“The crocodiles in the pit ate the condemned too quickly when starved and only nibbled when well-fed, which is why we bespelled them to be always be hungry for a little more. Thankfully they do not wear clothes, and so can still be told apart from the rest of my court.”
– Dread Emperor Perfidious
The conversation did not truly resume after we returned inside.
Hasenbach was burning with the need to reassess the situation, I caught, to summon her advisors and generals and reconsider where Procer stood after the several revelations I’d dropped onto her lap. It drastically changed her nation’s situation going into the negotiations, I knew that very well. Though the First Prince still needed the Grand Alliance as a whole I’d likely gone from an important ally to the single most important foreign relation of the Principate. There was no point in further kicking the hornet’s nest by trying to get anything out of her before she was certain of where she stood, not that I minded. Time was on my side as much as it was on any mortal’s: what I brought to the table only became more valuable the closer to the end of truce we came. Naturally, before we left the balcony I’d made it clear to Hasenbach that the affairs of the Firstborn were not to be spoken of even with her closest advisors. Sve Noc kept me out of arcane eyes and ears, but loose lips were harder to ward against and there was no doubt that Procer was currently a barrel afflicted by an army’s worth of leaks. That she did not argue the matter was a sign, to my eye, that she correctly understood the stakes involved.
I got dark looks from Malanza and Brother Simon as the talks effectively stalled after we limped back to warmth and excuses were soon made for the Procerans to depart. From their point of view, I’d gone outside with the Warden of the West after she humiliated herself at my feet and returned her both troubled and boiling with the urge to leave. They might be assuming threats had been involved, which admittedly given our respective positions would be child’s play to hand out. Foolish in the long view, of course, but then my people were not known to be fond of anything long save for prices. Cordelia had not willfully tugged at my conscience without reason: it was the closest thing she had to leverage on me at the moment. She’d snapped her pride over her knee to try to begin evening the scales between the two of us, which I supposed was laudable. It didn’t, of course. Even the scales, or make me fonder of her on a personal level. She wasn’t my friend, she’d not somehow ceased to be the same woman who’d thrown my people to the deeps out of convenience. But that did not change the necessity of fighting back the Dead King or the perils lurking in overplaying my hand while it was still the strongest at the table. They were separate matters, and I need not like the woman to work with her.
Besides, in some ways I genuinely respected her. Often that was better than liking someone, when it came to making bargains: fondness waxed and waned, character tended to be more stable a foundation for agreements. We stayed in the hall after the three Procerans departed, Hakram and Vivienne rising as Hasenbach departed the way etiquette dictated while I did not. I wasted no time in weaving a ward of Night after they left, as I had no intention of being eavesdropped upon by the inevitable spies that’d be waiting with their ear pressed against the door.
“Whatever Hasenbach has dredged up, she can’t use it yet,” I bluntly told them. “It’s not a Hell Egg, unless she’s a much better liar than I thought and surprisingly shirt-sighted to boot. I’m leaning towards the remains of an angel at the moment.”
“William needed forty-nine hours to call Contrition, but little more than that,” Vivienne noted. “Though the Choir whispered many secrets to him in his dreams he did not share, and I have only the shallowest knowledge of such matters.”
It was nice to see that green Named on both sides of the fence ended up mostly fumbling their way through the dark. If the Heavens had handed out some sort of manual to their champions while Below ate dust it’d be deeply unfair. On the other hand, I grimly thought, I’d not be all that surprised in such a situation to hear that Below did hand out a manual but some villain had burned all the copies to hinder the competition. I had, after all, yet to encounter a single villain who put stock in the notion of fair play.
“The Lone Swordsman was a hero in Contrition’s service, treading the remains of one of their own and bringing them forth,” Hakram pointed out. “It was an alignment threefold, pouring out after years of heroes being suppressed by the Carrion Lord. It seems unlikely the Principate will benefit from such factors in its own attempts at mastery.”
“Hero is the heart of the matter here,” I said. “The First Prince either needs one of those taking orders from her or a legion’s worth of priests to make anything out of those – still speculative, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves – remains.”
“Would it not be, in a sense, an angel’s corpse?” Vivienne suddenly asked.
I cocked my head to the side, unsure of where she was headed with this. Hakram let out a rumbling noise.
“The Dead King is the greatest necromancer that ever lived,” Adjutant reminded me.
I sucked in a lip, but after a moment shook my head.
“The water in Lake Henghest was blessed and that was just from touching the remains,” I said. “Light tends to screw with magic, anyway, and this is about as consecrated as a corpse can get. Necromancy shouldn’t be able to raise it.”
A beat passed.
“We’ll still ask Masego just in case,” I added.
“Diabolist as well,” Vivienne calmly suggested. “Her knowledge of such lore might be deeper than even Zeze’s.”
I shot her an assessing look. It’d always been a given I would talk with Akua about this – as Vivienne had intimated, if anyone would know about angel necromancy it would be Wolof’s most terrible golden child – but I’d not wanted to rub it in her face. My successor’s expression was hard to read, leaving me few hints as to her thoughts. Was this an oblique way to tell me I need not walk on eggshells when it came to Akua Sahelian, or simple blunt pragmatism? Something to mull over later.
“It’s a liability even if it can’t be raised,” Hakram gravelled. “Bringing that into a battle with the Hidden Horror is like wading into a goblin feast-night with pockets full of munitions. It can only end one way.”
Most Named would balk at being compared to goblins no matter whose banner they flew, but it was rather heartwarming to imagine the likes of the Pilgrim consigned to the fate of metaphorical goblinry.
“The Dead King’s one looming trouble, but the Tyrant’s another,” Vivienne darkly said. “That man would strike the match to the whole world’s pyre just for a laugh, Cat, and he’s not nearly as neutered as you think.”
“His armies really are headed south,” I told her, “you told me as much yourself and the Eyes confirmed independently. The League’s fallen behind the Hierarch and Kairos with him, but not the point of utter idiocy: they’re not going to backstab a continent-wide alliance in the middle of throwing down with Keter. Not even for a few southern principalities. They’ll know damn well that if we lose they’re screwed too and if we win we’ll return it all a hundredfold.”
Frankly, if I were an utterly amoral monster with the intention to expand and in charge of the League’s political decisions, I’d promptly sign the Accords to avoid falling on the wrong side of the mutual defence clause against non-signatories and then simply wait. Patience would mean the Grand Alliance’s armies bleeding against Keter, and when those armies all went home then I’d strike at southern Procer. Riding to the Principate’s defence again would be wildly unpopular with all its allies, after a brutal grind against the dead up north, which would limit the effectiveness of the treaties. If the League then gobbled only limited territories, like Tenerife and Salamans, there might be heavy pressure on Procer to then accept a peace should offer be extended.
“That only means that the horse he’s riding is not longer the League,” Vivienne said, eyes sharp. “It might be the Hierarch, or the Dead King or a dozen other flavours of madness. We don’t know, which is half the trouble with that one.”
“His play here is to take a swing at the White Knight,” I said. “Has to be, he had the man summoned by treaty just so he could stand trial. And Hierarch could make that troublesome, I suppose, but if he does then he’s signing his own death warrant – decapitating a hero is breaking the truce, Vivs. Especially if it’s the Sword of Judgement. They do that, neither Hierarch nor Tyrant walk out of Salia alive. Not with the kind of power that’s gathered here.”
“There’d be legal grounds for an execution, considering he’s an Ashuran hero that fought in an internal League war and presumably took likves,” Hakram said. “And even a public attempt would stir up trouble among the heroes when it’s pointed out to be lawful under the Accords.”
Which I did not doubt for a moment Kairos Theodosian would. By now full copies of the text had been made available to all delegations, even the League’s, so there was no doubt he’d either read or had someone read them.
“More likely he wants to strike at Judgement through the White Knight, which I’ll lose no sleep over,” I said. “I’ll give fair warning to all involved but besides that it’s no trouble of mine. I owe no debt to any Choir, save that which would be paid in steel.”
Hanno was personable enough and seemed to think well of the Seraphim, but I’d weep no tears for the Choir of Judgement getting a taste of its own medicine even if that lesson came by madman’s hands. Either the angels would lose a few feathers or either of the two villains at the head the League would get a taste of smiting. I couldn’t see a losing proposition in that for either Callow, the Accords or even myself.
“The Tyrant of Helike is nearing the end of his thread,” Hakram said. “He’s burned too many bridges, we all saw that much at the Graveyard. If not for the Dead King’s more pressing threat, half of Calernia would already have banded together to crush him. His actions have isolated the Free Cities diplomatically as long as he lives and his defeats mean he’s losing prestige within their ruling structure. Given the informality of his pre-eminence among the League, that could mean the waning of his influence.”
I worried my lip.
“He’s cornered, you’re saying,” I slowly said.
Which was not a good thing, in a villain of Kairos Theodosian’s calibre. Best to kill him with a clean, quick stroke than let him scheme with desperation moving the hand.
“Or exactly where he intended to be from the beginning,” Vivienne said. “When a skilled enemy makes an obvious mistake, it is no such thing.”
That last part was a quote from the Strategoi, as I recalled, which was an amusing piece of irony considering it was believed to have been written by Theodosius the Unconquered.
“Either way we should share our concerns with the Grand Alliance and have some of our people look into whatever it is he’s up to,” I mused. “Fair enough. Best not to let him make a mess even if it’s not in our backyard, strictly speaking.”
I leaned back into my seat, glancing at the cup of cooled tea I’d barely touched. Yeah, I wasn’t going to force myself to drink that even if it came across as rude and Hakram had somehow tricked himself into finishing his own. Still, while the Tyrant remained a threat he was no longer the most pressing of my concerns. The First Prince’s ruinous little project weighed deeper on my mind, because it felt like a ready-made pivot in someone’s story – and not one of my making, which was even more worrisome.
“Double down on efforts to unearth what it is the First Prince dredged, and where it’s headed,” I ordered Vivienne. “Have your people look for large concentrations of priests as well.”
“Concentrate your efforts on Lyonis and Brabant, for that last part,” I added. “Maybe Brus as well, if you can spare the people.”
As far as I was concerned Cordelia Hasenbach was acting foolishly by meddling with doomsday weapons, but that did not make her a fool. She’d know that gathering priests in great numbers close to the northern fronts would bring a lot less scrutiny than doing the same in the south. Especially in Brabant as it was, by all reports, drowning in a tide of desperate refugees who could certainly use some food and healing. If the weapon could be moved, and for it to be of practical use against the Dead King it would have be, then if we found where it was headed we could double back from there. Going at this from the other way might finally allow us a peek through the veil of secrecy that’d surrounded this entire affair. I sighed, then cracked my shoulders.
“Hakram, I don’t suppose you could send for a change of clothes?” I asked.
I’d lost the habit of plate, and the weight of the metal did no favours to my leg even if I could not feel it at the moment. The sooner I was back in cloak and leathers the better. Might add a light coat of mail, though, because really there was never a reason not to wear armour if you were wearing clothes at all. I’d not deny that my preferences in clothing had been shaped some by the unfortunately high amount of times I’d been stabbed in my life.
“They are already on their way,” Adjutant replied, because he was a prince among men and always would be.
“Good,” I said. “Well, folks, the talks begin in earnest tomorrow. Let’s see if we’re ready for them.”
I wasn’t sneaking out of Salia, not exactly.
That would imply that a pack of spies wouldn’t have noticed me saddling Zombie and leave the palace with the slight escort of three knights in dark cloaks, or that I would have hidden my departure from my companions. But I’d not made it clear where I was headed for either and pretty much let the assumption that I would be going back to our camp stick. Hakram could read me like a book, so he knew there was more to it than I’d said. He also trusted me same as I trusted him, though, so he didn’t ask. I doubted that my having conversations with the White Knight would cause much of a scandal if it came out – even radicals under the Heavens would think twice before claiming I could corrupt the Sword of Judgement – but it’d certainly raise eyebrows, and very much attract attention. I’d rather not have to deal with the Pilgrim coincidentally coming by for a chat, or someone’s admirably optimistic attempt to eavesdrop through arcane means, so it’d stay quiet for now. Though this was not casual, could not be given who we were, keeping such talks informal would allow the illusion of it to last a little longer. I’d set out early after dark, since I did genuinely intend to get some work done when I passed through camp and led out my escort at a brisk trot.
We were followed, to my utter lack of surprise. Riders kept pace at a respectful distance behind us maybe a dozen, most likely at the First Prince’s behest. Though I was First Under the Night and the dark had already fallen, I was not unaware that my spilling blood in Salia would bring great complications. Even putting down some overly ambitious robber or some drunken rowdy fantassin would meant I’d killed a Proceran under truce, and for many reasons that was best avoided even if justified. No, Cordelia had likely sent those riders to serve mostly as diplomats. And maybe guides, given the gargantuan size of this damned city, but I could see to that with prayer truth be told. So long as I was willing so suffer Komena’s rampant mockery of my sense of direction, anyway. Easy not to get lost, when you fly over the streets, I grumbled. South we rode, through the palatial streets and estates of the Lineal and then the large plazas and avenues of the markets known as Les Vendeuses – which were awake and swarming with people even at this hour, for the city never slept and the glow of torches and lanterns lent it all an air of the fantastical. Keeping to the broad avenues that’d been built to allow for carts, as many as four of them I’d wager, we made good time cutting through towards Merovins avenue.
From there it’d be an uncomplicated ride, straight south until we were through the low districts and the Griffon Gate. Out of curiosity I’d slowed down on my way through some of the marketplaces, taking a look at what was being peddled. The array of goods, even at the tail end of winter and while Procer was at war, was rather bewilderingly large. Ashuran silks, Levantine ceramics and even Taghreb silverworks were on display, not to mention what must have been goods from more than half of the principalities in Procer. It was no wonder I’d been taught that the Principate was near capable of sustaining itself through trade between its own princes: it was a large empire and one that lacked for little. Save perhaps for restraint, but was that not ever the way with empires? My knights were gawking as well, which was no surprise. None of the three looked older than thirty under the hood, so none had known Callow save under either myself or Black – and under both reigns little had been traded with Procer save for arrows and insults. I’d be surprised if either had left the kingdom before this campaign. Still, it would not do to linger forever so I spurred on Zombie to a brisker pace.
It did not last long, as it happened. A smooth turn around a counting house brought us in front of an open shop from which no less than four signs had been hung, all painted with bright red letters. Unlike the rest of the signs I’d seen in this city, the words on this one were in Lower Miezan instead of Chantant or Tolesian. Bundles Of Wakeleaf, So Cheap It’s Almost Crime. Vale Summer Wine, So Many Bottles You Can’t Drink Them All. We Did Not Steal The Wakeleaf, We Swear, That Would Be A Crime. I Guess You Could Drink Them All, If You Are A Drunk. With morbid curiosity I led Zombie closer to have a better look, and to my mild surprise there did seem to be a genuine stock of neatly wakeleaf bundles. And a few crates of wine, one of which had been opened and revealed the impurities-riddled glass bottles that were typical of my homeland. I gesture for my knights to rein in their horses and approached one of the hanging signs, touching the K at the end of ‘drunk’. Red wetness marred my gloves, the paint hadn’t even had time to dry yet.
An indignant hissing sound came from the shopfront, as a surprisingly tall gargoyle in a too-large dress and a merchant’s hat pointed a half-empty sleeve at me accusingly. The insides of the dress moved, so I drew it up with the tip of my staff and found another gargoyle down there, who looked at me with a scandalized gasp. Another one was standing on its shoulders, and I suspected another one on its own. I withdrew my staff with a sigh, letting the dress’s hem drop. So the Tyrant wanted to have a talk, looked like.
“Stay here,” I ordered my knights. “It shouldn’t be long.”
I dismounted, landing on the stone with a wince, and paused before entering. I grabbed a bottle from the crate, and then a few bundles of wakeleaf, and only then went to treat with Kairos Theodosian.
I had a feeling I’d need them.