“A diplomat without a general at his back is just a polite man no one heeds.”
– Exarch Acantha of Penthes
Within an hour I received a formal message asking for my agreement to hold the Mirror Knight’s trial tomorrow. I sent back said agreement immediately and I must not have been the only one to be prompt, as within an hour of that the White Knight sent along the formal charges that Christophe de Pavanie would be accused of. I narrowed my eyes at the paucity of them: assault of an ally and insubordination. That was it. No mention of the fact that he’d kept the Severance at his hip long after the crisis had passed, though Hanno might make the case that since no formal demand to return it had been made of the Mirror Knight it hadn’t actually been a breach of the Terms for him to keep it. It wasn’t even unprovoked assault of an ally, I noted with distaste, but instead a lesser sister-charge.
I’d reserve judgement – no pun intended, Sisters preserve – until the trial took place, but I wouldn’t consider this an auspicious beginning.
Intriguingly enough, I got a third message in the wake of the first two and not from someone I’d expected to be reaching out. After I’d sat down with Vivienne to go over the possible outcomes of tomorrow with a cup of wine in hand, our talk was interrupted by a message from Lord Yannu Marave. He was overseeing the sparring of his sworn swords in the Revel’s arena, and he’d invited me to come have a look. It was a threadbare excuse to have a private talk, but that he might want that talk at all surprised me. I shared the thought with Vivienne.
“They call him Careful Yannu, back home,” she mused.
My brow rose.
“He did not strike me as all that careful a man, during the trial,” I said. “Juniper has some respect for his skill as a general and I’ll not argue there, but he’s not particularly impressed me otherwise.”
“The Dominion doesn’t do politics like we do, Cat,” Vivienne reminded me. “They often duel, when they disagree, and they’re cautious with risking their honour. He didn’t particularly care about the trial because by Levantine ways he shouldn’t have been in the room – villains are yours to discipline, as your ‘sworn men’.”
My forehead creased in thought as I considered him again with fresh eyes. He’d spoken in favour of death, when the time came for recommendations, but to Levantines things like betrayals tended to be seen as matters of honour. Honour was usually settled by blood on the floor, back in Levant, so for a lord of the Dominion to express surprise this didn’t start and end with putting the Magician’s head on a pike made a brutal sort of sense.
“Careful Yannu, huh,” I murmured.
I wasn’t entirely convinced, but best to watch my step anyway. There were damned few situations where it wouldn’t be a good idea to do that, so what was there to lose?
“There’s an emerging pattern of the Dominion reaching out to us amicably,” Vivienne thoughtfully continued. “When they suggested we arrange formal ambassadors I thought it might be leftover goodwill from your saving the Pilgrim, or perhaps courting your support in keeping their villains from making trouble, but now I’m not so sure.”
“They’ve been wary of making deals with me,” I slowly said, “but at the highest rungs of Dominion leadership they’ll be aware of my eventual abdication. You’re a lot more palatable, from their perspective.”
A former heroine with some impressive deeds to her name, nobly born but not afraid to get her hands a little dirty? That sort of reputation would go over very well, down in Levant.
“They also remember how quickly Proceran gratitude fades,” Vivienne murmured. “And how a First Prince can withdraw from the treaties signed by a predecessor. A treaty of mutual defence between our realms might appeal to their Majilis.”
“I’d think it more likely they want an informal alignment within the bounds of the Grand Alliance,” I told her. “They don’t want it to become a vessel for Proceran interests any more than we do.”
“They’ll be in no hurry to seal a pact, regardless,” Vivienne noted. “Bargaining done with an ally is expected to be gentler, and the negotiations over the Accords is the greatest leverage the Dominion has over us at the moment.”
True enough. More than once I’d wondered if Procer and Levant were actually drawing those talks out so that they could bribe me with ‘concessions’ when they wanted something from me. Not a pleasant thought to entertain, but even if it turned out to be true there honestly wasn’t much I could do about it.
“No reason not to take up Lord Marave on his invitation, then,” I said, draining the rest of my cup before rising to my feet.
No reason to waste time, either, so I got to it.
I wasn’t one to complain when offered up the sight of two dozen very fit men and women half-naked and laying hands on each other, but it lost some of the charm when they were doing their best to pummel each other unconscious. I’d been in a few brawls myself, back in the day, so I could tell that no one was taking it easy down there: those blows weren’t being pulled in the slightest. If the personal sworn swords of Yannu of the Champion’s Blood had been ‘sparring’ with blades instead of fists, there’d be corpses on the sand by now. As it was, I saw only blood and broken bones. A pair of young Levantine healers – who amusingly enough wouldn’t be considered real priests in the Dominion even though they used Light, as unlike the Lanterns they did not battle against evil – mended the fighters during their breaks, but did not otherwise involve themselves.
Yannu Marave himself sat besides me on the rafters, drinking deeply from a waterskin. He’d been down there fighting with the others when I got there, and only come up after one of the healers set a broken finger and bathed it in Light. The Lord of Alava was still barefoot and clad in only loose trousers and a sweat-soaked tunic, neither of which hid the fact that the man was a towering slab of muscle. He was tall, for a Levantine, and unusually for one of their men close-shaven instead of bearded. His colours were not currently on his face, but instead discreetly painted in intertwined threads around his wrist. After emptying what must have been half the skin, the Lord of Alava sighed in pleasure.
“I thank you for your patience,” Lord Yannu said.
“I didn’t send a messenger ahead to warn of my coming,” I dismissed with a shrug.
There’d been others up here when I first came, who’d invited me to take a seat on the bench where I still was, but they’d withdrawn when their lord came up. Now he glanced back at them meaningfully and they reached within the leather bags at their side, fiddling with something within. A moment later the small tingle of a ward coming down over the area passed over my skin, and I eyed the men speculatively. They wore armour, both of them, which was rare in mages aside from those in my army and the Legions – and even there it was a lighter kit than that of the regulars. They might not be mages at all, though, or just practitioners with a meagre Gift: it did not take much to wake the wardstones the Blood used. Gifts from the Gigantes, they were a wonder to behold and one I remained deeply envious of.
“Hiding stones,” the Lord of Alava said, noting my interest. “We will not be heard, not even by the men carrying them.”
“Useful,” I said.
Hopefully it wasn’t too obvious on my face that I’d trade the Blessed Isle for a reliable way to get those. Not that I currently owned the Blessed Isle, but that’d never stopped me before.
“I will not waste our time with small talk,” Lord Yannu said. “We both know what this is.”
I hummed, inclining my head in unspoken agreement.
“We’re not happy with Procer having an ealamal,” the tall man said.
“I’m not familiar with the term,” I said, “but I can guess what you’re referring to.”
“The angel-corpse, you have called it,” Lord Yannu said. “That is the word for such a thing in Murcadan.”
Ealamal, huh. It had a ring to it. Less ungainly to keep mentioning, too.
“Understood,” I said. “I’m not happy about it either, as you already know.”
“I do,” he said. “And the heads of two lines of the Blood vouch that your word has weight, so now we speak. Procer is a great but dying beast, and I do not advise forcing its lair, yet for that same reason we must act. An animal bleeding out cannot be trusted with the likes of an ealamal.”
He paused there, as if to invite me to speak.
“I’d prefer the weapon scrapped,” I admitted, “but I agree that no good will come out of pushing the Principate too far. The reasonable compromise would be having people of our own near it, so that it can’t be used without our agreement.”
The tanned man nodded.
“I speak for the entire Majilis when I say this,” Yannu Marave said. “We want the ealamal to be made a weapon of the Grand Alliance, like the Severance.”
“I don’t see Cordelia Hasenbach going for that without assurances,” I said. “At a guess, Procer keeping the most boots on the ground around it and maybe even controlling who has access.”
Rubies to piglets that the First Prince would cut off a finger before letting Masego anywhere near her angelic doomsday weapon.
“We’d agree to limiting Bestowed access,” the Lord of Alava said, “by making it subject to a vote needing to be unanimous. But we want Binders and Lanterns there, so that we can know the nature of the threat. I will not accept our first warning being a tide of burning light on the horizon.”
“Preaching to the choir there,” I grunted back. “I’d agree to limiting Named under those terms as well, but I want your support in pushing for the Rogue Sorcerer to have a look.”
Roland was in that narrow category of people who were both likely to understand what they were looking at and then share that information with me. The Lord of Alava studied me closely.
“Agreed, if you support the same for the Forsworn Healer,” he replied.
I hid my surprise. The man was from Atalante from what I recalled, not Levant. And he served up in Twilight’s Pass, where no Named from the Dominion had been assigned. There were Levantine troops up there, though, led by Itima of the Bandit’s Blood. Might be there was a tie there that’d slipped me by: there were few of my lot in Lycaonese lands, and none I was close to. Either way I had no reason to refuse his terms.
“Bargain struck,” I replied, offering up my arm to clasp.
“On my honour,” Yannu Marave agreed, taking the arm.
Good, that tended to be reliable in Levantines.
“All that’s left is deciding how we approach her,” I said. “It will have more of an impact coming from Levant, I’d say.”
“If Callow is the one to approach her, she will sound us out and find the door closed,” the Lord of Alava replied. “A softer creep, yes?”
“If she doesn’t already know we’re talking, I’ll put up my crown for auction in Mercantis,” I snorted. “Besides, soft won’t get this done. It needs to be made clear to her she’d standing alone in this, and that her allies are not pleased.”
“A common front, then,” Lord Yannu said. “Wearied comrades coming to her together.”
Interesting. He really didn’t want to be the one to swing the sword on this, did he? Worried about the appearance of siding with a villain, or some of the undercurrents of the Dominion’s own politics tying his hands? It was a shame that the Jacks knew so very little of the powers that moved Levant, but given the distance and the youth of their organization it would have been foolish to expect them to have spread their net that far.
“That could work,” I conceded, sensing pushing for more would get me nowhere. “A dinner tomorrow, after the trial?”
“No point in letting her dig in,” the Lord of Alava agreed, sounding amused. “I will make the arrangements, Black Queen, if you have no objection.”
“I entrust my honour to your hands,” I replied, nodding.
Surprise flickered across the man’s face, and though he tried to hide it the courtesy had obviously flattered him.
Lord Yannu of the Champion’s Blood would be less flattered if he knew I’d learned the words from the Barrow Sword, I suspected, but I had no intention of telling him.
I’d expected to derive some pleasure from this, to have to hide it, but when the time came I found that I got no joy from the sight of Christophe de Pavanie being pilloried.
Metaphorically so, that was. Aside from being unarmed and heavily guarded the Mirror Knight wasn’t bound in any way. He still looked like a beaten dog as the Sword of Judgement briskly went through the charges laid against him, face bleak as he remained silent unless spoken to. No one wanted to drag more Named directly into this, so the testimony of heroes had been offered in written form instead and the entire affair took no more than a quarter hour. The White Knight made his case methodically, laying no accusation that could not be proven and justifying his charge of ‘assault on an ally’ instead of ‘unprovoked assault on an ally’ by specifying that there’d been some fighting between heroes and that he himself had not done as much as he could have to prevent violence from erupting.
It’d keep the Mirror Knight from more severe consequences, but even as I watched the First Prince’s face subtly harden I decided it’d been a strategic mistake on Hanno’s part. Admitting to heroes brawling amongst each other only helped make them seem less reliable in Hasenbach’s eyes, damningly enough not without reason. That my own lot was looking better in comparison was darkly amusing, considering they tended to be significantly worse people. They were, however, much better at hiding their misdeeds. The most fire that was squeezed out of the Mirror Knight was when he was probed over his reasons to have acted in such a manner by the First Prince.
“I sought only to prevent the scapegoating and execution of a Chosen,” Christophe said, voice defiant. “I took the wrong path in seeking this, I’ll not deny it, but the intention itself I will not apologize for.”
Cordelia warmly thanked him for his candor with a smile and he looked both surprised and rather charmed. I wasn’t fooled, myself. I knew that glint in her eye, as it was cousin to one that’d often gleamed in my own. The First Prince of Procer was looking at a Heavens-ordained victor still insisting even now that his own half-baked sense of justice should trump laws and treaties, and finding indignation rising within her. I suppressed a wince. Those two sentences had probably done as much damage as the rest of this trial put together. Now she had to be asking herself how many heroes like Christophe de Pavanie there were, for each one like the White Knight.
I could only begin to imagine her horror at the thought of that sort of strength and ignorance bolstering the position of some Highest Assembly cutthroat.
With the charges fully presented and little doubt left as to the truthfulness of them, Hanno asked if the tribunal wanted to deliberate. I was still gauging the risk of being seen as overstepping if I pushed for that when the First Prince voted in favour. I quickly added my vote for to the tally and the Lord of Alava belatedly voted that way as well, looking more curious than anything else. With a majority secured the Mirror Knight was sent out of the room to a nearby one where he could wait until deliberations were finished, and within moments of his departure Arsenal mages put a privacy ward over the room. Cordelia opened the dance without being coy about it, much to my pleasure.
“Before punishment is decided by the White Knight, I have relevant facts to present to the tribunal,” the First Prince said.
“By our own rules of procedure, these cannot be charges,” Hanno told her.
“They are not, Lord White,” she calmly replied. “If I may?”
The dark-skinned knight nodded.
“Christophe de Pavanie has involved himself with the royal family of Cleves, the House of Langevin,” Cordelia said. “He has taken for a lover the daughter of Prince Gaspard Langevin and become associated with the plots of that line, though his exact degree of awareness there has not been made clear.”
The drow hadn’t seen him backing the plot to knife them in the back, that much was true – if Sve Noc had that kind of leverage, they would have given it to me. But he’d not outright refused either.
“Neither taking a lover nor the plotting of others is something that the Mirror Knight can be castigated for,” Hanno replied, just as calmly.
Yeah, no one was going to get anywhere trying to get the Sword of Judgement to spice up a sentence according to political necessities. You might as well ask Archer to settle down or the Pilgrim to deal in casual cruelty.
“Ignoring the full circumstances when passing the sentence would be dereliction of duty,” I said instead. “You’ve clearly established the man to be lacking in judgement through your charges, his association with known schemers has to be taken into consideration when addressing the consequences of that lack of judgement.”
“Well said,” the First Prince of Procer added. “Justice dealt without thought to consequence is no more than the arithmetic of law.”
A little rich coming from a woman famous for her mastery of using the Highest Assembly’s procedural laws against her rivals, but I’d not answer wind in the sail by poking a hole in the damned thing. Yannu Marave’s face had gone cold, though I noticed only when he leaned forward.
“You both seem in agreement that Gaspard Langevin is scheming,” the Lord of Alava. “What is the nature of this scheme?”
I cast a look at Cordelia, silently ceding her the right to speak. I was the closest thing the Firstborn had to a representative in this room, but the House of Langevin was her headache – and a little goodwill gift now and then helped grease the wheels of this relationship, anyway.
“Designs have made on lands that were promised to the Empire Ever Dark for its contributions to the war,” the First Prince said. “Though the plans remained imprecise, and no concrete measures were ever taken.”
If the Lord of Alava’s expression had been cold before, it was now freezing.
“That such an honourless man still lives, much less still wears a crown, is repugnant,” Lord Yannu spelled out with excruciating care. “With this scheming against allies he dishonours not only Procer but this entire alliance.”
I said nothing, less than inclined to take that bolt for Procer when I pretty much agreed with the man.
“Measures are being taken,” Cordelia evenly replied.
“Then let them be taken soon,” Yannu of the Champion’s Blood replied. “I will not lead my captains in the defence of such a man and his holdings, First Prince. We will not die by the hundreds so that your hungry princes can sink their teeth into new lands.”
It would have been inappropriate to let out a whistle there, but I was tempted. The Lord of Alava was being heavy-handed, but given how much honour mattered to the Blood he might be genuinely offended by what he’d learned. Or, I mused with Vivienne’s words in mind, Careful Yannu might just be preparing the grounds for our common offensive at dinner tonight. He was in full face paint today, which made reading his expression rather harder.
“We have strayed from the purpose of this deliberation,” the White Knight said.
With that call to order we let the subject drop, though it would not soon be forgotten. I’d said what I’d wanted to and the First Prince had proved true to her word by actually addressing the Langevin troubles, so when the deliberations were called to an end I did not argue against. The Mirror Knight was brought back in and Hanno called for recommendations to be made by the tribunal.
“A public lashing and four fingers,” Lord Yannu flatly said.
The Mirror Knight paled but did not speak.
“Reassignment to Twilight’s Pass until the end of the war, subordinate to another,” the First Prince suggested instead. “After his deeds being made known among all Named and a month in a cell.”
He made an uglier expression at that than the prospect of losing fingers, which I supposed said much about how other heroes would respond to his action. A month was a fairly specific length of time to ask for, though. I suspected that it would line up very well with a sentence under Procer law, by mere happenstance of course.
“I’ll second Twilight’s Pass and the subordination,” I said. “As for the rest, I’ll trust in your judgement.”
A month in a cell would be a waste, so I’d not argue in favour of it, but I was actually in favour of making it known Christophe had tried his hand at a coup. It would bottom out his reputation while the way Hanno had handled him would gild his own. Given the silence of the Choir of Judgement, the occasional reminder that the White Knight was not someone to fuck with had its uses. I didn’t want to be seen arguing for the public shaming of an opponent, though, so it was best for Cordelia to be the one doing that – not that I’d missed she was trying to send her inconvenient native hero up in Lycaonese lands, where her support ran strongest, and squarely under the Kingfisher Prince’s military command.
My eyes stayed on the White Knight, though, whose serene face I found unreadable.
“Christophe de Pavanie’s breaches of the Terms will be made known to all Named,” Hanno said. “He will offer apology and restitution to all those harmed by his actions, after which he will be apprenticed to the Grey Pilgrim for the span of a year so that he might learn from his mistakes.”
My brow rose. Was that all? I was relieved when he began talking again.
“After the year has passed, the Grey Pilgrim will give his opinion on whether further action is required,” Hanno asked. “If he believes it to be so, this tribunal will be assembled again so that appropriate sanctions might be considered.”
I breathed out shallowly. Fuck me, but he’d stepped in it there. From the corner of my eye I saw Hasenbach’s back go straight as a spear, and the fact that her anger was that that visible meant she must be furious. From a Named perspective, Hanno’s sentence was solid work: Tariq, for all his flaws, had mentored dozens of heroes over the years and had an aspect that would allow him unearthly insight into what needed to be mended in Christophe. Honestly, after a year under Tariq I fully expected the Mirror Knight to come out of the experience a better man. But the Grey Pilgrim had also butchered an entire village of Proceran civilians in order to catch Black, back before the Salian Peace, which Hasenbach still despised him for. Now a brewing threat to her authority was being sent to learn at the foot of the same Peregrine. It… wasn’t a good look.
“Wisdom was shown,” Lord Yannu commented.
Yeah, none of the Blood were going to argue with a sentence that put the Pilgrim in charge of a problem child. He had a steady hand with those. Was this enough for me, though? From the corner of my eye I watched Cordelia and saw clouds looming on that horizon. Time to throw her a bone, maybe.
“I give no objection to this, so long as the Principate is also satisfied,” I mildly said.
The First Prince glanced at me, accepting the gesture for what it was – a largely symbolic one, but not entirely without meaning. If she wanted to fight this, I’d lend a hand. Within reason. A long moment of silence passed, the Mirror Knight visibly getting uncomfortable the longer it lasted, until the First Prince finally spoke.
“I will accept this sentence, if the Grey Pilgrim sends monthly reports to the high officers on the subject of this ‘apprenticeship’,” the fair-haired princess said.
Hanno mulled over that a moment, then nodded.
“That is reasonable,” he replied. “It will be so.”
And so the trial of the Mirror Knight came to a close, having lasted not even a half hour from beginning to end. It didn’t take long afterwards to agree that the Red Axe’s own should be tomorrow, though late in the evening.
And yet, for all the smoothness, I could not help but feel there was the scent of a storm in the air.
It was an amusing novelty to be more at ease in a diplomatic situation than Cordelia Hasenbach.
When the Lord of Alava had said he’d make the arrangements to receive us for dinner, I’d not expected him to actually throw what looked like a genuine Levantine meal. One of the nice halls put together in the Proceran manner had been stripped of its decorations, painted shields having been hung up in their stead. The heraldries had been skillfully painted, I found. My own Crown and Sword had been perfectly presented in black and silver, while the golden towers on blue of the House of Hasenbach drew the eye with their neat arrangement. The colours of the Valiant Champion’s Blood were red and orange, but to my understanding the pattern changed from ruler to ruler. Yannu Marave’s own was simple but elegant, bold strokes of orange evoking a helmet with a smiling slice beneath it.
The First Prince was clearly familiar with Levantine ways, so she’d come dressed in a fine brigandine of Rhenian colours with a sword at her hip and her hair pulled back in a long three-strand braid. I’d kept to a simple grey tunic myself, though paired with bracers and greaves, and brought a short blade at Vivienne’s recommendation. Hasenbach was the first to hand over her sheathed sword to the Lord of Alava when he welcomed her, only to have it handed back as gesture of trust, and though she did not fumble handling the weapon I’d noticed she was not used to having it at her hip when she walked. My own blade was returned with the same formula of ‘your honour is known under this roof’, which while mostly symbolic was still nice to hear.
Unlike the elaborate affair of when the First Prince had entertained me over dinner, this was to be a simpler arrangement. Levantine ways in some ways reminded me of those of the Taghreb, in the sense that hospitality mattered a great deal to them and that courtesy was demonstrated personally instead of through formal etiquette. It was an honour, for example, that there would be only the three of us at the table and no servants to pour or serve. The Lord of Alava would do so for us himself, showing much more respect than if a stranger were doing it in his stead. The fare was simple but tasty: slices of dried pork ham, a mix of beans, chickpeas and eggs touched with spices and oil, good white bread with some sort of tomato paste.
Lord Yannu was generous in pouring wine, strong red stuff from southern Levant, which did wonders for my appreciation of the meal. Conversation started light and stayed there for some time as we dug in.
“Do you actually know how to use that?” I eventually asked Hasenbach, flicking a glance at her sword.
She’d kept drinking, bound by the rules of courtesy, so I believed the flush on her cheeks to be entirely genuine.
“I can hold a wall, if need be,” the Lycaonese princess replied, “I am a Hasenbach. My skill is middling, however. I was always better with a bow.”
Didn’t have the callouses of someone who shot regularly, though, I couldn’t help but notice. Probably didn’t have the time with her duties in Salia.
“Good bowmen are always useful,” the Lord of Alava said in approval. “It is unfortunate they are not as useful against the undead as the living.”
“Swords for the Dead, arrows for the Plague,” Hasenbach quoted. “There is a proper use for all things.”
That was as good a segue as we were going to get, I suspected, and I wasn’t the only one to figure that out.
“Some weapons are best left in the sheath,” the Levantine lord said. “And there are some who even sheathed cause the wise to be wary.”
The First Prince wasn’t an idiot, and not interested in pretending otherwise, so instead of playing off the comment she dabbed her lips with the cloth and washed down the last of her pork with a small mouthful of wine. Only then did she answer.
“There are many wise in Levant, I imagine,” she said.
“I have known this to be true,” Yannu Marave said, face pleasant but eyes cool.
The First Prince glanced at me.
“I don’t claim wisdom,” I said, “but wariness is dear as a sister to me.”
“It pains me to see my allies troubled,” Hasenbach mildly replied. “Though I am wary, myself, of troubling the princes sworn to me.”
“Your princes trouble me,” the Lord of Alava replied, dispensing with the pretence. “I have broken bread with Gaspard Langevin, never knowing he was plotting betrayal of an ally. I will never share a table with any of that line again.”
Godsdamn, I thought. While I was fairly sure he was feeding the flame some, the spark at the heart of it struck me as a genuine thing. The twist of those lips was just a little too tight for it to be otherwise.
“You’ve expressed concerns about the reliability of Bestowed,” I said, “and perhaps not without reason. You can understand, then, our concerns about an ealamal possibly falling in the hands of less honourable elements within Procer.”
She didn’t like it, I could tell, but she couldn’t afford to antagonize Procer’s only two allies by brushing us off. It must not have been a pleasant turn, I thought, to be the one on the outside for once. I was rather enjoying being the one with backing, though. I could get used to this.
“Let us discuss then,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, “how all our concerns might be allayed.”
After that, all that was left was bargaining over terms.