“Raise the price by a coin of gold and you make enemies; raise the price by a copper and you make losses. Profit lies in silver: moderation without timidity.”
– Extract from ‘Discourse on Nature and Man’, by Merchant Princess Adorabella
Above the foyer of the royal quarters in Rhenia hung a painting – six feet long, four feet high – depicting the famous ancient Iron King Konrad wrestling with what the artist had deemed a personification of the concept of duty.
Cordelia sometimes thought of that painting, when the days grew long. At first, when she grew from girlhood into womanhood, she had remembered it for the stories her uncle had had told her about it. Of how her father, a man she’d never known, had despised it ever since he was a boy and had it taken down the same day he became Prince of Rhenia. He’d been known to claim he would sell it to some art-hungry Alamans princeling in the south and use the gold to buy a few more dwarven engines, though he’d never gotten around to it before his untimely death. Cordelia’s mother had eventually ordered it put back up, being rather fond of it, though she’d called the motif ‘Konrad Getting Beat By A Bald Bear’ instead. Sometimes Cordelia thought she’d only ever truly known her parents through the stories of others, for even though she’d been fourteen when her mother passed away Cordelia had only been graced to know a meagre few facets of Margaret Papenheim.
Now that years had passed, though, she thought more of the motif. Not of Old King Konrad, who stories told had let all eight of his children die rather than surrender Twilight’s Pass, but of what lay at a heart of it: a prince, wrestling with duty. Was that not, in a way, what lay at the heart of rule? To bear a crown was to swear yourself to making order out of chaos, law out of anarchy, prosperity out of ruin. Cordelia had been orderly even as a little girl, for Mother had never been prone to coddling: it had been up to her to decide how her hours would be spent when she was not seeing to her duties. She’d taken on seneschal duties for the fortress-city by the age of twelve and extended her authority to Rhenia’s dependencies by the age of thirteen, and as her writ ran further her hours became ever more precious and in need of careful parcelling. Those habits had followed her into adulthood, into the Salia and her rule as First Prince of Procer, and she was grateful for it.
There was simply so much to do and too little time for all of it. Cordelia would try anyway and parcel out ever ounce of her so that, at least, all that she could do was done. The First Prince of Procer delicately nibbled at the caramelized poultry she’d been served, then took a sip of no more than two beats from her cup of water – obeying court etiquette to the letter. The two men seated across from her, who had patiently been waiting for her to finish her bite and rinse it down, only then began speaking again.
“Merchant Prince Fabianus has signalled he will not involve himself in matters of Proceran debt,” Louis of Sartrons told her. “We’ve established this is a firm commitment, and not a bargaining position.”
The old spy’s face had always struck her as being rather skeletal, skin pulled taut against the bones of an aristocratic face and only topped by ever-receding tufts of hair. He was not a physically striking man, looking more like a well-born coin counter than what he truly was: the foremost patron of the Circle of Thorns, the secretive society whose agents were the eyes and ears of the Principate abroad. Louis of Sartons was not a close ally of hers, for the Circle preferred to maintain a degree of distance so that it would not be swept into internal struggles and so suffer in a way that blinded Procer to its enemies, but he had come out boldly to support her when a coup had been attempted against Cordelia. For this he’d earned a degree of trust, and a freer hand than she’d allowed him before. The news he was bringing, however, were not pleasant ones.
“That is a blade that bites both ways,” Cordelia mused.
Most of the Merchant Princes and Princesses that ruled Mercantis were not Named, and rarely more than influential firsts among equals, yet their value as intermediaries with the banks and merchant houses of the city they ruled was priceless – if always priced. That Fabianus was had formally stepped back from intervening in the matter massive loans that Mercantis had extended both Procer and the Grand Alliance meant he would not demand that the sums, lenders and borrowers be made public within the Consortium as a growing number of merchants now demanded. It also meant, however, that he would no longer facilitate those arrangements as he had until now.
“The Circle believes he remains in favour of the arrangements but has grown to fear assassination by his opposition if he does not bend,” Louis informed her. “Recusing himself allows him to give them an inch without slighting us outright.”
Wiggling out was the mark of an eel, not a prince, Cordelia uncharitably thought, but what else was to be expected from Mercantis? Not that the merchants were entirely without reason to be worried of the loans extended, for the First Prince had woven there a maze to obscure exactly how badly the finances of the Principate were faring. By obtaining the permission of the Highest Assembly to seek loans in the name of its individuals princes and princesses – all marked down, and to be repaid by the Principate to the individuals in years to come – she’d been able to seek smaller loans from multiple royals in a shared ‘bundle’ from different banks and merchants, effectively spreading out debts in a way that made it nearly impossible to assess from the side of the lenders. The key to this had been requiring secrecy from the lenders in exchange of higher interest, something she’d had the Circle of Thorns strictly enforce.
The first two merchants who’d tried to break their written oaths had been promptly assassinated, using some of the most painful poisons the Circle knew of. None had tried after, not individually anyway: through the great merchant guild known as the Consortium, which Mercantis counted as both a court of law and ruling body second only to their Merchant Prince, pressured was being applied for the hidden information being made available not to individuals but to the Consortium ‘itself’. It was a legal fiction, given that nearly all those who’d signed to secrecy were also members of the Consortium, but one that might hold up under the few treaties Mercantis kept with Procer. That even Merchant Prince Fabianus was beginning to give way was bad omen for the Grand Alliance’s fortunes in the city. Possibly quite literally.
“This is no longer a purely Proceran matter,” the First Prince eventually said.
The older man bowed his head in acknowledgement, and with a look Cordelia made for one of her attendants to approach. The young woman curtsied, then silently awaited instructions.
“Please request of Ingrid that she inquire whether Lady Dartwick would be amenable to having tea,” she began, and for a heartbeat considered when she could first spare the time, “tomorrow, an hour past Noon Bell.”
“Immediately, Your Most Serene Highness,” her attendant replied.
Ghislaine, Cordelia suddenly remembered, repeating the name in her mind to better commit it to memory.
“Thank you, Ghislaine,” she smiled, and the woman curtsied again.
Vivienne Dartwick would not have the authority or influence to settle such a matter herself, but needed to be brought into the issue as the first step into bringing in Catherine Foundling. The Black Queen, Cordelia thought a touch guiltily, really was such a useful large club to threaten people with. Where law and diplomacy failed to make a mark, Queen Catherine’s scowls and fearsome reputation had a way of bringing out sweet reason from the most unreasonable of souls. Callow would, besides, need to be told of the developments regardless: its treasury was guarantor to some of the loans extended to the Grand Alliance and it was the second-largest contributor to the war chest besides. Not that Lady Dartwick had not ensured the kingdom would not benefit from the process. If anything, she’d proved frighteningly cunning in finding ways of seeing to that.
The notion of allowing repayment in nature for extended loans had, for one, effectively erased twenty years of damage to Callowan horse-rearing while simultaneously thinning the hordes of their traditional greatest rivals in the trade, the Arlesite princes of the south. If Queen Vivienne was to be her neighbour to the east, one day, Cordelia would not make the mistake of taking her lightly. The former Chosen might in truth have better gifts for ruling in years of peace than the woman who’d chosen her for a successor. The blonde princess had another bite of poultry, savouring the subtle aftertaste of the sauce, and then a nibble of those perfectly steamed and spiced carrots. It was washed away with a sip of water, afterwards, and even as she dabbed her lips with an embroidered cloth the First Prince cleared her mind of unnecessary thoughts.
The matters that would be brought to her attention by Brother Simon of Gorgeault, formerly the head of the Holy Society and nowadays the Lord Inquisitor of Procer, would require her full attention as well. Though the well-formed man with the hair grown silver was no longer the leader of the society of highborn lay brothers and sisters, it was because at Cordelia’s incitation the Highest Assembly had charged him instead to root out corruption and wickedness within the ranks of the House of Light, granting him worldly authority over the priests until his inquisition was at an end. It was reform at the edge of a sword, all knew this, but after so many of the Holies had been caught publicly backing her deposal the House had not had room to argue.
“The House of Light has formally decided to accept your latest set of suggestions,” Brother Simon said, a tad drily. “The lands will be ceded to the throne, under condition that they are to be ceded in turn to the appropriate crowns.”
Cordelia was too well-mannered to smile in triumph, so instead she drank a sip of water. With that last concession, it could be said that she had subdued the Holies and the uglier aspects of the House of Light they represented. Even after the public disgrace of the House during the Salian coup attempt, it would have been a grave overreach to come down too hard on it where the people could see: it would restore public sympathy, and feed into the perception that she had a tyrant’s grip on the Principate. Instead, she had struck more subtly. First she’d abolished every ritual power the House had over the office of First Prince and the Highest Assembly itself, save for the right to directly petition the latter – one of the oldest and more importantly the most well-known of the House’s privileges. Then, with the fetters of tradition removed, she’d gone after the coin. The House was invited to divest itself of all its merchant interests, donating such wealth to the feeding of the refugees in the heartlands. The House was invited to accept taxation on its holdings, if only while the Principate was at war. And now, the Lord Inquisitor had confirmed that all the lands of the House whose purpose was commercial in nature – vineyards, orchards, mines – were to be ceded to the throne of Procer, which itself would then cede them back to the appropriate princes and princesses.
For a price, which Cordelia would mercifully offer to be paid through writing off any debt the treasury of the Principate might owe any such royalty. In the same stroke she’d ensured that her office would not go bankrupt after the war, curried favour with her subjects by restoring lands to them and ensured the Holies would never again have the wealth to ensure the degree of influence they’d been boasting for the last century.
“The wisdom of the House illuminates the way in these dark times,” Cordelia Hasenbach replied, long practice allowing her to keep even the faintest hint of irony out of her voice.
This would devour hours and hours of her days for weeks to come, but it was worth it: with a little inventiveness, she should be able to shuffle around debts and debtors to secure another round of loans abroad.
“It shines what light it can,” the Lord Inquisitor agreed, both praise and warning in the same elegant turn of phrase.
Simon of Gorgeault, she sometimes thought, would have made a better prince than most if fate had deigned to grant him that birthright.
“Furthermore,” Brother Simon continued, “though numbers will only arrive tomorrow, I can already tell you that another company of priests has volunteered for service on the fronts.”
This, at least, Cordelia would give the honour it was due. Every Lycaonese child was taught that there could be no greater service to one’s own than to put your life between them and the Enemy.
“If you have names for me, the lists can be read to the people again,” Cordelia offered.
It was both a gesture of respect and a way to raise morale, which in turn tended to lead to volunteers.
“I will extend the offer to House,” the Lord Inquisitor said, tone grown warmer.
That saw to the immediate matters, she grasped, and just in time. With one last touch of her fork, she brought a bite of poultry to her mouth and swallowed, washing it down with water just before the first ringing of Noon Bell in the distance. The two spies took their leave with the proper courtesies, which she duly returned, and only then did Cordelia allow her brow to crease as she looked down at her plate. There were still two mouthfuls of poultry left, and one of sides. Her timing had been off: imprecision, chaos, had won a small victory. The First Prince left the meal unfinished, and allowed herself to be led to the antechamber down the hall – where she was deftly undressed by her handmaids and helped into a dress more practical than the powder blue court regalia she’d donned for her duties of the day until now. Grey velvet was laced at her back and paired with matching shawl bordered in golden brocade in deference to the chill that occasionally seized parts of the palace.
Her escort to what her councillors had taken to naming l’archive en vogue – the Vogue Archive – was a familiar face. Captain Lois had been a simple guardsman, when Cordelia had thrown herself down a windowsill, and proved to be a man of his oath. He’d been among those that helped her escape, and he’d killed to ensure she would not be dragged back to Balthazar Serigny’s feet as a prisoner. There were some, after the coup, who’d said that the ancient palace of the Merovins should be emptied of all Salians and only trustworthy Lycaonese be kept in her service. These calls she’d resisted, and instead ensured both honours and promotions for all the Salians who had proved loyal. She was not First Prince of the Lycaonese but of Procer, and she would not let fear taint who she was: leal service must ever be met with reward.
“If you would allow me the honour, Your Most Serene Highness?” Captain Lois offered along with his arm.
Cordelia did, though lending an arm was as far as she intended to ever indulge the flirtation. She’d had discreet liaisons over the years, with men and rather more rarely women, but becoming involved with one in her service would be… uncouth in many ways. Her own people’s traditions encouraged sharing a bed with one of the ‘pleasant trade’ rather than involvement with one’s fellow soldiers but this far south it was seen as frivolous for an unmarried woman of her rank to dally with courtesans of any gender. Especially if there were lands in line to inherit, as was the case with her. The Rhenian princess had therefore been forced to be most careful in her dalliances, indulging only in the company of those who might never be a hazard to her position or reputation. The affairs had been rare, and after the first heart-wrenching time she’d had to part from a man she held deep affections for Cordelia had never again allowed them to linger.
Still, that did not mean she could not appreciate a well-formed calf or a muscled arm.
The First Prince’s guards moved aside when they reached the threshold of the Vogue Archive, for access to what within was restricted by both ancient enchantments and much more recent wards. Cordelia parted with her escort with a courteous smile, pressing her palm against the heavy oaken door before her. Sorcery crackled against her skin, like a minuscule gust of wind, and the door opened without a sound as the old enchantment recognized her right to enter. The wards buzzed against her ears as she crossed the threshold, but the blonde Lycaonese paid it little mind: already her mind was on the sight awaiting her. This had been a great salon, once, where the Merovins had entertained others in the sort of amusements where none were expected to be wearing clothes by the end of the evening and the company of the beautiful was much encouraged.
The need for discretion – the people of Salia would have raised brows upon hearing of the diversions of their rulers – had seen enchantments laid on the doors leading into the room, restricting for whom they would open. That and the size of the salon had been the deciding factors in Cordelia ordering the beating heart of administration settled within, and there was no trace left to see of the original trivial purpose of the Vogue Archive. Great tables covered in sprawling maps of the different regions of the Pirnicpate as well as broader Calernia had been set down, each matched with bureaus seeing to the reports from such regions and foreign locales. The maps themselves were adorned with sculpted stones and silk ribbons representing trade arteries and supply lines, garrisons and crucial resources.
The Order of the Red Lion, whose mages swept in and out of the room regularly, kept reports and notes as fresh – en vogue – as was possible, resulting in a living and breathing map of the Principate of Procer that had allowed Cordelia and her councillors to avert enough crises over the previous two years that she could not remember when anyone had last argued to cut funding for the Archive. Trusted and thoroughly vetted scholars, traders and officials swarmed the great hall like ants in an anthill, filling scrolls of their own as the read through reports. Those scrolls headed to the very back of the hall, where on a raised dais the keen minds the First Prince had appointed as her foremost analysts had been granted desks of their own. Theirs was the task to sift through the mass of reports and identify the disasters that would plague Procer and the Grand Alliance before they came to pass, warning Cordelia so that they might be averted.
The Rhenian princess’s entrance was met with a pause in the intricate dance of duties as bows and curtsies were offered, though when she returned them with a nod the sudden hush broke and activity resumed. Cordelia took the time to pass by some of the tables and speak, as she’d scheduled for, praising the Segovian bureau for the sea supply lines to Bremen they’d successfully forged and encouraging the Aisne bureau to redouble its efforts to find a way to keep that principality’s granaries and treasury afloat after the ravages the Carrion Lord had inflicted there. Callowan grain would not be able to feed the heartland forever. The Levantine bureau approached her with an intercepted communication from the Holy Seljun of Levant trying to formalize diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Callow through ambassadors as well as a list of the most likely individuals the Dominion might send should such an offer be accepted, which made for interesting reading.
She thanked the young woman who’d brought her the scroll and requested a more comprehensive report be made over the matter and sent to her. That would see to a third of the quarter-bell that Cordelia had allowed herself for reading this evening, by her own estimation, which was an acceptable way to spend the time. The First Prince’s feet took her up the low steps and onto the dais, where the three appointed analysts that were currently awake and serving were awaiting her. One was a distinguished merchant of low birth, Maria Fernanda of Treville, who’d turned the ailing fruit trading family business she’d inherited into one of the foremost trade societies of the south by virtue of being able to read trends in demand in time to capitalize on them. The second was Brother Alphonse of the Montresor monastery in Creusens, who Simon of Gorgeault had personally recommended as being the finest policy hound of the Holies prior to their fall.
The third and last in attendance was more complex a presence than a merchant and a priest: the Forgetful Librarian was undeniably a brilliant woman, but she was also Damned and largely unwilling to entertain the notion of someone having authority over her. That she’d been born to a family distant kin to the House of Brogloise ruling in Cantal had only encouraged what Cordelia suspected was an instinctive resentment of anyone who might have a claim on her hours, not to mention seen her wealthy enough a villain few had suspected her of even being one before the Archer had caught her in the middle of trying to steal manuscripts from Mercantis bought at auction and headed for the Belfry. A great many dead hired swords and several bruises later, the Forgetful Librarian had accepted the Truce and the Terms and been assigned to Salia by the Black Queen at Cordelia’s own request. There were good reasons for that, though on some days it was necessary for the Rhenian princess to reminder herself of this more than once.
“Your Most Serene Highness,” Brother Alphonse greeted her, hastily rising to his feet and bowing.
Maria Fernande mirrored him, but a heartbeat slower on the draw, but the Librarian had yet to raise her eyes from the book she’d been reading. Only when she turned the page did she look up, and sharply nodded.
“First Prince,” the mousy-looking woman said. “Right on time. Shall we get to it?”
Cordelia ignored her, smiling and gesturing for the other two to return to their seats before taking her own.
“Librarian,” she said, tone mild. “You have something to report?”
“You might say that, Your Highness,” the Damned said, closing the book. “Maria read through the reports on trade through with the League and the Dominion, and I matched this with the records of tariffs between principalities south of Salia. The numbers I arrived at are worrying, when the substance of the Principate’s debts is taken into consideration.”
“And why is that?” Cordelia asked.
“We suspect,” Maria Fernanda intervened, shooting a warning look at the Damned, “that the Principate had become fragile, Your Most Serene Highness.”
Brother Alphonse cleared his throat.
“It is our conclusion that, unless regular trade routes are opened anew with League and Ashur,” the priest delicately said, “Should Mercantis cease propping up the treasury Procer the entire Principate might come down like a house of cards.”
A talk might be required, Cordelia faintly thought as the explanation continued, with the Black Queen.
“Half past the hour would suit me better,” Vivienne replied. “Though if it is a matter of great urgency, something might be arranged.”
“We would not dare impose on your time in such a haphazard manner, Lady Dartwick,” the tall woman facing her said. “I will relay your answer to Her Highness and see to it that your staff is kept informed of any and all developments.”
Lady Vivienne Dartwick, heiress-designate to the Kingdom of Callow, watched with a bland expression as the First Prince’s own chamberlain bowed and retired. She was not blind to the courtesy Hasenbach was extending by sending the very head of her household, Ingrid Backhaus, to arrange a meeting to ‘drink tea’. Neither was she particularly moved by it, though. For the First Prince to be seeking out such an arrangement meant that the ruler of Procer needed to address something by informal channels of diplomacy – given that Vivienne did not yet have an idea of what was in need of addressing, she was inclined to chalk any courtesies up to the woman trying to butter her up before the talks. Cordelia Hasenbach wielded pleasantness and courtesy with an uncomfortable degree of effectiveness, Vivienne had found, so it was best to remain wary.
It was a delicate line to walk, between being Hasenbach’s friend and her foe. Never to trust too deep or to give offence unprovoked, and though the dark-haired woman knew she was not half bad at these games she had not been born to them as the opposition so often was. Catherine could afford to ignore most of this, swagger in with a drink and quip and turn everybody’s plans inside out, because she had the charm and the raw power for it. Vivienne had neither, so instead she tread as carefully as she had when she’d been the Thief and the evening air had smelled of ambush. She leaned back into her seat and let out a long breath, wondering if she should send for the Jacks now or later: whatever had moved Hasenbach to seek a meeting, it’d be best if she knew of it before that meeting.
“Let us resume, Henrietta,” she finally said. “Word from the Observatory, you said?”
Henrietta Morley was heiress to the Barony of Harrow, Ainsley Morley’s eldest daughter, and so the proper address would have been Lady Henrietta. They’d grown close enough to dispose with much of the formalities in private, however, as was only necessary if the heiress to Harrow was to remain as her secretary and advisor. That she was a thoroughly competent was only to be expected, given that Baroness Ainsley could not afford a weak successor given her rambunctious vassals, but even if she’d been a moonstruck fool Vivienne would still have found some place for her in her Salian ‘court’. Ties to the baronies of the north, the last great landed nobles in Callow save for Duchess Kegan herself, were important in keeping the latter constrained.
Naming Henrietta her personal secretary had been a sign to the disposed nobles stripped of their lands by the Conquest and the Liesse Rebellion, too, that Vivienne was not as determined as Catherine to keep the highborn at a distance – after all, while Cat had used nobles and even appointed some to great offices she’d never kept any of them close. That’d been reserved for the Fifteenth, for the Woe, for those who’d borne steel in her name. But Vivienne saw these same man and women as a valuable resource: educated, often still wealthy by lowborn standards and often influential those nobles could be used instead of slowly ushered into oblivion. It’d be a waste to let them stay unused, where any rebellious hand might pick them up besides.
Besides, if the former thief was to be queen one day it wouldn’t hurt to have a good relation with the future Baroness of Harrow.
“Fresh as of an hour ago,” Henrietta agreed, tucking back her hair. “Lady Fadila has deemed the contents of the missive she passes on to be demanding of your immediate attention.”
Vivienne’s brow rose. Fadila Mbafeno was something of a liability, in her eyes – she’d once been a servant to Akua Sahelian, which as far as she was concerned was disqualification enough from holding office anywhere in Callow – but she’d remained as the informal head of the Observatory by virtue of being effectively impossible to replace and more than slightly competent. The dark-haired Callowan might not like the Soninke sorceress, but she did respect her judgement.
“Whose missive is it?” Vivienne asked.
“Our friend in the east,” Henrietta delicately replied.
Ah, and there went her day. That meant Dread Empress Sepulchral, that ruthless old bat from Askum, who the heiress-designate to Callow trusted about as, well, a Dread Empress of Praes. Sepulchral was repugnant in nearly all regards, but too useful as a check on Malicia to ignore. In appearance, at least. The ‘civil war’ in the Wasteland had been going on too long and too oddly for Vivienne to take the surface stirrings of it as face value anymore. That the former High Lady Abreha was foe to the Tower was beyond doubt, however, and regardless of all the rest that made her useful. Sepulchral had naturally gone out of her way to cultivate her usefulness to both the Grand Alliance at large and Callow in particular with typical Wasteland canniness. That often involved passing on information that neither the Jacks nor the Circle of Thorns would have gotten anywhere near otherwise.
“You’ve the transcribed message?” Vivienne asked.
“Translated from the cypher and ready for your perusal,” Henrietta agreed.
The scroll she presented held a seal in dark blue wax, the Observatory’s own. The wax was enchanted to turn to dust the moment the seal was broken, which made it clear whether the message had been spied upon on its way to the hands it was meant for.
“Thank you,” she replied, taking the scroll.
The wax frittered into fine blue dust as she broke the seal, and she blew it off the edge of her desk before turning sharp eye to what had been written.
“Dire news, my lady?” Henrietta asked.
“Our friend sends us a timely warning,” she replied. “Malicia is about to bite our fingers off in Mercantis.”
And wasn’t that going to sting, a kick in the Grand Alliance’s moneybags? Something needed to be done before the fingers felt the teeth closing in, and for that Vivienne required more than what she had at hand. Fortunately, last word had Catherine on her way to the Arsenal.
Vivienne was overdue a visit, she decided.