“It would be a curse to be born Good. If virtue were easy, if doing right was painless, Creation would have no meaning: what worth is there in a trial that does not try you?– Extract from the ‘Truths of the Shore’, a collection of the teachings of Arianna Galadon (considered holy text only in Procer)
The statue was titled ‘Lorenzo Triumphant’.
There were eleven statues of the famous Lorenzo Malanza within the city of Aequitan, and every single one depicted the man with long flowing locks and youthful good looks. Rozala, who had long admired the brilliant general who’d made the Malanzas into the rulers of Aequitan, had been disappointed to learn the depiction was something of a lie. By the time Lorenzo had been winning the great victories in Levant that ultimately raised him to princeship he’d been forty, balding and with a severe limp from a lance wound he’d taken in the leg.
Lorenzo Triumphant somewhat acknowledged the last detail by depicting a stylish bandage over the young conqueror’s leg, but it only served to enhance the brimming heroism of the victor of Tartessos and Lazar Valley. The marble had been beautifully carved, though it was kept bare instead of the gaudy Free Cities painted manner, and the lance he raised manfully towards the sky was worked in gold leaf. Rozala had always hated the bloody thing, as it stood in the Shaded Courtyard. Where Mother made her wait on the bench near the wall until the Princess of Aequitan was finally ready to receive her.
Rozala had never once been made to wait here except when she was about to be punished, so that cursed marble statue was as ill an omen as there could be.
It was different today. Rozala had spent most of the last hour looking at the statue and the orange trees of the courtyard, wracking her mind to come up with a misdeed she’d done warranting punishment, but there had been nothing. She’d dumped worms in Hernan’s pillows again, but the little shit hadn’t caught on yet and now that he was nine he’d grown too proud to rat her out as eagerly as he used to. He’d asked for it, anyways, mocking her for having a hard time memorizing the first stanzas of the ‘Tragedy of King Konrad’. Reitz was hard, and unlike her brother she wasn’t getting any better at it.
The day broke from precedent again when instead of one of Mother’s attendants it was Mother herself who came to find Rozala. Aenor of Aequitan, Rozala thought with pride, was still known as one of the great beauties of the south even in her dawning middle age for good reason. She didn’t need glittering jewels or powders to impress, just a well-done braid and an elegant silken dress. One day, Rozala promised herself, she would be just as beautiful. Mother offered her a lovely smile before sitting by her side on the bench.
“Is there anything you would care to tell me, Rozala?” Princess Aenor meaningfully asked.
“Nothing at all,” Rozala lied.
The tanned princess looked faintly amused.
“Your delivery needs work,” Mother said.
Rozala said nothing, primly looking ahead and hoping if she did not move the subject would be dropped. Her mother was a skilled interrogator when she put her mind to it.
“But that is not why I sent for you today,” Mother lightly added.
The ten year old girl breathed out in relief.
“May I know why I am here, if not to be punished?” Rozala asked.
“Most of your tutors will be dismissed this evening,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “I will be taking care of your education personally, at least in some regards.”
Though thrilled, Rozala forced herself to remain calm.
“Sister Lisella said last week that I was not yet ready for such tutelage,” she said.
Mother looked at her with approval.
“I am hurrying the transition,” the Princess of Aequitan agreed. “There are… growing undercurrents to the Ebb and Flow, my darling. I’ve come to believe the years ahead will bring with them great perils.”
“Through peril, rise,” Rozala replied without hesitation.
The words of the House of Malanza had been drilled into her since she could walk, along with the duty she had to her family and her people. Mother simply nodded, as if the answer had been a given.
“There will be opportunities,” Aenor Malanza agreed, eyes coming to rest on the statue of their famous forbear. “Of the very same kind he found, I expect.”
“It will be war, then?” Rozala softly asked.
“It might yet come to that,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “So let us learn the lessons of Lorenzo’s life, yes?”
Rozala turned attentive dark eyes onto her mother, waiting for the wisdom she had to impart.
“Have you ever seen a statue of Juan Osuna?” Mother asked.
The young girl startled in surprise at the question. The last name she recognized – how could she not, when the House of Osuna had preceded the Malanzas on the throne of Aequitan – but the given name took her shamefully long to place. Prince Juan Osuna was mostly known as Juan the Abjurer’, in the histories, for he had been the last prince of the Osuna and abjured his right to throne before fleeing east into Salamans.
“I have not,” Rozala admitted.
“The question was a trick,” Princess Aenor easily said, “for you pass by such a statue every time your ride through the eastern gate.”
The young girl blinked, and only then put the pieces together.
“The Wicked Elder is meant to represent him?” Rozala said, doubtful. “But the statue is of an old man, decrepit and… impious.”
There was something unsettling about the statue’s gaze, and the unseemly face it stared out of. It was somehow ribald and heinous at the same time. The young girl frowned, drawing back a strand of hair.
“I’ve been taught that Juan the Abjurer was fifteen, when renounced the throne,” she added.
“He was,” Mother thinly smiled. “And yet he lost, and so when he was still remembered at all it was as a hideous figure. While Lorenzo, who was nearly thrice his age, won and is now depicted as a golden youth all over the city.”
The Princess of Aequitan continued to stare at the statue.
“It is the victor who decides who was wicked and who was righteous, in the end,” Aenor Malanza told her daughter. “When that statue was first raised, my lovely, it was known as a lie. But who remembers it now save a few scholars?”
Rozala almost shivered, though the afternoon heat was stifling even in the shade.
“But we’ve lost wars, haven’t we?” she softly asked. “In the years since. And it did not destroy us like it did the Osuna.”
“Because we did not flee, my darling,” Mother smiled. “We abjure nothing, we Malanzas. When the sun dims, when hard ends find us, we embrace the dark. We survive, whatever the cost, and through peril-“
“Rise,” Rozala finished in whisper.
“Juan Osuna fled east and ever returned, Rozala,” Mother said. “He might have won, had he fought. Had he had the stomach for the fight.”
Instead, Rozala thought, all that was left of the man was a half-forgotten lie. It was the first lesson her mother ever taught her.
She did not forget it.
Cordelia Hasenbach had been crowned First Prince of Procer but there were some who argued, and not without reason, that it was Prince Amadis Milenan of Iserre who had won the Great War. What else could it be called but a victory, when without his lands having ever known war a man rose to become one of the great powers of the land? Prince Amadis did not hold the highest office in the Principate, but he had not beggared himself and his allies to seize it as the First Prince had. And down here, in the south, old blood knew the strength of patience. The Lycaonese despot would fall sooner or later, and when she did the Prince of Iserre would rise in her stead.
Rozala Malanza, made Princess of Aequitan by her mother’s decree before she drank the regal mercy, had heard much of this sort of talk in Salia. Not in the streets, of course, for the people were jubilant at the election of a First Prince and the end of the Great War, but behind the doors of great mansions in the city. Rozala had remained aloof, even when invited to attend dinners, preferring to study the currents at the capital from a distance. Hasenbach was not as weak as was argued, she saw, and there was wishful thinking clouding the judgements. She had the votes in the Highest Assembly, and the bite of her armies would not be soon forgot. For now, she had the run of the Principate.
And she was comfortable enough in her seat to make gestures, such as refraining from contesting Rozala’s acclamation as princess before the Highest Assembly. It was tradition, when a princess of the blood took the regal mercy, that their choice of successor not be challenged. Yet tradition was only that, not law, and Hasenbach had the strength to dispense with it should she wish it.
It had burned Rozala like acid, kneeling on the floor of the Highest Assembly as she faced the cold-eyed savage that’d made her mother drink poison. The hate clung at her insides like a thousand hooks, and these days fear was beginning to do the same. For Hasenbach had been merciful, yes – wasn’t it the talk of city, the virtue and kindness of their fresh young ruler? – but she had not been soft. Rozala wore a crown but her young brother Hernan, the same little shit who’d tattled on her as a boy and tried to steal her throne as a man, was now a member of the First Prince’s court in Salia.
Tread carefully, Cordelia Hasenbach’s cool blue eyes had told Rozala as she knelt. Tread carefully, or else.
Yet she could not. Gods, how could she? Mother was dead and now the savage had put a knife at her throat. She would not be called to heel like a dog, browbeaten into obedience. Yet the House of Malanza had few friends, these days, for it had come close to the throne but in the end it had lost. No one wanted to share the taint by association, not even those who had been her mother’s most ardent supporters. And so Princess Rozala Malanza at last accepted an invitation to taste the latest Iserran vintages, finding herself seated across Prince Amadis Milenan. A handsome man, the Prince of Iserre, and well-spoken.
“I’d despaired of ever having the pleasure of your company, Your Grace,” Prince Amadis smiled, pouring her a second cup with a steady hand and offering it. “Yet I suppose allowances must be made for grief.”
Allowances, he had said. The chosen word was not happenstance. There was only one master in the alliance that Amadis Milenan was gathering under his banner, and he would not suffer any talk to the contrary. His protection, his help, would come at a price. It ate at Rozala’s pride, and she almost turned back, but she could not. Rozala Malanza would not go into exile, abjure the death of her mother and the answer it must be given. She had the stomach for this fight. And so she smiled, thanked the prince for his courtesy and took the cup she had been offered.
Through peril, rise, Rozala swore, and drank deep.
The First Prince died and the Highest Assembly gave answer. Too many answers, in truth, and there lay the tragedy: seven growingly urgent sessions were held, and even at the end of the seventh no one had the votes to sit the high throne.
Princess Constance of Aisne – no true princess, not even born to the House of Groseiller but to a branch family of a different name – claimed regency and rule of Salia until a First Prince could be elected, claiming it her right under ancient laws as the closest kin to the buried First Prince. Rozala’s mother laughed and walked out of the Hall of Assembly without another word, Dagobert of Lange and Fabien of Lyonis not far behind her. It would be war, then. Regretful, Rozala’s mother said, but it’d all be settled in a few years after battles separated the serious contenders from the chaff and compromises were forced.
The people bled. The people sang, growing quiet when riders neared. It was a new song, but in a sense it was also as old as the Principate.
Princess said she had a right, it went.
Princess said it’d be a fight
Now princess are all aflight,
And the pot it is boiling.
Rozala Malanza learned war in the saddle as a girl barely grown, taking lesson from fantassin captains and highborn generals as she wore mail and rode under the banner of the House of Malanza. She took her first life at fourteen and Mother’s smile when she returned bloodied was luminous.
“You will be what I cannot,” Aenor of Aequitan said, stroking her hair. “I am no warrior, it is not in my nature, but you are taking splendidly to it.”
One day mother would rule in Salia, Rozala at her side, and bookish Hernan would be made steward of Aequitan as Rozala herself was schooled to ensure the dawn of a Malanza dynasty on the high throne. But it was a golden dream, and the Gods ever laughed at such designs. First defeats in the east, as Constance the Usurper drove back an offensive into Orne at the Battle of the Swallows. It stung, but the war continued. And when the first of the Great Claimants was smashed up north, Fabien of Lyonis kneeling to another’s rights, the armies of Aequitan and its allies marched north to prevent Dagobert of Lange from consolidating power.
The Sack of Lullefeuille decimated Aequitan’s army, cunning Prince Dagobert and his Goethal right hand penning it up in the city and smashing it piecemeal. Rozala broke the encirclement, leading out a few thousand haggard survivors, but it was an unmitigated disaster. Yet Aenor of Aquitan’s tongue was silver, and her treasury overflowing even in defeat, so armies were raised again. The war was not over. When word came of the savage Lycaonese sallying south, it was considered an amusing anecdote. Then Brus fell. Then Lange surrendered, as Segovia and Lyonis knelt.
The anecdotes were no longer amused.
It still shook Rozala to the bone, when she saw that Mother was entertaining envoys from Constance the Usurper. Secretly, but the wind was turning and alliance was in the air. Only for so long, but this Cordelia Hasenbach – who most of Procer had barely heard of a year ago, back then know only for the fanciful tales of Praesi manipulation she’d sent letters about – was scaring the opposition. The Great War was entering its last stretch, and neither Aenor Malanza nor Constance Groseiller had broken a dozen armies to end up allowing some slip of a girl from the edge of the world to claim the high throne in their stead.
“It will be done, my darling,” Mother told her one night. “The alliance is agreed upon, all that is left is haggling terms.”
“I had twenty cousins when this war began, Mother,” Rozala harshly replied. “I now have three.”
And these only because even Constance the Usurper would not blacken her name by having toddlers and newborn babes murdered.
“You would break bread with the woman who ordered this?” Rozala asked. “Share a cause with her?”
The very thought was enough to make her sick.
“I have not forgotten a single thing, Rozala,” Princess Aenor harshly replied. “But I am a princess, not a swaggering duellist: there are times when honour must be set aside. When the deaths are blindly dealt and so pride must be swallowed. Sometimes we make bargains with those we hate, when duty demands it of us.”
Weeping Gods, but it had all gone wrong.
The Army of Callow should have been in no state to fight after the bruising clashes of the previous day, but Rozala’s belated suspicions had proved true: even as the dead rose from the water, hammering home the gravity of her mistake, the legionaries of the Black Queen had struck. Where the day before had been a dance of manoeuvres and daring, and the day before it a terrifying battle of Chosen and Damned, this one was nothing so clean. It was a blind melee, vicious and messy and chaotic. Exhausted and bloodied by the days of fighting, the Army of Callow and the crusaders went at each other like ragged dogs.
And silently, eerily, the blue-eyed dead kept coming in waves.
The Chosen had gone out into the waters to fight the Black Queen: ice raged in the swamp as spurts of sorcery lit up the morning sky and screams echoed from afar. Rozala would pray for their victory, but not count on it. The battle did not grow any less nasty as the hours stretched, she found, for while a desperate defence was mounted by the soldiers from Orne and the enemy kept from sweeping the camp, the Army of Callow settled into a brutal slugging match with the crusaders – a slugging match Rozala could already see would turn in favour of the enemy eventually, for the dead were coming by the water and the lines holding the shore slowly buckling.
Thrice she traded a charge with the Order of the Broken Bells, hoping her more numerous horse would shatter the enemy’s knights and allow her to strike the flanks, but the Callowan knights were hardy and unflinching. She was forced to withdraw when the left flank of her shield wall, too close to the swamp, began to collapse and rout. Rozala rode there in haste and brought fantassin reinforcements, but all it did was restore the stalemate: her attempt at a push into the enemy’s lines was swiftly answered with goblin munitions and heavy foot. Not long after some of the Chosen return to her side, the Pilgrim and the Saint foremost among them, while others went to bolster the army.
It gave the men spine, Rozala saw, but it wouldn’t win the battle.
“Where is the Black Queen?” the Princess of Aequitan urgently asked, shouting over the sounds of battle.
If she was dead, then this could still be turned around. But before the Peregrine could say a word, a shape was glimpsed riding a winged horse above them and Rozala got her answer. The Enemy approached on graceful wings, bringing death with her, and the heroes at Rozala’s side readied for the fight. Legends, both of them, and still they looked grim. Yet when the Black Queen threw herself down into a hard landing, it was not to fight.
“Truce,” Catherine Foundling claimed. “I’m here to talk.”
And the heroes hemmed and hawed over this, over continuing the fight even under truce flag, but all Rozala could think of was that there would be no winner today. In this brutal mess of mud and blood, no one would win. No matter who claimed mastery of the field at the end of the day, both armies would be broken. And so, when the Chosen spoke pretty words to talk themselves into the killing, Rozala listened to an older voice speaking older words. She was a princess, not a swaggering duellist.
“Stop,” Princess Rozala Malanza ordered, and took off her helmet.
It was a monster she was facing now, one it disgusted her to think she might strike a bargain with, but the Princess of Aequitan had a duty.
The Great War ended on the fields of Aisne, not in the thunderous clash of arms but in the quiet hours that followed the end of the battle.
Unerring, eerily precise, Cordelia Hasenbach’s riders had found the princes and princesses fleeing the catastrophic defeat. Rozala took dark amusement in the way that Contance of Aisne and her party had been seized before the Malanzas were. The House of Malanza might not have won the war, but at least it could be said that their claim had outlasted that of their most hated rivals. The few months that followed were spent in comfortable but thorough captivity as Cordelia Hasenbach herself journeyed down from Rhenia to formally accept the surrender of her captives and the acclamation of her allies.
Mother’s attempts to get messages out without the knowledge of their captors had resulted only in two servants hanged and their party being stripped of ink and parchment, the Iron Prince not even bothering to tell them in person before giving the orders. The Lycaonese were living up to their rough reputation. Though Rozala insisted, screamed and then even begged, Mother refused to allow her to sit in on the conversation with Prince Cordelia – who was not yet First Prince, for all her high-handedness. Aenor of Aequitan was subdued when she returned, sapped of her usual boundless spirit.
The Princess of Aequitan formally surrendered the morning after and sent orders to her assermenté in Salia to vote in favour of Cordelia Hasenbach’s candidature to the high throne. After making a few public oaths, she was allowed to return with Aequitan with her household, no ‘escort’ accompanying her or ransoms being demanded. Rozala found herself quite startled. These were very lenient terms of surrender Prince Cordelia had accepted, unlike what the Malanzas would have demanded were the positions reversed. The heiress to Aequitan found she rather admired the Lycaonese for her restraint, her mercy.
That last word turned to ash on her, when they returned home and the real terms of surrender were unveiled. Aenor of Aequitan would drink poison, recalled early to the feet of the Heavens. The regal mercy, some called it.
Rozala boiled out with rage. She tried to raise the palace to war again, but the halls with empty with the losses of too many defeats and the eyes of the commanders gone gloomy. There was no stomach left for the fight in Aequitan. And still Rozala raged, for what else could she do? But the march forward of fate was inexorable, and Mother now seemed so… tired. Rozala did not refuse the summons when they came and the servants led her to the ancient throne room of Aequitan. Mother sat the throne, a cup of wine in hand.
“You will have to be wary of your brother,” Aenor Malanza said. “He was raised to rule Aequitan for you as you followed me to Salia. That power is not a prize easily relinquished.”
Rozala nodded, mute from the grief that had snared her throat.
“It was the price for rule of Aequitan staying with our line instead of passing to a lesser branch, my darling,” Mother gently said. “And perhaps it is better this way.”
“There is nothing better in this,” the hard-eyed daughter replied.
“There are deeds, days that demand an answer, Rozala,” the Princess of Aequitan said. “The Ebb and the Flow rule us all, but sometimes… sometimes there are higher callings. Listen to them, my darling. Heed them, and in time you will live up to what I see in you now.”
“Mother,” Rozala begged, tears in her eyes, “there must be another way.”
Her mother stroked her hand gently.
“Through peril, rise,” Aenor of Aequitan whispered. “Go, Rozala. While I still have the strength.”
Aenor of Aquitan took the poison exactly a day after Constance of Aisne was made to do the same. And with that cruellest of mercies, the last defeated claimant to have fought in the Great War died. An era had come to an end. Long live First Prince Cordelia, the people shouted in the streets. Rozala thought of the sound the doors of the throne room had made closing, and polished her sword.
Princess Rozala Malanza stood as the only princess, the only royalty of her people, in all of Iserre.
This night, this graveyard of princes, had been a madness beyond what the Ebb and the Flow could frame in understanding. Legends had died who’d been legends for longer than Rozala had been alive. Angels had touched the world, the Dead King been forced to stay his hand and some magnificent eldritch realm had been born of trickery and sacrifice. And of all the western crowns that had sat brows when steel was first bared, only hers remained. Handed back to her by the Black Queen, terrifying praise from a terrifying foe.
Rozala Malanza alone of seven did not flinch, when sacrifice was asked, the Arch-heretic of the East had said, eyes hard and judging. For that, she keeps her crown.
It had been a grand gesture, the Princess of Aequitan thought. One made for honour, not advantage, for there were other crowns that would have been more useful for Catherine Foundling to preserve. So when in the wake of the gesture Rozala’s own kind had begun to squabble like dogs worrying a bone over how the given grace could be traded and twisted, she’d felt something deeper than disappointment course through her veins. It’d been like scales lifted from her eyes.
She saw the contempt in the eyes of the Chosen, the way the Tyrant of Helike grinned at them all with something akin to fondness. Gods, but how petty they must all seem to those eyes. Arrayed against the Principate were Theodosius the Unconquered’s mad get and the greatest warlord of their age, how was this the best to be mustered against them? Even their allies were led by the likes of the Peregrine, royal blood hallowed by angels. Procer had been challenged to meet the hour of doom thrust upon it, to match the calibre of the great men and women standing with and against the realm.
And Rozala Malanza saw, in the eyes of those same people, that Procer had failed to meet the challenge.
It burned that she could not deny it. Even as the hour grew late and the Black Queen played them all for fools one last time, bringing back alive a dead man. Even as the great lords of Levant swore oaths atop the hill, straight-backed and solemn.
“Let it be remembered,” the Grey Pilgrim said, shining bright with pride, “that when the Enemy came for the world, Levant did not shirk its duty.”
Rozala grieved the sight, for what had Procer done to warrant such friendship? Nothing and less. It burned still, that feeling she could now name as shame. Because she knew the honour of tonight might be betrayed in years to come. That her people might live up to the worst of themselves instead of the best. Was that not the nature of the Ebb and Flow? So I beg you, Merciful Gods, could we not rise above ourselves? Even if only one, just once. But the Heavens did not answer any more than they had when she’d been but a girl stewing in grief and rage. Silence. But there were days, deeds that demanded an answer.
And if the Gods would not give it, then she would. So Rozala’s fingers closed around the hilt of the same sword she’d once polished, dreaming of how it would cut through Cordelia Hasenbach’s neck.
Princess Rozala Malanza bared her blade and heeded a higher calling.
Once she’d marched on Trifelin and suffered a stinging defeat.
The second time she’d marched there, she’d eked out a bloody victory.
Now the Princess of Aequitan watched the endless spread of the dead marching against her, a shambling tide of steel and darkness. Slowly she unsheathed her sword and raised it, thousands answering her with glittering steel and torches.
“Through peril,” Rozala Malanza screamed.
“Rise,” the people screamed back.
She had been a slow learner, in many ways, but Rozala had never ceased to learn. And the third battle of Trifelin would be hers body and soul, this she swore.
One day she would teach her daughter about it.