“Diplomacy is not an art of peace or a higher calling, it is the act of nations bartering what they disdain for what they desire.”
– Magister Haides Katopodis the Elder of Stygia
The sword came forward in swift thrust that I let come close, as Prince Frederic’s footing told me it was just a feint.
“My people don’t have a great opinion of royalty west of the Whitecaps, as a rule,” I said.
Or east of the Wasiliti, south of the Hwaerte and north of Daoine. Callowans were less than fond of foreign crowns in general, was the point, though it would be impolitic to belabour it.
“Not without reason,” the Prince of Brus replied.
I limped to the side, baiting an attack with an opening that was seized without hesitation – an opportunist, this one, man after my own heart – and the Kingfisher Prince’s sword came swiftly from the side. I spun, putting my weight on my good leg, and swept him back with a swing he easily avoided but set him up for a longer thrust with the tip of my staff. Leaning backwards and edging his head to the side by half an inch, he narrowly avoided the second blow. It ruffled his blond locks some, and I only partly managed to catch his own blow with the crossguard of my practice sword. He was better than Ishaq with a blade, I decided, but not as physically strong. That last catch with my crossguard would have broken my wrist if I’d tried it with the Barrow Sword. The Kingfisher Prince was quicker on his feet, though, and that was a lot trickier for me to handle given my limp.
“I like to think so,” I said. “Which means when even I say that I have doubts Gaspard Langevin of Cleves, whose lands are on the frontline of a war with Keter, would be enough of a fool to try something? A claim like yours begs an elaboration.”
Of course, he probably hadn’t meant a civil war that’d begin tomorrow. Even princes who despised Cordelia – and there were more of those than I’d once thought – wouldn’t try to start one in the Principate when it was under siege from the Dead King and swarming with foreign armies it currently required to continue existing. But if this was headed where I thought it was headed, then Cordelia Hasenbach’s envoy was going to make her position and intentions clear as spring water. And her offer as well, I thought, because if I knew anything about the First Prince it was that she always had one of those up her sleeves.
“Such a war would yet be on the horizon,” the fair-haired prince agreed. “Yet it looms tall there. Before I elaborate, if you might permit an insolence? It has been suggested by advisers to Her Most Serene Grace that you have become aware of what stirs in Cleves.”
He came in close, this time. Dropped under the swing of my staff, a half-step took him right out of the way of my sword’s sideways swipe and he aimed his own blow perfectly. Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t in the habit of playing fair: fingers abandoning my staff to stand perfectly still, I withdrew my hand and just in front of his face snapped my fingers. Eyes widening, he hastily withdrew with swiftness that was too smooth and sudden to have been entirely natural. I took back my staff, beginning to circle him again as absolutely nothing happened. I’d known for a while that the Pilgrim had given a pretty good accounting of my skills with Night, so I was not surprised in the least that the assessment had made it to the Principate’s sole royal hero.
“A bluff,” the Kingfisher Prince grinned.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, keeping down a smile, “was it?”
I was, against my better judgement, enjoying myself. I’d always had a weakness for the pretty ones, especially if they could handle themselves.
“The Augur or the Thorns?” I asked.
“The Circle of Thorns,” the Prince of Brus said, “noticed a sudden rise in the antipathy of certain sigils in Cleves towards Cleven forces.”
The strength and weaknesses of the Firstborn in a sentence, that: skilled enough to spy on a hero, sloppy enough people who couldn’t even speak their tongue could read them. The Everdark had forged them into one of those blades of obsidian they so loved: remarkably sharp in some ways, remarkably brittle in others. Neither of us commented on the fact that we’d both been spying on allies, which was for the best considering neither of us had any intention of stopping. Gods, but what I wouldn’t do for spies as good as the Circle of Thorns.
The Jacks were, in truth, better than such a young and haphazard organization had any right to be. That they could operate outside Callow at all was damned impressive, all things considered, much less with the amount of success they’d had. But the Thorns were still several notches above even the best of what the Jacks could do. Imagining the kind of access their long-standing rivals, the Eyes of the Empire, must have back in Callow had caused many a worried night. Even after several purges and Scribe outing part of the network to me as appeasement back in Salia, I doubted we’d flushed all of them out.
Black and Malicia had spent two decades digging them in, it’d likely take just as long to dig them out.
“I got wind of Gaspard’s ambitions to expand the boundaries of the Principate,” I acknowledged. “And of how his daughter’s been spending some of her evenings.”
“The First Prince passes along her appreciation of how measured your response has been,” the blue-eyed man told me.
I went on the offensive, this time. Came in low, sweeping with the sword so he’d have to parry, and then struck with the staff. In an impressive display of skill, at the last moment he angled his parry so that my sword would get in the way of my staff, then without missing a beat tried to trip my bad leg. I managed to pivot on myself, Mantle of Woe fluttering and hiding away my body as he withdrew his blade and tried a downwards cut. I slapped it aside with the staff and gave ground, which he graciously enough allowed.
“Don’t thank me yet,” I said. “Sve Noc were livid, and I have visions to share of the kind of casualties the Empire Ever Dark has taking up north to drive home exactly what kind of an ally your man in Cleves is tempting to walk away.”
“Given the unpopularity of the current levies and taxes with the people, ordering Prince Gaspard’s arrest might result in the current riots turning into uprisings,” the Kingfisher Prince said. “I assure you, it is not apathy to the bad faith on display that has stayed the First Prince’s hand.”
“You know,” I mused, “I even believe that. Mostly. But here’s the deeper issue behind all this, Frederic of Brus.”
I touched my arm with Night and struck out, viper-quick: when the prince parried he found me significantly stronger than before, and in the misaligned surprise of his parry the tip of my staff hit his shoulder once and sharply.
“A Proceran prince is scheming, which threatens the war against Keter,” I flatly said. “Proceran politics prevent anyone from doing anything about it, which threatens the war against Keter.”
I struck out again, even as he gave ground, and when with Name-strength he turned aside my sword and staff I abandoned the latter and spun about. When I snapped my fingers he thought of it as a bluff, at least until dark light bloomed. A closer look at the purely decorative effect gave me the barest of openings to slug him in the stomach, though he rolled with the blow and so it was barely more than a caress to a martial Named like him.
“A Proceran heroine tries to kill Proceran royalty, which threatens the war against Keter,” I continued. “And then another Proceran hero snatches up a unique artefact forged through the efforts of several Named to kill the Dead King and begins making demands, which once again threatens the war against Keter.”
I ceased moving, even as he got back his footing and raised his guard.
“Do you perhaps begin to divine a pattern to our troubles, Prince Frederic?” I bluntly asked.
I wasn’t blind to the fact that the Dominion was having some growing pains of its own when it came to the Truce and Terms. It would have been hard to when I’d been forced to look those very troubles in the eyes through the Barrow Sword. Yet neither Ishaq nor the Blood were allowing their arguments to become a growing international crisis, so the way that Procer kept foisting its internal troubles onto everybody else was really starting to be a trial on my patience.
“That is the price to fighting this war on our lands instead of yours,” the Prince of Brus bluntly replied.
He’d begun to take me halfway seriously, so instead of the almost teasing spar before I got a glimpse of what he looked like on a proper field of war: with dexterity he struck, baiting my parries into overextending and then stinging like a wasp. Even with two weapons I found myself hard-pressed and forced to give ground.
“The Principate is crumbling,” the Kingfisher Prince said as he kept advancing. “What few of our youths are not needed in fields and mines are sent north to die in dwarven armour we went into debt to buy. Royalty are now forced to confiscate the necessary goods they cannot pay for, while no grain has been set aside in two years because massive armies must be fed. Horses in the fields go without horseshoes because the blacksmiths were conscripted; fish is taken from the hands of fishermen as far south as Salamans so it can be salted and put in barrels headed north.”
With a flashy snap of his wrist, he batted aside my parry and cut downwards at my wrist. I didn’t drop my blade, but it was a near thing and I was sure to get a bruise. If the sword had not been dulled, I’d be seeing bone. I chased him away with a swing of my staff, though he retreated at his leisure and without giving openings.
“What you condemn as our fecklessness is in truth the death rattle of a nation of millions,” Prince Frederic said. “And while I confess I know little of your people, Queen Catherine, I doubt they would fare any better under this strangling grasp than we have.”
“I won’t deny that Procer has been taking the harshest losses in a lot of ways, or pretend that our sending coin and soldiers and grain is a true replacement for what was lost,” I said. “But neither can you deny that your royalty has not been a constant thorn in the Grand Alliance’s aside at a time where we can ill afford that sort of foolishness.”
“I do not deny it,” the fair-haired man frankly said, “for it is the truth. Yet you have a reputation as a pragmatic woman, and so I expect you can recognize that regardless of what is deserved having Gaspard Langevin arrested is not a solution. It is a way to precipitate the collapse of the realm standing between Callow and the Dead King.”
That was a solid retort, I had to give him that. And all of it true, if not necessarily answering my grievance.
“I didn’t ask for Prince Gaspard in chains, or in a grave,” I said. “What I am asking for is for the First Prince to get her people in order, before my own hands become tied and I have to act on this.”
“Then the First Prince requests that you add your voice to the Red Axe standing trial before a tribunal of the Principate,” Prince Frederic reluctantly asked. “As it would send a stark warning to the House of Langevin, as well see justice done.”
Ah, and there we were. The reluctance told me this was more Cordelia than him, but nothing I’d heard about the Kingfisher Prince had let me to think he was a spineless lackey: if he was willing to pass along the request, then he at least saw the sense in it.
“So you approach me instead of the White Knight,” I said, “since I’m more likely to be willing to deal.”
It wouldn’t be impossible to sell to my side of the fence that I’d simply traded the Red Axe’s neck to Procer in exchange for concessions, if I could then distribute those concessions. And if she was still executed, then I genuinely shouldn’t get too much trouble over this. Hanno, though? Hanno wouldn’t bend the neck over this. He might be more inclined to consider if Procer goes to him with my signature already on the parchment, though, I thought, which explained with Cordelia Hasenbach was going to Below’s side of the Terms first. Unfortunately, she’d misread me on this. The Truce and Terms were to be the foundation the Liesse Accords were built on, so my bottom line wasn’t anywhere as flexible as she might have imagined.
“The White Knight has not ruled,” the Prince of Brus said. “I admire his principles a great deal, but it does everyone a disservice to pretend that his political judgement is infallible.”
“I don’t disagree with him,” I bluntly replied. “If the Red Axe doesn’t stand trial as a Named but as a criminal under Proceran law, it erodes the foundation of the Terms.”
“If Named are judged only by Named, then are two laws of the land,” Frederic Goethal said.
I took a swift step forward and struck out with the blade, pressing down on his parry when he caught it.
“Oh, don’t give me that shit,” I said. “You’re a prince of the blood, we both know that maybe in principle you get the same justice a peasant does but that’s not how the world actually works.”
“Yes,” the Kingfisher Prince agreed, to my surprise, “which is why I am wary of enshrining near as unfair a distinction into law.”
I was pushed back but slapped away his thrust with the side of my staff, losing no ground as we began circling each other again.
“You can’t regulate Named like you would other people,” I said. “It’s not like making laws about magic or dealing with fae, you’re basically dealing with wild horses – if you make the pen too small, they’ll burst out. That’s why the rules stay limited, not because more wouldn’t be a positive change. The point is to establish a foundation, a baseline that future generations can build on.”
“If Named do not answer to the same laws as even princes, not even in principle,” Prince Frederic said, “then they are by objective measure set above even royalty. That would birth an age of warlords, Queen Catherine. I do not believe Christophe de Pavanie is the kind of man who would use his strength to make himself a crown, but by would other Chosen and Damned not be tempted to seize power if they are above the laws of other men? You would make Named a kind of royalty standing above all the crowns of Calernia.”
“If I’d written that in the Accords, you’d be right,” I said. “But it isn’t there. You can hang heroes and villains alike should they break Proceran laws – so long as the law doesn’t simply outlaw being a villain. It’s the Truce and Terms that extend these protections, and those last only until the Dead King is dealt with.”
A feint with my staff, then I tried to whip at his wrist with the blade much as he’d done with me – instead he caught it with his crossguard and tried to flip my blade out of my fingers, though I withdrew before he could.
“The Terms are the predecessor to the Accords, it is openly known,” the Prince of Brus retorted. “What becomes common practice now is likely to remain regardless of what is put to ink. If Chosen and Damned refuse to enforce the parts of those treaties they mislike, those that go against what they have become used to, how are we to make them obey?”
“Force, if need be,” I said. “Even the most powerful of our kind can’t take on armies alone, much less armies backed by those Named who will respect the Accords as written.”
“What you describe is likely to lead to a civil war that would finish breaking apart Procer even should we defeat the Dead King,” Prince Frederic said. “The schemes of the Tower set our principalities tearing at themselves for decades, and now the weight of the war against Keter teaches us fresh ways to despise each other. We will not survive a third conflict, Queen Catherine, not as a single nation.”
He’d advanced and struck quickly, and at an angle where it was hard to drive him back, but I joined my staff to my sword and that forced him back a step.
“It’s a convincing speech you made,” I said, “but we both know that ultimately half of it is guesswork and predictions. If the Augur had predicted it, you’d have led with that. So we’re left to choose behind the danger I see looming, Named seeing the Terms and later the Accords as a tool for nobles to control them and so walking away, or the one you’ve described. One I can only see as avertable even should it come to pass.”
“Your reluctance is not unforeseen,” the Prince of Brus admitted. “Which is why I was asked to tell you that the First Prince is willing to sign the Liesse Accords as they currently stand should you concede in this.”
I’d been angling towards his side with my sword raised, but at his words I drew back with a start of surprise.
“Lady Dartwick left me under the impression that there were still months of negotiations left to be had,” I cautiously said.
“Yes,” Frederic Goethal said, “and on all currently contested issues, the First Prince will concede.”
Mhm. She couldn’t speak for the Dominion, though, so while this was a significant concession it didn’t end the negotiations outright. It’d still be a massive boon and one that put a lot of pressure on Levant to sign on as the terms were, or at least with minimal quibbling. And even should Hasenbach go to them in private to try to use them as proxy to continue negotiating – which I doubted, it’d be too starkly in bad faith – they were unlikely to champion points that favoured Procer without also helping them. It was damned tempting offer, which was nothing less than I should have expected coming from a diplomat of the First Prince’s skill.
“Something to consider,” I eventually replied.
There could be no serious expectation of my agreeing to this in the middle of spar, much less when I’d not spoken with Vivienne or had a recent look at the articles of the Accords still in dispute. But it was classic Hasenbach to use someone beholden to her yet on good terms with me to present her offer early, preparing the grounds before negotiations truly began – and well in advance of any rivals. Cordelia did like to win before the battles were had, when she could. I did not disapprove. Even her sort of battles could be messy and chancy things when started, no matter how well you might think the situation was in hand.
“A lot of this could be made simpler if you went out and asked for the Red Axe’s head,” I said. “Her attack could stand trial as both a breach of the Terms and Proceran laws, so we’d sidestep at least part of the troubles.”
The fair-haired prince studied me closely.
“The two of you are more similar than either cares to admit,” Prince Frederic said.
Ah. He’d gotten that speech from the other side as well, then. If Hasenbach hadn’t managed to sway him, I very much doubted I’d be the one to manage it instead.
“I’ll choose to that take that as a compliment,” I said.
“It was,” he said. “And other things as well. It is a matter a conscience, Queen Catherine. I will not ask for a death I do not believe deserved.”
His sword rose and I matched it with mine. Circling began again, my eyes lingering on his footing as he tested my defences with quick flicks. Looking for an opening to score a decisive blow and end this, I’d wager.
“That’s an interesting stand to take, considering what you’ve just said about the White Knight,” I said.
A deeper lunge, but I was low on my feet and in a swirl of my cloak obscuring my movements I pivoted and let him pass by me – though I wasn’t quick enough to catch his back as he passed. We were face to face once more before I could even mount a proper attack.
“On matters of politics, I can and will compromise,” the Kingfisher Prince calmly said. “But not on matters of integrity.”
And the thing was, I respected that. Admired it, even. But when principle got in the way of itself, a closer look usually gave away that the whole affair was really about pride. I tested his guard with a flick of my staff, found it slow and pressed on. It’d been a trap, and he tried to slide under my guard in the beat where I began to move and my bad leg slowed me, but I’d been waiting for it. Finesse wasn’t going to get me anywhere, so instead I bludgeoned at him as hard and quick a I could. It took him by surprise, enough that I drew back the staff and began to press him with both arms.
“I’ve lived most my life in the shadow of people that would use that rope to hang you twice over,” I told him, ending the sentence with a flourish of the wrist.
The strike I’d thought would bruise his shoulder was instead caught with the very end of his own blade, Name-strength compensating for the poor angle I’d forced him to parry in.
“That a principle can be used against you does not invalidate it,” Frederic Goethal fiercely said, “and decency is not made worthless for the use the indecent would make of it.”
Even with a touch of Night, the difference in strength allowed him to first force away my sword and then rip it out of my grasp. He did not get to take the opening that give him, though, as I spun around his back and elbowed him harshly. He gave ground just in time to avoid the strike of my staff, and before he could turn on me I’d retreated – bending to snatch my blade up from the sand as I did.
“If the exercise of a virtue is put to the service of evil,” I replied. “It is an accomplice to it, regardless of what else it might be.”
The fair-haired prince had begun to use his Name more liberally, though he was keeping aspects out of this much like I was refraining from using workings of Night, so I’d have to adjust. I wouldn’t be able to force my way through his guard anymore, even using both arms. Bait and flank, I decided. My staff was too long, it’d get in the way, but there were ways around that. Better wait for him to close in on me, though: my leg was beginning to throb so now was not the time to dart about.
“To put evil means in the service of good ends is still putting out evil in the world,” the Kingfisher Prince replied. “We can quibble of lesser or greater evils as we wish, but averting harm is not the same as acting morally.”
I’d turned this on him once or twice, so he came in careful. I took it as a mark of respect, coming from a swordsman of his calibre. A quick half-step forward, baiting out a strike of my staff that I gave him – he flowed into a high parry as he used his backfoot to quickly shoot forward, already trying to turn the first movement of his blade into the beginning of a strike at the side of my neck. I abandoned the staff, spinning to the side, but I’d used that on him twice now and he’d been waiting for it. A sharp strike of his elbow into my flank pushed me aside, putting me back into the trajectory of his swing if he finished the full arc. I dropped low and instead of pivoting anchored myself at a steady angle, ramming by shoulder into his chest even as he barrelled into me. He was light on his feet, though, impossibly so. Like he’d somehow turned into mist as he reversed his momentum, my shoulder hit nothing at all and I was instead forced into a damned awkward parry to cover my neck.
“Not the same at all,” I agreed. “We just disagree on which is more important.”
I saw the muscles in the prince’s arm tightening as he put his back into the clash of blades and knew that in the heartbeat that followed my guard would give. So I gave with it, using the moment where he thought he’d gotten me to finally pivot around him like I’d already tried twice. I deftly flipped my grip and thrust under my armpit, though just before the tip of my practice sword could touch the ridge of his spine I found the edge of his own against my throat, ready to slit it. He must have begun reversing his swing the moment I began moving, to match my timing, and it was with a degree of admiration I realized that meant he’d read my movements without even seeing them.
“Draw?” Prince Frederic lightly offered.
“Draws are for suckers,” I replied, and tried to trip him.
He let out a startled laugh and turned around as I tried to tackle him down into the sand, dropping his sword to try to wrestle mine out of my grasp. We dropped down in a tangle of limbs, and perhaps I did not struggle quite as much as I could have to prevent Frederic Goethal ending up on top of me, holding down one of my wrists. His blond locks were a mess, he smelled lightly of sweat and not even those puffy sleeves were enough to take away from my enjoyment of the muscles under them. It would be bad politics to fuck a prince of the blood, I reminded myself as I looked into very blue eyes, and besides we were on sand.
I couldn’t even be sure that he was interested, besides, although… I wiggled my hips under the thin pretence of struggling and got confirmation I might not be the only one finding our position startingly arousing, swallowing a pleased gasp. That knowledge did nothing to curb the temptation, especially not when I could feel his broad chest against mine and his face was so close I’d barely have to lean up to nip at his lip.
“You could have just declined to put forward charges,” I said.
The tone came out more flirtatious than I’d intended, but I wasn’t exactly biting my nails over it.
“It wouldn’t have been as interesting,” Prince Frederic replied, voice gone slightly husky.
All right, I could at least be honest enough with myself to admit that if we weren’t out in the open – or at least not in sand – I’d be flipping him over and undoing his belt right now. Shit. This, uh, might end up being something of a problem.
“Maybe I’ll take that draw, after all,” I made myself say.
Best to make this about politics again, I decide, since I didn’t usually wonder about how politics would feel between my legs. Although he was a prince, so if I wanted to get technical about it…
“Of course,” the Prince of Brus agreed.
The fair-haired man released my wrist and then the rest of me, rising to his feet and gallantly offering his hand to help me up. I took it, still much too flustered and aroused for my own good.
“I get the feeling you’re no exactly enthusiastic at the First Prince’s method of solving this,” I made myself say.
He offered me my sword by the handle, having picked the blades up while I adjusted my cloak on my shoulders. Nonchalantly, he tugged his shirt back into a semblance of order. It still fit him very nicely, I tried not to notice and promptly failed. I reined in my gaze before it could get me into any more trouble.
“I recognize the dangers she speaks of,” the Prince of Brus admitted. “But while the necessity of staying them might be clear, it does not sit well with me that we have made a woman’s life into a rag doll for half the world to pull at.”
She’s Named, I thought. We’re all rag dolls for Creation to pull at, until enough gives we’re only fit to be thrown away. The lucky ones among us got to accomplish a few things. The rest died remembered only as their killer’s stepping stone.
“So what is it you’d do instead?” I asked.
The man was an idealist, but he wasn’t a fool. He’d know that mouthing regrets at a course without offering another was just wind. The Prince of Brus considered me silently, seemingly sobered by the seriousness of the question I’d asked.
“I would begin,” Frederic Goethal finally said, “by speaking with the Red Axe.”
I clenched my fingers then unclenched them.
Well, I supposed it’d make a change from all this talking about her instead.