“Friend and foe know a different man.”
– Helikean saying
The contents of my tent were one of the few splurges of luxury I’d ever allowed myself. The bed was from Orense, whose carpenters were famous even within the Principate, and though it could be folded in two for transport it was nothing like the cots the Legions of Terror used as their standard. It was large enough for two and topped by a good woolen mattress, as even now featherbeds were just too soft for me – I found it difficult to fall asleep in them. A pair of enchanted braziers and a set of magelight lanterns saw to heat and light, while a small sculpted table flanked by a library-box and a few trunks held my personal affairs. That part of my tent was parted from the rest by a heavy curtain sown into the ceiling, keeping it separate from the larger segment where I received others.
The broad desk, which I’d had carved out of Ashuran cedar twice struck by lightning to my exact specifications, had been was the great expense there though I believed it worth ever copper. It’d been Akua that had told me about the cleansing and healing properties of the cedar trees that grew in the shade of Mount Tyro, the mountain where the mage-doctor schools of Ashur had first been raised centuries ago. Masego had added that a lightning strike would bring such properties to the surface, and Vivienne’s people in the Free Cities had found cedar that’d been struck twice being sold by a broker in Mercantis. Whatever the magic behind it, sitting at that desk never seemed to pain my leg no matter how long I did and I tired measurably slower working on it.
The seat behind was naturally the same sinfully comfortable armchair I’d stolen from a Summer count during the Arcadian campaign, my perennial favourite. A pair of less comfortable but prettily sculpted – roaring lionheads for the arms – seats sent to me by Vivienne matched it on the other side. My personal desk was only a part of the large tent, however, as it’d become inevitable that I would have to frequently ‘entertain’ the kind of people who expected luxuries even when at war. The first wooden table I’d used was hacked straight through during either the fourth of fifth assassination attempt of last winter – I couldn’t quite recall, they rather melded into the same general sense of unpleasantness after a while – and the replacement had only lasted two months before I put the Bandit Lord’s head through it, but Archer had been sufficiently amused by that last setback she’d actually carved me one herself.
That oaken stretch was the single most beautiful thing I owned, as far as I was concerned. Though it was broadly rectangular and the surface was still only half-polished, Indrani must have put half a hundred hours into the carvings that adorned it. Four snakelike legs coiled their way up, jaws opened to swallow legionaries as had truly happened when Akua unleashed devils on the Fifteenth before the Battle of Marchford. From there Archer had carved scenes as her fancy struck, without rhyme or reason. The Woe’s battle with the Princess of High Noon abutted depiction of the duelling scene from the Lay of Lothian’s Passing she so enjoyed, the last moments of Larat’s splendid escape were wedged in between the dying gasp of the Kingdom of Sephirah and the view of the Silver Lake from her favourite Laure tavern.
It wasn’t finished, perhaps only two thirds of the sides having been carved and the wood atop the table still being prepared for carvings of its own, and already it was one of the most precious possessions I’d ever owned. My officers and allies had quickly caught on to Indrani’s habit of adding a few carvings whenever she passed through our camp, and it’d become a manner of entertainment for them to make a pretext to visit my tent and try to find the latest additions afterwards. The First Prince had sent a set of ten cushioned seats in matching oak as a gift, which given their delicate craftsmanship were likely worth a fortune, but coin couldn’t buy what it had meant for someone as restless as Archer to have spent so many hours working on a piece meant for me.
There were other adornments to the tent, of course. Heavy tapestries hung from the sides, woven in the Callowan manner – the Hedges style, to be precise, since the thickness of those helped keep the heat in the tent during winter. My people’s tapestries admittedly tended to only depict three things: hunting, the Book of All Things and war. Given that I had little taste for hunting or the Gods Above but more than a few wars under my belt, I’d settled for the last and matched that martial tendency with the grand maps I’d commissioned. Smaller ones of the fronts in Cleves and Twilight’s Pass, larger ones of the Principality of Hainaut and the Kingdom of the Dead. Braziers, sprite-lanterns and a long commode that was admittedly mostly a dump for scroll and parchment stacks – as well as holding a pair of compartments filled with bottles of wine and liquor – finished the last of it.
It was a comfortable dwelling, as had been made necessary by the sheer amount of time I’d spent in it over the last two years.
I rose with dawn and broke my fast on the carved table, wolfing down eggs and rashers as I read through the damage reports from last night’s troubles. Akua sat across from me and we shared a pot of tea in companionable silence as I busied myself frowning at the ink. Most of the damage was superficial but one of the wardstones from the Third Army’s camp, which was where the Dead King’s ghouls had found the most success, had cracked. This was not beyond our ability to fix, but the artefact the ghouls has used to try to contaminate the stone – some sort of sharp obsidian spike that just reeked of sorcery – was still stuck in it. It’d have to be either destroyed or extracted. In destroying it we’d improve our chances of repairing the wardstone, but to extract it we’d have to cut through the stone instead and effectively wreck it permanently. On the other hand, if we could figure out what the spike was we could prepare countermeasures for its next use.
Adjutant joined us just as I finished reading the last of the report, his timing as fatefully impeccable as always, and he claimed a seat at a table. He demurred when Akua offered him a cup of tea, as they’d both known he would. He hated the Nok blends, insisted they made his fangs taste of herbs for days afterwards. Akua had not once, so far, missed an occasion to try to socially maneuver him into being forced to drink a cup regardless. It was easy to tell how well they were getting along on any given day simply by how playful the shade was being about that little game. This morning, though, I gave them no time to get into it.
“Thoughts?” I prompted.
“It’s only the wardstone against scrying that was affected,” Hakram calmly said. “The least important of the three. Carve it, send the spike to the Belfry and lean on the Arsenal to get a replacement sent as soon as possible.”
My eyes moved to Akua.
“Destroy the spike,” the dark-skinned woman replied. “It costs us more than weeks or months exposed to destroy a wardstone: it also costs us the hours spent realigning the array with the replacement stone. Hours that skilled mages would otherwise spend addressing current threats or preparing for those to come.”
“The Dead King seemingly believed he could sink our full ward array with the spike, Lady Akua,” Hakram pointed out. “If we do not learn the nature of the threat, that might just be the case when one is next used against us.”
“The Dead King has millennia of such accumulated tricks and tools to wield whenever he so pleases, Lord Adjutant,” Akua replied. “We cannot and indeed should not attempt to match every single blow with an exact parrying dagger. The superior approach would be tightening security around our wardstones and instead leaning our efforts towards innovations of our own.”
“Our innovations spring from Jaquinite and Trismegistan sorcery,” Adjutant gravelled. “One was forged in the Dead King’s shadow and he is the founding practitioner of the other. We might as well try to drown a shark.”
“However potent a practitioner of sorcery, the King of Death remains a single mage,” the shade argued. “While he can have helpers and acquire the knowledge of others, it is highly improbable for the Dead King’s mastery of the Gift to be so superior as to eclipse every advance come out of the Arsenal.”
I drummed my fingers against the table, thinking in silence. The two of them were, through the locus of an ultimately minor tactical decision, coming to stand in for the two great currents of thought among the strategists of the Grand Alliance. One school of thought, of which the most prominent advocates were Princess Rozala Malanza and Prince Otto Reitzenberg, argued that the Alliance should fight aggressively on a tactical scale but defensively on a strategic one. Stable defensive lines and regular sorties were to serve as way to grind down Keter’s forces in Procer while the Empire Ever Dark held Serolen and raided through dwarven tunnels behind the lines of the dead. All of this was to serve as a method of weakening the Dead King until either the Arsenal created armaments capable of turning the tide or a strategic opportunity to strike at Keter itself was made. The ever-increasing amount of Named joining our ranks had, of late, been added to the arguments. Defence was their creed, until we took the King of Death’s head in his seat of his power.
The other school of thought, which claimed Prince Klaus Papenheim and Lord Yannu Marave as leading lights, argued instead for full offensive war. Their belief was that the Grand Alliance would soon reach the peak of its capacity to wage war and would only be headed into a death spiral if it did not begin scoring decisive blows before that capacity was spent. The doctrine would begin with reclamation of northern Procer by three-pointed offensive, followed by a winter of preparation and then a joint all-fronts offensive into the Kingdom of the Dead while the Empire Ever Dark struck out from its position in Serolen. With enough victories to show for, we could bargain for open dwarven military support and offer them a clean strike at Keter while the Hidden Horror’s armies were tied up on four different campaigns in other corners of his realm. There were half a dozen other variations on how the offensives should be waged, some of them not even involving the Kingdom Under, but the common tie was always the call for offensive campaigning.
Akua was, I knew, very much inclined to agree with the defensive school. Like most Praesi highborn she still saw mages at the most important part of warfare and was generally inclined to believe Named were best suited to creating the kind of breakthrough that’d deliver victory against Keter, either in a study or on the field. Hakram was not quite so clear-cut in his preferences, but for good reason his sympathies tended more the way of the offensive school. While Akua was hardly uninformed, she was not nearly as aware of how fragile the Grand Alliance’s situation truly was as my second. The strain of the war against Keter was being felt across the entire coalition, but most keenly of all in Procer: high taxes, frequent requisitions and lasting restrictions on trade were causing mounting unrest. And that was without even mentioning the waves of refugees in need of settling, for whom sympathy tended to sour very quickly whenever food or room ran low and human nature took its usual course towards the ugly. Hakram tended to favour the aggressive approaches, including getting ready to fight the war now, because he was unsure how long we could keep waging it.
I leaned more towards the offensive school myself, as it happened, but only within limits. The Principality of Hainaut and the last stretches of Twilight’s Pass ought to be reclaimed in full and a proper defensive line raised across all shores that’d be able to prevent large-scale invasion by the dead. Then, and only then, could further aggressive campaigning be considered. Cordelia Hasenbach agreed, as it happened, at least when it came to the reclamation of Hainaut – she was less eager to try taking back the Pass once more, considering the lair of nightmares Neshamah had turned the last fortresses of it into. Regardless, the two of us agreeing and the Grey Pilgrim not opposing us meant that a summer offensive into northern Hainaut was a certainty unless disaster struck beforehand.
As it nearly had, with that seeded plague. We were not unexpected or unseen in our designs.
“Do either of you have anything else to add?” I finally said.
“Our armies will be headed north, to the warded fortresses of the defensive line,” Hakram said. “We can afford the window of vulnerability while we replace the stone.”
“Expanding the ritual repertoire of our mage cadres would be more efficient a use of their time, and the potential gains from breaking the wardstone are limited,” Akua calmly replied.
I sharply nodded, fingers withdrawing from the table. As things currently stood the scrying ward was incontinent but not outright broken, so while the choice shouldn’t be dragged out it did not need to be made immediately either.
“I’ll have a decision by Evening Bell,” I said. “Hakram, what have you got for me?”
“You intended on speaking with the soldiers and officers from the assault formation,” the orc reminded me. “Assembly can be had at half an hour’s notice. Reports will be coming in by the Alliance scrying network at Noon Bell, including Vivienne’s. Lady Aquiline and Lord Razin seek an audience, as does the White Knight.”
He paused for a beat.
“Nestor Ikaroi of the Secretariat arrived during the night as well,” he added. “Along with his usual scribes. He requested audience as well, and mentioned he’d been charged with diplomatic correspondence meant for you.”
My eyebrow rose. I did not ask from who – if he’d known, he would have told me – but it was not from lack of curiosity.
“I’ve the usual disciplinary action and assignment summaries for the Third Army for you to review,” Hakram added, moving on to more mundane matters. “As well as the patrol and guard roster suggestions for the coming month.”
The latter parchments could not be passed on to anyone else, since if they did not have my authority behind them those suggestions would be balked at by our rowdy collation of Proceran, Levantine and Callowan captains. They’d need another read, anyway, to see if someone had tried to favour their own again. The former, though…
“You don’t need to bring me the Third Army summaries anymore,” I grunted. “General Abigail doesn’t need me looking over her shoulder.”
He flicked a considering glance at Akua, whose face was serene as a pond as she drank from her cup of tea. I did not bother to hide my irritation at that when his gaze returned to me, and he clicked his fangs apologetically.
“I doubt she’d agree if asked,” Adjutant said. “I’ll see to it regardless.”
I hummed, sipping at my own cup thoughtfully.
“Send for Secretary Nestor first,” I decided.
The Blood could wait, it’d do them some good, and when Hanno came by for our chat I’d rather have it with a drink in hand. Past Noon Bell, then, which wasn’t a bad idea anyway. Though the White Knight did not get reports the way I did, relying on the First Prince for information on that scale, he did correspond with a great many heroes who, as heroes were wont to, found out all sorts of hidden things. Often what he learned there was little better than gossip, but on occasion there was treasure buried among the dross. Akua took her leave without needing to be prompted, heading out to organize the repairs of the lesser damage on the wardstones. Though Senior Mage Dastardly was still the ranking mage of the Third Army, he was suborned to Akua’s authority as the informal commander of our coalition’s mage cadres. Both the Proceran wizards and the Levantine binders – those Abigail hadn’t slaughtered like lambs, anyway – took orders from her as well, within certain limits.
From experience I knew Secretary Nestor Ikaroi would be awake even at this hour, as the Delosi askretis hardly ever slept even at his advanced age. I was, it had to be said, rather fond of the man. He was polite, useful and his dedication to recording history accurately bordered on being principled. It was therefore with a smile that I greeted him when Hakram ushered him into the tent, half-rising from the desk where I’d migrated before inviting him to sit across. He did so after a slight bow, the shallowness of it as much a reminder of his high status in Delos as the two stripes tattooed across each of his cheeks. One black and one blue, traditionally the highest rank one could rise to within the Secretariat.
“Queen Catherine,” he greeted me. “I thank you for the audience, and twice over of your promptness in granting it.”
Ikaroi’s long white hair was kept in a clean ponytail and his grooming was impeccable even so early, something made clear by his turning back to gesture for an attendant scribe to approach. A scroll case was passed to the Secretary, who in turn passed it to Hakram. Considering the last time someone from the Free Cities had tried to hand me something directly it’d been an assassination attempt, that particular bit of decorum had grown on me.
“The Secretariat has proved a good friend, if not outright an ally,” I replied. “It’s my pleasure to return the courtesy.”
I glanced at the scroll case Adjutant had taken in hand but not opened.
“Although it seems that this time we aren’t to discuss the submission of questions,” I added.
“In truth the Secretariat has also passed along a list of inquiries, along with making funds available to me,” the blue-eyed man noted.
Good news, that. The Grand Alliance’s war machine was ever hungry for coin.
“Anything interesting?” I idly asked.
“Secretary Thais stills seeks to prove her theories on the source of the Stygian Spring, so a perspective in attendance of the Violet Peace’s signing has been requested,” he replied.
I snorted. Secretary Thais remained convinced that a secret treaty had been signed between Nicae and Stygia beyond the officially recorded peacemaking, and that it was exactly such a secret that’d allowed the Magisterium to begin aggressive attacks against Delos and Atalante a few centuries back. That assertion had yet to have even a slight indication of being historically accurate but if the old woman was willing to sink a fortune in being proved wrong, I had no objection.
“A question on Callowan history as well, for the Annals,” Nestor Ikaroi said. “Seeking to ascertain if Queen Yolanda the Stern’s was a villain in metaphysical sense or a merely a political one.”
I hummed thoughtfully.
“Actually, I wouldn’t mind knowing that as well,” I admitted.
Callowan historians still debated to this day if Yolanda the Wicked had truly been one of Below’s or just Proceran-born and deeply despised, but I’d never cared much either way. It was ancient history, and not the sort I need be concerned about. On the other hand, if she’d truly been a villainous Named then it occurred to me there was precedent for one of those reigning as Queen of Callow for more than a decade. While I didn’t particularly want my reign to be painted with the same brush as a woman I’d once seen written of as ‘barely more popular than the plague’, it could serve as the foundation for a legal argument. One that lent my rule a little more legitimacy than that of a victorious warlord. That wasn’t much of an issue for me, these days – not unless I started losing battles anyway – but if I didn’t want Vivienne or her successors fighting a civil in twenty years then we needed a better arguments than brute force and wearing a fancy hat.
“Usual rates, you know the drill by now. I’ll be speaking with the White Knight later this evening,so I’ll see when it can be done,” I told Nestor. “The list?”
“Timo, if you would?” the old man asked.
The young scribe passed a neatly folded parchment to Hakram. Usually the Secretariat only sent ten questions at a time, which I’d been informed by the Jacks were the subject of much internal politicking between the upper ranks of their bureaucratic ruling class. This entire affair had begun when Hanno, early into the first Hainaut offensive, had offered during an idle conversation to use his Recall aspect in order to settle a question about the size of the armies at the Battle of Lerna as recoded in the Annals. The askretis had gone wild at the potential resource that was having access to the memories of thousands of heroes going centuries back, the Secretariat even lodging a formal request with the Grand Alliance to consult with the White Knight over historical matters only to be reluctantly informed by Cordelia that the Sword of Judgement was not hers to ‘lend’.
So they’d gone to Hanno himself, who like a complete chump would have simply answered their questions whenever time allowed and thought nothing more of it. Gods, heroes. It showed most of them had never had to handle a treasury, much less fund a war. So I’d had a private word with him and we’d emerged from that conversation with practical prices in coin if the Secretariat wanted to take advantage of an opportunity that might never come to them again. Most the gold went into the Grand Alliance’s coffers, because Hanno was Hanno, but I’d insisted he take a cut even if he ended up spending it on other people. These days the Delosi tended to bring the questions to me, since I was often easier to find, and strangely enough he seemed to prefer it that way. Hakram set the parchment bearing the questions aside on my commode and returned to hand me the leather scroll case after having inspected it thoroughly.
“I don’t suppose you know what’s in that,” I asked the Delosi.
“I have my suspicions,” Secretary Nestor said, “but cannot know for certain. I know only that General Basilia meant it for your hand.”
Yeah, I’d thought it might be from her. The woman who’d once been Kairos Theodosian’s favourite general was arguably the closest thing I – and the Grand Alliance at large – had to an ally in the Free Cities, sad as it was to say. I broke open to seal and fished out the scroll, unfurling it carefully. Though the courtesies were curt they were still present, followed by a few matter of fact sentences about her latest victories on the field. The part that caught my attention, however, was right afterwards.
“Stygia’s getting involved,” I summarized. “One of the Helikean patrols caught some of the Magisterium’s people bringing wagons of arms onto a ship whose captain was headed for Nicae.”
Secretary Nestor dipped his head, seemingly unsurprised.
“It is the Secretariat’s belief that the Magisterium seeks to prolong the war as much as possible,” the old man said. “So long as Basileus Leo holds the city and Strategos Zenobia holds the countryside, Nicae remains divided. It is so with General Basilia’s campaigns in Penthesian lands as well. Our archivist-oracles believe they will not hinder transport of supplies so long as no decisive victory is scored, but would begin sabotage immediately if General Basilia succeeded at forcing such an engagement.”
Which she hadn’t, and likely wouldn’t. Exarch Prodocius still held on to the throne he’d won by virtue of being the last puppet standing, but his authority hardly went beyond the walls of Penthes itself. Many towns and tributary cities had declared him usurper and unfit – moved either by genuine outrage or by the very real chance of being sacked by Helike should they not – but his control on the city-state itself and a few key fortresses had not been shaken. Malicia was propping him up, if rumours of warlock ‘diplomats’ having joined his court were true, but for all that he was a pawn the man was not a complete fool. General Basilia’s army had chewed through every Penthesian field army sent its way and taken lesser walls, but Helike did not have the siege weaponry or mages to take the city of Penthes itself. The Exarch would remain holed up behind his tall walls with the last of his armies, trying to wait out Basilia.
“For Stygia to interfere with a supply line that passes through Delosi territory might taken by some as an act of war,” I mildly said.
“The Magisterium has not done such a thing,” Secretary Nestor serenely replied. “The worse that can be laid at its feet is words.”
I could read between the lines. The Magisters had spoken words so the Secretariat was being forthcoming with those as well, tacitly passing information to the Grand Alliance through me. It wasn’t willing to escalate any further unless Stygia did first, though, their precious neutrality remaining in place. They could have gone to the First Prince with this instead, but by going to me they could better claim to have maintained an impartial approach: General Basilia was already sending me information, and Callow’s openly hostile relations with Dread Empress Malicia meant I could be said to have a legitimate stake in the war. They’re not helping a foreigner against the League, I sardonically thought, they’re helping Helike’s almost-ally against Stygia’s almost-ally. With a few added steps and tortured justifications, no doubt.
“One would think that Malicia would advise against Stygian ambitions, given the civil war she’s fighting,” I complained. “But it’s never that simple, is it?”
“Dread Empress Sepulchral has failed to gather support beyond the initial wave,” the old man shrugged. “She is a threat, to be sure, but for all her clever maneuvering she has not beaten the Legions.”
“The part of those that still fight for the Tower, anyway,” I replied, bit bothering to hide my relish.
Though Malicia had seized the rebel old guard of Black loyalists that’d refused to bend the knee and even crucified a few, she’d underestimated both how popular my father was with the rank and file and how badly the revelation her sorcerous mind control would be received by greenskin officers. Nearly half of the former Legions-in-Exile had deserted her service at the first opportunity. A few of those joined up with Sepulchral’s armies, but most had either thrown down their weapons or joined the ever-growing camp of disaffected soldiers on the edge of the Green Stretch. While Sepulchral’s – once known as High Lady Abreha Mirembe – own High Seat of Aksum had followed her into rebellion and Nok had declared for her as well, most of Praes still remained in Malicia’s hands.
She’d not managed to dislodge Sepulchral, though, despite Marshal Nim’s best efforts, and knowledge that the Grand Alliance had opened negotiations with the rival claimant to the Tower ought to have curbed her willingness to provoke us even through surrogates. Evidently not, though. Now if only Black would come out of the woodworks – or acknowledge he was behind Dread Empress Sepulchral, as many suspected he might be – this entire nest of snakes could be put to rest. But for some reason he’d yet to tip his hand.
“Praesi will do as Praesi have always done,” Secretary Nestor said, unconcerned. “It is nothing to Delos. Yet, Queen Catherine, if I might give a word of warning?”
My eyes sharpened. Not a word the man would use lightly, that.
“I’m listening,” I said.
“There are strange undercurrents in Mercantis, these days,” the old man warned. “Ones even the eyes and ears of the Secretariat cannot quite parse.”
I kept my dismay off my face. The City of Bought and Sold was a pack of despicable profiteers, there was no denying that, yet so far they’d known how to toe the line of how much they should attempt to profit. The wealth of Mercantis’ banks and merchant lords had been instrumental in keeping the Principate’s industry from collapsing as the strain of curtailed trade and heavy taxes took its toll, but the city-state was almost as useful as broker capable of obtaining materials and rarities for the Arsenal. If they turned on us now, it’d be a crippling blow. Yet I couldn’t quite believe even the famously avaricious merchant lords would be this foolish. What would their gold be worth, when the Dead King was at their gates? And if they pressed us now, they had to know that should we win the Grand Alliance’s fury would be a black thing to behold.
“Thank you for the advice,” I said, tone forcibly calm.
I’d have to speak with Cordelia, soon. She was the foremost diplomat of the Grand Alliance, by both talent and station, and I was still astounded she’d somehow managed to talk both Atalante and Delos into allowing the Helikean armies and supply train to pass their through territory. Last I’d heard from Vivienne the First Prince was looking into bringing Strategos Zenobia into the Grand Alliance’s orbit without angering her current patron General Basilia in the process, so she ought to have been keeping an eye on the region. If something was going wrong with Mercantis it was Hasenbach that’d be noticing the signs, and likely she who’d have to fix it anyway. If this was a ploy from Malicia, though, that’d make two provocations from her: Stygia’s growing interventionism and trying to strike at our finances. The Tower would be, to be blunt, picking a fight. If we didn’t answer her in kind she’d only grow bolder, too, and that simply couldn’t be allowed. On the other hand, we could hardly afford to send an army Praes’ way could we?
There was no easy answer to this, as tended to be the way when dealing with Dread Empress Malicia.
“I trouble you no longer, then, Your Majesty,” the old askretis said, rising only to offer another slight bow.
“Always a pleasure, Secretary Nestor,” I simply replied.
I slumped into my seat, after the old man and his attendant had left. And this, I thought, had been meant to be the pleasant part of my day. Adjutant stood in silence at my side, close but not reaching out.
“All right,” I sighed, opening my eyes. “Get me those rosters, Hakram. Let’s get this done before some other looming disaster appears on the horizon.”
One thing at a time. It could be done, if we did it one thing at a time.
I told myself I believed that, straightened my back and got to work.