Chapter 32: Convened

“Let priests offer forgiveness before the hanging, a queen can only afford it after.”
– Queen Yolanda of Callow, the Wicked (known as ‘the Stern’ in contemporary histories)

I found out, to my mild surprise, that there were not one but three private dining rooms in the Alcazar. I’d not even been aware that were any, though it made sense upon refection: it was the part of the Arsenal meant to host important guests, essentially the facility’s diplomatic quarters. In my experience a great deal of diplomacy was had over meals and drinks, compared to the great formal conferences I’d envisioned as a girl. One of the two smaller rooms was where the First Prince of Procer received me, having brought her own private cooks to prepare the meal in the Arsenal kitchens. I appreciate the restraint of not having gone for the formal banquet hall, which was large enough that any meal taken there would bring with it a tiring amount of pageantry.

Instead we sat in an elegant and comfortable dining room whose walls were covered by panels of painted wood that I vaguely remembered being donated by the recently ascended Princess of Cantal. Lovely work with a touch of warmth to it. It was a pleasant departure from the bare stone that was so prevalent everywhere in the Arsenal. The meal itself was of the quality I’d come to expect from Cordelia Hasenbach’s personal cooks, which was to say both delicious and almost unnecessarily elaborate. Four services, each with a paired cup of wine – I noticed she drank on sparsely from hers – and ranging from some sort of potage whose ingredients came from a garden first planted by the founder of the Principate to a roasted bird that ate only enchanted seeds and was illegal for anyone but royalty to eat in most of Procer.

Unlike me, it seemed that Hasenbach had something of a sweet tooth. Though she’d eaten with measured grace throughout the meal, she dug into the fourth and final serving of a strawberry-topped custard tart sprinkled with slivers of marzipan with discreet enthusiasm. I ate enough of mine to be polite but found myself much more interested in the bottle of wine that’d been provided to me: Vale summer wine. Slightly cooled in a chillbox, as was the custom this side of the Whitecaps, it proved a pleasurable way to end the finest meal I’d had in a long time.

“I suppose it would be unpatriotic of me to admit I’m growing fond of Proceran cuisine,” I mused.

“I will refrain from spreading it around,” the First Prince drily replied.

I’d actually put on a dress for once, given that any fighting taking place tonight was unlikely to involved swords. One the downsides to being known as a soldier queen was that there was a expectation I’d show up to everything looking like I was fit for battle, something that was rarely compatible with the sort of cotton summer dress I remained fond of wearing. Not that I could put on one of those when meeting with the likes of Cordelia Hasenbach, sadly. The Arsenal was too cold anyway. Instead I’d put on a long-sleeved dress in black velvet, discreetly embroidered with my heraldry in silver thread on the sides. I’d not bothered with jewelry aside from a set of intricate silver bracelets set with grey agates I’d received as a diplomatic gift from Hasenbach herself a year or two back.

My own small preparations were, naturally, nothing compared to the spectacle that was the First Prince of Procer receiving foreign royalty. The intricate brocade dress in gold and pale she must have been helped into – it was too tightly fitted to her frame for it to be anything but laced in the back – ended in long skirts that matched the length of the light ermine-collared cloak in the same colours she wore over the dress. A long, slender golden necklace set with sapphires reached well below her throat and over the cloak, calling attention to the narrowness of her waist by contrast. A clever trick of perspective, that, helped along by the way the skirts expanded swiftly outwards. It made her look like slender girl instead of the woman with the Lycaonese warrior frame she actually was. The cape hid the broad shoulders too, I’d noticed, which was a recurring pattern with her.

Still, with the all the intricate layers and the way for once her long golden locks had been allowed to tumble down her back – in a very careful and artistic pretence of – carelessly I felt like you might be able to fit two of me in her.

“Much appreciated,” I drawled. “So, if it’s not too indiscreet to ask, how was it that you learned my favourite wine? I cannot help but feel deeply amused the prospect the famous Circle of Thorns going digging for that.”

“It was learned by happenstance during the Liesse Rebellion,” the First Prince idly replied, polishing off the last of her dessert. “A certain Hasan Qara used smugglers with which the Circle has ties to obtain a large enough quantity of the vintage that questions were raised.”

I breathed out slowly, startled by the way the grief had jumped out at me. It’d been some time since I’d last thought of Ratface. Who’d trusted me and followed me, only to die by an assassin’s blade on the night that Malicia had ensured that this could only end with one of us dead.

“I seem to have given offence,” Cordelia softly said. “My apologies.”

I mastered myself and waved it away.

“He was a good friend,” I said. “He died during the Night of Knives and I miss him still.”

The First Prince slowly nodded.

“If not for Agnes’ foresight and the protection it affords, I would have lost much of my family to the Tower’s assassins over the years,” the fair-haired Lycaonese said. “I can only offer my sympathies for your loss.”

I wasn’t sure if she was simply that polished a speaker or if she genuinely meant it, but it made no difference. Ratface’s corpse had been given a Legion funeral, in Laure, and one day I would settle his last accounts on his behalf. I could offer no more than that, though it would still be too small a thing for all that he’d freely given.

“We’ll lose more before this is over,” I simply said. “Tears are best kept for when the swords return to the sheath.”

“A sentiment my people are more than passingly fond of,” Cordelia said, faintly rueful.

Our conversation paused as an attendant came to take her empty plate, another bringing in an elegant porcelain teapot to replace it. The First Prince gestured for the woman to pour and she filled a cup with a dark tea fragrant enough I caught the scent from my seat – it was distinctly bitter, as Hasenbach seemed to prefer her brews. The attendants withdrew again after one filled my half-empty glass anew, leaving behind the bottle. Within moments we were alone in the room, and the tension began to rise. After the meal and the idle talk that’d accompanied it, we would finally be getting at the meat of why she’d wanted this meeting.

“We have a great deal to discuss, Queen Catherine,” the First Prince said. “This was true before I left Salia, and circumstance has since added to the heap of troubles ahead of us.”

“The Prince of Brus conveyed your opinions and offer to me,” I carefully said. “Yet I would take council with Lady Dartwick before speaking more to the subject.”

Hasenbach lightly sipped at her tea, never making a sound.

“Jurisdiction over the Red Axe is one matter,” she said. “The Mirror Knight and his involvement with the House of Langevin are another. Yet even further abroad we are not without ill news.”

I frowned.

“Mercantis?” I asked.

Vivienne had recently warned me the situation there was bad and about to get worse, mentioning that we’d speak more of it in person, but I’d not believed it to have gotten to the point of ‘ill news’. The Secretariat had warned me even earlier of going ons there as well, through Secretary Nestor, but they’d been vague and I was not in the habit of flinching from shadows. I’d been skeptical then and remained skeptical now. The City of Bought and Sold might have gained some leverage over the Grand Alliance by its merchant lords and banks becoming the foremost lenders to the war effort, but they had to be aware that there were limits to how much they could push that. Given that most of the mercenary armies they relied on for protection were either six feet deep or under contract, these days, they were also rather vulnerable to directly expressed displeasure.

Also known as violence.

“There is a limit to the papers I can provide you on the matter,” Cordelia said, surprisingly forthright, “as they contain privileged information on the Principate’s capacities of production and trade. I will have what I can sent to your quarters, however, and I would myself convey the conclusions of my staff if you have no objection.”

I hid my surprise. This was a lot more serious than I’d expected.

“Please do,” I replied.

“To summarize, unprecedented burdens and the interruption of near all our usual trade routes have effectively ended Procer’s ability to sustain itself without outside help,” Cordelia Hasenbach said. “Conscription and the previous drains on our treasuries are shaping what would have been a dire crisis into a risk of outright collapse.”

Coming from the woman ruling what was still the most powerful nation on the surface of Calernia, that was stark thing to hear.

“You should still be able to trade with Callow and Levant,” I pointed out.

It wasn’t that I doubted her, but rather more that I was surprised. I’d been reading the treasury reports for the Grand Alliance assiduously, and though there’d been dips they’d never been long-lasting. I’d believed we were staying afloat, if not necessarily by much.

“The profits to be found there are smaller than those our merchants are accustomed to,” the First Prince delicately replied.

Meaning the Kingdom of Callow and the Dominion of Levant, the two allies who’d not closed their doors to Proceran traders, were simply too poor for their trade to sustain Procer. That, I grimly thought, actually sounded about right. I’d been shocked at the wealth of even minor cities in the heartlands of the Principate for a reason.

“And within your own borders the trade is failing,” I said, cocking an eyebrow.

“Prices have gone up for nearly all goods,” Cordelia said. “To protect their own tradesmen and prevent other principalities form buying up their reserves, princes have been raising increasingly stiff tariffs.”

Which was reasonable enough, I thought, but with an eye on the Principate as a whole it must be crippling. Maybe Procer at its peak could withstand every principality becoming as an island and cutting off trading ties, but it wasn’t at its peak right now. Whole swaths of it had been ravaged by Black during his ill-fated march, the north had been turned into a series of ravaged war fronts and there was a mass of displaced refugees to care for in the heartlands. All those were drains that Procer simply wouldn’t be able to sustain if all its principalities were closed-off and trying for subsistence instead of prosperity.

“Prince Frederic mentioned confiscations, when we discussed the state of affairs in Procer in passing,” I slowly said. “How bad is it really?”

“They have become common practice even south of Lange, now,” the blue-eyed princess replied. “If princes attempted to keep to their war quotas without resorting to them, nearly two thirds of the Principate would begin toppling into bankruptcy.”

Oh fuck. That was… Hells, we were scraping through at rough cost and with only a little hope in the distance right now, but that was with the full weight of the Principate of Procer behind us. If it collapsed behind us the Dead King wouldn’t even need to crack our defence lines: we simply wouldn’t be able to field and feed large enough armies to keep him back. At that point we’d be forced to retreat, otherwise we were just feeding him well-armed corpses to march south with.

“But the Mercantis loans are keeping you afloat,” I said.

“It is not sustainable in the long term,” the First Prince said. “We will need increasingly larger loans to remain standing where we are the longer this continues. Yet you are correct, at the moment the coin from Mercantis had allowed us to ward off the spiral downwards.”

I drank deep of my cup, barely even enjoying the taste of my favourite wine.

“Are they aware of that?” I asked.

Meaning, was awareness of the not negligible leverage this represented the reason they were pushing us now?

“I am uncertain,” Cordelia said. “Given the unfortunate amount of success the Eyes of the Empire have had in infiltrating the Principate, however, I believe that on the other hand Dread Empress Malicia is.”

Of course she godsdamned was. This wasn’t the kind of knowledge she was just going to sit on either. Considering that she couldn’t really spare military forces to stir up trouble at the moment, the possibility of going for the Grand Alliance’s moneybags using her preferred weapons of knives and influence was the kind of opportunity she’d dig into with relish.

“For a woman fighting a civil war she’s remaining unpleasantly active abroad,” I growled.

The First Prince sipped at her tea.

“Lady Dartwick informed me that our… friend out east warned the Tower will soon take action in Mercantis,” Cordelia said.

Yeah, she’d told me that as well. Our friend out east, huh. My lips twitched. A pretty little euphemism, that, used to refer to Dread Empress Sepulchral. I’d known her as High Lady Abreha Mirembe of Aksum back in the day, though our acquaintance had only been middling – I’d strong-armed her into backing the creating of the Ruling Council of Callow using her nephew as leverage, but we’d not really crossed paths since. She’d risen to prominence in the years that followed mostly by virtue of ruling one of the few High Seats whose holdings had not been touched by civil war or foreign incursions. She’d failed to ride the wave of discontent against Malicia that’d welled up after the destruction of Thalassina all the way to the Tower, but against all expectations her eventual rebellion had not been brutally snuffed out by loyalist legions.

The two empresses past the Wasaliti were still grappling even now, and though Malicia’s position was the stronger Sepulchral’s own was in no immediate danger of collapse.

“I’d count that as good information,” I said. “Malicia scoring victories against foes abroad will strengthen her position with the nobles, so it’s in Sepulchral’s interests to see her thwarted.”

“You had some involvement with Sepulchral when she was still High Lady of Aksum, as I understand it,” the First Prince said. “Did you form an opinion of her?”

“Her nephew’s the one I had the most dealings with, and he was a follower of the Diabolist with waning ties to his aunt,” I cautioned. “But Abreha Mirembe…”

Black had considered her one of the most dangerous nobles in the Empire, considering the amount of blood she’d shed to claim Aksum, but it was not my father’s opinion being sought.

“In a lot of ways, she’s emblematic of Wasteland upper nobility as a whole,” I eventually said. “Cunning, even brilliant in some regards, but also appallingly callous. Abreha Mirembe does not have ideals – or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that her ideal is the acquisition of power no matter the costs.”

“The Circle judged her to be hard and opportunistic even by Praesi standards,” Cordelia shared.

“Praesi in her rarefied circle of nobility are expected to exalt cruelty in the same way that your princes are expected to show off their piety,” I frankly said. “That she not only survived but outright thrived in that environment should tell you a lot about her. She can be relied on to slide a knife into Malicia’s back every chance she gets, but not much else.”

We’d strayed from our original discussion Mercantis, though, so I subtly changed the subject back to it.

“Mercantis,” I said. “I doubt you would have brought it up to me without having some sort of a solution in mind.”

The First Prince drank from her cup, taking her time, and set it down so delicately I barely heard the clink of porcelain on porcelain.

“Diplomacy will not be enough to settle that matter,” Cordelia Hasenbach said. “It is unfortunate, but no less true for it.”

My brow rose. Well now, that was bold of her. And a far cry from her usual methods.

“I can’t commit my troops still in Callow to an attack on the city,” I warned. “Even if I could afford the vulnerability to Praes that’d bring, only a fool would try an assault on Mercantis without a proper fleet.”

Which the Kingdom of Callow did not have. In theory it might be possible to requisition river barges and fishing boats up the Hwaerte until there were enough floating rafts to manage a crossing with, but considering that Mercantis had a small but professional fleet of dedicated warships trying that would just be pissing away an army at the bottom of the Great Lake.

“Nothing quite so significant is required,” the fair-haired princess replied. “A few Chosen and Damned, however, would make the point felt quite clearly.”

I grimaced. It’d be less of a headache trying to shake a few of those free than trying to shuffle around troops, admittedly, but it’d still be a headache. The real issue was that at least one of those Named would need to have a reputation as a genuine threat to something the size of a city-state if they were to serve as a potable warning against overreach. We had few Named of that calibre, and they were best used up north on the fronts. Pulling one off for what someone unaware of the nuances might think to just be petty politics would not be popular, aside from the actual martial considerations in pulling out such a war asset.

“I could reach out to the Kingdom Under,” I suggested.

Mercantis was under their protection, and the dwarves had a vested interest in the Grand Alliance continuing to make a dent in the forces of the Dead King.

“If the King Under the Mountains can be convinced to intervene, it will have a significant impact,” Cordelia agreed. “Yet the dwarves have traditionally been reluctant to involve themselves in such matters.”

Which was probably why she’d not opened by requesting I try that – she didn’t believe the Kingdom Under would actually move even if asked. She might not be wrong, since they were a pretty mercenary people and they didn’t exactly owe me any favours at the moment. Those had been spent keeping the drow fed on their exodus, amongst other things. Might as well find out, though, there wasn’t much to lose in asking.

“I’ll draft a letter,” I said, drumming my fingers against the table.

“Thank you,” she smiled. “While I would ask you to consider the practicalities of sending Chosen to Mercantis, such a measure would yet be distant. I have arranged a conference with representatives of the Consortium here in the Arsenal. I would be pleased if you could attend it.”

Impressing the merchants with a look at the Arsenal, huh? A pretty simple tactic, but it’d probably still be somewhat effective considering how unearthly and impressive this place could look. It wasn’t like this place wasn’t going to turn into a major diplomatic artery for a month or two anyway, we might as well make use of it properly.

“I’ll be there,” I agreed. “Have the details sent to my people.”

I let a moment pass.

“To be sure,” I slowly said, “you do want me in that room to scare them, correct?”

The First Prince of Procer was too self-controlled to be visibly embarrassed by my laying out the truth so bluntly, but I doubted it was a coincidence she chose that moment to take a sip of tea.

“Your reputation carries a great deal of weight, Queen Catherine,” the blue-eyed princess carefully said. “Your displeasure would not be courted lightly.”

Meaning that those representatives were a lot less likely to try to push the Grand Alliance if I made it clear that such a mistake would lead to my gating in with a few thousand drow one evening and expressing my displeasure. Fair enough. I’d have hesitated to be the rabid hound of this play more if there were likely to be long term diplomatic consequences for Callow, but my abdication should see to the worse of that. Besides, by then my home should be a lot less afraid of Mercantis’ displeasure: if trade with Praes and Procer was open, then the Consortium’s usefulness as a middleman waned significantly.

“I’m sure they can be made to understand that if their greed ends up feeding Calernia to Keter, before the end I’ll personally lead my armies to raze Mercantis to the ground and salt the ashes,” I mildly said.

“The very sort of talk that might give the ambitious pause,” Cordelia delicately admitted. “The imprudence in relying too heavily on the Consortium has been made clear, however, which demands other measures be taken. Bringing peace to even part of the Free Cities would allow for the resumption of trade, and so lessen the burden on the southern principalities.”

“In principle I’m very much in favour,” I said. “I simply don’t see a practical way to achieve peace in the region anytime soon.”

The wars in the League of Free Cities had reached a point of stalemate, more or less. Basileus Leo Trakas still ruled in the city of Nicae itself, but he’d lost the countryside to Strategos Zenobia and neither could afford to dislodge the other. Penthes’ armies had been whipped on the field by General Basilia, who’d managed to get Helike in order behind her, but after the casualties of the Proceran campaign and half her army leaving to serve under the Grand Alliance she didn’t have the siege or mages to take Penthes itself – whose much-despised Exarch Prodocius was rumoured to be propped up by Malicia directly. Stygia was quietly feeding the flames, hoping to expand after everyone was spent, and neither Atalante nor Bellerophon seemed inclined to get involved.

Only Delos was keeping an eye on things, but while the Secretariat had passed information to me in the past it was also very reluctant to surrender its current neutrality. The askretis had no interest in a war after the way their last one had gone.

“Though there will be difficulties,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, “if the signatories Grand Alliance were to wield their clout in accord it would not be impossible to effect change.”

I watched her and drank from my cup, noncommittal. There’d been good reasons for the Grand Alliance being so reluctant to involve itself in the wars of the League, and though what I’d learned about the darkening of Procer changed the situation some I was still inclined to caution there. Any resources spent on trying to plug that sinking boat might very well end up wasted with nothing to show for it, leaving us even worse off than before.

“A shared recognition of Strategos Zenobia as the legitimate ruler of Nicae, for example, would strengthen her support,” she suggested.

“Not enough to topple Leo Trakas,” I pointed out.

Which would make the gesture entirely pointless, as far as I was concerned.

“Perhaps so, if paired with a severing of all ties with territory under the rule of the Basileus,” Cordelia said.

That’d put pressure, though not an enormous amount: with sea trade in the Samite Gulf good as dead, Nicae wouldn’t be taking any real losses by this. It’d still be made a pariah to a large coalition, though, and that might make some nobles in the city turn on the Basileus out of fear the sanctions would remain even when things calmed. It was also, however, something that might just backfire spectacularly if the people of Nicae were moved to anger by the foreign interference into their affairs. Something that the First Prince would be well aware of, which meant there was another angle there.

“Under what pretext?” I asked.

“I would have the Grand Alliance name Leo Trakas a friend to the Dead King, and so an enemy to all the living,” the First Prince said.

My hands clenched. I forced them to loosen, the drank again from the cup as I gathered my thoughts. The refusal on the tip of my tongue had been instant, but it had been more a thing of instinct than thought. This entire proposal smacked of the House of Light declaring me Arch-heretic of the East to me, only even more shamelessly political. Basileus Leo Trakas was inconvenient to us, and circumstances might well have forced him into some degree of alliance with the Tower, but it was going a step too far to call him an ally of the Dead King. I calmly set down my cup.

“I don’t like the precedent this sets,” I said. “We’re an alliance, not the ruling lords of Calernia. And while this sort of denunciation might be taken as face value by a lot of people, given the war we’re in, we both know that Leo Trakas is mostly trying to stay alive at the moment. I’ve little pity to spare for the man, but I’m not comfortable using titles like ‘friend to the Dead King’ as a diplomatic stick.”

It was the sort of thing that made a man genuinely desperate, and a Basileus with both nothing left to lose and helpful Wasteland friends was a recipe for disaster.

“I understand your hesitation,” the First Prince said. “It does not please me to have to resort to such a method. My advisors suggested the same manoeuvre be used to exert pressure on Penthes, in truth, but I balked. It would be an overreach.”

So Exarch Prodocius, arguably by far the worse man of the two for having helped Malicia arrange a use of Still Water, would be spared the same epithet. Because Cordelia was trying to put together the western half of the League as a mostly stable trading bloc for the Principate, not the east. The naked truth laid bare by what she must have considered to be a demonstration of restraint only made me more uneasy. Some of that must have shown on my face, as she pressed forward.

“As you have yourself pointed out, we otherwise lack the means to truly affect matters in the Free Cities,” the fair-haired princess said.

“I still think that even in putting out the fire in Nicae you’d be laying the foundations for a worse blaze down the line,” I said. “Did you go to Levant about this?”

“The Holy Seljun was willing to agree,” she replied. “Though only after a formal vote of signatory members, and only should that vote be unanimous.”

Ah, so Wazim Isbili was cleverer than his reputation implied. That way Tariq’s distant nephew could let me refuse Procer on his behalf instead of having to do his own dirty work. That trick of procedure, though, spoke to me of a smaller nation used to existing in Procer’s shadow and wary of helping it gain too much influence even in a crisis. Those passed, after all, while influence gained during them lingered a lot longer. Of course, if I could figure this much out then Hasenbach could as well. I cocked a silent eyebrow at her.

“As I said,” the First Prince of Procer repeated, “I understand your hesitation. Perhaps a more cautious approach would better suit? A private mock-vote can be had, and should it be unanimous a letter of warning can be sent to Leo Trakas as to what will follow.”

I didn’t like having even the pretence of my seal of approval on this, but unfortunately she was right that we weren’t flush with ways to settle the mess in the League. It might not be avoidable for me to get my hands dirty here. And I can always change my vote when it comes to actually going through with this.

“You’re leveraging him,” I said, implicitly agreeing. “So what is it you’re trying to leverage him into?”

“Opening the gates of Nicae to Strategos Zenobia, who by law is the senior ruler of the city-state,” Cordelia said. “This would be under guarantee of safety for him and his partisans, naturally. I have been corresponding with Zenobia and she is amenable to those terms.”

I couldn’t help but notice she’d not mentioned General Basilia, who’d been the one to raise Zenobia up in the first place. Mostly as a way to keep Nicae off her back while she went after Penthes, but it couldn’t be denied the two were aligned with Basilia the distinct greater of that alliance.

“I could get Helike to accept those terms,” I said, “if Zenobia is willing to turn on Penthes.”

The First Prince’s eyes narrowed as she watched me closely.

“In what sense?” she asked. “The city will have little force to field after this.”

“It will have ships,” I said. “The lack of which is one of the reasons Basilia can’t siege the coastal fortresses properly.”

Able to cut them off from the sea, the Helikean general might be able to starve them out even if she couldn’t take the walls. Or at least make a good enough threat of it that Prodocius’ army would have to either give battle or face the prospect of losing every holdout outside the walls of Penthes. Considering that Basilia seemed a lot more interested in winning her wars than cementing influence over Nicae, I suspected she’d take naval support from Nicae over Leo Trakas’ head on a pike. He’d made for a pretty middling rival, anyway.

“I will have to contact the Strategos,” Cordelia said, “yet I suspect she will be amenable to such terms.”

I suspected that Hasenbach would push for acceptance, regardless of whether or not Zenobia liked the deal. It was compounding gain with gain, from the Proceran perspective: with a fleet on her side, Basilia would be able to become a serious headache for another ally of the Tower. More importantly she’d be doing that fighting in the eastern territories of the League, far from anything Hasenbach currently cared about. Considering that while I might be the effective patron of Basilia’s Helike the Principate had a much more contentious relationship with her, keeping the general busy in the east might even be considered yet another gain. I nodded sharply.

“Stygia’s going to be an issue,” I said. “Lukewarm as they might be on the Tower, they’re not going to let alliances firm up the western League without taking measures.”

“I concur,” the Lycaonese princess said. “And it so happens I have a few thoughts on how to check them.”

We must have spoken for at least an hour more after that, breaking only for a bit when we had to send for maps – I was trying to make the point of why a Nicaean support fleet would practically double the size of what Basilia could field in soldiers just because of the supply line they represented – and Hasenbach excusing herself to use the privy. It was turning out to be a thoroughly productive evening, and though the suggestion of sponsoring defensive pacts between cities against Stygia in particular would be dead in the water without Atalante or Delos being brought on, it was a solid notion we could keep pushing without a significant investment of resources on our part.

In time the subject was exhausted, at least in the sense that more could not be discussed without the both of us having sought answers outside and read through reports. I was just starting on my third cup of Vale summer wine by then, though I’d been slow in drinking it, so I was largely sober and feeling rather vivified by how much we’d gotten done. In a concession to my own consumption Hasenbach had sent for a cup of hydromel she’d been nursing ever since she’d finished the tea, and it was that she set down when the conversation hit a low ebb.

“I believe we have discussed the matter exhaustively enough for the night,” the First Prince said.

“Agreed,” I said.

I sighed, leaning back into my seat.

“So let’s talk about the troubles closer to home.”

46 thoughts on “Chapter 32: Convened

      1. Miles

        She switched with a spy! The Wandering Bard in disguise! Or maybe she just stuffed that dress with explosives! Using Cat’s dead goats trick against her. That dastardly Dead King is there any low he won’t stoop to?

        Liked by 10 people

        1. You can’t kill Cat with a dynamite dress. Cat had to write an entire paper on the topic after Marchford. If you’re going to dress to kill it will have to be metaphorically; she’s still quite susceptible to that.

          Liked by 5 people

  1. laguz24

    I do love these political speeches, and if Catherine’s plan works mercantis is not going to enjoy its traditional value for much longer despite the debts.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. The economic problems of Procer are bad news.
    And a compelling argument against delaying action against Keter any longer than absolutely necessary.
    If Procer’s economy collapses, the war is effectively lost, until/unless the right Story path starts … which is what Saint wanted and very few other more reasonable people do.

    I agree with Cat, Malicia is way too active in external affairs for someone who is supposed to be fighting a bitter civil war.

    And we have to wait for the next chapter (at least) to find out more about the internal issues of the Grand Alliance/Procer, and the Named and the bullshit Bard pulled.

    Liked by 10 people

    1. Salt

      To be honest I don’t like the shape of it, the thing with Malicia. The entire situation reeks of a trap to me. I’m wondering if maybe her supposed action in Mercantis is a ruse to bait Cat and Cordelia into making a mistake and offending Mercantis.

      What if Cat’s first instinct was correct, and Malicia appears too active for a woman fighting a bitter civil war because that’s exactly what she is: just putting up the appearance of being active. If her resources are stretched too thin to strike a real blow, it would make perfect sense to make your enemies trip over themselves by overreacting to a non-existent blow, such as attacking Mercantis or overstepping their bounds in meddling with the Free cities. Let them make enemies out of their own allies for no real reason, and even if they found out the scheme later, revealing it would sound like the worst excuse ever constructed. “Oh, Malicia tricked us into thinking you were going to screw us over first, Mercantis, whoopsie sorry for threatening your sovereignty with overwhelming violence.”

      It would fit Malicia’s MO – plots within plots, and would take a hell of a lot less resources to pull off than actually turning anyone against the Grand Alliance.

      Remember that this entire thing is based on a missive from Sepulchral, not directly from their own intelligence networks, which is again a vastly easier to do than fully infiltrating the Jacks or the Circle of Thorns. All she’d have to do is have a halfway decent idea of their reliance on foreign trade, and find a way to send a fake missive “from Dread Empress Sepulchral”.

      Not only will the Grand Alliance have little reason to doubt it – as it is supposed to be a top secret/secure form of correspondence from a contact that has all the right motives for sending such a letter – they’ll WANT to believe it. They’ll be expecting a blow from Malicia sooner or later, and they will WANT to believe that this once they’ve caught onto Malicia’s game ahead of time. That just this once they’re beating her to the punch, when in reality they’re just sabotaging themselves by playing right into her hand.

      Liked by 10 people

      1. Salt

        I mean hell, the missives from Sepulchral could’ve been Malicia missives from the beginning. It’d be insanely risky for anyone to poke too much into the matter – open collaboration of any degree with a Dread Empress of Praes would spark minor rebellions if found out, especially considering Praes is allied to the Dead King – and Malicia could just make it believable by revealing moderately harmful information about her own moves to the Grand Alliance, before dropping a truly devastating lie after trust was already gained.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. caoimhinh

        True. It wouldn’t even be the first time Praesi Intelligence infiltrated and falsified reports and correspondence of foreign countries. Procer and Callow being particularly susceptible to this. Malicia has been doing such things to Procer since as early as their civil war decades years ago and all the Princes taking loans from the Pravus Bank, and she held control of Callow for 20 years, and she has been toying with Praesi Nobility for over 40 years.

        Infiltrating Abreha’s agents is something Malicia probably dozens of years ago. So she seems pretty capable of falsifying a report from Abreha’s agents to Cat and Cordelia.

        Liked by 4 people

        1. Salt

          If Mercantis really was planning to betray them to Praes for the sake of profit, they wouldn’t exactly tell the Grand Alliance about their plans to betray the Grand Alliance. It’s not as if Catherine could walk up to their merchants and ask “are you planning to secretly stab us in the back?”

          Liked by 4 people

              1. jamesc9

                I was going to say that he was busy, rather than resting, but of course the busy person is Anaxares of Bellerophon, who gained employment with the Choir of Justice.

                Like

      3. agumentic

        Well, Circle of Thorns was telling Cordelia that Mercantis was pushing to disclose the debts and fuck over Procer/Grand Alliance before Viviene told her about the message from Sepulchral, so I think that is solid information. It’s not like it would take Malicia a lot of resources to push that angle – she just needs to guide certain people to certain information and then normal human greed will do the deed.

        Also, I believe that Scribe has joined Sepulchral, so infiltrating her networks and intercepting the missives to the Grand Alliance might be pretty hard.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Salt

          I think that’s the beauty of it though, you’re right it is also a very real possibility that Malicia has actually gotten to one of the Merchant Princes that facilitated Cordelia’s little accounting trick. They can’t be sure, because while it’d be difficult for Malicia to get to they can’t exactly say 100% that a woman of her brilliance didn’t find a shortcut that most people wouldn’t be able to fathom. So Cat and Cordelia can’t take things slow at all – they need to move on this now.

          But thats the genius behind the plan:

          If Malicia IS making a move and they do nothing – the Merchants find out about the sheer size of Proceran debt and stops offering any more loans, cutting off Procer’s funding.

          If Malicia ISN’T making a move but they respond as if she is, Mercantis takes it as sign that Procer is getting ready to default on what they already suspect to be a massive debt that the First Prince has clearly gone out of her way to obscure the scope of, and stops offering any more loans, cutting off Procer’s funding.

          To either ascertain what Malicia has planned or to take mitigating measures is within their power, but it requires such immediate attention that the Grand Alliance can’t afford to look Malicia’s way if she starts truly winning the Wasteland’s civil war.

          I’m actually thinking that instead of solving the internal problem (the civil war) so she can tackle the external one (the grand alliance), Malicia is looking to tie up the external problem to bring the hammer down on the internal one without external repercussion.

          If the Wasteland civil war starts heating up as soon as the Mercantis politics really get going, then we know that Malicia has already won this battle regardless whether or not Cat and Cordelia guess correctly. If Cat and Cordelia guess wrong, that’s a win for Malicia on two political fronts.

          Like

    2. caoimhinh

      Yeah, but it makes sense that she is able to do that, as Malicia has a strong base for foreign monetary intervention through Mercantis, the Pravus Bank (which she used to fund Procer’s civil war). Praes is one of the richest countries in matters of precious gems and metals like gold, plus artifacts (what they lack is food products, fertile land for planting, and ranching), so even if she is having to fight internally, she has the money to move things abroad. In fact, for Praes it is a matter of bare survival to have money to use abroad as Black’s lessons to Catherine showed.

      On the other hand, I’m a bit dubious about Procer’s approaching collapse. I’m a bit confused about what exactly is happening and what caused it. The summary is “the war against Keter takes its toll” but the devil is in the details.

      I thought they had problems due to not having enough food reserves (that was mentioned chapters ago), but Cordelia is making it seem like they are lacking coin as she only talked about loans of coin, not resources like food.
      Then again, considering it’s been over 2 years since Amadeus’s burning march through Eastern Procer, the blow from that should have already been received and those lands affected reused, new harvest should be coming from there even if a great number of the population is up North as soldiers. And even if not, Procer has other Principalities that should be able to feed it. Iserre having problems due to Black’s raids would make sense, not so the whole of Procer.

      But the problem Procer should be having is a lack of manpower to tend the fields, rather than lack of money. I’d be surprised if Cordelia hasn’t enforced laboring the fields just like she has enforced conscription. Civilian population staying in the cities at a time like this will cause losses due to so many mouths eating and no one producing food.

      Also, since allegedly Procer needs loans of money to buy food, I wonder where the food is going to come from. It’s not from Callow nor Levant, definitely not Praes (they buy a lot of their food from Procer, Callow and co.), and Mercantis is an intermediary for trade between countries, they are a small island, they are not the ones producing the food Procer needs. So that leaves the League or Ashur as the suppliers of the food Procer wants to buy. Unless they plan to buy from outside of Calernia?

      P.S: Princes making matters worse by rising tariffs and stopping trade, yeah, those guys are suuuch geniuses. To be fair, though, that’s kind of how the wealthy investors and stockholders in our world react when rumors of crisis circulate: withdraw their money, refuse to circulate thus making the value of stocks drop… which in turn creates the crisis.
      Speculation and panic are the real cause of the crisis.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. mamm0nn

        From what I understand, it’s the issue with reserves and fielding the food to the front lines. The latter is likely a huge drain that takes a lot of manpower on top of a lot of food, while the former cannot slowly build up some fat again. Especially considering the reserves in the granaries and such would be the same long-lasting foods that would have to be sent to the front lines.

        The people are likely relying on their cabbage patches and other vegetables that don’t remain long-lasting without canning which this setting doesn’t have yet. Which means plenty of local food most of the time, but tough winters where the farmers are scraping by likely by tapping into their cattle’s meat and poaching are making things dangerous. And it means virtually no trade, while the agriculture that could generate trade is being almost completely used up by the supply lines to the northern front and the scraps are taken as tariffs (which are likely in produce rather than gold if possible).

        For the lacking gold, this is both a matter of inflation and deflation happening in unison. Inflation because everything vital; food, metal and manpower, is getting scarce and expensive while things like luxuries have to move along to remain luxuries, and deflation because the Kingdom Down Under is a constant gold drain without returns (other than loans) that continuously remove gold from the economy. So there’s less gold and silver to go around and you can buy less with it.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. mamm0nn

          *Really annoyed that WordPress doesn’t allow me to edit afterwards*

          The situation is dangerous because people are annually having rough winters of famine, and nothing makes the people riot like starvation. Everything else can make them form a mob, but starvation is an absolute that presses people against the wall and makes them riot even if it costs their life because they and their families are dying anyway and they can do nothing else against it. Famine means that riots will preservere even in the face of armies and Named until the famine is resolved.

          And, agriculture is always a huge part of the economy. Always. It’s mass goods and everyone needs it. Most of the economy will be crippled when this falls away, meaning that a lot of merchants are currently out of a job or fighting over scraps while no one’s buying from the luxuries merchants. In situations like these, it’s likely that any merchant that can make a living through different means no matter how parasitic will do so to maintain their wealth and lifestyle, while those that can’t will bottle up their money and further grind down the economy.

          Liked by 2 people

      2. Salt

        They’re buying food from under Calernia I believe, not outside of it. The dwarves offered them essentially an unlimited amount of food and weapons as long as they can afford it, when Cat negotiated terms with the Herald at the end of the Everdark arc. It makes sense that coin is all they care about when they’re basically dumping it all underground for supplies. 2/10ths cost on steel and at cost for food.

        There was also mention of protecting their supply lines that way as well, since going underground through Dwarven territory would make their supply lines untouchable, provided they could pay for it.

        The Kingdom Under was also trying to strangle them with predatory loans this way, offering loans to go with. Those, Cat warned Cordelia not to take because the terms were so bad.

        I believe it was revealed back during in the first chat Cat and Cordelia had after the Twilight Ways arc.

        Liked by 4 people

  3. Salt

    I find it kind of hilarious that Cordelia and Catherine are adopting a Good Cop/Bad Cop routine, with Cordelia being so unused to solving complex problems with a blunt instrument that she’s a little embarrassed to even admit it outright. Like the proudest master fencer admitting that she’d like to use a hammer, just this once.

    Although, the foreshadowing there is anything but hilarious, when the chapter ended on the conversation ending in a “low ebb”. What was it that they called political warfare in Procer, the ebb and flow?

    I have a suspicion the flow might very soon end up being more of a tsunami

    Liked by 9 people

  4. edrey

    Now i have the idea of selling that angel remain to the kingdon under for a insane amount of gold, well not for them they are too rich for that. That solve the problem of money, the bard and probably the DK, the bard wouldnt mind as long keter is finished right?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The talk of sending a party of five to Mercantis sounds like an excellent date for Cat and Kingfisher. They can bring Archer and Zeze and call it a double date. Probably Roland as well, to keep the scales balanced, and maybe the fated sixth can save him from fifth-wheeling.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. dadycoool

      As long as Masego can finish preparing for his prior engagement first, he might be down for spending time with his ladies. Problem is, every second he spends away from his workshop is a second wasted. Cat and Freddy, on the other hand, probably desperately need a break from the Front and it’s probably easier to avoid a scandal out in the wild than in a fortress.

      It just generally goes back to one of Cat’s gripes about sending a group: anyone suitable is already needed where they are.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    I appreciate the > I appreciated the
    drank on sparsely > drank sparsely (or only sparsely)
    me to I’m > me to say I’m
    One the > One of the
    a expectation > an expectation
    look like slender > look like a slender
    the all the > all the
    of – carelessly I > of carelessness — I
    the prospect the > at the prospect of the
    was stark thing > was a stark thing
    form buying > from buying
    discussion Mercantis > discussion of Mercantis
    potable warning (potent? potential? palpable?)
    though, there > though; there
    you,” she > you.” She
    anyway, we > anyway; we
    signatories Grand > signatories of the Grand
    the drank > then drank
    taken as face > taken at face

    Liked by 2 people

    1. SpacyRicochet

      It’s getting close to “too much politics” for my taste. This chapter wasn’t all that interesting to me. Though I’m glad it helps with putting future decisions in perspective.

      Like

  7. Charlie Hegarty

    I enjoy economics, I like seeing the rest of this world continue to be fleshed out. I’m excited to see more of and to find out what Malicia is going to do, as she is one of the characters I most enjoy reading about.

    But, the more the story focuses on issues like economics, feeding your country, home dissent to draconian measures and the like, and tries to convince me that Procer is in danger of collapse, the harder it is for me to gloss over the question of why Callow, which has gone through worse, hasn’t collapsed yet.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Shveiran

      Because it is smaller, mostly united, and the damage deal to its productive capacity has been paired with a reduction of the populace for every generation. It also supports a specialized army which absorbs a smaller portion of its populace.

      In comparison, Procer has been facing less numerical problem but a much longer one, is losing the most profitable trade avenues, and relies on armies largely levied from the populace. This has a much harsher effect on its industry and wealth, not to mention its capacity to produce food.

      Callow is styreamlined; it is not doing good, but it has a lot of farms and the arms to tend to them: it can feed itself and is in no danger to collapse.
      Procer is a much more complex machine that lost a greater portion of its workforce and has to keep it fed on the front. It’s more fragile, it turns slower, and risks tipping over.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Salt

        Not to mention that while the Principiate has spent the last several decades prior to the Crusade scheming against and bleeding themselves, the Evil Praesi occupation (ironically enough) was economically much less damaging. Callow was in rather stable economic condition, run by an efficient centralized government, at the start of the story.

        Politically and culturally suppressed as the nation was, it was also ruled-in-all-but-name by a man who spent much of his life studying and implementing mundane institutions effective enough to replace the old madness of the East; and who fully intended to make Callow stable enough to not want to rebel, rather than crushing them into “a pack of plundered provinces” with no ability to do so. I think it’s safe to assume that the internal workings of the nation functioned a lot more efficiently in the first place than the pack of rabid cats that Cordelia has been trying to herd for most of her life.

        Their insane national unity, as you briefly mentioned already, is nothing to joke about either. We’ve seen from Callowan soldiers’ POVs so far that while the Black Queen might be a bit too black if it were peacetime, wartime is another matter entirely. Any perceived external threat has the nation closing ranks immediately, and their culture has been so conditioned to protect their own from a nonstop stream of external invasions that the crown receives near-absolute support from its populace in wartime, for as long as it’s seen to be protecting the nation from possible invaders.

        Essentially: it’s mostly just good luck. Callow had the most administratively responsible oppressor imaginable in the Black Knight, was warred on so frequently that the nation and culture were suited for a state of total war in the first place, and had a convenient and wildly popular national war hero-turned-monarch to rally around.

        Liked by 3 people

    2. Seems at this point that it’s mostly a matter of having a more centralized government than Procer. The latter still has a massive aristocracy, each ruling their own lands with little outside control except the things Cordelia can explicitly make into law, which if I’m remembering right requires votes in the Assembly? Callow, on the other hand, lost most of their aristocracy in the Conquest, and most of what they do have left is working directly for the monarchy as either officials or soldiers. Thus, while they deal with the same pressures, Procer has the additional pressure of a large nobility acting in self interest rather than the interest of the whole, while Callow’s government is more able to take a big picture approach to their problems

      Like

  8. Daniel E

    I am looking forward to Catherine’s meeting with the Mercantics reps. I really hope we’ll see her take the opportunity to ham it up, really go ‘old school Villain’ on them.

    Like

  9. jalexanderb

    “Meaning that those representatives were a lot less likely to try to push the Grand Alliance if I made it clear that such a mistake would lead to my gating in with a few thousand drow one evening and expressing my displeasure.”

    Queen Catherine ‘fuck around and find out!’ Foundling strikes again

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Alexis

    Upon refection? I’m not sure if that’s a typo, or a glorious pun!

    >> I found out, to my mild surprise, that there were not one but three private dining rooms in the Alcazar. I’d not even been aware that were any, though it made sense upon refection

    Liked by 1 person

  11. edrey

    As side note, someone know what did happen with ashur?, they lost the second and third tier of the ruling class but anything else?

    Like

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