“A treaty is fooling all the people at the right time, an alliance is fooling the right people all the time. A war is when all the people are fools all the time.”
– Prokopia Lekapene, first Hierarch of the League of Free Cities
The Carrion Lord’s spoken Chantant was flawless, the First Prince grudgingly admitted. Almost entirely without accent, too, and it was the tongue the most people in the hall would speak so it’d been the canniest choice. After such an incendiary claim it was no surprise that the hall fell into disarray, a hundred whispers filling the room as loudly as any ringing shout. There were many faces that Cordelia Hasenbach could have watched. The Dead King, the Enemy incarnate, was seated and still not a hundred feet from her. The ‘Firstborn’, whose unknown tongue and strange disposition married to the sudden strategic importance made increasingly important to understand. Even the Carrion Lord himself, who she had watched for some time as he had that terse, charged exchange with the Dread Empress in some eastern tongue. The pale man’s face had turned corpse-like halfway through, like a mask made of wax.
Malicia’s inhabited body was not so expressive, but she’d seemed shaken as well. Perhaps there truly was genuine sentiment between the two of them, Cordelia thought. It hardly mattered, with monsters like those. The First Prince’s gaze had left them before the end, though, turning to the tanned woman leaning back into her seat at the same table. Catherine Foundling’s face had not lost any of the sharp angles that meant no one would ever call her a beauty, but where before she’d seemed sullen there was now a certain… carefreeness. The Black Queen’s eyes had always been what softened her mien to something short of severe, Cordelia considered, but now instead of wild swings of emotion or utter iciness there was an unsettling candidness to what could be glimpsed in them. The First Prince had found her personable, when spoken to face-to-face, which she had not expected.
Which made it all the more chilling that the sequence of events the Black Queen had so offhandedly predicted last night was coming to pass so unerringly.
Cordelia Hasenbach was not above admitting when she had made a mistake, and her early assessments of Queen Catherine had been very much mistaken. She’d taken the lapses in etiquettes, the strange asides and poorly-kept temper to mean that the Black Queen was mediocre diplomat, and in truth little more than a charismatic warlord whose grip on power was maintained by terror in blood. Considering the other woman had since wheedled support out of the Kingdom Under – the likes of which had not been seen since Triumphant’s day! – and somehow become the foremost religious figure of the drow and then leveraged this into the Everdark’s entry into the war, it would be absurd to keep believing as much. And so much of this was absurd already, Cordelia grimly thought. How could anyone have a pitched battle with the Dominion and somehow come out of the slaughter in good odour with the Blood?
No, Foundling was not a mediocre diplomat. She simply disdained the usual means of diplomacy, which had seemed the same when it was through these that Cordelia interacted with her. Her Liesse Accords, which admittedly she professed to be as much the work of Vivienne Dartwick and Hakram Deadhand, were also a diplomatic solution coming from a woman the First Prince had once considered a canny, dangerous thug with an army. It was necessary to reassess what she’d once thought of the Black Queen, for though she was now an ally only a fool kept both eyes on the stag when hunting with a wolf. Cordelia had known all of this, or at least thought she did. Yet looking at Catherine’s Foundling calm face, the barely-veiled sympathy she looked at the Carrion Lord with, she could not help shiver. For all that the Black Queen had yet to even address the hall, every person here had so far danced to the tune of her choice. Cordelia set aside the thoughts and the wariness, striking at the table as her majordomo loudly called for order. The noise withdrew, leaving a palpable sensation of absence in its wake.
“We recognize the words of the Carrion Lord,” the First Prince said. “Yet let it be said, and known, that this conference claims not the authority to install or depose rulers.”
Enthusiastic approval from the Dominion’s tables at that, as they’d been understandably wary of the precedents that might be set today. For all that Levant now stood strong compared to a weakened Procer and bloodied Callow, it would not last forever. None of the Blood wanted foreigners to us this conference as pretext to meddle in Dominion affairs a decade from now, when their power waned and Procer’s waxed. Cordelia waited a beat, for her partner in this intricate dance to step in. The Black Queen rose to her feet, demanding the floor, and a nod from the First Prince to her majordomo had it granted.
“The Wasteland’s affairs are its own,” Catherine Foundling said, then offered the Empress a hard smile, “at least for now. Yet it cannot be denied that the Carrion Lord speaks for the Legion-in-Exiles, and others among the Dread Empire. We may not have the right to crown him, but let us not shy from practical realities for politeness’ sake.”
And there it was. The line that would allow them to hamstring Dread Empress Malicia and bring the Carrion Lord to the table without granting her the wellspring of Praesi support that ‘foreigners attempting to place their chosen candidate atop the Tower’ might otherwise garner. Lord Yannu Marave rose and was passed the right to speak.
“The Dominion backs the right of the Carrion Lord to speak for the Legions-in-Exile and any other who come under his banner,” the Lord of Alava said, his Chantant polished and practiced.
He had been the right choice, the First Prince decided. Razin Tanja was emerging as a rival power among the Blood, and one the Grey Pilgrim was taking an interest in, but he was young and not as skilled a speaker.
“The Kingdom of Callow seconds this,” Vivienne Dartwick said, tone brisk.
A moment passed as the Black Queen raised an eyebrow at the drow.
“The Empire Ever Dark recognizes the Lord of Carrion and his rights,” General Rumena said, sounding amused.
It – Cordelia had learned that the drow eschewed sexes, and found insult in their use – was smiling most unsettlingly, the pale blue eyes that seemed universal to its kind never blinking. It was ancient, the First Prince tell that much by a simple glance. Yet it also looked ancient. Given that the Black Queen had once casually mentioned her attendant, the one they called the Lord of Silent Steps, had been alive before the Conquest and yet looked near boyish the princess had to wonder how long it would take for age to become so visible among one of their kind. Centuries? A thousand years?
“Why don’t you take this one, Leo,” the Tyrant of Helike said, grinning as he winked. “Did I not say that I would allow other voices than my own to be heard?”
The Basileus of Nicae, Leo Trakas, looked hesitant at the sudden offer. The young man was unfortunately not a well-known quantity to her. Until recently his ancient office had been the lesser of the powers in the city-state, largely concerned with stewardship and ceremony while the ruling Strategos truly held the reins. Strategos Nereida Silantis had been an ally of hers, and one cultivated by half a decade of gifts and correspondence as well as fair mediation between Ashur and Nicae. She’d also died when the Tyrant took Nicae and in the chaos Leo Trakas had seized great authority, preventing the nomination of another Strategos. His victories against the Thalassocracy had since ensured he was highly popular in Nicae, though his hold on rule was a great deal more fragile than one would assume at first glance.
He’d be deposed within the month, should he blunder badly enough the people turned against him. The Basileus mastered himself, after a moment, and as Kairos Theodosian had no doubt expected him to do he chose the safe path.
“The League of Free Cities abstains,” Leo Trakas said.
Which left only one vote, until Procer delivered its own.
“The Thalassocracy abstains,” Sitter Ahirom said.
The man had kept his composure, but it was visibly fraying at the seams. As it would be, Cordelia thought. Magon Hadast might have been forced to break alliances to repay a debt of gratitude and prevent the starvation of his people that might follow ingratitude, but keeping company with Keter and Ater was nothing to be proud of. Much less when it was becoming increasingly clear that neither the Crown nor the Tower were quite as masterful as they’d no doubt pretended to be.
“The Principate of Procer supports the motion,” Cordelia Hasenbach crisply spoke into the silence. “Four in favour and two abstentions, the motion passes. The Carrion Lord’s right to speak for the designated peoples is accepted by this hall.”
In the silence that followed, the First Prince of Procer mused, one could almost hear the first spark of civil war in the Wasteland.
It had all been going smoothly, which in Vivienne Dartwick’s experience meant the other shoe was due to drop.
The Black Knight – she knew he held the Name no longer, but how could that man ever be anything but the Black Knight in her eyes? – had a seat at the table without this conference and its heart, the Grand Alliance, overreaching by attempting to enthrone him. Most importantly, the careful wording the First Prince had convinced Lord Yannu to employ had deep implications down the line. And any who come under his banner, the large Levantine had said, and the wording had been upheld even if Hasenbach had been careful not to repeat it. It meant that the Black Knight could be offered terms now, lenient ones, and that those terms could then be made to apply to all of Praes should he become Dread Emperor. As Dread Empress Malicia had earned little but hate from those in this hall, any terms she might receive would be decidedly inferior. It was leverage that might tip the scales win favour of supporting the Carrion Lord among certain Praesi, though unless the Empress outright abdicated it was good as certain there’d be a civil war between their supporters.
Not necessarily a long one, given that the loyalties of the Legions of Terror might just swing in his favour hard and early, but Wasteland wars were always nasty stuff.
Another two rounds of the tables saw confirmed the recognition of Dread Empress Malicia – even the Carrion Lord voted in favour, amusingly enough, which made the vote unanimous in favour with Magister Zoe Ixioni’s assent in the name of the League – and another for the Dead King. Ashur abstained on that one, as did the Black Knight, and Nestor Ikaroi of the Secretariat voted against in the name of the League. Malicia was his sworn ally, however, and the Grand Alliance delegations had all been forewarned and agreed on common action, which meant that the majority in favour carried the vote. The King of Death had his seat and his vote, at least for now. Not that the motions had much power outside the strictures of the peace conference: they were a tool to manipulate the rules of this game through formality, not something that could be used to truly produce diplomatic results.
Vivienne had voiced the votes for the Kingdom of Callow both times, Catherine remaining silent. She knew well what it was Cat was doing, giving her the duty to speak for their shared home in front of every great power on Calernia. It was as tacit an endorsement of her as a successor there could be without Vivienne being named a princess, which would be… complicated to accomplish, and likely require her adoption into House Foundling. Setting aside the thoughts, Vivienne forced herself to sharpen her focus on the proceedings. Though the Dead King had yet to speak a word, little more than a grim sculpture of bones, the Empress had no shared such compulsions. With a pleasant, sonorous voice – Vivienne wondered if the body had been picked for it – she opened her part of the dance. The Carrion Lord, a mere landless rebel, had been allowed to address the hall while the rightful ruler of Praes had been denied the same right, she said, which was miscarriage of procedure.
It was not an unexpected assault. Hasenbach had named it a likely avenue, since refusing the Empress would taint the appearance of fair proceedings and accepting would allow her to go on the offensive while bypassing the agreed-on order of affairs. Which would otherwise keep her contained until hours into the talks simply by speaking of very little Praes could weigh in on.
“We recognize the words of Dread Empress Malicia of Praes,” the First Prince said.
Malicia’s mangled puppet smoothly rose to her feet.
“The Dread Empire cedes its speaking right to the Thalassocracy of Ashur,” she smoothly said.
Ah, Vivienne thought, almost grimacing. And there went the first stumble in the plan. Tightening the vise on the opposition by hammering home how isolated the League and the Empire were one motion after another wouldn’t work if Ashur withdrew from the Grand Alliance formally before the talks had even begun. Sitter Ahirom rose to his feet, acknowledging the First Prince’s evenly spoken recognition of his right to speak with a nod.
“I speak now the words of Magon Hadast, citizen of the second tier of the Baalite Hegemony, Sitter of the Eminent Committee,” the man said.
A heartbeat of silence passed.
“As of this day, the Thalassocracy of Ashur declares its withdrawal from the Grand Alliance and all attendant treaties,” Sitter Ahirom said.
Few across the room were surprised, and those that were told much to Vivienne. The Dominion had been brought into this early and the Firstborn had only middling interest in matters unrelated to the war against the Dead King, but the lack of surprise did come as a surprise to Sitter Ahirom himself. It was as the First Prince had speculated, then: Ashur was good as blind on the continent, and clutching at any offered driftwood that would prevent it from drowning. More interestingly, there was a great deal of surprise among the League’s delegation. Not Magister Ixioni, though, Vivienne thought. Helike and Stygia were traditionally kept close alliance when the League was at war, as they fielded its finest armies and typically both benefited greatly from strife. A Tyrant’s rule also meant that Below held the reins in both city-states, buoying Evil in the Free Cities for a span.
Delos and Atalante had both had no idea. The general from Bellerophon still looked lost and afraid of asking questions, but the two Penthesians were calm. Better at hiding their thoughts, or in the know?
“Penthes?” Vivienne murmured.
“Theodosian owns and informs them, I’d wager,” the Black Knight softly said. “Prodocius has an emperor’s ambition and the wits of a well-bred trout while Honorion is afflicted by that peculiar condition where one comes to believe that gold makes up for any and all shortcomings. Scribe has theorized the Tyrant ensured they’d be the last two claimants because they are singularly inept at anything but banquets and squabbling.”
“If he leans towards one we could back the other,” Hakram suggested.
“Tyrant’s too canny for that,” Cat grunted. “He’ll have them both convinced he’s secretly helping them against the other.”
“The Empire has influence there as well, through trade,” the Black Knight said. “Penthes is a dead end. Nicae might not be.”
Basileus Leo Trakas looked like someone had slapped him across the face. He was a handsome one, Vivienne thought, though less so when his eyes were narrowed in surprised anger.
“He doesn’t know about the ships yet,” Vivienne quietly said. “Otherwise he’d be storming out. Trakas only thinks he’s about to get strong-armed into backing off Ashur by his own side.”
“Agreed,” Catherine said. “He’s not smooth enough to keep it in the pot if he gets knifed that hard and deep in the back.”
“Then we approach him during the recess,” Hakram said. “We lack proof beyond the Tyrant’s own words, which only a fool would take, but the groundwork can be laid.”
“Hasenbach tried to use Nicae as a counterweight for Kairos and that went over about as well as pepper in a kennel,” Cat reminded them.
“If enough of the League’s armies keep withdrawing to their territory, it no longer matters that Theodosian is dominant,” the Black Knight noted. “He’ll no longer have the strength to collapse Procer or invade Callow, which effectively muzzles him.”
Which would be ideal, as far as she was concerned, since acting against the madman outright was likely to see them burned. If he could instead be dragged back into the lesser squabbles of the League of Free Cities until the war against Keter was brought to an end it should be significantly less risky of a proposition. Which meant bending the individual city-states, and that would require significantly more pressure than the coalition had brought to bear so far.
“We need to strike while they’re still uncertain,” Vivienne said.
Catherine looked at her curiously.
“We out it now, Cat,” Vivienne said. “It’s out of the order, but then so was this. It ought to put them on the back foot again.”
The Queen of Callow considered it for a moment, then nodded.
“Hakram,” she said, “find me an in.”
The orc’s brow creased as he put his superb memory to work.
“This isn’t a motion, it’s an address,” the Adjutant said. “Which means we can ask for right of reply on if what we speak of is associated. If the First Prince grant it, which I’d venture to assume.”
Catherine’s lips quirked into half a smile and she turned.
Vivienne started in surprise, looking at the woman that was both her ruler and her friend.
“This isn’t a vote, Cat,” she said. “It’s-”
“I know what it is,” Catherine said. “It was your notion, and a good one. Besides, you’re the one who’ll reign under it. Speak the words.”
Vivienne breathed out shallowly. But it was too late to flinch, to fear. It’d been too late since that night in Laure where she’d chosen to bet on the Squire. She rose to her feet.
“The Kingdom of Callow request right of reply,” Vivienne Dartwick said.
Cordelia Hasenbach, tall and fair and with eyes like chips of ice, considered her for a moment.
“We recognize the words of Lady Dartwick, heiress-designate to Callow,” the First Prince said.
“Pertaining the Grand Alliance, as addressed by Sitter Ahirom,” Vivienne said, “we declare now before Gods and men that the Kingdom of Callow is a member and signatory.”