Chapter 3: Chat

“I must say, Chancellor, you’ve become quite the conversationalist.”
– Dread Empress Maledicta II

The room had been a gaol, once upon a time. Not one the Fairfaxes ever owned up to having, but the ruling dynasty of Callow had not remained on the throne by being faint-hearted. Unlike the luxurious prison that was the Songbird’s Cage, this was a dark and ugly pit. Not the kind of place you sent someone if you ever expected them to come out. The late and unlamented Governor Mazus had apparently used it as dumping grounds for people he believed would cause more terror by being disappeared than known dead, and expanded what had once been a single pair of rooms to a large underground complex of seven. I’d had it sealed off before my coronation, and not a soul was allowed here now. Bare stone walls surrounded me, cleared of manacles, and the only ornament was the seat I’d brought down here myself. I closed the steel door behind me and froze it shut before taking a deep breath. Winter came easy.

It always did.

Ice crept across the walls hungrily, gaping maws of frost that devoured every nook and cranny until all that was left was a hall of glittering mirrors. It’d been as difficult as snapping a finger, and there was a part of me that delighted in using the might of my mantle. But then the world sharpened. Grew jagged. I could feel, with dim horror, everything that I was begin to calcify. To set in immovable stones. That would have been dangerous enough, but I was not merely fae. My title was Winter’s and Winter knew nothing as intimately as darkness and hunger. I sat down on the chair and forced myself to think as little as I could. It was almost cowardly, but I’d rather not have to confront the kind of thoughts that would surface if I pondered anything too deeply in this state. Gods, I could use a drink. The alcohol was one of the few things that blunted the edges of this. That made me feel like I was still human. But even if I’d been willing to embrace that crutch right now, I could not. Hakram had, before he left, exacted an oath from me.

Never while on campaign, or attending affairs of state. The oath was to end with our reunion, whenever that may be. Adjutant had expressed… worries to me in private, twice now. I’d been irritated, considering Indrani drank like a fish and no one ever lectured her, but he was right in that Archer wasn’t wearing a crown. Unlike me. The sharpness of the ache for a cup in my hand was whispering to me that Hakram might just have been right. He did have that nasty habit, didn’t he? I breathed in and out slowly, then reached for the power again. This had been an aspect, once. Fall. Now it was just a part of me, true as hair or toes. When it’d been crystallized into a single word it’d been stronger – no perhaps not that, simply more rigid – but whatever had been lost was more than made up by the breadth of what I could now achieve with this power. Before, I would never have been able to forge this half-world I was now painting over the room with brushstrokes of night. The threshold of my domain, the thought came, forged of instinct and inhuman certainty. I bit my lip, strong enough to draw blood.

Pain, that most human of sensations. It cleared out some of the ice and I let out a relieved breath. I had to see to myself before the First Prince graced me with her presence. That and play the card up my sleeve.

“I grant you leash,” I said, voice echoing. “I grant you eyes and ears, tongue and feet, at my sufferance.”

With a throaty chuckle Akua Sahelian’s shade stepped out of the Mantle of Woe. Even in this half-death, she remained beautiful. High cheekbones and perfectly styled eyebrows, her dress of red and gold tightly clinging to curves I could only envy. The only thing marring that beauty was the gaping bloody hole in her chest where I’d ripped out her heart.

“Freedom,” the Diabolist mused. “Limited, but then is that not true of all freedoms?”

“Now that I’ve let you out of the lamp,” I said, “for the first of my three wishes I would like peace for Calernia.”

She cast me a disapproving looks.

“You know very well that djinn do not grant wishes,” she said. “That is mere Callowan ignorance.”

“You make a terrible genie, Akua,” I told her. “I’m going to trade you for a lantern one of these days, you know? They’re about as useful and they don’t talk back.”

“Your insistence on levity is a mark of poor breeding, dearest,” she said. “You must overcome it.”

I had a few less than polite things to reply to that with, including a reminder that if she was so clever she wouldn’t have ended up sown into my collar, but it would have to wait. I could feel my guest arriving. The darkness shivered, and just like that the First Prince sat across from me. I’d not been sure that she’d bite when I sent Thief with the amulet I’d woven strands of my domain into, but to my pleasure she had. She was covered with so many miracles she almost glowed and she was very careful never to leave her seat, but she was here anyway. Hasenbach was not a reckless woman by nature, by my reckoning, but I knew exactly why she’d taken the risk to venture into even the outskirts of my domain: the Augur. How deeply that woman’s visions ran was still a subject of much speculation across the whole Empire, but I’d banked on her being able to tell I genuinely had no intention of turning this into a trap. I needed the First Prince too badly to ever consider taking her life, even if it’d been possible. There was a moment of silence, as the Proceran gathered her bearings. I said nothing, patiently waiting.

Her Most Serene Highness Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer, Prince of Rhenia and Princess of Salia, Warden of the West and Protector of the Realms of Man. Quite a mouthful of titles for a woman who was only twenty-six years old and had become the sovereign ruler of the largest – and arguably most powerful – nation on Calernia before the age of twenty. This was likely as close to meeting in person as we’d ever come, so as always I took a moment to study her. She was impeccably clothed in dark blue I’d been told was part of the heraldry of her home principality Rhenia, the dress rather conservative but still flattering to her frame. It made her shoulders look slimmer, I thought. Hasenbach was best known for her skill as a diplomat, but she’d been born with a warrior’s frame. Her long golden hair cascaded down her neck in perfect ringlets, needing no ornament but their own richness, but there was a discreet touch of golden eye shadow that made her blue eyes stand out even more vividly. On her brow was a circlet of white gold, tastefully understated considering the power it represented. I’d seen beautiful women in my day, some hauntingly so, and honestly would not count the First Prince among them. She was not plain, not exactly, but all the most striking parts of her appearance were careful artifice.

That did nothing to detract from her presence, even in this half-realm of mine. Though seated on a mere cushioned and sculpted chair, she radiated that… something. The unspoken pull that surrounded people like Black and Malicia, or even Juniper. That spark that made the weight they bore into something that dragged others into their orbit. No, she was not someone to ever underestimate. The more I learned about her ascension to the throne and the years that had followed, the warier I was becoming of her. The pit of vipers she ruled was as deadly as the Imperial court in many ways, and she’d retained rule of it without having a cudgel like Black to call on. She met my eyes, but did not speak. Akua softly laughed, walking around the First Prince’s silhouette with the grace of a cat before leaning her head over the Proceran’s shoulder.

“She will never speak first, my heart,” the shade of my most hated enemy said. “It would be improper, you see. Her people believe that First Prince is the greatest of all titles, and so she must never be first to offer courtesy.”

I inclined my head towards Hasenbach.

“Your Most Serene Highness,” I said, voice calm.

“Your Grace,” Cordelia Hasenbach replied.

The proper address was ‘Your Majesty’, though never once had she referred to me as such. The etiquette she employed recognized me as noble, though at best one of equal standing with any of the many princes of the Procer.

“Look at how her lip curls around the words, Catherine,” Akua laughed, moving around the unseeing First Prince to better study her. “She would prefer not to grant you them at all, but she must – and how it displeases her. To call you queen would be recognition of your legitimacy, and end to her crusade’s own. But to deny you any title at all would make any negotiation between you worthless.”

Akua rose, stretching languidly.

“And she needs you to keep speaking to her, my lovely,” the monster said silkily. “Oh yes. Even should you never come to terms, to be able to gauge you with her own eyes is priceless advantage.”

Diabolist had grown increasingly fond of using endearments with me, since I’d ripped out her heart and stolen her soul. Fucking Praesi. Fucking highborn, really.

“Let’s begin with the usual,” I said. “Terms?”

“Unchanged,” the First Prince replied. “Immediate abdication and disbanding of your armies. Your soldiery to undergo fair trial after the crusade. Yourself and no more than five of your comrades allowed exile without pursuit, under condition of never returning to Callow.”

I hummed, and idly reached for my pipe. I used the process of stuffing it with wakeleaf and striking a match as a deferral of answer to allow me to gather my thoughts. I’d half-expected Hasenbach to offer starker terms now that she’d struck the first blow and begun crossing into Callow catching me flat-footed.

“Do you feel that?” Akua murmured. “That is caution, dearest. She does not harden terms of surrender because she fears you. What you might do if cornered. Use that fear, Catherine. It is the sharpest prick of the mantle you claimed.”

I puffed at my pipe and let out a stream of smoke, making myself more comfortable in my seat.

“I’ll have to decline, for now,” I said.

Akua was useful, too useful to shove back into the box right now, but more for her perceptiveness than her advice. The terms remained unacceptable. Abdication would be a relief, to be honest, and something that was going to happen regardless if my plans came to fruition. But not like this. I couldn’t trust a crusader tribunal to pass sentence on the Praesi under my command, much less the greenskins. And that the First Prince and her allies would be deciding Callow’s fate without a single check on their decisions was the least acceptable part of it all.

“You are calmer than I expected,” Hasenbach said. “The dossiers we have of you led me to expect conversation of a harsher tone.”

Akua clucked her tongue.

“Do not let her turn this towards you, my heart,” she advised. “Any answer at all will be revealing in ways you cannot control. That is too dangerous a woman to be given the lay of your thoughts.”

I inclined my head, agreeing with Akua while masquerading it as acquiescence with the First Prince’s sentence.

“I’ve been reading about the Principate, lately,” I said. “About how it functions in practice.”

The First Prince smiled, as if she were sharing a drink with an old friend.

“Interesting,” she said. “And have you come to any conclusions?”

“It doesn’t,” I bluntly said. “Function, that is. The fault line in Procer’s foundation has been made exceedingly clear over the last twenty years.”

Not so much as a speck of emotion crossed the First Prince’s face. Akua laughed delightedly.

“See how her brow stiffened, Catherine?” she said. “That is anger, my lovely. The recognition that the Empress’ game was no great plot. That all her people ever needed to claw each other bloody was means and excuse. Feed that wroth. That is the only way for you to glimpse truth behind the mask.”

Praesi diplomacy, I was learning, was more like a pit fight with slightly pulled punches than anything I’d recognize. It was all about testing the other side, making them blink and then capitalizing on that weakness. That Akua could not recognize tussling like that with Cordelia godsdamned Hasenbach was a bad idea was a good reminder that for all her cleverness the Diabolist had heavy blinders. That was the rotten heart that always made the designs of the High Lords collapse: they could not ever conceive that they were sometimes in the inferior bargaining position. Fortunately, I’d learned that lesson early when I grew up with the Tower’s boot over my throat. No doubt I have blinders of my own, I thought. But if I knew they’d hardly be blinders, would they?

“Not overly surprising conclusion, given the manner in which you have ruled,” the First Prince said. “For all that your throne is in Laure, you have adopted many of the manners of the East.”

Ruled, I noted, not reigned. How carefully she always picked her words.

“Don’t misunderstand me,” I said. “I’m not touting the Tower as an alternative, or even how I’ve been running things. I just grafted Praesi bureaucracy to the court, and it’s a clunky solution. But I’ve gotten my hands on a history of the League Wars, and it’s not a pretty story.”

Akua clucked her tongue disapprovingly.

“This is the chorus of the losing side, dearest,” she chided me. “Beneath the dignity of one who triumphed over me.”

It was a small shift, but I saw Hasenbach’s eyes brighten with interest after I spoke. I’d been careful, during our little talks, to try to find common grounds. Something we could discuss and disagree over without it getting personal. So far, what had worked best was Proceran history. I wasn’t reading those books solely because I no longer needed to sleep, or even to get an idea of my opponent’s weaknesses.

“You refer to the Right of Iron,” she said. “I would, in fact, tend to agree with you in this matter. The prerogative of waging war without the agreement of the First Prince has been the source of much trouble over the centuries.”

“So why haven’t you tried to revoke it?” I asked, genuinely curious. “I know that’d have to go through the Highest Assembly and that means a vote, but just after your civil war people were sick enough of the killing you would have had a decent chance of pushing it through.”

“I considered this,” the First Prince admitted. “Yet in doing so, I would have created cohesive opposition to any further reform. Many of which are, as you have said, direly needed.”

“That opposition you’re talking about,” I said. “They’re the exact same people that spent nearly twenty years ravaging the Principate on Malicia’s pay.”

“A generalization,” Hasenbach said. “One with some shade of accuracy, I will concede, yet there is important difference in having been funded by the Empress and having sought to do her bidding.”

I acknowledged the point with a nod. From the corner of my eye I saw Akua meandering away from the First Prince, coming to stand at my back. Even knowing she was powerless, utterly at my mercy, having her behind me was raising the hair on my neck.

“What I’m wondering is – why listen to them at all?” I asked. “I saw the Imperial estimates for the remaining armies after the Battle of Aisne. There wasn’t a force in the Principate that could have stood against you, if you’d twisted their arms into backing your reforms. And I don’t mean the small ones, I mean everything.”

“You were taught,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, “by two of the most brutal tyrants in living memory. That is not your fault, though your embrace of their methods remains your sole responsibility. That is why your perspective on the subject is tainted. I did not attempt to make myself an absolute monarch because I believe such a manner of ruling to be dangerously flawed.”

“If you count civil wars, Procer’s been on the field more often than any other nation on Calernia,” I pointed. “That includes Praes, Your Highness.”

“You blame this on lack of centralized authority,” the First Prince said. “That is not entirely inaccurate, yet you miss the central tenet of the Principate: it is, unlike Praes, a nation built on consensus. The Highest Assembly is prone to squabbles, and inefficient. This I will not deny. That is because it is not an institution meant to empower the office of the First Prince, it is meant to check it. No single man or woman should ever be able to wield the full, unrestricted might of the Principate.”

“Now,” Akua whispered into my ear. “Now is when you slide the knife.”

I smiled pleasantly.

“Then why,” I asked, “is the host crossing into Callow made up almost entirely by your opposition in the Assembly?”

The shutters went down on the First Prince’s face, even as I pulled at my pipe and allowed smoke to stream out of my nostrils. This, I thought, moments like this. They’re why I let you out of the box, Akua. I had much to learn from Diabolist, when it came to this kind of game.

“She did not expect you to understand her intent,” Akua said, still at my side. “Watch the eyes, how she reconsiders the kind of threat you pose. She thought you a dull thug, a brute of a child with a stolen crown. Now she wonders if you’ve taken as much from these talks as she has, and it worries her.”

The shade laughed.

“Do not talk,” she said. “Let her silence damn her more the longer it stretches.”

I spat out another mouthful of smoke, studying the First Prince. When she finally spoke, her tone was perfectly calm.

“I am forced to wonder,” Hasenbach said, “what game it is you truly play, Catherine Foundling.”

“The only game I’ve ever ever played,” I said. “Keeping my people’s head above the waterline.”

“Yet you ally with monsters and murderers,” the First Prince said. “The very same whose fellows committed the single greatest massacre of Callowans since the days of Dread Empress Triumphant.”

“May she never return,” Akua murmured.

“I’m also talking with you,” I said. “The thing is, Your Highness, that right now the Tower’s my only possible bedfellow. I can’t take your crusade on my own.”

Not entirely true. Juniper was the opinion that if I was willing to let most of Callow burn while I struck deep in crusader territory, I might be able to force a draw by sheer dint of massacre. She’d played out the theory with her general staff. No part of that path was acceptable to me, though. I was not willing to pile up the bodies until no one was able to keep going. If I was ever forced to that, well… Better to abdicate. And to backstab Praes as brutally as I could beforehand, so that the crusade ended quickly and not in Callow.

“A villain ruling over Callow is not an acceptable outcome for this war,” the First Prince said.

“People I don’t trust in the slightest deciding what happens to Callow isn’t either,” I frankly replied. “If I have to cut a deal, I’d rather do it with you than Malicia. After Liesse… Well, if this is the best I can expect from the Empire, the Empire’s not an entity I can trust to uphold their part of a deal.”

“Trust has nothing do with it,” Akua dismissed. “You have power enough that the Empress cannot cross you lightly. Treaties are only ever gilding added to the deeper truth of power, dearest. This one does not consider you of sufficient might to treat with.”

“Trust,” Hasenbach said, her tone almost amused.

“Trust,” I echoed.

The First Prince smiled.

“Did you never pause to wonder, Your Grace, why the only powers willing to deal with you are monstrous?” she asked softly.

My jaw clenched.

“Did you never wonder if you belong amongst that number?”

My fingers tightened.

“Careful now,” Diabolist warned. “She goads you not by accident.”

The urge was there to lash out. To remind that sanctimonious fucking Proceran that her own hands were far from clean. She’d sent out her enemies for me to savage, and her reasons for starting this crusade weren’t nearly as squeaky clean as she’d like her allies to believe. She’d played the shadow game with Malicia for over a decade, too, and there’s wasn’t a person in Creation who’d manage to get through that without some mud on their shoes. Why were her killings less a sin than mine? Because she went to the House of Light for sermons and paid her alms? Because her intentions were some kind of nebulous greater good? Hells, so were mine. Instead I took a deep breath. Slowly, I raised my pipe and pulled at the dragonbone shaft. The wakeleaf no longer brought the sharp focus it once had, but the act itself was soothing.

“I have,” I admitted quietly, “utterly failed Callow.”

Whatever answer she’d expected, it had not been that. The flicker of surprise in her eyes did not lie. I felt Akua begin to speak, but I no longer had need of her services. All it took was an exertion of will and back into the collar she went. Blind and deaf and furious.

“After First Liesse, when the Ruling Council was formed,” I said. “No, even before that. When I did not answer Akua Sahelian being named governess with gathering an army and hanging her from the nearest tree. I betrayed everything I had set out to do the moment I allowed a woman I knew a cold butcher to be the steward of Callowan lives for the sake of political expediency.”

I’d had months, now, of sleepless nights. Of going back over everything I’d done. Thinking of the paths I could have taken that didn’t result in a hundred thousand of my people dead. And there had been so very many of them, hadn’t there?

“I fucked up the Ruling Council,” I acknowledged. “I had the leverage to make real changes, the same kind I’ve been saying I want to achieve since I was a girl, and instead I let a council stacked with High Lord cronies run Callow for me. And then got furious when they acted the same way Praesi always have, the moment I wasn’t there to make them afraid. I’ve been complicit through inaction or ignorance in every catastrophe that struck Callow since the moment I got power and did absolutely nothing with it.”

The First Prince watched me in silence, her face unreadable.

“I could make excuses,” I said. “That I was ill-prepared for that kind of authority. That I spent so much time and spilled so much blood getting on top I forgot why I wanted to be there in the first place. But that’d be hypocritical, wouldn’t it? I was given exactly what I clamoured for, and when I got it a city was turned into a graveyard. Hells, it’s on my fucking standard: justifications matter only to the just. I started out with the intention of burying anyone who tossed around sentences like that in a shallow grave, but now I’m the one having them sown on battle flags. Second Liesse made it clear that I’ve slowly crawled into being the kind of person I swore I was going to remove.”

“And yet,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, “you still wear the crown and muster your armies for war. Sentiment is only meaningful if followed by action. If your grief at all the woe you have caused changes nothing, it is merely self-pity.”

“I know exactly what I have to do, Hasenbach,” I said. “And letting you carve up Callow like side of pork isn’t part of it. Not when the people doing the carving have no real incentive to care for the realm under the knife.”

“Self-pity, then,” Hasenbach said. “You still believe you can win this war.”

“War,” I said, “is the very opposite of what I’m after.”

My pipe had finally gone out, I saw.

“We’ll talk again,” I told her, and the darkness collapsed.

I stayed in my seat for a long time, alone with my thoughts. When does a lesser evil simply become an evil? That was the line I needed to find, the one that could not be crossed. The moment where I became a greater wound than the one I was trying to prevent. I rose as the ice receded around me. It was going to be a long night.

They always were.

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Chapter 2: Alarm

“In conclusion, the court recognizes the desertion of the sentient tiger army raised by Dread Emperor Sorcerous as sufficient precedent to rule that tapirs can, in fact, commit treason but that lack of sentience bars them from laying claim to the Tower by right of usurpation.”
– Official transcript from the Trial of Unexpected Teeth, which resulted in the execution of the man-eating tapirs that devoured Dread Empress Atrocious

The mist had come out of the clay pot and formed a mirror-like surface in front of us without any need for visible prompting. Even as Archer loudly cussed me out and dragged herself out of the pool like a hissing wet cat, my eyes went to the images that had bloomed across solidified must. Massive was the first word that came to mind. Masego had somehow raised the perspective to high up in the sky, above the still-unfolding ritual, and only vague memories of how large that mountain range stood otherwise allowed to grasp the scale of what was being done. It was deceptively simple, at first look. Some kind of white fire was being used to carve a passage across the Whitecaps from the Principate to Callow. It was difficult to put a finger on the exact size of the passage from this perspective, but I’d gauge as broad enough for two large carriages to pass simultaneously without getting too close. Hierophant had taken the moments I spent looking at his scrying to gather himself. I could tell from the way his breath was steadying and his heartbeat calming.

“I will begin by clarifying this is a ritual and not the making of an artefact,” the blind mage said.

“Afternoon, Masego,” I said. “How are you doing? I’m doing great myself, thanks for asking.”

He cast me a dubious look.

“I would have thought that the obvious precursor to an invasion would spoil your mood,” he said.

“She’s being sarcastic, Zeze,” Archer said.

She got close enough to me before shaking off the wet that my entire left side was made dripping. She was a charmer, our Indrani.

“Ah,” Hierophant said. “Is that entirely necessary?”

I sighed, if only to prevent my sharpening worry from showing. A few months ago he would have caught that. Spending his days strapped to the Observatory’s central device looked like it might be unmaking years of progress. I needed to keep a closer eye on him, force him to talk with actual people once in a while. I knew Archer broke the wards protecting this place with chagrining regularity to come pester him, but that alone obviously wasn’t enough.

“Not an artefact, you said,” I said. “I thought those were pretty small by definition.”

“Liesse as rebuilt by Diabolist would be considered an artefact under most accepted definitions,” he noted. “It certainly served a sorcerous purpose.”

Mildly interesting, but not the kind of edification I was currently after.

“Ritual,” I repeated. “I was under the impression Procer doesn’t usually have the chops for those. You’ve been pretty dismissive about their mages whenever we discuss threat assessments.”

“Eh, the Lady says the same thing,” Archer said. “She always told us Proceran wizards are nothing to worry about unless they’re Named. Apparently their kind’s not real popular with the powers that be in the west.”

“The Principate has been consistently at least a generation behind the Empire in matters of sorcery for centuries,” Masego said, almost sneering. “No other nation has even half their number of hedge practitioners and even their ‘finest’ still ascribe to the Jaquinite theory of magic. It tells in their work here, Catherine. It is amateurish in everything but scale.”

I wrinkled my nose at the sight of the white flame burning through rock. It hadn’t moved in a while, I noted. Was something messing with our scrying?

“I was going to ask you when they’d be done, but they don’t seem to be moving,” I said.

“Performance issues,” Archer suggested. “I mean, if they’re going to wave around a big fire dick it’s only fitting.”

Oh Gods, now that she’d put the image in my head I couldn’t unsee it. Fucking Hells, Indrani.

“That is planned,” Masego said vaguely. “And the reason is… ah, there we are.”

I raised an eyebrow and it kept rising when I saw half a mountain’s worth of snow and stone collapse into the flame. Avalanche. They’ll only start moving when they’re sure the passage wont be clogged, I thought.

“It is not fire,” Hierophant suddenly said. “They are… um, the structure seems based on a miracle? Fascinating.”

I whistled sharply.

“Focus, Zeze,” I said. “We’re at war.”

“And I have another wooden duck,” Archer added cheerfully.

He seemed a lot more concerned by Indrani’s announcement than mine, but then she’d been spending a lot of time with him. I doubted it was the first time a shitty wooden carving ended up bouncing off his forehead, knowing them both as I did.

“Dispersal of matter,” Hierophant said. “That is the nature of the working employed.”

“The passage smokes after they clear it,” I pointed out.

“Because they are sloppy,” he disdainfully said. “Their spell formula is inexact, thus the dispersal causes the release of heat. Had they done it properly their army could be walking behind the front but they’re Jaquinites, Catherine. The man was a priest. I’m pleasantly surprised they didn’t just kneel down to pray the passage would happen on its own.”

“Let’s not even speak about that,” I grimaced. “With the amount of heroes they’ve assembled, I wouldn’t call that too much of a stretch to take place.”

“Praying,” Archer drawled. “By far the least interesting thing that can follow someone getting on their knees.”

I shot her a look. Indrani really needed a roll in the hay, didn’t she? My court was packed with attractive men and women around my eye these days – and Gods Below, that Talbot thought he was being subtle really was the most insulting part of that – so the fact that she hadn’t dragged anyone into her rooms yet was starting to warrant a conversation.

“They’ve mastered the basics of scrying, at least,” Masego conceded. “It’s why they’re forging a pass instead of a tunnel even if it risks avalanches.”

“Wait, I know that one,” I said. “Scrying doesn’t work underground. Or across tall obstacles.”

“An oversimplification on both counts,” Hierophant told me. “The Greyfang Range-“

“The Whitecaps,” I corrected him.

The glass orbs that were his eyes shifted under the cloth in what was likely the reflex of a blink without the physical ability to do one.

“That is not their name in Imperial atlases,” he said.

“The Empire doesn’t have a city next to them either,” I replied.

“That is not how atlases work, Catherine,” he plaintively said.

“I thought they were called the Parish,” Archer contributed, because never once in her life had she seen a fire without reaching for a jug of oil.

“That’s the Proceran name for them,” I grunted.  One of them, anyway. “Whitecaps. Moving on.”

“There’s mushrooms called that,” Hierophant mutinously said under his breath.

“But not capitalized,” I pointed out.

If there was one thing to love about Masego, it was that he could easily be side tracked by technicalities. I was getting fairly good at that, these days. His expression brightened and he nodded. From the corner of my eye I saw Archer looking at me amusedly.

“The Whitecaps are a too broad a range to penetrate through blindly,” Hierophant said, picking up where I’d interrupted.

“Yeah, penetrating blindly never helps,” Indrani agreed, voice choked up.

“You’re bargaining for another visit to the pond,” I whispered at her.

“I’ll be good,” Archer whispered back, hands raised and her vulpine grin immediately betraying the lie.

“They’re adjusting with scrying,” Masgeo said, blithely unaware of the background chatter. “The entire array is a backwards mess, however. They likely have to communicate adjustments by voice.”

I consciously refrained from asking what the alterative to speaking was.

“Can you tell me when the ritual will be done?” I asked, then winced. “Never mind, don’t answer that. Can you tell me when you think the ritual will be done?”

Hierophant’s mouth closed over this initial answer, then he took a moment to consider.

“Assuming there are fewer than five avalanches,” he said. “And that the pool of accumulated power they’re using does not run out… Two days. Going into three. It depends on the amount of practitioners they’ve gathered. Serving as guide for so large a working will be exhausting. If they’ve fewer than three hundred mages some will begin to die or birth derangements before nightfall.”

I worried my lip. Worst case, two days. Actually crossing the passage would take them longer. A week before the first troops were in Callow? No, shorter if they used cavalry for the vanguard. Which I would, in their place. The Order of Broken Bells had swelled, but it was still just a fraction of the horse the Principate could bring to bear. Imperial spy reports and what the Jacks had managed to compile had the host waiting in Arans around fifty thousand strong. The commanders weren’t supposed to be anything too worrying, a Prince Milenan and his allies none of who had notable military achievements under their belt from the civil war. They were the First Prince’s primary opposition within Procer, though, so I suspected she would not be shy about spending their lives to damage my position. Even if I pulled together every part of my armies in Callow – which I couldn’t, not without leaving my borders with Praes and the Free Cities dangerously bare – the invaders still outnumber me a little less than two to one. I’d have what Juniper called a qualitative edge, considering most my soldiers were professionals while a lot of theirs would be levies, but the core of that army was principality troops. Varying shades of light cavalry and professional heavy infantry. Those would be a hard nut to crack, and that was without even considering the fucking battalion of heroes reports placed in the war camp. It would take me at least two days to have the Army of Callow ready for a march, and that was just the part in the permanent camps near Laure. Taking them through Arcadia was spinning the wheel, but we’d made tests. For that kind of distance, the average was eight days. Going as low as six and high as fifteen.

“I don’t suppose you could shut down the ritual?” I asked Masego.

He shook his head.

“They are not using their own sorcery to do this, Catherine,” he elaborated. “A receptacle was forged and what must be hundreds of practitioners poured their own magic into for years to create the reservoir they are now employing. It would be like trying to put out a bonfire by spitting on it.”

“And if I gave you every mage in Laure to work on a ritual?” I pressed.

He considered it seriously.

“No,” he finally said. “If we had caught their ritual before it began in earnest, perhaps, but no longer. Considering the distance it would be insufficient to do anything but slow it a few hours. And even that would come at great cost.”

“You’re going at this wrong,” Archer said. “Let them make their hole. After they’re spent, prevent them from using it.”

I looked at her suspiciously.

“You’re not usually this helpful,” I said.

“I’m a woman of many layers,” Indrani haughtily replied.

I had a fairly scathing comment to offer involving onions and how she should perhaps bathe more often but the grass was cut under my feet.

“You mean attacking them as they pass,” Hierophant said, tone musing. “That is a possibility. Triggering further avalanches from Laure is possible, with sufficient preparations.”

“You don’t sound enthused,” I said.

“While their practitioners are a backwards lot, I do not believe them to be actual imbeciles,” Masego said. “At least one of them was clever enough to conceive of this ritual.”

I frowned.

“You think they’ll have protections,” I guessed.

“If they do not disperse the wizards they have massed to carry this out, they have the ability to resist anything I would seriously consider using against them,” Hierophant said. “Three hundred blunderers with a heavy club are dangerous even to someone of my proficiency.”

Throwing bodies at the problem, huh. Well, the Principate had no lack of those to swear into service. It wasn’t an elegant solution, but I was living proof that sometimes hitting things really hard could be enough to pull through.

“They’ll have priests, too,” Archer said. “The robed rats are everywhere in Procer.”

Brothers and Sisters of the House of Light swore oaths that prevented them from taking lives, but there’d always been a lot of wiggling room left to interpret how that should be carried out. Priests were a historical staple of Callowan hosts, to shut down sorceries and heal wounded soldiers. And there were always a few to be found who were willing to make an exception about that whole no killing thing and repent afterwards. Turning miracles against an avalanche sent down by an Evil mage wouldn’t even require them to do some rhetorical footwork afterwards. And let’s not forget the House of Light in Procer is a different creature than the Callowan one. The Fairfaxes had always kept the House out of the crown’s affairs, but in Procer the priests were influential power brokers. It would be safe to assume they’d be involved, and that was the final nail in the coffin of considered magical intervention. If we couldn’t head them off at the pass, it’d have to be in the field. And odds were they’d get close to Harrow before I could get my army up north.

“Masego,” I said quietly, pitching my voice so none of the guild mages would overhear. “The Hell Egg up north, have you managed to find it?”

“I am still awaiting answer from the Tower about consulting the private histories,” the blind man replied.

My lips thinned. The Empress had been quite willing to share reports from the Eyes about the unfolding situation on Procer and beyond, but my people were being given polite brush-offs and non-answers when it came to pretty much everything else. I couldn’t tell whether that was pressure she was applying to bring me back under her thumb or that in her eyes I now only counted as something to be tossed at the crusade to blunt its advance. The former gave me room to deal, especially now that the invasion had begun. The latter would mean my situation was even more precarious than I currently believed it to be. Her people would be in touch soon enough, I reflected. Cold as the diplomatic exchanges had become, a Proceran offensive would thaw them a great deal. Especially since I doubted that the northern crusader army would be moving alone. Odds were the host in the south under Prince Papenheim was preparing for a run at the Vales. Black wouldn’t be easy meat, especially not with Scribe and Warlock at his side. But he was starkly outnumbered, and he’d be in no position to do anything but hold the valleys for months to come. At the moment, the Empress needed me.

“I thought Ratface was supposed to be some kind of bureaucratic wizard,” Archer said, eyeing me sideways.

She was sharper than Masego about these things, regardless of her vocal disinterest in matters of intrigue. I nodded discreetly and she grimaced. Yeah, I wasn’t happy either that it was quite possible instructions had come down from Malicia to make it much harder for me to locate the fucking demon that was supposed to be bound somewhere in northern Callow.

“Have you narrowed down what kind of a demon it is?” I tried.

“It cannot be Corruption,” Hierophant said. “That was my initial theory, when we last spoke of the subject in Marchford, but that particular entity has since been found and fought. It might very well be Absence, Catherine. That would be…”

“Balls,” Archer helpfully provided.

Masego frowned.

“Genitalia has nothing to-“

“Bad, it’d be bad,” I interrupted before this could turn into a full-blown squabble.

I clenched my fingers.

“I don’t like the shape of it,” I admitted. “That many Named, near a threat unaccounted for?”

It wasn’t a guarantee that a brawl with heroes would end up letting it loose, but the odds were high enough it couldn’t be discounted. But if catching the crusaders before they reached Harrow wasn’t an option, then the alternative was ceding most the barony before giving battle. I would much prefer not doing that, and not only because of the military implications of giving the enemy a fortified city to operate from. It wouldn’t look good within Callow either. People had been willing to tighten their belts if it was for rebuilding the kingdom and raising armies to defend it. If I was seen to have failed in either regard, there would be consequences. But if the choice is between that and rolling the dice with a demon… I needed to talk with Juniper. Archer and Hierophant were here with me in Laure and the last time I’d spoken with Thief she’d said she should be back within a few days, but Hakram was still in Vale trying to coax the refugees out of the tent cities and back behind stone walls. I might have to leave him behind when marching.

“Tell Fadila to keep a full roster tonight,” I told Masego. “I’ll need to speak to the baronies up north.”

And half a dozen other people, since Adjutant wasn’t there to do it for me.

“We getting ready for war, then?” Archer asked, and there was a pleased glint in her eyes.

“I’d prefer not to,” I said. “But the choice is out of my hands. Wrap up anything you have going on, Masego. When we go on the offensive you’re coming with us.”

He pouted. I blamed Indrani for teaching him that, it was surprisingly effective even now that his face had lost most of the baby fat.

“I’m not hearing anything otherwise,” I firmly told him. “Look on the bright side, Hierophant. Odds are you’ll be taking a close look at that passage soon enough.”

“There is that,” he conceded, but it was half-hearted.

I cast a look at Archer, who smiled back and wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. It was telling that I barely even noticed when she did that nowadays.

“If you run into Thief, send her my way,” I told her.

She waved in a manner that could vaguely be interpreted as agreement. About as good as I could expect. I clapped her on the shoulder, reminded Masego we were nearing supper time and made my exit. I had one last thing to do before mustering for war, after all. Tonight was the night for my little monthly chat with the enemy.

Cordelia Hasenbach had just begun her invasion of Callow, so we should have a few things to talk about.

Chapter 1: Observatory

“Those who withstood the sword, I laid low with ink.”
– Words carved into the tomb of Dread Emperor Terribilis I, the Lawgiver

I rarely used the council room these days. Under the Fairfaxes the King’s Council had been the greatest organ of power in the realm, closer to the crown than any and wielding influence far beyond that of the titles of the men and women having been appointed to it. I’d retained only parts of it, though, the ones I found useful. I had no need for a Chamberlain to see to the ‘royal household’, when mine was essentially me and whatever part of the Woe happened to be in Laure at the time. And even then I doubted Thief had slept in her chambers more than twice. She preferred prowling the city when she was there. Masego disdained his rooms as well, though for reasons somewhat more worrying. No, broadening the authority of the palace’s seneschal had been quite sufficient. Not that all old roles had been so easily disposed of. With Anne Kendall in the seat of Governess-General, Juniper as my Marshal and Ratface as my Lord Treasurer there’d been only on seat left worth filling: Keeper of the Seals. In the old kingdom, those had been tasked with overseeing courts of law and making sure the decrees of the crown were upheld across Callow. That seemed a glorified clerk’s position, until one remembered the way the kingdom had functioned under the Fairfaxes.

Though laws decreed in Laure held sway across the realm in theory, in practice the hair-raising labyrinth of ancient privileges and prerogatives held by most highborn houses made it a nightmare for any single decree to be uniformly observed. I’d been amused to learn that House Talbot, whose old demesne was now my own, had for several centuries been allowed to trade in lands directly held by the crown without tariffs as part of an old deal that saw a generous loan offered to a king so he could build a summer palace by the Silver Lake. I’d been even more amused to learn that said palace had been wrecked by Praesi within the decade when they attempted to invade the heartlands of Callow through an underwater invasion – orcs with gills, apparently – down the Pening river. One of the Malignants, that’d been, I was pretty sure. A Dread Emperor of the worst mould, incompetent at everything but murderously ensuring his rivals didn’t overthrow him. Regardless of historical curiosities, the Empire had actually allowed me to inherit a significantly more centralized realm in many ways. With Baron Darlington of Hedges and Baroness Morley of Harrow the only two remaining landed nobles in Callow, I didn’t have nearly as many powerful people barking about privileges and prerogatives.

What I did end up having, however, was my court’s first real power struggle. Now that the governors across Callow all answered to the crown through the Governess-General the office of Keeper of the Seals held a lot more direct power than it’d used to, with a lot less pushback to boot. Crown decrees had a lot more teeth, these days, and the Keeper had a great deal of latitude in ensuring they were upheld. Everyone and their sister had gone after the appointment, beginning the charm offensive the moment I was crowned. The only ones who’d stayed out of the fray were the Deoraithe, and I’d almost asked Kegan to send me a competent cousin just for that. Brandon Talbot and his tribe of old aristocrats had been the most ferocious, though the northern baronies had tried to muscle his people out – the fight between the powers in Laure and the distant northern nobles was an old one. A few eldermen in Laure had actually tried to bribe Ratface into putting in a good word for their candidate, banking on the Taghreb reputation for venality, and instead found themselves fined for the exact same sum and unceremoniously drummed out of office.

I picked a southerner, in the end, after tasking Baroness Kendall to find me a suitable one. After the massacre at Second Liesse, what had once been the duchy of the same name and even the region as a whole had been on the brink of collapse. It’d only been the reparations I obtained from the Empress and Hakram’s feverish work that kept the place from eating itself alive, and even now it was the most unstable part of my realm. A major city and over a hundred thousand people were gone form the heart of the south, it wasn’t something that could be healed in a year. Or even a decade. Binding whatever powers remained down there to the crown had been necessary, and my Governess-General managed to dig up a candidate that wouldn’t fuck up the duties that came with the appointment. Edith Westmore had once been a lady in her own right, before her liege lord took up arms in the Liesse Rebellion, and even after had remained a wealthy landowner. She had the reputation and the connections to be a capable Keeper of Seals, and though I wasn’t particularly fond of her as a person neither did she grate my nerves. It was no lifetime appointment, regardless.

Lady Edith was not here in my solar, not this afternoon anyway. I’d had the richly-panelled room furnished more to my tastes – which largely meant removing all the more ostentatious stuff and filling the new liquor cabinet to the brim – and these days I conducted most royal business in here. The comfortable surroundings helped allay the inevitable bouts of tediousness that seemed to accompany the work of making Callow into a halfway-functioning nation. My two companions at the table bathed by afternoon sun were the two members of my council I saw most often: Governess-General Anne Kendall and Lord Treasurer Hasan Qara. Who still insisted on being called Ratface, though he’d come to embrace the sobriquet of Bastard Lord as well. He got a kick of how much it horrified Praesi envoys.

“We’ve another petition from Hedges,” Anne said, shuffling parchments. “On the subject of tariffs in Laure and Southpool.”

The silver-haired woman glanced delicately at my treasurer after speaking. Ratface seemed distinctly unamused, though the irritation was not directed at Kendall.

“They’re trying to flood the markets with wool,” the Taghreb told me. “They have entire warehouses going to waste, the Jacks confirmed it.”

‘The Jacks’ was a very fancy title for my ever-growing web of thieves, smugglers, spies and sundry informants. It was nowhere as unified and well-organized as the appellation implied, with Aisha’s network of kinsmen in Praes, Ratface’s guildsmen and Thief’s friends being different organizations entirely. Adjutant oversaw the whole mess of disparate reports and pieced it together into a coherent picture before bringing it to me. As for the name, well, it was known in some circles that the Guild of Thieves was now in my pay. Mutterings at my court about lowly knaves entering the crown’s service had been frequent in early days, and Vivienne had amused herself by picking a fucking pun she knew I’d despise but still have to use frequently – knave was another name for a jack, in Callowan card decks. Of all my companions, Thief was the one whose sense of humour always ended up screwing me some way or another.

“They would eat at their own profits if they did,” Kendall frowned. “Compared to selling to the crown they would be making a loss.”

“We’re not buying as much anymore,” I noted. “South’s mostly settled, all the notable tent cities are clothed and fed.”

“It’s a farsighted ploy,” Ratface told us. “They’re not after immediate profit here, they’re trying to put the local guilds out of business. After they’ve cornered the market, they can start slowly raising prices. Thalassina tried the same thing with the spice trade under Nefarious, it nearly started a war with Nok.”

“If they spent half as much time seeing to their own as they do thinking up ways to fuck with me, the north would be a godsdamned paradise,” I said through gritted teeth.

Baroness Kendall cleared her throat.

“Though I cannot speak as to the mercantile effects,” she said, “from a diplomatic perspective we have already done much to antagonize Hedges. A concession might be in order.”

“I prevented them from fleecing desperate refugees, Anne,” I flatly replied. “I didn’t exactly piss in their morning porridge.”

“All they see is expected gold never reaching their coffers,” my Governess-General said. “And I must remind you that our grasp on the region is still feeble. Fear will only get us so far.”

Fear was what had gotten us anything at all, I thought. I had no illusions about the loyalty of those two holdout baronies. I doubted they’d truly join the fold within my lifetime. Even confirming nearly all their old privileges – the right to mint their own coin being the largest abolished – and leaving their holdings untouched they still wanted more. Aristocrats. My growing exposure to the lot of them had done nothing to improve my opinion of the breed, save for a few exceptions.

“Quotas,” I finally said. “Enough they can get a foothold, not enough they can eat the whole cake. And make it clear to the right people that I expect positions on having observing Legion officers attached to their armies to… change accordingly.”

Kendall inclined her head, the touch of the sun on her locks rather fetching as she did. For a woman her age she remained strikingly beautiful.

“I’ll have a proposal drafted,” Ratface said. “Now, I know we’ve spoken of this before but…”

I grimaced, fairly sure I knew what was coming.

“There is too much Imperial coinage circulating in Callow, Catherine,” he said. “We need to start buying it up.”

Were I not Named, I might never have noticed the slight crease on the Governess-General’s brow when she heard Ratface refer to me by my given name. She and I had once been more familiar as well, but that had gone up in smoke since my coronation. Anne Kendall was a patriot to the bone: it didn’t matter how I’d gotten my crown, now that I wore it I was to be treated as loftily as any Fairfax.

“You’re my treasurer,” I sighed. “You know damn well we don’t have the funds for that. And the Empress might see it as provocation, which we really can’t afford at the moment.”

A year of regular reports had made it painfully clear to me that while Praesi troops might no longer garrison my cities or Praesi lords rule them, Praesi influence was far from gone. I’d spent so much time paying attentions to borders and armies that I’d never considered the Wasteland would still have a leash in the form of coin and commerce. Trade with Procer had pretty much ended after the Conquest, and trade to Mercantis had been dominated by Imperial governors. The wealth came from the east, these days, and there was precious little I could do about that at the moment. Not when it was the Tower’s gold that had rebuilt an entire third of my realm. I’d had to make concessions to ensure that materialized, too. We’d been keeping Callow afloat for the last year by gouging the High Lords scrabbling for grain through trade permits and set prices, but the Tower had been exempted from both. To an extent, anyway. I’d insisted on keeping large reserves in anticipation of the crusade.

“So long as nearly half the coinage in Callow is from the Imperial Mint, the Tower can break the realm’s coffers at will,” Ratface said. “All the Empress needs to do is devalue her currency and the south goes up in flames. It’s a knife at our throat, Catherine. I understand the Hellhound is riding you about funding for the army, but another thousand men will make no difference if we can’t pay those soldiers.”

“Our own coin is slowly displacing the others,” Baroness Kendall pointed out. “Patience might be the wisest answer.”

The Taghreb shook his head.

“We’re replacing old Callowan coinages,” he said. “We barely touched the Wasteland portion. The Carrion Lord spent decades making certain Callow was dependent on Imperial coin for trade, it is not work that can be undone in a few years’ span. Not unless we plan and invest.”

“There has to be an alternative to just taking the Empress’ gold off the streets by emptying our coffers, Ratface,” I said. “That’d be as good as raising a banner in her eyes. There would be immediate retaliation.”

The handsome man wrinkled his nose, rather unbecomingly.

“Using Mercantis as a third party, perhaps,” he finally said. “It would be slower and costlier, and still have us vulnerable to foreign influence.”

I sighed.

“Draft-“

“A proposal, yes,” he finished amusedly. “Ah, the joys of queenship.”

“Don’t you fucking start,” I muttered. “Between this and learning all those godsdamned Proceran languages my eyes are going to fall off.”

Baroness Kendall delicately cleared her throat.

“Not to add undue burden, but there is one last petition,” she said.

“Go on,” I grunted. “As long as it’s not our man in Vale whining about granary distribution again.”

“Officials have presented a formal request that the court return to the use of the Alban calendar,” she told me.

I snorted.

“Yeah, that’s not happening,” I said. “The Legions all use –“

I heard the movement behind the door before the knock sounded. My ears pricked. Man, late thirties, fine health. He smelled of anxiousness, though well short of fear.

“Enter,” I called out before he’d finished knocking.

I felt the gaze of the other two on me. Ah. I really needed to stop doing that. It did tend to make people uncomfortable. It was a servant, who I did not recognize though the livery made it clear he was one of the palace staff.

“Your Majesty,” he greeted me, bowing low before offering shallower bows to the others.

He’d been slightly reluctant when it came to Ratface’s turn, I noted. There’d been a lot of that since the moment I first appointed the Taghreb. I raised an expectant eyebrow at him.

“There is word from, uh, the Observatory,” the man said. “Your presence has been requested. The Lord Hierophant allegedly spoke of a ‘major phenomenon’.”

Translation: Masego had summoned me while, again, forgetting you weren’t actually supposed to summon queens. I didn’t really mind, but his brutal lack of regard for etiquette did seem to unsettle the servants whenever they came in contact with it. I rose to my feet, pushing my seat back.

“We’ll reconvene in an hour to finish this,” I told the other two.

“You speak so queenly, these days,” Ratface grinned. “I haven’t seen you spit on the ground in months.”

“Yeah, well, I own all the carpets now,” I muttered.

We made our courtesies, some more courteously than others, and then I dismissed the servant who seemed intent on accompanying me. I knew the way to the Observatory: I’d paid for the damned thing to be built out of an uninhabited wing of the palace. I wasn’t keeping a mistress, or a husband for that matter, so luxurious rooms reserved for one had been more than a little unnecessary. It wasn’t a long walk, but I lengthened my stride out of impatience. Still took the time to greet the servants and officials I came across, though. Actually learning all the names was a daydream given their sheer number, but if I could get at least half right it’d be a start. Better than Archer, anyway, who just called them whatever she felt like at the time. Getting this damned thing built had been strolling right into a series of rows with most my closest advisors, Juniper and Ratface the worst of them. My former Supply Tribune had been appalled at the costs involved, especially since some materials had to be brought directly from the Wasteland, while the Hellhound had bluntly told me that for the same amount of coin we could arm and armour over a thousand men and that’d be a lot more useful in the long run. It was rare enough for the two of them to agree on anything that I’d seriously reconsidered my commitment.

It’d still been built, in the end, and Masego had proved that his work had value beyond gold or steel. Without the Observatory at least three heroes would have slipped into Callow unseen, and the results of that could have been disastrous.

I felt the outer wards long before I arrived at the end of the corridor. As the only way in or out of the Observatory, it was now the most scrupulously protected part of the palace. The full line of legionaries guarding the corridor saluted as I went by, and I nodded back. Hakram’s people, these. The amount of soldiers and bureaucrats under Adjutant’s direct command had steadily increased along with his responsibilities. My blood was keyed into the outer wards, which were more trap than boundary, and so I got to the bronze gates with only a mild headache to show for it. I rapped my knuckles against the metal, careful to moderate my strength. There was still a dent left from the one time I’d forgotten. The bronze doors opened after a few heartbeats, and behind them stood a dark-skinned woman. She hastily knelt. Fadila Mbafeno had been one of Akua’s minions once, before I spared her at Hierophant’s request. She’d since served as an assistant in his mage’s tower, and now effectively ran the Observatory. On parchment Masego’s word was law here, so long as I did not contradict him, but his utter disinterest in the logistics of the place meant all the responsibilities were in the Soninke mage’s hands.

I disliked her, though not enough to do anything about it, but I would not deny she was extremely competent. Diabolist had always picked the cream of the crop, when it came to minions. Not that it’d ever stopped her from sacrificing them at the drop of a hat.

“Your Majesty,” Fadila said. “I invite you within.”

Nothing changed, visibly at least. There was a subtle current of power beneath her words, but even trying to feel it out would disperse it. I knew better than to think that’d been an empty sentence, though. I still vividly remembered the searing pain that had followed trying to pass the threshold without explicit permission.

“Rise,” I said, and strode by her.

Passing the threshold was not painful, per se. It was more like being squeezed through a very narrow gap, a temporary constriction of my being. Once inside the room proper there was a sense of relief, but I knew from experience it would be short-lasting. A bigger cage was still a cage. The inner Observatory was warded up something fierce, some of those defences specifically against fae. They were deeply unpleasant for me, but I’d deal with the discomfort if it meant Larat couldn’t ever set foot in here. Falida rose as bid, and followed three full steps behind me a little to the left. Wasteland etiquette, I thought sardonically, though in all fairness Callow had its fair share of little quirks as well. What had once been a full wing of the royal palace had been ripped out of even load-bearing walls, discreet arcs instead supporting the weight of the domed ceiling now. It was a single massive room and awake with quiet activity. Circling at the feet of the walls a boardwalk of granite made an outer ring, linked to pebbled paths that made up the spokes of a giant wheel from a bird’s eye view. Within those spaces pools of dark water lay still, save for when mages stirred them to life with whispered spells. Scrying pools, particularly powerful ones.

Getting the mages to keep them manned had been difficult, since the Army of Callow was already short on spellcasters, and ultimately I’d had to draft a few competent officers then draw heavily upon the now-disbanded Guild of Hedges. Getting Masego to teach those middling sorcerers how to scry properly had been a rough conversation, but he’d ultimately conceded than an empty Observatory would rather defeat the point of raising it in the first place. The legal status of the sorcerers had been a thorny matter to handle even after they were trained. They could not part of the Army of Callow or the Legions of Terror, as Juniper was still a general in the Empress’ employ as well as my marshal and that would give Malicia a degree of influence over them. I’d not wanted to give the court any sway over them either, but placing them under my direct authority would meant the moment Hakram and I went on campaign they fell in a legal morass. I had to be careful about things like that, these days. Taking the crown had brought nearly as many complications as it had solutions. As an awkward compromise they’d been made into a guild, approved by my seal, the head of which was Masego. In his absence it was Fadila who ran things as his appointed second, with just enough independence she could do whatever needed to be done while the fact that the Observatory was the crown’s property meant Anne Kendall had enough authority to step in if things got out of hand.

I pushed aside the thoughts as I tread one of the pebbled paths to the centre of the room, where Masego awaited. A second smaller ring of granite had been laid there, but it could hardly be seen. From the dark waters grew a massive alder tree whose roots spread into every pool and whose summit rose to touch the ceiling of painted runes and night sky. There was nothing natural about it, from the overly pale bark to the almost crimson leaves. Growing from the trunk a handful of branches formed a structure halfway between a bed and a seat, and before it a depression in the trunk made room for an item pulsing with power. It didn’t look like much to the naked eye, a wide bowl of baked clay whose supports were shaped like men and devils supporting the rim. It’d taken Archer the better part of a month to find it and get it out of the ruins of Liesse, but I’d never seriously considered leaving the scrying artefact of the Sahelians among the wreck no matter the difficulties. Once Akua’s discreet trump card, it was now the heart of the Observatory. In the wooden seat before it, Masego was laying down and looking half-asleep. I could see his pupils moving beneath the black eyecloth, but aside from that Hierophant was eerily still.

He’d lost weight again, I saw as I got closer. Even now that Fadila was under strict instructions to make sure he ate he still spent most hours of the days and night in that seat and rarely moved unless he was forced to. I almost hesitated to touch him, for he tended to be confused for a bit when wrenched out of his scrying. The decision was made for me, in the end. The branches above rustled, and someone casually tossed a sloppily sculpted wooden duck at his forehead. He wrenched back to Creation with a yelp as Archer emerged from the foliage dangling upside down.

“Evening, Cat,” she grinned. “Congratulations, you’re getting invaded.”

I considered this, then smiled back.

“Evening, Indrani,” I said, and wrenched her down to splash noisily in a pool.

Eyes turning to Masego, who looked only half-here even now, I sighed.

“Tell me everything,” I ordered.

Interlude: Stairway

“Though official records state that the Principate fought a mere score civil wars, it should be noted that this does not include wars fought between less than five principalities. Should the definition be amended, Procer has on average fought a civil war every decade since the year of its founding. No single nation has ever spilled so much Proceran blood as the Principate itself.”
– Extract from ‘The Labyrinth Empire, or, A Short History of Procer’, by Princess Eliza of Salamans

The trouble with this war, Prince Klaus Papenheim had told his niece since the first day, wasn’t that it wasn’t going to be a war. It was going to be half a dozen of them, fought all across Calernia more or less simultaneously. That was the great danger looming within the Tenth Crusade, that once all the forces had been put in motion there was no adjusting the blows. Cordelia, bless her soul, had taken his warnings seriously. The face of warfare had changed while the Principate clawed itself bloody, and now Procer had to change with it or be left behind. He’d never asked how his niece had gotten her hands on the Praesi. It was for the best, he’d decided. The Prince of Hannoven had been raised with death as mother’s milk, but the fight against the Plague was clean in a way the games in the south weren’t. They made sport of men’s lives, down here, and he’d never had the stomach for that. Regardless, the ten Wastelanders had offered up the most precious secret of the East: the rituals of scrying, that old Praesi trick turned into a lethal tool of war by the Carrion Lord. The spells that allowed armies with entire kingdoms between them to move as one, taking apart hosts twice their size with surgical precision.

Gathering wizards to learn them had been costly, he suspected, and it must have been more so to keep the magelings in the Principate’s service after. Though in Lycaonese lands spellcasters were prized, for their sorcery was a mighty thing wielded from walls against the ratling hordes, the southerners had a more complicated relationship with spellslingers. Wizards and witches had once owned a seat on the Highest Assembly, in recognition of their great contributions in easing the alliance between Arlesites and Alamans that first founded the Principate. Yet in the centuries since they had fallen out of favour. Their great influence, often second only to the rulers of principalities, had been seen as a threat by the royals of the south. Meddling in an election had turned on them when the candidate they opposed, Louis Merovins, managed a narrow victory. The man had spent most his reign suppressing them after revoking their Assembly seat in retaliation, a struggle finally brought to an end two rulers down the line when the mage association known as L’Oeuil D’Or was forcefully disbanded.

Since then the casters had become tradesmen like any other, offering charms and potions for coin – though never healing, as the House of Light frowned upon any infringing upon their hold in that domain. Some cities in the south still had informal assemblies, he’d been told, but they were toothless things and kept that way by ancient decrees banning the collection of dues while still imposing heavy taxes. Until now. First Prince Cordelia Hasenbach of Procer had, in the wake of her speech announcing the Tenth Crusade, founded the Order of the Red Lion. An congregation of wizards and witches exempted from the old decrees, in exchange for sworn service to the crown. Hundreds of them, who might be passable war casters at best but all knew how to scry with a degree of skill. Klaus had a hard laugh, when he learned the charter binding the Grand Alliance together had specific provisions for such an order without ever naming it. His niece had been moving her pieces into place for near a decade now.

The Prince of Hannoven was pleased with the addition of the mages to his war council, though not because of their pleasant personalities. Near all of them were strutting Alamans pups, drunk on the shiny new heraldry and fresh importance. None of them seemed to understand they were not the sudden dawn of wizardly resurgence but instead a glorified pack of messengers. They had no say in where they were deployed, Klaus having decided the arrangements himself after consulting some of his own – much more trustworthy – Lycaonese mages. Dozens had been sent south to the Dominion, to keep the mustering armies of Levant pointed in the right direction, and near a hundred sent in little linked clusters his wizards called ‘relays’ to make it possible to keep the lines open to the Ashuran fleets even as they sailed. The rest had been spread with measured weighing of priorities, linking first to Salia where his niece ruled but also to the forces that Prince Amadis had schemed his way to leading. The Iserran weasel needed a close eye kept on him, and Klaus would have preferred to lead those armies himself if he could. He knew why he could not, though.

In the Red Flower Vales awaited the two men he considered to be the greatest field commanders of this era: Marshal Grem One-Eye and the Carrion Lord.

Sending the likes of Amadis against them would have been like throwing oil at a fire, and Cordelia had reluctantly told him that the man had intrigued too well to be entirely side-lined from command. The Prince of Iserre, however, had been too clever for his own good. With him were the armies of the remainder of his pack of intriguing malcontents, and every unruly fantassin his niece had been able to scrape together. Nearly fifty thousand in total, a host almost as large as the one Klaus was commanding. But it would be the Queen of Callow that Amadis tangled with, and the Prince of Hannoven had heard much about that one of late. He’d once dismissed her as a nobody, during the Liesse Rebellion, but he’d been made to eat that dismissal raw since. She’d gone from victory to victory in the last few years, and if half the rumours about what her pack of villains was doing to heroes making their way into Callow were true… Well, there was one in every generation. Klaus’ had borne the Black Knight that awaited him in the Vales, and the great monster of Cordelia’s own looked to be the murderous orphan who’d set her throne atop a sea of corpses.

Prince Amadis would win, he suspected. The shit had more than a dozen heroes at his back, and two old forces of nature among them. It’d been a pleasant surprise to find out that Laurence was still alive, old sack of piss and vinegar that she was. The Saint of Swords was an army unto herself, and the Grey Pilgrim that went with her was supposed to be some kind of legend in Levant. No, Amadis would come out ahead. But the villains would bloody him and wreck the armies of his allies – and as the commander of that host, all the blame would fall on his shoulders afterwards. There’d be no more agitating the Highest Assembly for the Prince of Iserre, after that disgrace. Klaus spat to the side in disapproval, alone in his tent with the latest correspondence. It was sinful that good, honest soldiers would die in that mess but that was the nature of war. The Veiled Lady not discern between deserving and not when she claimed the butcher’s bill. Enough of Amadis’ backers knew their way around a battlefield that a real debacle would be avoided, at least. There was noise outside the prince’s tent and he set down the latest supply census – Brabant had cut corners on what they brought, the fucking cheapskates – to rise to his feet.

“What’s the racket, men?” he called out.

“Your Grace, I have-“

The voice yelped instead of finishing, preceded by the sound of a spear’s butt hitting a foot none too gently. Klaus passed a hand through greying hair and sighed. That was one of his wizards, he was certain. The eager shits were still under the impression that military protocol did not apply to them since they served under the First Prince instead of the army itself.

“Victoria, let him in,” the Prince of Hannoven said.

“Bertrand de Guison, officer of the Order of the Red Lion,” his guard announced, her tone darkly amused as she parted the tent’s folds.

Klaus would need to have a talk with her. Her dislike for southerners was well-earned – her two sons had died on Alamans fields fighting to put Cordelia on the throne – but the magelings were too useful to be roughed up over petty offenses. The wizard entered limping, his heavy robes emblazoned with a rampant red lion on pale. He couldn’t have been more than thirty, Klaus thought, and that he believed that to be young suddenly reminded him how old he’d gotten. Even his niece was closer to thirty than twenty, now. A Papenheim hold vigil until death relieves them, his father had always told him, but the Veiled Lady had seen fit to spare Klaus longer than he’d believed possible. So few of his time were left, save for enemies.

“Your Grace,” the mage bowed. “I herald news of great import.”

He’d called out in Reitz when he was outside the tent, but now the boy was speaking Chantant. The Prince of Hannoven squinted. He’d had lessons as a child and spoke the Alamans tongue well enough, but never quite managed to shed his Lycaonese accent. It made him sound like an ignorant brute, he was well aware. Just for that, the mage got to stand throughout the conversation.

“I’m listening,” Klaus said.

“The chapter of the Order assigned to the Rightful Due has contacted us,” Bertrand eagerly said. “Admiral Hadast has struck the first blow of the Tenth Crusade.”

That would be Magon Hadast’s son, Klaus noted, not the Ashuran ruler himself. The head of the Thalassocracy was too old and fragile to campaign himself. The ‘Rightful Due’ – Gods, the fucking Ashurans and their ship names – was the flagship of the Thalassocracy’s first war fleet. It’d set sail more than a month ago, and true to their reputation the Ashuran ships and their wind mages were striking with impossible haste.

“A victory, is it?” Klaus asked.

The mage nodded.

“One for the ages, Your Grace,” he said. “The Tideless Isles were seized with but a handful of Ashuran ships sunk, and ten times as many prize hulls seized from the corsairs. What few are not dead or in chains fled for the Wasteland.”

And so the first battle of the Tenth Crusade was fought hundreds of miles away from the Empire, Ashur snatching anchorage for its fleets before it began attacking Praes from the coast. It was beginning, Klaus thought. Now the Praesi would have to move troops to protect their coastal cities, denying reinforcements to the western front even as Ashur burned and looted everything within earshot of waves. Now that Hadast was in place, armies could finally begin to march.

“Contact your fellows in the Northern Army,” Klaus told the mage. “Pass this message to Prince Amadis: the seal is broken, climb the stairs.”

“By your will, Your Grace,” the man bowed elaborately.

Gods, Alamans. They turned every conversation into a bloody play.

“That aside,” Bertrand continued, “your guard-“

“I didn’t see anything,” Klaus grunted. “There’s a war on, boy. Get moving.”

The wizard looked like he’d swallowed a lemon, but learning some humility would do him good. The prince waited until the mage was gone before speaking again.

“Victoria,” he called out. “Get yourself relieved and come in to pour yourself a drink.”

Prince Klaus Papenheim frowned.

“And find the White Knight and his gaggle too, while you’re at it,” he said. “I’ll want a word with them before we march on the Vales.”

Prince Amadis Milenan’s fingers drummed the table lightly. The sound of it was soothing, and well worth the expense of having brought the furniture from his summer palace in Iserre. Amadis had ruled his principality for more than twenty years now, and steered it unfailingly through troubles and civil war largely because he had a knack for telling which way the wind was blowing. At the peak of the civil war, he’d been considered a key supporter of Princess Aenor of Aequitan while secretly corresponding with both Princess Constance of Aisne and Prince Dagobert of Lange – before the latter’s grisly demise at the hands of Hasenbach’s northern savages, anyway. No matter who triumphed he had been positioned to become one of the most influential princes in the Highest Assembly. By refraining from pressing his own claim while keeping close ties with neighbouring principalities, he’d ensured that Iserre would come out of the strife wealthy and pristine: from there, it would have been child’s play to trade marriages for concessions and arrange for his kin to rule Procer when the time came. Then the Battle of Aisne happened, and Cordelia Hasenbach broke the board.

He’d not been there himself, preferring to send one of his many cousins to command the levies he had sent to aid the coalition. But he’d heard stories. Of entire allied armies turning against princesses he’d considered among the most cunning and dangerous alive halfway through the battle. Of the brutal slaughter the Lycaonese had visited upon the flower of the south’s manhood. That defeat sounded across all of Procer, and in the wake of that sound Amadis found his careful plans lay shattered on the ground. Still, he’d come out of the disaster better than any of his former allies and set to work leveraging that sudden prominence. His ties in Orne and Cantal served him well, soon bolstered by generously termed loans to Creusens and wedding his youngest daughter to the heir to Segovia. The aging Princess Luisa has sided with Hasenbach after she broke Prince Dagobert and remained a close ally after, reaping the benefits of her early support, but her son had greater ambitions than being the loyal dog of a northerner First Prince. Princess Aenor’s successor, Princess Rozala, eventually joined his alignment as well after she found her mother’s old supporters closing their doors to her in an attempt to curry favour with Hasenbach.

Six principalities stood behind him, out of the twenty-three that formed Procer. Twenty-four, counting Salia, but as it was the seat and personal domain of whoever claimed the crown its officials avoided partisanship. It was a greater portion of the realm than it seemed. The four Lycaonese principalities to the north were ardent Hasenbach supporters, but estranged from the courts of the south and forced to spend what little coin they had seeing to their borders with the Chain of Hunger. Cleves and Hainault had turned inwards after their disastrous adventures in the civil war, fearing the Kingdom of the Dead would catch scent of their weakness and begin raiding their shores again. Over a third of the principalities still relevant to rule of Procer stood behind him. Amadis did not have the votes in the Highest Assembly to dismantle Hasenbach’s position, not unless she blundered and angered rulers keeping aloft. But he was now widely considered the second most powerful ruler in the Principate, and even the hint of his displeasure gave other princes pause.

Not that the First Prince had been idle all this time. She was, Amadis would concede, a much defter hand at the Ebb and the Flow than any Lycaonese should be. That clever bit of diplomacy with Levant had tied Orense to her with a debt of gratitude, and his own admittedly lacklustre military record meant that Salamans and Tenerife preferred looking for protection against Helike with the First Prince than his own faction. Their support had borne fruit, with twenty thousand men being sent south to guard the border even as the rest of the Principate gathered for war. Yet for all her cleverness, Hasenbach was not beloved. Her heavy-handed reforms of the bureaucracy in Salia had won her no friends among the highborn who had once enjoyed lucrative sinecures close to the heart of Procer’s power. The decrees she had passed trough the Highest Assembly to disburse funds for the upkeep of fortresses guarding the borders with the Chain of Hunger and the Dead King’s realm were similarly unpopular with the impoverished south, though she’d had the votes to force them through regardless.

Still, Amadis had never considered the woman a true threat to his rising ascendance. Watching the massive undertaking she had apparently managed to prepare under his nose without a single soul noticing, however, he was coming to reconsider that assessment.

There must have been at least five hundred mages involved, he thought as he left his tent and came to stand in the field. That meant easily thrice that number in servants and tradesmen supporting them, the sum of it making a sizeable town on its own. And there must have been soldiers, to ward off anyone curious even in this distant stretch of the Principate. The Prince of Arans must have been involved as well, for all this was taking place amidst his lands, and never had Amadis unearthed so much as a hint that the man was one of Hasenbach’s. Neither had his people in the treasury found trace of the sizeable amount of coin that must have been allocated in seeing such an undertaking through. Had the gold come through the Lycaonese principalities? Fielding their armies south in the civil war should have nearly beggared them, it should not have been possible. Unless, of course, Hasenbach had falsified the books in Salia. The Prince of Iserre hummed. He could have her censured for that. The measure was mostly symbolic, and required simple majority to pass. Would it be worth it to call in the favours? It would certainly blacken her name, but to make such a play as a crusade unfolded might do the same for his own.

Someone came to stand by his side, and a low whistle was let out.

“She plays a deeper game than we thought,” Princess Rozala of Aequitan said.

Barely twenty, Amadis thought, with all her mother’s beauty yet none of the grace. Being raised in a time of war had done nothing for her manners, a shame given the past glories of her hallowed line. Iserre and Aequitan had been foes as often as they were allies, over the centuries, a complicated dance of love and hate that saw the lines between rivalry and alliance ever blurred. No one understood better than his people that a skilled enemy could serve as better ally than a friend.

“I discern the Prince of Hannoven’s hand in this,” Amadis said. “It is too… martial a measure to be the First Prince’s own thought.”

“It certainly explains why she had us getting drunk near the border with Bayeux instead of mustering with the Iron Prince in Orne, anyway,” Princess Rozala mused. “And here I thought she merely wanted to keep you from getting your grubby paws all over her allies.”

“A mark of weakness, that she would find it needful to do so,” Amadis said with a thin smile. “Too many of her backers see the sense in what I say.”

“There’s no great brilliance in pointing out that Callow is ripe for the taking, Amadis,” the Princess of Aequitan snorted. “Anyone with eyes can see it. It’s the division of the spoils that’s going to set tongues wagging. Assuming we can even wrest the right to dispose of them.”

“Enough of the Highest Assembly took command of their armies we can convoke a session in Callow without her,” the Prince of Iserre murmured. “With the right promises we could circumvent her entirely.”

Neither needed to say that if this took place, Hasenbach’s reign would never recover from the blow. It was one thing for a decree to be defeated in the Assembly – not even the most beloved of First Princes had avoided that indignity at least once – but for a ruling First Prince’s known intent to be defied that openly? She would barely even qualify as a figurehead, after. The disgrace might be enough for her to abdicate and flee back north with her tail between her legs. There were other ways to chance the face of the Principate’s rule than mere warfare. The two of them stood in uneasy silence afterwards, looking at the work of the mages. The ritual had begun with dawn yet was not even half-done by his reckoning. The harsh slopes of the mountains separating Procer from Callow burned away under constant sorcerous fire, leaving behind smoking steps of stone stretching ever further. Now that the Prince of Hannoven had given his leave, Amadis had been filled in on the full details of this little scheme of the First Prince’s. Though no great commander himself, the Prince of Iserre knew enough of martial endeavours to be aware that the Kingdom of Callow’s great advantage in war had always been that the only path of entry from the west was the Red Flower Vales. Narrow passes and valleys, whose fortifications had only grown more expansive since the Wastelanders had annexed Callow.

This was no longer true.

The Stairway, as Hasenbach’s lieutenant among the mages called it, was the work of years in ritual preparation and planning: an exhausting labour that would carve a way through the mountains between the principality of Arans and northern Callow at the narrowest point in the mountains. The planned point of emergence was to the north of the city of Harrow – which was, he’d been assured, essentially undefended. Amadis had been ordered to take his host through the Stairway and begin a march south, shattering every army in his path until he took the defences of the Red Flower Vales from behind while the host of Prince Klaus Papenheim assaulted them from the front. He’d also been mandated to establish negotiations with the Duchy of Daoine, though it had been made clear to him treating with Duchess Kegan would be handled by one of the First Prince’s personal envoys. In this, he was not worried. Callow was such a lawless place, these days. Envoys could meet with all sorts of accidents as they journeyed. And if they did, well, was it not his duty as a loyal subject of Procer to fill that void? A diplomatic victory with the Deoraithe would do much to solidify his position before he convoked the Highest Assembly within Callow. The higher is fortunes rose, the lower Hasenbach’s fell.

“The wizards tell me the ritual will be completed within two days,” Prince Amadis of Iserre told his accomplice. “We must swiftly steal a march afterwards.”

“Steal a march,” Princess Rozala repeated mockingly. “My, how commandingly you speak to me. One would almost believe you to be the leader of this glorious host of ours.”

Amadis smiled at her.

“How is your brother these days?” he asked. “I hear his talents as an orator have thawed even the First Prince’s disposition.”

The woman’s face turned dark, and she looked away. Rozala did need the occasional reminder of how flimsy her position in Aequitan truly was, with her younger brother currying favour at court. Hasenbach was unlikely to be so gauche as to directly intervene in a principality’s affairs of succession, but she could do a great deal to help the boy’s cause without tipping her hand.

“Let us not quarrel, Your Grace,” Amadis said. “Can you not feel it? We are going to make history, you and I.”

The Prince of Iserre’s smile broadened as he watched the Stairway grow. The world, he knew, was on the eve of great changes. And Amadis Milenan would be at the heart of them.

Prologue

“If my allies were half as reliable as my enemies, I would have a different moniker.”
– King Henry Fairfax, the Landless, upon being told of the Praesi invasion of Principate-occupied Callow

It went against Iason’s instincts, but Amelia had been right. She had a knack for these things, it came with her Name. They must keep a low profile, at least for now. The sooner they moved out of Dormer and into the countryside – rumour at the market was that large swaths of the south were still patrolled only irregularly by the Legions – the better, but as long as they stayed in the city they had to be quiet. It’d been most a day now since the three of them had left the river barge they’d stowed away on, and they’d split for the afternoon. Lergo had gone to have a look at what the locals called Summer Hill, the mound of melted stone where they said the Black Queen had tricked the Queen of Summer into returning to Arcadia. The Ashuran had whined like a child about having to abandon his flamboyant crimson clothes for something less attention-grabbing, but he’d given in anyways. And made eyes at Amelia all the while, the pretentious twit. The Red Mage had proved he was a force to reckon with in a fight, but Iason had not grown to like him in the months since their band first assembled. The Gallant Bandit herself had gone to find them accommodations for the night, so he’d been charged with obtaining foodstuffs for the journey ahead.

The marketplace in Dormer was thriving, for a city that’d been emptied and set aflame not even a year ago. It was Callowans running the shops and stalls, but there was a gaggle of foreign merchants as well. Iason found it difficult to tell apart the Taghreb and the men of the Free Cities, for they looked much alike in skin and faces, but the black-skinned Soninke stood out starkly. The hero bargained half-heartedly with a peddler for lentils and dried meat, rather certain he got robbed on the exchange. He was paying with silver fidi from Mercantis, one of the few coins no merchant in Calernia refused, and he was not certain how it compared to Imperial coinage. The merchant’s smiling admission he had no scale to compare the weights did little to inspire trust, though the man was unmoved when Iason threatened to seek another peddler. Odd behaviour, from a merchant who could not even afford a stall.

“There,” the peddler said, taking pity on him and giving back a few coppers.

Not a mintage he recognized, Iason noted. It could be worthless for all he knew.

“Don’t look at me like that, son,” the merchant snorted. “That’s from the Royal Mint in Marchford, not Harrow trash like everyone else is trying to offload. Call it my kindness of the day.”

“Callow has a mint?” Iason said in Lower Miezan, surprised. “I thought it used the Tower’s coin.”

“The Bastard Lord had one built,” the peddler told him approvingly. “That’s Taghreb for you. Vicious fuckers one and all, but they’ve a nose for business. Mind you, everyone still takes Praesi mintage. Have to, with all the gold coming south these days.”

“There are a lot of foreigners,” the hero agreed, casting a wary look at a nearby Soninke.

The peddler looked amused.

“You don’t sound like no Callowan, boy,” he said. “Delos?”

“Atalante,” he replied. “My father was, anyway. I was raised west.”

He’d grown to manhood in the principality of Creusens, but admitting as much in this city would have been the act of a fool.

“We got a lot of Wastelanders around nowadays,” the peddler agreed. “Trying to get their hands on grain, you know. Mercantis caught on so the Consortium is gouging them on prices and buying up the reserves in the other cities to drive up the prices. They’re used to this country being the greener pasture.”

“Few of them are smiling,” Iason said, only now noticing.

“That’s ‘cause the Bastard Lord restricted commerce in foodstuffs,” the merchant grinned nastily. “They want more than scraps, they have to get a permit in Laure. The really desperate ones are ruining themselves emptying tavern larders one at a time, but already the court is clamping down on that.”

“That seems like a loss of profit for you all,” Iason said.

“Worth it, to have the crown’s men around when some Wastelanders try to get nasty,” the peddler said, spitting to the side. “Not that there’s been a lot of those. I’ll say this for the Black Queen – since she crucified all those pricks after Second Liesse, Praesi have been stepping real light around here.”

The hero was almost nauseated. They said the villain ruling Callow had nailed hundreds to crosses after slaying her rival, made them grisly ornaments along the road. The merchant should have been appalled, but if anything he sounded grudgingly approving. Iason had never been skilled at hiding his thoughts – it went against his Name to be less than Stalwart in anything he did – and the peddler picked up on it. The man spat to the side again, looking warier now.

“You with the House of Light, son?” he probed.

“A lay brother,” Iason said. “Never took the full vows. I don’t have the disposition for it.”

Full-fledged brothers had to vow pacifism, and it was in his nature to meet injustice sword in hand.

“Didn’t know that was a thing,” the peddler said, but he was mollified.

It wasn’t, not in Callow anyway. The House of Light in Procer tended to consider its equivalent in Callow to be a very… provincial cousin. Prone to eccentricities. That the Order of the White Hand, true anointed paladins, had been allowed to hold lands of its own in the old days was spoken of as impious back home. It was just history, now that the Order had been exterminated, but Iason had a personal interest in the matter. His Name had but few previous incarnations, and most of them had come to be in Callow. The hero did not linger after that, already uncomfortable with how much attention he’d drawn. He hoisted the sack over his shoulder and made his way to the quarter by the docks, where Amelia had said she’d find them an inn. He was wondering how to find her, when she found him instead. The Gallant Brigand was almost as tall as he was, lithe and graceful in a way he could not help but stare at. Dark hair kept in a ponytail was usually covered by a highwayman’s hat, though she’d stashed it away for the sake of discretion, and the notched scar on her cheek somehow only added to her beauty.

“There you are,” Amelia smiled. “Fruitful foray?”

Iason cleared his throat uncomfortably. The cloistered life in Aviliers had not taught him how to deal with beautiful women, and he was always on the backfoot around her. At least Lergo wasn’t there. The Red Mage always seemed to make it worse with his glib and cutting japes. As if the sorcerer himself didn’t hang on her every word.

“I have supplies,” Iason stiffly replied. “Have you secured accommodations?”

Amelia snorted and clapped his shoulder.

“Secured accommodations,” she repeated teasingly. “You need to loosen up, Iason. Though I suppose that would be against type.”

I can be fun, the Stalwart Paladin silently insisted. Just because I can’t set things on fire with a word doesn’t mean I’m a bore. Instead of saying that he ended up chewing on his tongue like a fool, to the woman’s visible amusement.

“Come on,” she said, withdrawing her hand. “I found us a place. Be warned, though. It was cheap for a reason.”

Iason frowned when he first saw the inn, as the warning seemed inaccurate. It was not luxurious palace, but it was spacious and swift perusal of the common room revealed it to be scrupulously clean. Perhaps she’d meant the food would be horrid? It hardly be worse than the cooking they’d inflicted on themselves journeying from the countryside to Atalante after forming their band in Nicae. The Gallant – Iason did not like to think of the other part of her Name, no matter how much he liked her – shot him a toothy grin after he set down the sack, and a moment later a loud screaming match began in the kitchen adjoining the common room. The hero grimaced. Lergo strolled in an hour later, still looking put-out at wearing wool instead of blindingly red silk, and claimed at seat at the table where Iason had been sharing a drink with Amelia and failing miserably at small talk. The Red Mage stole his tankard and drank from it, wrinkling his nose at the taste. The sorcerer had been born to one of the high tiers of citizenship in Ashur, he was likely used to much better fare. Everything about him smacked of arrogant privilege, which had not become any less grating with time.

“Had a look at that hill,” Lergo casually said in tradertalk. “That was a serious scrap. If our cousin up north can tangle that hard, we’re in for quite a vigorous dance.”

The cousin up north, they’d taken to calling her to be discreet. Catherine Foundling, Queen of Callow. The Squire, some said, though others implied she had another Name yet to be revealed. The breadth of the swirl of rumours around the villain that ruled Callow was staggering, for one so young. Undefeated in battle. She murdered a god to steal his mantle and tricked two others into doom without ever unsheathing her blade. She has more lives than a cat, holds sway over dead and fae alike. Her cohorts, the Woe, had been revealed to the wider world through the infamous massacre they called the Doom of Liesse back home. The Hierophant, a cold madman whose strange sorceries tamed demons and stilled miracles. The Thief, a fallen heroine said to have once stolen an entire fleet and even snatched the sun out of the sky. The Archer, the greatest pupil of the Lady of the Lake who had never lost in single combat. And the last, Hakram Deadhand. The Adjutant. They said he was unkillable, that he was large as an ogre and his hand of bones could wrest out your soul. The heirs to the Calamities had made a bloody debut, last year. Iason had paid close attention to the rumours, knowing even the slightest hint could make the difference between life and death.

The three of them had come, after all, to kill the Black Queen.

“That might have been the fae, not her,” Amelia whispered in the same language, one of the few they all shared. “Her talent is supposed to be ice, not fire.”

“And what a talent fire can be,” Lergo said, grinning suggestively at the Gallant. “The element of passion, you know.”

Iason’s teeth clenched.

“We’re still on the outskirts,” Amelia said. “We’ll hear more when we go deeper into the country. The south looks like very promising grounds to begin our work.”

They would, to her. The Gallant Brigand had been vague about her activities before joining their band, but Iason had pieced together that she’d made her mark in the wake of the Tyrant of Helike’s armies as they sowed chaos across the Free Cities. The southern parts of Callow were still feeling the aftermath of the last three wars, and so she would be moving on somewhat familiar territory. Robbing the powerful to help the powerless was a worthy cause, even if he disapproved of her methods. Banditry was a sin in the eyes of the Heavens, else why would so many bandit Names be sworn to the Hellgods? They had to delay the conversation after that, for the innkeepers came to offer their service. Callowans both, an old married couple. They offered stew on the house, though the ale was not, and to Iason’s mild irritation lingered afterwards to chat with what seemed to be their only current patrons. Some matters were their own explanation.

“Dormer born and raised, the both of us,” the old man – Albert, as he insisted on being called – told them proudly. “City’s had a rough few years but we’ll get back on our feet, you’ll see.”

“I heard Dormer was part of the Liesse Rebellion,” Amelia said smilingly, “but the damage was all from the fae, I am told?”

“Good Anne dragged us into the mess, it’s true,” the old woman grudgingly admitted. “She cut a deal with the Black Queen after, though, spared us the worse. And she’s moved up in the world since, eh? Governess-General. A balm on everyone’s soul that.”

“Her whelp of a nephew’s governor now,” Albert said. “He did fine getting people out before Summer came, but too many still died. His aunt he is not.”

“That’s not on the boy,” the old woman sharply said. “That’s because a villain is queen. Ma always said that makes you cursed. Just look at the Wasteland.”

“Your mother also said a bowl of cream and bread crumbs would keep the fairies happy, Mary,” the old man mocked. “How’d that go again?”

The three of them sat awkwardly as the old couple argued loudly, Iason deriving some satisfaction form the fact that Lergo looked as uncomfortable as he felt himself.

“I couldn’t help but notice the portraits by the kitchen door,” Amelia intervened. “You have children?”

Gods they had they been lucky to run into her, Iason thought. And not only because looking at her when they trekked through the countryside made the journey a great deal more pleasant. Neither he nor the Red Mage had a way with people.

“Only the one now,” Mary soberly said. “Our youngest died at First Liesse. Them devils summoned by the Diabolist did it.”

“Aye, and the Black Queen killed her dead,” Albert grunted. “She’s a hard one, make no mistake, but these are bad times. Hard is what we need. Even Jehan the Wise hung himself some princes. Seven and one, like in the song.”

“It’s ungodly is what it is,” the old woman barked. “A villain queen? No good will come of it.”

“She was crowned by a Sister all proper, Mary,” the old man insisted. “What more can you ask?”

“Everyone knows the House up north went tame,” she sniffed.

“We’ve heard a lot about the queen, down south,” Iason said. “Some of it was less than pleasant.”

“Never said she was a choir girl,” Albert defended. “But Hells, it’s still better than Procer ain’t it? Kingdom’s back and Praes is playing nice. If the rest of the world would just leave us alone we’d muddle on just fine.”

“He has to say that,” Mary told them. “Lily went and joined the army, the fool girl. Taking orders from an orc calling herself marshal of all things.”

“If the orc pays her taxes and fights at the border, I say she’s welcome here,” the old man said stubbornly. “A whole goblin tribe settled at Marchford and that turned out all right. You have to forgive Mary, she’s a country girl. I’m a learned man, me. Went to Laure once when I was a boy.”

“Not the Laure story again,” the old woman sighed.

Lergo spoke up, sparing them the Laure story, and Iason had never before been so close to feeling fondness for the man.

“We intend on travelling north,” the Red Mage said. “Are the roads safe?”

“Sure, if-” Albert began, but he paused.

In the distance, bells were ringing. Four times, Iason counted.

“Again?” the old man said.

“Last one went straight to the Blessed Isle, made it far inland after,” Mary said. “Guess that was the last of the clever bunch.”

“That’s thrice now,” Albert complained. “Last time it took all day to clean up the docks after. No wonder we never get clients, with all them foreigners mucking up the city.”

He paused, the glanced at the three heroes.

“No offence,” he assured them.

“None taken,” the Gallant Brigand lied. “We’re new to town, so I’m at a bit of a loss. What did the bells mean?”

“Oh, you dears don’t need to worry,” the old woman said. “Just stay indoors, it was the curfew bells. It’ll be foggy out soon anyway.”

“Curfew?” Iason said. “What for?”

“Heroes,” Albert said. “Some must have come. Streets have to be cleared until that’s done with.”

The Stalwart Paladin’s blood ran cold. Already? How could the Empire possibly have known? It hadn’t even been a whole day. The three heroes shared a look and excused themselves to their rooms, telling their hosts of travel weariness, and made council in Iason’s own.

“We can’t stay here,” Amelia began. “We can’t risk putting those two in the middle of a fight between Named.”

“They must have scried us, it’s the only explanation,” the Red Mage whispered. “That shouldn’t be possible, not with the Paladin bearing Heaven’s touch. Unless you screwed up, Iason.”

“I don’t use the touch, mage,” the Paladin coldly replied. “It is there. Always. There is no intent needed.”

“I used to hunt for Helike supply caches, back in the day,” the Gallant Brigand said quietly. “Easy work, good loot. The way I’d find them was by watching the roads the Tyrant’s men used most, then doubling back.”

“I don’t follow,” Iason admitted.

“That is because you’re a sword-waving simpleton,” the Red Mage drawled, and the Paladin resisted the urge to punch that twinkle out of his eye. “The touch, it blocks actual scrying but the spell would still register failure. They moment it did they must have known we were coming, and they tracked us with the same. That’s impressively clever, I’ll admit.”

“Then they might be able to track us to here,” Amelia urgently said. “We need to move now.”

Neither of them argued. Iason left silver by his bed to pay for both the night and the trouble, as his companions grabbed their personal affairs. The Mage took longer, and returned decked in red silks.

“We are trying to be discreet,” the Paladin hissed, his accent thickening.

“Discreet is over,” the man shrugged. “Now is the time for panache.”

“Well, I hope you can run in those,” the Gallant amusedly said, adjusting her hat. “Out the window, boys.”

Heroic work, Iason thought, involved a lot more jumping down windowsills than he’d anticipated. He’d not needed to change, as he’d never taken off the chain mail under his coat and rarely wore a helmet. The Heavens provided armour when he required it. He landed as silently as a man wearing over twenty pounds of steel could, which was not very. The Gallant landed smoothly as a cat, and the Red Mage nearly broke his ankle landing. The Paladin smothered a smile, as it was unkind to take enjoyment from the misfortune of others. However richly deserved.

“Well,” Amelia said, lowering the brim of her hat. “There’s that fog Mary was talking about.”

It’d been late afternoon and the winters in southern Callow were mild this late in the year – spring would not come for months yet but there was no snow in sight – which made the sudden appearance of thick fog rather jarring. There was nothing natural about this.

“Might I suggest we leave the city before a full legion comes after us?” Lergo suggested drily. “Blood doesn’t show on these robes but it does smell.”

“Keep an eye out,” Iason said, for the first since he’d come ashore back in his element. “As an opening move, this only makes sense if only our vision is restricted.”

Otherwise the enemy was simply helping them escape. As the moved quietly through the streets, the Paladin wondered how many of the Woe would have come. The full five? That might be more than they could handle. Two or three, he was confident they could deal with. Four they could flee. Five with a sorcerer as reportedly powerful as the Hierophant among them would be too many. Best that they never encounter the enemy at all, and disappear into the countryside where they would be harder to track. Amelia suddenly stopped.

“We’re being watched,” the Gallant Brigand said.

He did not question her: she has an aspect relating to this, though he knew not the word. Iason could see no one so he sharpened his hearing. Scuttling above, on the rooftops.

“Goblin,” he said, and unsheathed his longsword. “Roof to the left.”

The Gallant followed suit with her sabre and the Red Mage fell behind them. Eyes watching above, Iason saw a leering green face pop out from thatching. Yellow eyes shone bright in the fog, above a grin of needle-like fangs.

“Don’t you think it was a little racist to assume I was a goblin?” the creature mused. “Plenty of people use rooftops, you know. They’re like streets that make it easier to murder.”

The Stalwart Paladin blinked, then opened his mouth. Had he – but the goblin had just said… He closed his mouth.

“You’re quite brave, to seek out three heroes on your own,” the Red Mage said.

“Well, we don’t live old as a rule,” the greenskin said. “But hey, that’s why there’s a lot of us.”

Iason’s hearing was still sharpened and that was why he heard them move. Not one but dozens, and they’d all struck at once. He’d expected crossbows but instead what came tumbling down was balls of clay with lit fuses, and without missing a beat he called on the protection of the Heavens. A halo of light wreathed him and his allies as well, but he’d miscalculated. The munitions exploded into blinding brightness with a deafening clap – he had to blink it away and force the Light into his eyes. The Red Mage cursed, and when Iason’s vision returned there was no sign of any goblins. All they had left behind was a red trail of burning powder in the sky. They marked our position, he thought. He glanced at the others. Amelia had covered her eyes with the brim of her hat, but by the looks of it the noise had still affected her.

“Run,” he said, not sure how loud he was being.

The roar of the munitions was still sounding in his ears. The others understood him well enough to obey, and they headed for the closets gate without even the pretence of discretion. Dormer had turned into a ghost town, every door and window closed. In the fog, he could barely make out the shape of the houses unless he empowered his eyes with his Name. It began clearing out close to the gate. Whoever had done this, he thought, must have relied on the river to provide the water. Lucky them, they’d chosen the gate opposite. Providence. The gate was unguarded, and that was when he began doubting his last thought. No, he mused. Not unguarded. There were two people by the guardhouse. One seated on a bench, the other standing by it. Iason squinted. It was a woman, seated. Tan skin and high cheekbones, long hair in a practical leather binding behind her. Her legs were crossed and she was pulling at a pipe. The man at her side was almost inhumanly slender, a whip of a body in a long black tunic. At his hip was a sheathless sword, and one of his eyes was covered by a dark silken blindfold with silvery lettering. It was the hair that attracted his attention, though. It must have been a trick of the light, but for an instant it had seemed made of crow’s feathers.

“Iason,” the Gallant Brigand urgently said. “The woman’s cloak.”

He looked. It must have once been entirely black, he thought, but it was no longer. A patchwork of colourful strips had been woven over it, and even some matter he did not recognized. It looked like rippling wind. The collar, though, what laid woven into it felt like a sin. That made this the Mantle of Woe, and the woman wearing it…

“Catherine Foundling,” he said. “The Black Queen.”

The woman spewed out a stream of smoke, still sitting. Iason met her eyes. For one of her reputation, he was distinctly unimpressed. There was no pressure there, only a young woman looking vaguely exhausted.

“Afternoon,” the Black Queen said. “Welcome to the Kingdom of Callow, folks. Evidently you know who I am, so that saves us some tediousness.”

“Your trap will avail you nothing,” Iason said harshly.

“This isn’t a trap,” the villain mused. “Not unless you make it one. If I wanted you dead, Robber wouldn’t have tumbled you a warning shot. It would have been goblinfire instead of brightsticks, and already it’d all be over but the screaming.”

“How civilized of you,” the Gallant Brigand said, her tone slightly mocking. “Since we’re all being so friendly, might I venture as to ask what you want from us?”

The Black Queen spewed out a stream of smoke, studying them calmly.

“That’s my line,” she said. “Setting aside that you passed the border illegally, having three heavily-armed Named wandering the countryside without so much as a by-your-leave just isn’t in the cards. What are you here for?”

“Introductions first,” the Gallant demurred. “I am-“

“Amelia of Helike, daughter of Lasarn,” the one-eyed man at her side smiled, teeth like ivory. “You are known to us.”

Amelia blanched. The way he’d spokeen that last sentence… Iason was not one to frighten easily, yet it had sent a shiver down his spine.

“That’s Larat,” the Black Queen cheerfully said. “Or at least that’s what I call him. It pisses him off a lot, but why even have a treacherous lieutenant if you’re not going to taunt them at every opportunity?”

“We have come to study the aftermath of the fae incursion, Your Majesty,” Lergo said. “Purely academic curiosity in my part, I assure you.”

The lie sat ill with Iason, but he kept his mouth shut. Informing the woman that they had come to slay her and release Callow from her grasp would lead to a struggle he was not certain they could win. Not yet. The Black Queen pulled at her pipe, then sighed.

“Red Mage, was it?” she said. “A warning for you. Of all the shit decisions you’ve made today, trying to lie to me is close to the top of the list. Don’t do it again. I take it you’re here to kill me, then.”

It was a little insulting, Iason thought, that she sounded more irritated than threatened by that deduction. Arrogance was ever the downfall of Evil, he reminded himself. She spewed out another mouthful of smoke.

“Then what?” she asked.

“Pardon,” Lergo replied, sounding baffled.

“You kill me, glory to the Heavens and all that good stuff,” she waved. “Then what?”

“The people of Callow are freed,” Iason said. “They rise against the wicked Praesi and-“

“This,” the Black Queen sighed as she interrupted, “is why I have to keep killing you people. Look, I understand better than anyone how easy it is to start thinking you can just stab your way out of a mess, but you haven’t thought this through. Putting my head on a pike just makes a different sort of mess.”

“That’s what tyrants always say,” the Gallant quietly said. “That they may be a plague, but the world would be worse without them. You have to lance a wound for it to be able heal.”

“You’re not lancing anything, kid,” the villain said. “You’re just bleeding the body. And it’s been a long time since anyone thought that helped. Look, I’m not barring Callow to heroes. You want to wander the south healing and rebuilding? Fine by me. You get a Legion escort, but they’ll stay out of your way. You want to have a swing at Black? Not my problem, but you’ll have to get to the Vales through Procer. You want to actually have a look at the fae marks, or even Liesse? I’ll need oaths as assurance, but we can deal. This doesn’t have to be a fight.”

She paused.

“But,” she murmured. “Since I know what you’re thinking. Larat.”

The one-eyed man’s grin broadened, and power rippled across the street. The air cooled, and Iason almost summoned his Heavenly Armaments in answer. There was might in that creature’s frame, and nothing human about it.

“We’ve been tracking you since Mercantis,” the Queen said. “We’ve had long enough we could have hit you still in the river. Do you know why you were allowed to make shore?”

“I assume some form of sadism is involved,” the Red Made drawled.

“In a manner of speaking,” the villain smiled. “See, I learned from a man that would have had you corpses at the bottom of the Hwaerte before you even noticed. But I’m trying, I guess, not to be him. Or worse.”

Slowly she rose to her feet, and emptied the pipe before stewing it away in her cloak. The smile and the easy manners went away. Idly she rested her hand on the pommel of her sword, and Iason felt fear. There was iron in that woman’s gaze that had not been there before.

“You’ve seen I’m prepared,” Catherine Foundling said. “You’ve seen I have the muscle to put you down. But I didn’t put on the fancy hat to kill kids. So please, I beg you – don’t make me.”

It sounded genuine enough that the Paladin hesitated. The sentiment that they were kids to her was insulting, but what lay behind it… The wiles of devils are many and varied. Trust not the words of those sworn to Below, for deception is their truest tongue. He would not balk at his duty.

“Go home,” the Black Queen said tiredly. “Or Hells, join up if you want to. I’ll find something for you to do, this country’s still half a wreck and it’s not like I don’t take in heroes. But if you force this, it only ends one way. And once we start, I might not be able to stop.”

“You are a blight upon Creation,” the Stalwart Paladin said, almost regretfully. “An instrument of the Hellgods, carrying within the seed of damnation. May the Heavens grant you mercy in the afterlife, but for the sake of Creation you must be removed from this earthly shell.”

“What he said,” the Gallant Brigand agreed. “Only, you know, less priestly. Fuck you and your offer and your entire evil legions.”

“Yes yes, praise the Heavens and much defiance. That aside, out of curiosity,” the Red Mage smirked, “has that speech ever actually worked?”

The Black Queen breathed out, and in a moment she went from tired girl only a few years older than them to razor-sharp killer. It was in the eyes, in the way she held herself. She had the poise of someone used to taking lives.

“No,” she said. “But I’ll try with the next batch anyway. Sixth time’s the charm, right?”

The one-eyed creature laughed.

“They never listen,” he said, sounding pleased. “I do believe offering mercy might actually make it worse. Fascinating.”

Six. Iason felt a trickle of fear go down his spine. How many heroes had she killed? No, it didn’t matter. She only needed to fail once. The hero folded into himself, and let his aspect reverberate within his soul. Arm. Plate of pure Light formed around him, a full suit topped by a winged helmet. His sword shone radiantly and as Lergo began to incant he advanced. The villain did not move, eyes still on him, but the Paladin felt the shifting currents of power. To their side a gate opened out of thin air, and as he glanced there Iason saw two things. The first was two score goblins, bright-eyed and eager in their furs as they occupied a frozen wasteland. The second was six scorpion-like contraptions of wood and metal, and as that sunk in they began to fire. The bolt hit him in the chest, then two others, yet it might as well have been children throwing mud at a stone wall. The steel bent, the wood shattered and he barely even felt the impact. He had no moment to spare enjoying the small victory, however. The Red Mage was most endangered by this sort of assault. Though gifted with a particularly strong talent for destruction, Lergo had confessed he was incapable of even the most basic of shieldings. The sorcerer managed to save his own hide by turning to ash the handful of projectiles aimed at him, but he would not be able to keep this up forever.

The Stalwart Paladin moved between his companion and the volleys of steel-tipped bolts, letting them strike impotently at the armaments bestowed upon him by the Heavens. The Gallant had been the most unruffled among them, dancing out of the way and somehow even parrying a projectile with a casual flick of the wrist.

“I’ll break the machines,” Iason said, and his voice thundered. “Keep the villains busy.”

Though the Black Queen had caught them by surprise, she’d been arrogant. With only one creature and mundane soldiers at her disposal, it might be feasible to slay her here and now. To free Callow of tyranny within a day of coming to its shore would be a grand deed, worthy of hymns and remembrance. Yet if the tide turned against them, the Paladin would rather see them defeated before the fled. It would be the beginning of a Pattern of Three, he suspected, and that would greatly enhance the swiftness of their growth. Indeed, the might even encounter another hero after they fled. Providence had a way of rewarding the righteous. To Iason’s mild irritation, the goblins manning the siege engines proved passingly clever. Seeing that their bolts had no effect on his armour as he advanced, they turned their fire to his companions. Some sorcery must be behind the machines, he thought, for there could be no other explanation for how swiftly they kept firing. No matter. He was quick enough on his feet that only the odd bolt made it through. Clever as the goblins were, they’d not been quite clever enough to flee his approach.

Iason crossed the gate into the frozen landscape and raised his sword the moment he felt the bite of urgency near his shoulder. It was not quite enough, the angle too awkward. A blade shattered his pauldron of Light and ripped into the chain mail below, though not deep enough to wound, and the Paladin breathed in sharply. A tall orc decked in burnt plate discarded a broken axe and spun out another, face grim. The hand of bare bones gave away the name of the greenskin that had struck him. The orc spat to the side.

“Masego will be pissed,” he said. “Half a day’s work and it kept for a single blow. At least you’re not reforming.”

Iason grit his teeth. The Heavenly Armaments did have that weakness – they could only be used once day, and could not be forged anew while in use.

“You will not land another,” the Paladin promised.

The orc’s eyes were on his mail, not his blade, and they narrowed. The heraldry, Iason realized. It’d been made visible by the rip.

“Half-House, le Miroir Verdant,” the greenskin said in lightly accented Chantant. “Proceran, then. Good, I’ve been meaning to try one of you out before the big Names come.”

“I am the Stalwart Paladin,” Iason thundered. “And you will lose more than a hand today, orc.”

“I’m the Adjutant,” Hakram Deadhand replied, baring his teeth. “I had a light meal this morning.”

They both moved with the swiftness of Named, tangling halfway there. Iason managed to hammer down on the orc’s wrist, loosening the greenskin’s grip on the axe, but the dead hand closed around his throat. The bones blackened as the Light furiously bit into them, but they did not give and Iason struggled in vain before the Adjutant tossed him back out the portal. He landed in a crouch, shifting his weight as his fighting-master had taught him. The orc rolled his shoulders and strolled out of the gate unhurriedly.

Iason,” the Gallant screamed.

It felt like being kicked by a horse. The entire left side of his armaments shattered under the blow and as he flew he felt the Black Queen following with impossible swiftness. She arrived at the end of the arc before he did, snatching his foot and smashing him into the pavement. He saw her change her grip as she stood above him, ready to plunge down the point into his throat even as he tried to rise, but salvation came in time: a streak of red lightning had the villain ducking away in a hurry. The sorcerer had come through, thank the Gods. The Paladin got to his feet and took a swift look around as the Black Queen circled him slowly. Deadhand was now tangling with Amelia, and though he’d yet to land one of his brutal blows she was on the backfoot. Looking for an opening, he decided. It was not a bad match. The other conflict was. Lergo was weaving spells into one another admirably, flame and lightning and hexes flowing into the next seamlessly, but the one-eyed fae was toying with him. There were three cuts on the Red Mage’s cheek, perfectly parallel and scabbed black. Iason suspected they might have been killing blows, if the fae wished it so. He needed to lose Foundling soon and come to the sorcerer’s aid, or he was going to get run through when the creature bored of the game. This was no time to hold back.

Smite,” the Stalwart Paladin said.

The Black Queen attempted to avoid the aspect, but she was too slow. Light came down from above a perfect a perfect heptagon of seven feet on every stroke. For a moment the shape seemed almost solid, the wrath of the Heavens shattering the paving stones and even the ground beneath. A heartbeat later it was gone, leaving the half-kneeling form of a smoking villain. Her face was a tapestry of burned flesh, her hair gone up in smoke and her bare hands crushed. Her eyes were unseeing, struck blind by righteous retribution. The villain spat out a gob of black blood that steamed and ate away at the earth.

“You have William beat when it comes to impact,” the woman noted, her voice a croak yet somehow cold.

She rose, and as she did the air cooled and her flesh knitted back. She shed the burnt skin like a snake, and her pupils broke as fresh ones forced themselves forward.

“As a general rule, striking aspects tend to go one of two ways,” the Black Queen said, voice empty of emotion. “Broad but shallow, small but deep. I would not have walked off Swing so easily. A nice trick, but ultimately-“

Smite,” he interrupted.

She was standing again, which meant resuming the fight was not longer unchivalrous. There was a heartbeat between the Light striking and the word being spoken, and it was enough for her to evade.

“Ultimately still a trick,” she finished, as the smiting struck the empty pavement.

Only once more could he call on the aspect. He would have to get in close, prevent her form evading and… No, he thought. He was being baited. She was keeping him busy while her minions killed the others. Though it grated, Iason turned and without a word ran for the Red Mage.

“Hakram,” the Black Queen said, voice echoing strangely. “Switch.”

The orc moved away from Amelia without missing a beat, barrelling towards the Paladin immediately. Form the corner of his eye he saw the human villain pass them both in a streak, blade sounding against the Gallant Brigand’s own. Lergo cried out in pain, his incantation interrupted, and Iason’s fingers clenched around his sword. It was not all lost, he thought. The Adjutant was much slower than his mistress. The axehead came whistling down but Iason’s blade shifted angle, the combination of years of training and what he’d learned since coming into his Name. The Heavens-touched steel cut straight through the haft of wood and into the steel pauldron behind it. The orc began to retreat, and then the Paladin spoke.

Smite.”

Light filled his vision, but it was no harm to him. He felt the orc’s body flinch but somehow it remained standing. Though the greenskin’s footing was shot, so was his, and aside from smoking skin and amour the orc seemed unharmed when the aspect ebbed. And aspect of his own had been used, the Paladin suspected. There was the taste of power in the air. It was not enough. Iason ripped his blade free and smashed the guard in the orc’s face, knocking him clear of his feet. His Light-girded boot came down and broke the villain’s knee. That should cripple him for the rest of the fight. The greenskin struck out with a knife but Iason fluidly stepped back. Leaf Stirred By Hand, his master had called it, and when the knife withdrew he stepped forward following it. The blade whistled down, the orc bared his fangs and another blade knocked the killing blow away.

“You will not have him,” the Black Queen said, something sharp and heavy in her tone.

She frowned, and shook her head. Something in her eyes thawed measurably as she grimaced.

“Ever grasping is the tyrant’s lot,” Iason replied in Chantant.

“What’s he saying?” the woman asked. “My Chantant’s shit, and his accent is horrible.”

“He called you a tyrant,” the orc said.

“Wouldn’t be the first,” the Black Queen grimly said, parrying his blow and landing a riposte that failed to break through the Armaments.

He was pushed back, to his fury. Years he had trained for this, gruelling hours spent in the cloister’s courtyard being worked to exhaustion by his fighting-master. He’d learned the Five Ways and the Verdant Stances, been taught how to dismantle the foremost styles of every nation under the Calernian sun. But the Queen wasn’t fighting like a swordswoman. Whatever she had learned, it was no proper swordsmanship. She ignored his feint and pivoted around his back, her elbow hitting his flank and breaking his footing. He pivoted to face her but she’d moved with him and he had to give ground to avoid an oblique blow that would have carved through his throat. Iason gave further ground. Staying close, he would only get caught in her pace. It was then he realized that he could no longer hear the Red Mage fighting. He looked back and saw no sign of Lergo, or of his opponent. The air where they’d been fighting reeked of power and darkness. Gods, this was turning out too much for them. They had not been heroes long enough, none of them even had their full aspects.

Cut,” the Gallant Brigand coldly announced.

She emerged out of thin air behind the Black Queen, aspect howling as her blade carved clean through the villain’s abdomen. She’d… done it? Then the woman’s silhouette dispersed, and Iason realized they’d been had. Glamour, he realized with a shiver of fear. That was glamour. He rushed forward but it was too late. Amelia almost managed to avoid the blow out of sheer instinct, but goblin steel ripped through her coat and muscles. Her left arm fell down limply, and even as she caught her sabre with the other one the Black Queen caught her by the back of the neck and squeezed. There was a sickening crack, and just like that Amelia was dead. There was not so much as a flicker of emotion on the villain’s face, he saw. Not a speck of humanity to be found. Just ice and hatred wearing a body. Her silhouette blurred for what must not even have been a heartbeat, and Iason pushed through the grief. Glamour again, and he could not see through it. He stepped back warily, and the impotence of it burned. Sharpening his ears found nothing, she was stepping lightly and her illusion advancing towards him. He needed to see, he needed to find her, he needed to…

Discern.

Power rippled through the Paladin’s frame washing him clear of tiredness and pain and the weakness of the flesh. This was more than mere sight, he knew instinctively. It would tell truth from lies, read the movements of the flesh before they came to fruition. He could see her now, wreathed in mirror-like mist. She was stalking his side, eyes patient.

“Enough,” he snarled. “You will not get away with this, butcher.”

He caught her by surprise, striking without warning. He glimpsed the parry before it ever rose, flicked his blade to the side and cut into her shoulder. She wove back, her footing swift, but his Light-gauntleted hand struck her across the mouth. He headbutted his winged helmet but came off the loser for it, forehead bleeding as he returned in kind and she rocked back in pain. His fist caught her in the stomach and she gasped. His blade shone radiantly as it scored a deep cut across her upper leg, but somehow the cutting of her muscles was not enough to make her fall. Fingers coated in frost and shadow slugged into his cheek, shattering the Light, and the two of them fell to the ground struggling. Using his weight to come atop her, he caught her wrist and dug his finger into her eye. She bit him, down to the bloody bone, and he snatched his hand back before he could lose the finger. She struggled under him but he was much heavier, and his fist broke her chin before she could wrestle away his arm. He’d felt teeth loosen. Forcing her arm aside his fingers closed around her throat, and suddenly she smiled.

The knife went ripped through the mail as Adjutant struck into his flank. Iason was thrown off the Black Queen by hundreds of pounds of angry orc, as as he hit the ground the world slowed. Light wreathed him, but still soft fingers touched his forehead. The Stalwart Paladin closed his eyes, an opened them in an endless spread of pale blankness.

You will bleed, a chorus of voices whispered into his ear. You will suffer. You will weep, yet find no relief. Though your soul is young and your weight feeble, you will take on the burden of many. Iason, son of Idrim, We offer you the misery of Endurance. We would embrace you one of our own, to blood and tears and bitter end. Iason Brightsword, Son of Tears, will you withstand horror so that others do not?

“Yes,” Iason whispered into the void.

The blankness rippled, and he was no longer alone. Two silhouettes with burning eyes and unspeakable shapes stood before him. And another, between him and them.

“There will be none of that,” Catherine Foundling sharply said.

You do not belong here.

The weight of their wrath was crushing, almost enough that Iason fell to his knees and it was not him they gaze upon in anger. Yet the Black Queen stood undaunted, cloaked in ice and shadows. And more. There was a silhouette riding her back, arms laced around her shoulders. A beautiful and dark-skinned woman.

“I already told the Hashmallim to walk it off,” she said. “Am I really going to have to revisit this with every fucking Choir?”

Arrogance. Your doom comes.

“Might be,” she said. “But not today, and not through this weak an instrument. Fuck off, you bottom feeders. This one’s been claimed fair and square.”

“You can’t fight angels,” Iason hissed.

“Who said anything about fighting them?” Catherine Foundling said, and then she rammed a knife in his belly.

The blankness fled, Iason’s eyes opened and the last thing he ever felt was a spike of frost going through his forehead.

Prosecution II

“Men often speak of justice as the middle way, the compromise, but that is the guise of lesser evils. Justice is to uphold that which is right, and there is no place for compromise in this.”
– King Jehan the Wise of Callow

In olden days, when Creation was yet young, a mighty king in the east was entreated for judgement. A great lady had harshly struck a servant, who in his wroth at the blow wounded her with a blade. The king stood in his hall and listened to the words of both until day passed and night fled, yet found no answer to give. For the king sought to be just and justice is a rare and fleeting thing. In his despair, the king called upon the three famed judges of his realm and sought their advice.

The servant must die, said the first judge, himself a great lord. It was law that no servant may strike a master, and laws must be obeyed lest the realm itself fall into disarray and men wound men with impunity. There is just order to the world, the first judge said, and this order must be upheld even when that which is protected stands undeserving.

The servant must be spared, the second judge said, once a servant herself. Though the wounding of the lady was a sin, so was striking of the servant. In committing sin of her own, the lady diminished the sin of the other. To be just is to shield the weak from the strong, said the second judge, and the balance of sin must be weighed by power.

Forgiveness must be given, the third judge said, an old and kind man. Though order was needed and the helpless owed shielding, to take and ruin life for the passing madness of a moment was to do disservice to all. Let the lady and the servant kiss cheeks and thread hands, the third judge said, for is is in mercy that justice can be found.

The mighty king heard the words of his judges, yet he was not satisfied. The answer of the first judge he found wanting, for it trusted in the laws of men and men are flawed. The answer of the second judge he found wanting, for it placed circumstance above sin. The answer of the third judge he found wanting, for it was not judgement at all but mere amnesty. The king slept not for months as he pondered, and thus was born the Riddle of Fault.

You who sought the Face of the Just, you will give answer.

 

Hanno had not known sleep in a fortnight where the words did not sound in his mind again and again. He caught himself whispering them under his breath after he woke, every single one singed into his mind as if a brand had been applied. Every time his eyes closed he saw the Face of the Just again, that slate of coal with harsh threefold eyes. Six times six wings he had glimpsed through them, and scales of copper where men would have borne skin. He had knelt at the feet of the Face of the Just but been granted no guidance, only more questions. That, and rusted coin so hard-bitten the metal it had been minted from could no longer be discerned. The Speaker had taken shaking breath, after offering the riddle, and with trembling hands blessed him.

“Seek the silent tide,” they had said. “The coin will afford passage.”

The boy slept in the streets, huddling in an alley in the outer districts with the other tierless beggars until the city guard roused them with spear butts at dawn and forced them to disperse. He was hungry and tired and aching, but he had been told to seek the silent tide and so he did. He dragged himself to the docks, though without inked notches on his arm he could only enter those open to foreigners. There awaited ships and men who used strange tongues, Arlesites speaking the singing Tolesian dialects and merchants from the Free Cities who gabbled in tradertalk among each other. None looked at him twice, after seeing his bare arm. They had learned the worths and measures of Ashur, the meaning of being stripped of duty and due. Tierless were as ghosts within a land of the living, ungainly to look upon and best driven to ruins and empty hovels. For hours Hanno wandered aimlessly, sandals beating against stone as he sought something he did not know how to seek. His mind felt dull and dim, as if he had been robbed of the fire that once warmed it and shade had crept in its stead.

As twilight came, he found the tide. There was nothing to see, and that was what he saw. Though foreigners swarmed the harbour like locusts, filling every nook and cranny, there was a bubble of stillness. As if kept separate by some unseen wall, men passed it by without ever looking at it. Hanno himself tread by it thrice before his eyes found purchase, and almost forgot as soon as they had. There was an old man, blind and crooked, who sat at the edge of the pier with a wooden fishing rod in his hands. At his side was a slender ship of creaking wood and woven reeds, left unmoved by the tides. A sail hung from a pole, unraised. Hanno sat by the man’s side in silence and waited. The fishing rod never found bite, and the man’s only movement was the slow rise and fall of his breathing.

“They are not kind,” the stranger said, voice like grinding stones.

The boy considered this.

“I did not ask for kindness,” Hanno finally said.

“Whatever squabble brought you here, they will not care,” the old man said. “They do not give, child. They take and take and take until there is nothing left but smooth stone.”

“I have nothing,” Hanno said, and it was oddly liberating to speak the truth out loud. “I am nothing.”

“Five I have sent, in my day,” the stranger said. “None returned. Ashur is not loved by them, child. There is too much rot in the flesh, and the Seraphim despises that sin most of all.”

“Then I will not return,” the boy said. “What does it matter?”

“Might be that you do,” the old man darkly said. “My days run out. There is always need for a boatman.”

“You went,” Hanno said, and it was not a question.

“Aye,” the old man said, turning to offer a leering toothless grin. “I looked away, boy. If I can offer you advice, it is to fail utterly or not at all. The middle ground is the worst of it.”

A shiver went down his spine.

“I will tread to the end of the path,” Hanno murmured. “No matter what lays at the end.”

“Then offer me your obol,” the old man said. “I gave you fair warning.”

The rusted coin was in his hand before he reached for it, and he pressed it into the old man’s palm. Face a mask of grief, the stranger flicked his fingers and sent it spinning into the air. It fell into the sea without a sound or a ripple. Hanno slowly rose to his feet, making for the boat, but the old man clutched his arm feverishly and drew him close. His breath was foul.

“There is no riddle,” the stranger whispered. “Listen to me, boy, there is no riddle.”

The boatman released his arm, form shivering. He let out a cackle.

“What will you punish me with now, you old snakes?” he called out to the sky. “You have already done your worst. The only way left is down, and you are not so merciful.”

The boat was not moored. Hanno fled to it, distressed by the ugly rictus on the old man’s face. He knew not how to navigate, but raised the sail and pushed off. Where must he go, now? There was no path to follow on water. Wind caught the sail and the boat moved, dragging him away from Arwad and onto the sprawling sea. Was it sorcery or miracle that moved it? It did not matter. There was, he noticed then with quiet amusement, no tiller or rudder at the back. He had not been meant to find the way on his own. Days and nights passed, and though never did the ship end its journey neither did it come in sight of any shore. Hunger tore at his belly, ate away at his limbs. Thirst burned deep in his throat without even a drop of rain to quench it. Had it truly been been a fortnight? He could no longer tell, lying prone at the bottom of the boat and drifting in and out of consciousness. Hanno could barely even move, now, but death did not come. His skin darkened with the sun, grew rough like leather, and only when his ribs came to ache did he drift into his final sleep.

Hanno stood outside of himself, watching his silhouette brawling with another child’s. He remembered this, dimly. This was Barcalid District and he was nine years old. So was the other boy, the son of a digger in some inland mines. The whole family was born to the Twentieth Tier and would die to it – and even within that tier, they neared the bottom. The boy’s parents toiled in one of the mines where foreign prisoners were made to work through their sentences before release. Death came often and cheaply there, his father had once told him. Wasteland witch, the boy had called Hanno’s mother, looking for the approval of other children all the while. They cheered when Hanno struck him across the mouth. They tangled over stone, struggling wildly until Hanno kicked him in the stomach hard enough to make him puke. The others changed their colours with the turning tide, calling the boy weak-bellied and abandoning him to shiver alone in the street. The younger Hanno joined them, but the older one remained. He watched the boy wipe away angry tears and spit out the last of the vomit before dragging himself to his feet. He returned home, where no one awaited. Later that night his mother returned, and offered him the third of a black bread loaf before crawling into her bed to sleep. The father came back long after dark, smelling of liquor.

Don’t ever lose a fight again, the father said, and struck him across the mouth just as the younger Hanno had. The boy gritted his teeth and eventually fell asleep under threadbare blankets. The skies shifted and passed as Hanno watched the boy grow into a man, wed and have children of his own. Watched him strike others as he had been struck, violence begetting violence. Nothing lost and nothing learned. A life of fists without a single offered hand.

Hanno stood, and knew himself watched. There was no invitation, yet the expectation rang like a bell – and behind it awaited judgement. He would not, he suspected, be offered right to defend his actions twice. As the life of the boy began again, with young Hanno’s first blow rippling across his cheek, the older boy frowned. He had not sought that fight. Insult had been given. Neither was he at fault for the father’s sins, or the life delivered unto all of them. Where, then, did the fault lie? Ashur had birthed and raised them, but Ashur was but an assembly of Ashurans. Were they all complicit, then? Simply for being born? He could not find the fault in this, or the justice. Just people, acting as people always had and always would.

“Through ignorance, I contributed to evil,” Hanno Tierless said. “I ask not for absolution.”

What is the answer to the Riddle of Fault?

“I don’t know,” the boy whispered.

The voice had come from nowhere, and did not ask again. The world shifted once more, and Hanno stood a ghost again. He watched himself seated before twelve Ashurans in a sunny courtyard as a grey-haired woman asked him to denounced his mother without ever speaking her name. He watched six wings of copper erupt from his back, visible to none, and his gaze grow heavy with power. He watched himself render judgement upon the would-be judges, and find them wanting. I charge you, he heard himself say, with cruelty and indifference. I charge you with choosing law over right, with embracing blindness. As as his eyes shone, they could not weather the Light that came with it. Blindness embraced embraced them in return. He left that courtyard a righteous man, and brought that righteousness to all of Ashur.

“No,” Hanno said. “That, too, is evil.”

The boy he watched bore power, but he was not just. To mete out retribution upon those he found at fault was no different than what he had despised, in the end. It was only the judgement of power. The rule of strength, bereft of equity. There was no sin in law or the defiance of it, but to clothe retribution in the guise of justice was a thing of evil. What justice could there be, in the blind exertion of violence? To do such a thing would make him unworthy of the very strength being used.

What is the answer to the Riddle of Fault?

“Not this,” the boy whispered.

The world changed once more. This time, no vision or fantasy was put before his eyes. Only a collection of moments, all his own. Wrath, first. The wanton boiling of blood, the taste of victory in his mouth as his strength triumphed over that of others. Lust and envy came hand in hand, covetous eyes laid on women wed but still beautiful. Resentment in knowing they would never be his. The urgent press of lips against lips, the knowledge that the girl loved him but not him her discarded for the heat in his veins. Deeply buried hatred, for those who stood higher than him. Who ate better, who could decide their own lives. Who could see Creation with eyes instead of scrolls. Disgust and fear at tierless beggars. The ugly press of reassurance when violence was dealt to make them leave his sight. Pride at his skill with a quill, at his cleverness and memory. The unadmitted contempt for those less blessed. Kindness offered only for his own pleasure, for the thrill of knowing himself good. Taking bread from his father’s portion, telling himself he had earned it more. Moment after moment came before his eyes, and Hanno Tierless knew himself to be a ghastly soul.

The urge was there to look away, to end the parade of shame. The burn of the admissions did not grow easier with the number, every one fresh and acute. What utter arrogance, to have thought it possible for him to be worthy of any power at all. Hanno looked at the plain writ of his life, the parts of it he had taught himself to ignore brought to light, and found nothing of worth. Not a single selfless speck of dust. All his life he had worshipped at the temple, kneeling beneath the Faces, but all he had ever offered was sordid mockery. Faith picked and chosen, made hollow by his very nature. It did not matter, that there were worse men and women. Not here before the Seraphim. He was being made to answer for his own life, cut clean of all ties and deceptions. Hanno would have asked for forgiveness, but there was nothing to forgive but imperfection and imperfection would always be his lot.

What is the answer to the Riddle of Fault?

Hanno was clever, well-learned and discerning. He knew the words of the riddle, the three judgements and the indecision of the king. One judge offered order. Another offered excuse. The last offered mercy. Reason whispered to him that there was fairness to be found. A path between, where justice could be glimpsed. Let both the lady and the servant answer for their sins, the matter separate. Balance between the three judgements, wisdom found between the extremes. But it was the wisdom of a mortal, and Hanno had been taught the weakness of it.

“The fault lies with the king,” Hanno Tierless said. “For believing himself capable of justice.”

They showed him, then. What it was they saw.

The endless shifting tapestry that was all the decisions that were made and could be. The impossible lay of action and consequence, of motive and result. It was too much. It was too much for him to see, to understand. The boy screamed, felt all that he was fray as he glimpsed a whole he had never been meant to glimpse. The sum of all that was and would be, the culmination of endless paths. Hanno felt feathered wings envelop him, cold arms of metal embrace him closely. He was blind, now, and had never felt more blessed.

“Do not be afraid, child,” a voice whispered into his ear. “You are now beyond fear.”

“We give you nothing.”

“We take everything.”

“You will win no honours.”

“You will know no love.”

“You will find no peace.”

“Hanno of Arwad, we claim you.”

“Truth and sum and whole.”

“We charge you with service unending.”

“We burden you with unknowable mandate.”

“You will weep without solace.”

“You will die a thousand deaths.”

“But in the end, you will rise.”

We anoint you our White Knight.

Instrument of Judgement, Doom of the Wicked.

The Seraphim embraced him, and it felt like home. Like clarity and scales ripped from his eyes, never to grow again.

The boy woke to a thumb and a forefinger hoisting him by the scruff of the neck. Dark eyes large as boulders studied him curiously. The giant let out a breath like a gale.

“Man-child,” it said. “You reek of the Seraphim, yet you live. Curious. Have you come to deliver sentence onto the Gigantes?”

In his palm lay a silver coin. One side bore laurels, the other crossed swords. He knew this to be true without laying eyes upon it. The boy considered the question he had been asked.

“I,” Hanno slowly said, “do not judge.”

Epilogue

“You who pass this gate, know yourself beyond hope.”  
– Written above the gates of Keter, earthly seat of the Dead King

He would not speak to her until he was no longer in a vulnerable position. Alaya had known this because she knew the man, how his mind functioned. Amadeus did not treat from position of weakness. Her Black Knight arrived a few days earlier than anticipated at the Red Flower Vales, taking refuge with the loyal legions that garrisoned it in the face of Procer. The empress had found a degree of dark amusement in the way that Catherine Foundling’s armies now lay between the armed forces most loyal to the two most powerful villains of Praes. Almost like a matron breaking up a childish squabble between her wards. As always, the girl thought the worst of them. A civil war would not have been an acceptable outcome even if had a crusade not been in the making. The coming struggle would be steep enough without wasting soldiers in settling a matter best addressed privately. The current assessment of the younger villain’s loyalties was growing clearer with every movement she made in the absence of instructions from the Tower, and the picture painted was not promising.

The remains of two legions had been suborned to the insolently named Army of Callow, followed by the announcement of large-scale recruitment across the kingdom. The girl’s return to Laure had been followed by an energetic centralization of power around the yet-unbestowed crown, though it seemed she had learned from her previous blunder. A bureaucracy was forcefully being assembled by drafting any remotely competent Callowan and withdrawing talents from the Fifteenth. Given the girl’s propensity for charging at the first battlefield in sight, the power would effectively be wielded by Baroness Anne Kendal over the next few years. A former rebel with close ties to the House of Light and the last remnants of Callowan aristocracy. In the optic of consolidation of power within the kingdom, it was not a blunder. From the greater understanding of Callow within the Empire, it was a warning sign. A cohesive power bloc capable of ruling was being formed in Laure, one with bone-deep enmity towards the East.

That the Duchy of Daoine seemed to have turned into one of the crown’s backers was also worth a second look. It was a well-positioned source of manpower with hard borders and a history of resisting Praesi rule. The girl would need to squeeze the northern baronies for coin, however, or risk leaving the upset south in the lurch. An angle to use, if necessary. If it came to rebellion, further partition of Callow was now a feasible solution. When the south had been bound together by noble rule and marriage alliances it would have been a misstep, the seed of a rebellious Kingdom of Liesse being sown, but now that the city was wrecked and the aristocracy decapitated matters had changed. A southern vassal state dependent on Tower subsidies to recover would remain largely tranquil. It was what had once been the calm centre of Callow that was now trouble, the cities built by the shores of the Silver Lake. Large urban populations, strategic trade location and now a fledgling bureaucracy indebted to the crown made them the beating heart of Catherine’s power within Callow. Alaya had stayed her hand, for the moment. Killing the girl would ignite country-wide rebellion and besides she had yet to overstep the tentative terms reached in Liesse. Pressure could be applied through the promised reparations and the precarious western border.

Which was not in the empress’s hand at the moment, strictly speaking, but in those of her Black Knight. One of several matters in need of settling. Alaya thought of the raised hand, the word spoken that had unmade over a decade of careful planning, and grew cold. Dread Empress Malicia set the unnecessary emotional spasm aside. A mistake had been made, in placing blind trust. The extent that leaning should ever be indulged was in trusting individuals to act according to their nature. Anything more than that was asinine sentiment, a weakness on her part. When the mirror flickered with life, she was awaiting it. Dressed blood red, a sprawling dress with long sleeves and a neckline that was more suggestive than revealing. The golden circlet on her brow was almost an unnecessary touch – the dress alone would be enough for Amadeus to understand that it was the Dread Empress of Praes that had given audience, not Alaya. The silver mirror revealed the sight of a man unarmoured. A loose white shirt did not quite cover the sight of bandages covering his abdomen, but the pale green eyes were as sharp as she had ever seen them. Alaya felt a surge of fury. It was the Empress that had given audience, but it was Amadeus that had come.

“You are wounded,” she said, smoothing away the emotion.

“So I am,” the man agreed, tone almost amused. “It has been a year of sharp lessons, and this one sharper than most.”

“The girl,” Malicia said, and it was not a question.

Even now, after it all, the fury returned. Not directed at him but at the arrogant child who dared believe she had even the shadow of a claim on her Black Knight’s life. In this, she had overstepped. Catherine Foundling had never been properly taught the precarity of her position.

“A point,” Black said, “on the nature of trust. How that blade cuts both ways.”

“She has earned no trust,” Malicia coldly said. “The ability to kill is the grace of a killer, not a qualification to rule. Whatever measures she now takes are no erasure of past failures.”

“Yet I wonder,” the man mused. “Regardless, she is not the reason for this audience. The matter is best set aside for now.”

“Is it?” the Empress said, voice smooth as silk. “Your wayward apprentice raises armies and appoints officials loyal to only her. The matter is not to be dismissed as a mere detail. It is a pressing reality, and a liability in the making.”

“I had hoped,” Black said, “to avoid the losing game that is the attribution of fault. That line of conversation would ensure otherwise.”

The unspoken read thus: her loyalties were shaken by the Diabolist’s massacre, and it was your inaction that allowed this to unfold.

“I have always known fault to be as much a matter of nature as opportunity,” Malicia replied.

The unspoken read thus: you gifted great power to a nobody and never bothered to instil loyalty more than skin deep, this was inevitable.

Black sighed.

“Do you not find it tiresome?” he said. “To leave so much within the margins?”

Malicia’s face was a frozen mask of disdain.

“You have lost the right to make that request,” Alaya said.

“Shall we speak of trust, then, my Empress?” Black softly replied. “I am not without words to offer on that subject.”

Guilt never came. She would not apologize for taking measures preventing him from throwing away his life in a hopeless war, however slighted he felt by the truth that he had become a foe to his own survival. That was on his own head. Not even love would make her neck if she was in the right.

“Warlock agrees that the weapon should have been kept untouched,” Malicia said, and there was a part of her that enjoyed the flicker of dismay on Black’s face.

“Wekesa would eat every child in Callow if it allowed him to research without interruptions,” he replied. “That endorsement rings empty.”

It was also first blood. He was not, she knew, plotting to seize the Tower from her. But the knowledge that if he had the Warlock would not have stood at his side was a crack in the certainty that lay at the heart of him. What she need break to salvage even shards of what they had once been.

“And who whispers agreement in your ear, Black?” the Empress asked. “Scribe? If you slit her own throat she would assume you had reason. She has made a virtue of being a tool.”

It was not a mistake to have spoken that, though Alaya regretted the sharpness of the words. But Malicia knew that the cruelty was necessary to lower the worth of the unconditional support in his eyes. The Duni’s face grew cold, the first stirrings of anger.

“You speak of matters you understand precious little,” he said. “There is no part of you that does not come with condition.”

Malicia met his eyes with equanimity. Alaya flinched at the old whisper spoken aloud. Black tiredly passed a hand through his air.

“I should not have said that,” he said, the threshold of an apology.

“You rarely speak without meaning,” the Empress said, refusing the crossing.

Something passed in the man’s eyes she could not put a word to, and that was a rare thing.

“We were better than this, once,” Amadeus said.

“Were we?” Malicia wondered. “Forty years, and never once did we cease dancing around that single truth.”

Her eyes went hooded.

“There is only one throne in this empire,” the Empress said. “You are not sitting on it. There is a reason for that.”

“Empresses who thought crown meant right have often reigned, in Praes,” the Black Knight said. “Rarely, I remember, for long. A mould unbroken ever only makes one thing.”

“Don’t you speak to me of making,” Alaya hissed. “Twenty years you made Callow your playground, only ever returning to take lives and let me clean up the messes while you gallivanted back. You only ever remember the necessities of rule when they get in the way of your games. You make plans without ever bothering with the actual people, writing them off as liabilities to dispose of if they do not immediately obey. Praes is not an essay. You cannot unmake everything of it because it strikes you as inconvenient.”

“It is worse than inconvenient,” Black said. “It is flawed. The Wasteland has made a religion out of mutilating itself. We speak of it with pride. Gods, iron sharpens iron? We have grown so enamoured with bleeding our own we have sayings about it. Centuries ago, field sacrifices were a way to fend off starvation. Now they are a staple of our way of life, so deeply ingrained we cling to them given alternative. Alaya, we consistently blunder so badly we need to rely on demons to stay off destruction. We would rather irreparably damage the fabric of Creation than admit we can be wrong. There is nothing holy about our culture, it needs to be ripped out root and stem as matter of bare survival. Forty years I have been trying to prove success can be achieved without utter raving madness, and what comes at the end?”

His tone grew harsh.

“The only person I ever thought actually understood this put her seal to the destruction of two decades of gruelling work to acquire a fucking magic fortress,” he hissed. “Some godsdamned throwback from the Age of Wonders that will go down in flames and take the Empire with it.”

“Your way,” Malicia coldly said, “is insufficient.”

Now that he’d opened his wound, she could bare her own.

“The Legions will fail,” she said. “The Calamities will fail. Your ramshackle effort at successors will fail. Did you think that just because you were clever, just because it was hard, it would be enough? We took Callow, Black. We put chalk to the slate. The Heavens will throw crusade after crusade at us until the mark made is erased, because we are not allowed to win that fight. The only way to survive is not to fight at all, and for that I needed a tool.”

Malicia stood ramrod straight.

“A hundred thousand dead?” she said. “I would bleed thrice that number without batting an eye, because without the tool we lose. We break, we end, we come at an end. I warned you off Akua Sahelian because she provided what I needed: a strong enough deterrent to keep the wolves at bay. And I did this behind your back, because if I did not you would have gotten in my way. Because you have fallen in love with your own legend. The Black Knight, undefeated. How far is that from invincible, Amadeus? Shall we talk history on that subject?”

“This makes us a leech,” Black replied coldly. “And that is exactly how we lose. If we are a net drain, we are removed. That is a fact. There is no keeping Callow if by the sheer act of keeping it we foster constant rebellion. And if we lose Callow, it all comes down on our heads.”

“We have already lost Callow,” Malicia replied harshly, “and three legions with it, all thrown into the lap of some fucking orphan girl because you thought you could be cleverer than Fate. Do you truly not realize that the terms of the occupation both failed to pacify Callowans and fostered unrest in the Wasteland? One does not conquer an entire kingdom to grant it effective independence twenty years down the line, Black. We were meant to profit from it.”

“They were meant to profit from it, were they?” he said. “After fighting tooth and nail against every measure that made is possible, they still deserve spoils because – what, they were born to that privilege? That they were even spared was a concession. But they were allowed to grow fat off a conquest they actively hindered. I held my tongue because you used their rapaciousness for your own purposes, but oh what a mistake that was. The point isn’t to make Callow a pack of plundered provinces, it has never been that. It’s to ensure we never again destroy ourselves invading that country. Are we so enamoured with that kingdom’s crown we cannot allow anyone else to wear it? We win by slipping the noose, not moving the border. By breaking the pattern that has whipped us ever since Maleficent made an empire out of Praes. It is irrelevant who actually rules Callow so long as we no longer need to invade to avoid starving. From that moment on, we start to grow. To change. To be anything but a snake cursed to eat its own tail and choke. Anything less than that is defeat. Anything more than that is expendable.”

He was panting, after. A sac of venom decades in the swelling finally emptied.

“There have been bad nights, since I took the throne,” Alaya said. “Nights where I wondered if it would not have been better had you become Emperor and I your Chancellor. You have laid those fear to rest. This, this is why you cannot rule. Because you’re not interested in ruling Praes, only in securing a war camp for your pissing match with the Heavens. You cannot butcher your way into having a different homeland, Black. It’s a pretty plan you laid out. But you are not the only living man in Praes, and so it fails. Because the Empire is not an instrument, it is a nation and that nation wants things. It will not docilely wait until your point is made.”

“Enough,” Black said. “Gods, enough. There comes a time where the wound is no lanced, just bled.”

“Agreed,” Malicia said. “There will be no further argument. You have made a mess, and as always I will clean it up. You remain in command as my Black Knight. You will hold the border as best you can, and rein in your apprentice as necessary. As for me, I will take the measures necessary for survival. You will not approve of them. I no longer care.”

The Empress would have ended it there, but Alaya could not.

“We will survive,” she said. “And when the danger has passed, as much as it ever can, you will come home. I will not throw you away, Maddie. We are not beyond mending.”

He smiled, ruefully.

“Can you feel it, Allie?” he asked.

The Empress frowned.

“It’s quiet,” he said. “Subtle. I suppose it always starts out that way, when one loses control.”

“The Tower will not fall,” Malicia said.

“It may not,” he said. “I genuinely don’t know. For the first time in decades, Alaya, I don’t know.”

He laughed.

“It’s strangely invigorating,” he said. “To have every plan you ever made ripped apart. Do you remember what it was like, when we were young? When we still felt wonder?”

“Black, you are worrying me,” she said.

“Your terms are accepted,” Amadeus said. “Not that there was any doubt. I will come home, in the end.”’

He looked away, and strangely smiled.

“I wonder what it would look like,” he murmured. “A better world.”

The mirror darkened. Alaya went still, something like grief but deeper than the word could ever mean taking hold of her. Dread Empress Malicia rose to her feet.

There was no rest, the old saying went, for the wicked.

Brandon Talbot had only stood in the throne room once before as a child, when King Robert still ruled and his aunt had introduced him to the royal court. He’d been so young he barely remembered any of it, and in those days he had been of precious little import. Aunt Elizabeth was to be engaged to the Shining Prince, so he’d warranted an official introduction but nothing else. In those days there had been no talk of him ever becoming Count of Marchford. The union of Elizabeth Talbot and King Robert’s eldest son had been expected to be fruitful, leaving him only the head of a cadet branch meant for knighthood and little else. How strangely the world spun, that he now stood at the side of the Queen of Callow instead of kneeling with the guests. Those he had to share that distinction with were, admittedly, something of a mixed bag. None could deny that Baroness Anne Kendall was a patriot and a woman of great wisdom, and though her surrender in the wake of the Liesse Rebellion had lowered her esteem in the eyes of some he did not share those misgivings. The Governess-General, he knew, was nearly as influential as the queen in some parts. If not more. Chancellor in all but Name, men whispered. Queen Catherine’s open fondness for the baroness had been taken by many a sign she was not determined to wage war to he bitter end on the aristocracy.

At the baroness’ side stood the argument for the opposite belief, the newly-appointed Marshal of Callow. The title left him a strange taste in the mouth. There had never been any man or woman titled such in the history of the kingdom, as supreme command of the hosts was always held by the royal family or the paladins of the White Hand. It was a Praesi title and not even an old one, created during the Reforms. That a greenskin not even twenty-five was now second only to the queen in the command of Callow’s armies had been oft commented upon, and openly mocked in the north. Popular sentiment, though, had not been incensed. The ‘Hellhound’ had no small place in the legends already being peddled of the Arcadian War and Akua’s Folly. The orc was seen as the second coming of the still-feared Grem One-Eye, and one that had proved it would protect the innocent even in the face of the hordes of Hell. Brandon was no fool, and so had never tried to speak against the appointment. The heart of the Army of Callow was still the Fifteeenth, and it would be months before any of his countrymen rose to true positions of influence in those massively expanded ranks.

To the queen’s right was the same man as always, that tower of burnt steel and fangs that was Hakram Deadhand. The Adjutant. Even when the old crowd spoke of the unseemly predominance of orcs in Queen Catherine’s court over cups of brandy, there were few who dared slight this one. The skeletal hand of the Named was said to snatch the life out of fae and mortals alike, the steel of his axe gone stark red for all the blood he’d spilled with it. Grandmaster Talbot had spoken with him occasionally while on campaign and more often now that precarious peace was restored, and found him both personable and polite. More dangerously, he was also very attentive to details the queen was known to have little patience for – though in truth Brandon had judged her not nearly as disinterested as the rumours implied. The Deadhand had taken to building the kingdom’s court with the same savage enthusiasm his forebears had displayed raiding Callowan farmland: the new offices overseeing the nation’s granaries and treasury had been highly unpopular with the aristocracy at first, but their undeniable efficiency in mending the south had done much to quiet the grumbling. The Grandmaster was one of the few of his people high enough in rank to understand what was being built, though. A war machine unlike any he had ever seen. Callow was being put on war footing long before the first blade left the sheath.

There was a reason the Order of the Broken Bell had been charged with recruiting every youth in the kingdom that could swing a blade and ride a horse.

The last man to share the queen’s side was the only he could muster true dislike for. Hasan Qara, who for some godforsaken reason insisted on being called Ratface, had been named Lord Treasurer of Callow after resigning his commission from the Fifteenth Legion. The Taghreb was said to be some Wasteland lordling’s bastard, though bastardy was considered a lesser taint in the East. He was also, as far as Grandmaster Talbot was concerned, a crook and a criminal. His lordly title remained a pure courtesy one, at least, without any lands attached. It was still a bloody disgrace that a Peer of the Realm would meet with the likes of smugglers and hedges mages in broad daylight. The Bastard Lord, as some already called him, had begun what he termed a ‘much-needed reform of the hellish nightmare that is Callowan tax collection’. That governors no longer paid taxes directly to the Tower or even the short-lived Ruling Council had thrown the old system into disarray, every governor and noble trying to short-change the crown whenever they could. Lord Qara’s taxmen and their Legion escorts were already a dreaded sight, and the complicated maze of exemptions and tariffs he’d had the queen put her seal to always seemed to have her allies come out wealthier and her enemies poorer. He was clever, Brandon disdainfully thought, but in the way Taghreb usurers so often were.

As the admittedly tedious ceremony chugged on towards the moment of proper coronation, Brandon turned his eyes to the crowd that stood witness. Baron Darlington of Hedges and Baroness Morley of Harrow were of the highest rank among those, surrounded by kin and lickspittles. Both, he’d been told, had declined the queen’s invitation to her coronation by telling her envoys their health would not allow them the journey. The second envoys she had sent came with a minstrel, and as the tune of of the Lord’s Lament played in their halls the nobles had reconsidered their refusal. The pointed reminder that Queen Catherine was not above having even royalty shot when it suited her had struck true. The last landed nobles of Callow had faces to solemn to be truly pleased of being in attendance, but rumours of the crown’s young reforms had seen them hurry south so they would not be made to feel the sting of disobedience through their coffers. As far as nobility went, the only others worth the note were the envoys of Duchess Kegan of Daoine.

That the ruler of the last duchy in Callow had sent her own eldest son and high-ranking officer of the Watch to attend had rightly been seen by many as endorsement of the queen’s reign by the Deoraithe. Ties had been made there, Grandmaster Talbot thought, that he knew little about. Inquiries were in order. The queen had yet to appoint a Chamberlain for her household or a Keeper of the Seals to have her decrees upheld and her courts of law put to order, after all. It was no certainty that Queen Catherine the First would keep all the seats of the old King’s Council, but if she did Brandon intended on seeing the remaining seats filled with proper Callowans, not Daoine interlopers. Neither did it escape his notice that Kegan’s son was a handsome lad, not much older than the still-unmarried queen. Another matter to ensure never came to fruition, though he could hardly blame her for trying. He had himself ensured that his representatives at court were well-bred young men and women of comely appearance, merely to have that avenue… open, should it take the queen’s fancy.

The rest of the guests in attendance were the representatives of governors and guilds, as well as every elderman in Laure. Brandon had expected trouble when their ancient prerogatives inside the city began being taken over by the crown, but the Deadhand was a clever sort. They’d been offered appointments in the new offices, and with enough accepting their influence came to benefit the reforms instead of being plied against them. The stood there with awe befitting commoners being allowed to witness the birth of a dynasty, however fragile its line of succession. As the sister sent by the House of Light finally ended her droning and recitation of old phrases, Queen Catherine bent her head to accept her crown – though, in all honesty, given her height she had not strictly speaking needed to do so. Eyes flicking to the crown, Brandon grimly smiled. No gold or jewels in this one. It was a jagged circlet of iron that sat heavy on her brow. A warlike crown for a warlike queen. The old regalia of House Fairfax would not see use again, the cloak of black and patchwork that Queen Catherine wore a dark replacement for the old ermine-bordered mantle of the Fairfaxes. Rumours had spread that Akua Sahelian’s own soul had been added to the banners of the defeated, that the Wastelander witch could be heard screaming in torment if one listened closely enough.

A saying was born of it that had Grandmaster Talbot shivering every time he heard the words: crowned by dread and cloaked by woe.

“Before you stands the ordained Queen of Callow,” the sister said. “Kneel.”

One after another, they did. Only standing by the throne like him were spared that, as Catherine Foundling slowly sat the ancient throne of the kingdom. Brandon was not the first to notice – he first saw when he followed the queen’s gaze, the raised eyebrow on her cold face. It was difficult to tell how many there were. A few dozens? Less than a hundred, surely. Brandon had fought their like before, but their garments were no longer the same. On unearthly steeds of every shade the fae rode through the hall, the Fair Folk as terrible and beautiful as they’d always been. Brandon found he could not look away from the fae at their head. Riding a horse of ebony, the man was soberly dressed for his kind. A simple tunic, though the buttons seemed made of shade, and over a pale and narrow face a black silken blindfold covered an eye. There was a sword at his hip, without a sheath, and even looking at it hurt the knight’s eyes. It was that one the queen addresses.

“The Prince of Nightfall,” she drawled. “An unexpected… well, pleasure’s a strong word.”

The procession of fae ended when the prince reined in his mount before the queen, inclining his head in respectful greeting.

“Prince no longer,” the fae smiled. “I have abdicated my title, as have all with me. The Hunt claims no lord amongst its hunters.”

Brandon’s breath hitched. The Hunt. Was he speaking of the Wild Hunt? The rapacious fairies that made sport of mortals fools enough to wander into the Waning Woods, or walk ancient mounds under pale moonlight.

“Should I call you Larat, then?” the Queen mused, and her voice echoed with something eldritch when she spoke the name. “Why do you darken my hall, Nightfall?”

“Do we not stand before a queen, forged of Winter?” the fae asked.

“I paid the price for that, thrice over,” Catherine Foundling said. “If you think the mantle can be taken back, we’re about to have a conversation on the subject of fatal mistakes.”

The fae laughed, and it was like the tinkle of silver bells.

“You mistake me,” he said, and his sword rose.

It clattered against the stone, laid at the feet of the queen. One after another the fae passed and threw their own blade, a pile of death rising. Brandon Talbot was living a fever dream, witness to a scene ripped straight from legend. It was all too vivid to be real.

“We swear to your service, Queen of the Hunt,” the fae said. “Queen of Air and Darkness, Sovereign of Moonless Nights. We swear ‘til the day of last ruin, ‘til all debts are paid. We would ride beneath your banner, in this world and every other.”

The Queen of Callow rose to her feet, as bright and terrible as any of them, and softly laughed.

“What clever foxes you are,” she said. “Your oaths I accept, in the spirit they were given.”

Her sword hissed as it left the sheath, and she stood before the fae.

“Kneel, and rise in my service.”

The Hunt knelt, the Hunt rose, and Brandon Talbot knew he would never forget the sight of this so long as he lived.

A crusade, Cordelia Hasenbach thought, should be decided in a manner grander than this. There would be speeches in the coming months, every herald in Procer and beyond speaking the writ of the Mandate of Heaven handed down to the children of the Gods. Spreading the call to the Tenth Crusade wherever there were ears to hear it. The First Prince herself would address the Highest Assembly on the morrow’s eve, giving an oration she had first prepared years ago. The motion would not warrant a vote from the Assembly, though she knew it would pass should it presented. By tradition only the highest office in the Principate could call for a crusade, though it would be an empty thing if no other nation joined their voice to it. Procer had fought crusades alone before, but every one a disaster. She would not repeat that mistake. The young woman had dedicated the span of her life to ensuring it would never be made again. For all the pageantry that was to come, the Tenth Crusade was born in one of the lesser halls of the palace in Salia, with barely a dozen people seated at the table.

For Procer, only she and Uncle Klaus were present. The Prince of Hannoven had not been granted seat as a prince but as the future commander of Procer’s armies in the campaign to come. The grizzled old soldiers had spent more time drinking mead than speaking, so far, save when matters military were raised. Assurances had been needed that the Principate’s armies were readied for war, no matter how righteous the cause or urgent the need. The Thalassocracy of Ashur had sent three representatives only, members in good standing of their foremost War Committee. Citizens of the Fourth tier one and all, most of which would take command of Ashur’s fleets when the hostilities began. Their very presence had been leverage for Cordelia to use, a gift from Magon Hadast. The only citizen of the Second tier in all of Ashur had not sent diplomats but soldiers, the agreement to join the crusade implicit to that decision. The envoys, after all, would not have leave to negotiate diplomatic matters. Only those pertaining to war.

The Dominion of Levant had sent the most envoys, in her judgement a consequence of its ever-fractious people. The current Seljun, the figurehead ruler of the Dominion, had officially deferred the decision of whether or not to join the Tenth Crusade to the Majilis. Though literature often drew comparison between the Highest Assembly and the Majilis, for they were both councils composed of the highest nobility in their respective nations, Cordelia had never found much similarity beyond the surface trappings. The Levantine council was a toothless and ineffectual beast, with every lord and lady among it having right of veto and every interest in ensuring power was never centralized within the Dominion lest their own privileges be curbed. Princess Eliza of Salamans had fought two wars and died an attainted traitor to ensure the Highest Assembly would never be such a plague on Procer, or the First Prince relegated to being little more than a first among equals. As it was, the entire Majilis had come to Salia to treat with her. The five lords and ladies of Levant, all descended from heroes. Cordelia’s agents suspected every one of them had applied veto if a smaller delegation did not involve them personally, and she was inclined to believe it.

They only ever ceased their squabbles when they perceived her to be high-handed, the old and well-deserved hatred of her people the true mortar that kept their nation together. They had been the most difficult to speak with, ever looking for slight or arrogance in every sentence of hers. It was for the best Uncle Klaus had spoken little, given his mild contempt for a nation he liked to say existed only because the Thalassocracy willed it so. This was, to an extent, true. Some of Cordelia’s predecessors would have waged war upon war to claim the lands, had Ashuran fleets not made seaborne invasion of Procer’s old principalities a fool’s errand to attempt. It was still less than courteous to say as much, and the Levantines had easily ruffled feathers when the hands involved were Proceran. Invitations had been sent to the Titanomachy through the Dominion, as the Gigantes killed on sight even diplomats of Procer, but the giants had declined to send even an observer. Their borders would remain closed, it seemed, no matter how dire the threats to the east. Cordelia had ruled for too long to be disappointed by the confirmation of her fatalism. That bridge had been burned too thoroughly to be rebuilt, even several centuries after the betrayal known as the Humbling of Titans.

The Gigantes had long memories.

The elves of the Golden Bloom greeted visitors with arrows if they were not heroes, and were said to have removed their domain from Creation besides. Even were it otherwise, Cordelia would not have sought them out. They had never joined their number to any of the crusades, and their inclusion in the Tenth would have had stark diplomatic consequences when it came to dealing with the Duchy of Daoine. Entrenching opposition in Callow would be needlessly costly for what the Hasenbach desired to be a war fought mostly in Praes itself. Popular sentiment in Callow was rather difficult to read, these days, but they were a people of long grudges who had never quite forgiven their occupation by the Principate. Should foreign soldiers fight over their fields for too long, there was no telling if the Callowans would turn on the crusaders.

Still, it was the League of Free Cities that troubled Cordelia. She’d come so very close to securing a truce and south-eastern border with it, until the Tyrant of Helike began his war. Even that had been an acceptable outcome, if she was to be honest. After the initial victory of Helikean forces over Atalante and the brutally effective Praesi intervention that took Penthes out of the war, heroes had created a deadlock over the siege of Delos without easy resolution. Though the loss of life involved was regrettable, it had given Cordelia opportunity to exhaust the strength of a dangerous element outside her borders by funding and arming Nicae. She’d even lightened the burden of restless soldiery within her realm by sending a few thousand into the war. She had believed Helike triumphant and ruling the League to be the worst possible outcome, and so when the forces of the Tyrant and the Magisterium moved against Nicae she had considered direct intervention. That a Hierarch would be elected in the wake of the city’s fall had been beyond her predictions, and more worryingly the Augur’s as well. Now no ruler in the region would treat with her, even privately, as usurping the Hierarch’s prerogative might see the rest of the League turn on them.

Attempts to begin diplomatic correspondence with the man himself had been utterly ineffective. That her agents reported Anaxares of Bellerophon to be a long-serving diplomat, even if one in the service of an Evil polity, had been a promising beginning. Yet the man had put every missive she sent to the flame, and had reportedly been personally offended when her envoys tried to speak with him in person. Whether or not the Hierarch was the puppet of the ruler of Helike had yet to be determined, but the head of the League seemed disinclined to rein his member-states. Or even speak of the matter. Perhaps the only redemption of the situation there was to be had was that the Hierarch had not spoken in the favour of war, and his absence of a grip on the cities meant it was unlikely a unified League would march against her. It was still a liability. Her uncle had made it plain that at least twenty thousand men would have to be left south to discourage incursions from the Free Cities while the crusade was being fought. A loss, she would admit, but not a crippling one. Ashur and Levant would both contribute much larger hosts to the war when they gathered their strength.

“Late spring at the earliest,” Lady Itima of Vaccei announced. “But we will march, First Prince. All of us. There can be no other choice.”

Set on the table before all the representatives were two reports form her agents in Callow, speaking of the same city. Liesse, though it had been ripped from its ancient grounds and dragged across the kingdom. The first report detailed what sparse information she had been able to gather about these strange undead the Diabolist had been able to make. Wights, the Praesi called them. One had even been obtained and smuggled across the border, and examinations by wizards had established the alchemical nature of the transition into undeath. The Empire had unveiled two weapons through their civil war, and though this was the subtlest of the two it was perhaps also the most terrifying. If all the Empire needed to sow undeath was access to a city’s cisterns, none of them were safe. The Empress’ reputation for having a large and extremely effective web of spies had cost her dearly in this. A less demonstrably far-reaching ruler would not have seemed so immediate a threat. The other report held mostly technical notes, but it was the sheet of parchment with the drawing that had truly stuck a blow. The sight of the city of Liesse with a mass of dead above it, and the Greater Breach the weapon had opened on a Callowan field.

A Hellgate, and not a passing one. Gods, Cordelia had known there was great madness waiting in the east but even she had underestimated the depth. No crusade had ever managed to land even a glancing blow on the Hellgate that lay within the depths of Keter. It alone had been enough to maintain the terrible grip of the Dead King for untold centuries even with entire battalions of heroes failing to end him. The thought of the Tower with the ability to create Hellgates at will was enough to put a shiver up anyone’s spine. She’d been open about the weapon being either damaged or destroyed during the civil war, the truth of that was still uncertain, but she’d not even had to raise the notion of it being possible to repair herself. The Levantines had done so without prompting, and pressed for a dismantling of the Empire to ensure it would never be capable of making the likes of it again.

“As for the charter you proposed, we are in agreement as well,” the lord of Tartessos said. “It will require the signature of the Seljun to be binding, but the Majilis can provisionally ratify it. Your… appreciation of our concerns has been noted, and does you honour.”

Cordelia was very careful not to let the triumph show in her eyes. This was the true victory she had won today, the founding of her Grand Alliance. Though it had been presented as a council of nations participating in the Tenth Crusade that could adjudicate internal disputes, there was no clause forcing the alliance to end after Praes was laid low. Years of diplomacy had finally borne fruit. The treaties would prevent Procer from attempting to expand into the Dominion again long after she died, and with this foundation she could forge ever closer ties over the length of her reign. With the three great powers of the west so aligned, the Principate’s attention could be turned to the true enemies. The Chain of Hunger. The Kingdom of the Dead. The Everdark. The treaties were not even a pale shadow of those that bound together the League of Free Cities, but they could be built on. They would be.

Cordelia knew she would not see the continent know true peace in her lifetime, but she could lay the foundations for those that would come after her.

The envoys were entertained for refreshments after the negotiations closed, yet the First Prince did not linger overlong. She had spoken to the Augur, last night, and been given prophecy. Fortune comes to you unnanounced, her cousin had whispered. You may yet grasp it. Some of the White Knight’s band had survived the struggle against the Calamities in the Free Cities, and were said to be heading for Salia with the man himself. Crusades, Cordelia knew, were a call few heroes let pass them by. Though no formal declaration had yet been made, the ways of Named were not easily understood. The Heavens may have whispered secrets in their ears, as they did the Augur. The flaxen-haired prince dismissed her attendants after retiring to her rooms, unweaving her braid herself. She was not unaware that it softened her features when unbound, and though she knew she was no great beauty she could sometimes pass as one with the right ministrations. She did not hear the window open, and was frowning at letter from the Princess of Tenerife when someone cleared their throat.

Cordelia froze. It was a woman. Short of hair, pale of skin with blue-grey eyes. Her leathers were loose over a slender frame. Callowan, the First Prince thought. She has the look.

“Would you like a drink?” Cordelia Hasenbach asked.

The woman snorted.

“I wish,” she said. “But getting into this place was hard enough sober. Have you ever tripped into a moat? It’s honestly the worst.”

The First Prince smiled pleasantly.

“I will take your word on it,” she said. “I would be remiss if I did not ask who you are, of course.”

The stranger plopped down onto a seat across from her.

“I am a halfway decent thief,” the woman said. “A patriot, when I can afford to be. But, most importantly-“

She sharply smiled.

“- I am an envoy from the Queen of Callow.”

“Are you now?” Cordelia said. “I believe I will be having that drink, myself. We have much to talk about.”

The Hierarch saw many things, close and faraway. Deals being struck behind closed doors in this very city, armies mustered and betrayals paid for. In a cold room of black stone, he watched the most beautiful woman he’d ever glimpsed wipe away a tear and clench her teeth. By the crackling hearth of an inn he saw a knight and a champion clasp arms with older heroes, whispering of Heaven’s Mandate. He saw a young girl on an ill-fitting throne, lost but unwilling to retreat. He saw the fields of a Hell tilled and strewn with villages, its people never having known a blue sky. He saw knives bared beneath the earth, north and south, skins of black and green ghosting through tunnels. He saw a green-eyed man grinning in the face of havoc, alone with well-worn maps. He saw… a silent young girl, her skin pale as porcelain. Her blue dress was light and her hair cut in a short bob. Her eyes met his, impossibly.

“Curious,” the Augur said. “You were not within the sparrows.”

“The People have decreed omens to be ignorant superstition,” Anaxares told her.

“Ah,” Agnes Hasenbach murmured “You too. No star left uncharted.”

Hierarch woke in a dirty alley, huddled under a threadbare blanket. It had been the clink of coppers being dropped in his begging bowl that woke him. Anaxares was not alone. At his side, leaning back against the husk of a wall, a woman sat with her knees gathered to her chest. She smelled of liquor and sweat, though the black curls he could see framing her face were pristine. The stranger drank loudly from a silver flask before turning to him, and when he saw her face he recognized her. Aoede of Nicae. The Wandering Bard. The heroine offered him the flask, wiggling it in a farce of temptation.

“It’s the good stuff, for once,” the Bard grinned. “Don’t skip, doesn’t happen often.”

The Hierarch of the League of Free Cities, anointed temporal ruler of a hundreds of thousands of souls, tightened his blanket around his frame. He looked aside and pretended the woman did not exist. He had gained much practice in this skill of late, with envoys from the Free Cities and beyond.

“You know, when the second wave of Baalite settles came to Ashur they brought animals from home with them,” the woman said. “One of them was a large flightless bird, called an ostrich. Odd creatures. Liked to bury their heads in the ground, a feeling I can empathize with. When the first famine came, though, the big fat ostriches were slaughtered like poultry. Even though their heads were in the sand.”

Anaxares stared ahead, silent.

“Tough crowd, huh,” the Bard mused. “It’s too late to stay out of it, Hierarch. You’re Named, now. Means you’re fair game.”

“I did not choose this,” Anaxares said.

“So I’ve heard,” the Bard said. “Kairos has that thing villains often do, where they confuse symmetry with humour. Probably got a giggle out of waving an old mistake in my face.”

The diplomat eyed the woman, who was drinking again. After so long not being able to afford wine, the sight of the liquor being guzzled had his body feeling pangs.

“None of this was meant for you,” he finally said.

“Oh, that touch was probably just a drop of arsenic in the wine,” Aoede shrugged. “But I made your Name, sweetcakes. Back in the days before I knew better.”

“Prokopia Lakene was rightfully elected,” the Hierarch frowned.

“Right’s a pretty broad word, when it comes down to it,” the Bard said. “She was silvertongued like you wouldn’t believe, true, but that’s where I went wrong. The moment the tongue was gone, so was the Name.”

“The League survived her,” he said.

“The League’s skin deep,” the Bard said. “None of the forces behind moved any differently after it was formed.”

The heroine offered the flask again, and this time Anaxares took it. The liquor within was sweet and tangy, tasting of apples. Much stronger than wine, or anything he’d ever drank before.

“Or it was, anyway,” Aoede said. “But now here you are. And you’ve got a lot of – well, people is a bit of stretch but you get my drift – puzzled. Both upstairs and down. So here I am too, welcoming you to the neighbourhood. Instead of fresh bread and a bottle of wine, you get overly personal questions and maybe a dollop of sinister threats. Depending on how it all pans out. Have another pull, diplomat. It’s the sweetest thing either of us will taste for a while.”

Anaxares did, before handing it back.

“I abstain,” he said.

The woman sighed.

“That’s not how it works,” she told him, as if he were a witless child. “Right now you’re sucking at the teat but you’re not swallowing. There’s always a side picked, Anaxares. Always.”

The Bard waved her flask enthusiastically.

“See, that’s where you’re raising questions,” she said. “’cause Kairos forged you, and Kairos is in deep with the folks Below. But you let the White Knight and the Champion go, sparing me a deal that would have been… costly. Your people like a bit of sulphur on the altar, it’s true, but their idea of worship does little more than keep those in a fresh coat of red. And I’m sorry to say, but you’re what we call a mumbler. You speak the words when the right stars are out but there’s no real meat to the faith, you get me?”

The Bard leaned closer.

“It’s fine if you want to fuck around like a raft on the tide for a while, Hierarch, but keep in mind sooner or later you’re going to hit shore,” she said.

That, Anaxares thought, or drown.

“What,” he asked patiently, “do you want from me?”

“I want you to stop taking a nap in the middle of the board,” the Wandering Bard said. “Stepping around you is already getting tedious, and Kairos is better at it. I don’t mind having a few layabouts around, sweetcakes, but only when I put them there. You’re no work of mine.”

Anaxares studied the woman for a long moment then shook his head.

“I do not answer to your Gods,” he said. “They drew no lots and hold no appointment.”

Something like surprise flickered across the woman’s face.

“You’re Named,” she reminded him.

“I am citizen of the Republic of Bellerophon,” he replied.

“You were created with purpose,” the Bard said flatly. “Fulfil it.”

“This purpose was not voted upon by the People,” Anaxares said. “I do not recognize it. Forcing it upon me is unlawful.”

“Look, the puppet show in your backwater dump is good for the occasional laugh,” Aoede patiently said. “But you’ve been sent up a rung, Hierarch. That’s not the game you’re playing anymore.”

The Hierarch smiled.

“I know you,” he said.

“We’ve met before,” the Wandering Bard agreed warily. “Had tea and everything.”

“No,” Anaxares said. “I know you, old thing. You are the sound of the lash, the deal in the dark. You are the servant of stillness. I deny all you peddle.”

“You are mad,” the Bard said. “And putting a knife to your own throat. They will take you apart.”

“If the Heavens seek to impose their will, they will be made to stand before a tribunal of the People,” the Hierarch serenely said.

“Your own fucking Gods will bleed you like a pig,” the Wandering Bard hissed.

“Then they, too, will be hanged,” Anaxares noted. “As honorary citizens of the Republic, they are subject to its laws.”

“You-“

“Aoede of Nicae, I charge you with treason,” he said, rising to his feet. “Collaboration with foreign oligarchs and agitation in the name of wretched tyrants.”

“You can’t be serious,” the Bard said.

“Should you fail to be present at your trial,” the Hierarch continued calmly, inexorably, “you will be tried and convicted in absentia. As per League law, you may petition the Basileus of Nicae to request amnesty on your behalf.”

He looked down at the woman.

“It will be denied,” he told her. “But to petition is your right.”

Eyes wide, the Wandering Bard opened her mouth to reply but between two heartbeats’ span she… disappeared. As if she had never been there at all.

“This,” the Hierarch of the Free Cities said, “will be added to the record as an indication of guilt.”

He left the alley, the quarter, the city until he found the boy awaiting him. Kairos Theodosian took one look at him and laughed, his red eye burning.

“Now there,” the Tyrant grinned, “is the madman I was waiting for. We are going to have such fun, you and I.”

In the depths of a Hell that had long lost its name and number, a monster opened his eyes. In Keter, a stone that was an old and treasured gift shone red. It had not done this since the days of Dread Empress Triumphant. The Dead King laughed.

Finally.”