“In studying our histories I have cast aside old mistakes, instead embracing fresh and interesting ones.”
– Dread Empress Atrocious, later devoured by man-eating tapirs
The games being played on this marble floor, Hakram thought, were no less deadly than any played axe in hand. Perhaps even deadlier, for an axe took one life at a time while here a streak of ink and a sharp phrase could kindle the death of thousands. Most of his kind despised the ways of the Tower’s court: the poisons drunk and spoken, the colourful clothes worth a manse and the alliances that came and went faster than the tides. It was not that orcs knew nothing of treachery or cunning ways, for though the Adjutant had long left behind the Steppes he still remembered the spoken histories and there were betrayals aplenty in the tales. Some were spoken of as reverently as great deeds unsullied, for though the treachery was not in question neither was the greatness.
Aslog Ironfoot’s warbands turning on Warlord Gorm at the Battle of the Lights, bringing bloody end to Eldest Horde. Dagmar Hardteeth allying with the Queen of Okoro to murder their rivals by sorcery and surprise at the gathering of the thaw. And lesser betrayals, too were spoken of, not worthy of legend. Not even a century ago the Blackspear Clan had broken alliance with the Howling Wolves at the incitement of the Painted Dogs, allowing warbands through their territory, and then ambushed the returning Dogs to take the spoils of the cattle-raids. No legend had come of this, no tale save that Blackspear blood flowed without honour. No, Hakram Deadhand did not believe the Clans to be made of finer stuff than the rest of Creation, for their history spoke otherwise time and time again.
Yet his people disdained those who made sport of their own word, those who pretended to valour and honour while acting otherwise. And there was a sense of that, hanging around this great hall. Vivienne’s words were ringing still, yet the harvest of surprise they reaped was meagre indeed. A few of the Tyrant’s playthings, the Thalassocracy’s man – who like the nation he stood for was this day isolated and out of his depths, ship bound to currents unknown – and those few scribes and translators too low in status to have warranted warning. The Dread Empress of Praes, wearing a mutilated and marked body like a coat, betrayed no surprise. Neither did the grinning devil known as Kairos Theodosian, or the utterly still corpse inhabited by the Dead King.
It was the first of these that Hakram was most wary of. Malicia had lost the reins of much she once commanded, but the most dangerous part of the Empress had ever been her boldness and clever mind, neither of which had been taken from her. Catherine thought her half-spent a force, with jackals circling the Tower and her realm deeply wounded, and dangerous mostly in that way a desperate villain tended to be. The Adjutant was not so certain. The Empress had not even attempted to bring the Carrion Lord to her side, by scrying or sent agent, this he knew for a fact: as the Eyes had people in the Army of Callow, so did the Jacks have people among the Legions-in-Exile. And the Scribe would have forewarned them, if those eyes were fooled, for the Adjutant understood her in a way most frightful.
He would act in similar manner, if Catherine was preparing to throw away her life and life’s work.
And so while the hall twisted and turned, twining around the already half-known revelation that the Grand Alliance had known of Ashur’s unfaithfulness and behind the Thalassocracy’s own back prepared answer of its own, Hakram Deadhand watched the Empress. Malicia was not beloved of his people as her right hand had been, still was, for unlike the Carrion Lord she had neither been warlord nor tireless defender. Yet she was respected, by the wise among the Clans, for having enacted the Reforms without needing to cram them down the throat of the High Lords by civil war as the Black Knight’s iron-handed ways might well have required. She had been good the orcs in a way few of her predecessors could boast, and never given slight without reason nor meddled in the affairs of the Clans beyond the old rights of the Tower.
Malicia had been a fair ruler to his people in most regards, Hakram thought, and looking upon the puppet-thing she now wore he could not bring himself to believe her to have gone the way of the Old Tyrants. The Empress had bought and paid for the Doom of Liesse, it could not be denied, yet meant to use is to serve the principles she had once writ in her treatise ‘The Death of the Age of Wonders’. She’d since used only the blades of assassins, sharp intrigue and the sole doomsday weapon of the Warlock that was already known to Calernia. Still Water was a thing of terror, true, but it should not be forgot that in the eyes of most in this room that terror had already been laid at the Empress’ feet.
She lost little by using it, and gained form the use a great fleet as well as means to influence Ashur into leaving the Grand Alliance. It had not been a careless or desperate act, he thought. Which meant Malicia’s keen edge had not faded, and nothing of the play taking place in this hall was a coincidence. Not even that raw thing that the Carrion Lord’s voice had carried, when he good as begged for a reason not to turn on her. It’d be a damned cold thing, making that cut on purpose.
But cold was oft the winner, in Wasteland games.
“Catherine,” the Adjutant whispered in Kharsum, leaning closer to her. “I think we are being had.”
Tanned face set into a calm look as she studied the hall, his warlord slowly nodded.
“There’s no swing in them,” the Black Queen murmured. “This isn’t their game. We misread them, Hakram.”
As was often the case whenever Catherine’s eyes narrowed and her twisty mind wandered down paths the rest of them could only dimly glimpse, Hakram was forced to take a moment to parse what she’d said. Not enough swing. As in the opposition was not putting up a fight, and so without pause she had decided it meant they saw what was happening as not worth fighting over. It might be argued instead, Hakram knew, that Callow’s entering of the Grand Alliance was good as certain, and so the opposition had not considered it something that could be fought. Yet the Adjutant’s instincts sung in accord with his queen’s, for one did not face the longest-reigning Dread Empress in the history of the Wasteland and the King of Death himself and received so little ‘swing’, as his warlord had said.
Vivienne sat down even as a clarification was requested by the current speaker for the League of Free Cities – Basileus Leo Trakas once more – as to the veracity of the statement made by Lady Dartwick. Confirmation from the First Prince and Lord Yannu Marave followed.
“If they have no stake in this, then their victory lies not in a contested field,” the Carrion Lord quietly said.
“That would mean they’re not looking to get anything out of this conference,” Vivienne said, her Kharsum still a little ragged even though they regularly practiced together. “So why are they even here?”
Catherine’s hand half-reached to the pockets sown within her cloak, before she remembered it would be unseemly for her to light her pipe before so many eminent rulers. She forced it back down and let out an annoyed hiss through her teeth. Odds were, Hakram fondly thought, that she did not even realize how around greenskins she tended to mimic their manners. That particular manner of hissing couldn’t properly be done without goblin teeth, for unlike theirs human teeth had no gaps when put together, but more than once Adjutant had seen goblins shoot her almost awestruck looks when she did it before them. There was a reason half the goblins in the Army of Callow considered her to be a Matron in human flesh, and contrary to what Indrani kept insinuating it wasn’t the height. Well, not only the height.
“Where else are they going to get a gathering like this?” Catherine said. “What happens in the conference is as dust to them, I bet. But they’ve got an audience with the powerful of most Calernia here, don’t they? They’re hear for the ears, not the tongues.”
Utter silence seized the room, sudden and oppressive. Half the hall was watching the same thing, and Adjutant followed their gaze. The Dead King he saw, had moved for the very first time since his body sat. His skull had turned to gaze at Catherine, hollow sockets empty and unblinking. The slightest of tremors was going through the skeletal thing, Adjutant saw, and for a moment he did not understand. Then he did, and his blood went cold.
The Dead King was looking at Catherine Foundling, and shaking as he laughed.
The Enemy was laughing.
Cordelia Hasenbach was not one to boast of bravery, for hers were not the gifts of courage on the field, yet neither did she consider herself to be faint of heart. And yet the sight of the Hidden Horror’s silent tremors of amusement sent a shiver up her spine. That the monster was gazing unerringly at the Black Queen as he did only made it eerier. The blonde princess did not allow it to reach her face, or seep in her eyes, instead thinking of Hannoven. Of the city broken once more, walls torn down and her kinsmen slaughtered to the last. Cordelia thought of the brave men and women who’d died on those walls, keeping dawn from failing just a little while longer, and when cold wroth roared through her veins she fed it the fear. Composure returned to her, for that anger was an old friend, and finally she gestured for the page standing behind her table to step forward. At her side, Agnes suddenly stirred.
“Magon Hadast was killed,” the Augur said.
Agnes, she saw, was staring at the Carrion Lord. The page passed Cordelia a sealed scroll, bearing scarlet wax stamped with the heraldry of the Order of the Red Lion. She set it down and turned a sharp gaze on her cousin.
“Is he dead now,” Cordelia whispered, “or is he going to die?”
Agnes blinked sleepily, a look of utter frustration flickering across her face. It took her a moment to speak again, as if she had to piece together once more when and where she was.
“Soon,” the Augur said. “Many branches but always he dies. The spider waited until he was too deep in the web to turn back. There is nothing anyone can do. Too quick. All the paths are dead ends.”
She hesitated, scowling.
“They are learning,” she admitted.
The spider, Cordelia thought. There were some who called the Scribe the Webweaver, in the Wasteland, yet the Augur had used the word before to mean another. The Assassin, who more than once had tried to take her own life and that of people dear to her. Had this been the order of the Carrion Lord, then? The other villain was said to answer to him alone. Ashur had made bargain with Malicia, and so Magon Hadast was to die? It would sow chaos, Cordelia admitted to herself, until the old man’s successor consolidated power. The heir that’d been groomed before had died at Thalassina and now only distant relatives remained, none of which would be a deft hand a navigating the Thalassocracy’s labyrinth of committees and bureaucracy. It was still unacceptable, if it was truly the Carrion Lord’s order.
Magon Hadast had long been her ally, and for his defection now she blamed him not as the Grand Alliance had failed him before he it. He might yet return, besides, given time enough for it. To have him so casually ordered slain was a foul thing, though no less than should be expected form a rabid animal like the Carrion Lord.
“Darkness looms, Cordelia,” Agnes murmured. “Tarry not in opening the scroll.”
Lips tightening in sudden wariness, the First Prince reached for the parchment and broke the seal. She unfurled the scroll and her eyes moved carefully across the contents. This was not a direct report but instead the welding of several, from across broad swaths of Procer. Three names in particular caught her eye: Prince Otto Reitzenberg, Prince Gaspard Langevin and Princess Beatrice Volignac. The ranking commanders on the three northern fronts of the Principate, at least in principle. Prince Otto’s words were coming from the Morgentor, the last fortress held in Twilight’s Pass, and though he cautioned of the Enemy possibly laying a trap Gaspard of Cleves and Beatrice of Hainaut were both seeing the same thing. And like Prince Otto they’d followed the dead carefully. Cordelia turned to the awaiting page.
“One whose authority was the scroll sent?” she curtly asked.
“Anselme of Beaudry, Your Highness,” the man quietly replied.
A telling detail. Anselme of Beaudry was the ranking officer of the Order of the Red Lion in Salia, and Cordelia had chosen him for that office in large part because his cautious and meticulous nature. He would not have sent such a scroll without first making certain there had been no misunderstanding or sudden change. The First Prince quietly thanked and dismissed the page, mind racing, before glancing meaningfully at one her closest attendant. The young woman approached discreetly.
“Have word passed to the Callowan and Levantine delegations that I will put forward an extraordinary motion for immediate recess and I would request they support it,” Cordelia said. “There is urgent need for a private discussion between us.”
Cordelia allowed time for the messages to be passed, through Razin Tanja for the Dominion and the heiress to the Barony of Harrow for Callow. When the First Prince of Procer asked for immediate recess soon after, the vote in favour was unanimous. The Enemy’s gazed moved towards her as it deigned to vote for the first time that day, silently raising a hand in approval.
The Dead King had yet to speak even once, and some part of Cordelia Hasenbach felt blind dread at that realization.
Half an hour of recess had been voted on, and Hakram found himself part of the handful of guests invited into a nearby parlour by the First Prince. The Blood were likely to be brought in as well, he guessed, for whatever it was that Cordelia Hasenbach had learned it seemed to concern all signatories of the Grand Alliance. The Carrion Lord’s presence along with Catherine, Vivienne and himself was a reality all involved politely refrained from looking in the eye, as the man was deeply despised in Procer and might well have been excluded from such talks if not for the Queen of Callow’s influence. It was an almost amusing turn, that after early years of relying of the Black Knight’s power and influence it was not the same man who was relying on his former pupil’s instead.
There was an almost feverish energy to Cordelia Hasenbach, Adjutant saw when they entered the parlour. Though she was composed as ever, she was standing instead of seated and looking at her gave the sense she had a burning urge to pace that only manners were keeping at bay. Catherine limped in ahead, eyes considering as she took in the sight of the full roster of the Blood as well Princess Rozala. Liveried servants offered refreshments that all refused, and Hakram noted with exasperated amusement that his warlord’s eyes were lingering a little longer than necessary on Rozala Malanza. Half the Blood too, though he was surprised that among the men she seemed to prefer the almost orcish frame of Yannu Marave to Razin Tanja’s, who was much closer in age.
As she was less than discreet he wondered if offence might accidentally been given, but if he was reading the expression correctly Lady Aquiline Osena looked more flattered than anything else by the roving eye. He met Vivienne’s eyes in shared aggravation behind Catherine’s back, though he figured at least they should be pleased she’d not been undressing the First Prince of Procer with her eyes. That might go over poorly, he thought. As the others advanced and went to stand with the other nobles Hakram remained at the back near the threshold, where he could watch from a distance. A set of eyes removed from the thick of it was often more useful than another wagging tongue, he’d found, and he’d always disliked wandering into arguments without first taking the measure of all that was being said.
“Thank you all for coming,” Cordelia Hasenbach gravely said. “And for your trust in aiding my motion.”
“You seem to have received news,” Lady Itima Ifriqui said, rather bluntly.
“I have,” the First Prince agreed. “I have received reports from all three northern fronts against Keter, and they all speak to the same truth: the dead are retreating.”
Exclamations of surprise from many here followed, though not Hakram Deadhand or the queen that had chosen him as much as he had chosen her. Catherine Foundling’s hand went inside her cloak and Adjutant, Name tugging at his feet, was moving before she could even begin stuffing the pipe with a satchel of wakeleaf. He struck a match a heartbeat before she extended her pipe, lighting it neatly, and was offered a thankful flash of pearly teeth before stepping back. The nerve of the Lord of Silent Steps, that it’d think itself fit to step in between the ordained cogs of fate with its little moving tricks. You didn’t need to move swift as an arrow to see too things, just leave at the right time moving to the right pace.
“Does the Hidden Horror seek to hold the northern shores against us?” Lady Aquiline frowned. “It hardly seems necessary, given his advantages.”
“It will allow us time to bring our armies to bear, regardless,” Lady Itima said. “A blunder, this.”
Catherine blew out an acrid stream of smoke that had Lord Yannu wrinkling his nose in distaste at the smell.
“No,” the Black Queen said, “it wasn’t. We just got knifed in broad daylight, make no mistake about that.”
It amused Hakram a great deal that though several of the great nobles here suppressed distasted as the spoken ‘us’, not a single one of them denied it. It seemed that his warlord’s usefulness had at last outstripped the distaste these righteous folks had for the colour of her cloak.
“You believe this to be a scheme,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, then sharply nodded. “I agree. This is a poor decision by the eye of a general, which means it was made by another.”
“They’re going to offer us a truce out there,” Catherine said, jabbing a thumb towards the wall.
The wrong one, Hakram drily noted, if she meant to point towards the hall.
“They?” Lord Yannu calmly asked.
“This is, if not outright the plan of Dread Empress Malicia, at least in part her notion,” the Carrion Lord tiredly said. “This sort of manoeuvre is her very signature: weakening the opposition then posing great incentive to keep a truce that allows her to further work on dismantling her enemies without the direct use of force.”
First Prince Cordelia would not doubt be the first of that western lot to grasp what exactly it had meant, when the Hidden Horror had extended Catherine an offer to sign the Liesse Accords last night. The implications of it, in the long term.
“We have no reason to accept this truce even if it offered,” Razin Tanja flatly said. “We war against Keter to the end, and Dread Empress Malicia makes herself enemy to all that live through alliance with it.”
Vivienne Dartwick had spent years in the shade of one of the great villains of their age and yet more in the service of another, so it was no surprise she caught on quick.
“If the decision was made solely in this room, you would be right,” Vivienne grimly said.
“They will be seeding rumours of the offer of truce even as we speak,” Cordelia Hasenbach told them all. “In Salia and everywhere they can, which given the reach of the Dread Empire and the Tyrant of Helike is far and wide.”
Her lips thinned.
“There will be riots if we push for prosecuting a war against the Dead King in the face of offered peace while the north is months away from collapse,” the First Prince said. “Mayhaps even rebellion.”
“The odds are strong that the Empress will declare a treaty of mutual protection with Keter,” Lord Amadeus calmly said. “The Dead King ought to agree, as otherwise there would be free hand to settle his sole reliable ally.”
“Why should we pursue if the Hidden Horror retreats to his lands?” Lord Yannu Marave bluntly asked. “Is that not the victory we sought to achieve?”
The King of Death had not even yet spoken, Adjutant darkly thought, and already he was drawing blood among the Grand Alliance’s ranks.
“You would call this victory?” Razin Tanja scathingly replied. “Keter coming and going as it pleases, massacring any who oppose it?”
“Are we then to send armies to die in the Kingdom of the Dead for the sake of your boyish swagger?” Lord Yannu harshly retorted.
“Better honourable death than a coward’s disgrace,” Lady Aquiline sneered.
“This is what he wants,” Princess Rozala said, voice cutting through the rising noise. “Chaos among our ranks. It is why he is marching north instead of south, because if he does not we are a threat.”
“Well said,” First Prince Cordelia calmly added. “Make no mistake, my friends, the Enemy cares nothing for peace. He has only ever known truce, and ever broken it when suited him.”
“We have yet to speak of the League,” Lady Itima said. “The Tyrant offers aid to their wicked lot and sows chaos in his own ranks. It is madness, and I would not let a hound gone sick lounge at my threshold for long.”
“That is the nature of Kairos Theodosian,” Catherine said. “He will set fires until either the world is ash or he is.”
She had not spoken loudly, but it commanded the attention of all in the parlour. She blew out another stream of smoke, visibly savouring the leaf.
“Can’t set fires if there’s nothing left, though,” she idly continued. “And that’s what happens if the Dead King wins. So I’d suggest we all save ourselves some trouble and invite the Tyrant of Helike in here.”
“I’m rather curious how long it’ll take him to sell out the King of Death, this time.”