“Diplomacy is half lies and half courtesies, which is to say it is entirely lies.”
– King Alistair Fairfax, the Fox
The Tyrant of Helike had seemingly decided to strike with his surprises hard and early, which I could appreciate. It’d save us time, since admittedly anything discussed before ‘surprise, the Dead King is here!’ was likely to fall by the wayside. I’d half-expected him to wait until we were halfway through a particularly complex discussion before dropping that into our laps, actually, since Kairos Theodosian was rarely one to avoid heaping insults upon injury. Murmurs spread through the room at the Tyrant daring to speak so boldly in the wake of the First Prince, though I’d seen to it that the people that mattered would already be in the know.
“Shut your cripple mouth and sit down, boy,” Lady Itima of Vaccei snarled out. “It’s a fucking outrage you even have a seat in this hall.”
Hasenbach had implied to me that while Itima of the Brigand’s Blood was – rather ironically, given the legendary hatred of her line for foreigners in general and Procerans in particular – her steadiest ally among the Blood she was also very much out to get the Tyrant’s head on a plate for his actions during the adventure that birthed the Twilight Ways, as well as a handful of prior betrayals. The redeeming aspect of that was that unlike most Levantines the Lady of Vaccei was not insistent on having that head taken on a battlefield or by honour duel. A knife in the dark or poison in the cup would do just as well, for the Vengeful Brigand’s brutal pragmatism in aging war against the Proceran occupation had trickled down to his descendants.
“The Dominion of Levant objects to this departure from the agreed-upon order of affairs,” Lord Yannu Marave calmly translated in more polite terms.
“Look at the other two Blood,” Vivienne murmured.
I followed her own gaze and found the faces of my old buddy Razin and Lady Aquiline utterly calm. I knew precious little about Aquiline Osena, but I’d watched Razin Tanja come apart at the seams in the shadow of Sarcella. I liked to think I had a good grasp on the man, and he was not all that skilled a liar or dissembler – if anything he a rawness to him I found almost refreshing compared to the practiced masks of near every other aristocrat I knew. He would have been embarrassed by Lady Itima’s outburst, if it had come as a surprise to him. Which meant it wasn’t. I let out a small noise of approval at Vivs for that, I might not have caught if not for her sharp gaze. She was getting to be a fair hand at these games, which boded well for the years to come.
Itima Ifriqui’s flare of temper had been planned, it seemed, though I could only wonder as to why. Reinforcing the knowledge that Kairos was hated abroad to the rest of the League? It might even be a simple matter of herding him towards a particular response, though that would mean the true hand behind this was the First Prince. This was her preferred battlefield, not mine.
“Friends, allies, companions,” the Tyrant of Helike enthusiastically said. “How could I dare to defy such ironclad law as the order of affairs? No, I speak now so that an oversight might be corrected.”
“Get on with it, Tyrant,” I called out. “There’s only so long of you orating at your own navel I’m willing to suffer.”
“Catherine,” the odd-eyed villain cried, sending me a wounded look.
From the corner of my eye I saw Princess Rozala’s lips twitch in suppressed amusement. It would have been impolitic to wink, I supposed, and besides I had a policy.
“And what oversight might that be, Lord Tyrant?” Cordelia Hasenbach calmly asked.
“Why, there are yet delegates to arrive and be seated,” Kairos Theodosian grinned.
The First Prince of Procer elegantly extended her arm, palm up, and a dark-haired attendant offered her a small ceremonial baton of sculpted alder. Though carved from one piece, it’d been made to look like it was a bundle of small twigs tied together by a string. One twig for each principality, symbolizing that each twig alone was fragile but the bundle was stronger than the sum of its parts. It’d been a common imagery in Procer until the Liturgical Wars, during which it fell out of favour, and had been around long enough for a few verses back home to have been written about it. Even as Cordelia Hasenbach knocked the baton against the surface of her table I hummed the tune to Two Dozen Snakes A Knot Do Make, Vivienne at my side going rigid to avoid showing reaction.
“And though Billy King did step on them,” Black quietly hummed, lips twitching, “they hardly even-”
Of course Black would know the words, I amusedly thought. He’d ruled Callow for twenty years and unless he’d done so without ever setting foot in a tavern he probably knew most the old songs.
“-noooooticed,” I could not help but finish, swallowing a grin.
Vivienne had joined her voice to the sound as well, though discreetly. Even in a Legion haunt like the Rat’s Nest they’d sung that regularly, legionaries being rather fond of the imagery of anyone stepping hard on the proverbial knot of snakes west of the Whitecaps.
“Your people do have a singular talent for putting mockery to a tune,” the Carrion Lord fondly said.
Our shared mirth had not gone unnoticed by the rest of the hall, a few other delegates eyeing us curiously. It was rather pitiful that between three former Named not a single one of us could properly hold a tune but aside from that I claimed no regrets. Yet Black’s uncharacteristic levity, I suspected, might just be the result of seeking diversions to distract frim his worries about a matter I’d warned him of. While we whispered in our corner the First Prince had begun out first gambit of the day. At the knocking of the baton the attendants were set abuzz like a swarm of bees, the gates to the back of the League delegations’ left and right opening. Down both avenues a small but beautiful desk was carried, and behind the desks a single seat each. Kairos’s good eye narrowed for the fraction of a moment as he took in the second desk before his face eased into a delighted smile. It’d stayed long enough for me to catch his surprise, though.
Come now, Kairos, I thought. You might as well have told me outright. I know how Malicia works, there’s no way she’d ever trust one of her lords to negotiate with the likes of you. Even if they were not treacherous and courting you support to overthrow her, they’d be always a step behind you in any talks. Which meant the old body-taking trick of Dread Emperor Nefarious would have been put to good use. It was a small leap from there to figuring out it was rather likely that Malicia’s host body might have accompanied him in his campaign, or meant to be another surprise attendance at this conference – after all, Black’s presence here meant that in principle the Dread Empire of Praes was allowed to attend. It’d been a risk to bring out the two desks from the start since this was speculation and not certainty, but the First Prince had argued we lost precious little from being wrong while inflicting sharper uncertainty should we be correct. I’d still been against it, but Cordelia’s instincts had seemingly paid off if the Tyrant’s surprise was not mere playacting.
Now he had to wonder how deeply we’d seen through him and if my alliance with the First Prince might not be closer knit than he’d assumed. The painted desks were set to the sides of the League’s delegations, slightly behind their leading table. A subtle slight, that, implying inferior status. Cordelia was apparently not above venting her displeasure through small details, which I found rather endearing. It added a touch of humanity to the ice-cold and masterfully controlled princess I’d been treating with, a woman who’d use even her own grief and shame as tools to get her way without batting an eye.
“How very gracious of you, First Prince,” the Tyrant laughed. “Without further ado, I then present-”
Black tensed. If I’d now known the man I might not have noticed, for he had not moved a hair, but his eyes gained an edge of razor-sharp attention that’d not been there before.
“His Majesty Trismegistus of Keter, the Dead King!”
It was almost amusing the way the older of the Atalante preachers went white as a sheet when the other one rose to his feet. Sorcery coursed down the body of the impostor in thick rivulets, revealing beneath an illusion the same skeletal puppet of polished ivory bones and long purple cloths I had met with last night. I’d been wondering if it’d be the same, or if he had another host form to ride hidden away somewhere in the city. The tall dead thing stood before the desk set out for him, and the room erupted in whispers. Some scribes even cried out in fear, as if they’d been told the Gods Below had come up to see to them personally. It was a different sort of fear they had for the Hidden Horror, here in Procer. Even in the south he was not so much a legend as a sword hanging above everyone’s head: after decades of it not falling down you could tell yourself it never would, and even forget about it.
But every time you happened to look up, you were made to remember that safety was just the tale your parents told you as a child so you’d sleep well. Callow knew the Tower’s shadow like its own breath and blood, but it could not be denied that the Principate knew the Crown of the Dead’s almost as intimately.
It was not all fear, though. Lady Aquiline looked like she was itching to draw a blade, and her fellow Blood all had measuring stares. I glanced at the princes’ table, and my respect for them rose a notch when I saw only cold disdain on those faces. The luxuriantly mustachioed Renato of Salamans took in the Dead King’s clothes with a look that could only be called scornful, and Ariel of Arans leaned to the side and idly spoke to Princess Rozala in a low voice. As for Rozala Malanza, her dark eyes stared at the Dead King unblinkingly. The burning intensity of the hatred I saw in there gave me pause, for I’d seen hatreds great and small in my time and that one was neither shallow nor passing. As for the First Prince herself, her face was a cold and regal mask framed by golden curls, offering only icy loathing.
Parts of the League’s delegation – Atalante, Nicae – were dismayed by the sudden revelation, but others largely indifferent. Delos and Bellerophon’s delegates were respectively keeping notes and looking rather lost, while the Penthesians seemed more cautious than alarmed. Yet it was the Firstborn whose reaction had me savagely grinning. General Rumena, silver-blue eyes staring straight at the King of Death, clenched its fingers into a fist and struck against the table once.
“Prav ruvan,” the Tomb-Maker said.
First claim, it meant. A statement, but also the beginning of something more. Mighty Jindrich laughed, the sound scything through the room filled with murmurs, and struck at its table as well.
“First claim,” Jindrich also said. “For this I offer three spears of finest obsidian, and the Secret of Shells.”
Mighty Soln jeered.
“Cheapskate. First claim,” it said. “A finely made bureau of wood, and the Secrets of Shaping and Sight.”
The only word of that not in Crepuscular was in Chantant, bureau, for the drow were wildly appreciative of the Proceran style of elaborate wooden desks and in deference to that appreciation had been very particular about using the ‘proper’ term for it. And so, as the rest of the hall handled the surprise of the Dead King’s presence, the proud Mighty of the Empire Ever Dark held their bidding war over which of them would have the privilege to first attempt to kill the Dead King on the field and take his Night. The Tyrant cleared his throat, and I felt Black tense again.
“And, naturally, Her Imperial Majesty, Dread Empress Malicia of Praes!”
He sounded, I thought, like a merchant hawking wares at the market. Murmurs bloomed anew as one of the translators from the League rose to her feet. I noted with faint amusement that Malicia’s host-body had chosen to be seated close to the aisle. I supposed the revelation would have lost some of its gravitas if she’d had to politely ask the other League translators to pull forward their chairs so she could stride out with the right sort of presence. The illusion laid there was rather simpler than the one that’d revealed the Dead King: a young Soninke woman was revealed, but one of broadly similar height and body shape as the feigned translator. Bright runes were visible, carved directly into the skin and looking halfway between mutilation and tattoos. The Empress’ puppet made way to her pulpit with a fluid grace that was all Malicia, impressively conveyed halfway across the continent and to a body not all that like her own save in the dark tone of the skin.
Whatever amusement I’d savoured while pondering the practicalities of that theatrical reveal went up in smoke when I turned my gaze to Black. He was looking at Malicia’s puppet with the naked desperation of a drowning man, eyes roaming her form almost obsessively. It took me a moment to understand why. My father was looking for a hint, any hint at all, that this might not truly be Dread Empress Malicia. That it could be a trick or some sort of fake. My fingers clenched as I watched him watch her stand before her desk and he was forced to admit there was no such thing. Something died in those pale green eyes, at that moment, and I realized Scribe had been right. Even now, even after the betrayals and the lies and the mistakes, he’d still intended on finding a way for the Empress to live. And when Amadeus of the Green Stretch grasped the truth, truly came to look in the eye, that he was about to be robbed that recourse? A light went out in his gaze that I suspected none still living could bring back.
Something flickered across his pale face, a weighing of choices, and then something like disgust. In the heartbeat that followed, he pushed back his chair and rose to his feet.
“Alaya,” Amadeus said in Kharsum, voice only barely clinging to calm, “this is a very grave mistake.”
Sigil-marked and burning with hollow fire, the puppet that Malicia rode turned empty eyes to Black. Considering, until she spoke.
“Unless oaths were sworn to the crown of Callow, the correct placement for the Empire’s delegation is behind me,” the Empress replied in Lower Miezan.
“This is madness,” Black hissed, still in Kharsum. “Dark Days protocols and alliances with Keter will not take us through the storm, Alaya. I have secured other means, if you would simply let me-”
The eyes of nearly the entire hall were on the two of them. I wondered how many people could even speak Kharsum, here. It was not even all that common in Praes, much less Callow, and so I doubted even the Procerans had a translator for the main orc dialect. I hid a wince at my teacher’s mistake a moment before he bit his tongue over it, but it was too late.
“Let you?” the Empress softly replied. “Am I then to hide in your shade like a child and let the rules of power to be decided in this ostentatious scrap heap of a city? I think not.”
Something like a twitch of pain marred the puppet’s face.
“Stand behind me,” the Empress ordered, asked, pleaded. “The game can still be won, Amadeus. I yet know how.”
I bit my tongue, knowing from experience that my stepping between those two ancient monsters had ever only earned the disapproval of both, and followed across the face of the green-eyed man the war between the Carrion Lord and Amadeus of the Green Stretch. One had followed and trusted Dread Empress Malicia for most of his life, murdered and sacrificed and bled to see the order they’d built together stand. Yet of the two that creatures was the one that’d turn on the Empress. Not easily, or without cause, but turn on her it would. If the gears turned and the verdict churned out was that victory demanded the blood of his dearest friend, the steel would be whet red once more.
The other, though, was that part of Black that had seen a barren wasteland of empire and wanted to mend it. That’d made a family of a young mage hunted by the most powerful practitioner in the empire, offered friendship to a woman whose curse had devoured her life and charmed the likes of the Ranger and the Assassin through the strange mixture of devotion and black-hearted ruthlessness. The same boy who’d struck a friendship with a tavern girl long before either of them ever saw the Tower’s hulking shape on the horizon.
It was the part of him I loved, if not the one I’d taken lessons from. And I thought it might just be the part of him that, right now, was murmuring in the back of his mind about one last leap of faith. Murmuring that by abandoning Malicia now all the darkest fears – and Gods, how could she not fear when it’d been armies led by Black and loyal to him above all else that saw her rise to the throne? – would be confirmed by his own hesitation, his own weakness. Guilt and love and the chains of a loyalty that had been well-worn long before my birth. I was my father’s daughter, and so this I understood.
As he’d no doubt understood, when for the heraldry of the noble house of Foundling I chose not some glorious beast or some fearsome weapon. I did not even choose to ape the dignity of the Fairfaxes and the Albans by stealing their arms so I might better suckle at the love they’d earned among my people. I’d chosen a silver balance, set on the stark bleak blackness of the man who’d taught me, and on it I’d weighed a crown and sword. Right and might. Principle and necessity.
The wants of the woman, as Akua had once told me, and the needs of the queen.
The thing was, that as much as we – Malicia, Black, myself – were pretending this was a war, it wasn’t. It was the inexorable sound of a noose being pulled tight, the song of an arrow before it tore flesh. It was the march of the inevitable, because while I believed it was Amadeus of the Green Stretch that both the Empress and I cared for, that boy was just who he’d been born to be. The Carrion Lord, the Black Knight, the cold-eyed and stead-handed killer that broke armies and conquered nations? That was who he’d chosen to be. And so, inch by inch, the inevitable one. Those hungry, callous cogs of steel ground up the boy that’d been and the girl he’d loved.
And when the steel came free of the last parts with a wet squelch, the Carrion Lord breathed out shallowly.
“It was never a game, Alaya,” he gently said. “It is a mould, and it will be broken.”
They shared a long glance, in a hall where the great and powerful of an entire continent had gathered to speak and yet not a single whisper could be heard – only utter, oppressive silence. What he was going to say now, I’d predicted. I’d told Cordelia what he would say, what would drive him to it, with a degree of exactness that now chilled me. Dark hair flecked with grey, back straight as an arrow, the Carrion Lord turned to address the hall with eerie calm.
“I address now all who would lend ear, mighty of Calernia come to this hall,” the green-eyed man said, in perfect Chantant.
Translators hurriedly whispered as he spoke, for those who did not speak the tongue.
“The so-called Dread Empress Malicia I hereby denounce as unfit to reign and having lost the favour of the Gods Below through carelessness and misrule,” the Carrion Lord said. “I claim the Tower as Dread Emperor of Praes, and ask for the recognition of the delegates to speak in its name.”
Sometimes, I thought, it was an ugly thing to be right.