Chapter 41: Coterie

“The only thing more inconvenient than being part of an alliance is not being part of it.”
– Prince Luis of Tenerife

The last time I’d seen anything near this scale had been the Doom of Liesse, when every major Callowan and Legion force west of the Hwaerte had engaged the Praesi and wights under the Diabolist. Yet, however apocalyptic that day had been, in the end it’d been only one day. The Grand Alliance’s attempt to reclaim Hainaut would be a great deal more sustained than that.

The numbers were staggering, when put to ink and impossible to ignore. The Army of Callow would be fielding, in this campaign, a little under thirty thousand soldiers – the entire Second, Third and Fourth Army. Counting only the forces of Lady Aquiline and Lord Tazin the Dominion would be offering up at least twenty thousand, but if Lord Yannu’s promises of Alavan captains came through the numbers should end up closer to twenty-five. General Pallas had seven thousand in fighting fit, though before mustering the full roster of the Tyrant’s Own she’d want horses brought in since the kataphraktoi were running low on remounts. General Rumena still had thirty thousand to pledge to the offensive, the thinned numbers having actually strengthened the southernmost host of the Firstborn in several ways.

The exact numbers of the Proceran forces in Hainaut were harder to determine, on the other hand, since their chain of command was the stuff of nightmares for any Legion-taught officer. As in most things warfare, the Lycaonese were a notch above the Alamans: the armies of Hannoven and Neustria were under the combined command of the Iron Prince, they shared supplies and kept track of their casualties. While they relied a little too heavily on the nebulous rank of ‘captains’ for my tastes – officers that could command anywhere from a hundred to a thousand foot, horse or even a mixed force of both! – but they were typically well organized and well trained.  The northern royals fielded, between the two of them, a solid eighteen thousand. Including four thousand of that solid Lycaonese heavy horse we could never have too much of.

The Alamans forces were contrastingly disorganized, which to my admitted surprise hadn’t even proved to be entirely their fault. The last Princess of Hainaut – elder sister to the current one – had hired every fantassin company she could get her hands on the moment Keter began to stir, but a lot of those had taken severe losses failing to defend the northern shore. Half the originally contracted companies no longer existed or no longer fielded the amount of men they said they did, and maybe a quarter of the current mercenaries in Volignac service were ‘successor-companies’. Those were, essentially, mercenary companies raised from the survivors of broken ones and laying claim to an old contract under a different name as the successor of the disbanded company.

The mercenaries were trouble, and not just because they were fiercely independent. Fantassin captains habitually lied about their numbers so that they might claim more supplies from the Grand Alliance, or bargain for better remuneration, and weren’t above lending each other soldiers to fake their way through inspections. We hung the captains we caught at this, but that tended to lead to desertions so we had to be careful. It didn’t help that even the principality Alamans troops had their issues. There were the forces of three royals serving in Hainaut: Prince Etienne of Brabant, Prince Ariel of Arans and naturally Princess Beatrice of Hainaut. The Arans soldiery was steady, but also under the prince’s personal command and he was often reluctant to take risks. If Hainaut fell his principality was the next on the block, he often reminded us, but for all that the Brabant folk were arguably more trouble.

Not because they were as cautious, on the contrary: Prince Etienne had bankrupted himself arming everyone he could in his principality and sending them north when the situation in Hainaut first went bad, which while a brave and necessary gesture was also the source of the trouble. Maybe a third of the Brabantines were actual trained soldiers, even their ‘officers’ were green as grass and though when they had the upper hand they were enthusiastic fighters their morale was otherwise… fragile. I’d not call a coward anyone who took up arms against Keter, but when you put shoemakers in armour and sent them to fight the likes of beorns they had a distinct tendency to rout. The conscripts had to be closely watched, and carefully used.

The forces under Princess Beatrice Volignac were the fewest, since they’d been bled hard failing to defend their homeland, which I found a damned shame as, practically speaking, it was a force entirely made of veterans. They fought hard, mercilessly, and with a burning spite I could only admire. They were also in some ways the least well-equipped, and the heaviest draw on Grand Alliance resources of the forces in the region: the capital of Hainaut had fallen, as had most its largest cities, so there was little coin behind them and only sparse land to feed them. At this point, the House of Volignac had more fortresses under its rule than towns – and its armies weren’t even the largest force within those fortresses.

Accounting for the inevitable lies and grandstanding, our estimates had the total Alamans forces in Hainaut at around forty-one thousand. Fantassins companies made up for about fifteen thousand of that, and the Brabant conscripts maybe another ten to twelve thousand, so that meant more than half the number was less than reliable. If we got lucky the armies of Twilight’s Pass would be able to send around ten thousand our way, mostly Bremen and Rhenia men with maybe a few from Brus. Which meant that at the end of the day, when all those forces would be brought together, there would be around one hundred and sixty thousand soldiers on the field. And that would be on the Grand Alliance’s side alone. We were, typically, outnumbered at least two to one by the dead.

The campaign hadn’t even begun and already the numbers involved were giving me a headache, so naturally I’d consulted the finest military mind at my disposal as soon as she was fit to be scried.

“It’s logistically impossible for you to feed that many soldiers as a single force,” Marshal Juniper of the Red Shields bluntly told me. “You’ll have to separate them into several armies or you’ll run out of supplies after a month or so.”

“Our scouts have confirmed the Dead King left the roads mostly intact,” I pointed out. “If we march along Julienne’s Highway and spread out to prevent raiding, we could have an active supply line.”

Named after an ancient First Princess of Procer, the highway was one of the major roads of northeastern Procer: it began in Salia, headed east through the city of Aisne, up into Brabant through the major trade city of Tourges and ended up north in the city of Hainaut, capital of the eponymous principality. It was large, made for wagons and very well-maintained. The Dead King had skimped on the upkeep some, our scouts had said – which made sense since he didn’t usually use wagons of his own – but ensured it remained in state to be used by his troops, and therefore ours. It was pretty much impossible to feed this large an army without using carts and wagons to bring in rations so I expected we’d need to do some repairs while we campaigned, but my sapper corps should be capable of handling that much.

“The Hidden Horror will ruin that road the moment it becomes obvious it’s the axis of your offensive,” Juniper growled. “Think, Catherine. His priority is stalling us while he finishes his bridge, he’ll pull out every stone from the defensive line to Hainaut if that’s what it takes.”

“That’s just as much of an issue if we split our force into smaller armies,” I pointed out. “They’ll have to follow roads as well, if smaller ones. And we might move quicker, with the Twilight Ways, but he’s got better awareness out on the field. If one of our forces pulls ahead of the others it’ll get surrounded and annihilated.”

Or worse, slaughtered and raised anew. Sure, we could open gates into the Twilight Ways – but we could only open so many, and only make them so large. An army trying to retreat from an active battle would lose most its numbers to the retreat, assuming it could even pull one of those in good order. My legionaries and the Lycaonese probably could, but the Levantines and the Alamans? They were brave and hardy fighters, I meant not disrespect there, but they weren’t disciplined.

“You’re looking at it from the wrong way,” Juniper said. “Going up the Highway you’ll get stuck in one of the natural bottlenecks. The dead could mass in Lauzon’s Hollow-”

It was the name of a natural ‘pass’ leading the highway into the hilly and rocky highlands of Hainaut, which while not exactly narrow was steep-sloped and easily defendable. Last year during our offensive we’d taken the dead by surprise there, smashing the force defending it with a deep raid of kataphraktoi backed by Named and then held it open long enough for our army proper to arrive. That trick, though, would not work twice.

“- or the overpass fortresses at Cigelin,” she finished.

Fortresses was something of an oversell there. Les Soeurs de Cigelin, or the ‘Cigelin Sisters’, were a pair of large towers overlooking a dip in the hills the highway passed through. They’d been built atop very abrupt slopes at the point where the dip was deepest, one on each side, but the real danger was the chain-gate they commanded. A massive chain allowed a portcullis of enchanted steel to be raised or lowered across the road, and while it was hardly an unbreakable obstacle given enough mages or sappers it would be a costly strongpoint to force. Last time we’d used the Ways to go past it and then struck the garrisons holding the towers from the back, after drawing them out, but it’d slowed us down by at least a sennight. There wouldn’t have been nearly as many nasty surprises waiting for us near the capital if not for that delay.

We’d torn down the fortresses and the chain-gate as we retreated,  of course, but I knew better than to expect not to see them standing again this summer.

“We need those places under our control, Juniper,” I pointed out. “By the time we get to the capital it’ll be filled to the brim with corpses led by Revenants, which means a siege unless we want to throw away several dozen thousand soldiers storming the walls.”

And we couldn’t have a siege without supply lines to feed our soldiers, that much went without saying. Julienne’s Highway was our best bet at such a thing.

“You are throwing away your only strategic advantage, superior mobility, to turn your army into a lumbering battering ram you want to smash through every gate until you reach Hainaut itself,” the orc growled. “Losing scrying is making you too cautious, Warlord. If you split your army in three along three lines, the first taking the blue road towards Luciennerie in the west-”

I kept an eye on her profile in the mirror but the other was on the map spread out in front of me, displaying northern Procer. Luciennerie was a minor fortress by size, but it was the key to western Hainaut and more: holding it would give us control of the blue road when it went further west into Cleves, and so allow us to anchor our flank to our allies there.

“- the second marching up Julienne’s Highway in the centre and the third going east by the old mining roads, aimed at Malmedit-”

Malmedit was a city, at least in principle, though even before the war against Keter it’d been turning into an empty husk. The city had grown out of multiple mining towns fusing into a single larger one, and lived off the ore trade, so when the ore had run out the people left for greener pastures. The Dead King had dug tunnels from further north that connected to the old mine shafts and he used the city itself as a staging area, since the lands beyond Malmedit itself weren’t really fit to march an army across. If we took the city, though, we could collapse the mine shafts and shut the door on Keter’s fingers.

“-then all three losses would be severe enough he’ll have to commit to battle,” I finished with a frown. “But he won’t shy from that, Juniper. He has the bodies to spare, and he knows that if he defeats even one of those armies he can turn this entire campaign into a rout by collapsing that flank.”

If either the eastern or western army was beaten back, the central one would have to withdraw or see its supply lines cut by raiders. If it was the central army that was beaten back it’d be even worse, as both other armies would have to retreat for the same reason.

“So he’ll commit forces against all three offensives,” Juniper said. “He’ll be going after that victory hard, because if he wins it and finishes the bridge he has a decent change of overrunning as far as southern Brabant before a defence can even be mounted. And when his armies are committed, his reserves emptied, then the fourth army – the one you kept back, kept quiet – take the Twilight Ways and hits the capital directly. While it’s been stripped of defences.”

My eyes narrowed as I stared hard at the map. It was a bold plan, it was true, but then that tended to be Juniper’s preference. And the basics of it held up to scrutiny, I thought. Once the dead committed to the battles, once they sent their soldiers out, it would not be possible for them to be recalled in time. They’d have to race across broken terrain, often without roads, while we cut through with the Twilight Ways. The army that assaulted the capital would be taking a risk, but if it paid off… We could keep a strong garrison in Hainaut then send forces to hit the enemy in the back as they tried to hold off the army going up Julienne’s Highway, taking the dead in a pincer. Victories there, which should ensue swiftly, would open the road to the capital and allow for supply lines to be established.

Hells, with the dead out west and east stuck defending fixed positions we might even not suffer too badly from raids on it.

“It could work,” I admitted. “And the smaller armies would lessen the burden on our logistics a great deal. Mind you, that’s also thrice as much supply line to defend.”

“I’d wager they won’t even raid, at the start,” Juniper grunted. “Keter will want you in deep before striking, it won’t want to risk spooking you. After that, well, that’s what you’ve got all that Alamans horse for. It sures as Hells isn’t to win battles.”

I snorted. The Hellhound’s enduring dislike of Proceran light horse continued to amuse. Especially since she’d several times suggested Callow acquire its own in the past, should we ever get the means. Juniper appreciated the value of light cavalry on the field, which was hardly surprising given her taste for winning by manoeuvre. It was just that she believed, and I tended to agree with her, that Alamans light horse was useless against most kinds of undead. Unlike Proceran peasants the skeletons wouldn’t break and flee when charged at, and the riders just weren’t armoured heavily enough to withstand staying in melee long. As skirmisher, outriders and patrols they were still leagues better than anything else we had but given how many of them we had I’d have eagerly traded a few thousand for their equivalent in northern horse.

“It needs refinement,” I said. “And I’ll need to take it to the other commanders. But it sounds like the bare bones of a plan.”

We didn’t leave it at that, of course: I still had at least two hours before crippling headaches indisposed the finest general of my generation, and I intended to use every moment of them.

It was another five days until the delegation from Mercantis arrived at the Arsenal.

I was not part of those who received the six merchants lords led by an ambassador. Given the amount of gold the crown of Callow still kept in the city – from the coin the dwarves had paid me for my… mediation down in the Everdark – I’d been expected to, and my absence did not go unremarked. I left them to the First Prince, knowing that as long as I kept handing her such pretty hooks there were few fish she would not be able to catch. My hours were spent arranging the upcoming campaign, consulting both Vivienne and Juniper when I could and then taking those increasingly refined plans to the regular war council. Prince Klaus had his own notion of how the campaign ought to be conducted, but they were not incompatible so steady progress was being made.

After two days of being ignored, the diplomatic party from Mercantis realized that I had not the slightest intention of reaching out to them. They tried to arrange something through Cordelia, who to my great amusement ‘declined to interfere in Callowan affairs’, so when faced with that failure they finally took direct steps. It wouldn’t be that easy, though. When the merchants sought an audience with me I passed them off to my designated heiress Lady Vivienne Dartwick instead as a calculated insult. They’d walked out of the room as soon as it was halfway polite to do so, Vivs told me afterwards. Good. I wanted them angry: anger would dull their edge, and dullards was what I wanted to deal with. The letter I received from Cordelia that evening was short and unsigned, but undoubtedly hers.

They want you at the table, the First Prince said. They want something from you. Anger them further.

It was heartening to see that these days Hasenbach knew me well enough not to even doubt my ability to infuriate other people. I was no noble, and I was hardly a deft hand at the games of those born to that station, but when it came to giving slights it must be said that I was rather well learned. I sent a messenger to arrange a meeting with the head of their delegation, Ambassador Livia – making sure her name was misspelled, a detail as petty as it was personally satisfying – but sent Lady Henrietta Morley as the Callowan representative. Vivienne’s secretary was known as a lady as a courtesy title, as while she was the heiress to Harrow she had no lands of her own, and she held no formal position in my court. I was later told that sheer disbelief that she’d be snubbed this way had Ambassador Livia stick around for nearly half an hour before she left in a fury. I received a formal letter of complaint about my rudeness from the Mercantians, and without missing a beat responded by handing it over to Archer so that she could do a theatrical reading of it in the meal hall.

Indrani got a few Alamans priests to sing as a background chorus while she declaimed it in the style of epic poetry, which I thought was a nice touch. It was the little pleasures that made life worth living.

I knew Hasenbach had read them prefectly when they still tried to get me in a room after that. Mercantis officially requested an audience with the high officers of the Grand Alliance, to speak of the large loans it had extended over the war effort, but to my amusement this time I didn’t even have to do a thing. Lord Yannu flatly refused to have the matter considered a Grand Alliance one, since neither Levant nor Callow had taken loans. So what was it that Mercantis wanted from me sorely enough they’d suffer repeated insults and still try to have talks? The merchants lords of the City of Bought and Sold were a proud lot, and not afraid to make their displeasure known when provoked. Whatever it was they wanted, they mustwant it very badly.

The following day I threw in another slight for good measure, requesting that they be contained to lesser parts of the Arsenal while war councils were held through the Mirage, and it must have done the trick because that afternoon I got another letter from Hasenbach. They want Cardinal, it said. Owned or buried. It took me, I had to admit, almost entirely by surprise. But it shouldn’t have, looking back. A neutral city at the crossroads of Calernia, whose neutrality would be backed by several realms and a treaty binding Named? It was a natural rival for Mercantis, who would still benefit from the ease of transport over lake and rivers but lose out in most other regards. Cardinal would be, to the Consortium, the death knell of their influence.

It would do worse than destroy them, in their eyes: it’d make them just another of the Free Cities, another squabbling city-state the great powers would run roughshod over with little consequence.

“Owned or buried,” Vivienne repeated.

I’d shown her the letter before consigning it to flame.

“Buried begs no explanation,” I grunted. “So long as the Red Flower Vales remain a fortified border instead of a city, Mercantis is still presumably the main trading partner for Callow.”

Trade with Procer had, even back in the days of the Fairfaxes, never been widespread. It’d been mostly restrained to luxuries, and even that much had died after the Conquest when Praes shut down the borders. Mercantis’ days of influence over my home were soon to disappear anyway, though. Even if Cardinal never saw the light of day, I intended on seeing peace between Callow and Praes: my homeland’s grain would start heading east instead of downriver, and the need for a middleman starkly decline.

“Owned is trickier to ascertain,” Vivienne frowned. “The land for Cardinal will have to be ceded by Callow and Procer, so they can’t possibly think to buy it. At a guess, they want control of the trade in the city.”

I slowly nodded. It made sense. The concessions needed for the Consortium to have such a stranglehold would probably involve privileges granted by laws and treaties, which they could not help to secure without Callow’s assent. They had leverage on Procer given how it was in debt to them – though thanks to Cordelia’s caginess they likely didn’t realize quite how badly indebted the Principate was – but they had little they could realistically strongarm me with. The Callowan gold in the vaults had been placed there by the Kingdom Under, so they couldn’t do a thing there without angering the dwarves. That left pretty much only threats to sabotage the finances of the war effort as a whole. After all, while the defensive fleet of Mercantis meant it would be hard to attack militarily the city had so few mercenaries left to call on at the moment that the thought of it attacking Callow with any degree of success was laughable.

“So we know what they want,” I grunted. “And why, at least in part. Now we move on to the trickier parts.”

We had their aim and their angle of attack. In a sword fight that would be enough for any halfway decent blade to settle the match, but diplomacy was not so clear-cut. Hasenbach would have sweet-talked them into a degree of trust towards her, by now, since she was good at being mannerly and they believed they had a knife at her throat. The nature of this game was that the First Prince just wanted to settle this to everyone’s satisfaction – but mostly Mercantis’ – while the Black Queen was just being the worst sort of ruffian. Catherine Foundling, right? What a wench. Have another cup of wine, ambassador, and tell me more about what you want so that I might help you get it. No, on the silk glove side I considered us to be well handled. It was the steel I’d have to bring to bear, and that was more delicate than you might expect.

Too much steel and you had a fight on your hands, too little and they shrugged you off. There was an art to it.

“It can’t be anything physical or provable,” I mused. “Else we’ll have a legitimate diplomatic incident on our hands.”

My being a prick to their diplomats wasn’t that, even if they liked to pretend otherwise. I was in no way obligated to grant them an audience if I didn’t feel like it, though after my slights if the shoe was ever put on the other foot they’d be perfectly within their rights to humiliate me just as publicly.  Assaulting the diplomats, though, would be something altogether graver. It’d soil my reputation, Callow’s and push them closer to Malicia.

“Don’t forget the Tower will likely have a man or woman in the diplomatic party,” Vivienne pointed out.

I didn’t bother to say that we couldn’t prove that, since even if I had doubts that Malicia had outright subverted one of the merchant lords into her service I had no doubts whatsoever that she’d bribed at least one to spy on her behalf. There was a reason they’d been brought in through a fake location and kept blindfolded through the translations. So the enemies to beat here were fear and greed, I thought. Fear of being left behind by the world that would rise from the fall of Keter, greed for gold and influence and power over others. I didn’t have the know-how to craft an acceptable settlement deal with Mercantis, but that wasn’t to be my role here anyway: the First Prince would see to that end of it. My part was forcing the merchant lords to back down from their ambitions, so that Hasenbach could slide in and offer them that alternative.

“So it will,” I murmured back, then shook my head. “I need to talk to Masego.”

Vivienne cast me a wary look.

“Why?”

“Because he knows the wards of this place inside out,” I said.

Including those protecting the diplomatic quarters where our friends would be sleeping.

“Make it known to the First Prince I’ll need a few days,” I told Vivienne.

I did not insult her intelligence by specifying this should be done secretly. It was important that she and I not be seen to be collaborating, as part of out strategy rested on the appearance of us being at odds. If I was out of control, Cordelia could not be asked to prevail upon me with sweet reason. Why, I was trouble for her as well! I’d wager some of them would suspect something was going on, but the cordial working relationship between Hasenbach and myself wasn’t exactly public knowledge. And it couldn’t be denied that my stint as the Queen of Winter had left me with a… reputation. I was not above using that, if it came down to it.

“I’ll handle it,” Vivienne said, then cocked her head to the side.

She hesitated.

“Yes?”

“What for?” she asked. “The days, I mean.”

I hummed, considering.

“Best you don’t know,” I finally decided.

“That reprehensible?” she asked, brow rising.

“It’s better for the both of us if you keep your hands clean,” I patiently said. “You know that.”

She breathed out, as if gathering patience of her own.

“I know you’re trying to smooth the path of succession,” Vivienne said, “but this is getting out of hand, Cat. I don’t need to be protected.”

“A lot of your appeal as a queen will be that you’re made of paler cloth than me,” I bluntly replied. “It would be counterproductive for you to start tainting your reputation.”

“I ran with you for years as the Thief,” she said. “That ship has sailed.”

“You also fought in a rebellion against Praes,” I pointed out. “Look, Vivienne, I didn’t pick your name out of a hat. I can trust you to take care of our home, and I respect your ideals. But we have to be practical about how this gets done or there’s going to be trouble. I’m a warlord with no real claim to the throne, and you’re deriving your legitimacy from the howling void that is mine. If this is going to hold without a civil war, you need to be popular enough no one wants to fight you. That means sometimes you’ll have to be distanced from necessary evils so your reputation stays clean.”

“There’s no one else here, Cat,” Vivienne calmly said. “For whose watching gaze are we doing this distancing?”

My irritation mounted.

“If you’re not going to be involved, there’s no reason for you to know,” I said.

“To give advice,” Vivienne said. “To provide a second pair of eyes. To make suggestions. Unless you no longer consider me fit to serve these purposes.”

“I didn’t say that,” I sharply replied.

“I know,” she said. “But you’ve been using this as a reason to take a step back from me, Catherine. For some time now.”

That sounded like an accusation, even if she’d tried to make it otherwise. It was also infuriatingly vague.

“What are you saying, exactly?” I asked, frowning.

“That it would be natural if it stung,” Vivienne delicately said, “that even after all you have done, since the truth about Diabolist has been known, there are some among our countrymen who would rather see me reign than-”

My fingers clenched.

“Enough,” I cut in. “Enough. We are not talking about this.”

She looked at me, and it burned that Vivienne looked not angry but instead tired and a little sad.

“We will have to, sooner or later,” she replied.

“I have actual real problems to deal with, Vivienne,” I told her through gritted teeth as I rose to my feet. “Instead of… whatever this is. Handle what I asked you to.”

I didn’t wait for an answer. I left the room limping, headed for Masego and the answers he’d have for me.

It felt like fleeing.

80 thoughts on “Chapter 41: Coterie

  1. Yeah. Most of Callow isn’t happy about Akua still being up and around. That’s … probably going to cause other problems down the road. Actual problems, rather than just grumbling and Cat not wanting to talk about it.

    It makes sense that Mercantis would be worried about Cardinal.
    On the other hand … Cardinal is going to be landlocked, while Mercantis isn’t. Cardinal is definitely going to be a major center of power, but it is not exactly in the best location for a major continental trading center. Although, with the Accords, Mercantis might not be as necessary for being an intermediary between Praes and the nominally Good-aligned nations.

    Liked by 19 people

    • That is a good point, with Mercantis being an easy water route, but Cardinal is going to be the main trade, etc, route across the mountain range, isn’t it?

      Liked by 12 people

      • Yes and no.
        As I intend it, Cardinal is going to be in the Red Flower Vales, more or less.
        That is, the traditional, and formerly only, point to reliably cross the mountains between Procer and Callow.
        There is now also the Stairway, that the Alliance burned through the mountains for the northern invasion of Callow.

        The Stairway is likely to be better for transportation, considering it was made to provide passage for an army, and presumably doesn’t have sudden elevation changes.
        The Vales are mostly naturally formed and are a well known choke point, plus have been fortified to prevent easy travel, plus had half a mountain dropped on one of the passages.

        At any rate, Cardinal is likely to be a regional land trading center, between nearby principalities of Procer and Callow, and probably a center for magical reagents and components for magical workings, because of the school. And information, that’s going to be a commodity in Cardinal as well.

        But Mercantis is basically a Calernian equivalent of late medieval to Renaissance Venice, I think. At least in terms of waterborne trading potential.

        Liked by 12 people

        • The Stairway is too up north, far away from any rich places. And it’s simply not wide enough to sustain major trade through it. The Proceran attack was never intended to be constantly supplied, they had to reach a big city on what they had or starve. So I expect the Stairway to end up largely irrelevant in the aftermath.

          Mercantis would still have advantage over Cardinal in the matters of normal trade, but that normal trade is only a part of its influence, maybe not even a majority. Cardinal is going to have more legitimacy because it will be backed by all major crowns of Calernia, which means it will be seen as better place for all diplomatic matters, and its financial institutions such as banks will be more trusted as well. Involvement of other power on the high level and constant movement of people in and out of positions will mean more opportunities for intrigue. It will have all the mage academies, which means that’s not only rare reagents but all strange artefacts Mercantis now sells in its private auctions seen in Archer’s Extra Chapter are going to end up. Last but not the least, there will be a lot of Named there, which means it’s going to attract influence and narrative significance just because of that. So, Mercantis is not wrong to be worried.

          Liked by 10 people

        • There’s also the matter of Cardinal is supposed to be the equivalent of the U.N, so it’s gonna have A LOT of relevance and influence as the neutral ground where representatives of all nations on Calernia can gather, which was to a certain degree a position that Mercantis had, as it has been shown in previous chapters that they served as intermediaries for trade between the Free Cities, and also between Praes and Procer.

          Liked by 12 people

        • The Starway is a military road burned by brute force on the flanks of an impassable mountain very rapidly with a limited energy source in a short span of time. Almost certainly it has sudden elevation changes, as it was made the point where the width of the mountain chain was the smallest. Probably it is something like this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Boldo_Pass.
          That is a military road built by the Austro-Hungarian army in a hundredth day in 1918.

          Like

        • I doubt it, logistically it would be too complicated. And one of Cardinal’s goal is too prevent war between Procer and Callow. With a neutral and very important city protected by all GA members between the 2 countries, the only way to invade is through the Stairway, which is at most 20 meter width.

          Liked by 4 people

          • On what basis do you derive that width for the Stairway?

            As far as I remember, nothing specific was said about its width other than it was big enough to efficiently move an army through.

            And presumably it’s a relatively smooth, fairly level (or at lowest only gradually sloping), more or less straight shot though the mountains.

            Besides … even if you’re right and it’s only 20m wide, that’s still wide enough to allow for a multiple lane route in both directions of travel.

            Liked by 1 person

            • From the second chapter of the 4th book: « It was difficult to put a finger on the exact size of the passage from this perspective, but I’d gauge as broad enough for two large carriages to pass simultaneously without getting too close.»

              It could be use for commerce, but if remember correctly northern Callow is much poorer and with less things to trade, so Cardinal will still be a greater trade hub, even without counting all the raw materials the mage schools will need.

              And I was giving the width to demonstrate that it would be in Callow’s interest to put Cardinal in the Red Flowers Vale, so the only way possible for an invasion of Callow by Procer is the Stairway, a ridiculously defensible position.

              Liked by 6 people

              • Oh, good catch. Still, I’d assume that it’s basically a high quality roadway by virtue of being burned out of the solid rock. And then any improvements necessary for an army to use it, first by the Crusaders, and then Juniper probably had Pickler and the sappers review it for any needed improvements when the Army of Callow moved into Procer.

                Yeah, the Stairway is going to be ludicrously easy to fortify, and ridiculously hard to force if defended.

                On the other hand, the Vales are also easily defended and difficult to force.
                That said, Cardinal is going in the Vales for multiple reasons, not just putting a neutral party as a buffer in between Procer and Callow. Though that is a rather nifty side benefit.

                Liked by 4 people

    • Sure, it’s landlocked, but the more gates they get up for the twilight ways, the more irrelevant ships get as a trade method. When people can outrun ships with carts and without any risk of storms sinking their cargo I imagine that will shift trade lanes dramatically. Wonder if the twilight ways have oceans or if you can just walk to ashur?

      Liked by 8 people

        • Actually, they may have had a good point, all you need to activate a gate is an offering of blood. Given the ways seem quite amendable to travelers and nomads they might actually be a great avenue for regular trade.

          Liked by 7 people

          • In my head the reason as to why Mercantis is afraid of Cardinal is not the loss of trade per say but power.

            Cardinal offers something that the merchant lords don’t like and that is a reliable option for trade between nations that is neutral on the good/evil and thus can negotiate with both and they have the hypocritical benefit of not dirtying their hand by negotiating directly with a hated nation.

            That would destroy Merchantis capacity to unilaterally dictate and enforce terms of trade with all nations as now there is an alternative aka competition something they never really had, most of the raw resources come from the big kingdoms like procer and callow, so with Cardenal they can reliably trade ignoring the city estare which only source of income and influence at a international level is trade, so with competition the merchant lord cannot just look down rulers as their displeasure would not mean a economic crisis or collapse of the hated party.

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        • So there’ll be a limited amount of Permanent Gates, sure. Put one in each major trade center – which are big cities where a lot of things are going to be happening and there’s a great many reasons to put a gate – and that’s all you really need for Twilight to be a trade route medium.

          Anyone who has blood can open them.

          Liked by 6 people

    • It doesn’t matter that Cardinal is landlocked if it controls the Twilight Ways after the war. It would become a trading center without peer. It could move goods from any two places in Calernia faster than Mercantis could ever dream to do so.

      Liked by 4 people

    • I hate to say it but Cat is taking on even more nonpractical villain flags in this chapter. Maybe that’s the name influence but either way it’s something she needs to get a handle on if she wants to live. Sarah O’Connor

      Liked by 3 people

      • That only goes so far. And only for certain categories of goods.
        Cardinal will likely be a de facto center for magical and/or alchemical components; and information. It’ll import things like luxury goods and paper/parchment.
        But I don’t think it’ll really be a physical center of many trading routes.

        I don’t think Cardinal is going to be very useful for Praesi looking to import grain from Procer, for example. Maybe a deal gets worked out there, but the actual route the grain travels will probably not go through Cardinal, and will probably be more or less what it was before the Crusade got in the way of commerce, which would be by water.

        Deals might get worked out in or through Cardinal, but I suspect that most of the physical trade routes, especially for large mass or bulky items won’t go through Cardinal, unless they’re starting from and/or going to places in the surrounding regions (that is, nearby in Callow or one of the close Proceran Principalities).

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  2. Juniper’s plan is getting way too much screentime. It’s one thing to give vague details so they know what the other is talking about, but she’s a known liability and sort-of leak. Her plan is definitely either what one of their enemies wants them to do, or it’s not going to survive five minutes.

    Cat can be quite the bitch. Way to good-cop-bad-cop with Cordelia. Maybe Mercantis will finally feel the pressure of real competition soon.

    Interesting conversation between Cat and Vivienne. I wonder if Viv understands that the throne was an unexpected side-effect of Cat’s plan to improve Callow lawfully. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Cat ever really wanted to be queen, just a position where she could make the lives of the common Callowan better. Disposing of the crown would probably be a relief when all is said and done.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Juniper is not a leak. The Grey Pilgrim had cleared out what the Empress had put into her head, that’s the entire reason for the headaches now.

      Catherine + Cordelia cooperation is A+.

      Just because the crown was an unexpected side effect and Catherine doesn’t actually want it long-term, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be nice if people APPRECIATED her in this role. It is, in fact, perfectly natural for it to sting, and Vivienne has hit the nail on the head sounds like.
      It’s not an “actual cross purposes” thing, it’s an injured pride thing, and you cannot really reason with it.
      It’s really fucking sad that the way Catherine is handling it is isolating herself =x

      Liked by 11 people

    • I don’t think that the reverse of the Unspoken Plan Guarantee would apply here. This is more of a description of a plan in a heist movie – we need to know what the plan is so we can understand what the hell is going on and what is the objective in the first place. So while things won’t happen precisely as planned and there’s a room left for wild improvisation in the climax, the general skeleton of a plan and its objective will remain as described. In a way, the story and the reality here are the same – plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

      Liked by 10 people

      • This, yeah.

        Note how after the basic outline of multiple armies and the routes they will take it goes back to “and then we discussed details”. The screentime was given to the basic info without which we the readers would be utterly lost as to who what where at all as things happen.

        Liked by 4 people

      • OK, yeah. Usually, the plan is a voiceover detailing what we’re currently seeing the thieves doing, complete with the mastermind turning to the next person and the POV doing the same, but that’s hard to do in text form. I also see what you and Liliet are talking about. The skeleton was sketched out, then the screen faded to black with a “now let’s get serious.”

        Liked by 3 people

  3. Typo thread

    “The only thing more inconvenient than being part of an alliance is not being part of it.”
    – Not being part of one?

    They were brave and hardy fighters, I meant not disrespect there, but they weren’t disciplined.
    I meant no disrespect there/ I meant not to disrespect them there (probably the former).

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was important that she and I not be seen to be collaborating, as part of out strategy rested on the appearance of us being at odds.
      As part of our strategy.

      Liked by 1 person

    • but they were typically > they were typically
      As skirmisher > As skirmishers
      prefectly > perfectly
      mustwant > must have wanted
      ascertain,” Vivienne > ascertain.” Vivienne

      Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly. It is fine to not be in an alliance, until the other players have no alliance either. But if an alliance exist, not being part of it can be bad.

        In todays terms, it is fine to not be part of trade agreements with other countries, until there are no trade agreements at all. For example if I was Russia, it is desirable to be for me to be part of the EU. But if it is not possible to be part of it, Than it is better for me to destroy the EU, than being excluded from it. If it is also not possible, than I will make my own union with whoever I can lure in. (That strategy led to the conflict between EU and Russia which culminated in the ukranian crysis btw.)

        Liked by 4 people

  4. Ah, I was surprised Cat may have felt stung by them not wanting her as Queen once her methods came to light but with more thought it makes sense. She gets attached quite easily and has shown a pattern of distancing herself when she knows things cant work out. In a narrative sense, it is necessary to distance herself from Callow and views that shape her as the “Black Queen”, but it cuts her away from her roots. Everything she has done has been to safeguard Callow and improve its chances, and given her focus on results/practical methodology, supporting her results supports her views. It’s a painful thing to leave all you knew and fought for, even if it’s necessary.

    This is even more important for someone who is narratively aware like Catherine, feeling your own people against you must sting for someone like her. Still, if she is to have a greater Name and a greater Role she needs to be more than that, and as such, she needs to be cut away from some of her former ties to get a Role that is more purely viewed by everyone.

    Liked by 9 people

    • Yup.

      Catherine’s sensitive to rejection and this is a pretty big one, considering it’s all been for her homeland. She’s basically martyring herself here, in the reputation + belonging way, and the emotional reaction to it not being pretty makes sense.

      I hope she sorts out her attitude towards Vivienne, though.

      Liked by 6 people

  5. If Cat were a Hero, this would be a story in which she realizes she needs the power of friendship in order to win, and gets the band back together. Considering she’s nominally a Villain, it’s far more likely that the cracks that are showing now are only going to become fissures and canyons. Her story is showing too many signs of her taking the path towards being one of the dark and lonely Old Powers in whatever new world comes for me to think otherwise.

    At the very least, there may be some very lonely times ahead, and soon.

    Liked by 9 people

    • Hey, maybe Akua actually does something redeemable by helping Cat through this, even at the cost to herself. It’d usually be Hakram helping Cat, and with Hanno’s friendship semi-ruined, she really is the only one with the understanding and the ability to get through to her without being shut down.

      Liked by 7 people

    • Referring to her as an Old Power made me think of her as a Lovecraftian Old God. Depending on what kind of Name she develops, she might be anything from a crippled hermit (Old Toph stomped into my mindscape) to an Evil Galadriel in the new world that she will likely create and immediately get shunned from. If nothing else, she can party it up underground with the only people shorter than her.

      Liked by 6 people

    • I think the pacing is wrong for this to be cracks that will stick. Lots of minor conflicts have been accumulating in a way that feels like it’s leading towards some resolution. And Guide’s rhythm so far leads me to believe Catherine will find a new fairly positive equilibrium by the end of the book.

      Liked by 4 people

  6. Historically, powerful trade centers had always had their magnates feel significantly less patriotic about their city than the regular folk. After a certain amount of wealth it becomes possible to settle anywhere, and so the bond to one’s place of origin grows thinner. And whether or not Mercantis as a city gets any rights or benefits over the Cardinal, there is nothing stopping these Merchant Lords from being the first investors and businessmen in the newly found city.

    Let their personal greed overpower their patriotism. Or at least that is how I expect the resolution to go.

    Liked by 5 people

  7. So… why don’t they use the Twilight Ways for the supply lines?

    Seems weird that half the issue with the strategy was that they needed the supply lines defended. I initially thought they couldn’t gate that far due to some interference or due to the lack of scrying in the region, yet they can gate the fourth GA army to strike the capital from the back. Surely the supplies can arrive though a gate after the armies have settled in their respective positions?
    The issue Cat spotted was that they couldn’t gate out in a retreat since making the gates to enter so many people requires time and effort, but gating out requires no such thing, and they can also open smaller temporal gates for smaller groups of people, which the returning caravan now depleted of goods would be.

    Then what’s the issue? Using the Twilight Ways would provide safety for the caravan of supplies to each of the 3 or 4 locations of the armies, and not need to take as many guards as it would take if they use ordinary roads. Although they obviously need to still have patrols around that area to scout for remnants of the undead armies, there’s no need to risk their supplies walking those roads when they can just gate to the armies’ camps.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The three armies are moving front lines intended to be fighting the undead at every point, opening and closing gates constantly for the front to act as a supply line is likely going to go poorly as a full supply line in neither small or easy to use. they’d be able to do it if they weren’t planning on being on the offensive for this entire campaign.. And even then the supplies don’t all magically come from a single location that everything can start from.

      Liked by 8 people

  8. I like the bit of info we got about the aftermath of Juniper’s compulsion, though I’d expected we would have seen more about the Legions in Exile by now.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Aw poor Cat…

    On the other hand, no one pisses off diplomats quite like our Black Queen. Letting Archer do a reading from the ambassadors, from the city that enslaved her, is absolute genius. Drani definitely enjoyed that.

    I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of Cat and Cordy working together. I bet Cordelia first put on the crown she never thought she’d have such a useful, and usefully rude, ally.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. So the discussion of two thirds of the Brabantine Proceran troops being green as grass makes me think that EE needs to remember that he’s just also said these guys have been at war for two years.
    Either this is a now-unjustified reputation based on early showings, or the author is forgetting the time skip.

    Mercantis should be easy to attack through the Twilight Ways, and unlike Keter they don’t have enough forward-deployed forces capable of pressuring defences to be able to divert armies from a deep strike on their city.

    Finally, my understanding of the logistics situation is that it was physically impossible to field a force of more than two hundred fifty thousand in antiquity(and then only when you had a waterborne supply route), and that’s more or less the size estimate for the force that Persia invaded Greece with. And that Napoleon was able to figure out that by splitting his army of hundreds of thousands into parallel columns of no more than fifty thousand each he could speed up the pace of requisition of food from villages along the path of March, reducing the time spent on that and the strain on his supply chain in order to speed up the march. Unfortunately this trick is much less effective if all of the villages along the path of advance are dead.

    However the Twilight Ways completely change the logistics equation, my understanding of them is that for anyone who can open a gate all of the trade and agriculture hubs on the continent are maybe a week’s travel away, so it actually makes more sense for an army to march united and fight divided than it does to march divided and fight united. By which I mean that they all stay together while on the move so it’s easier to get supplies to everyone through Twilight, then they either take the time to crush fortresses along their path, or they split off enough of a force to siege them and keep on going with the main body of their force if they’re so concerned about giving the enemy more time to prepare for their arrival.
    Once every target fortress is circumvalated with inward and outward facing palisades and is beyond easy reinforcement the amazing marching speed advantage of Twilight allows them to either crack the places one by one, or else reinforce the seige forces when they realize the dead are marching to relieve a particular seige.
    Twilight means that normal difficulties with reuniting divided forces, with denying battle to an enemy you see coming and want to retreat from well before he gets in range, with supplying truly massive forces in the field, and with fortresses in your rear providing basing for attacks on your supply train, do not apply.

    Like

    • With regards to the green troops I don’t know if it’s that inconsistent. They’re specifically noted to be conscripts which means that even with training they might not have the build or the mindset to be soldiers in better times. Not everyone is cut out for that. Combine that with the fact that their morale is known to be inconsistent and it’s entirely possible that they’ve been mostly deployed defensively or as Garrison’s, in such a way that they haven’t accumulated much experience against anything but Neshemah’s dregs.

      Liked by 5 people

    • Can you say more about the impossibility of fielding a single force above some size bound? I don’t quite follow that part. It seems like the bound would be mostly on flow rate of goods through the supply train, right? Is the implication that by splitting an army you can use more separate routes to supply it and thus have more supplies per unit time? If so, then does the 250k number imply something about an assumption of the throughput for a standard ancient road?

      Like

  11. Reading these plans made me actually realise something incredibly troublesome: we’ve seen but the reliable basis of the Dead King’s might. The Dead King can also summon and control demons and devils, as should be obvious by power, age and him being the first to create a permanent Breach. He’s currently going full undead theme, but he could potentially summon a host of devils against that fourth army if they try to corner him this way.

    More troublesome, right now he’s going slow and steady. If he summons demons, they can corrupt his undead with no problem to morale and likely strengthening them instead, though they do become more unwieldy to handle. Possibly requires him to make one-way feedback undead to not get corrupted through the connection himself, too.

    But right now, we’re looking at the Dead king leisurely and safely going about this. If he were to be truly cornered he could demon things up and Calernia is dealing with twisted undead running rampant instead. Probably doesn’t do that right now, as it would corrupt and wreck the regions he takes and has a risk of backlash when those more difficult to control forces may turn around. But when there’s true risk and resistance…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, that’s what all these heroes are for! One in particular managed to all but solo 8 demons with only one getting away recently! Where was he anyway-

      -oh. Oh yeah.

      Like

      • True, but as we’ve seen in Book 2 the demon is indeed very powerful but their regional effects being allowed to fester amongst a group of people is a league above that. Named cannot just negate massive numbers, and demons given a few days can make an entire army. Why the corruption demon didn’t also have an entire army of corrupted squirrels and deer at the time, I don’t know, but when it appeared a thousand Silver Spears didn’t even have the time to run away fast enough before they were corrupted pretty much entirely.

        Liked by 1 person

          • Could be a minimum threshold requirement for one or more factors – ie, size/mass, intelligence or other mental qualities, or maybe you need a soul, or any number of other possible factors. Either to be affected in the first place or, perhaps more likely, in order to survive the process.

            Or the horses got Corrupted because they were in physical contact with their human riders as the humans got Corrupted.
            The horses might not normally have “survived”, if they weren’t being used as mounts when they got exposed to Corruption.
            Or maybe the horses didn’t actually survive to merge with their riders, maybe the horses died and their corpses got absorbed and merged with their riders. This could be an explanation if a soul is required as a buffer or sacrifice for a subject to be transformed by or survive exposure to the Corruption infection.

            At any rate, the Dead King really doesn’t want a Corruption demon anywhere near his undead. Remember, all his undead are magically linked to him, which means that Corruption could potentially transfer through that link from the exposed undead to him, if he can’t permanently sever the link quickly enough. And I rather suspect that’s far too great a potential risk for him to even consider running. I expect that he’d instantly sever links with, if not have self destruct, all of his undead in the area if he learned they were anywhere near a Corruption demon.

            Liked by 2 people

            • i thought about the ‘merged with their riders’ option but there was a separate horse the demn was in

              and yepppppppp re: DK also running risks with demons

              Like

              • That was the Demon itself, not just the aura effect.

                I suspect the Demon itself has fewer limits and more flexible options than its passive aura, especially if it’s actively choosing to do something.
                The difference between sunlight and sunlight focused through a magnifying glass. Normal sunlight is like the passive aura, the Demon choosing to do something like focusing that sunlight through a magnifying glass. The latter can be used to start a fire … the former is just unfocused power.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Mm, yeah, that’s also a very plausible explanation.

                  Either way, we DO have precedent for horses being the only non-sapient being Corruption worked on. Note how Marchford’s still inhabited: with people hidden away, it seems the streets etc didn’t retain any.

                  Like

    • Eh … I feel like the Dead King popping devils and demons would just end badly for everybody. Including him.
      I mean, that’s the kind of thing that could actually convince or drive people to summon Angels in order to counter (or at least seriously consider the option), despite the risk of Bard interfering … and he knows that Bard can interfere with Angelic manifestations, and likely has no interest in risking Bard interfering with an Angelic manifestation.
      Oh, sure, if he limits himself to summoning devils, nobody will risk Angel’s. So devil spamming is probably still on the table, but devils are relatively manageable.

      Also, I’m pretty sure he knows that Cat has Akua on a leash. For some reason, I think any sort of plan relying on devils or even demons against the side with the person who was(is?) Named Diabolist isn’t going to go very well.
      Plus, between Akua and Masego, they’ll know basically everything about devil’s and demons that the Empire every discovered … which probably includes stealing the information that the rest of Calernia discovered as well.

      Besides, they’re seriously off brand for him.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Don’t underestimate devils. Masego or Akua on terrain of their choosing with a few days of prep, sure they can do a lot of damage. But that’s wards and thresholds that devils and demons are weak against. When it comes to more direct damage, magical or otherwise, and more impromptu protections, then devils will take a lot more energy per devil to get rid off. An army of devils defensively summoned in Keter, Masego can do little against to turn the tides.

        Akua’s power of devils back when she had it, was that she ruled them by summoning them. That’s as far as we know impossible for her to do to devils already in Creation without a lot of time and effort, as opposed to summoning the ledgers of devil names her city held which bind those devils to unbreakable pacts. Someone else’s devils she would be a nice addition against, but not a tide turner. Pilgrim and other heavy hitters will do more in that fight.

        Demons, that one as I said before is more if the Dead King is ever really cornered or threatened even mildly. He won’t risk the demons when there’s no real need for them because of what the demons are, the angelic retribution probably isn’t that great a factor when he does fall back to them.

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    • What can’t he stand to lose? Nessie is a long term planner and player, he doesn’t summon devils and demons because he did not create them also there is the story groove of evil diabolists failing and demon summoning is a one way ticket to failure or him becoming unstoppable which means a story based defeat. No he wants to keep himself beatable so the heroes don’t get providence shoving them all the way to the happy ending.

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  12. In B4 Cordelia invents the concept of soft dollar fees to appease mercantis

    in B4 Cordelia retires to start the first hedge fund

    Like

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