“The highest form of victory is not mere triumph over another, but to use such a triumph as the foundation of your own. This way superiority is demonstrated not only over one defeated but also one victorious, proving your own cunning to be beyond both.”
– Extract from ‘The Behaviours of Civil Conduct’, by High Lady Mchumba Sahelian
There were some who called Mauricius indolent but he preferred think of himself as patient.
The expensive chilled wine – genuine Baalite red, not the imitation the Ashuran brewed on this side of the sea – before him slowly warmed, the coating of frost on the goblet slowly dripping down onto the table. He had yet to touch it. His eyes remained on the lights of the city instead, on the warm glow that set jewels to the dark and the heartbreakingly beautiful mosaics of the Irenian Plaza displayed below the hidden balcony. It was a common tale in Mercantis that Aeolian himself, the famous Tormented Painter, had died moments after putting the last touches of colour on the work. Mauricius knew the truth behind the unspoken boast, for he’d cared to learn it.
Aeolian had been eighty-three and dying when he’d begun the work, debt-ridden to the extent that he’d been willing to spend even his last days on the mosaics if it meant his children would not inherit the crushing burden of his lifetime of indulgences. Yet the City of Bought and Sold preferred the shorter tale, the one that claimed to own a work so beautiful it had taken the life of a Named to make it. It made the mosaics no fairer to behold, Mauricius thought. They were, regardless, a wonder of this world: moving with hour and sun, a living story of interwoven sorcery and skill. But buying the life of a Named spoke of power, and for the merchant lords of this city there was nothing more intoxicating than that.
Mauricius ought to know, as the eldest of the living merchant lords.
Behind him, past the sculpted marble arch bearing a discreet muting enchantment, the shadowy silhouette of a waiting attendant stood still. The service in Sub Rosa was second to none, even in this island where every delight could be bought, though the truth was that Mauricius had taken a balcony tonight largely for the view. Few people even knew that this place existed, hidden behind wards and secrecy as it was, and most believed the Irenian Plaza to be entirely surrounded by the three edifices that were the heart of the Consortium’s power in this material world.
The Forty-Stole Court, the Guild Exchange and the Princely Palace.
Power, wealth and influence – all nestled closely together like chicks gathering for warmth. Knowing what was to happen tonight, Mauricius had thought it fitting that he should be close to the beating heart of Mercantis. Two men were to die tonight, after all. The merchant lord slid a finger along the rim of his goblet, watching as beads of condensation slid down the sinuous length of silver. Even now, in manses across the city, his fellows would be scheming behind closed doors. Dear Livia’s return from this Arsenal bearing the answer of the Grand Alliance had thrown the Consortium into disorder.
Several of the most influential among them had voiced a belief it was treason for Ambassador Livia Murena to have agreed to such unfavourable terms when half the City knew that the Principate was so deeply in their debt it couldn’t even see daylight. It was said that there’d been foul play. Given that Livia had not let her wife out of her sight since returning to the city, Mauricius believed there might be a thread of truth there. Not that the opposition cared. The Consortium buried bleeding hearts long before they might rise to a position where their words might matter, but there were some who objected to fleecing the Grand Alliance on more practical grounds.
If the Dead King won, they first said, we would rue our schemes. That found little purchase, for this was not the first crusade to struggle against the undead. Always these ended in bloody sacrifice and the resumption of the ancient stalemate, as the aftermath decided which among the living nations had been the winners and the losers of this particular iteration. Yet when it had been argued that in the aftermath of the Grand Alliance’s victory a burning gaze might be turned to Mercantis, more had bought into the argument. Cordelia Hasenbach was a civilized woman, and her anger could have been appeased should it prove lasting, but it was not so with her allies.
The Dominion was a pack of savages that killed each other on a whim, and Callow was a cauldron of long hatreds. There was a reason that the Consortium had never tried to seize Callowan lands, though it had often had the strength to do so and feasibly keep them. The scheme of taking Dormer and adding it to the holdings of the City had long been discussed, but never once undertaken. The lesson had been learned well from the Brief War, when Atalante had tried to annex part of the Callowan south after buying passage for its war fleet from the Consortium. Jehan the Wise had butchered the invaders, which had not been unexpected, but he’d then began to raise ships for a retaliatory attack on Mercantis itself. Which had been.
Embassies of the Merchant Princess Clarissa had made it known that the City was not involved in the invasion beyond having sold passage through its waters, but the Callowans hadn’t cared. When Daoine ships bearing soldiers of the Watch began docking in Dormer, Clarissa had realized that the Callowans would go through with an invasion even if they were likely to lose, even if the mere undertaking of it would bankrupt them for a generation. She’d emptied the coffers of Mercantis appeasing the king of Callow, and no merchant lord had ever seriously talked of taking Callowan land again. Jehan the Wise had been a Named of heroic bent, the practical sorts were now eager to remind the City.
The Black Queen was a monster that gave even the Wasteland pause, and the Consortium wanted to extort her?
Mauricius had been privately amused by that rejoinder, for the Black Queen did not truly give the Wasteland pause in the slightest. Some days he wondered if anything ever did. Poor Fabianus had been stuck in the middle of it and lost what few feathers he’d still had. Their Merchant Prince was first tricked into keeping the First Prince’s secrets, and then was pushed so strongly to reveal them that he’d preferred to recuse himself of such matters entirely than continue to be involved. Given that Fabianus’ office held little direct power but a great deal of influence, that decision had practically ended his reign in every real sense.
Mauricius smiled and looked at the shadowed mosaics down below. A decade ago, most of the city had thought him the strongest contender for that very same office. He was among the wealthiest few – trading arms in the Free Cities was ever a tidy profit – of the Consortium, he’d served in the Forty-Stole Court for over a decade and save for that little offence when he’d had his first wife’s lover and the man’s entire family sold into slavery, there were no black marks on his record.
He’d made sure they all ended up in Stygia, so that they were actually slaves even in the legal sense. He was not a forgiving man, and preferred his revenges to be of the through kind.
Though Mauricius was reputed to be somewhat indolent, back then that’d been in his favour. No one in the Consortium wanted too motivated or skillful a prince lest the days of the Caepio, who had ruled as kings in all but name, return. He’d campaigned for the office, of course. Sunk a fortune into buying the love of the streets, the votes of the Lesser Courts. But he’d not fought for the support of other merchant lords. Indolent, his supporters had mourned in the years that followed. After Fabianus was elected the office. None of them ever learned that he’d never sought the title at all: while most saw the elections as a gaping pit for coin, he’d been after a profit. Mauricius had required twice as much as he’d invested in the election as a bribe, to let Fabianus win.
He’d kept a single gold coin from that bribe, as a sentimental token, and as the lights of Mercantis shone in the distance the merchant lord took it out of his robes and idly toyed with it. The luster of it brought out a hunger he knew would never be entirely sated, but Mauricius was a patient man. He’d learned as a boy that the patient always got their day, if they picked the right opportunities. And what was this era of chaos, if not a great banquet of opportunities? The Consortium was fighting itself, the recklessly hungry and the cravenly cautious at odds in the markets and the courts. Praesi gold set tongues wagging, or silenced them, while the long shadow of the Grand Alliance blotted out old certainties.
Mauricius had taken the Dread Empress’ bribes, of course. And he’d listened to the honeyed words of her envoys, to the schemes she wove even here in the City. He was not in the habit of refusing coin, though her plots he’d been lukewarm to. At least until it had all unfolded exactly as she had predicted: dear Livia scared into a barely acceptable settlement, a band of Named coming to keep the City under the boot and the armies of the Grand Alliance charging into Hainaut. Far away, and soon to be bloodied. All the while Consortium had turned on itself in bitter infighting, needing the guidance that its Merchant Prince had surrendered the right to provide. And so Mauricius had agreed to the plot, seeing the need for it.
In the distance, what he had been waiting for all night finally appeared: a red light blinked into existence atop a tall tower, for three heartbeats before disappearing.
Merchant Prince Fabianus was dead.
Indolent, patient, Mauricius waited. It was the better part of an hour before a messenger for the Forty-Stole Court found him. Fabianus was dead, he was told, and elections would need to be had. An emergency session of the Forty-Stole Court was to be held soon. And still Mauricius waited. It was almost another hour before he was presented with a second cup of chilled wine, and only then did the merchant lord smile.
“Thank you,” he told the shadowy servant.
Prosperus Soranus was dead. That was what the cup had told him. And with him gone, Dread Empress Malicia had lost her puppet candidate to the office of Merchant Prince. All that gold she’d sunk into preparing his election would be gone unless she found another flagbearer for her interests. And even if she tried, that candidate might just lose to Mauricius should he try his hand at being elected. The Empress would suspect his hand at work, but she was a practical woman in her own way.
More gold was coming his way, and soon.
Merchant Prince Mauricius would walk the line, prevent debts being called in early but refuse to extend ‘dangerous’ loans. Negotiations would be opened again, seeking better terms. Malicia would get what she wanted, a Mercantis unwilling to meekly serve as the coin purse of the Grand Alliance, and the Grand Alliance would be pleased by the rise of a Merchant Prince willing to actively steer policy to their advantage if certain terms were met. There was wealth to be made, standing between the Tower and the West, and even more between the West and annihilation. Mauricius slowly rose to his feet, finally ready to attend the emergency session of the Forty-Stole Court. He was eighty-three, today, and so when he looked down at the mosaics of the Irenian Plaza it was with something like understanding.
“You’d understand, wouldn’t you?” Mauricius mused. “You died clutching your brush, after all.”
Leo had been raised to revile the name of Hypathia Trakas.
His mother had hated it before him and her father before that, a chain going back all the way to the first Trakas to have inherited a mutilated throne after Basilea Hypathia lost the ancient rights of their line. There was a time, Mother had taught him as a child, where we shared power over Nicae with none. In those days the Trakas had ruled as kings, titling themselves Basileus not out of humility but as a means to claim descent from the legendary emperor Aenos Basileon – and so primacy over all other crowns come from the collapse of his ancient empire. But Hypathia Trakas had been arrogant, and unwise. She had made such disaster of the Second Samite war that a swaggering thug of an admiral had been able to carve her throne in two: thereafter, there would be a Strategos as well as a Basileus.
Yet the truth was that, for all the bile that Mother had passed onto him, neither of them had truly expected that they would be able to right this ancient wrong in their lifetimes. They had been taught the dominance of their enemies when Leo’s own father went to sea and never returned, taken by ‘Stygian pirates’ on one of the safest stretches of water of the Gulf. Father had been of a military line, an old one and more importantly one foe to Strategos Nereida Silantis. The warning was heard clearly, and the alliances carefully sealed by Mother withered on the vine. The Trakas had tradition on their side, hallowed blood and the sacred duties only an anointed Basileus could undertake. They even had deep influence in matters of stewardship.
Yet the Strategoi had swords, and without those what was the rest worth?
Leo Trakas had been fresh to the throne when the war with Stygia and Helike erupted, though of course it was not so simple as that. In private the war had been a cause for despair, for when steel was out the Strategoi had excuses to meddle in every matter be they high or low. Leo’s palace would be filled with spies, appointments stripped away and granted instead to supporters of Strategos Nereida and the treasury of the office of Basileus plundered at will for war funds. Silanis had even developed ties to the First Prince of Procer, who now showered her with silver and soldiers even as the latest Theodosian madman set the Free Cities aflame. The years ahead looked grim.
And then the armies of Helike and Stygia encamped beyond the walls of Nicae, and Leo realized he’d underestimated the threat of the enemy being fought. Penthes had collapsed into civil war, Atalante outright capitulated and Delos so badly mauled it was good as out of the war. Bellerophon was busy somehow failing to invade the territories of a city at war with itself, as was the wont of the People, but that was hardly a relief. Nicae stood alone, and in the streets the people were afraid. Even the arrival of a band of heroes – and Leo would not soon forget they had gone to Nereida, not him, even though the Trakas stood closest to the Heavens by Nicean law – had done little to improve the mood.
This was no danger to Leo Trakas, for his strengths were not the kind that could be unmade by the displeasure of the people. His blood was in his veins, his authorities writ into immutable law. It was not so with Strategos Nereida Silanis, whose authority came from the sword but also from the love of the people. Strategoi hated by the commons had a tendency to take sick and die, so that the old families might elect a more suitable replacement in their stead. And so Leo Trakas sent what few servants were still solely his to whisper in the right ears, to wonder if once-bold Nereida had not gone craven in her old age. The whispers took, for Nicae’s strength had stayed behind its walls during the war, and when the enemies assaulted the wall the Strategos fought in the ranks.
It amused Leo Trakas a great deal, in private, that though he had paid a man to kill her during the battle the assassin died to a stray arrow and the Strategos was still killed by a Helikean blade.
Leo surrendered to the Tyrant of Helike himself, the red-eyed monster humming and grinning like a lunatic all the while before offering terms that were highly generous: the only concession required of Nicae would be its vote in the election of some nobody Bellerophon diplomat to the office of Hierarch of the Free Cities. Unearned as the acclaim was, the city thrummed with praised for his ‘having tricked’ the Tyrant into gaining nothing of worth from Nicae for his victory. And so when the opportunity had come, when the old families had come to him and asked for him to officiate over the ceremonial council that would elect the next Strategos, he’d done what every Trakas since Hypathia’s own daughter had craved like a drowning soul craves air.
“No,” Leo Trakas had smiled, savouring the word like fine wine.
They cajoled and whispered sweet promises, at first. And when that failed, oh but how they raged and threatened. Yet it was all but air, for Leo was beloved of the streets – fickle as they were – and they were not. To Nicae, it was a Strategos that had made a disaster of this war. They were not clamouring for another, not yet. And Leo Trakas intended on having seized power properly, by the time it occurred to them that they might want to. At first he courted the First Prince’s support, for Cordelia Hasenbach had wasted no time in initiating correspondence, but when he saw the wind turn against Procer in the councils of Kairos Theododian’s puppet Hierarch he leaned into it.
There was nothing the people of Nicae loved more than a good settling of scores with the Thalassocracy, and such a war would put him at odds with Procer regardless. That lion was getting old anyway, he’d heard: there were rumours of the Dead King raiding to the north, even as Praesi and Callowans smashed Proceran armies left and right. The League of Free Cities was riding high, in contrast, and Theodosian was a madman but he was a successful one. He was also not as wary of his ‘allies’ as he should perhaps be, for when Leo began reaching out to the other cities for alliances he found more takers than he had expected. Basileus Leo Trakas had already restored the old powers of his blood, but still he hungered for more.
Was his line not descended from Aenos Basileon himself, who had ruled over the great cities that did not yet call themselves free? There were none more fitting than Leo to rise to prominence in the League, to replace Helike and its twitching goblin of a king as the power behind their simpleton Hierarch. Gods, but in those heady days he’d come so very close to getting all he wanted. How had it all gone so wrong?
“The rioters have seized the amphitheatre, my lord Basileus,” Captain Attika told him.
Leo looked down at the kneeling captain of his guard, letting the calm on her face settle his own unease. The game was not yet over, he told himself.
“Better that than the treasury,” the Basileus finally said. “Have the Valeides and the Petros answered my messengers?”
“They have not, my lord,” Captain Attika admitted.
It was a grim tiding, when even his closest allies within the old families were not willing to consider lending soldiers to keep order in the streets – or at least prevent looting of the granaries and the island-gardens. Most of Leo’s soldiers we bound to guard the palace and the treasury, which limited his ability to enforce peace in the streets.
“Two days,” Leo said. “In two days we will receive the Stygian grain and the dole will appease the people. We only need to hold for that long, Attika.”
His captain grimaced.
“I fear that the riots might be as much from the northern news as the rationing, my lord,” she admitted. “And Stygian grain cannot mend such accusations.”
“Hasenbach,” the Basileus hissed. “Her work, this. None of the others have the subtlety for it.”
When the threat had first come through the Grand Alliance – that band of robbers – that Leo might be named a friend of the Dead King if he did not surrender and come to terms with ‘Strategos’ Zenobia, he’d laughed at the letter. Procer was too busy warring against the dead to meddle in the south, and the Black Queen had proved a rather distant patron to General Basilia. As for the Dominion it was a pack of squabbling tribes that the only civilized lot among them, the Isbili of Levante, had little control over. They couldn’t agree on the colour of tablecloths without honour duel, much less genuine diplomatic policy.
There was a lot less to laugh about now that word of the condemnation had been smuggled into the city and riots shook the streets. Zenobia Vasilakis might be a mere country landowner, well beneath any of the old families that tended to claim the office of Strategos, but she had partisans anyway. Though with no real ties to the ruling naval elite of Nicae, the Vasilakis family did have a record of meritorious service in the army – which had often been neglected in favour of the fleet, over the years. Army folk kept tight loyalties, which was half the reason Leo’s own mother had taken a husband from one such family.
The Vasilakis reputation had won Zenobia sympathies, even before the Grand Alliance’s official recognition of her as the legitimate ruler of Nicae cemented her status. Leo’s attempts to present her to the old families as a country agitator out to replace the influential lines from the city had been largely successful, but after such honours from great crowns it wouldn’t matter. Grand Alliance backing made them as powerful as any of them, in practice, and ties to General Basilia’s Helike only added bite to her candidature. Zenobia had not been elected under the proper ceremony, which would have required Leo to officiate, but fewer people cared every week.
“I cannot speak to that, my lord,” Captain Attika said, “but I will say that should we lose the grain to rioters, it will deal your reign a great blow. I wager they will call it Zenobia’s dole instead, and the streets will sing her name.”
“The docks are also guarded by our… friends,” the Basileus said. “They would not hesitate to disperse riots.”
The thrice-cursed Dread Empress of Praes had massacred and stolen his fleet in the same stroke, but there was nothing Leo could do about that. What he could do was trade the Praesi access to the port for repairs of the ships in exchange for them funding Stygian grain shipments and providing the coin that let him keep paying his army even after the collapse of trade in the Samite Gulf. If Ashur weren’t fighting a very polite civil war with itself Leo might have been afraid of reprisals for the sacks of Smyrna and Arwad he’d ordered, but until the Thalassocracy dealt with its succession crisis Nicae would remain safe.
“I fear that would only incite further unrest, my lord,” Captain Attika said. “Would the sight of the dead slaying the living not seem to put truth to the accusations of the Grand Alliance?”
Leo’s fingers clenched. He’d not considered that. Any thinking man would grasp that the Dead King fielded no armies this far south, but angry mobs were not renowned for their wisdom. No doubt his enemies would seize on the opportunity presented regardless of the truth, too.
“Then we must secure the docks with our own men,” Leo reluctantly said. “All is lost, without the grain.”
He peered at his kneeling captain.
“Where would you suggest the men be taken from?” he said.
She hesitated for a moment.
“The palace,” Captain Attika finally said. “It is much easier to defend, and less likely to be attacked. Greed will lead rioters to try their hand at the treasury sooner or later, my lord.”
“Agreed,” the Basileus said.
Or rivals from old families under the guise of rioters, even. None of that lot was above plundering the coffers of the state to fill their own.
“See to it, Captain Attika,” he ordered.
“My lord,” she replied, saluting.
After the door closed behind her, Leo Trakas sat alone on the throne he’d been the first of his line to ever fully reclaim. And still the thought niggled away at him – would the Trakas of days yet to come name him as another Hypathia, another fool who’d wasted the gifts of fate? The long tapestries and slender columns around him gave no answer to his musings. No, Leo told himself. The game was not yet over, and this could yet be salvaged. Once the grain ships had come many of the rioters would disperse and he could finally suppress the riots. After he regained control of the city, he could come to terms with ‘Strategos’ Zenobia.
To his knowledge she was still unmarried, if a decade older than him, and perhaps the surrender being forced on him could be turned into a marriage alliance instead. He doubted Zenobia was any more eager to be under the Grand Alliance’s thumb than he was to be under Malicia’s. A united Nicae would be able to force Helike to end its incessant war-making, especially if it clasped hands with Stygia, and Leo could count his debts to the Tower settled if he made that savage Basilia cease attacking the reign of Malicia’s Penthesian puppet Exarch. Perhaps sending for a painting of Zenobia was in order, he thought, so that he might have a notion of what he’d be in for.
With Captain Attika gone he’d expected servants to begin attending him again, but the hall was instead eerily silent. Leo frowned. Was something wrong, or did someone simply need to be switched? The Basileus became uncomfortably aware that his regal clothes came without a weapon, or more protection than a few layers of cloth could afford him. There were armoured statues here in the hall, though, bearing the gilded armour of his forbears and matching ceremonial blades. Yet if he were to leave here having strapped on such a sword and there’d been no trouble, if servants saw him… Laughter was the death of fear, and much of his reign now depended on fear.
Silence lingered throughout his thoughts, and that as much as anything else made the decision for him.
The blade of Basilea Sousanna Trakas came clear of the scabbard with a hiss. It fit his hand well, as Sousanna had been tall for a woman. As he recalled she was best known for her victories against encroaching Stygia and having extracted tribute from the hill tribes later to become Helike, so at least half of the old use might see the light of day again. Sure-footed even if it had been years since he’d last held a blade, Leo pushed open the great gates of the throne hall and slipped into the corridor beyond. Still not a soul in sight, he saw with dismay. That was not natural.
Had his own servants begun to flee the palace, abandoning his cause?
More worryingly, there was no trace of his personal guard. There should have been four in the corridor, awaiting his orders, but instead only further silence awaited. Leo decided to head for his quarters in the deeper palace, where more guards should be awaiting him. Tense moments walking through deserted hallways came at an end when he found the butchered corpse of one of his soldiers on the floor. Stabbed in the back, he found, and the body was still warm. It was a coup, must be, and by heading to his quarters he’d be putting himself into the hands of his enemies.
He must turn back now, find the barracks and convince soldiers to escort him to the manse of an allied family. The Valeides might have denied him more men, but they could not refuse him shelter without dishonouring themselves: his father had been brother to their patriarch’s wife. Discarding the last pretence of being in control, Leo ran for it.
He heard it as a whistle first. A the tune of a half-familiar song, though he could not remember the name of it. The Basileus abandoned the corridor it came from, banking left to shake whoever was whistling. Except the same slow, mournful whistle awaited him there. Dead end after dead end, until he began to hear the words.
Did we not lose,
A hundred times?
Did we not win,
A hundred times?
His blood ran cold. And as the snare tightened around him, Leo Trakas ran until there was nowhere left to run. Cornered in his own palace, surrounded by tapestries speaking to old glories as slowly the sound of hooves on stone came closer. The scent of blood was in the air. Back to a splash of blood-red silk, a golden sword in hand, the Basileus of Nicae stood his ground as rider came into the flickering torchlight. Her voice was clear, strong.
“For we did lose,
A hundred times,” General Basilia sang, a sharp smile on her face.
Her sword was already in her hand, dripping red on the stone. Behind her, a pack of riders followed her into the corridor – red-handed savages, defiling a palace older than their entire misbegotten city.
“And we will win,
A hundred times,” General Basilia sang, the smile fading form her lips and sinking into her eyes.
She leaned forward on her saddle.
“You warned of me consequences once, Leo Trakas. Shall we now finish our talk?”
The Basileus of Nicae spat to the side, defiant.
“Once a hound, always a hound,” Leo said. “You will fail your new masters, just as you failed your last.”
“Where was that spirit,” General Basilia laughed, “a year ago?”
Her blade rose, and so did his. She spurred her mount and he ran forward, ran and yelled until the horse was past him and he felt a flash of heat across his chest and face. Blood, he found as he stumbled onto the tapestries.
“‘till falls the age,
And end the times,” the general softly said.
Darkness came. And just before it, dread. Gods, if they’d taken the city – the undead the Tower had left, would they not burn the city as they fled? Malicia would not suffer the port to stand, if she could not use it.
Leo Trakas’ last word was a rasping gurgle as he tried too late to speak a warning.