“Trouble reveals either true friends or a corpse.”
– Arlesite saying
I’d charged Vivienne with handling the ceremonies from our end and come out pleased with the arrangements.
Mostly for the swiftness of them, truth be told, as instead of squabbling with the Procerans and the rest over pre-eminence and etiquette she’d cut through the waste and agreed the Callowan delegation would be the fourth to enter the hall. After the Proceran one – save for the First Prince herself, who would be the last person to enter – and the other two current members of the Grand Alliance, Levant and Ashur. Out of the twenty delegates I’d brought a share of five had been set aside for Black, who’d brought in Scribe as one of them as well as two translators and an officer from the Legions-in-Exile. My people were a little more varied in nature, though it couldn’t be denied that we were thin on the ground when it came to actual diplomats. The Empress and the High Seats would have trained diplomats, usually highborn, truthfully not unlike the way the Old Kingdom had usually sent powerful and trusted nobles to talks with foreigners. I’d had precious few aristocrats I could call on even before I’d crushed their overly ambitious faction in my court, though, and the few I had a modicum of trust for were already in military or administrative positions. I couldn’t exactly pull away Grandmaster Talbot from his knights simply to bolster my delegation’s prestige, not when he was so much more useful at the Hellhound’s side.
The presence of Lady Vivienne Dartwick, heiress-designate to Callow and arguably these days my main diplomat, had never been in doubt. Neither had been Lord Adjutant’s – who was one of the only two orcs in the room and so stood out not unlike a bull surrounded by lambs – or General Abigail’s, as my respective right hand and the ranking commander of the forces I’d brought to Salia. The dark-haired general had discreetly downed half flask of brandy before we set out in what I took to be an attempt at fortifying her spirits, and ever since tired with admirable effort to attract the least attention possible even though her ceremonial armour clearly indicated her rank as one of the ten highest officers in the Army of Callow. I had two sapper officers with me chosen at Pickler’s recommendation, one specialized in fortifications and the other in war engines, and beyond that mostly civilians. Scribes and translators from the personal staff Vivienne had brought across the Whitecaps, as well as the closest thing we had to a scholar of Proceran etiquette – Henrietta Morley, eldest daughter and heiress of Baroness Ainsley of Harrow. Vivienne had apparently set her to studying with the now-abdicated Prince Amadis to shore up what she’d been taught by tutors, the former Prince of Iserre apparently having been thoroughly amused he was being asked for etiquette lessons and not state secrets.
After us the Empire Ever Dark was to follow in, General Rumena having gathered a band of ten sigil-holders for prestige, accompanied by Ivah and three dzulu from the Losara because someone needed to take notes and few Mighty were all that likely to do so. Ivah had told me that the Losara Sigil’s sworn duty of marking down the oaths made by sigil-holders had actually been drawing to its ranks Firstborn inclined towards scholarly pursuits. Though literacy was one of the more common Secrets, the Losara were beginning to stand out in that even dzulu were expected to know their full glyphs. Akua had once, after a few drinks, gotten into a heated debate with Indrani about whether the surprisingly high literacy rate of the Firstborn was because there had been more drow when the Night was formed and so literacy became more common along all lines when the population number reduced, or because it was one of the few things no one would bother to kill over and so a harmless skill to learn the old-fashioned way. I knew not the answers, and even the Sisters had given ambiguous reply, but whatever the truth of it I suspected the Firstborn could only benefit from the prominence of such knowledge deepening with every generation. Not that they’d ceased… acquiring through the old means. Of the ten sigil-holders, all familiar to me, all spoke Chantant and three Tolesian. One had even acquired Lunara from the Princes’ Graveyard, which I was pretty sure Rumena had almost killed it for. Getting the drow to, uh, do that less often was admittedly something of a work in progress. I’d made sure to get oaths none of them would fight here, even against each other.
The delegation for the League of Free Cities would be the last to enter, and though I’d yet to see them with my own eyes Vivienne had made inquiries as to its composition. It was about what one would expect from an alliance as shaky as the League tended to be even when it had common enemies. The Tyrant and his favourite commander, General Basilia – who I’d met her once before, at Rochelant – were clearly the heart of it, but all cities seemed to have claimed seats as well. Basileus Leo Trakas of Nicae and his personal scribe, the two self-proclaimed Exarchs of Penthes, a senior member of the Secretariat with a lesser one carrying his ink and parchment, the Bellerophon’s appointed general and his minder from the kanenas, one of the foremost Magisters of Stygia, Zoe Ixioni, and two preachers from Atalante. These last two had for some reason been made to carry a copy of the Book of All Things nailed to a plank and were seemingly deeply offended by it, though the other delegates seemed to find it most amusing. Like everyone else they’d brought translators aplenty, and even a few scribes for what I assumed would be their common records. There was no trace of the Hierarch, which was cause for both relief and renewed wariness.
The Jacks had found no sign of the Dead King among the delegation but that meant little. He was not the kind of monster that would be found unless he wished to be.
“Queen Catherine Foundling of Callow, First of Her Name, Protector of Daoine and high priestess of the Empire Ever Dark.”
We’d not waited long before the painted gates barring the hall, for we’d been fetched only when the Dominion’s delegation was already moving, but it’d been long enough for my thoughts to drift. As the gates swung open and the majordomo’s voice ran, I was jolted back to full attention and stepped forward. The Cloak of Woe trailed behind me as I limped forward, leaning on my staff of yew. No plate for me today, not if I was to be seated for hours while talking, though the dark embroidered tunic that’d been chosen for me was discreetly padded. Enough it could blunt a knife, if one found its way into my ribs. Hakram knew me well. Belted across my body under my breasts and at belly height, the tunic was almost uncomfortably high-collared and came down to my hips, where I’d prevailed when demanding trousers and comfortable leather boots. I’d had a look at the effect of it in the mirror that morning, and though it made it rather plain I was… less than curvy, when matched with my cloak it also leant a certain severe martial look I rather liked. The crown on my brow was the same I had worn at my coronation: a thing of jagged iron that dug into my scalp, though since my crowning a single pitch-black piece of onyx had been set at the front of it.
A murmur passed through assembly as I entered, and though I’d hardly expected a tavern’s common room to serve as our place of gathering I was still faintly surprised as the sheer size of it. The tea hall where I’d met with Hasenbach yesterday had been beautiful but not overdone, but this? You could fit a garrison in here, if you piled them up. I’d never seen ceilings so tall save at the cathedral in Laure, and the dome there was not bordered by sculpted gold depicting passages from the Book of All Things. The dome’s surface was a superb painting of the founding of Procer, beginning at the collapse of the Tower and ending with the election of Clothor Merovins as First Prince. The hall itself was a broad circle touched by painted doors at an interval that was pleasing to the eye, as were the ornate golden arcs filled with the Merovins heraldry above the doors. The marble of the square pillars holding up the dome was bare, though polished, in what was clearly a conscious choice to allow the brown tone to stand out and contrast with the white and gold that was otherwise prominent. The floor beneath my feet, itself also pure marble, was of the same tone and so perfectly polished it could serve as a mirror. The circle shape of the hall had leant itself well to the arrangements, curved tables radiating out from the centre at increasingly longer length. There was a broad avenue between each set of tables, of which there was one for every delegation, which allowed servants and attendants to come and go with ease.
The announcements continued behind me as the rest of my delegation entered behind me, and I cast a look at those delegations already inside. That of the Dominion of Levant I recognized well, as I’d at one time or another fought most of them. Lord Yannu Marave of Alava, of the Champion’s Blood, had been the leading Grand Alliance general for most of the Princes’ Graveyard. Big man, muscled like an ox and with that unsettling calm that never seemed to thaw. Lady Itima Ifriqui of Vaccei, of the Brigand’s Blood. Old but lean and whip-hard, before the Tenth Crusade she’d brutally raided Orense and nearly started a way with Procer. Juniper said she and her brood of sons were cunning as vipers and just as vicious, and she’d know: they’d fought running battles across half of the Principate. Lady Aquiline Osena of Tartessos, of the Slayer’s Blood, who sadly was not wearing the tight leather vest and paints she’d on last I saw her. Slender and graceful with coiled muscles, she was said to be a fine killer and a more than passingly skilled intriguer. Mighty Jindrich had sung her praises after the Graveyard, boasting in her stead of having killed it once and suggesting she be offered the opportunity to be slain in single combat and harvested so her Night could toughen up one of our weaker Mighty.
The last was the most familiar of old, Razin Tanja of the Binder’s Blood. Heir to Malaga, though as I understood it Levantine inheritance laws meant he could not be lord of Malaga until he returned there to be acclaimed by his kin. It spoke well of his influence that he sat at the same table as the ruling lord and ladies, though, and the way his eyes and Aquiline Osena’s kept finding each other and lingering told me there might be some ‘diplomacy’ going on there. He looked older, I thought. Still sharp-boned and handsome, but where before his eyes had been raw emotion now there was a colder fire in them. Purpose, I decided. It tempered people like nothing else, that cold blaze. That one had gone through crucibles, at Sarcella and the Graveyard, and perhaps become the better for it. I winked at him and he replied with a scowl. To my amusement, I saw as my gaze moved on that Tariq was not seated at the Dominion’s foremost table. He was only at the second, making a show of his lack of formal authority, and Gods but he must have insisted to be seated there. I’d bet the Blood would have preferred him to be the sole person on the first rung and the rest of them where he now sat. I inclined my head in a polite greeting, and he did the same.
Ashur’s delegation was a bare bones affair. To the left of the Proceran one, as the Dominion was to its right, it counted a mere ten men and women in saffron-coloured robes. The important one was an official from the committee the Thalassocracy had formed to oversee its presence in the Grand Alliance. Sitter Ahirom Seneqart was a tanned young man of exquisite manners but whose role as the voice of the Ashuran bureaucracy on the continent had dipped into irrelevance with the annihilation of the greater part of Ashuran fleets at Thalassina followed by an immediate sucker punch of the League’s own fleets. With the Thalassocracy’s star being rather dependant on its supremacy at sea, his influence would have waned and these days he was unlikely to be anything more than an official mouthpiece for the decisions of Magon Hadast, the ruler of Ashur. I’d just finished studying the Ashurans as much as I could without being rude when the last of my delegations’ announcements came: Lord Amadeus of Praes, the Carrion Lord. Attendants ushered us to our slice of the hall, which was to the side of the Dominion. Our foremost table remained light: myself, between Vivienne and Hakram, and to Adjutant’s side sat Black. Behind my father the Praesi ‘delegation’ radiated out, as behind me the Callowan one did.
It felt like half the damned room was looking at me, so as a distraction I looked up the Procerans. Theirs was by far the largest presence – there must have been at least sixty people at their tables – and they were certainly heavy on royalty. Princess Rozala Malanza met my eye and returned my polite nod. I was surprised to see Louis Rohanon behind her, the former Prince of Creusens apparently serving as an aide. Brother Simon of the Holy Society I recognized form yesterday, but few of the other faces. I leaned forward Vivienne, who helpfully provided names to match.
“To Simon de Gorgeault’s left, the man who looks like the dried up remains of a man?” she murmured into my ear. “That’s Louis de Satrons, the head of the Circle of Thorns.”
Cordelia’s spies abroad, and from Black had told me by far the most competent of her spymasters. Considering one had been a traitor and the other missed a conspiracy that involved half the upper priesthood of Procer when that priesthood was his very area of expertise, that might not have been a difficult crown to claim. Louis de Sartons had beady and watchful eyes, I thought, made even more prominent by his almost skeletal thinness.
“Tanned man with the mustache, middle-aged?” she continued. “Prince Renato of Salamans. His brother Alvaro died fighting the Stygians down south. He’s fresh to the throne but he’s been his brother’s man in Salia for years, he’s one of Hasenbach’s most loyal backers. Fought for her during the coup, too, so he’s bound to be in favour. The blond with the well-cut beard if Prince Ariel of Arans – not a Hasenbach supporter but not an enemy either, and he came out more or less on her side when the blades went bare.”
Prince Ariel of Arans’s lands would also be playing host to both the Army of Callow and the Legions-in-Exile soon enough, which I imagined had informed his lack of support for the coup. The Proceran delegation’s arraignment was actually slightly different from the rest. A small and luxurious table had been set most forward, presumably for the First Prince, yet there were two seats awaiting there. Slightly back and to the left the table with the spymasters stood, though once more an empty seat awaited at the table, and on a mirroring table to the right the two princes and Rozala were seated. From there the tables radiated as everyone else’s delegations, though the missing seats rather drew my eye.
“I would have expected Princess Rozala to have that seat at Hasenbach’s side, if anyone,” Hakram murmured.
“Coup’s still too fresh,” Vivienne disagreed.
“It is the first official event with foreigners since the coup,” Black softly agreed. “Malanza has to be clearly shown as subordinate. Sitting her with two known princely supporters of Cordelia Hasenbach adroitly addressed the issue without slighting anyone. Note that of the three Rozala Malanza is seated closes to the high table, an acknowledgement of influence.”
The Firstborn delegation was announced before the conversation could continued, beginning with General Rumena of the Empire Ever Dark, the Tomb-Maker. I’d actually made a note of the proper titles for all the Mighty before passing it on to the Procerans, and I was pleased to see they’d actually observed the courtesies. Ivah was even addressed as Lord of Silent Steps, though like everyone’s attendants the dzulu accompanying it went unnamed. They made waves, the drow. Their procession as they entered Salia had drawn eyes as well, but today they had come in their full ceremonial glory instead of their war-making clothes, and it could not be denied they were a sight. Grey skin and silver-blue eyes were half-covered by the colourful paint of sigils, from Rumena’s ochre and gold to my Losara’s purple and silver. They wore strips of obsidian and exquisitely woven clothes, all dripping with jewels and gold, and though perhaps on a human it would have been mocked as vulgar on the drow it made them look like the exotic princes of a distant land. I even caught a few eyes lingering, though anyone trying to talk a drow into a night on the sheets should be prepared for disappointment. Firstborn had little interest in such affairs, save for the lowest among them – and even then, only for a certain part of their lives.
The Tomb-Maker sat alone at the leading table, and none even thought to contest this.
“That leaves the League seated next to the Ashurans,” Vivienne murmured, sounding amused. “Hasenbach has a sense of humour, it seems.”
She was right about the seating, at least: only one slice of the circle remained free, between the Firstborn and Ashur’s delegation. I was less certain it’d been meant humorously, however. It would bring a pressure to bear, the two colluding parties being side by side in their corner and bearing the weight of everyone else’s disapproval. The Thalassocracy’s envoys had no real say in the decision they were to announce, but this could be a passingly clever ploy if aimed at the League. The Tyrant was a fearless madman, true enough, but not all of the Free Cities boasted such spirit. Some would see the writing on the wall, and weigh whether following their madman Hierarch and madder Tyrant was truly worth antagonizing every other nation in this hall so deeply.
“I would not venture to give you orders, Carrion Lord,” Adjutant said, sounding pained, “but perhaps it would be wiser to cease smiling so at the Pilgrim.”
I turned to a glare at Black, whose apparent calm was marred by a vicious little twist of the lips.
“I was merely greeting an old acquaintance,” Black said.
Tariq’s lips were pressed thin, and though obviously my teacher was the one being a shit there I was still a little miffed that it took so little to provoke the Peregrine. It was like Black’s presence here was an insult already and the slightest addition to it was enough to tip the vase. I incline my head in implicit apology and after a moment he accepted it.
“You going to taunt Hasenbach too?” I muttered under my breath, casting a dark look at him.
He shook his head.
“I’ve nothing but respect for the First Prince,” he calmly said. “A thoroughly competent woman. Had our interests not been so completely at odds for the entirety of our careers, I might even have been personally fond of her.”
I frowned at him.
“Didn’t she try to have you taken from the Pilgrim and decapitated?” I asked.
“As I said,” he smiled, “a thoroughly competent woman.”
Maybe that shouldn’t have surprised me, coming from the same man whose response to learning thousands of knights had slipped his watch in the south had been mourning the likely death of whoever had first come up with the plan to achieve that. The League’s delegation was announced moments later and I trusted Vivienne and Hakram to memorize the names while I was seeing to more important business: namely, watching raptly what was intended for the Book of All Things nailed to a plank. The League’s front table ended up rather crowded, as few were willing to surrender a seat there even if the room was limited, and to my utter delight one of the two Atalante delegates was forced to relinquish his seat to the book – the plank was propped up against the chair, the book lulling open lazily. Mere moments after the League settled into their seats, the majordomo struck the floor with his staff of office and the entire Proceran delegation rose to its feet. None of the Blood did, save for the Pilgrim, nor the League’s rulers. The Firstborn did not stir, and among my tables Black and I stayed seated. Cordelia Hasenbach entered the hall from the door at the back of the Proceran tables and strode forward flanked on both sides.
One of the two was a woman, blonde and short-haired and wearing a rather loose dress. I knew her not by sight, but the similarities with Hasenbach’s face and her own hinted at the answer. Agnes Hasenbach, the Augur, was cousin to the First Prince. As to the other, there was no need to wonder: the White Knight was familiar enough a sight. Well now, I’d wondered in what capacity he would attend. Hanno split off before the Hasenbach, coming to stand by the empty seat with the two spymasters, and Agnes Hasenbach was eased into the seat to the First Prince’s left at the high table. Finally, Cordelia Hasenbach smiled at the assembly and elegantly sat. All who had risen followed seat, and a moment later the First Prince of Procer broke the silence.
“And so I declare this conference to have begun, under auspices of truce,” the First Prince said.
The Tyrant, in the heartbeat that followed, clear his throat.
“Your Most Serene Highness, if I might be allowed to address the point?”
I met Cordelia Hasenbach’s eyes from my side of the room and smiled a hard smile. All right, Hasenbach, I thought. Let’s see what you and I can achieve, when we’re on the same side.