Interlude: Flow

“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-

“Freeze.”

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.

103 thoughts on “Interlude: Flow

  1. Sinead

    Huh. Wasn’t expecting Stygia to actually try and drag itself foreword. I guess that’s the contrast between it and Mercantis in terms of who will drag themselves into the new Age, and who will be left behind.

    Liked by 12 people

    1. Sinead

      To be clear to any future comments, I realise that one can do really messed up things with debt slavery (look at Mercantis, or our own history), but I thought Stygia was going to be razed never to rise again. Instead, they are trying to adapt in what ever way they see as the path forward.

      Liked by 11 people

      1. I don’t think they’re trying to adapt at all. They’re bending on a talking point so they can maintain the form and function of their slave empire. This isn’t them adapting, it’s them making use of a political trick so they don’t have to adapt.

        Liked by 5 people

        1. masterofbones

          Unless the definition of “no slavery” is incredibly loose, the slaves will be allowed to go where they wish. If there is no encouragement for them to stay (like survivable wages), they will leave.

          A mass exodus is inevitable if they refuse to change at all.

          Like

          1. It’s right there in the text, the magisters will be holding them in debt bondage as legally bound indentured servants (in the real world that almost always comes with restricted movements), and will go so far as to strip rights from debtors if that doesn’t achieve the desired result.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. Cicero

              It’s clear that the magisters fully intend to make the freedom of the slaves a token charade, untrue in any meaningful sense.

              And yet… words have power. Being told that they are not slaves has it’s own power, that I suspect will be far harder for the magisters to control than they believe.

              So while I would not call this liberation for the slaves of Stygia, I also think that is an important step on the path to that liberation. Perhaps securing this advancement is wiser than pushing further for more – since pushing for more likely will involve Stygia fighting to the death (and the death of all it’s slaves) to try and survive.

              Liked by 3 people

              1. jamesc9

                If anyone may buy the debt of an indentured debtor, then they’re positioned for something equivalent to the golem revolution in Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork.

                Like

          2. Velrix

            In the middle age the peasants were free. To serve their Lord, they were bound to their birth land and were the propriety of their lordship. They needed to pay to use tools and the land that they farmed, then they needed to pay the levy. Tax and war manpower.
            They were traded as common goods between Lords to expand their territory and found new villages, travel without permit was a crime.
            Oh but they were Free.

            Liked by 5 people

            1. Abrakadabra

              No, what you said is false. In most of europe, the peasants had the freedom to move wherever they wanted, had their own rights, and they could become even completely free Man if they became citizens of a city (which was not easy) etc. There were places where this was not true, but mostly NOT IN THE MIDDLE AGES, but later. (Just like witch hunts, which were not the crime of the MIDDLE age but later AGES.)

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          1. Sinead

            I do believe you. The potential difference for me is that for our history, debt peonage was enforced internationally (with the various empires supporting each other in slapping all ceded territories with debt).

            However here, this is a lesser polity doing the same thing, and with a lot of larger players who will scorn them.

            It is progress, because it’s bowing to external forces, not internal ones to make this change. The other nations will have noticed this.

            Liked by 4 people

      2. If they could solve their damn problem with their army being incapable of being maintained to its fullest potential extent without taking control of the political system I’d count that as moving forwards. They might be able to conquer the Free Cities that way.
        Though I guess making compromises on the appearance of their systems in order to make diplomatic gains possible is a step forwards, just not much of one without a coherent diplomatic plan.

        Like

      1. Sinead

        True, but the leadership is also keeping an eye on the rising coallition and taking the path of being less aggravating as a form of survival. Whereas Mercantis thought to play both sides which had much bigger teeth than them.

        So less overall social change, and more the fact that allowing external influence to bend policy like that is an interesting change that may see more rapid change in time, since this debt peonage isn’t coming from a major power bloc as it has for our own history.

        Liked by 13 people

          1. Abrakadabra

            Nah, it is copying. Which is in itself is a kind of slave mentality, in Which you WHO copy others relagating yourself to an inferior status.
            It May lead to progress, but it also can lead to becoming a sort of willing colony, Which gives up its sovereignty willingly and is absorbed.

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            1. jamesc9

              I’m thinking about what humans are.

              I’m thinking that we’re the animals who tell failure stories around camp-fires.

              I’m thinking that, if I could copy the good version of something, where someone else has already paid for all of the mistakes, then doing so is a very human plan, and also saves me from paying for a bunch of mistakes.

              Liked by 2 people

  2. I feel like I’m missing an interlude with a chapter title called Ebb. I know it’s not that relevant to current events, but it’s been mentioned together so much that it’s ingrained in me now.

    Like

          1. Well, while Bellerophon is a take on communism (warped or otherwise), and founded by former Stygian slaves to boot, it’s main theme is fighting the social system — not an economic one. Meanwhile, given how Stygian slaves are about to get screwed by “free market”, I expect they will blame not the tyranny of laws (for by law, they are free), but the tyranny of economics (which is no less strict).

            Liked by 3 people

  3. Alex

    Ah poor Hanno. One high moment of satisfaction, clarity, and purpose – then Meteor Rain brings him crashing back to reality.

    He’s always so composed, I wonder what his reaction will be at Tariq’s death and the devastation he wasn’t present to fight against.

    Liked by 14 people

    1. Insanenoodlyguy

      I’m more concerned about the moral implications. Tariq has done something that could charitably be considered controversial. The White Knight is in the midst of an exestential moral quandry, and the elder paragon of light just committed the most widespread familicide in history. I mean I’m sure the Doom of Liesse still boasts the higher numbers, and I do believe on the whole the Dominion will survive this, but this is a hell of a time for Hanno to be confronted with something that begs to be judged (by Hanno, not the White Knight. There’s nobody to flip the coin for even if it still worked after all).

      Liked by 4 people

      1. IDKWhoitis

        Most of the human losses were soldiers and while there will be a political clusterfuck in the South, I don’t think most people will begin to question what the Pilgrim did. Rather for Hanno, I’m worried about the implications that he is now alone, to chart the course of what Heroes will act and accept in the incoming Age of Order Cat has built. The responsibility will outright crush him, because like Cat, he won’t be able to deal with a simple day ever again.

        What we just watched was the last gasp of the Age of Wonders, with the Giants dead and gone, with the Pilgrim smashing the stars into the ground, and the last permissible/reliable usage of Angels for possibly ever.

        Hanno got to enjoy one last simple fight, just holding his ground in the face of a howling horde. But the Dead King and Cat are much more dangerous and harder to fight against. The Dead King because he is a vicious bastard that will punish his every mistake with teeth and blood. Cat because she is cruel and so reasonable. There will be a hundred petty villains and every sin under the sun, but if anyone was going to eat the soul of Hanno, it will be one of the aforementioned greats.

        He will have to steel himself now and go into the breech prepared (physically, morally, and spiritually), or he will be caught flatfooted against the incoming tide and be swept away.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Juff

    Typo Thread:

    Helikeans kataphraktoi > Helikean kataphraktoi
    privately paid fund (missing words?)
    had sent most > had spent most
    its the lesser > its lesser
    every sought > ever sought
    permanents > permanent
    being welcome > being welcomed
    single soldiers > single soldier
    ounce > once
    been cautions > been cautious
    will allowed > will be allowed
    debtors the > debtors of the
    language knew > language he knew
    singe narrow > single narrow
    the born that > the beorn that

    Liked by 4 people

    1. standardtypo

      Typos [standard]:
      Helikeans kataphraktoi -> Helikean kataphraktoi
      had sent most -> had spent most
      its the lesser -> its lesser
      every sought -> ever sought
      permanents -> permanent
      being welcome -> being welcomed
      single soldiers -> single soldier
      ounce -> once
      been cautions -> been cautious
      will allowed -> will be allowed
      debtors the -> debtors of the
      language knew -> language he knew
      singe narrow -> single narrow
      the born that -> the beorn that

      Liked by 4 people

  5. Matthew Wells

    Well, as if being in Cat’s sights wasn’t bad enough, Malicia has lost all ability to scheme effectively. Seriously, shapeshifting imposter going up against the Mystery Solving Band? Next she’ll be deploying sapient echidnas.

    Liked by 18 people

    1. Crash

      Gods, sapient echidnas WHEN? I need it now.

      Malicia lost her cool a long time ago it seems, she’s just been a bit slower about going the way of Tyrants it seems. Doomsday devices, absolute certainty that her plans will work and now Devil-based puppetry.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Insanenoodlyguy

      She’s in cornered beast mode. She’s not completely lost her touch though, she just pulled a Black and aborted a name just before that would have become a problem for her. But yeah, the story is shaping now. The Girl from Callow is about to climb the tower, so Malicia is becoming the villian you remember in the story. On a certain meta level it’s also part of the death throes of the Age of Wonders. Black, Cat, Akua, Abigail (Dread Empress Abdicant, who literally can’t give the position away for no lack of trying), whomever sits on the throne next, it won’t be how it’s been up till this point and likely never will again. Malicia, in some ways more than Neshamah, is now the final champion of the ending age. Even when they know all hope is lost, those never go anyway but big and loud.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Shveiran

        Though I agree with yoru expectations, I would phrase this not as Malicia losing her touch but as Malicia being once more proven unskilled at Story-fu.
        She is trying to salvage the political and economical pressure on the GA; that just happens to be the entirely wrong battle.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. shikkarasu

        I’m a little disappointed, since she got where she is by not repeating the mistakes of old Empresses. I’ve wanted to like Malicia since Book 1, and she terrified me at first, but now? Now I feel like Cat is just going to walk over and step on her. Like, not even invade Praes; just walk up the stairs with Zeze, Archer, and Nakamakua. Malicia has no Chancellor, no Calamities, and most of the High Lords would be eager to see the Tower change hands, even if Malicia has them under her thumb.

        Liked by 3 people

  6. First i thought Zoe’s POV was a setup for a repeat to what happened to that Merchant prince but now i see they both saw what is coming but react diferently: Mauricius thought he could game the odds and continue, basically unwilling to see an important change nor the size of the conflict and paid the price.

    Zoe meanwhile sees it and realizes things have to change to survive, but doesn’t see enough, it is ironic she considers Nephele naive when i think her brother is right, she would be laughing because she knows Stygia’s days are counted at least as slavers. She mentioned merchantis but we saw that even Cat was surprised about the “legal” slavery so it is not common knowledge, she probably knows because Stygia is the sole/biggest partner in it. What i mean is that the rest of Calernia won’t stand for it plus in these troubled times what better cause wil a ruler need that to end slavery? even Praes is against it so any new tyrant is sure to ride the antislavery wave to use it.

    And i think Malicia just made a mistake, she mentioned the painted knife band as the main reason she is dong this so obviously she is going to opose it 1 way or another, this is just recipe for they to uncover her nefarious plot.

    Liked by 9 people

    1. I would say Nephele would laugh because she would know this is the first step. It can take a while, but the step has been taken.

      It’s not the best case scenario she would have wanted, no. But she would still laugh.

      (Also, can I just say I’m so so glad Nephele is back in the narrative for a bit? That we learned more about her and YES SHE’S FRIENDS WITH ZOE?)

      Liked by 12 people

      1. That is exactly what i meant, i think something was lost in the road inbetween my mind and my fingers xD, i mean that is ironic Zoe calls her naive when the naive one here is her thinking like that and that Nepehele would laugh because she could see how this would develope from here on and where is going.

        Liked by 3 people

      1. Shveiran

        It was unreliable against a Named.

        In fact, it was unreliable around Named too. I think that’s why she went at it this way rather than risk the Royal Conjurer or someone else figuring out he was being controlled and breaking the compulsion.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Earl of Purple

          It’s not even that it’s unreliable upon a Name- it’s that the heavier-handed mind control is detectable, whereas simply bidding some to Stop or Shut Up isn’t- it’s one effect, then over. But another consideration is that the Name he was growing into was Merchant Prince- another ruler-type Name, and Speaking requires authority. Malicia wouldn’t have authority over the Merchant Prince, if he’s a Named. Currently, her authority is that she’s got a Name and he hasn’t. He gets one, she loses that.

          Liked by 2 people

  7. ninegardens

    I… can’t help but think that Hanno’s band won too easily.
    In the sense that… the committed enough power to the bridge that they won *easily* which means that they could (in theory) have committed less and still won….

    And having that extra power back in H-town would have been *real* nice.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t think so. DK attacked the weakest link – if they were weak enough for him to break, he wouldn’t have made this easy for them. Either success was his win condition, and he estimated Hainaut the softer target – and it was a draw. If the bridge crew was weaker, well, they would not have had the kind of desperate reserves Hainaut had to throw at the fire to at least beat it down. That wouldn’t have come to a draw.

      No, this was the better arrangement.

      TL;DR their opposition was not a constant – it was easy bc DK decided to not commit resources to try where he couldnt succeed. If they had been weaker they would have faced enough to beat them.

      Liked by 10 people

      1. Sinead

        Furthermore, they _needed_ that bridge gone for any long term holding of that border. Witch of the Woods is one of the few engines of mass destruction available to do that (mobility was key), and thus the rest of the strategy is built around that.

        Hanno and Rafella are single point defenses that may have helped shut down the Scourges, but if Hawk survived them, then the rest of the battle basically goes the same way (with perhaps Hanno taking Vivienne’s place as a last charge, but with potentially less effect compared to the rising Princess (though there is a balance eith established Name versus nstionalistic pull that may make the difference here)

        Side thought: is there a difference between the two?

        So I don’t think they swing the battle so much that Starfall would not be required. In fact Hanno superceding Vivienne might have had long term negative concequences between undermining Vivienne and influencing Arthur.

        Liked by 6 people

    2. Hmm. I’m not so sure about that. Who could they have pulled back from the bridge that would have saved the day?

      Not the Witch of the Woods. She would have been incredibly helpful at Hainaut, especially against the Crab, but without her power the bridge wasn’t coming down.

      Not the White Knight. Without him as a Band of Five lynchpin I really doubt the bridge would have gone down as easily. (He had to kill a freaking dragon during this operation, not many Named can do that). And while he would have been helpful in Hainaut, he would have served a similar role to Vivienne, and he doesn’t bring any Crab-beating abilities to the table. Maybe he’d have taken out Hawk or stonewalled the Prince of Bones, but that’s saving a few Named, not saving the battle.

      Without the Valiant Champion they would have had one tank protecting the whole group, that’s a non-starter. Without the Stalwart Apostle they’d have had no healing, which easily could have resulted in a party wipe. And neither could have fixed Hainaut.

      The Merry Balladeer maybe could have stayed back and they’d have gotten the bridge down, just with more difficulty. But the Merry Balladeer, most especially of all of them, would not have saved Hainaut.

      Liked by 9 people

      1. I would trade the Witch for another sorcerer (Rogue, maybe?), or even swap out the band entirely. There are ways to bring down a bridge other than sheer firepower, but there was basically no other way to bring down the Crab and sweep the walls of Hainaut but the Witch or someone of her caliber. And losing an entire army at Hainaut is much worse than losing a band of five at the bridge.

        And not opening the can of angels at Hainaut means that the DK doesn’t retaliate with demons, which means that the Gigantes are alive to fortify the border instead of sacrificing themselves to seal the breach.

        We have the benefit of hindsight, of course, and Cat’s plan seemed solid at the time, but I do think they could have done better in theory.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Shveiran

          Well, yes. In theory.
          But honestly, the lychpin were the drow and Sve Noc, and the plans the DK made to deal with them.
          I don’t think Hanno or even the Witch could have really changed that without knowing it was coming.
          I guess their addition to the roster could have changed things so that the Hawk didn’t get a shot at Catherine, which, admittedly, might have changed a lot. The DK would either not have sprung his trap or found it insufficient if the FUN was awake and kicking. And even just not having lakeomancy deployed on the army could have changed things.
          But that really requires optimal deployment, and that means either hindsight or a hell of Providence.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. True, nobody could have predicted the trap for the drow. But even that was pretty close – if Cat had been awake, Sve Noc could have used her as an escape route. It’s plausible that a little more firepower would mean that either Cat has something else to throw at the Archmage or that the Hawk is too busy to get a shot at Cat.

            Like

        2. I’m pretty sure the Witch would have faced off against Tumult, with similar results to the Red Flower Vales — meaning the city would still have been destroyed. And with the Witch on the field, he wouldn’t have been deployed against the “weaker” Alliance players, so Akua wouldn’t have gotten her shot at him first. Remember Cat’s early insight: Everything DK had at Hainaut was ultimately disposable.

          Like

    3. TeK

      Nah, they won easily because with such an overwhelming defeat we’re due some good news. If they spared less, they would’ve diluted the story. Besides, they couldn’t risk DK not stacking everything on the victory in Hainaut. We know he did, but if Cat had a Practical Guide before her the Creation probably would be already under her control.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. edrey

    two things, a claimant for a name while that specific band is there in mercantis, it has to be the mercant, the six menber of the band. also, wouldnt the augur notice mauritius death? she notice the death of ashur king after all. the second is Hanno, wasnt his personal problem a little too easy to solve or is just me? if he see hainut and the problem is back, it would be a mess

    Like

    1. The Ashuran guy was an important ally that Agnes was most likely keeping an eye on specifically, while Mauricius is… not. Also, it’s not unlikely Malicia decided on this scheme and executed it too quickly for Agnes to take notice – Amadeus’s approach, improvization beats her.

      As for Hanno… yeah, that’s a temporary fix. Maybe it’ll be enough of a foundation for him to build up on when he’s back (especially with Cat having made that pledge to Tariq, which is the reverse of her previous promise not to meddle).

      Liked by 4 people

      1. edrey

        It was not about preventing his death but the augur noticing his death and sending the band, after all if the augur look for mauricius fate and find nothing because is a devil now the answer is obvious unless its explained how to trick her vision.

        Like

    2. caoimhinh

      Hanno’s problem was always a psychological one, so a change of mind solves it.
      Contrary to Vivienne that had been eating at herself in depression and self-doubt for years until she lost her Name, Hanno was simply “tired of this shit” when it came to schemes and compromises needed as a political leader and pivotal figure in an international alliance.

      Now he is back in simpler stuff, fighting the Enemy as a Hero and without having to think about stuff beyond how to win the battle. Even Catherine felt invigorated when she was back in fighting rather than doing rulership, diplomatic, and political stuff. To the point of saying “it’s good to be home” when there was an attack to the Arsenal requiring her to battle in person.

      But unlike Catherine, Hanno does not excel in that kind of stuff. She hates it, but at least she is good at it.

      Hanno is a cool counselor and a people person, but from the very beginning it was stated that he is neither talented in nor willing to learn the art of political schemes when it comes to nations and organizations.
      Him acting like a proper White Knight (in his mind) for once rather than being in a room making hard choices and compromises, is like a breath of fresh air for Hanno.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I feel like this is sort of just avoiding his problems, though. The big problem he’s been wrestling with for most of the book is that “I do not judge” is itself a judgement call – it means you’re delegating your judgement to some other entity – the Seraphim, or a mundane legal system – and that system can be fallible, so what do you do when you think the verdict is unjust? You can’t answer a moral dilemma with “Try not to think about it too much and do something else.”

        I suppose the breath of fresh air is a good thing, since he’s been stuck on that for a long time and it’s good to acknowledge that even if the law is imperfect it still gets a lot of obvious stuff right, but I don’t think it resolves the dilemma in a satisfying way. And I think the ending underlines that – immediately after Hanno thinks “Yes, I’m doing what is right, in the right place,” he sees something to make him ask “But what if I was somewhere else instead?”

        Like

  9. It’s interesting to think about how all these pieces are setting up the next book.

    We’ve got Malicia making moves in the Free Cities in direct opposition to some of the Truce’s Named. Definitely a tie-in to Catherine (and Black) bringing the story to Praes and Malicia’s court to get those much needed diabolists. It’ll be interesting to see why Malicia is so interested in the Free Cities and how that’s going to come up in negotiations/war.

    We’ve got Stygia in the Free Cities making transparently bad faith deals with the Grand Alliance. Deal which Cordelia is either swallowing out of pragmatism, or actually going to take them to task for. So that’s more maneuvering in the Free Cities, they’re definitely going to be a focal point.

    And then there’s the White Knight. Effortlessly victorious in a straightforward Band of Five mission which during which his Name fit well and came easily. Now suddenly without his mentor, his friend, and his peer. Coming back to a sudden year+month+day ceasefire (well, “ceasefire”, I’m sure the Dead King’s not letting up his mundane undead assaults) during which the goal will be to bring the Dread Empire Praes on board with fighting the Dead King. His role (and Role) in the coming book is not at all certain or clear.

    It’ll be interesting to see how all these elements tie together.

    Liked by 6 people

  10. Frivolous

    I believe this move by Stygia to change sides and go over to the Alliance is the meaning of this quote in Extra Chapter: Grand:

    “I was following far threads,” Agnes said. “In the south. They grow clearer now, fates are precipitating.”

    This is the first time we’ve seen Stygian political parties mentioned, much less named, yes? Black Vines, Ivory Tiles, Herons, Pale Chariot.

    I don’t believe we’ve seen mention of the Court of Manners, the Court of Honours, the Court of Arcane, the Court of Trades, or the Court of Order, either.

    I’m afraid Mauricius never stood a chance of resisting Malicia, not without foreknowledge. If he could have hidden from her, he might have lived, but once she got within Speaking range of him, he was doomed.

    It’s a pity. But she kept a secret her facility with Speaking through possessed intermediaries, and Mauricius doesn’t seem like the kind of person to go delving deeply into Name lore and Aspects. Too materialistic.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Frivolous

      Addendum: I really want to know if what Mauricius believed in Interlude: Ebb is still true or was ever true, that the Wasteland doesn’t fear Catherine.

      I suspect Cat is currently not in the top 5 threats to Malicia in Malicia’s own estimation, but that’s only because Cat was focused on Keter, not on Praes.

      Those who are in the top 5 threats to Malicia probably include Amadeus + Ranger (not sure they can be treated as separate entities right now), First Prince Cordelia, Empress-claimant Sepulchral. Maybe High Lady Wither, who has to be aware that Malicia’s reign is faltering, and she was a goblin matron, with all that entails.

      But not Cat. i don’t think Malicia respects Catherine very much. Probably thinks of her the same way Scribe thinks of her and Akua thought of her: boorish and thuggish. Predictable.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Darkening

        I mean, Malicia was pretty dismissive of her when Ime tried to warn her about Fey!Cat being crazy and ready to drop a lake on Ater at the slightest provocation. Should be interesting to see how Cat approaches it. Y’know, it’s an interesting parallel that Cat is considered a prodigy at Speaking when that’s Malicia’s main weapon. I bet we’re gonna see Malicia try to speak at Cat at some point and have her completely No-sell it or even turn it around and Speak at Malicia.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Earl of Purple

    Oh, man! The replacement of the Merchant Prince means we might get an interlude from the Relentless Magistrate’s band, and that means more Poisoner. She really interests me, and I would love that.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. It doesn’t feel like Hanno’s internal conflict was resolved even though Light came to him more swiftly. Maybe it’s because we didn’t see much of his thoughts but the problem of whether to believe in the Tribunal, and what to do now that they’re silent, is still very much present in the background.

    It didn’t look like a test of faith. Just a removal of complications until it was obvious what the right thing to do was. I’m still expecting him to go through some sort of tribulation anyway.

    All that’s left for Basilia is Delos, Penthes and Bellerophon. Delos was already somewhat aligned with them so perhaps making concessions would be good enough. Letting them set up the bureaucracy of her future Empire, possibly? Penthes will need to be taken by force and I’m honestly not sure about Bellerophon. I guess the People will vote on it?

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Abrakadabra

        Which still bugs me. Since they are so set against tyrants, why not against the dead King, WHO is the biggest of them all, and enslaves people even beyond death?

        Like

    1. Sinead

      I don’t think there is a wrong choice to be had for Hanno. The battle was always going to be a multi-pronged attack that was going to be a roll of the dice if they would hold.

      And that bridge _needed_ to go down.

      To be honest, not having Hanno with his crisis of faith in the middle of all that is probably a good thing, since out of all the Heroes we have seen at that battle, Hanno might have been most vulnerable to despair. The others fought hard, but at least from all Named perspective, everyone was willing to roll the dice on actually uncertain odds. I don’t know if Hanno would be willing to.

      Plus, would Hanno have approved of “Blood and Smoke”?

      As for the evolution of the Free Cities, I find it interesting the idea of fulling intergrating the Free City infrastructure like that. Such a vision is a good reason for thd Free Cities not to have a stronger presence in the War against Death.

      Though I suspect some form of failure if Cat’s Bismark Forecast is actual foreshadowing.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. superkeaton

    Man, Black’s outrage at the fortune of Heroes really makes its point clear, here. The Heroes get the easy work, while Cat’s dealing with the Real Shit, costing her a personal friend, an eye, and the Pilgrim. Though likely the Dead King accounted for this, feeding them scraps while he deals with the main course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Um, the Pilgrim *is* a hero. There were a lot of heroes at Hainaut, and not all of them survived.

      And Black himself has probably the least grounds to complain, seeing as he’s put dozens of heroes in an early grave over the years. The only reason heroes always win “in the end” is because we don’t say the story is over until a hero wins. It’s a trick of definitions, not a law of the universe.

      Liked by 4 people

  14. ChillyPepper

    I think I can gander a wild guess at Malicia’s play. She will probably get a party to the tower just in time for Black ascendance, and probably forcing his hand into keeping the empire they all built somehow?

    Wild guesses are my thing!

    Like

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