“If you are to win the most then you must win always, else you will find a hundred more knives pointed at your back for every victory. This is both the promise of imperial greatness and the fate of imperial death.”– Extract from ‘The Behaviours of Civil Conduct’, by High Lady Mchumba Sahelian
The fighting had broken out at midday and lasted until half a bell before nightfall.
Neither the Magisterium nor General Basilia had wanted to roll the dice by continuing the battle in the dark. Helikeans kataphraktoi harassed the retreating Spears of Stygia as they retreated, loosing arrows in the back of the phalanx, but after the day’s losses those were but a drop in the bucket. It wasn’t like the phalanx could break, either: the leather collar around the neck of every single slave soldier served as a reminder that the displeasure of their masters would be both swift and final. Magister Andras sent out crossbowmen to chase them away, but like mayflies the famous cataphracts of Helike simply danced away and found somewhere else to sting.
Magister Zoe Ixioni set down her glass of wine, having drunk as deep as she dared given the night still ahead of her. The viewing pavilion that had been raised for the members of the Magisterium that accompanied the Stygian army but would not be involved in the day’s fighting – the majority of them – was rather luxurious and privately paid fund, a gesture of thanks from Magister Andras and Magister Kyra after they were appointed to command of the Stygian army. The twins had sent most of their time in the Magisterium as part one of its the lesser parties, the Herons, but they were not fools or unskilled at games of power. They were making the most of the opportunity they’d been given.
“We hold the field,” Magister Gorgion murmured, drawing her attention. “Is that not… worrying?”
The young man was prodigiously fat, which Zoe had once noted to run in his family, and though he was now the head of what remained of the Laskaris she had several times regretted bringing him into the fold. Though a steady ally – he was terrified of being assassinated should she withdraw her protection – he was also nervous and hesitant, requiring constant reassurance. Would that it had been his older brother that their mother had left in Stygia, when she went out on campaign. The older Laskaris would have been a more fitting partner than the dregs the White Knight’s wrath had left Zoe to work with.
“It does not matter,” Magister Zoe quietly said. “This, too, serves our purposes.”
The ranks of the Magisterium, by tradition, could never number higher than ninety-nine. In practice actual membership usually fluctuated between seventy and ninety, only every rarely approaching that limit, but these days their ranks were rather more thinned. The White Knight and the Ashen Priestess had slain over a third of the Magisterium in a single day during Kairos’ War, and though replacements had come forward further losses had since been suffered to war and intrigues. Considering those slain by heroes had been the finest war mages of Stygia, and a great majority of the Black Vines party that had effectively ruled since the Carrion Lord’s intervention decades ago, the ensuing politics had been… fluid.
As a member in good standing of the Black Vines, Zoe had certainly felt the ground grow unsteady under her feet.
The coalition that’d succeeded at taking the reins and stacking the Courts and appointments had then promptly collapsed in the wake of the disastrous campaign into Procer, leaving as successor an even shakier alliance. The Ivory Tile party had widely been seen as the only rival to the Black Vines, before the last few years of war, but they’d lost too many of their prominent members to either heroes or defections. They’d survived long enough to be the tallest dwarf, however, and to burnish their reputation in this time of danger to Stygia they had allied with the only real military party left in the city: the Herons. Though the lesser of the two partners, the Herons had only been brought into the fold at the price of their leaders, the twins of the Sideris, being named commanders of all Stygian armies in the coming campaign.
Already there was talk of formalizing the alliance, of merging into a single greater party, and in Zoe’s opinion there was sense in it. The Herons typically advocated that Magisters should train as generals instead of simply leaving such duties to slaves, while the Ivory Tile was the champion of the politics of Haides the Elder – that balance in the League must be maintained, at the price of war if necessary. There was compatibility in ideals, even in the long view, which made such a merging possible. And after the leaders of the Herons had today scored a draw against General Basilia, perhaps the finest commander to come out of the Free Cities this generation, they would now have the prestige to take such a step without simply being gobbled up by the Ivory Tiles.
It was near enough to decided who the rulers of Stygia would be in the coming decade, bar disaster. Magister Zoe Ixioni watched the corners of the pavilion, where other magisters were speaking to each other in low murmurs, and smiled at nervous young Gorgion.
“Aretha the Raven, who twice defeated a Helikean field army using mostly sailors and whores, once said that in the Free Cities a general has more to fear from victory than defeat,” Zoe softly said. “Commit the words to memory, Magister Gorgion.”
She rose to her feet gracefully and took her leave from the young man, refusing the serving slave that came to offer her a full glass of wine and instead leaving the pavilion entirely. There was another tent, close by, where one could relieve themselves in privacy and relative comfort. Zoe began to head there but slowed her steps as soon as she was out of sight and then stopped. Before long, the woman she’d been waiting for arrived. Magister Phryne’s gaunt face was said to have been made this way by the strange magics she delighted in using, for she had once been a great beauty. Whatever the truth of that, Zoe had always found her appearance unsettling. Her politics, though, were almost painfully straightforward.
“The Pale Chariot will lend its support,” Magister Phryne said, with remarkable bluntness.
Zoe nodded. She’d expected as much the moment it became clear that the Herons were headed for positions of influence. The Pale Chariot as a party boasted only a half dozen reclusive mages whose personal cause was the safeguarding and improvement of magical knowledge in Stygia, so they tended to be left outside of political calculations. Which meant relatively few people bothered to notice that the only appointments they every sought outside the Court of Arcane was a single seat in the Court of Trades, which they always fought hard for. It was meant, Zoe Ixioni had bothered to notice, to safeguard their common interests in the steelworking industries whose profits happened to pay for all these costly experiments they liked to indulge in.
A detail of little import, unless you also knew that the leading Herons had strong investments in the very same trade and would not hesitate a moment to use their newfound prominence to stack the Court of Trades and award themselves all those lucrative contracts currently funding the Pale Chariot coffers.
“For which you have our gratitude,” Magister Zoe said. “The Keepers?”
“You have ours,” Magister Phryne said. “Amyntor Eliade is not affiliated with us.”
No, Zoe thought, but he does happen to be my cousin. The magister offered a demure smile and nothing else, for over a decade of diplomacy had schooled her well in keeping her thoughts hidden.
All that was left, now, was to take the plunge.
Merchant Prince Mauricius did not have an office, not in the sense his predecessor did.
Though the Princely Palace was his since he had been elected to the ancient and respectable office he now held, the old merchant had bought enough servants on those grounds to know it was as a leaking sieve. Perhaps he would see to mending that, should the mood ever take him, but until then he saw absolutely no need to keep any private papers and affairs out of his manse. Instead, when he was not attending sessions of the Forty-Stole Court or giving audience in the palace he preferred to retreat to his favorite establishment – Sub Rosa, tucked away near the Irenian Plaza at the heart of power in the City of Bought and Sold. There the merchant prince sipped at his Yan Tei rice wine, imported from across the sea and served warm.
A fine delicacy, he decided, and an interesting experience. The latter was perhaps more important, to a man of his advanced age. Novelty often interested him more than simple luxuries. What point was there in being one of the wealthiest men alive, if he did not use that wealth to experience everything under the sun? This particular evening, however it was not simply for the service he had come to Sub Rosa. The obsessive secrecy of the establishment was what he had sought it out for, not the foreign drink, for the diplomats he was to meet were not of the sort that it was diplomatic to entertain these days. The Tower had few allies left, and if Mauricius was reading the currents to the south correctly it was soon to have even fewer.
When the servants finally ushered in two unremarkable young men, of dark hair and simple clothing, the merchant prince cocked an eyebrow.
“That is an impressive glamour,” Mauricius greeted them.
He could almost see something around the edges giving it away, though, and held back a frown. He had begun to see much too well for a man his age, even one who had access to some of the finest enhancing rituals on Calernia. He was not certain whether or not to be pleased by the implication of that.
“Your compliment does us honour, Your Grace,” a pleasant speaking voice replied. “This one humbly accepts the praise on behalf of his mistress.”
The glamour fell, revealing a young man – though in a Praesi with golden eyes, as this one was, that semblance meant little – in fine red silks, dark of skin and finely formed. A Wasteland aristocrat, unlike the formal ambassador of the Tower in the city, and Dread Empress Malicia’s personal envoy. The other figure remained cloaked and hooded, standing still as the envoy slid into the seat on the other side of the table. The young man had not waited for permission, Mauricius noted, for all that he was using that obsequious Praesi formal diplomatic language.
“You forget your courtesies,” the Merchant Prince mildly said.
“This one was wary of waiting, Your Grace,” the envoy pleasantly smiled. “For this one’s mistress has grown uneasy of… long waits, in beautiful Mercantis.”
It was said that the Dread Empress of Praes knew black arts that let her make a puppet of a body far away, Mauricius knew. There were a hundred rumours of the like about every one of the madmen who claimed the Tower, of course, but this one had been repeated across enough years that it had the ring of truth. Was one such body, then, under the cloak?
“Pull down your hood,” Mauricius bluntly ordered.
The stranger obeyed, but it was not some dark-skinned homunculus that the Merchant Prince was gazing upon. It was, he found with a shiver, his own face. Immediately he reached for the rune carved onto the side of the table, which would-
Mauricius froze. The face of the insolent youth with golden eyes was as a blank mask.
“I dislike handling such matters personally,” Dread Empress Malicia calmly said. “But the free rein you have given the band of Named in the city forces my hand. I congratulate you for that much, Mauricius.”
The Merchant Prince fought, strained to break the spell.
“A Name?” the Dread Empress said, sounding surprised. “Or a claim, at least. Either way, it means that Ruling you is unfeasible in the long term. Which leaves me with only the less civilized path to take.”
Mauricius tried to scream as the thing wearing his face eagerly came forward, and even let out a small hiss when it lunged forward with a lamprey-like mouth and tore out a chunk of his throat.
“I do apologize,” Dread Empress Malicia conversationally said, “but my diabolists assure me that you must be devoured whilst living for the surface memories to be absorbed and the shape to become permanents. I would have had you poisoned beforehand otherwise, Mauricius.”
Pain, Gods the pain.
“Farewell, Merchant Prince,” the Dread Empress of Praes said. “May you choose your enemies more wisely in your next life.”
When the Magisterium appointed generals, by ancient custom these hallowed individuals were bestowed with a whip.
The reason why was simple: by law, no freeborn Stygian could serve as a soldier. To hold a military command was to rule over slaves, for which the proper tool was not sword or spear but the simple whip. Magister Zoe Ixioni has served as a diplomatic envoy for the Magisterium for over a decade and served on the Court of Manners for two consecutive terms as the formal representative to League councils – which while without practical power, was a very prestigious position – so she was quite aware of how the rest of the Free Cities thought of Stygian armies. The finest soldiers that were ever badly led, Theodosius the Unconquered had famously called them.
It was true that the Magisterium tended to choose its appointed generals for their skill in magic or intrigue rather than more straightforward military skills, which the oldest of the slave-officers of the phalanx were expected to be able to discharge on behalf of their masters. By association, interest in military matters was seen as either eccentric or outright distasteful. It was slave-work not fit for freeborn Stygians, much less members of the Magisterium. It was one of the reasons why the Herons had been a minor party, never swelling beyond nine sitters in Zoe’s lifetime. Now Andras and Kyra Sideris, the same twins leading the party that had lingered in irrelevance for decades, were being welcome into the camp to raucous cheers.
Giving away all their weapons save the whips to serving slaves with great ceremony the twins took off their helmets and let the glorious black locks whip free. They were a handsome pair, nearing middle-age but still in the prime of their life and wearing their armour with an ease that hinted at the truth of the old stories saying they’d spent a few years in Proceran fantassin companies during the Great War. The Spears of Stygia that had fought and bled during the day were not granted the same welcome, simply allowed to file in through side gates so the wounded might be tended to and the irreparably crippled discreetly poisoned.
Zoe left the Sideris twins basking in their glory, instead considering the nature of what some Atalantian philosopher-priest had named the ‘dilemma of the sword’. If authority came from the sword, then who could rule save soldiers? Like most claims out of Atalante, it was empty air when the priests claimed to have thought up the question: it had been at the heart of Stygia for centuries, a millennium almost. In the days after the fall of the great empire of Aenos Basileon, it was the eldest daughter of Aenia that had first risen to prominence. Ancient Stygia, under the patronage of the great cranes Retribution and Redress. The ruling polemarchs raised a great standing army and crushed the haphazard militias of their neighbours, forcing them to pay tribute, and for a time the Free Cities had been in Stygia’s palm.
Until the army deposed a ruling polemarch and installed in her place a popular officer instead.
The aftermaths of the coup, which ultimately failed, broke the back of the Stygian Empire. Delos and Atalante regained their independence, the tribute system collapsed and it was made law that never again would a freeborn Stygian serve as a soldier. Slaves, owned by the council of leading sorcerer-nobles that had succeeded the polemarchs, would be the city’s only warriors. Much time and thought was spent on how these Spears of Stygia would be kept under control, the methods crafted being wide and varied, but the most important of them was the collars. Enchanted leather bands that every slave-soldier would wear around their neck, which were linked to two greater artefacts: the Leashes. Through the Leashes, sorcerers could choke or kill a single soldier or a thousand with but a word.
This had solved the dilemma of the sword, some argued, but in truth it had simply moved around the pieces. It was barely a century before the first general tried to use the Leashes and command of the Spears of Stygia to take over the city by force, only stopped when the Magisterium instead choked every single soldiers in their own army to death by spell. Chastened and wary, the Magisterium ruled that no appointed general would ever be allowed to hold the greater artifacts and created the position of Keepers of the Leashes. Two Magisters, never of the same party or kin by three degrees of the appointed general, would be charged by the Court of Honours to serve as guardians and wielders of the single most important artefacts in Stygia.
Over the years additional precautions and checks had been added to the nature of the position of Keepers, but the institution had largely functioned as intended.
“It is madness, you know.”
Zoe glanced at the man at her side, eyes lingering on the noble lines of his face. Amyntor Eliade was a well-formed man, for all that his family had been disgraced when his eldest sister, a recently seated magister, had attempted to abolish slavery and destroy the Leashes. Nephele Eliade had so despised chains, it was said, that the Gods Above had granted her a Name for it. Zoe, who had ounce counted her as a friend as well as a cousin, knew better than to believe it simple hearsay. That bout of futility had destroyed Amyntor’s chances at amounting to anything in this lifetime, but Zoe’s cousin had decided to redeem the family name for future generations by seeking an appointment as one of the Keepers. He would, he had told the Magisterium in a passionate speech, dedicate his life to preserving what his sister had sought to destroy.
“The world has gone mad,” Zoe replied. “We do what we must to weather the storm.”
“It will threaten the very foundations of Stygia,” Amyntor warned. “What is it that has so moved you to act, Zoe? You have always been cautions. It cannot be the would-be Tyrant, we have known hundreds, or even the alliance with the Tower – your own Black Vines were ardent partisans of it for decades.”
Magister Zoe Ixioni thought of that stately hall where the First Prince of Procer had entertained the greats from all over Calernia, where powers had sparred and found victory or loss. She thought of what had followed in the wake of those days, the Peace of Salia with its Truce and Terms. The world is changing, she thought. There would be no returning to the old ways after this, no matter what some of her colleagues might delude themselves into believing.
“The tide rises, cousin,” Zoe murmured. “We may either rise with it or drown.”
And Zoe Ixioni had not spent decades climbing her way to power so that she could see it all collapse over her head. Amyntor sighed.
“So be it,” he said. “I expect Nephele would have smiled of it, if nothing else.”
Zoe was less certain, as Nephele Eliade had been surprisingly farsighted for all her moral naivete, but she knew better than to voice the thought. She parted from her cousin, meeting Magister Phryne’s eyes as she passed the other woman and receiving a nod. It was done, then. Magister Zoe passed through the crowd of servants and magisters, both parting for her, and was received with wary eyes by the Sideris twins. They had come down from their great war chariot, but both lingered near it. The prestige of the gilded thing was impressive to those easily impressed, which these days was too many of the Magisterium.
“Magister Ixioni,” Kyra Sideris greeted her, tone friendly in a way her eyes were not. “Do you come to offer congratulations?”
“I do,” Zoe said. “Your conduct of the battle was exemplary. All of Stygia is in your debt.”
Surprise from both twins, and the wariness thickened.
“You overpraise us,” Andras Sideris carefully said.
“If so, that is fortunate,” Magister Zoe replied, “for you are now both relieved from command.”
There was a heartbeat of surprise, then Kyra began to laugh. Her brother did not, eyes darkening.
“Such a dismissal would require a vote of the Magisterium,” Andras began, then froze.
All around them the Spears of Stygia began to stream in. Armed and ready, pushing the surprised magisters that had not been part of the conspiracy away from the edges of the forming circle.
“This is treason,” Kyra hissed, and she raised her whip.
The enchantments laid on it found no purchase on the collars binding the slave-soldiers, for the sorcery of both Leashes had already been used to sever the control of all lesser artefacts in the camp on the slaves.
“Surrender,” Zoe gently said. “While you still can.”
“We are winning, Ixioni,” Magister Andras urgently pressed. “Even now the Helikeans will be considering terms-”
“Terms have already been reached with General Basilia,” the diplomat said. “We will, tomorrow, offer our formal surrender and submission in exchange for which we will allowed to rule Stygia largely as we wish.”
Some small cities taken by Nicae would be returned as well, which would serve as a useful sweetener for the people when they returned home.
“That treaty will be worth nothing, when Basilia next grows hungry,” Andras scorned.
“It will be guaranteed by Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer,” Zoe Ixioni smiled.
The utter startlement on their faces was a pleasure to behold. The Spears began to arrest members of the Ivory Tile and the Herons, the few magisters who’d sat the fence of the coup – for this was very much a coup – looking on nervously.
“You lie,” Kyra Sideris accused. “She refused the Magisterium when we reached out, what could you possibly offer that would be worth her while?”
“The Magisterium,” Zoe said, “will formally abolish slavery.”
In name, at least. There would be no more slaves, but there would be a great many indentured servants – it would be easy enough to simply pay slaves less than their upkeep required and let that debt trickle down to their children as it did in the laws of Mercantis. It would maintain the old practices with a deniable veneer, not unlike the practices of Ashur. If there were some troubles, well, it would not be difficult to pass laws through the Court of Order that stripped debtors the rights reserved for free citizens of Stygia and further tilt the advantage away from the freed slaves.
“You’ll die for this, Ixioni,” Kyra Sideris raged, fingers tight around the whip. “I’ll have my revenge, I swear it.”
Magister Zoe considered that for a moment, then nodded and walked away.
“Kill them both,” Zoe ordered a slave-officer as she passed him.
She did not stay to see it unfold, for she had a formal letter of surrender to draft.
It was as the White Knight had suspected: the Merry Balladeer’s song did not simply reach ears, it reached souls directly.
In other circumstances that would have been a mere interesting fact, but Antigone had been taught the ‘ways-of-seeing-the-world’ – there was no word in any language knew that accurately translated the word in the tongue of the Gigantes – and that meant she could follow the resonance. The Balladeer’s song, a cheerful ditty from Salamans about a priest and the three goats outsmarting him, marked out every ensouled undead in hearing range for the Witch of the Woods to smash without needing line of sight. Two Revenants died before they even realized what was happening and with every Bind in a range of a mile crushed to dust the lesser dead were nothing more than a witless horde.
They had struck hard and struck fast, but there came a time where the dice had to be rolled anyhow. Only Antigone had the strength to destroy the bridge the dead were raising, but it would take her time to perform such a great working. That meant it was time for blades to talk. They found a hill with a singe narrow path up and Hanno, tired of the elaborate schemes that seemed to plague the world, instead made it all simple: he and Rafaella held the path, the Stalwart Apostle saw to healing and the Balladeer sang. The White Knight raised his sword and shield, his missing fingers itching at the stumps, and let death come knocking as Antigone’s spell swelled behind him.
It was the simplest kind of fight there could be: the dead came and they were funnelled up the path. And they kept coming, corpse after corpse. Revenants, eventually, but paltry things compared to the Scourges, and Hanno’s sword bit deep. The Valiant Champion tossed away the born that tried them, crawling up the slope, and even as a great wyrm followed by flock of buzzards came down screaming on them the sorcery of the Witch of the Woods was unleashed. Hanno felt the Light coming, swift and clean in a way it had not been in too long, and even as in the distance a pulsing black sphere spun and began to swallow up the half-finished bridge he climbed the wyrm.
It ended with his sword going through the skull as Rafaella dragged an entire flock of buzzards into her domain, emerging bloodied and wounded but victorious even as Hanno crawled up the broken remains of the wyrm and came to stand atop the skull where his sword was still stuck up to the hilt. The Valiant Champion climbed up to his side, still bleeding even after the finest healing of the Stalwart Apostle. Some of the wounds would scar, not that Rafaella was likely to mind. The two of them stood together and watched hundreds of pounds of stones being sucked in by Antigone’s great spell, ripping to pieces a great bridge of stone that must have been the better part of a mile long.
“We will have to sweep the other bank,” the White Knight said. “Else they will be able to simply resume the work.”
“Tomorrow,” Rafaella grunted. “We fought good, but tired now. No wine here, very dread.”
“Dreadful,” Hanno absent-mindedly corrected.
“Not full,” Rafaella reproached. “This the problem, Hanno.”
He chuckled, the smile staying with him. It was an old game they were playing, but one he regarded fondly. The Valiant Champion was the sole survivor of the band he had led to defeat in the Free Cities, perhaps his oldest friend in the world after Antigone herself.
“Let’s see to the others,” he finally said. “We can retreat into Twilight afterwards, when-”
He froze, something flickering at the edge of his vision, and turned.
In the distance, far to the south where Hainaut lay, the night sky lit up with falling stars.