“The source of might in an army is unity, not numbers. Therefore, the mightiest of all armies numbers a single soldier.”
– Isabella the Mad, Proceran general
Hakram was smelling a rat. Adjutant had always enjoyed using that particular human idiom, as it happened, mostly because it was patently untrue by face value. Humans had all the nose of a sparrow, stumbled around like drunks in the dark and were terribly fragile in most ways that mattered. The last had little to do with rodents, but it was always worth mentioning. As a rule, humans would not be able to smell a rat if it was nesting under their own pillow. Unlike goblins, who entirely coincidentally tended to have very full cookpots when Legions were garrisoned in cities. Goblin stew was always an enjoyable meal, Hakram thought, if not necessarily for the taste then always for the surprise.
“The Magisterium is pleased by your understanding, Lord Adjutant,” Magister Zoe Ixioni smiled. “It is always a delight to speak with a professional like yourself.”
The slaver – he would not forget for a moment what she was, even if she offered an empire’s worth of smiles and compliments – offered Louis Rohanon a more restrained look.
“And we honour the Principate as well, of course,” Magister Zoe added. “It is deplored by the enlightened members of our assembly that war was waged between our nations.”
“First Prince Cordelia is a fervent adherent of peace and diplomatic resolution,” Louis Rohanon replied without batting an eye, lips quirking enough to imply a smile without ever delivering it.
Princess Rozala’s ‘secretary’, who regardless of what he was now titled had been until recently the Prince of Creusens, had proved to be fairly adept at navigating the meetings Hakram had found himself dragged into one after another. Adjutant rumbled out a breath, feeling the rhythm of Bittertongue’s old song sound against his bones. No peace can there be, between lash and orc. It was an affront to the history of his kind that he must now speak otherwise, pretending the ways of the sorcerer-lords of Stygia did not sicken him as he watched the magister slip away. Rohanon let out a noise of distaste, when it was only the two of them left in the room.
“I always end up feeling like I need a wash after entertaining someone from the Magisterium,” Louis Rohanon admitted.
“Would that someone had laid to waste that city and its slaver-lords with it,” Hakram gravelled. “Yet they have tread with care to avoid this, over the years, and it seems still.”
The man nodded, slowly. He was a skinny, scholarly sort this one. Yet not without spine or cleverness, and for a Proceran seemed a surprisingly decent man. That might explain why the Jacks had found out he was so badly in debt to Iserre. Decency was unlikely to see one thrive in a place like the Highest Assembly.
“If I might speak frankly, Lord Deadhand?” Rohanon hesitatingly said.
“I would prefer it,” Adjutant said. “Mine are a simple folk, and the sly ways of humans confuse me.”
It was almost appalling, the orc thought, how eager people this far west were to believe that. Not so appalling he would not use it, however. The former Prince of Creusens choked.
“That would have been more believable a lie before I saw two envoys fall for it, my lord,” Rohanon delicately said. “It no longer holds water in the slightest. Not that listening to Basileus Leo explain to you the office and powers of the Hierarch was not most entertaining, but I would spare myself the indignity if you’ll allow it.”
“Leo Trakas was a most helpful young man,” Hakram drily said, neither admitting nor denying anything. “You offered frankness, Louis Rohanon, and I accepted. Speak accordingly.”
“I would not dare to presume as to the Black Queen’s intent in sending you out,” the former prince said, “yet if you were meant to assess divisions and seek weaknesses in the League, you should have come to the same conclusion as I.”
The orc studied the man, considering if this was a conversation he should be having, then lightly inclined his head I agreement.
“The League of Free Cities is on the verge of collapse,” Hakram acknowledged. “Nicae has yet to hear of the disastrous fate of its fleets but already the Basileus seeks to displace Helike as the leading power. Atalante chafes under a villain’s lead, and at the frequent slights it is offered.”
“Bellerophon is out of its depth,” Louis Rohanon noted. “I would hazard a guess its general-delegate has not received instructions from the People in weeks, if not months, and is entirely unwilling to do anything that might result in execution by the kanenas.”
Which was, as far as Hakram could tell, essentially any action at all. The Republic of Bellerophon’s legal system struck him as what might come to be if a dutiful scribe set down every single shout from an angry mob and made them all into law, then repeated the process half a hundred times.
“Delos remains aloof, but it appears both Stygia and Penthes are readying to leave the sinking boat,” Hakram added. “Else Magister Zoe would not have been so eager to assure me theoretical alignment with the Tower would not result in military support of any kind.”
“The Tower has been digging at the Tyrant’s position in the Free Cities,” Louis Rohanon openly aknowledged, “and the Empress has lived up to her reputation in achieving such broad success. Unless the Hierarch takes the League in hand this day it will not survive this conference as a united entity. Should he die, nearly half the League will seek the Empire’s protection against coming retribution before the corpse is cold.”
Which was inconvenient as without allies in either the League and the Thalassocracy the sole avenue to bring the Empire to heel was a land war of the old way, Callow and Praes entwined in the ancient dance of steel once again. Yet as much as Hakram’s mind was inclined to tumble down the slope of logistics and strategy, it would be a mistake to do so. The Tyrant of Helike was the devil of the day, and what they had now discovered the Named must have already known. The ship that had carried him to the peace conference of Salia, the large and largely untouched army of a united League of Free Cities, was on the verge of collapse. As things stood, even if the Tyrant ordered these armies to ravage southern Procer most of them would ignore him and continue the retreat south. And with Catherine having crippled the famous kataphraktoi, Helike’s own army was crippled in turn.
The Tyrant of Helike no longer had the clout to make demands. More worryingly the boy-king must have known it would come to this for weeks if not months, and he had still come. And so, Hakram was smelling a rat.
“I fear,” Hakram Deadhand said, “that Lady Dartwick’s instincts have proved true.”
“In what way?” Louis Rohanon asked, eyes cautious.
“Kairos Theodosian is exactly where he meant to be,” Adjutant said, “and cares little for the fate of the horse he rode after he ceases riding it.”
Indrani had never been one to shy from admitting to herself when she was enjoying something, and so she wasn’t going to start now: this was hilarious, and she in no way regretted striking the first spark of that debate.
“Soon you’ll be telling me magic is an art and not a discipline,” Masego scathingly said. “Divine approval? You might as well start praying for spell formulas.”
“There is recorded precedent for certain workings functioning better when aligned with the words of the Book of All Things,” Roland said. “While I would not-”
The Rogue Sorcerer was trying to keep things civil and academic, which naturally meant he was doomed to fail just as all voices of reason had been since First Dawn.
“Spoken like a Trismegistan coinpurse,” the Witch of the Woods snorted contemptuously. “Praying would work swifter than your method and involve rather less scribbling of numbers. And Gods forbid you forget to carry a one: you’ll melt your face instead of lighting a candle, if anything happens at all.”
“While Trismegistan sorcery is known to require significantly more study than most, it has also been proven to produce more reliable-” Roland tried.
“You defend ignorance as creativity and methodology as shackles,” Masego retorted, deeply appalled. “I should expect nothing more from someone who apes Ligurian magic without-”
“Dogs of Trismegistus bark not –”
“Perhaps,” the Rogue Sorcerer desperately said, “we should lower our voices. At this rate illusion or not they’ll hear us arriving.”
A moment of silence followed, the two mages who’d been arguing looking away in embarrassment at how heated the conversation had grown.
“I hear Jaquinite sorcery can do stuff neither yours can do,” Indrani idly said.
“That would matter, I imagine, if Jaquinite sorcery could reliably do anything in particular,” Masego said.
“Teach an apprentice Proceran magic for a year and they will crush one taught Wasteland posturing for the same,” the Witch of the Woods retorted without missing a beat.
Ah, Archer thought. Much better. Roland shot her a betrayed look she answered by prettily batting her eyes, and the giant wolf the Witch was riding on glared at her woefully. Indrani sniggered. ‘Woeful’, which worked as two puns because Archer was one of the Woe but it was also close to wolf and… eh, just wasn’t the same when Cat wasn’t there to be offended to her core by the puns. She’d keep it in mind for when she ended up giving her report, though. The four of them were getting close to Lyonceau, the small town they’d been headed towards for the better part of an hour now, so perhaps it was time to pretend she’d been on Roland’s side this whole time.
Zeze and the Witch were in a full blow argument again, voices progressively rising along with the general pettiness of what was being said, so she cleared her throat loud enough it’d cut through.
“Shame on both of you,” Indrani piously said, “ignoring poor Roland, when he’s trying to warn you about dangers.”
The Rogue Sorcerer eyed her pensively.
“I believe,” he said, “that you might just be the worst person I know.”
“That was unkind,” Masego seriously said.
“Rogue,” the Witch said, “comport yourself cordially. They are our allies for now.”
There was a pause.
“You have fought the Dead King, besides,” the Witch reminded him.
“I know what I said,” the Rogue Sorcerer muttered.
“I forgive you, as mine is a forgiving nature,” Indrani lied.
Roland met her eyes discreetly, lips moving to silently mouth ‘the worst person I know’ in Chantant, and she grinned back. Indrani had grown to like the Rogue Sorcerer: he was a delight to toy with and halfway decent in a fight. Not too hard on the eyes, either, which was always nice in a boon companion. He’d also proved more useful when they’d run into the Witch of the Wilds and accusations had flown about how they were plotting to murder the entire Grand Alliance. Which Indrani was reasonably sure was not the case, since she would have had a seat at the council where that’d be decided and she’d not been that drunk in a while. Roland had more or less vouched for them not being up to no good – at that moment in time, anyway – and that’d led to the question of why the Witch would think they were up to some skulking murderousness.
The answer was, in a word, Lyonceau.
Archer herself had found there was something odd with the League’s camp when she first went out on a walk thereabout, in essence because there was nothing at all odd with the League’s camp. The Tyrant might be able to keep his lunacy in check for a few days, Indrani had mused, but the Hierarch? Unlikely. She still remembered the frightful madness that’d fallen over Rochelant like a veil, the red-handed tribunals that’d spread out like tendrils of sickness from where the Hierarch sat. It was the sort of thing you could tuck away in Arcadia or some other neat little pocket, on occasion contain behind the right sort of wards and sometimes even something you could lull into sleep. For a time. But there were always, always signs. So Indrani had told herself, maybe there were wards. None she could find, true, but it wasn’t her specialty by any means.
Zeze had been raised by a man who’d turned warding into weapon to shatter fortresses, though, and losing his sorcery had done nothing to curb his sight. The Rogue Sorcerer had been with him then, the two of them discussing the Twilight Ways and the making of gates for it, and it’d been easy to bully – convince! Convince him to come along. No wards of the calibre that’d keep the Hierarch quiet in the League camp, they’d confirmed for her. Might have been a good time to go to the Crows, then, but Zeze still kind of wanted them on a vivisection table and the Sisters tended to ask payment up front for miracles from anyone but Cat. Who had half a dozen other cats to skin, about then, and a limited amount of additional hands in Hakram and Vivienne. So instead Indrani had called on the finest band of useless busybodies she knew, namely Robber and his cohort of miscreants.
Her Majestic Catherinery had helpfully turned them loose on the countryside with even looser instructions, so it’d been child’s play to commandeer their little goblin legs and watchful eyes. The Hierarch had to be close, because there was no way to the Tyrant was wandering too far away from him, and it wasn’t like the man was going to feed himself – so find the food, find the man. Or so had been the thought. And Robber had put his cohort to passable work, keeping a watch on the League’s camp through the day and night. Unfortunately Kairos Theodosian was, as usual, a twisty little fucker. The food wagon had gone out under illusion veils, then passed through some wards carved into stones. Twice they’d followed a wagon and lost it, which none of them had taken well pride-wise, and some Magisterium prick had caught the goblins lurking so Archer was forced to send them away.
They’d gone hunting for the ward stones instead, since those would be the key, which was when they’d run into a masked woman on a giant wolf and some very hurtful accusations. The Witch had come to it form the other way entirely, as it happened: she’d found an abandoned town a few hours out of Salia that was entirely hidden by wards and followed the wagon line from the other direction until she ran into them sniffing around a ward stone. Conclusions were leap to, though Indrani would admit that a pair of villains around a disappeared town was usually pretty damning stuff. The place was, according to the maps Roland had gotten his hands on, called Lyonceau. It was one of those small Proceran towns that emptied during winter, and according to the locals pretty much the only thing of note bout it was that it had a large House of Light: several towns and villages around used it for the festivals instead of their own small altar, since it was cheaper than building and maintaining one of their own.
It was suspicious nonetheless, all had agreed, and they’d gone to trespass – by which Indrani meant investigate, naturally, since you got to call it that when you were on the side of the angels. Though in theory the Witch was the one guiding them, in practice since she’d spent most the way arguing with Zeze it had been the helpful giant wolf that led them.
“This isn’t right,” Masego suddenly said.
All four of them were Named, and none fresh to the mantle, so the moment the Hierophant spoke the other three ceased moving forward. Indrani could see nothing but a snowy plain above, and apparently neither could Roland, but even with the mask she could see Masego and the Witch were looking at the same place.
“We’ve arrived?” she asked.
Leaning on her aspect might allow her to peer through an illusion or a ward, but she’d rather not begin using those too early in the day – not when there might yet be a fight ahead of them.
“We are at the outermost boundary of the wards,” the Witch of the Woods said. “I grasp your meaning, Hierophant. This is… unusual work.”
Roland muttered under his breath in the mage-tongue, gesturing sharply with one hand as he reached within his coat with the other. The silvery sorcery that gathered around the tip of his fingers he laid against the small wooden box he’d produced and it sank within. He opened it deftly, revealing some sort of oily ointment.
“Around the eyes,” the Rogue Sorcerer told her, “and over the eyelids.”
Indrani’s brow rose and she dipped a finger, handling one eye and then the other. The smell was unfamiliar to her, save for what she suspected to be apple tree bark, and it tingled pleasantly against her skin. One she’d applied it as the hero had instructed, she found she could now glimpse colours where before there had been only air. It was a vast tapestry of many-coloured threads, she thought, yet she could only ever see the threads she was directly looking at.
“It is not merely unusual work,” Masego said, sounding troubled. “It, in part mine. Akua Sahelian’s also, and a myriad others, but some of those patterns were first laid down by my hand.”
“There are other influences in there,” the Witch of the Wilds said. “Callowan wards, Aenian cants and that odd Jaquinite escapement.”
“No sorcerer could make such a thing,” the Hierophant said. “No living one, anyway.”
“The Tyrant’s bargained with the Dead King before, we know that,” Indrani said. “What’s so troubling about these wards anyway?”
“The Doom of Liesse was meant to bring forth devils, to forge Greater Breaches,” Masego hesitantly said. “This is…”
“Angels,” the Witch of the Wilds said. “They are not as easily summoned as devils, but this is meant to command the attention of angels.”
Well, Archer thought, shit.
Vivienne found Adjutant waiting in the hallway, along with a worried-looking Louis Rohanon. She was not the only one to notice this, Princess Rozala excusing herself from her conversation with Lady Itima to silently join her as she sought out Hakram.
“Lord Adjutant,” she greeted him, “Secretary Rohanon.”
Rozala Malanza went through the same round of courtesies, receiving the same nods for it.
“The situation in the League is considerably more unstable than we’d believed,” Hakram quietly said.
“We believe the Tyrant no longer holds sway,” Louis Rohanon added just as quietly. “And that he was undermined by the Tower. Both Stygia and Penthes seem to be leaning towards Praes.”
Which went some way in explaining why the Tyrant had willingly served as the Dead King’s herald once more, Vivienne thought. She’d believed until now it was simply a matter of letting loose a wild lion in the pen so he would not seem as dangerous, but this… fit. Though a raging lunatic, the boy-king of Helike was brilliant in his own way. He must have known that the Princes’ Graveyard would be the beginning of the end for his influence in the League, and with it his right to make demands of the Grand Alliance, so he had helped forge another calamity so that he could bargain away the key to beating it back in exchange for the promises being made to him being kept. The vicious wretch had yet to miss a single step, though Vivienne had a hard time believing the outcome of the Graveyard had been his intent. Most likely Catherine’s victory had forced him to improvise in the wake of the defeat, leading to this fresh madness.
“It no longer matters he’s lost the League,” Vivienne admitted.
Surprise, from both men.
“He swore before the Peregrine he has a way out of our current predicament,” Princess Rozala elaborated. “His bargaining chip has changed, though the bargain has not. He still requires the White Knight to stand trial for his actions in the League.”
“When?” Hakram asked, hairless brow creasing.
“Today,” Vivienne said. “The recess will be extended into a dismissal of today’s session. We will be heading out to the trial’s grounds presently.”
Catherine and Hasenbach had returned to the hall along with Yannu Marave and the Carrion Lord to swiftly pass the motion, though given that the Grand Alliance commanded a comfortable majority in such votes that was largely a formality.
“It cannot be held in Salia, surely?” Louis Rohanon said, looking alarmed. “I know not the consequences of attempting to pass sentence onto the Sword of Judgement himself, but surely we cannot risk the people of the capital so recklessly.”
“The First Prince agreed,” Princess Rozala said, smiling approvingly. “The trial will be held outside the city. Haggling was had over the exact grounds, until we settled on a town in the countryside three hours’ ride from here by the name of Lyonceau.”
“It is a trap,” Hakram bluntly said.
“It’s Kairos,” an amused voice drawled. “Of course it’s a fucking trap.”
Vivienne turned and saw her friend – her queen – limping forward, leaning on her strange yet oddly soothing staff. She did not hide her surprise at the swift return, or at the way that the drow called the ‘Lord of Silent Steps’ stood at her side. Hakram was just as surprised, by the looks of it.
“Your Majesty,” Princess Rozala greeted her. “Was your right to vote passed to a delegate?”
“We’re already done,” Catherine replied. “First Prince Cordelia wasted no time on ceremonies, and most votes were know before they were cast.”
“The League?” Vivienne asked.
“Couldn’t even agree on a delegate without the Tyrant herding them,” the Queen of Callow said. “The wheels are coming off that cart, mark my words.”
“And the Dead King, Your Majesty?” Princess Rozala probed.
“I hesitate to ascribe surprise to a bare skull,” Catherine mused. “But this was not his work, I’d bet rubies to piglets over it. This stage belongs to Kairos Theodosian alone.”
“We believe the Tower to be actively courting cities among the League, Queen Catherine,” Louis Rohanon said. “Dread Empress Malicia would have greatly undermined the standing of the Tyrant for this to succeed.”
The Queen of Callow frowned.
“Then after riding his last horse to the grave, he has saddled a fresh one,” Catherine said. “You saw it true, Vivienne.”
Even now, the former thief was surprised by the flush of pleasure she felt at the freely offered praise. It was not entirely warranted, in her eyes, for while she’d brought up the notion first but she doubted they would not have seen it themselves in time. Still, it was not unpleasant to hear. She smoothed away the emotion, for there were higher callings than indulgence at hand. A drow painted in the colours of the ‘Losara’, the tribe among their kind that Catherine had unsurprisingly ended up forging when none at hand suited her purposes, stepped forward to murmur in Lord Ivah’s ears before retreating. The Lord of Silent Steps addressed the queen in Crepuscular, and she closed her eyes in thought. A few moments passed, and she opened them.
“No, doesn’t mean anything to me,” she told the drow. “Adjutant, I need you to find me someone who knows something. An herbal brew made of foxglove, nightshade and powdered graveborn mushrooms – what is it for?”
Vivienne was looking for it, so she caught it: the faint tremor, the pulse that shuddered through the fabric of Creation as Adjutant called on one of his aspects. The tall orc’s head snapped to the side, cheeks creasing in amusement as his eyes came to rest on the approaching form of Lady Aquiline Osena.
“Providence, warlord,” he gravelled in Kharsum. “The wind is in our sails for once.”
“Don’t rejoice,” Catherine replied in the same. “Think on how bad the opposition must be, that we are smiled upon.”
The Lady of Tartessos was approached, and Princess Rozala was prevailed upon to make introductions. Few courtesies were had, as Levantine ways tended to be pleasantly brisk. The question was asked, though nightshade was a term unfamiliar to the Levantine. Belladonna, however, she recognized.
“That is champion’s brew, though I have never heard of graveborn mushrooms being used in the recipe,” Lady Aquiline said, though she looked bemused at the question. “Only one without character would use it in an honour duel, but it can be a worthy thing when drunk in the deeps of the Brocelian.”
“What does it do?” Catherine pressed.
“It lends strength to the dying,” Lady Aquiline said. “It calms limbs, eases the flow of blood and lends vigour – for a time, and at a price. It is false strength, and when it fades often kills the drinker.”
“Let me guess,” Catherine Foundling grimly smiled, “graveborn mushrooms would add a little more to the vigour, right?”
“I am not certain,” the Lady of Tartessos admitted. “It would be better to ask Razin, as one of the Binder’s Blood would be learned in such lore. Yet what you say seems likely, for barrow-born things often lend poisonous strength before they kill.”
“Catherine?” Vivienne asked, looking at her cautiously.
Something almost like fear had flickered across the Black Queen’s face for a moment.
“The Tyrant of Helike was drinking this by the cup last night,” Catherine said, “and it was brewed potently enough it would have outright poisoned someone without a Name.”
A moment of silence passed.
“Steel yourselves, my friends,” the Black Queen gravely said, “for when the likes of Kairos Theodosian comes to sing his swan song it is not a thing to be taken lightly.”