Liked by 7 people

                  1. mavant

                    I mean… Admittedly the whole ‘brainwashed nation worshipping me as a god’ thing is a bit icky. But if the Dead King were willing to make sufficiently binding oaths (maybe they could be enforced with Fae power?) then his powerset could be an extraordinary force for the betterment of Calernia. No thinking being need ever perform manual labor again! With zombie automation we could leapfrog past all the technological development the gnomes have been suppressing.

                    Liked by 2 people

                    1. Shveiran

                      The Liesse Accords are about limiting Named methods. The Dead King needs not to abuse them in order to drown the world in dead soldiers. There is litterally nothing to gain from involving him, it solves no issues, and it legitimize a country that regularly raids its neighboors to harvest people.

                      …Why? Just… why?

                      Liked by 5 people

            2. konstantinvoncarstein

              What if he doesn’t sign? If he moves, everyone attacks him. If he signs, he win an access to Cardinal and all the future Named and powerful of the continent. How is this good?

              Liked by 5 people

          1. Insanenoodlyguy

            the Accords themselves will ensure that he can’t join. And nobody’s going to trust the world where the dead King promises to be a good Ally. Especially not when getting him will cause pretty much everyone to walk, not just cat.

            Liked by 4 people

            1. Quite Possibly A Cat

              Hopefully they’ll include rules about Necromancy and undead rulers. In particular
              1) No turning people into undead slaves en masse. <== DKs kingdom a runs on this.
              2) No undead rulers.
              Plus Named aren't going to be allowed to rule.

              Liked by 3 people

              1. The no-Named rulership clause is most likely going to get negotiated away.

                Remember, Amadeus made a solid case for needing a Named Dread Emperor of Praes to forestall a Secret Emperor.

                Also, the Dominion has a collective fetish for their Named founders and descendants … who themselves have an above average incidence of Named.

                Besides, there’s the problem of underling/support Names/Named and military leadership Names/Named (ie, Commander, Named generals) and at what point does delegated authority or influence cross over into ruling.

                Liked by 4 people

  4. Zarquon

    Oh that’s a fatal flaw right there!

    The Dead King absolutely, certainly, definitely knows or will know that the Empire Ever Dark is marching on him. And Sve Noc. Since this was revealed early, then the surprise is that Catherine is wrong. If this is to work, this would not be revealed to the readers until all hope is lost and suddenly they arrive.

    Sve Noc basically just got the ultimate death flag.

    The Dead King knows.

    Liked by 6 people

      1. Insanenoodlyguy

        He had a fight with the crow twins. He absolutely knows there’s drow. What he doesn’t necessarily know, is the number. This could be a surprise because it is not a make-or-break situation, he knows there’s drow he’ll prepare for drow. But there will be an inconveniently large number that actually arrive. That’s what keeps this from being ruined. This surprise will not be the difference between defeat or Victory either way. It might be a huge pain in the ass for him though. And multiple pains in the asses can add up, which is what cat is going for.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. Albatross

    Man, I just don’t see what Callow gets out of this that makes it worth the risk that Procer will immediately betray them, or that Praes will screw them over while this is happening. I get she’s getting her Accords but I’m begging you Cat, take war reps! take humiliate! Make them release nations, anything!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Why would Procer betray them, much less immediately? You have a skewed perception of them, somehow. Besides, she doesn’t have a warscore to ask all that, she didn’t occupy any provinces, just won a few battles.

      Besides, she’s using tge rest ofvthe war score on “make a coalition” option, that would’ve been abused by EU4 players too much.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Novice

      I recognize a fellow EU4 player when I see one. But I disagree with reparations being laden this early in the war. It will immediately have an impact on the already shaky alliance they’re trying to forge. To use HOI terminology, she has to wait for the peace conference to start after the war.

      Liked by 4 people

    3. Cicero

      Callow gets to survive, independent, and gets to have the massive war fought on someone elses territory.

      At this point Callow thinks that is a decent deal. Not great, but not terrible.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Shveiran

        And yet Callow bleeds its young populace in another war; all this gets Callow is removing the risk of cities being sacked unless the campaign is a failure, but that isn’t that much of a gain considering the army was always small enough a big battle was most it could do anyhow, and thus defeat would always have lead to heavy strategic loss.

        After the Rebellion, the Courts, Liesse the Second, the Crusade, the mess in Iserre… this is not a small thing. Callow doesn’t have the Principate populace, or even Praes’. Recovering will take far longer. Perhaps terrible would be too hard, but they are still getting the short end of the stick. Especially for someone that is willingly sticking their hands in the fire for their enemies’ sake.
        And are bringing in not one but two major allies no one else even thought could be part of the war.
        That no one is sweetening the deal, even now, not even with future promises, is disappointing.

        Liked by 5 people

    4. – Rozala has already sworn an oath to rise in rebellion if Procer fucks Callow over YET AGAIN on the heels of this. That’s no small thing;

      – at that, HOW EXACTLY will Procer fuck Callow over. It’s going to be their armies bleeding the most, and their treasuries and resorces;

      – Callow gets a massive narrative advantage for being the good guy who saves everyone, and while it sure hasn’t helped previous Good Kings, they’ve got Catherine in charge right now, and she knows damn well how to work these things;

      – it sets a precedent for Good/Evil cooperation that will echo through the continent’s stories going forward, and given its neighbourly relationship with Praes, Callow’s damn well going to benefit from that.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Shveiran

        These are valid points, but I’d point out this all rests on Cat surviving the war.

        Now, sure, I don’t think she is very likely to end up dead, but if she was Callow would be fucked. In ten to twenty years, Procer has recovered through its larger populace and wealth, while Callow is still trying to recover the cities Summer and Diabolist nuked out of existence.

        Proceran ambition is another popular story, and if Malanza was to die as well (which is much more likely) her vow is not a shield.

        I’m just saying, most of the characters are not aware Narrative is a thing. Which suggests they know the deal is unbalanced and that they are not in a hurry to fix it.

        Liked by 2 people

          1. caoimhinh

            Yet that’s still not a shield, but a weapon for the Malanza descendants to rise in rebellion if Procer goes back on their end of the deal.
            That’s a vengeance/retaliation, not prevention. And it still doesn’t mean that the Malanza who picks up the sword will be victorious or successful.

            Liked by 2 people

    5. Insanenoodlyguy

      For starters if he takes all of Procer Callow is next. Oh, not soon. Maybe not in Cats lifetime. But make no mistake, its doomed if Procer is simply left to die. Even her nuclear option is that she comes back from the east as a conqueror that they have no.choice but to kneel too. Procer the nation dies yes but procer the people still need to survive.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Andrew Mitchell

        > For starters if he takes all of Procer Callow is next. Oh, not soon. Maybe not in Cats lifetime. But make no mistake, its doomed if Procer is simply left to die.

        Exactly. Callow, and the rest of Calernia, need a permanent solution to the Dead King.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanatoss

    Sooo… now Cordelia simply must fall in love with Cat and forgive all her “crimes”. I see no other way around it.
    Btw. I just noticed (no idea why so late in the story) that if you want to describe whole story/all actions of Cat with one word it would be: Patriotic. Hmm it doesn’t look like this from the first glance… but all she does she does for Callow, at all costs.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. caoimhinh

      Yep, many of the most influential characters are very patriotic, though each in a different way.

      Catherine, Amadeus, and Cordelia are patriotic people, as they want what is better for their nations and took power because they thought that was the best way to get things done. Anaxares is a counter-example, as a patriotic person that doesn’t want things changed (though he was brainwashed and constantly threatened with death), plus he was forced into the position he is.

      Others like Malicia, Akua, and the Elves are nationalists instead, with a fierce pride even in the failures of their cultures, so instead of fixing those they embrace that and seize power for themselves to be the rulers of the nation they take pride in.
      Sve Noc are sort of a counter-example, as nationalists who took control of their nation for the sake of survival, but are now so engrained with the position of ruling the Drow that they won’t allow to let go of power, they became goddesses, after all; Sve Noc also started to see the failings in what the Drow had become, and are currently taking steps towards betterment, using Catherine for it since they admitted they didn’t have the perspective for it.

      Liked by 7 people

      1. Shveiran

        The difference between patriots and nationalists is VERY subjective, and even within the guidelines you have adopted many could disagree abou who should fall on which side of the line.
        What is a fundamental part of one’s culture, and what is a failed tradition that has lost both meaning and use? That is a judgment call, not something we can measure and compare objectively.

        Liked by 5 people

  7. edrey

    cat will get betrayed, she should already know that, and the drow attacked by sun type magic by evreyone the DK, dwarves, spellsingers and what not.
    off topic, but someone know if cat added new pieces to her cloak or she have the saint body or more important her aspects with her?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Here, you have Cordelia making alliances and treaties with the greatest nations of Man.
    There, you have Cat fucking sending everyone else to the doorstep of the Dead King.

    The final battle will probably somehow manage to include a few giants to make it so every sapient race on the continent is tearing down Keter.

    Liked by 7 people

      1. Given that “warden” is a title that can mean “guardian” but can also equally well mean “person in charge of a prison”, I would actually propose that Cat be titled Warden of the Dead. Because she’s the person who’s going to be most responsible for getting DK bottled up (AKA imprisoned) in the Serenity, and the drow she’s the high priestess of will be in charge of keeping him there since the plan is basically to park them in Keter and make Sephirah the new home of the drow.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. caoimhinh

      Well, epigraphs don’t always relate to the chapter.

      That said, it could be that it’s related to Catherine telling Cordelia about the Drow and Dwarves, as maybe the Dead King could find out. Maybe the presence of Sve Noc and two Heroes sworn to Choirs of angels protect the city from scrying, maybe not.
      Maybe Cordelia will proceed to make plans with her council, speak about this and the knowledge will be out as Malicia has spies in Procer and she could tell about it to the Dead King.

      As the Epigraph said: difficult to tell if a mistake was in fact made.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Novice

      I believe it pertains to the Dead King: it doesn’t matter how perfectly the DK played his schemes in the past or how he will play his stratagems in the future, everybody and their goats are going for his permanent end.

      Liked by 4 people

  9. So … Cordelia believes her object I’d not of Below, so it’s not some entombed ancient Villain or a Hell Egg.
    So … that leaves something from Above (trapped Angel or where one died) … or something from the Mavians/Mavian Fae.

    Cordelia … you have no room to complain about Cat considering a deal with the Dead King after you refused her offers. Well, you can complain, there’s just no weight out legitimacy behind them. Especially since she never actually made a deal. And has since arranged the groundwork for a massive coalition against the Dead King.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Quite Possibly A Cat

      That wouldn’t turn the tide of battle. Now if it was a practical guide to building nukes it would.

      Ironically, a guide to nuke making wouldn’t run afoul of “no single failure point” and “no grand artifacts”

      “Not an artifact. Not a single failure point. We’ve made dozens, and have another hundred in the production lines.”
      Hell it might even be legal under the Accords. “This is a completely conventional, non-alchemic, non-magic weapon with no association with Above or Below. ” The only downside would be gnomes.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. Hooo boy. Now, Cat reveals her deal with the dwarves and I love it. This is exactly what they need to have a fighting chance against the Dead King.

    Now, if Praes and the League joins the party, the continent can go all in on Neshamah.

    Liked by 4 people

        1. The Elves occupying the Golden Bloom aren’t getting involved.
          I’m pretty sure they’ve fucked off to Arcadia again.
          But they’re an enemy as far as Cat is concerned, thanks to the Deoraithe. And, because, well, they’re racist genocidal assholes who kill any non Hero that gets too close to the Golden Bloom’s borders.

          Liked by 4 people

          1. Daniel Hernandez

            Theres no way the Golden Bloom wont make a cameo. The Spellblade was a prince. If there is any story Cat can make good on, it’s making sure the King gets his due for stealing his son.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. That depend. Remember, Cat still has the spellblade’s corpse in her pocket, end she may use it as a bargaining chip to negotiate with them.
            Or you know, the bard could just go and have a drink with her old buddy the Forever King and inadvertently let slip where he could get back his son’s corpse.

            Liked by 3 people

          3. > But [the Elves are] an enemy as far as Cat is concerned, thanks to the Deoraithe.

            If Cat got a hold of the info that Bard mentioned a while ago about how the asshole-elves on Calernia are unable to reproduce on account of their extreme assholeness making their trees sterile (elf-on-elf reproduction is weird apparently), she might be able to sell the Deoraithe on the prospect of involving the elves against Keter. Because each and every battle casualty the elves took would be a permanent reduction of the elves’ ability to resist the Deoraithe when they’re finally ready to take back their home.

            Of course, by the same token, getting the elves involved in a major war would probably be borderline impossible since they’d vastly rather just nope out of creation than spill a single precious drop of elven blood. Much less the bucketloads that warring on the Dead King would probably entail.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. You misunderstand the nature of the Calernian Elven sterility.
              The Elves of the Golden Bloom can’t have children anymore because they’re cursed.
              They’re cursed by land and forest of the Golden Bloom itself because they committed genocide against the ancient Deoraithe who were the original inhabitants of the Golden Bloom. The Land (and the Forest) was (and still is) decidedly displeased about that. So are the Deoraithe.

              Liked by 3 people

              1. > You misunderstand the nature of the Calernian Elven sterility.

                I think it would be more accurate to say I joke about the nature of the Calernian Elven sterility, because they’re assholes and I don’t take their problems seriously. Besides which I don’t think anyone can claim to definitively understand the nature of Calernian Elven sterility, since it has never been unambiguously defined by a reliable source.

                I would also note that the nature of their sterility is irrelevant to my comment, which was actually *about* the implications of their sterility rather than the nature of it.

                Liked by 3 people

  11. Shveiran

    HA! Called the Catming clean chat! Yay me!

    On a more serious note, this is what I meant when I said that Cordelia’s kneeling was just spectacle.
    She made a good show of being desperate and humbled, yet how she acts now, mere moments ago?
    She owns up to PART of her past mistakes, after Catherine does first, and only admits the still relevant secret after Cat calls her out on it explicitly; even then, she reveals nothing save that it is not villanous in origin.
    She doesn’t own up to the fact that she sent her opposition in Callow to die, accepting the risk they would parcel out Callow if victorious, despite Cat calling her out on it at the time; much liek she doesn’t own up to the fact she called her a warlord with no legitimacy while wearing a crown she pried from the cold, dead fingers of her rivals, dead in the field.
    And she offers nothing, not even verbally, to back up her declarations from the previous chapter; no reparations offered to the poorer, smaller country she invaded and is now going to bleed for her people and bringing an Empire from legends of old AND the biggest power in Calernia into the war as allies; not even discussing *together* the fate of her eldritch trump card or its deployment, despite the fact that it can’t be argued at this point that the Black Queen is her superior in matters of warfare and magic both; not even disclosing that secret WHEN ASKED, let alone willingly.

    This is… deeply disapointing, and so very unsatisfying.
    It makes the previous chapter nothing but an empty gesture, because she still takes more than she receives without feeling that’s somewhat inapropriate; she still acts like she is in command of everyone, not like an equal, let alone someone that is DESPERATE FOR HELP.
    She didn’t even make an empty promise to back the Accords! Which she likely will for reason of her own, and not as a reward, but seriously, not even that?
    Fuck you and your bad leg, Hasenbach; if all it was is posturing you could have spared us a chapter.

    Sisters, what will it take?
    Are the Blood and drow really going to go down in history as the only powers willing to work with Cat as soon as she stops wrecking fools? Really, murderous raven goddesses and murdehobos made rulers was too high a bar to clear? Really Hasenbach? Really?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. She still believes that Cat is just that, a villainous warlord that drove the Principate to the brink.
      While she may be superior to Corderlia in matters of war and murder, Corderlia still thinks she holds the political (and moral) high ground.

      This chapter is just Cat smashing both of those beliefs into the ground as far as she can.
      When was the last time anyone made alliances with both the Drow and the Dwarves?

      Liked by 5 people

      1. I’m going to guess never.
        Assuming we’re ignoring the possibility that Bard/Intercessor at some point played some sort of game with both simultaneously. But I’m not sure that would or should really count anyways.

        Liked by 4 people

  12. erebus42

    Come now Cordelia. It’s ok to be upset but really let she who has never attempted to sell another country’s land and people into death and or slavery cast the first stone.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. erebus42

        Wasn’t she though? She was basically selling Callow to the other princes to carve up among themselves which would have resulted in countless deaths and the remaining survivors under the thumb of foreign despots.

        Liked by 4 people

  13. So, crossing the streams for a bit: Someone here linked me to the time-travelling horror webseries All Night Laundry a while back, and I’ve been binging through the back story. At page 1875, I found something very relevant to our Cat’s travails:

    > … I knew that you’d know, that I knew that you’d know, that I knew that you’d know…… The speaker and their opponent spin plans within plans, wheels within wheels, Am I ahead of her? Is she ahead of me?Do those concepts even apply when Causality and Inevitability are making out in the back of the room?

    To which a commenter replied “Is that how Fate was born?”. Here, I’ll add “… or Providence?” Of course in this chapter, Cat’s doing her best to short-circuit that loop of planning, we’ll have to see how much it helps.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. See, now you’re making me wonder if Catherine will wind up being the subject of the Calernian equivalent of Chuck Norris facts (remember that meme?). E.g., “Goblinfire is unquenchable and consumes everything utterly, without exception. That’s why the Black Queen uses it to wash her hands.”

          Liked by 1 person

  14. Quite Possibly A Cat

    So about Sve Noc. I know they technically aren’t a single point of failure, but I don’t think Cordelia saying “Oh, actually, I’m not getting the angel’s not-corpse, I’m actually getting several thousand angel feathers would get Cat to not worry.”

    Also, just because the Choirs are fixed and unchanging doesn’t mean that angels wouldn’t be able to die. They might just do the Hilbert Hotel Shuffle whenever an angel dies.

    Finally, does anyone think using an Angel’s CORPSE against the Dead King is Bad Idea Bear?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it was said that the Choirs themselves are static and unchanging.

        I got the impression than an individual Angel can fall or be killed, but the Choir they’re from subsequently autospawns a replacement Angel.

        Liked by 5 people

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