“A wise man fears heroes not for their nature but for what they were made to fight.”
– King Edward III of Callow, the Fratricide
Learn this well, nephew, the Prince of Brus had told Frederic. All pretty things are lies.
Was this to be the bitter truth of the world, then? That men and women gilded the ugliness of their works and smiled at each other, in tacit accord never to pick at the paint? It was a foul thought but those words, among others, echoed still in the boy’s ears even as he was formally proclaimed the heir to the Principality of Brus. The Florian Basilica was an exquisite piece of work, at the heart of it a great circle of stained glass windows tall as two men each and enchanted to chance colours with the seasons, yet the pews that could have seated five hundred bore less than a fifth of this. Frederic’s prince uncle had arranged for a brisk ceremony without frills, so that the unfitness two rule of his two sons would not be lingered on even as they were formally stripped of their right of inheritance. One of the Holies had deigned to attend in person and even signed the act of disinheritance instead of Brother Antoine, the appointed shepherd of the basilica.
Frederic was rather thankful for the attendance of the Holy, as otherwise Cousin Nathanael might well have thrown a fit: even now he was not bothering to hide his fury, though it was kept mastered. Even Nathanael was not fool enough to indulge in a tantrum before such an influential priestess as the one who had come, for the House’s disapproval was a weighty thing to even one of royal blood. The Holy One personally saw to the appointment of Prince Amaury’s new successor, a gesture of great respect that Frederic could not help but see as two great beasts scratching each other’s back. His uncle borrowed the authority of the Gods to see his own carried out, while the Holies were recognized as having the right to grant that authority to begin with. All benefited, the fair-haired boy whimsically thought, save perhaps the Gods Above themselves. But when faced with silence, what can men do save fill it?
Frederic Goethal was anointed with blood and water, then draped in a fine cloak bearing the colours of his house. The priestess led him in swearing the ancient oaths – he was to be true, to be brave, to pursue the grace of the Heavens in all things – and afterwards he rose to his feet the heir to the Principality of Brus in the eyes of Gods and men. How strange, that he felt no different before and after. Almost as if a crown was only ever a crown when seen in the eyes of others.
If Frederic caught sight of wings in red and blue high above in the rafters, he kept it to himself.
The years passed and the Principate of Procer continued to eat itself alive.
He’d been too young to understand it, but he was fourteen now and there was more to his world than the walls of the palace and the few lessons that took him beyond them. Princess said she had a right, the people sang in the streets, growing quiet when riders passed by them. Princess said it’d be a fight, the words picked up when the sound of hooves passed. Now princesses are all aflight, and the pot it is boiling. The irony of it, Frederic had come to decide, was that this war had already been won half a dozen times. It’d been won at the Battle of the Swallows near the border of Orne, again at the Sack of Lullefeuille in Creusens, at the Waltz of Fools in Brabant and even the Treachery of One Mile just outside the Salian border. All victories that should have broken the spine of causes, yet though the faces and the friends changed the war kept marching on unabated. When even victory was not enough to win a war, Frederic sometimes wondered, what was left to it but losing? Yet his unease did not matter, for the House of Goethal had had already picked its man for the throne, Prince Dagobert of Lange. The cause seemed promising, it had to be said, as the Prince of Lange had lately become the preeminent crown of the northwest and perhaps even beyond.
The year before Frederic was first brought to the palace had seen the final death of the other great alliance in the north, the coalition with Cleves and Hainaut that had formed around Prince Fabien of Lyonis. A victorious pitched battle near the capital of Lyonis had forced Prince Fabien into the fold under Prince Dagobert as well as inflicted grievous enough casualties that – at least for now – the principalities of Hainaut and Cleves had withdrawn from the Ebb and the Flow. Peace had not followed, naturally, for victory ever brought danger with it. Now it was the Malanzas of Aequitan that were turning their gaze north, eyeing the southernmost ally of the coalition: Segovia. Though Princess Aenor of Aequitan was no great general, she’d brought great numbers to her side through skillful diplomacy. So far caution had kept her coalition’s attention on the eastern alliance under Princess Constance of Aisne, but now Princess Aenor was wary of allowing Prince Dagobert to consolidate his position in the northwest without Lyonis and its allies acting as a check on his expansion.
Frederic learned all of this from his uncle, whose steady hand at the keel had kept Brus out of the worst of the wars while reaping great benefits. He could admire the man, even if he would never love him.
“An offer has been made for your hand by the Malanzas,” Prince Amaury told him one evening.
After turning thirteen, it had become custom for Frederic to spend one evening every week in the Prince of Brus’ solar to discuss lessons and politics. Sometimes these discussions were only between the two of them, but other evenings saw his uncles’ favourite advisors and the powerful men and women of Brus invited to share brandy and talks. Frederic had grasped, without needing to be told, that he was being introduced to the same faces he would need to use and be wary of when he came to rule. Cousin Nathanael had savaged a salon with a knife in a fit of rage when he’d heard of the invitations become regular. Frederic now had a taster for his food and drink.
“Princess Aenor of Aequitan has daughter and a son,” the fair-haired boy recited by rote. “Rozala and Hernan, with Rozala the eldest of the two.”
“It is her hand that was offered,” Prince Amaury told him, sounding amused. “She has a few years on you, though I am told she is a handsome girl.”
Which added value to the match, though not as much as the fact that Rozala was the heiress to Aequitan. Though it was true and Brus and the other principality were far apart and that marriage alliances between ruling royals always complicated matters of succession, the offer was an attractive one. Most likely Rozala would follow her mother to Salia, being groomed for a Malanza dynasty on the high throne, while her younger brother served as Prince of Aequitan in all but name. Frederic himself would be expected to come to Salia as Rozala’s husband and his uncle’s man in the Highest Assembly, the two of them arranging matters of succession so that the House of Goethal would be stable at home while keeping a foot on the high throne. It was a tempting offer, befitting of a woman of Aenor Malanza’s reputation.
“If we turned on Prince Dagobert while his armies are gone south to battle the Malanzas, this alliance might well collapse,” Frederic noted.
“Lyonis is still looking for a way to start another bid for the throne,” his uncle agreed, sounding pleased. “And Luisa of Segovia is too clever a woman to remain on a sinking boat.”
“Yet you’ll refuse,” the fair-haired boy said.
“Dagobert has daughters as well,” Prince Amaury smiled. “A hint of the offer ought to open the dance for blood ties there.”
Without soiling Brus’ reputation or risking quite so much, Frederic grasped. And as he was young, he would be betrothed yet not wed: betrothals could be broken, should the situation change. Prince Dagobert was a proven military commander besides, in contrast to Princess Aenor’s shoddy record there, and marriage alliances from principalities far apart were notoriously unstable besides. Brus and Lange were neighbours, blood ties there would create a powerful bloc in the northwest that might well serve as the foundations for a dynasty in Salia.
“Mind you, in matters of land the most eligible woman in Procer dwells further north,” his uncle mused.
“Cordelia Hasenbach,” Fredric recited. “Prince of Rhenia, heiress to Hannoven.”
“Fine soldiers, the people of those lands,” Prince Amaury said. “Yet I wager Old Klaus will want his niece wed to one of his kin, so that one child can be a Hasenbach and the other a Papenheim. Lycaonese rarely marry out, regardless.”
Frederic put the notion out of his mind, and the Lycaonese as well, as their disdain for playing the Ebb and Flow meant were only ever witnesses to its proceedings. Instead he began to correspond with Perenelle Griffeu, Prince Dagobert’s eldest daughter, at the tacit invitation of the man himself. His uncle had, once more, navigated his way to great gains. Perenelle was pleasant enough, and of a certain wry humour that Frederic appreciated, so the cultivated relationship took well. Frederic believed it was in part as a reward for this that Prince Amaury invited him to sit at council when ambassadors from Rhenia were entertained. The expectation was that, with relations tightening between the four Lycaonese principalities, an effort was being made by them to secure better trading rights in the south by negotiation as a faction. Still, there was opportunity for profit there and there was palpable excitement at the possibility of securing some Lycaonese soldiery as fantassins.
Yet there was little discussion of trade, when the ambassador was entertained. Frederic found he agreed with his uncle’s scorn when the Rhenian envoys were laughed out of the room. Prince Cordelia Hasenbach – not even a princess, that one, northern savagery at its most glaring – had sent warnings of Praesi gold pouring into Procer through brokers, that if civil strife continued unchecked the Principate might well splinter. The ramblings of a young Lycaonese fool, Prince Amaury’s councillors dismissed. Prince Klaus Papenheim would have been worth indulging to an extent, if he could be roped in as an ally, but who cared about the dubious doomsday prophecies of some slip of a girl at the edge of the world?
The same councillors advised patience and composure, when the Neustrian army began to muster. There would be raids, they said, as there’d always been raids, but only that. The Lycaonese were a miserly people: they always retreated after a slew of casualties was inflicted, fleeing back north with what little wealth and warmth they’d managed to steal. The garrisons of northern Brus had been thinned to fill the field armies, true, but the fortress walls were tall and well-kept. The Neustrians would retreat soon enough and the House of Goethal would make them pay for their perfidy after Prince Dagobert of Lange became First Prince Dagobert of Lange.
When Frederic turned fifteen and the first fortresses fell, though, the silence from the councillors was deafening. Word filtered in from the north and the faced grew darker for it was not the Neustrians alone who’d come: Rhenia, Bremen and Hannoven all flew banners as well. The entire north had gone to war, and every day brought word of a fresh defeat as the weakened and surprised defences of Brus utterly collapsed. Prince Amaury Goethal grew sour, his moods darkened, and when Princess Mathilda Greensteel was found to have led a host through the famously treacherous Guiseron swamplands, the aging Prince of Brus led his soldiers out of the city to break her army before it could rejoin with the rest of the Lycaonese. Prince Amaury never returned, his life claimed in single combat by the renowned warrior-prince Manfred Reitzenberg.
Frederic did not yet know this, when he was woken up in the middle of night with a blade to his throat.
“What is the meaning of this?” he indignantly asked the soldier.
“Prince’s orders,” the man said.
“Prince Amaury?” Frederic blinked, taken aback.
“Prince Nathanael,” the soldier smiled as a floor of armed traitors filled the room.
The armies of Rhenia and Hannoven had marched south with blinding swiftness, Frederic learned, and had begun to prepare for the siege if the city. By then he was in a cell, naturally, but dear Nathanel did like to chat after savaging him. The fair-haired boy of fifteen tasted blood in his mouth as his cousin retreated panting yet bright-eyed, Frederic’s bruises having been built on bruises – the pain had been atrocious, at first, now he felt almost divorced from it all. As if he were stranger looking at his own body, at this entire farce.
“Are you weeping?” Nathanael – not Prince Nathanel, never prince, Frederic would rather choke on his tongue first – asked, sounding so very pleased.
Was he? The boy blinked, and found tears going down his cheeks. The salt stung his bloody cheekbones, making it impossible to ignore.
“I weep at what you are,” Frederic decided, which was untrue but pleasing to say.
“The victor is what I am,” his cousin laughed. “But take heart, little usurper. You’ll be away from my tender care soon enough.”
All pretty things are lies, Frederic thought, and being away from Nathanael would be pretty thing indeed.
“Am I to be executed, then?” the boy said, voice shaking through his nonchalance. “How very predictable.”
There was an ugly glint in his cousin’s eye at having been denied the pleasure of stripping away hope, but it passed.
“I would never kill one of my own kin, Frederic,” Nathanael smiled. “Dear me, cousin, think of my reputation. But when I open the gates of the city to Hasenbach, handing you over the Lycaonese as Father’s accomplice in foolishly disregarding the offered hand of the savages ought to earn me some trust. I do wonder what manner of grim execution they’ll have in mind for you.”
Stepping out of this, looking at it like a stranger, Frederic almost admired the wicked man across from him. Nathanael had acted effectively to reclaim the birthright he considered himself unfairly deprived of, seizing the opportunity with both swiftness and ruthlessness. Perhaps, Frederic mused in the most darkly, his cousin was the true Goethal between them after all. Who was the true child of opportunity, between the one chained and the one standing? His cousin advanced towards him, smiling.
“I’ll have you moved to more fitting accommodations and healed,” Nathanael mused, patting his cheek. “Do complain I mistreated you, it will do wonders to make you seem a liar.”
“You’ve such a pretty future ahead of you, cousin,” Frederic smiled.
Nathanael’s hand withdrew, then returned as a slap across the face. Blood filled his mouth again, but Frederic pushed down the pain and gave his tormentor nothing. Why, he was an Alamans prince of the blood: if he was to die, it would be having had the last word.
The morning of what was to be Frederic Goethal’s last day on Creation, he was woken up by the light coming through the open windows of his old rooms in the palace. He rose without attendants around him, padding all the way to the open glass and letting the warm morning breeze caress his face. There would be no escape from here, he knew. There were guards at the door and in the gardens below, with orders to cripple him should he attempt to flee. But it was such a pleasant morning. Some part of him was not surprised, when he looked at the apple tree across from him and found waiting there the slight silhouette of a kingfisher. It truly was, he thought, a beautiful creature. The long beak and bright plumage, the clever eyes watching him just as he watched them.
“Come to escort me on my way out?” Frederic asked.
The bird looked at him for a long moment, as it had when he’d been a boy. And then it took flight, leaving him with the same taste of esoteric failure in the mouth he’d first tasted as a boy of five.
“Still unworthy, am I?” he bitterly whispered.
Perhaps he was. He’d lost, after all, without ever having lifted a sword. And now he was going to die. And so, as a son of the House of Goethal, he put on his best and combed his hair so that he would at least perish while presentable. The guards that came to get him he did not recognize in the slightest, which meant they were likely fantassins hired by his cousin. Was he finding it difficult to secure loyalties? How amusing. Frederic really ought to needle him over it before he was handed over the Lycaonese for execution. Yet when he was ushered into a parlour, there was only one person waiting for him. Mute with surprise, Frederic was served wine and had a pleasant conversation with a very dangerous woman.
“Nathanael Goethal,” Cordelia Hasenbach pleasantly told him, “was seventeen thousand thrones in debt to the Pravus Bank. He entertained envoys from them on the day of his ‘coronation’, seeking further loans.”
Cousin Nathanael, Frederic aptly deduced from the context, had been met with an unfortunate accident. Auguste’s mental illness made him highly unsuitable to rule, and so the Lycaonese were turning to him as a candidate to secure Brus. He was hardly the only choice, given that there was another branch of Goethals, but he could be said to be the natural choice. He was certainly Prince Amaury’s heir by right, should the northerners care the slightest whit about upholding these. He could not know, not when those terrifyingly – beautiful – cold blue eyes were studying him without giving away anything going on behind them.
“I owe no debts,” Frederic told the fair-haired woman.
“You would owe one,” Cordelia Hasenbach coolly corrected.
And thus the game was played, the ancient song of Ebb and the Flow. He could rise, if part of her alliance. So be it.
“My uncle’s was a fair death, dealt in open battle,” Frederic admitted. “There would be no disgrace in swearing myself to you.”
“You misunderstand me, Frederic Goethal,” the Prince of Rhenia said.
She was not beautiful in the way that ladies of Brus were, slim and delicate and sophisticated. Prince Cordelia was… regal. It was intoxicating, from up close.
“A crown is not a privilege,” Cordelia Hasenbach calmly said, meaning every word, “it is a duty. You will owe a debt to your people, to Procer itself. See it is paid pack in full, Prince Frederic.”
Frederic Goethal looked into the blue eyes of the Lycaonese princess and something burned in his blood. Something demanding that, one day, he would get to look there again and find respect.
Three days after Prince Frederic of Brus was crowned, one of his uncle’s councillors praised him for having tricked the Lycaonese brutes and suggested that the principality should now pledge its faith to Princess Aenor of Aequitan in secret. Fredric idly wondered if the man had suggested the same thing to Nathanael, before. He could not quite remember running his sword through the councillor’s stomach, but as he ripped it free he cast a cool gaze on the pale-faced men and women he still needed.
For now, anyway.
“Cordelia Hasenbach will be First Prince of Procer,” Frederic said, and it rang like an oath.
Never again did any of them speak of treason to him.
The Prince of Brus readied himself for the war that would end the war, the peace by the sword, and brought to heel the commanders sworn to his crown. Even as he did the Lycaonese armies trampled Lange, Lyonis betrayed Prince Dagobert to the northerners without batting an eye and Segovia began negotiating its entry into the alliance before the gates of Lange’s capital were even breached. All of Procer trembled at the swift turn in fortunes, the great princesses of the east and the south beginning to muster their armies in fear – fear enough, Frederic knew, that they might just ally long enough to bury the Lycaonese together. But before the Prince of Brus could bring his steel to the Rhenian cause, there was one last matter to see to. One last debt left unbalanced.
When he sent for his father, it was not to receive him the throne room. Frederic ordered for a seat to be brought at the edge of the great pond in the depths of the royal gardens and he sat there, looking out into the water. Herons hunted for fish, ducks slumbered in the shade and an odd peace reigned over the place, as if the chaos and war of the outside world was prevented by some ancient enchantment from reaching here. Robert Goethal was brought to him and his father was visibly miffed by the fact that no seat had been prepared for him, but he held his tongue. Frederic gestured for the guards to withdraw far enough the conversation would remain private.
“Your Grace,” Robert Goethal said, bowing.
“Father,” Frederic replied.
He said nothing, after. Silence stayed.
“It is a pleasant sight,” his father finally said, sparing a glance for the pond.
“Is it?” Frederic mused. “You are right, I suppose. I shall offer you better, however.”
He felt the man tighten with anticipation, at the though of years of patience and offering his own son – his property, in the man’s eyes – to his brother. Finally, finally his day in the sun would come.
“There is summer house on the shores of Lake Pavins,” the Prince of Brus said. “It has, I am told a most beautiful view. It is yours.”
Robert Goethal was not the cleverest of men, but even he would not forget the house he had sent his wife in exile to.
“The death truly was an accident, Frederic,” his father insisted. “I would not have-”
“And you’d begun so well,” Frederic mildly said. “Your Grace is the proper address. You will not be reminded again.”
The man’s mouth closed. Frederic could glimpse the fury in them, the same that would have seen his cheek stinging as a boy. And had he not dreamt, over the years, of the many revenges he would take in this man? Of the torments he would inflict, the pains and humiliations. And yet now he thought of Nathanel’s bright eyes as he struck the arrogant boy who’d stolen his birthright, of how righteous he must have felt when unleashing his wrath. And so the fair-haired boy wondered: would he have that same feverish glow in his eye, taking his revenge from Robert Goethal?
“It is a beautiful view,” the Prince of Brus repeated. “Though I suppose in time you will tired of it.”
“You can’t mean to-”
“There will be only one way you are ever allowed to leave that house,” Frederic Goethal said, and then he turned to smile at his father. “And that is by going swimming.”
He never spoke another word to Robert Goethal.
The Prince of Brus turned his eyes to the pond, after, but there was no flicker of red or blue to be found. He was, it seemed, entirely own his own. But then, was that not ever the way of princes?
Frederic Goethal, Prince of Brus, was sixteen years old when he fought his first battle.
It was not a glorious affair: his vanguard accidentally ran into Prince Etienne of Brabant’s just north of the fortress of Saregnac, leading to a quick and confused engagement. Frederic followed the advice of his uncle’s generals of and of his old teacher Captain Ghyslaine of the Lances Farfelues, trading three charges of horse with the Brabantines and getting the better of the last two. It was enough to have the enemy withdraw, as Brabant was fresh to the cause of Constance of Aisne and less than eager to bleed on her behalf. Perhaps three hundred people died on the field, in the span of an hour that Frederic spent mostly trying to find out what was happening. He never even drew his sword. Half a month later he led his retinue in relieving a Lyonis force further east that’d been ambushed by Brabantines and took three lives in the struggle, two by lance and one by sword.
Soldiers told him, after, that he was one the finest lances in the north and devil in a fight. It surprised him, for steel in hand war was never more than a blur. They were all chewed out by the Iron Prince for having strayed from the planned march and skirmishing unnecessarily ahead of a battle, but the grizzled old general then slapped his back and praised him for being acting decisively. His soldiers took to him after that, as much for the deaths to his name as the praise by a famous general, but Frederic found himself unmoved. Sometimes he thought of the third man he’d killed, up close with his sword. Of how shoddy the equipment had been, of the fear in his eyes when a boy wearing armour worth more than he’d earn in a lifetime had come at him with a gilded blade. He thought of it still, astride his horse as thousands upon thousands slowly lined up on the plains to the northwest of the capital of Aisne. There must have been near a hundred thousand men facing them, between the coalition armies of Princess Constance and Princess Aenor.
How many of them were soldiers, instead of shopkeepers in ill-fitting armour?
The Battle of Aisne would be marked as a famous one in the histories of Procer, for it had all the ingredients for exciting interest: one side badly outnumbered, two princes and a princess changing sides halfway through, valour from soldiers of all sides and a clear-cut ending: bloody, overwhelming victory for Cordelia Hasenbach and her allies. Frederic remembered little after he’d dismounted and gone to fight with the ranks, ceding command to more seasoned hands: it was all streaks of blood and mud and sweat, cut through by spurts of crimson. When darkness fell that night he returned to the field, though, to watch the carpet of corpses spreading as far as the eye could see.
“A horse and a fall was all it took,” Frederic softly sang, looking at the dead.
He did not hear company approaching until it was close, and belatedly laid his hand on his sword.
“Easy now, princeling,” Prince Klaus Papenheim said.
“My apologies, Your Grace,” the Prince of Brus said, dipping his head.
“Klaus is enough, after today,” the old soldier said. “You fought well.”
“Did I?” Frederic murmured.
He could hardly remember. All evening he’d been lauded for having scythed through enemy ranks lance and sword in hand, for his bravery, but they might as well have been singing the praises of another man entirely.
“I was told this would be a glorious thing, Iron Prince,” he found himself saying. “I was raised to fight this war, to earn acclaim through it. And now…”
He spat on the muddy ground.
“All it took was a horse and fall,” the Prince of Brus said, “for us to make ourselves into the great charnel yard of this world.”
It was a pretty thing, the dream of Procer. Of the greatest nation of Calernia, proud and powerful and righteous. And like all pretty things, it was a lie. The ugly truth of us lies on this field, being picked at by carrion under night’s veil. The Prince of Hannoven said nothing, standing by his side in silence. Death spread out around them in every direction, like weeds devouring the earth, like an open maw breathing out poison. Frederic felt his throat close, his vision swim. Was it the wind he was hearing, of a chorus of moans whispering: up and north, south and down, Ebb or Flow, we’ll still drown.
“How do you do it?” Frederic croaked out. “How can you see a smile without seeing a skull, how can you sleep? How do you suffer even an hour?”
“When I close my eyes,” Klaus Papenheim gently replied. “I dream of spring. Of the green in the ground, of the singing rivers, of the fawns on the mountainside. Of the warmth that chases out the cold.”
“Springs is the season of war, for your people,” Frederic said.
With the melting of the snows the Chain of Hunger came south, even Bruseni knew this.
“And so I open my eyes,” Klaus Papenheim said, “knowing I am what stands between war and that dream.”
Frederic Goethal closed his eyes and though he dreamt of nothing, he could almost hear the beat of wings. It was not spring, he thought, but it was something. It would have to be enough. The Prince of Brus fought fiercely through the rest of the war, he was told, brought honour to his house and his subjects and the cause he had come to support.
If sometimes his gaze lingered strangely on the kingfisher embroidered on his banner, no one ever said anything of it where he could hear.
The same year Cordelia Hasenbach was crowned First Prince of Procer, Princess of Salia, Warden of the West and Protector of the Realms of Man, she received him in a cozy little parlour within the palace that had now become her own. This conversation had been coming for some time, they both knew. Frederic had brought into his circle the last kin he cared to claim and among them his surviving uncle’s eldest daughter, Henriette, showed great promise. As an heiress-presumptive, he was satisfied with her. Yet he was young and unwed, and there was no reason he could not have a child of his own siring should the proper wife be found.
“An invigorating brew,” Frederic said, after having taken a sip of the offered tea.
“I am fond of the spices,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, gracing him with a smile.
It was measured, as were most things with her, but that did not necessarily make it untrue.
“I will not waste too much of your time, Your Highness,” Frederic said. “I not unaware that my hand in marriage is not so tempting as some offers you might be entertaining. Still, I can offer hunting and fishing rights for Lycaonese in the swamplands, waiving of all tariffs for your people in Brus and my services as intermediary with fantassin companies.”
Compared to the full coffers and untouched lands allying with the Milenans of Iserre would bring, the great fleet and foodstuffs that taking Princess Luisa’s son Alejandro as a consort would secure or even simply the docile husband, prince and vote in the Assembly that choosing the debt-ridden Louis Rohanon of Creusens would acquire, his suit was hardly worth a second look. The First Prince sipped at her cup, seemingly pensive for all that this should be the easiest decision in the world.
“I had expected,” she slowly said, “that you would speak instead of the battles you fought under my banner. Of the support you have given me in the Highest Assembly.”
Frederic Goethal still heard the beat of wings when he closed his eyes. Even now, and perhaps he would until the day he died. But when they were open, sometimes he glimpsed spring and it bore the face of Cordelia Hasenbach. She was knitting back together a realm decades in the wounding, one step at time, running roughshod over southern royalty in the Assembly just as her armies had over theirs in the field. She did it so politely, though, that half the time they’d not even noticed it happened.
“That I cannot offer you now,” Frederic said, “for it was already promised to the payment of another debt.”
He would not quibble now and pretend the woman seated across from him was the not the best thing to happen to Procer in many years. This time, he thought, there was less measure to the smile she offered him.
“I do not intend to wed, Prince Frederic,” the First Prince gently said. “But if I did, the words you just spoke would have made you a finer suitor than any other I have entertained.”
The moment passed and though he left that parlour as unmarried as he expected to, Frederic found he’d somehow been eased into a rather lucrative arrangement to transport steel into Neustria that would nicely fill the coffers of Brus. And likely quiet any talk back home of ungrateful Rhenians, he realized with a start of amusement as he returned to the Goethal manse in the city. It seemed, though, that he was not to be freed of politics for the day: before evening came, he was called on unexpectedly by another royal. Prince Amadis Milenan of Iserre was a rising man these days: wealthy, ambitious and not afraid to use the former in the service of the latter. He was handsome enough, Frederic found as they sat together and drank a lovely Creusens white by the window, yet there was something about him… For this impiety, the Gods Above punished them, he heard in his mother’s voice, telling the old story again, turning their three sons into beasts. The eldest into a wolf, the youngest into a bird…
Amadis Milenan smiled and complimented Frederic’s deeds at the Battle of Aisne.
And the second into a snake, the Prince of Brus finished in the privacy of his own thoughts. Oh, there was a forked tongue behind that smile. Prince Amadis spoke of the peace, of the many changes the First Prince was bringing to Salia. Some, perhaps, were ill-advised. Brought by ignorance – quite understandable, if unfortunate – of the way things were done, here in the south. The Prince of Iserre spoke of the great costs of war, of keeps that need be rebuilt from the ravages of Lycaonese warmaking, of trade arties disrupted and merchants yet afraid. Amadis Milenan spoke then of his daughters, the second oldest of which was yet unwed, and of the trust that could only be had by ties of blood in these uncertain times. Did gratitude not fade so very quickly? Why, was the Prince of Brus himself not unwed? You are everything my uncle wanted to be and more, Frederic thought, admiring, but also: how many shopkeepers would you force into ill-fitting armour, to get even a step closer to the throne?
“You speak such pretty things to me,” Frederic said, “Alas, I must confess my heart has been broken. I simply cannot conceive of marriage until such grief has passed.”
Amadis Milenan’s pleasantness trailed down his face like rainwater.
“Hasenbach’s hound to the end, then,” the Prince of Iserre coldly said.
Every time you speak, Frederic kept himself from saying, I can almost hear a thousand corpses from the fields of Aisne singing that same old refrain. The fair-haired prince laughed, instead.
“Woof,” Frederic solemnly replied. “I expect you can find your way out, Prince Amadis.”
He did not bother to watch the man leave. On the windowsill, looking at him, was perched a kingfisher.
“You are far from home, old friend,” the Prince of Brus smiled.
The bird considered him, for a long moment, and then trilled once before flying away. Frederic kept looking at the sky long after, in startled fear and delight.
It was the first time one had ever sung for him.
Frederic Goethal sometimes thought he’d been born to fight a war, but it’d simply not been the one he’d fought.
The Tenth Crusade seemed like it might just be that war, he mused years later. The Dread Empire’s conquest and rule of Callow was a blemish on the face of Calernia, and it seemed like the old beast’s hunger was not yet sated: a city had been slaughtered, some sort of fearsome doomsday fortress raised by a rebel Praesi noble and a fresh madness of undeath unleashed on the world. A hundred thousand ‘wights’, Gods save them all. Yet the talk in the Highest Assembly, at the edges of conversation where truths were whispered instead of lies proudly proclaimed, was not of liberation. Promises were being made of fiefdoms carved in the Kingdom of Callow, and it left a foul taste in his mouth. He yet remembered the endless stretches of death after Aisne, the cloying choking smell of rotting flesh, and he would not brave this once more to repeat old mistakes by new hands. Not even for Cordelia Hasenbach.
The Callowans rallied behind the Black Queen, on the other side of the mountains, armies and knights and fresh devilries coming fresh out of the earth with every stomp of her feet. They too glimpsed a spring when they closed their eyes, Frederic thought when he heard, and Procer had no part in it. That dream was a dangerous thing to fight against.
He sent one of his kin to command the Bruseni contingent he’d pledged to the crusade, pulling strings so that it would be under the trusted command of Klaus Papenheim where he would be able to learn the trade of war without too much risk. The greater part of Brus’ army, though, he kept home. He may yet march it east when the war against the Wasteland began in earnest, and he took to formally preparing his cousin and heiress Henriette to hold a command should it be so, but instead the invading armies of the Principate were struck by disaster north and south. Prince Amadis had been beaten and taken prisoner, Rozala Malanza retreating west with the salvaged remains of that army, while the Red Flower Vales had held and instead spat out the Carrion Lord so that he might ravage the heartlands while the Iron Prince dug his way back into Callow. Madness and chaos, all the while Ashur played pirate against the Wasteland’s coasts and the Dominion dragged its feet.
Frederic ordered the army of Brus readied, upon reading the letters from his people in Salia, but one more letter came before he moved south to fight for the restoration of order. The Dead King marches, it said. Hannoven has fallen. All soldiers make for Twilight’s Pass. Ready yourself. So wrote the brisk hand of Prince Manfred Reitzenberg, who had years ago slain Frederic’s uncle and predecessor. Something in him shivered, when he read the words. A primal fear, an ancient terror bred in the bones of men. The Dead King marches, he thought, and the world shivered with hum. Doom had come for Procer, had already swallowed Hannoven while its armies were fighting far south. So were those of Neustria, and while both Rhenia and Bremen would bring reinforcements the Lycaonese had still been stripped of great strength and their finest general.
“North,” Prince Frederic of Brus told his captains, dropping the letter on the table. “We march north.”
The Bruseni made haste, but the Prince of Bremen was dead by the time their host arrived.
So was the Princess of Bremen that followed him and the Princess of Bremen that followed her, all dying in the span of same night carrying out the same unflinching charge. Now only one of the House of Reitzenberg remained, bearing a red crown: Otto Reitzenberg, dour and brooding and so transparently haunted by the thought he might not be equal to the duty he had taken on. Frederic sympathized, yet only so much. The first time he stood on the snowy grounds to meet the dead, steel at his back and the back sea of the Enemy’s horde in front, he closed his eyes and smiled. Terror should have swelled in his breast, for the armies of Keter made those of the Great War seem like the mischief of children, but instead it felt like he was breathing fresh air for the first time in his life. The banner of his house flew high, the sun shone bright and even the cold felt crisp.
The dead came and somehow Frederic laughed.
The strange joy that’d taken hold of him, though, had not spread throughout his soldiers. In their eyes he saw fear, for this was not a foe they had faced before and it was not a foe anyone with any sense would ever want to face. It was his duty, as their prince, to replace that fear with something else. Frederic dismounted, to show he would fight with the foot that would not be able to flee if the tide turned, and in silence of the mountain pass raised his voice to address his own.
“I see fear in you,” Frederic Goethal called out. “I offer no scorn for it, for what sane man would blame you? Is it not a thing of horror, this army of the damned?”
Corpses and monsters and worse, legions dark and darkly led.
“But I tell you now, there is nothing to be afraid of,” the Prince of Brus. “I have already killed you all.”
The murmurs bloomed, uneasy.
“You stand at the edge of the world, sons and daughters of Brus,” Frederic said. “There is nothing but doom waiting beyond the horizon, and with every beat of your hearts it crawls closer to you.”
And in the distance, as if to prove him right, the dead quickened their pace.
“And yet there is nothing to fear,” the Prince of Brus continued, “for you are all dead and I share a grave with you. So I’ll not offer you gold or glory or even honour – what are these worth to a corpse?”
He could feel in the air, now, and they must too. The weight, the scent of steel about to be drawn.
“Instead I tell you this: we can claw our lives back from this day. All it takes, Bruseni, is to win.”
His voice rang out against the mountain pass, defiant.
“Win, and tomorrow you will be alive,” Frederic Goethal said. “Win tomorrow, and you will push back death by one more day. Every victory claws back one more hour, one more song, one more cup of wine.”
He bared his sword, raised it high, and ten thousand blades rose with it,
“There will come a day,” the Prince of Brus roared, “where we who stand beneath the banner of the kingfisher will falter. Where our swords break, our shields splinter and valour flickers out like a candle in the dark. Where the Enemy, at long last, keeps our deaths clutched too tightly too steal back.”
He laughed, bright and merry and somehow he could feel the fear in them vanishing like morning mist.
“But I ask you, Bruseni, you children of opportunity – is today that day?”
No, they screamed. No, they thundered, until it echoed down the pass.
“To doom,” he screamed back, “and glorious death!”
Doom, they screamed back, and glorious death. These loyal fools who had followed him north to seek out the end of days and fight it. It was like a shiver that went through all of them, a fearsome and intoxicating pride. We are here, King of Death, they sang with every swing of the blade as they drove back the dead, we are here, so is this the best you can do?
Frederic closed his eyes, just before the lines collided, and found he could not hear even the slightest echo of the song he’d caught in the wind after Aisne.
From that day onwards, it was a dazzling dance of defeats with three men leading the beat: somber Otto and smiling Frederic against the Dead King, the pair never more than a missed turn or step away from utter annihilation. Otto Redcrown grew on him, for the hesitant kindness behind the rough manners and the solemn honour the man refused to surrender even an inch of no matter how dark the days grew- and the days grew dark indeed, for all that the nights were even darker. Yet it was when Volsaga fell and the two of them together hammered an iron farewell into the side of the mountain pass that Otto Reitzenberg ceased being an ally and became a friend instead. He was, Frederic decided, the kind of man it would be a pleasure to die with.
Loss after loss they were driven back to the Morgentor, Morning’s Gate, the last fortress between death and lowlands of the north. The last gate between Keter and the Principate. And when even that last redoubt seemed about to fail, in that last hour the dead withdrew: truce had been forged, a breath before the last plunge. It was a magnificent courtesy that the Black Queen had extended, Frederic mused. When death came, it would be after he’d had time to properly arrange welcome for it: he and Otto ran themselves ragged, preparing for the end of the three months. Preparing themselves, Frederic sometimes thought, to die in the full splendour of their ruinous pride. And so when the truce ended, when the dead came again, Frederic Goethal was ready to perish slightly drunk on fine wine and exquisitely dressed, as was only proper for a prince of the House of Goethal.
They lost the eastern peak first, then the western. Frederic fought in the same red haze he’d always known for the last peak, the last standing stones in the way of the King of Death, and he knew deep down that he was going to die. For he had met the snake, in the heart of Procer, but know he knew at last the true face of the wolf: hunger unceasing, death that would swallow whole the world. This was the last of his story, the death that could not be snatched back, and he found himself at peace with the notion.And yet in that smoky stairway where the dead howled and soldiers died, among the torches and the flashing lights of desperate sorcery, Frederic Goethal caught sight of wings in red and blue.
“One last time, is it?” the Prince of Brus smiled, strangely moved.
His blood burned. Yes, he decided. One last time, in the face of the end of the world. He sent for his horse, for his riders that the Lycaonese had taken to calling the Kingfishers, and up the stairs they rode.
“Doom,” Frederic screamed, chasing the beat of wings, and they screamed it with him.
Through death and fire they charged, a whirlwind of steel and hooves, until the dead broke and Frederic Goethal found himself at the summit of the peak under the morning sun. The kingfisher trilled, but the sun blinded his sight, and when he could see again he found only one of his own banners trailing in the wind. But now, oh now…
The Kingfisher Prince smiled. They won, and so the day after they were alive.
It was a pretty thing and it was not a lie.
In Brus there was a story every child knew, about the birth of kingfishers.