“And so as night fell over the Blessed Isle, his Dread Majesty sent across the river the corpse of Prince Robert and the captured Princess Juliana, still bound in chains, for when released she had bit off the ear of the High Lord of Okoro. King Selwyn Fairfax rode halfway across the bridge, where he thus addressed His Dread Majesty: ‘You have fought this war grimly on the field and gallantly beyond. Would that you had been born west of the river, under a virtuous star.’ And so His Dread Majesty replied: ‘For having been born east of the river I became instead a man to pluck stars from the sky. Is that not a higher virtue?’”
– Extract from ‘Commentaries on the Campaigns of Dread Emperor Terribilis the Second’
To match the coming Damned, Chosen had been sent for.
Because Creation was a strange and ironic thing, Rozala Malanza thought, this had been the suggestion of Catherine Foundling and opposed largely by Cordelia Hasenbach. Not that the First Prince would be so uncouth as to risk offending the Dominion by implying its favourite son was anything other than a treasured ally. There’d been talk instead that the Peregrine’s presence might incite the Tyrant to misbehave, that surely the White Knight himself would be enough. Princess Rozala suspected that the First Prince had known it would fail, and it had, but had allowed herself to vent a sliver of personal dislike in as harmless a manner she could. That Hasenbach despised the Peregrine was no surprise to her, not since she’d heard the full story of what had taken place at Saudant. The sleepy little fishing village by the shores of Lake Artoise that had been butchered to bring the Carrion Lord to heel, leaving not a single survivor. Not even children.
It had shaken Rozala’s high esteem of the Chosen, to hear this. A greater good had been achieved by the act, that much could not be denied. How many more dozens of thousands would have died if the Legions of Terror slipped the noose in Iserre to ravage the western principalities as well? Yet it’d been a grave evil, that too could not be denied, and one dealt unto a sworn ally. The First Prince’s view of the matter was without nuance, but the Princess of Aequitan could not quite bring herself to share it in full. She remembered still the Grey Pilgrim saving thousands of lives during the Battle of the Camps, and almost as many after when he went from wounded to wounded and worked his healing to exhaustion. It had been an ugly choice the old hero made, and one he had no right to make. But did they not breathe a little easier for it? Were they not, behind the outrage at the lives taken and the brutality of the act, all a little grateful for what had come of it?
The dark-haired princess could not embrace the choice he had made, the deaths it had meant, but neither would she condemn it outright. It would be hypocrisy of the worst sort to let Peregrine undertake the bloody work of capturing the Carrion Lord for them and then in the same breath to complain of his murderous meddling.
The Arlesite general turned a pleasant smile upon the woman who had approached her, for this was a relationship that must be cultivated for years to come should they all survive these dark times. Lady Vivienne Dartwick cut rather more regal a figure when out of the thief’s leathers she’d worn at the truce talks in northern Callow, though Rozala decided that the milkmaid braid crowned by a tasteful silver circlet rather helped the effect. It was said she’d once been a Chosen, before the Black Queen turned her to villainy. Though few believed the Black Queen’s handpicked successor to be anything close to ‘redeemed’ from such damnation, she was still considered rather less incendiary an interlocutor in diplomatic talks. Nobly born as well, for House Dartwick was on the Callowan lists of nobility, which was a balm on the pride of those who still balked at negotiating with a no-name orphan like Catherine Foundling. A foolish thing, that, when the shadow of that orphan’s displeasure had half of Calernia shaking in its boots, but pride could oft be a foolish thing.
“Lady Dartwick,” Rozala replied. “How may I be of service?”
“The Lord Adjutant is being sent out by my queen and will require a guide,” Lady Vivienne said. “If I might trouble you to provide one?”
A matter of too little importance to speak to the First Prince over, Rozala idly thought, yet requiring the assistance and assent of a high-ranked Proceran. The Callowan noble had correctly navigated etiquette in approaching her, which was a refreshing change compared to her mistress – who largely behaved as if she were above such things. Rather more gallingly, she was not wrong to believe so.
“My personal secretary Louis Rohanon will see to it,” the Princess of Aequitan said.
She discreetly gestured for one of the attendants to approach her, so Louis could be informed of her request. It was insulting that her dear friend’s abdication of his crown for the sake of the Principate meant he no longer qualified to attend councils such as this, but given the recent… agitation in Salia the princess knew it was not the time to test the First Prince’s tolerance.
“Will the Lord Adjutant be leaving us, then?” Rozala asked.
She would not mind that, for the quiet watchfulness in the orc’s eyes spoke of little missed. Yet it would not do to loose a Damned without first learning where he would head, and for what purpose.
“Queen Catherine intends to sound out the loyalties and interests of Nicae,” Lady Vivienne said.
And she’d sent out an orc to do so? The Princess of Aequitan was no village bumpkin, to believe orcs men turned to corrupted forms by some ancient sin and the hand of Below, but it could not be denied that the Deadhand’s large fangs and leathery skin fed into his looming presence to unsettling result. Though the Lord Adjutant had struck her a clever-minded and methodical, he hardly made for a pleasant envoy. Unless, of course, a reminder of force was what the Black Queen meant to send. Who could truly know, with that one?
“Then allow me to offer my secretary’s services as scholar and translator,” Princess Rozala suggested.
The heiress-designate eyed her pensively. It would mean anything spoken would later be reported to her, true, but it would also lend the weight of Procer’s tacit approval to whatever was spoken. Besides, Louis truly was fluent in tradertalk and of scholarly inclination besides. He would be of practical use, regardless of all the rest.
“I thank you for the boon,” Lady Vivienne said, tone formal. “I am certain Lord Adjutant will delight in the use of such an able aide.”
Secrecy was not paramount to whatever the Black Queen had planned for the League, then, or perhaps even Nicae in particular. The arrangements were made swiftly, and all was in motion before the latest arrivals stirred the room. The Grey Pilgrim’s stride was greeted enthusiastically by the highborn of the Blood, though rather more coolly by the Callowans and the Carrion Lord. First Prince Cordelia herself offered the due courtesies and not an inch more, for even in utter scorn the Lycaonese princess was rarely anything but flawlessly polite. The White Knight’s entrance was, by contrast, was more warmly received. The Chosen’s willingness to work with the Highest Assembly – though never under, for Hanno of Arward answered to the Tribunal alone – and the strictures of Proceran law had endeared him to Hasenbach and even Rozala herself, she would admit. Never before had she heard of a Chosen who would list and explain every kill he’d made in a rioting city before scholars of law so that the actions might be assessed.
At least not without hinting it was mere humouring of mortal crowns, while the White Knight had instead seemed serious and even earnest.
The White Knight and his companion the Witch of the Woods were also notably strong Chosen who had come to safeguard Salia and the peace talks, which had been reassuring considering who would be attending. The Black Queen, the Hierophant, the Tyrant of Helike – and now it seemed even the Hidden Horror himself. In truth Princess Rozala had been surprised at Queen Catherine’s suggestion that the White Knight attend this council, for the Sword of Judgement was blatant enough a ward against her that the dark-haired general had believed she might take offence. Apparently, Rozala Malanza faintly thought, someone had forgot to inform Catherine Foundling of this: she met the White Knight’s arrival with a smile and a respectful nod, which the Chosen casually returned. Rozala was not the only one to take notice, the eyes of half the room coming to rest on the pair in silent surprise.
“Kairos Theodosian nears,” the Black Queen suddenly said.
It had been more than a year now since the Tyrant of Helike had sworn eternal friendship to Cordelia Hasenbach. Not that she had ever believe him. Nor would she now put too much stock in anything he said, not even if Chosen insisted he had been bound by a curse of truth. If a madman believed the sky to be green, did that make it so? No, the Tyrant had been a thorn in her side for too long to be taken as anything but a peril.
The First Prince had considered the young king a diplomatic and military headache from more or less the first breath after he’d taken the throne, for he’d proven to be both cunning and very much inclined to turn that cunning against Procer. The blonde princess had once believed that Helike and its boy-king could be restrained by fetters of ink, treaties binding the League to a ten-year truce with the Principate until other affairs were settled, but that had arguably been the second-most serious diplomatic blunder of her reign. She could not be certain that the Tyrant’s rise could truly be laid at her feet, for he might well have struck out for power regardless of anything she did. Yet the League’s vote for truce with Procer had undeniably been the trigger of the civil war that propelled the Tyrant of Helike to greater heights. And saw Anaxares of Bellerophon elected to the office of Hierarch of the Free Cities, though in some ways that seat was still good as empty.
Still, for all that Cordelia had maneuvered and plotted against Kairos Theodosian she had never seen the man with her own eyes until he came to Salia. Much of what she had read of him proved true, the First Prince pondered once more as the Tyrant swaggered into the parlour, but it did not quite do the man justice. The thin sickliness, the loose robes that did not quite hide erratic convulsions and trembling, or even the blood-red eye under wispy brown curls: Theodosian almost seemed more notion than man, as if some godly hand had painted grinning malevolence on the canvas of Creation and crowned it king of Helike. Most of those here loathed him, the First Prince considered. Some loathed him so deeply it was like a poison in their veins. Yet looking at the young king and the two waddling gargoyles flanking him, one would think he was among friends.
“Oh my,” Kairos Theodosian drawled. “Such a gathering of great and mighty names. My heart is made all aflutter.”
“Lord Tyrant,” Cordelia Hasenbach calmly said. “Welcome. You are thanked for accepting our invitation.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” the odd-eyed villain grinned.
“Gods, you really are such a prick,” the Black Queen of Callow said, sounding almost admiring. “If I didn’t know better, I’d call it an aspect.”
The fair-haired Lycaonese bit down on her initial wave of fear and irritation. Much as she disliked the manners of the other ruler, it could not be denied that no one in this room had even half the understanding of the Tyrant she could boast of having. As if to prove correct her thought, instead of storming out at the casual slight and informality the other villain instead let out a cackling laugh.
“Catherine,” he replied cheerfully. “A pleasure to see you, as always. Is that my old friend Amadeus I see cowering in your shadow?”
The Carrion Lord, who had kept his peace and spoken only sparingly since his declaration of war on the Tower, never lost his air of cold indifference.
“It is a rather broad shadow, these days,” the Carrion Lord casually replied. “It makes for comfortable cowering.”
The choking sound from her side was, Cordelia realized, most of the Blood supressing laughter.
“An empire’s worth of room, eh?” the Tyrant sneered. “I wonder, did the broken spine take the Name or was it the other way around?”
She must step in now else the villain would needle everyone here ‘til Last Dusk. Satisfying as it was to hear the Carrion Lord pricked, it did nothing to endear the one pricking him to her heart. Or advance the cause of Procer’s survival to let it devour time from the recess, for that matter.
“The Dread Empire of Praes,” the First Prince said, “is not why it was asked you attend this council.”
“Then by all means,” Kairos Theodosian drawled, “reveal this revelation to me, Warden of the West.”
Cordelia stepped forward, back straight. Closer to a villain whose suspected body count was in the hundreds, who had once router an entire host by wielding a storm and not so long ago ripped out thousands in cavalry from Arcadia and smashed them down onto the earth. She stepped forward with utter calm, for these were her chosen grounds and her favoured manner of strife.
“Circumstances have ensured there is an alignment in our interests, Lord Tyrant,” Cordelia said.
A heartbeat passed; the blood-red eye blinked.
“Boring,” the boy-king said, solemn as a judge passing a sentence.
“Yet here you are, standing among us,” the First Prince said, unruffled. “Itching to turn on the Crown and Tower who have used you better than you used them.”
“Slightly less boring,” the Tyrant conceded. “Still I’ve yet to hear a single reason I should break such deep trust or sunder a precious bond of fellowship.”
“You require assurances, understandably,” Cordelia said. “This can be arranged. You stand, as you said, among an assembly of great and mighty names.”
“And what would be required of me in exchange for these assurances?” the Tyrant grinned. “Go on now, Warden of the West. Do not disappoint.”
“You have been deep in the Enemy’s councils, Lord Tyrant,” Cordelia said. “Reveal their plans to us and-”
“Nononono,” the Tyrant of Helike interrupted, growing increasingly shrill. “That was not the right thing to ask. You’re doing it wrong.”
The villain seemed genuinely agitated, his arm slipping out of the folded sleeve hiding it in a spasm. His brown eye had grown watery, as if he were in pain or sorrow. The First Prince was taken aback, and for once uncertain as to how she should respond. A limping gait whispered across the floor, the Black Queen hobbling behind the Tyrant’s back and slowing only to offer her the most insolent wink Cordelia had ever seen. She flushed.
“Sometimes they need us devils to speak the ugly things, Kairos, you ought to know that by now,” Queen Catherine said, tone teasing.
Tension in the Tyrant’s shoulders loosened by a fraction at the words, and Cordelia grasped the game. Silk and the steel, then. She was more used to standing as the former than the latter, but not unskilled at the exercise.
“Say it,” Kairos Theodosian demanded.
“Give us a good reason to keep warring on Keter,” the Black Queen said.
As she often did, the Queen of Callow was cutting to the bone of it for that was the truth exact of what they needed. A great banner of fear and outrage that would bind Principate – and beyond – to pursuit of the war against the Dead King, and if there was one man who might give them that at this very moment it was the Tyrant of Helike.
“Ah,” the odd-eyed king said, savouring the sound. “There it is. Now, let the mangled relic in the corner attest to my words – not you Amadeus, at least this time – and pronounce truth where it is. I have such a reason and can reveal it to you.”
All eyes in the parlour turned to the Grey Pilgrim, whose eyes were narrowed.
“Truth,” the Peregrine slowly said. “In word and intent.”
“Then let us speak of price, Theodosian,” Cordelia said. “Some offences may yet be forgiven, should you bargain in good faith. Wealth and honours could be laid on your brow.”
Cordelia was much taller than the Tyrant and made certain to loom over him as he spoke. A tilt of the neck lent her the appearance of looking down on him as she spoke, and she added a faint hint of sneer to her lip. Dislike was as distracting a feeling as any other, and if she must wield the reputation of the Alamans abroad to best achieve it she would not balk at the indignity.
“He’s not the coin kind of king, Hasenbach,” the Black Queen drawled. “No, he’s an old-fashioned sort. He wants his seat at the table back. Don’t you, Kairos?”
Which Queen Catherine wanted no more than Cordelia herself, though with the amused glint to her eye she was doing a fair impression of desiring otherwise.
“Catherine, how distressing,” the Tyrant grinned. “That would imply that I currently no longer have a seat. Am I not a participant in good standing of this peace conference?”
“Helike can be spared retribution for its reckless war-making and treachery,” Cordelia said, phrasing it as a great concession. “Your abdication, however, might be required for the sake of peace.”
“Now there’s a familiar tune,” the Black Queen smiled.
It was, the fair-haired princess thought, a little too sharp a smile for that sharpness to be entirely feigned.
“Ladies,” the Tyrant intervened, sounding utterly delighted, “come now, is there truly need for such language? Now, unless I am mistaken there was some talk of dues.”
Queen Catherine began circling again, and Cordelia breathed in. Time to see what the two of them could bargain him down to.
“You are due quite a few things,” the First Prince pleasantly agreed.
“Mostly the one, as far as I am concerned,” Kairos Theodosian grinned. “And dear Catherine knows what I want, she does. She even brought it for me.”
The trial, Cordelia thought. It was all coming to hinge on the trial of the White Knight, as promised at the crossroad of the Princes’ Graveyard. She had been warned by every Chosen and Damned she was on speaking terms with that to allow such a thing to unfold would be highly dangerous and acted accordingly.
“Your demand for a trial of the White Knight is on the official order of affairs, Lord Tyrant,” the First Prince mildly said.
“Very far down the list,” the Tyrant replied, just as mildly. “And I could not help to notice some details of procedures related to its positioning. Now, were I a suspicious man, I might suspect they’d allow a clever sort to put off that discussion for weeks, if not months.”
Which had been the very intent. The League of Free Cities as it currently stood was a derelict taking water, and the situation would only worsen unless the Hierarch himself intervened. It was unlikely he would, meaning that waiting for a span might very well see the Tyrant’s power among the League and perhaps the League itself collapse – and so make any demands of his utterly irrelevant, for he would no longer have the knife at the throats to see through his extortion.
“Then we move it up the list,” the Black Queen shrugged.
“I would not wish to be unseemly in my demands,” the Tyrant smiled. “And so, I’ve a suggestion to offer that could be considered less of an imposition.”
The smile widened, until all that Cordelia could see was a thin, sharp slice of teeth and a pulsing red eye.
“Let us hold the trial now.”