Charlatan III

“Beware of they who speak of doing good without speaking of those whose good they seek.”
– Theodore Langman, Wizard of the West

The townsfolk of Beaumarais were not particularly superstitious or zealous, but when the number of practitioners in town more than doubled over a season’s span it was only to be expected that there would be unease.

Olivier tried to think of it in the same terms as if the number of people carrying swords had swelled by the same amount, but he knew there were differences. An unscrupulous mage could to a lot more damage with a little black knowledge than a rapacious fantassin could do with a sword and heartlessness. But unease was not outright fear, and it’d remain that way so long as the House of Light kept supporting this arrangement through Sister Maude. It was only a matter, then, of soothing away apprehensions and making clear that all these ‘wizardly vagrants’ – as he’d heard Old Gontrand call them quite loudly in the streets – were useful to the town. Thankfully Olivier had been raised among practitioners and spent most his life since trying to make coin out of thin air, so when it came to acquiring usefulness he had ideas aplenty.

The first two who’d come, a certain Master Maurice and his young daughter Segoline, had been the easiest of all. They were peddlers by trade, openly offering Maurice’s services as a smith in small towns without one but more discreetly offering some healing and enchanting in towns that seemed to have a tolerance for magic. The man was a widower who wanted a place to raise his daughter in peace, and as soon as the town smith Mistress Caroline was reassured that none of her business would be taken from her all opposition melted away. Olivier’s private suggestion of a partnership with Master Maurice, enchanting some of her products for a fee so that she might sell artefacts herself, had caught her interest. The town smith even began throwing her weight around in favour of the ‘guests’.

It was the arrival of the one who introduced himself Maxime Redflame, a middle-aged and grizzled man who claimed to have served in several fantassin companies as a war wizard, that began to complicate things. Much as lords and princes might prize those whose Talent could be turned to violence, Olivier had no real use for them. It did not help that he liked his drink and got rowdy when drunk. Alisanne, who’d never heard of half the companies who’d supposedly employed him, suggested the drinking was why he’d sought refuge out here in the mountains. Drinking could be forgiven in a simple soldier, but in a mage it was another thing: no one wanted a drunk throwing around fireballs. The man was put to work gathering herbs out in the mountains, for he was handy with a knife, and made to learn enough to improve his rather mediocre brewing.

Maxime Redflame resented the work and took no pains to hide it, but he was in no position to bargain.

Just before the snows the fourth practitioner arrived in town, in almost every way unlike the last. Morgaine was her name, and she was both young and comely – not even twenty-five, and though obviously a wanderer she was well-dressed and of some means. She claimed to come from the Principality of Orne, to the south, though she was a traveller who’d spent some time in the Free Cities and the Thalassocracy. Morgaine was well-read and genteel in ways that sometimes made Olivier uncomfortable, for his own worldliness had never ventured much farther than these mountains. Though she remained vague on the depths of her leaning in matters magical, she proved a very fine healer as well as capable of predicting the weather to some degree. The latter did much to endear her to the town, as it the snows had come early that year and might have caught the townsfolk by surprise otherwise. Morgaine was charming and well-spoken, and so for all the power that she was known to wield she quickly became a darling of the town.

It was a young man called Ludovic that proved to be the greatest trouble of all, though in a fit of irony. Ludovic himself was shy and gentle, with all the temperament of a mouse, and was half-dead of cold when he stumbled into Beaumarais after having taken the mountain paths before the ice could take enough to make them unusable. He knew no magic, though it was undeniable he had the Talent, and had been almost abjectly grateful for being given a bed and a hot meal. Ludovic, as it happened, came from the town of Grisemanche. A little under two weeks away by wagon, when the paths were clear and dry. He’d run away from home after losing control of his Talent and rendering his mother mute, hoping that the rumoured ‘home for wizards’ in Beaumarais would take him in. It was unlikely that Ludovic’s family would be coming after him anytime soon, not with winter making such a trip so arduous, but with spring that would change.

Olivier saw to it that the younger boy was given a cot in the back of the shop until proper accommodations could be found for him, and reluctantly he asked for Morgaine’s help in ensuring that the weeks travelling in the cold with little food or rest would not leave marks. He gave them privacy during the examination, and when the slim dark-eyed woman emerged from the backroom it was with a look of tightly controlled displeasure on her face.

“Ill news?” Olivier asked.

“The frostbite was mild, and though he has thinned it is nothing that regular meals will not be able to fix,” Morgaine said. “It was also the least of his troubles. Most of the bruises on him are older than his travels and some of his bones were broken several times.”

The young man breathed out sharply. It was not unheard of, this. While it was against the teachings of the Heavens to mistreat a child, magic made things different in the eyes of some people.

“Understood,” Olivier simply said.

Morgaine fixed him with a steady look, a strand of her crow-black hair having come loose from her elegant hairdo.

“And what do you intend to do about this?” she asked.

“Settle affairs with his family when the snows melt,” he replied. “So long as the curse of muteness is lifted and reparations made, his kin should be willing to surrender their claim to him.”

“That boy was beaten,” Morgaine said. “Often and cruelly. And you speak of reparations?”

“I speak of removing him from that peril,” Olivier calmly replied. “I am not a lord or a magistrate, to be able to take it further than that.”

“There are other ways to discourage that sort,” Morgaine said. “Some are discreet. It would not be so difficult to arrange for persistent nightmares or move a few sprites to mischief.”

“And when his kin go to the mayor and the House of Light to complain of being harassed by mages intervening in their family’s affairs,” the young man flatly replied, “which they very well might even if we do nothing, mind you, but if they do and we have harassed them – what will we do, when hard-eyed men in House livery come sniffing around and we truly have something to hide?”

“Is your deal with Sister Maude not meant to shield us from that very scrutiny?” Morgaine said.

“She is a single sister in a backwater town,” Olivier replied. “This arrangement has been allowed to continue because for some it represents an opportunity. If it ever becomes a threat, even a written contract will weigh no more than smoke.”

“I had believed you bolder than this, from the stories told in this town,” the dark-eyed mage said.

“I had believed you wiser than this, from all the stories you’ve told of your travels,” Olivier flatly replied.

It ended with that, the two of them parting ways with courteous words but also a distinct chill. He sensed he had disappointed Morgaine in some way, but then she had also disappointed him. He spoke of it with Alisanne, the following evening when they spent time together, and she was unsurprised.

“She believed you to be ambitious in a different way than you are,” she told him.

“I’m not ambitious in the slightest,” Olivier said.

Alisanne’s grey eyes were rich with the laughter at his expense she was too well-bred to indulge in.

“Indeed?” she said.

“I’ve some notions of what the future might look like,” Olivier allowed.

“You’ve proved a fair hand at soothing the fears of the townsfolk,” Alisanne said. “That aside with the smith might even have worked better than you think.”

His brow rose.

“How so?”

“I have it on good authority that our own Master Maurice has been going on long walks with Mistress Caroline,” she said. “A widower and a widow, brought together by the… heat of the forge. How passionate, no?”

She was teasing, as she often did, but months of increasingly ardent embraces away from prying eyes had taught him to tease back.

“I know no passion, save the taste of her lips,” he quoted in answer. “Is it not a folly, how my heart skips?”

Her cheeks pinked, as he’d thought they might. The following poem by Genevieve the Rossignol grew rather more risqué than the first two lines might lead one to believe.

“It is a good thing that you are not as handsome as your brother,” Alisanne decided. “Such a man would be entirely too dangerous to my gender.”

It was difficult to feel insulted by that when she followed up by catching the back of his neck and dragging him close for some very enthusiastic kissing. It was late, and there were only the two of them in the shop, so when clothes began to drop the ground – first his shirt and then her robes, until neither of them wore much of anything at all – Olivier said nothing. It was only when they were to be entirely bare, and what they both knew would follow, that he forced himself to speak.

“Are you certain?” he asked, though he might just go mad if she said no.

“Gods yes,” Alisanne hissed.

The visible desire in her eyes only fed into his own arousal. There were no more objection from him after that, and hardly any words at all until they were well and spent. The two of them ended up holding each other on the rug of the store’s backroom, enjoying the warmth of the other’s body.

“What kind of ambition did you mean?” Olivier asked. “Earlier, I mean, when were talking about Morgaine.”

“You want to talk of another woman now?” Alisanne said, sounding mightily amused.

“I could withdraw my question until tomorrow, if you’d prefer,” he drily said.

She dragged him closer, silenced him with a kiss, and he took it as the end of the conversation. It wasn’t, however.

“You’ve the services of several wizards, some coin and ties with the House,” Alisanne sleepily said. “I hear tell you’ve even been seen seducing highborn ladies of late.”

“Lies,” Olivier amiably said, “I assure you it was entirely the other way around.”

His shoulder was swatted in half-hearted admonishment.

“She expected you to make yourself into a sort of lord, using the mages as your enforcers,” Alisanne said. “Now, since you’ve had the indecency of forcing me to think you’ll have to fetch a blanket as atonement. I’d rather enjoy you for a little while still than return to the temple.”

Disinclined to argue with that, Olivier extracted himself from their embrace and rose to his feet. His heart skipped when he noticed the door to the front of the shop had been slightly cracked open this entire time, a damning testament to how… distracted they had both been. No one had come in, however, so after closing it shut and grabbing the blanket he’d been sent questing after he put the whole matter out of his mind.

It was not a long winter that followed but it still felt too short to Olivier.

He’d not wasted the time, instead cementing the usefulness of the shop in the eyes of the town by arranging for the mages to create enchanted stones capable of radiating heat as well as light when firewood began to run low in some homes – freely given out, though with a signed promise of payment when the season turned and coin was had again. Roland and Morgaine had proved to be a remarkably gifted team when working together, and though the other practitioners had not helped much the successes of those two had reflected on all of them. Yet when spring came there would be changes. There would be fewer quiet evenings where he and Alisanne could lose themselves in each other, for one, but there was also a hanging sword above their head: Ludovic’s kin would come for him, sure as dawn, when the ice thawed. Roland’s visits had also grown rarer, as he dove into his studies with both their parents and accepted Morgaine’s own gracious offer of sharing some of knowledge. Olivier took to visiting him regularly instead.

It was one night on the eve of spring that he found his younger brother in his rooms at the family house, reading through Mother’s eastern poetry book, and to his surprise Roland eyed him with thinly-veiled antipathy.

“Ollie, is it true that you and Alisanne are lovers?” Roland said, closing the book and hastily putting it away.

Olivier’s brow rose. He’d believed the two of them to be discreet, or at least as discreet as one could be in a small town. He did not consider lying, though it would have been simpler.

“Yes,” he admitted. “Though that is best kept secret.”

Though no rule of the House forbade dalliances, a lay sister would be expected not to dabble in them if she’d been sent to a temple to learn temperance in the first place. It’d reflect poorly on both their reputations if it became common knowledge they were involved.

“You know that I am fond of her,” Roland accused.

“So am I,” Olivier frankly said. “And you barely know her. I am sorry that this pains you, but you’ve no real call to be bruised over the matter.”

His little brother’s face reddened. Though he was not exactly spoiled it could not be denied that Roland was used to getting his way, especially if he put in the effort. It sometimes brought out ugly things in him.

“It will not last forever,” Olivier sighed. “So put it out of your mind. She will bore of the town and leave eventually, Roland. She’s too clever to stay in a place like this forever.”

“She might,” Roland denied. “She is the youngest of seven, she has little to inherit.”

The young man’s brow rose as he considered his brother. He’d known that Alisanne had siblings – she’d mentioned two in passing – but he’d not known how many, which made it more than passing odd that Roland did.

“How do you know that?” Olivier asked.

His brother looked aside.

“Roland,” he sharply said.

“I asked, that’s all,” Roland angrily said. “Let it go, Olivier. It’s none of your business.”

He swallowed the angry reply on the tip of his tongue and nodded. Perhaps it wasn’t.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Olivier stiffly said.

His little brother grimaced, looking guilty.

“I’m sorry,” Roland said, then hesitated. “Do you mean it, though? That the two of you won’t last?”

“I cannot see how it would,” Olivier admitted.

He would miss her sorely when she left, and be morose for a long time, but he would not delude himself into thinking that their affair would keep her from leaving this backwater when the opportunity to return home to Apenun beckoned.

“Then it’s nothing,” Roland firmly said. “Just bruising, you’re right.”

Olivier left, both heartened by the almost cordial way the conversation had ended and oddly troubled. Yet there was no time to delve into his unease, because within days spring had come and fresh troubles with it.

Jacques and Annette of Grisemanche were, Olivier grasped within an hour of first having met them, in their own way some of the vilest people he’d ever met.

Ludovic’s parents had not gone to the shop, when they’d arrived to Beaumarais, but instead straight to the House of Light. Alisanne had slipped out while they spoke with Sister Maude, bringing with her bad news. Ludovic’s wild spell that’d rendered Annette Grisemanche mute had faded over the winter, as untaught magic often did, and the attentions of a priest capable of wielding Light had been enough to chase away the lingering wooden tongue that’d been the last remnant of the curse. There would be no leverage or goodwill to be had by removing it. Olivier sent the youngest mage in his charge away from the village, out with Maxime Redflame to camp in the mountains and harvest herbs for a few days, then prepared for what would no doubt be an unpleasant few days.

That very evening he was invited to have a cup of wine with the two strangers and Sister Maude, so that the priestess might host them and help ‘resolve the dispute’. Given the half-faded bruises on their son’s body he’d half expected the couple to have horns and burning eyes, but instead they turned out to be rather personable. Neither good-looking nor ugly, they dressed modestly and spoke courteously. They were in good odour with Sister Maude’s equivalent in Grisemanche, Sister Lucie, and considered to be respectable by their community. Their children had all found trades, and they donated regularly to their temple.

“Ludovic was always troubled,” Annette of Grisemanche sadly said. “We never suspected it might be something as serious as magic, Sister, but perhaps we should have.”

“The signs were there,” Jacques of Grisemanche agreed. “We were blinded by familiar love, I fear. To think he would attack his own mother!”

“Troubling indeed,” Sister Maude said, turning a steady gaze towards Olivier.

He’d waited patiently for them to cease talking, remembering the look on Morgaine’s face that night. The one when she’d emerged from a room where she’d seen repeatedly broken bones in a boy barely twelve. He understood her anger a little better now, he thought. It was a dead end, such things always were, but then it was easier to be calm when it was not you the blows were raining on.

“Blinded is perhaps the right word,” Olivier said, smiling pleasantly. “For I cannot imagine how else you might have missed the many bruises on his body, or the oft-broken bones.”

There was a moment of silence.

“That is a heavy accusation,” Jacques of Grisemanche harshly said.

He was not a big man, but he was larger than Olivier – who was not done growing but would not be tall even when he had. The older man leaned forward, as if to loom, but the younger one had been faced with bare steel before. Posturing seemed like a trifling thing, after having seen your own death reflected in a blade.

“It was a simple statement,” Olivier calmly replied. “I wonder why it is you might feel accused, Master Jacques.”

“Any parent would feel this way, when told they missed the injuries of their child,” Annette of Grisemanche said. “Emotions are simply running high, Master Olivier. No doubt Ludovic simply hid them from us with his magic, ashamed of his truck with evil spirits.”

Olivier did not doubt for a moment there’d been evil in that child’s life, as it happened. How could he, when at this very moment it was looking at him with measuring eyes?

“A short recess is in order,” Sister Maude said. “It will allow for the heat of the moment to pass.”

Her gaze on him was no longer quite so demanding, but she was still handling the couple carefully. Olivier frowned. Why? She had to know that allowing them some time to speak alone would let them agree on some sort of story explaining away the evidence of beatings. The two strangers left for a short walk through the garden, even as Sister Maude broke with etiquette and filled Olivier’s cup anew herself.

“This is a problem, Olivier,” the priestess said. “You are poking at more than you can afford to provoke.”

Why would she think that? Gods, why would a woman of even middling faith allow a beaten child who’d suffered not just bruises but broken bones to return to – oh, he thought, blood going cold. The bones. They’d been broken several times, yet never healed wrong as such a break badly set or healed often by magic would. Ludovic used his arms and hands without trouble, after all. There was only one person in Grisemanche that would be able to heal the boy like that. And since it happened several times, even a fool would have been able to figure out why, Olivier realized. The couple, he’d been told earlier, was seen as respectable.

They even donated regularly to the temple in Grisemanche.

“I do not wear a red cross on my clothes,” Olivier said. “I do not crusade the cleanse the world from all evils. But I will not return that boy to beatings, Sister Maude.”

“I have not asked you to,” the priestess stiffly replied. “Yet I warn you now that if Sister Lucie requests an inquiry by the House in Apenun, then all that was built here will vanish into thin air.”

So he would have to grease the palms of the hollow things in human flesh that’d sat across him, and perhaps even the crooked sister as well. Else a fuss would be kicked up, before the shop and what it represented was ready to withstand the attention, and the consequences would be on his head.

“I understand,” Olivier de Beaumarais said, tone forcefully even.

“I knew you would,” Sister Maude said. “Patience is a virtue, Olivier. All accounts are settled in due time.”

He did not answer, the anger too sharp and close to his tongue. When the couple returned he began to negotiate in indirect, meandering pretty words how much it might cost to buy their son. They wanted to continue taking a cut of his salary and the profit of his works, the parasites, but he managed to present that as taking from the revenues of the House of Light so they hastily withdrew. In the end it came down to thirteen silvers and three promised artefacts of a nature yet to be determined, the quality of which would be attested by Sister Maude. It was steep cost, but Olivier at least finagled them into having to settle any doubts by their friend Sister Lucie themselves. May they all choke squabbling over what their shares of the bribes should be.

He left the temple feeling exhausted and feeling dirtied, so it was not a pleasant surprise for him to find Morgaine waiting at the shop. Lounging behind the counter, the beautiful sorceress did not take the initiative to greet him and only studied him with dark and knowing eyes.

“Morgaine,” he greeted her. “Can this wait until tomorrow? I find myself in no state to converse.”

“There is a spell from the east that allows one to see what is far away, within certain rules,” Morgaine said. “Mine is a paltry enough imitation, but it still allows me sight within the temple.”

Olivier’s irritation mounted. Not only was she admitting to having spied on him, she was stubbornly refusing to take the hint that he was in no mood for this.

“Should you be caught indulging in that, it is not you alone that will suffer the consequences of it,” he sharply said.

The dark-eyed woman smiled.

“Does it unsettle you, the lack of control?” she asked. “The realization that your authority exists only so long as we allow it to?”

That have him pause. His eyes narrowed.

“You are beginning,” Olivier calmly said, “to speak unwisely.”

“Ah, and we must be wise,” Morgaine mocked. “Always. Else we are wicked, and so we’ll be clapped in irons and ran out and butchered and burned. But you fine folk, well, that is different. Even if you beat us and break our bones we are to smile, and if we’re lucky we can pay you for the privilege of leaving us alone. Eventually, that is. After you tire of the cruelty.”

The longer she spoke the more the anger dripped into her voice openly. Her hands clenched over the counter as her expression hardened and sorcery flickered around her fingers in thread of red light. Olivier had never really thought of magic as something that could be turned against him, that could be used to hurt him, but in that moment he realized that if she struck at him with a spell he would most likely die. She’d not survive the night, for he’d die loudly and draw attention, but simply because of her magic and anger she had power over him. And he was but a young fool in the middle of nowhere, he knew. How galling it must be for an officer in expensive armour to feel like this, or a highborn magistrate. And so Olivier understood just a little bit, now, why people feared mages. Why they wanted them gone. It was a shameful thing, but he understood the fear at last.

And yet for all of Lady Morgaine’s anger it seemed to him that her eyes stayed calm. Calculating. But it must be a mistake, he thought, for there was nothing calculated about this confrontation. It felt too raw for that.

“You ask me to change the writ of things,” Olivier said. “I cannot, Morgaine. It is unfair, and it should not be this way, but it is not in my power to mend. All I can do is what I am doing.”

The sorceress looked tired, suddenly.

“You are not as those two jackals are,” she said. “But this… stray dog refuge you are trying to make for us, it is not an answer. You are trying to protect us like we’re children, to chase away those who’d harm us while we hide in the mountains until you have settled our affairs for us. It is no way to live. You make decisions in our name without truly understanding our troubles, because they have never been your troubles. It is a well-meaning condescension you offer but condescension nonetheless.”

It wounded this pride, that this stranger would come and complain of what he had built with little help from anyone at all. He was not an angel, to be able to solve all troubles with a snap of his fingers, and she was not forced to be here. If there were better offers to entertain, then let her take one of them. Yet that was anger and pride. It was resentment, a many-headed snake that Olivier knew still dwelled in him for all that years ago he had decided to take the other road. One decision, though, did not choose the cast of an entire life. He would have make that same choice again, as many times as it took. So he breathed out, and forced himself to calm.

“You have qualms, evidently,” Olivier said. “Express them properly so that they might be addressed.”

“You have made yourself into the lord of this little town’s wizards,” Morgaine said. “With good reasons and intentions, but you have made yourself a lord still. We are beholden to you, you settle our troubles for us and we ply our magic on your behalf.”

She expected you to make yourself into a sort of lord, using the mages as your enforcers, Alisanne had said. Instead Morgaine thought him to have made himself lord of only the mages, and this it seemed she could not suffer.

“Is this your own belief,” Olivier asked, “or that of all mages of Beaumarais?”

“The sentiment is shared by many,” Morgaine said. “Ask, if you do not believe me, though I imagine some will be afraid of being tossed out if they truly speak their mind.”

He would not take her word for this – she’d done nothing to earn that sort of trust from him – but neither would he dismiss what she’d said outright. That would be dangerously complacent.

“The nature of the arrangement that brought you to Beaumarais is not something I can change,” Olivier frankly said.

“No,” Morgaine softly said. “I imagine not. But for all that it is your name on the parchment, it need not remain so.”

His brow rose. That he might sign over the shop to her was a suggestion both foolish – the House would not accept it – and personally ruinous. He’d invested most of his coin into the venture and drawn on his personal connections extensively. It was also exceptionally presumptuous.

“I do not mean to steal from you,” Morgaine said. “Only that, while keeping your shares of profit, you might eventually pass the reins to someone who might truly make this a home for our kind.”

He frowned.

“And who would that be?” he asked.

“Your brother,” Morgaine firmly said.

Oliver started in surprise.

“Roland does not know how to run a shop, much less deal with the House,” he said.

“He is young,” the dark-eyed sorceress said. “You can teach him.”

That was… not untrue. And it would keep the shop in the family, which settled some of Olivier’s troubles with this. Yet he was balking at the notion, some part of him refusing to even seriously think of it.

“Consider it,” Morgaine quietly said. “That is all I can ask.”

She left him to the silence of the darkened shop, lost in thought.

Chapter 33: Convenience

“Thirty-seven: theft in the service of Above is not a sin. It is, however, still a crime. Be discreet.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown

“Shall we begin with the least contentious of the subjects to be broached?”

Her Most Serene Highness Cordelia Hasenbach, First Prince of Procer, Warden of the West and Protector of the Realms of Man, struck me as looking rather cautious right now. Wary of angering me? Might be, depending on what she considered to be the least contentious of the things we needed to talk about. It was always relative, when it came to stuff like this – the least murderous of three High Lords still usually had an unfortunate amount of murder under their belt. I took a long sip from my cup, letting the pleasant taste of my favourite wine linger against my palate.

“I’m all ears,” I said.

“There are, from the reports I have received about the incident at the Arsenal, two Damned who will need to face punishment,” the First Prince said. “Namely, the Concocter and the Hunted Magician.”

I smothered a grimace at the pun, which I would generously assume to have been unintentional.

“All other villains who were involved are dead,” I agreed.

So that was why she’d been cautious, huh. Dealing with villains was my legal responsibility, in the end. The Hunted Magician would stand trial before a tribunal, since he’d actively helped along an invasion of the Arsenal and the Arsenal was an interest of all the signatory states of the Grand Alliance, but the tribunal itself couldn’t actually sentence him to anything. Only I could, as his representative under the Terms. In theory, at least. In practice, if I outright ignored the recommendations given out by a tribunal that’d count the White Knight and representatives for both Procer and Levant, I’d be asking for a diplomatic shitstorm.

Hanno would be in the same situation when it came to the Red Axe. I’d have a seat on her tribunal as well, as both the representative for both Callow and Below’s lot, but I wouldn’t have the right to pass a sentence on her any more than the First Prince or whoever the Dominion ended up sending. There were good reasons for that. In my case, for example, if I had the authority to sentence heroes it’d lead to the rebellion of more than a few before the day was out. Hanno of Arwad was trusted as an adjudicator, and only him. Though while he had the same right to outright ignore anything the rest of the tribunal would say, when it came down to it he’d also have the same considerations as me to deal with.

Hasenbach was treading carefully here because, after pushing for the Red Axe to be tried by Procer and not under the Terms, she did not want me to mistake her asking about my current leanings on punishing my charges as an attempt on her part to keep usurping authority over the Terms.

“May I be blunt?” I asked.

Something like an amused flicker passed through those blue eyes.

“Have you not been?” the First Prince of Procer asked.

Well now, I thought, lips twitching. Get another few drinks into that one and she might actually be fun.

“I don’t think you’re trying to get your hands on the Terms,” I frankly said. “Only an idiot would try to make that many Named into a personal army, and even back when negotiating with you regularly drove me to screaming I did not believe you to be one. You don’t need to tread lightly for fear of offending me there. If I consider you to be overstepping I will say as much, but I am not looking to be offended.”

Blue eyes considered me, weighing the extent of my honesty in speaking, then she nodded.

“A lengthy trial for the Hunted Magician would be damaging,” Cordelia said. “And your intentions when it comes to the Concocter remain unclear. I would establish as soon as possible what you intend, so that the affair can be solved swiftly when it comes to deliberation.”

“You won’t be alone in that tribunal,” I pointed out. “And, now that I think of it, will it be you personally or a representative?”

“I might have nominated Princess Rozala if we could afford to pull her from the front, but as circumstances stand I will personally represent the Principate,” she said. “And while I will freely profess to be unable to account for the White Knight, Lord Yannu Marave’s interests are well known to me.”

Ah, so Juniper’s old foe from the Champion’s Blood was the one the Dominion has sent. Considering the Cleves front was supposed to be holding steady at the moment I supposed he was the natural pick. My own two Levantines might represent a significant bloc in the Dominion now that they were betrothed, but they were both still a little young for this sort of game. The Lord of Alava had a weightier reputation than either and probably better understood how to preserve the interests of Levant.

“What does Levant want out of this?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“To ensure punishment is dealt,” the First Prince said, “and to avoid, at all costs, even the shadow of a precedent that might force them to ennoble one of their Damned.”

Yeah, that sounded about right. Aside from the Grey Pilgrim, whose concerns tended to extend far from the borders of the Dominion, in my experience the Blood tended to hardly care about what went on beyond their borders. So long as their anger wasn’t actively courted, they were unlikely to take a stand.

“Neither should be an issue,” I said. “When it comes to the Hunted Magician, considering his cooperation with the Wandering Bard it’s a given that he loses the right to object to assignments for the remainder of the duration of the Terms.”

“Yet, given the nature of his talents, he would still be best employed at the Arsenal,” Cordelia skeptically noted.

Meaning it was an empty punishment, as far as she was concerned, since he wouldn’t be going anywhere or be losing anything.

“That’d be the basic consequence of dealing with an enemy, not the punishment,” I replied. “For that, I’m currently leaning towards a fine. Within the next three days we should have estimates of what the damages to the Arsenal will cost to repair. A fine of that amount will be given.”

I paused.

“Once for each signatory nation of the Grand Alliance,” I said. “In addition, he will personally have to repay the pensions any of our nations give to the families of soldiers who died during the attack.”

The First Prince’s brow rose, ever so slightly.

“That would be a considerable sum,” she said.

More than any man could repay in a lifetime, though admittedly the occasional villain got more than that. With a debt like that over his head the Magician was a lot more likely to leg it to the Free Cities after the war than stick around and repay it. I’d considered that, of course. The trick was in how it’d be paid back.

“It would be up to the nations to decide in what nature they might prefer that repayment,” I said. “The Kingdom of Callow, however, will accept it in artefact-crafting and enchanting work.”

Meaning Vivienne would have a fortune’s worth of labour from one of the finest mages on the continent to call on when her reign began, already paid for. The Rhenian princess considered me for a moment, remaining silent as her well-honed mind parsed out all the implications.

“While heavily in debt, to a sum total comparable to a prince’s treasury if not greater, the Magician will also have direct ties to the rulers of three great nations,” Cordelia quietly said. “In the world of the Accords, that would be the sort of protection one of the Damned might well kill for.”

It really was. So long as three crowns had a fortune’s worth of highly valuable and difficult labour left to extract out of the Hunted Magicians’ hide, none of them were likely to let the man get his head cut off by an overzealous hero or bar their door to him. I was still making the man a beggar for at least a decade, forcing him to largely live on the charity of the patrons he’d work for, so it wasn’t like I was letting him off easy. But it was the sort of punishment that would win me points with the cleverer among my kind and avoid alienating the Magician entirely.

“The Concocter deserves less punishment,” I said, “and I don’t intend to convene a tribunal over it. She’ll lose the right to refuse assignments, like the Magician, but aside from that I only intend to have her personally brew tailored potions for every lastingly wounded soldier in the Arsenal or the family of any deceased. The ingredients will, of course, come out of her pocket.”

A princely gift, in the sense that few aside from princes would otherwise be able to afford the Concocter brewing for them personally. I owed the woman a favour for having kept Hakram alive, so I intended to offer to quietly float her a loan from my own funds to pay for the ingredients. If it just so happened that I forgot to ask for interest or a fixed timeline for repayment, well, so be it. Hakram was worth a lot more to me than the coin, and it would have still been a bargain for a hundred times the price.

“A harsh price, given the paucity of her involvement,” Cordelia said, “but that will win you esteem from Lord Yannu. You foresee no complications there?”

“None,” I said.

“I had expected that I would have to push for harsher sentences,” the First Prince admitted. “In that I did you disservice, for you have struck an admirable balance between stern and sufferable.”

I snorted.

“I have weaknesses as a queen, glaring ones,” I said, “but I’ve been a warlord and leader of Named since I was seventeen. When it comes to that, you can expect a steady hand of me.”

It wasn’t the same, handing out a sentence as a queen and as the leader of a band. No ruler in the world had absolute authority, true enough, but it was an even more tenuous thing Named. Too loose a hand and they would run wild, too firm and they would leave. I’d believed my father to have been as a lord over the Calamities, when I’d been younger, and half-believed it a fault when I later grasped he was anything but. Being a representative under Terms had forced me to understand, though, how delicate a balancing act his leadership of that band had really been. I’d done this for many more Named than Black had ever led, but I’d also done it for scarcely two years and with literal Death knocking at the door up north. He, on the other hand, had kept the Calamities largely sane and safe for several decades even with few outside threats to keep them together.

“Talent is distributed blind to titles and breeding,” Cordelia said.

I’d take that for the backhanded compliment that it was. I doubted Hasenbach and I would ever see eye to eye on a lot of things – it’d be hard to, when she would always put Procer first and I Callow – but that’d not prevented a degree of respect from emerging as our working relationship grew less venomous. I would not soon forget how many of my soldiers had died in a war I’d not wanted to fight, or the burning anger of having peace refused again and again, but I had less unpleasant things to add to the tally now. She’d turned out too damn useful over the last two years for the old anger to be the only thing I associated with her now.

“Flattery,” I said. “Which tells me we’ve gotten to more contentious territory. Which poison will be your pick, Your Highness: the fool with the god-killing sword or the threefold nightmare of jurisdiction?”

The blonde Lycaonese sipped at her mead, the largest I’d yet seen her take. She’d be laughed out of a Callowan tavern as lightweight, I suspected, but then she didn’t strike me as the kind of woman to step into a tavern in the first place.

“I have concerns about the Mirror Knight, as Prince Frederic made known to you,” Cordelia said. “I understand that you have some of your own.”

Much as I would have enjoyed venting about Christophe de Pavanie, I wasn’t having a drink with Indrani. Petulance would get me nowhere, so it’d be best to keep this concise.

“The extent of my concerns will depend on his actions over the coming few days,” I said. “He has made demands wildly beyond his authority – a full pardon for the Red Axe – and that he’s made demands at all is alarming, but so far that’s only been words. So long as it doesn’t go further than that, I’m willing to let a lot of it be water under the bridge.”

The Mirror Knight had turned what would have been certain death for Hakram into something less immediately mortal, though if the Concocter hadn’t been on her way Adjutant would have died regardless. I owed him significantly less than I did the Concocter, but I owed him still. So I’d swallow my anger and let bygones be bygones, so long as he behaved. Hasenbach’s eyes went sharp.

“You do not believe he will necessarily defer to the White Knight,” the First Prince stated.

It was not a question and neither of us pretended otherwise.

“I’ve difficulty putting my finger on how messy that might get,” I admitted. “But if they disagree, the Mirror Knight will not simply capitulate.”

“A coup, even a soft one, would be unacceptable to the Principate,” Cordelia coolly said. “The Terms as signed do not have provisions for the White Knight to be replaced, save should he die.”

“The legalities won’t kill this,” I said. “Not with heroes, Hasenbach. Villains you can cow or bribe, but that won’t work with Above’s lot. They’ll hold to doing the right thing even when it’s an anchor around their neck – or everybody else’s, for that matter.”

She did not reply for a long moment and I bit my tongue. It’d come out just a little too caustic to have sounded entirely objective, which I regretted already. Anger would win me no points with this one, even if she decided it was justified anger.

“Would you be opposed to my intervening in the matter as First Prince?” she asked. “While this cannot be termed as an entirely Proceran issue, given those involved, it can not be denied that my subjects are at the heart of it.”

“If you can disarm him with words I’ll applaud,” I said. “But this could turn on you right quick. If you’re seen as interceding on my behalf that’ll taint you by association, and in a way that might not be reparable.”

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Mirror Knight would be her problem a lot longer than mine, assuming we all survived the war. He was a powerful Proceran hero with ties to a royal house, there’d be no disappearing into countryside obscurity for him.

“I will take your warning under consideration,” the First Prince mildly said.

Meaning that I was trying to teach a knight how to ride, but very politely implied. Fair enough.

“The Severance remains the most salient issue concerning him,” she continued.

My eyes narrowed.

“And what is Procer’s stance on that?” I asked.

“Given that it was forged with materials that the Kingdom of Callow provided on Arsenal grounds and as part of an Arsenal undertaking, the artefact is to be considered a war asset of the Grand Alliance,” the First Prince replied, the answer smooth and easy.

Practiced as well, no doubt. While Callow arguably had the best claim to the sword since I’d provided the initial material of it – though it shouldn’t be forgot it was an aspect ripped out of a woman at least in theory a Proceran subject – my interest in securing it for the kingdom after the war was lukewarm at best. The First Prince’s stance here was nuanced enough I wouldn’t outright be renouncing the claim I hardly cared about, just weakening it, but it came with the upside of having the Severance designated as a war asset of the Grand Alliance. That meant we could strip it and assign it wherever we wanted, so long as the three signatory nations weren’t stuck in an impasse.

“I’m amenable to those terms,” I said.

She was just a tad too slow in suppressing her surprise. The eyes gave it away. Hadn’t expected me to give my inch quite so swiftly, huh? If there’d been a Named back home that was a good fit for the sword I might have fought harder, but there simply wasn’t one.

“Then we are in agreement,” Cordelia faintly smiled. “I expect that Lord Yannu will be of a like mind, as it happens.”

I snorted. Yeah, I’d heard that Mirror Knight wasn’t all that popular with the Levantines. They were a touchy lot, especially when it came to their history with the Principate, and Christophe de Pavanie had been cursed with the twin disadvantages of being Proceran and prone to giving offence.

“The little I heard of the White Knight was in partial agreement to this,” I noted. “Though he mentioned that he considers the Mirror Knight the best fit for the sword when it is assigned.”

“It would be doing a disservice to the other Chosen to refrain from even considering their candidature,” the blue-eyed princess diplomatically replied.

Meaning she really wasn’t eager to leave it with good ol’ Christophe. Music to my ears. I supposed from her perspective it’d be handing both a powerful weapon and a powerful symbol to hero already tied to a rival power within her borders, something that was bound to come back to bite her down the line. Mind you, the damned thing was a sword meant to be used so it couldn’t all be about the politics.

“Come the time to assault Keter, if he’s truly the best pick then I’ll swallow my tongue and do what needs to be done,” I admitted. “Until then I’d prefer him nowhere near that blade.”

“Establishing the precedent that the Grand Alliance can strip and assign the sword is more important than the hands holding it at the moment,” the First Prince said. “Though I will not deny that removing it as a symbol will be helpful considering he appears to be, as you have said, trying to arrange a pardon for the Red Axe.”

And so we finally got to the thorniest of the knots.

“I imagine your stance on that won’t have changed since it was conveyed to me,” I said.

Meaning that she wanted the Red Axe tried under Proceran law for the attempted regicide of Frederic Goethal, regardless of any other claim there might be on the heroine’s life.

“In essence it has not,” Cordelia calmly said. “I am sure that, as a ruler yourself, you can understand the difficulty in being unable to hold a trial over the attempted assassination of one of my princes. An attempt that took place before more than half a hundred witnesses, no less.”

“Her slaying of the Wicked Enchanter was done in front of more than twice that,” I pointed out.

Which wasn’t the issue, I knew even as I quibbled on the detail. Her issue was that the First Prince of Procer was finding herself unable to punish or even imprison someone who’d tried to kill a sitting member of the Highest Assembly, which must admittedly be infuriating.

“I do not deny that her breach of Terms also deserves punishment,” she said. “Simply that her actions against the Principate take precedence.”

“We can’t try a corpse,” I frankly said. “Which is what her actions would fetch, though I’m not sure what manner of execution follows attempted regicide in Brus.”

“Boiled alive in oil,” the First Prince replied without batting an eye.

Grisly, but hardly any worse than the drawing and quartering it would earn in Callow – and even that bloody practice was well shy of the ancient atrocity known as red hangings I preferred not to think too much about.

“Charming,” I drily said. “Might hinder the process of questioning some, if you ask me, though on the upside at least it’ll be a quick trial.”

“If I were to concede that a trial could be held under the Terms before the sentence to the Principate’s own was applied, would that remedy your objection?” the blonde princess asked.

That was already a better look for the whole affair, but it was also strictly that: a look. In substance, we’d still be establishing the jurisdiction of Proceran law over the Named serving under the Terms.

“What kind of a trial would you be holding, exactly?” I asked, frowning. “I’m familiar with Salienta’s Graces, but I recall there’s some sort of exception for matters of treason that explains why your people have two kinds of magistrates.”

“Treason, heresy and royal dues fall under the authority of the crowns and not the rights of the people of Procer,” Hasenbach clarified. “Given the unfeasibility of princes personally seeing to such judgements over their entire holdings, royal magistrates might be appointed to do so in their stead. In this particular case, however, Prince Frederic would be entitled by royal prerogative to render judgement himself.”

Which would actually play out decently with villains, I thought. It’d be a heroic mess cleaned up by a heroic blade. I’d have to posture a bit and agitate in the Wicked Enchanter’s name, but the Kingfisher Prince beheading the Red Axe would settle this halfway agreeably for everyone. Which made it all the more galling that he wasn’t going to be doing that. That lovely thing he did with his hips wasn’t anywhere near enough to excuse the headaches he was causing me.

“Yet he won’t,” I grunted, not hiding my displeasure. “So where does it go from there?”

“A formal trial by the Highest Assembly,” Cordelia said. “Which I will admit would have… uses in settling other troubles.”

It took me a moment to put the pieces together, as I was not used to putting myself in the shoes of the First Prince. Ah, she could use this whole affair to turn the screws on Prince Gaspard Langevin. The man would be fraying his ties to the Mirror Knight if he voted to have the Red Axe killed, since the hero wanted her pardoned, but it’d still be better than the alternative. Should he vote for acquittal after all, or even a lesser punishment, he’d be fraying ties to every single prince and princess of Procer. No one, after all, was denying that the Red Axe had tried to kill Frederic. Considering how popular the Prince of Brus was in the north, actually, even if simply ended up abstaining he’d be damaging his reputation a great deal in the region.

I could admire the cleverness of it, and I was pleased Hasenbach was taking the Langevin problem seriously, but the nature of my own objections to this mess had not changed either.

“I understand why you want your trial, I really do,” I admitted. “In your place, I’d be pushing for the same thing.”

“Yet you are not in my place,” the blue-eyed woman said, smiling thinly.

“No, I’m not,” I said. “I’m speaking as the representative for Below’s champions. And Procer simply isn’t trusted enough for them to be comfortable with it having the authority to hang them.”

Hasenbach actually tended to be held in high esteem by the more intellectual of my lot, as a ruler whose knack for legal manoeuvring and diplomacy had led to remarkable achievements involving relatively little warfare, but not even the most admiring would want the Highest Assembly to have so much as a speck of authority over them. Even the other side of the fence, Hanno’s crowd, was unlikely to have a much better opinion of such a measure. Heroes tended to see laws and crowns as obstructive, when they weren’t the ones behind them, and Procer’s rulers still had spectacularly bad reputation abroad for the most part.

“That reluctance is not unearned,” Cordelia said, “yet it, too, must have limits. Minor crimes such as theft and assault I will not balk at leaving to the Terms, in the same way that an army in the field is subject to military justice and not that of a prince. Yet I cannot allow attempted regicide on Proceran soil without having it face Proceran justice. It would undermine the peace of the entire realm, establishing for all to see that Chosen and Damned live under different laws than the rest.”

And that would go over significantly worse in the Principate than it would back home, where centuries of Good Kings and Wizards of the West had associated Names with authority, or even Praes – where being in a realm of your own, untouchable by your lessers, was half the draw of being Named in the first place. In Procer the people had an expectation that the law would apply to even rulers, if perhaps not quite as comprehensively, so the Red Axe slipping the net would be sure to cause resentment. It was still better than the alternative, in my opinion.

“They do live under different laws, until the war is over,” I bluntly said. “They’re called the Terms. They are unfair, set apart their members from everyone else and even offer amnesty to monsters, but they are also what has allowed us to muster more than seventy Named to the defence of Procer. There’s a price to bringing in that kind of help, especially given the lack of trust between most parties involved. Going back on the nature of the Terms now will cause desertions. ‘You will be under the protection of the Terms’ does not have quite the same ring to it when ‘unless it becomes politically inconvenient’ gets added.”

Heroes would at least take infringement there better than villains, who’d see this as Procer preparing the grounds for purges following the fall of Keter, but I suspected that tolerance would not survive for long. The Dominion heroes who’d not immediately balk at being subject to Proceran law – something the founders of Levant had actively warred against! – would sour on it the moment it put them in a situation where they had to willingly take punishment by a prince. The contingent from the Free Cities wouldn’t be quite as incensed, but they were likely to band together for protection and it would all go to the Hells if the rulers of Procer started courting native heroes to bring into their personal orbit.

“I am no stranger to the tyranny of convenience, Catherine Foundling,” Cordelia Hasenbach quietly said, “but that blade has ever cut both ways. You fear desertions? I fear riots. You fear the collapse of the fronts? I fear the collapse of everything behind them.”

“Armies won’t be enough to breach the walls of Keter, Cordelia Hasenbach,” I quietly replied. “You’ll need Named, bands of five that can triumph against impossible odds and the finest killers on Calernia to bring an end to the Dead King himself. Don’t throw away your chance of winning the war from fear of having already lost it.”

I matched her gaze, unflinching. She was not wrong, I thought, not really. But then neither was I. And behind the tension of the present I glimpsed something deeper. The legacy that this golden-haired daughter of the north wanted to leave behind, a nation of laws and trade and peace that would at last thrive without attempting to devour all it beheld. Its edges would scrape against those of my own craved-for legacy, if we were not careful.  I wanted order forced onto the old war, the first war, the war that had begun the moment Creation did: Above and Below, the spinning coin of the divine wager. It was rules for those unearthly champions of black and white I wanted to set down, rules that went beyond borders and thrones, but my finest intentions would have to share the world with those same thrones they sought to surpass.

I did not hate what it was that Cordelia Hasenbach wanted to build, but I would not strip bare my own dream to gild hers.

“It has been some time,” the First Prince eventually said, “since I have last been quite so thoroughly refused.”

She’d not expected me to fold, tonight, but neither had she expected that I’d not be moved even an inch. I was not surprised, considering the boon she’d offered me if I saw things her way: accepting the Liesse Accords as they now stood, without further contest. It was something I would have paid dearly for, and might still. Yet in the end I was no more willing to weaken the foundation of the Accords before they were even signed than she had been willing to let the Choir of Judgement cast down a sentence on the very floor of the Highest Assembly.

“It gives me no pleasure to rebuff you,” I honestly said. “But there are some days, some choices, where the only thing to be had is your pick of the shade of bleakness ahead.”

The First Prince of Procer drank deep of her cup, her calm face like a too-small mask that exhaustion was peeking around the edges of. She saw, I thought as she turned her gaze to me, something to match that on my own face. The sum of too many half-nights, too many hard choices, too many victories that felt like defeats and defeats that felt like wounds. Sometimes it felt like I was sharp only because the world had whittled away everything but the sharpness. Rueful, she half-raised her cup towards me and I returned the gesture. We drank, for what else was there to do? The glasses were lowered all too soon.

“Is it easier,” Cordelia softly asked, “when you are not born to it?”

Born to the crown, to the sword, to power. I looked down into my cup at the pale wine still remaining. I thought of the friends I’d buried, of the decisions that still sometimes haunted me in the dark of night. There were more of either than I wanted there to be.

“No,” I faintly replied. “Not unless you are an even harder woman than I thought.”

The silence lingered for long moment between us, not entirely comfortable but neither unpleasant. I looked up at the painted ceiling, letting out a long breath.

“But if not us, then who?” I asked, a smile quirking my lips.

I lowered my head to find her studying me quite closely, face grown serious.

“You might yet be my enemy, I think,” the First Prince said.

It was true, so I did not deny it. In the end there was peace and then there was peace. It was not yet decided which of these we would have when the dust settled from Keter’s fall.

“And still I find it easier to trust you than many I would call allies,” Cordelia continued. “What a strange thing that is.”

I almost laughed, for I knew exactly what she meant. Even if the day came where we were allies without doom having marched north to cement the pact, I’d consider her just as much of an opponent. A rival, perhaps, in the strangest of ways. The sky was not so large that there would be enough room for the full span of both our ambitions, and neither of us was above jostling.

“I imagine that on some nights,” I half-smiled, “when we were girls, without ever knowing it we looked up at the same stars from different lands.”

She inclined her head by the smallest of measures, and we left it at that.

Yet there was a whisper in my ear as the silence fell, pleased yet indistinct. Like a curl of smoke. And for the barest of moments I felt a warm breath against the back of my neck. A trick of the light had deepened the darkness in the corners of the hall and I fancied, just for that fleeting moment, that I glimpsed the silhouette of a great beast cast there from the shadows.

Ah, I thought, smiling a secret smile. Are you back, old friend?

My Name did not answer.

Not yet.

Chapter 32: Convened

“Let priests offer forgiveness before the hanging, a queen can only afford it after.”
– Queen Yolanda of Callow, the Wicked (known as ‘the Stern’ in contemporary histories)

I found out, to my mild surprise, that there were not one but three private dining rooms in the Alcazar. I’d not even been aware that were any, though it made sense upon refection: it was the part of the Arsenal meant to host important guests, essentially the facility’s diplomatic quarters. In my experience a great deal of diplomacy was had over meals and drinks, compared to the great formal conferences I’d envisioned as a girl. One of the two smaller rooms was where the First Prince of Procer received me, having brought her own private cooks to prepare the meal in the Arsenal kitchens. I appreciate the restraint of not having gone for the formal banquet hall, which was large enough that any meal taken there would bring with it a tiring amount of pageantry.

Instead we sat in an elegant and comfortable dining room whose walls were covered by panels of painted wood that I vaguely remembered being donated by the recently ascended Princess of Cantal. Lovely work with a touch of warmth to it. It was a pleasant departure from the bare stone that was so prevalent everywhere in the Arsenal. The meal itself was of the quality I’d come to expect from Cordelia Hasenbach’s personal cooks, which was to say both delicious and almost unnecessarily elaborate. Four services, each with a paired cup of wine – I noticed she drank on sparsely from hers – and ranging from some sort of potage whose ingredients came from a garden first planted by the founder of the Principate to a roasted bird that ate only enchanted seeds and was illegal for anyone but royalty to eat in most of Procer.

Unlike me, it seemed that Hasenbach had something of a sweet tooth. Though she’d eaten with measured grace throughout the meal, she dug into the fourth and final serving of a strawberry-topped custard tart sprinkled with slivers of marzipan with discreet enthusiasm. I ate enough of mine to be polite but found myself much more interested in the bottle of wine that’d been provided to me: Vale summer wine. Slightly cooled in a chillbox, as was the custom this side of the Whitecaps, it proved a pleasurable way to end the finest meal I’d had in a long time.

“I suppose it would be unpatriotic of me to admit I’m growing fond of Proceran cuisine,” I mused.

“I will refrain from spreading it around,” the First Prince drily replied.

I’d actually put on a dress for once, given that any fighting taking place tonight was unlikely to involved swords. One the downsides to being known as a soldier queen was that there was a expectation I’d show up to everything looking like I was fit for battle, something that was rarely compatible with the sort of cotton summer dress I remained fond of wearing. Not that I could put on one of those when meeting with the likes of Cordelia Hasenbach, sadly. The Arsenal was too cold anyway. Instead I’d put on a long-sleeved dress in black velvet, discreetly embroidered with my heraldry in silver thread on the sides. I’d not bothered with jewelry aside from a set of intricate silver bracelets set with grey agates I’d received as a diplomatic gift from Hasenbach herself a year or two back.

My own small preparations were, naturally, nothing compared to the spectacle that was the First Prince of Procer receiving foreign royalty. The intricate brocade dress in gold and pale she must have been helped into – it was too tightly fitted to her frame for it to be anything but laced in the back – ended in long skirts that matched the length of the light ermine-collared cloak in the same colours she wore over the dress. A long, slender golden necklace set with sapphires reached well below her throat and over the cloak, calling attention to the narrowness of her waist by contrast. A clever trick of perspective, that, helped along by the way the skirts expanded swiftly outwards. It made her look like slender girl instead of the woman with the Lycaonese warrior frame she actually was. The cape hid the broad shoulders too, I’d noticed, which was a recurring pattern with her.

Still, with the all the intricate layers and the way for once her long golden locks had been allowed to tumble down her back – in a very careful and artistic pretence of – carelessly I felt like you might be able to fit two of me in her.

“Much appreciated,” I drawled. “So, if it’s not too indiscreet to ask, how was it that you learned my favourite wine? I cannot help but feel deeply amused the prospect the famous Circle of Thorns going digging for that.”

“It was learned by happenstance during the Liesse Rebellion,” the First Prince idly replied, polishing off the last of her dessert. “A certain Hasan Qara used smugglers with which the Circle has ties to obtain a large enough quantity of the vintage that questions were raised.”

I breathed out slowly, startled by the way the grief had jumped out at me. It’d been some time since I’d last thought of Ratface. Who’d trusted me and followed me, only to die by an assassin’s blade on the night that Malicia had ensured that this could only end with one of us dead.

“I seem to have given offence,” Cordelia softly said. “My apologies.”

I mastered myself and waved it away.

“He was a good friend,” I said. “He died during the Night of Knives and I miss him still.”

The First Prince slowly nodded.

“If not for Agnes’ foresight and the protection it affords, I would have lost much of my family to the Tower’s assassins over the years,” the fair-haired Lycaonese said. “I can only offer my sympathies for your loss.”

I wasn’t sure if she was simply that polished a speaker or if she genuinely meant it, but it made no difference. Ratface’s corpse had been given a Legion funeral, in Laure, and one day I would settle his last accounts on his behalf. I could offer no more than that, though it would still be too small a thing for all that he’d freely given.

“We’ll lose more before this is over,” I simply said. “Tears are best kept for when the swords return to the sheath.”

“A sentiment my people are more than passingly fond of,” Cordelia said, faintly rueful.

Our conversation paused as an attendant came to take her empty plate, another bringing in an elegant porcelain teapot to replace it. The First Prince gestured for the woman to pour and she filled a cup with a dark tea fragrant enough I caught the scent from my seat – it was distinctly bitter, as Hasenbach seemed to prefer her brews. The attendants withdrew again after one filled my half-empty glass anew, leaving behind the bottle. Within moments we were alone in the room, and the tension began to rise. After the meal and the idle talk that’d accompanied it, we would finally be getting at the meat of why she’d wanted this meeting.

“We have a great deal to discuss, Queen Catherine,” the First Prince said. “This was true before I left Salia, and circumstance has since added to the heap of troubles ahead of us.”

“The Prince of Brus conveyed your opinions and offer to me,” I carefully said. “Yet I would take council with Lady Dartwick before speaking more to the subject.”

Hasenbach lightly sipped at her tea, never making a sound.

“Jurisdiction over the Red Axe is one matter,” she said. “The Mirror Knight and his involvement with the House of Langevin are another. Yet even further abroad we are not without ill news.”

I frowned.

“Mercantis?” I asked.

Vivienne had recently warned me the situation there was bad and about to get worse, mentioning that we’d speak more of it in person, but I’d not believed it to have gotten to the point of ‘ill news’. The Secretariat had warned me even earlier of going ons there as well, through Secretary Nestor, but they’d been vague and I was not in the habit of flinching from shadows. I’d been skeptical then and remained skeptical now. The City of Bought and Sold might have gained some leverage over the Grand Alliance by its merchant lords and banks becoming the foremost lenders to the war effort, but they had to be aware that there were limits to how much they could push that. Given that most of the mercenary armies they relied on for protection were either six feet deep or under contract, these days, they were also rather vulnerable to directly expressed displeasure.

Also known as violence.

“There is a limit to the papers I can provide you on the matter,” Cordelia said, surprisingly forthright, “as they contain privileged information on the Principate’s capacities of production and trade. I will have what I can sent to your quarters, however, and I would myself convey the conclusions of my staff if you have no objection.”

I hid my surprise. This was a lot more serious than I’d expected.

“Please do,” I replied.

“To summarize, unprecedented burdens and the interruption of near all our usual trade routes have effectively ended Procer’s ability to sustain itself without outside help,” Cordelia Hasenbach said. “Conscription and the previous drains on our treasuries are shaping what would have been a dire crisis into a risk of outright collapse.”

Coming from the woman ruling what was still the most powerful nation on the surface of Calernia, that was stark thing to hear.

“You should still be able to trade with Callow and Levant,” I pointed out.

It wasn’t that I doubted her, but rather more that I was surprised. I’d been reading the treasury reports for the Grand Alliance assiduously, and though there’d been dips they’d never been long-lasting. I’d believed we were staying afloat, if not necessarily by much.

“The profits to be found there are smaller than those our merchants are accustomed to,” the First Prince delicately replied.

Meaning the Kingdom of Callow and the Dominion of Levant, the two allies who’d not closed their doors to Proceran traders, were simply too poor for their trade to sustain Procer. That, I grimly thought, actually sounded about right. I’d been shocked at the wealth of even minor cities in the heartlands of the Principate for a reason.

“And within your own borders the trade is failing,” I said, cocking an eyebrow.

“Prices have gone up for nearly all goods,” Cordelia said. “To protect their own tradesmen and prevent other principalities form buying up their reserves, princes have been raising increasingly stiff tariffs.”

Which was reasonable enough, I thought, but with an eye on the Principate as a whole it must be crippling. Maybe Procer at its peak could withstand every principality becoming as an island and cutting off trading ties, but it wasn’t at its peak right now. Whole swaths of it had been ravaged by Black during his ill-fated march, the north had been turned into a series of ravaged war fronts and there was a mass of displaced refugees to care for in the heartlands. All those were drains that Procer simply wouldn’t be able to sustain if all its principalities were closed-off and trying for subsistence instead of prosperity.

“Prince Frederic mentioned confiscations, when we discussed the state of affairs in Procer in passing,” I slowly said. “How bad is it really?”

“They have become common practice even south of Lange, now,” the blue-eyed princess replied. “If princes attempted to keep to their war quotas without resorting to them, nearly two thirds of the Principate would begin toppling into bankruptcy.”

Oh fuck. That was… Hells, we were scraping through at rough cost and with only a little hope in the distance right now, but that was with the full weight of the Principate of Procer behind us. If it collapsed behind us the Dead King wouldn’t even need to crack our defence lines: we simply wouldn’t be able to field and feed large enough armies to keep him back. At that point we’d be forced to retreat, otherwise we were just feeding him well-armed corpses to march south with.

“But the Mercantis loans are keeping you afloat,” I said.

“It is not sustainable in the long term,” the First Prince said. “We will need increasingly larger loans to remain standing where we are the longer this continues. Yet you are correct, at the moment the coin from Mercantis had allowed us to ward off the spiral downwards.”

I drank deep of my cup, barely even enjoying the taste of my favourite wine.

“Are they aware of that?” I asked.

Meaning, was awareness of the not negligible leverage this represented the reason they were pushing us now?

“I am uncertain,” Cordelia said. “Given the unfortunate amount of success the Eyes of the Empire have had in infiltrating the Principate, however, I believe that on the other hand Dread Empress Malicia is.”

Of course she godsdamned was. This wasn’t the kind of knowledge she was just going to sit on either. Considering that she couldn’t really spare military forces to stir up trouble at the moment, the possibility of going for the Grand Alliance’s moneybags using her preferred weapons of knives and influence was the kind of opportunity she’d dig into with relish.

“For a woman fighting a civil war she’s remaining unpleasantly active abroad,” I growled.

The First Prince sipped at her tea.

“Lady Dartwick informed me that our… friend out east warned the Tower will soon take action in Mercantis,” Cordelia said.

Yeah, she’d told me that as well. Our friend out east, huh. My lips twitched. A pretty little euphemism, that, used to refer to Dread Empress Sepulchral. I’d known her as High Lady Abreha Mirembe of Aksum back in the day, though our acquaintance had only been middling – I’d strong-armed her into backing the creating of the Ruling Council of Callow using her nephew as leverage, but we’d not really crossed paths since. She’d risen to prominence in the years that followed mostly by virtue of ruling one of the few High Seats whose holdings had not been touched by civil war or foreign incursions. She’d failed to ride the wave of discontent against Malicia that’d welled up after the destruction of Thalassina all the way to the Tower, but against all expectations her eventual rebellion had not been brutally snuffed out by loyalist legions.

The two empresses past the Wasaliti were still grappling even now, and though Malicia’s position was the stronger Sepulchral’s own was in no immediate danger of collapse.

“I’d count that as good information,” I said. “Malicia scoring victories against foes abroad will strengthen her position with the nobles, so it’s in Sepulchral’s interests to see her thwarted.”

“You had some involvement with Sepulchral when she was still High Lady of Aksum, as I understand it,” the First Prince said. “Did you form an opinion of her?”

“Her nephew’s the one I had the most dealings with, and he was a follower of the Diabolist with waning ties to his aunt,” I cautioned. “But Abreha Mirembe…”

Black had considered her one of the most dangerous nobles in the Empire, considering the amount of blood she’d shed to claim Aksum, but it was not my father’s opinion being sought.

“In a lot of ways, she’s emblematic of Wasteland upper nobility as a whole,” I eventually said. “Cunning, even brilliant in some regards, but also appallingly callous. Abreha Mirembe does not have ideals – or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that her ideal is the acquisition of power no matter the costs.”

“The Circle judged her to be hard and opportunistic even by Praesi standards,” Cordelia shared.

“Praesi in her rarefied circle of nobility are expected to exalt cruelty in the same way that your princes are expected to show off their piety,” I frankly said. “That she not only survived but outright thrived in that environment should tell you a lot about her. She can be relied on to slide a knife into Malicia’s back every chance she gets, but not much else.”

We’d strayed from our original discussion Mercantis, though, so I subtly changed the subject back to it.

“Mercantis,” I said. “I doubt you would have brought it up to me without having some sort of a solution in mind.”

The First Prince drank from her cup, taking her time, and set it down so delicately I barely heard the clink of porcelain on porcelain.

“Diplomacy will not be enough to settle that matter,” Cordelia Hasenbach said. “It is unfortunate, but no less true for it.”

My brow rose. Well now, that was bold of her. And a far cry from her usual methods.

“I can’t commit my troops still in Callow to an attack on the city,” I warned. “Even if I could afford the vulnerability to Praes that’d bring, only a fool would try an assault on Mercantis without a proper fleet.”

Which the Kingdom of Callow did not have. In theory it might be possible to requisition river barges and fishing boats up the Hwaerte until there were enough floating rafts to manage a crossing with, but considering that Mercantis had a small but professional fleet of dedicated warships trying that would just be pissing away an army at the bottom of the Great Lake.

“Nothing quite so significant is required,” the fair-haired princess replied. “A few Chosen and Damned, however, would make the point felt quite clearly.”

I grimaced. It’d be less of a headache trying to shake a few of those free than trying to shuffle around troops, admittedly, but it’d still be a headache. The real issue was that at least one of those Named would need to have a reputation as a genuine threat to something the size of a city-state if they were to serve as a potable warning against overreach. We had few Named of that calibre, and they were best used up north on the fronts. Pulling one off for what someone unaware of the nuances might think to just be petty politics would not be popular, aside from the actual martial considerations in pulling out such a war asset.

“I could reach out to the Kingdom Under,” I suggested.

Mercantis was under their protection, and the dwarves had a vested interest in the Grand Alliance continuing to make a dent in the forces of the Dead King.

“If the King Under the Mountains can be convinced to intervene, it will have a significant impact,” Cordelia agreed. “Yet the dwarves have traditionally been reluctant to involve themselves in such matters.”

Which was probably why she’d not opened by requesting I try that – she didn’t believe the Kingdom Under would actually move even if asked. She might not be wrong, since they were a pretty mercenary people and they didn’t exactly owe me any favours at the moment. Those had been spent keeping the drow fed on their exodus, amongst other things. Might as well find out, though, there wasn’t much to lose in asking.

“I’ll draft a letter,” I said, drumming my fingers against the table.

“Thank you,” she smiled. “While I would ask you to consider the practicalities of sending Chosen to Mercantis, such a measure would yet be distant. I have arranged a conference with representatives of the Consortium here in the Arsenal. I would be pleased if you could attend it.”

Impressing the merchants with a look at the Arsenal, huh? A pretty simple tactic, but it’d probably still be somewhat effective considering how unearthly and impressive this place could look. It wasn’t like this place wasn’t going to turn into a major diplomatic artery for a month or two anyway, we might as well make use of it properly.

“I’ll be there,” I agreed. “Have the details sent to my people.”

I let a moment pass.

“To be sure,” I slowly said, “you do want me in that room to scare them, correct?”

The First Prince of Procer was too self-controlled to be visibly embarrassed by my laying out the truth so bluntly, but I doubted it was a coincidence she chose that moment to take a sip of tea.

“Your reputation carries a great deal of weight, Queen Catherine,” the blue-eyed princess carefully said. “Your displeasure would not be courted lightly.”

Meaning that those representatives were a lot less likely to try to push the Grand Alliance if I made it clear that such a mistake would lead to my gating in with a few thousand drow one evening and expressing my displeasure. Fair enough. I’d have hesitated to be the rabid hound of this play more if there were likely to be long term diplomatic consequences for Callow, but my abdication should see to the worse of that. Besides, by then my home should be a lot less afraid of Mercantis’ displeasure: if trade with Praes and Procer was open, then the Consortium’s usefulness as a middleman waned significantly.

“I’m sure they can be made to understand that if their greed ends up feeding Calernia to Keter, before the end I’ll personally lead my armies to raze Mercantis to the ground and salt the ashes,” I mildly said.

“The very sort of talk that might give the ambitious pause,” Cordelia delicately admitted. “The imprudence in relying too heavily on the Consortium has been made clear, however, which demands other measures be taken. Bringing peace to even part of the Free Cities would allow for the resumption of trade, and so lessen the burden on the southern principalities.”

“In principle I’m very much in favour,” I said. “I simply don’t see a practical way to achieve peace in the region anytime soon.”

The wars in the League of Free Cities had reached a point of stalemate, more or less. Basileus Leo Trakas still ruled in the city of Nicae itself, but he’d lost the countryside to Strategos Zenobia and neither could afford to dislodge the other. Penthes’ armies had been whipped on the field by General Basilia, who’d managed to get Helike in order behind her, but after the casualties of the Proceran campaign and half her army leaving to serve under the Grand Alliance she didn’t have the siege or mages to take Penthes itself – whose much-despised Exarch Prodocius was rumoured to be propped up by Malicia directly. Stygia was quietly feeding the flames, hoping to expand after everyone was spent, and neither Atalante nor Bellerophon seemed inclined to get involved.

Only Delos was keeping an eye on things, but while the Secretariat had passed information to me in the past it was also very reluctant to surrender its current neutrality. The askretis had no interest in a war after the way their last one had gone.

“Though there will be difficulties,” Cordelia Hasenbach said, “if the signatories Grand Alliance were to wield their clout in accord it would not be impossible to effect change.”

I watched her and drank from my cup, noncommittal. There’d been good reasons for the Grand Alliance being so reluctant to involve itself in the wars of the League, and though what I’d learned about the darkening of Procer changed the situation some I was still inclined to caution there. Any resources spent on trying to plug that sinking boat might very well end up wasted with nothing to show for it, leaving us even worse off than before.

“A shared recognition of Strategos Zenobia as the legitimate ruler of Nicae, for example, would strengthen her support,” she suggested.

“Not enough to topple Leo Trakas,” I pointed out.

Which would make the gesture entirely pointless, as far as I was concerned.

“Perhaps so, if paired with a severing of all ties with territory under the rule of the Basileus,” Cordelia said.

That’d put pressure, though not an enormous amount: with sea trade in the Samite Gulf good as dead, Nicae wouldn’t be taking any real losses by this. It’d still be made a pariah to a large coalition, though, and that might make some nobles in the city turn on the Basileus out of fear the sanctions would remain even when things calmed. It was also, however, something that might just backfire spectacularly if the people of Nicae were moved to anger by the foreign interference into their affairs. Something that the First Prince would be well aware of, which meant there was another angle there.

“Under what pretext?” I asked.

“I would have the Grand Alliance name Leo Trakas a friend to the Dead King, and so an enemy to all the living,” the First Prince said.

My hands clenched. I forced them to loosen, the drank again from the cup as I gathered my thoughts. The refusal on the tip of my tongue had been instant, but it had been more a thing of instinct than thought. This entire proposal smacked of the House of Light declaring me Arch-heretic of the East to me, only even more shamelessly political. Basileus Leo Trakas was inconvenient to us, and circumstances might well have forced him into some degree of alliance with the Tower, but it was going a step too far to call him an ally of the Dead King. I calmly set down my cup.

“I don’t like the precedent this sets,” I said. “We’re an alliance, not the ruling lords of Calernia. And while this sort of denunciation might be taken as face value by a lot of people, given the war we’re in, we both know that Leo Trakas is mostly trying to stay alive at the moment. I’ve little pity to spare for the man, but I’m not comfortable using titles like ‘friend to the Dead King’ as a diplomatic stick.”

It was the sort of thing that made a man genuinely desperate, and a Basileus with both nothing left to lose and helpful Wasteland friends was a recipe for disaster.

“I understand your hesitation,” the First Prince said. “It does not please me to have to resort to such a method. My advisors suggested the same manoeuvre be used to exert pressure on Penthes, in truth, but I balked. It would be an overreach.”

So Exarch Prodocius, arguably by far the worse man of the two for having helped Malicia arrange a use of Still Water, would be spared the same epithet. Because Cordelia was trying to put together the western half of the League as a mostly stable trading bloc for the Principate, not the east. The naked truth laid bare by what she must have considered to be a demonstration of restraint only made me more uneasy. Some of that must have shown on my face, as she pressed forward.

“As you have yourself pointed out, we otherwise lack the means to truly affect matters in the Free Cities,” the fair-haired princess said.

“I still think that even in putting out the fire in Nicae you’d be laying the foundations for a worse blaze down the line,” I said. “Did you go to Levant about this?”

“The Holy Seljun was willing to agree,” she replied. “Though only after a formal vote of signatory members, and only should that vote be unanimous.”

Ah, so Wazim Isbili was cleverer than his reputation implied. That way Tariq’s distant nephew could let me refuse Procer on his behalf instead of having to do his own dirty work. That trick of procedure, though, spoke to me of a smaller nation used to existing in Procer’s shadow and wary of helping it gain too much influence even in a crisis. Those passed, after all, while influence gained during them lingered a lot longer. Of course, if I could figure this much out then Hasenbach could as well. I cocked a silent eyebrow at her.

“As I said,” the First Prince of Procer repeated, “I understand your hesitation. Perhaps a more cautious approach would better suit? A private mock-vote can be had, and should it be unanimous a letter of warning can be sent to Leo Trakas as to what will follow.”

I didn’t like having even the pretence of my seal of approval on this, but unfortunately she was right that we weren’t flush with ways to settle the mess in the League. It might not be avoidable for me to get my hands dirty here. And I can always change my vote when it comes to actually going through with this.

“You’re leveraging him,” I said, implicitly agreeing. “So what is it you’re trying to leverage him into?”

“Opening the gates of Nicae to Strategos Zenobia, who by law is the senior ruler of the city-state,” Cordelia said. “This would be under guarantee of safety for him and his partisans, naturally. I have been corresponding with Zenobia and she is amenable to those terms.”

I couldn’t help but notice she’d not mentioned General Basilia, who’d been the one to raise Zenobia up in the first place. Mostly as a way to keep Nicae off her back while she went after Penthes, but it couldn’t be denied the two were aligned with Basilia the distinct greater of that alliance.

“I could get Helike to accept those terms,” I said, “if Zenobia is willing to turn on Penthes.”

The First Prince’s eyes narrowed as she watched me closely.

“In what sense?” she asked. “The city will have little force to field after this.”

“It will have ships,” I said. “The lack of which is one of the reasons Basilia can’t siege the coastal fortresses properly.”

Able to cut them off from the sea, the Helikean general might be able to starve them out even if she couldn’t take the walls. Or at least make a good enough threat of it that Prodocius’ army would have to either give battle or face the prospect of losing every holdout outside the walls of Penthes. Considering that Basilia seemed a lot more interested in winning her wars than cementing influence over Nicae, I suspected she’d take naval support from Nicae over Leo Trakas’ head on a pike. He’d made for a pretty middling rival, anyway.

“I will have to contact the Strategos,” Cordelia said, “yet I suspect she will be amenable to such terms.”

I suspected that Hasenbach would push for acceptance, regardless of whether or not Zenobia liked the deal. It was compounding gain with gain, from the Proceran perspective: with a fleet on her side, Basilia would be able to become a serious headache for another ally of the Tower. More importantly she’d be doing that fighting in the eastern territories of the League, far from anything Hasenbach currently cared about. Considering that while I might be the effective patron of Basilia’s Helike the Principate had a much more contentious relationship with her, keeping the general busy in the east might even be considered yet another gain. I nodded sharply.

“Stygia’s going to be an issue,” I said. “Lukewarm as they might be on the Tower, they’re not going to let alliances firm up the western League without taking measures.”

“I concur,” the Lycaonese princess said. “And it so happens I have a few thoughts on how to check them.”

We must have spoken for at least an hour more after that, breaking only for a bit when we had to send for maps – I was trying to make the point of why a Nicaean support fleet would practically double the size of what Basilia could field in soldiers just because of the supply line they represented – and Hasenbach excusing herself to use the privy. It was turning out to be a thoroughly productive evening, and though the suggestion of sponsoring defensive pacts between cities against Stygia in particular would be dead in the water without Atalante or Delos being brought on, it was a solid notion we could keep pushing without a significant investment of resources on our part.

In time the subject was exhausted, at least in the sense that more could not be discussed without the both of us having sought answers outside and read through reports. I was just starting on my third cup of Vale summer wine by then, though I’d been slow in drinking it, so I was largely sober and feeling rather vivified by how much we’d gotten done. In a concession to my own consumption Hasenbach had sent for a cup of hydromel she’d been nursing ever since she’d finished the tea, and it was that she set down when the conversation hit a low ebb.

“I believe we have discussed the matter exhaustively enough for the night,” the First Prince said.

“Agreed,” I said.

I sighed, leaning back into my seat.

“So let’s talk about the troubles closer to home.”

Chapter 31: Pursuits

“The man who sleeps with virtue finds the bed has no room for a third.”
– Proceran saying

Fuck,” I said.

Ever eloquent in times of trouble, that was me.

“I thought that might be your reaction,” Masego noted.

I closed my eyes. Was there anything we could do about this? I wasn’t exactly overjoyed at the prospect of the elves getting their paws on the crown of Spring, assuming they hadn’t already. On the other hand, I couldn’t think of anything the Grand Alliance needed less right now than picking a fight with a power as strong as the Golden Bloom. I didn’t know anywhere near enough to be sure what to think about this. What did they want the crown for, how important was it to them? A decision on that scale couldn’t be made without at least a solid guess at the answers to those questions, and it wouldn’t be made by me alone anyway.

“Right,” I said, opening my eyes. “I need you to keep digging into this, Hierophant. It’s higher priority than Quartered Seasons, as least for the next few days.”

The ritual wouldn’t be happening anytime soon anyway: I doubted the First Prince would accept even the slightest unnecessary risk to the countryside of Procer. Not when the timeline to stacking the odds in our favour as much as possible was perfectly acceptable from a strategic view.

“There are limits to what I can accomplish,” Masego said.

“I want you to find out if they already have the Spring crown,” I said. “And at least check on the ritual sites, to guess at how much force they’ve actually deployed out there.”

Likely on Proceran territory, too, not that elves tended to be particularly concerned with any borders save their own. But of I was going to have to break it to Cordelia Hasenbach that the Forever King had sent agents into the Principate, I’d prefer to at least like to have some estimates to offer her about how many of those there were.

“The latter I can assure, if not the former,” Zeze said, pushing back one of his elaborate braids. “They’re likely to resist my probing attempts, however.”

The implied question there was, in essence, about how insistent he was allowed to be in the face of that resistance.

“Don’t harm anyone,” I said. “Try to avoid damage, if you can, and whatever you do avoid starting a fight. Other than that, you’re free to use whatever means you want.”

“It ought to be an interesting intellectual exercise, at least,” Masego mused. “The nature of their defences is unique, which will force a degree of unorthodoxy to my approach.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” I said, meaning every word.

I cleared my throat, after, hesitant to speak what I wanted to say.

“I don’t need to tell you to stay safe, do I?” I eventually asked.

He smiled.

“I’ll take precautions, Catherine, there is no need to worry,” Masego said.

“We might have other ways to get to that information,” I reminded him. “You, on the other hand, can’t be replaced.”

“I am fond of you as well, Cat,” the blind man easily replied. “Now do be off. I’ll not have you hovering about as I work, your presence alone is enough to disturb all my precision instruments.”

Probably true, though that didn’t mean that he wasn’t just itching to get me out of here just so he could get started on the latest challenging task I’d presented him.

“Take care, Zeze,” I quietly said.

To my surprise he placed a hand on my shoulder, if only fleetingly.

“And you as well,” Masego seriously said. “Hakram is wounded but you are not alone. We are here if you need us.”

I breathed out, since I was a grown woman and getting moist eyes over something this simple would be a little shameful. I left before another burst of that disarming earnestness could scrape me even more raw, returning to the cold halls of the Arsenal and the ever-increasing amount of troubles awaiting me.

When I went to relieve Indrani from her watch over Hakram’s bedside it was past Noon Bell, so I returned her earlier kindness and brought a meal with me.

Pork with garlic sauce, a loaf of brown bread and a large saucer of some strange mix of oil, vinegar and olives. They were all Arlesite staples, the mixture in the saucer meant for the bread to be dipped in, and I’d grabbed a pair of apples to round the meal out. Archer was carefully carving an arrow when I entered, eyes on the wood and the knife in her hand carefully precise. Back in Callow this sort of work tended to be done out of logs with an eye to making many and quickly, but Indrani was rather more discerning with her own arrows: she picked the branches herself, when she could, and saw to their carving personally. Considering the rarity of some of the woods she used, that was only to be expected. She tended to treat mass-made arrows with the same disdain Masego reserved for massed Legion sorcery, and for much the same reasons.

“I get to be served by a queen,” Indrani bragged, even as I began unpacking the meal. “How many people can boast that, I wonder?”

Out of petty spite, I left her half of the meal on the table and only arranged mine on a plate. I offered her a pretty smile.

“Not you, for one,” I sweetly said, and sat down with plate.

Huh, I’d been skeptical about the oil and vinegar but it was actually pretty good. Made the brown bread better than butter would have, for sure, and while I wouldn’t trust Procerans to make a halfway decent stew they were admittedly good at roasts like the pork one.

“You’re a terrible friend,” Indrani complained, rising to her feet.

“You taught me well,” I agreed.

She helped herself to her meal with a snort, the two of us settling comfortably in our seats. We were both hungry enough that conversation waited until we’d polished off our meals, though even as I tore into the pork I found my eyes drifting to Hakram’s unconscious body. I missed him even more sharply now that I needed advice. Him and Akua, I was forced to admit, as I’d come to rely on the two of them quite a bit in Hainaut. Bringing Akua Sahelian into the Arsenal would have been ill-advised, though, and not just because it’d strip the Hainaut front of its sole high calibre spellcaster – it’d been as much the number of heroes awaiting here and the rulers I’d be meeting as the strategic considerations that’d guided my decision.

“You look glum again,” Indrani said, licking the garlic sauce off her fingers.

“Quartered Seasons had a major breakthrough,” I admitted. “But it’s also looking very likely that the elves are trying for a fae crown.”

She let out a lot whistle.

“A nasty people, the elves,” Archer opined. “They never came after Ranger while I was in Refuge, but about a decade earlier a few of the Emerald Swords tried to ambush her in Bayeux.”

The Emerald Swords, huh? Hadn’t ever really given those any thought, to be honest. Their strength was quite literally legend, though there were rumoured to be no more than ten. Each was supposed to be worth a small army, the Forever King’s blunt instruments in eradicating what he could not stand. They supposedly rarely left the Golden Bloom, like most elves.

“I don’t know what they want the crown for, but it worries me,” I admitted.

“Also irks you something fierce, I’d wager,” Indrani smiled. “They’re scavenging power they had no hand in laying low.”

I did not answer, looking away. She wasn’t wrong. That the Forever King thought he could sit out the war against the Dead King and use the chaos to go grabbing mantles of power while we were busy fighting for Calernia’s survival was not endearing the man to me. If the elves had played a role in the end of the old Courts of Arcadia I would have kept my mouth shut, but they were just being opportunistic vultures.

“We can’t afford to push the Golden Bloom too far,” I reluctantly said. “They could make keeping what we still hold in Hainaut a nightmare with little effort and if they send out the Emerald Swords we’d have to pull our best fighting Named from the fronts to be able to handle them.”

“I figure the prick out in the Bloom thinks the same, Cat,” Indrani said. “Remember, the Dead King made their king’s son into a Revenant that you put down at Third Liesse. There’s no love there, and the elves have to know that if the screw with the Alliance too much they’re helping along ‘Ol Bones.”

“They’re elves, Indrani,” I said. “Their take on foreign policy is shooting even the birds that come within a mile of their forest. I’m not saying they’re idiots, but I’m honestly not convinced the Forever King wouldn’t be in favour of a few million uppity humans being eaten before the Hidden Horror is driven back.”

“They haven’t brought their lands back into Creation, so maybe you’re right,” Archer said. “Mind you, there’s at least one upside to that.”

My brow rose questioningly. I couldn’t really see one, to be honest. The Grand Alliance had neither the leverage nor the strength to spare to do anything about this, while just letting it happen seemed like a mistake.

“Might be Duchess Kegan won’t be so eager for Daoine to go independent, when she hears about this,” Indrani said. “Elves were bad enough on their own, but elves with a godhead? I don’t care how large the Watch gets, it’ll be like fielding as shield wall of goblins against a pack of ogres.”

I mulled on that a moment, even as I chewed on the bread. The Deoraithe were masters of defensive and irregular warfare, but as a rule they tended to be weaker on the offence. Restraint and their isolationist streak had still earned them an impressive military reputation, but the era where a duchy’s army could stand up to those of the greater powers of Calernia was coming to an end. The Conquest had proved that massed mages and siege engines combined with heavy infantry could crush armies in the mould of the Old Kingdom’s, and the rest of Calernia hadn’t lain asleep in the decades that followed. Procer had fielded large units of priests and mages with its field armies during the Tenth Crusade, a significant departure from their old way of making war, and the years of fighting against Keter were further refining their methods.

Even the Dominion was starting to change its doctrine, using its limited numbers of Lanterns and Binders to crack open enemy lines much in the same way that the Legions of Terror used scorpions and goblin munitions.

That was the death knell of Daoine’s military relevance, whether Duchess Kegan realized it or not. Putting together the Army of Callow had taught me how damned expensive an army of that kind was to raise and keep in fighting fit, and it simply wasn’t a financial burden that the Duchy of Daoine’s revenues was capable of supporting. The Watch were devils on the field, and arguably some of the finest foot on Calernia, but you couldn’t win a war with them. House Iarsmai’s historical military prudence was, at least in part, flowing from that realization. The issue was that, when everybody’s military doctrine was done with its growing pains in twenty years, the Watch wouldn’t even allow Daoine to win battles. Throw in that the enemy whose destruction was at the heart of their culture might raise its ruler to a form of lesser godhood, and Indrani could very well be correct.

The Grand Duchy of Daoine might just find the world outside a lot colder than expected, after leaving the Kingdom of Callow’s protective embrace.

“If we can keep Daoine in the fold I won’t complain,” I said. “Though that should be Vivienne’s situation to handle, in the end.”

If we weren’t all dead, by then I was likely to have abdicated. Besides, if Vivienne could begin her reign with the diplomatic feather in her cap of having kept the Deoraithe part of the kingdom she’d have an easier run of things going forward. I’d taught the last remains of Callowan nobility the dangers of trying to go against a popular queen backed by a powerful royal army.

“She seems to have a handle on things so far,” Indrani shrugged. “And if we win against the Hidden Horror, it’ll be a long time before the shine of that wears off. Hells, we might actually get a few decades of peace.”

I was not nearly so optimistic. Too many parts of Calernia had only heard of the Dead King without ever catching sight of his armies or his monsters. The League of Free Cities hadn’t even bothered to stop warring against itself as thousands of soldiers from an large coalition died to hold the defences to the north, and Praes was knee-deep in a civil war being prosecuted at what I could only call a languid pace. The rulers who’d seen the worst of the war would come out of it reluctant to war against those who’d been their comrades in the face of annihilation, but that’d only go so far. One of my hopes was that the construction of Cardinal would sap interest in resuming old skirmishes, given the many opportunities it represented, and that the city-state’s territory would serve to settle at least some of the people whose lives had been upended by the wars.

“We’ll see,” I replied. “Even the peace years ought to be quite a ride, after a war like this one.”

The afternoon passed slowly, after that, as the two of us sat and talked. Several messengers came to find me over the following bell, as I’d made it clear that the infirmary would be where I stayed, but there was nothing truly urgent to see to. Some concerns about the current tonnage of water that my rank obligated the stewards to inform me about, then a bold request for funding by a Proceran mage that I sent to Roland after skimming and finding the idea worth investigation. The closest thing to a crisis came an hour before Evening Bell, when I was informed that someone had been caught trying to enter one of the restricted zones of the Arsenal. It turned out to be a young couple trying to sneak off for a tryst, and I was informed they were very apologetic when they learned they’d triggered an alarm ward in their attempt to find a dark corner.

Their pays were docked, and in a fit of mercy I spared the two men the necessity of having to explain themselves to me in person. I sent written note warning that a repetition of the mistake would see them suspected of espionage, which should have them thinking twice about where they sneaking off.

“You’re enjoying this,” Indrani accused, afterwards.

My lips twitched treacherous.

“It’s been a long time since I was asked to weigh in on things so…” I trailed off.

“Easy?” she suggested.

“Straightforward,” I corrected. “The lower stakes are a relief.”

The knowledge that the worse I courted if I made a mistake was passing embarrassment instead of the usual lives lost by the hundred. I enjoyed the calm all the more for the knowledge it was soon to come to an end. While the Arsenal might be its own little hermit kingdom, isolated from much that went on beyond its walls, the broader world was coming towards it. Tomorrow would bring the First Prince and the White Knight, and with them a great many troubles that for now still seemed on the horizon. The Painted Knife was nearing, too, and the envoys of the Titanomachy. Any of those visits would have been an event, but all of them in swift succession promised to be more of a circus. While I lost myself in thought, Indrani groaned and rose to her feet.

“Headed somewhere?” I asked.

“Having supper with Masego,” she said. “You’re welcome to come along but I’ll be carving and he’ll be reading.”

“When you put it like that, how could I resist,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Go on, have fun.”

It left a strange taste in my mouth to say that. It wasn’t jealousy, it’d essentially be the same as getting jealous Vivienne was having dinner with Hakram, but it was… odd. The ease she’d said that with, the way she’d not needed to check he’d be there or even just inclined to have dinner with her – all those things spoke of a habit. It wasn’t the first time they were doing it, and they’d been doing it for long enough they considered it a given it’d happen. It was oddly domestic, given who they were. I waved out Indrani, and idly wondered if perhaps I was a little jealous after all. Not of either of them, but perhaps of what they had. It’d been a long time since I’d had that level of intimacy with someone.

Not since Kilian.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted that, and I knew I simply didn’t have the time to afford something like it these days. Yet the easy way that Indrani had displayed a sort of intimacy I’d have not believed her capable of when we first met had me uneasy. My friends were changing and making lives for themselves while I swung my sword at the world trying to make it a little more like I wanted. My eyes moved to Hakram’s, his chest rising and falling in steady rhythm as the spell took care of keeping his lungs going. Sometimes the changes weren’t for the best. A knock on the door – too respectful to be Archer’s – caught my attention and I invited in the messenger. A report from the captain of the garrison, I noted with a raised brow, and one that bore his official seal.

I cracked it open and as I scanned the lines I had to forcefully keep my fingers from clenching. The Mirror Knight had tried to enter the Red Axe’s cell, insisting even when the guards refused to let him in. It’d come close to violence before he walked away. I folded the parchment, ignoring the messenger’s nervous gaze. Someone had informed Christophe de Pavanie that I’d gone to speak with the Red Axe with Prince Frederic, I decided. This was not a coincidence. It also meant the Mirror Knight had friends within these walls that were willing to stretch the bounds of propriety to help him. I put away the parchment and dismissed the messenger without sending an answer to the report. I’d been warned of the incident, and since it’d not come to violence for now there was little I could do.

Not, that wasn’t true. There were more than a few things I could do, but there was nothing I should do. At this point, overreaching would be dangerous. Restraint now could be used later to make the point to the White Knight that I’d tried patience only to find it ever more stringently tested.

Restless at the inaction, I rose to my feet and after patting Hakram’s shoulder took to the halls. I had no precise destination in mind, though that parchment was burning a hole in pocket. I’d not been the only one to go to speak with the Red Axe, I considered. Maybe I should mention this to the Prince of Brus as well. I’d already been headed vaguely in the direction of the Alcazar, anyway. Halfway there I forced myself to admit that I wasn’t going there to tell him about that report, or at least not only that. It’d do me no good to pretend otherwise. There were risks, although it wouldn’t be difficult to weave an illusion around myself that’d ensure I wasn’t seen going there. And if I was going to do this, which the way my teeth were worrying at my lip were telling me I was, then now would be the time. Before Hasenbach got here and the Arsenal was swarmed with guards and watching eyes.

I felt myself reach for the Night, beginning to weave an illusion, and admitted to myself I’d already made my choice.

I made sure to be seen returning to my rooms before backtracking under veil of Night, remembering the way to the Prince of Brus’ quarters well enough from the last time I’d visited. If I’d been a few years younger I might have hesitated before knocking on the door, but in that sense Indrani had been good for me. A few moments passed and I felt a little like a fool. He might not be there at all, given that it was not so late. Perhaps it might be better if I left. Then the door was cracked open and Frederic Goethal curiously looked out, blue eyes slightly widening in surprise as he saw me. His blond locks were slightly dishevelled, and above the belt he wore only a loosely buttoned white cotton shirt that did nothing to hide the kind of muscles that came only from a warrior’s life.

“May I come in?” I asked, doing nothing at all to hide the way I was looking at him.

Frederic of Brus’s eyes darkened with something that I was rather looking forward to seeing unleashed.

“Please do,” he replied.

The door closed hurriedly behind me and I came closer, noting he was just tall enough I had to lean up to kiss him. His hand found my hip, but it was my lips that found his in a soft, tentative kiss as I tiptoed upwards. A brief thing, and I withdrew to find his eyes still closed.

“You’ll do,” I decided, pushing him back against the wall.

There was nothing tentative at all about what followed.

I woke up not long past Midnight Bell, pleasurably spent and sweaty. Frederic, still deliciously naked under the twisted-up sheets, was still asleep at my side. It’d be a mistake to spend the night, given the risk of being seen, so reluctantly I wriggled out of his embrace and sat up on the bed. It was enough to wake him and he stretched out in a way that pleasantly captured my interest for a few moments. Getting my hands on his body had done nothing to damper my appreciation for it. Much the opposite, as it happened.

“Restless or leaving?” he asked, voice still husky from sleep.

“Leaving,” I said. “As soon as I can find my clothes, anyway.”

Where they’d ended up had not been a priority around the time I was taking them off.

“How soon you dispose of me,” Frederic teased. “Did I disappoint?”

“I was vocal enough with my opinion you shouldn’t need to fish for compliments,” I drily said.

“One enjoys hearing those anyway,” he grinned.

It’d been a while since I’d been with a man, but I’d definitely enjoyed returning to that brand of diversion. Thinking of it was enough to stir my interest again.

“Considering you’re Alamans, I expect I won’t have to mention that this is best kept under wraps,” I said.

He looked rather amused.

“This is hardly my first tryst, though it has certainly been a… vividly memorable one,” Frederic said, sitting up in the bed as well. “I understand that some passions are meant to remain discreet. I’ll not moon after you like a green boy either, if that is your worry.”

“I’d tolerate a bit of mooning,” I grinned. “It’d be rather flattering. But only a bit.”

“I’ll see what I can arrange,” he quietly laughed.

It really was shame it’d be genuinely terrible politics for even the suspicion of an affair between us to fall on either, I mused. I’d have thoroughly enjoyed more than one visit to this bed. Safer to cut this after one night, though, I knew. I’d taken risks enough already. On the other hand, I mused as I tossed aside the sheets and pushed him back against the headboard and got on top of him, the night wasn’t quite over yet.

“One more for the road,” I suggested.

The gasp that followed was not one of disagreement.

The following day, the First Prince and her escort arrived several hours before the White Knight and still Hanno set foot in the Arsenal before Cordelia Hasenbach.

With the wards back in order scrying relays to Creation had been established again, so the Procerans had known in advance that we’d had not only a fae incursion but several demons running loose not so long ago. Considering that the First Prince would be a great deal easier to kill than Hanno and the that magnitude of the political crisis that’d followed would be… significant, I’d not been offended when her personal guards had not taken me to my word when I’d told them the Arsenal was secure. A company of mages and soldiers had swept through the attainted areas with a fine comb, though I doubted that any mundane mage out of the Principate would able to catch something that the likes of Masego or Roland hadn’t.

While I debated heading to the Arcadian waystation where the First Prince was awaiting the word to go on ahead from her people, I ultimately decided against it. Hasenbach liked her ceremony, and I might as well ensure I had her in as pleasant a mood as I could before the negotiations started. There was precious little of what I wanted to discuss with her that could be spoken about in such a public place, anyway. To my disappointment I learned that Vivienne would only be arriving tomorrow, having been slowed on the march by sudden rains that’d flooded the roads, but I’d lived without seeing her for several months already. A day more or less wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Besides, I kept busy: while security was an issue for Hasenbach the White Knight breezed right past her after a few greetings and proceeded straight into the Arsenal. I dragged Archer with me to watch my back, leaving as a lookout as I limped my way down a long set of stairs. The White Knight came out of the translocation ritual in the same wide room where the Mirror Knight had nearly drawn on me less than a week ago, a single mage in Arsenal livery at his side. Hanno looked tired, eyes pulled tight, and was leading his horse by the reins. He’d ridden hard, I decided, after hearing about the attack. Even odds he’d even ridden through the night on the last stretch, for him to be visibly tired: it wasn’t something that came easy, in Named of his calibre.

“Black Queen,” he greeted me.

“White Knight,” I replied. “I’m pleased you came quickly.”

“I can only wish I’d been there when the attack happened,” Hanno frankly said. “None of the affairs that kept me from travelling with you were even near important enough, seen in retrospective.”

“Hindsight’s no cure for bad luck,” I shrugged.

A sharp whistle sounded from the heights above, a sign from Archer we were about to have company. Indrani wouldn’t have bothered for guards or diplomats, which meant Named.

“I’d wager that’s my latest headache trudging towards us,” I said. “I tried my hand at handling it and failed, White Knight, so it’ll be yours to deal with.”

Hanno’s brow rose.

“I thank you for your assistance,” he said, turning to offer the mage a smile.

She blushed, much to my amusement, and replied by espousing the virtues of duty before scurrying away. However nicely phrased, it’d very much been a dismissal. I eyed him speculatively. Heroes tended to be popular with women – and men, when so inclined – but I’d never know him to keep company. I didn’t believe him to be like Masego, disinclined towards the act, but neither did I believe him so discreet he would have been able to keep a bedmate quiet.

“I received some interesting missives from the First Prince, when I passed by a scrying relay yesterday,” Hanno said. “Including a subtle but rather firm request that I take Christophe of Pavanie ‘in hand’. I’ve rarely known you to be in such swift accord with Cordelia Hasenbach, Catherine.”

Well now, wasn’t that interesting? Frederic hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said that the First Prince saw the Mirror Knight as a potential threat because of his closeness – and occasional nakedness – with the House of Langevin. If she was willing to start putting pressure on the White Knight to intervene before he’d even gotten to the Arsenal, then she was serious about curbing dear Christophe. While I’d only extend so much trust to Cordelia over much of anything, I was rather pleased at the notion that for once she might be entirely on my side – if largely for her own reasons.

“He still has the sword, and now he’s making demands,” I grunted.

“I’ve never known him to be prone to overstepping, only clumsy in expressing himself,” the White Knight calmly said. “As for the Severance, while it should be temporarily returned to the Arsenal I can see no better wielder for it.”

I could think of several, including the very man speaking to me. Those two had shared a front in Cleves, I recalled, before the Salian Peace and Callow joining the Grand Alliance. There might be a degree of trust there, the sort earned in battle. It didn’t worry me overmuch, in truth, considering that Hanno was remarkably clear-eyed when it came to most things. Still, a warning was in order.

“Be careful with him,” I said. “I don’t think you’ll find him all that pliable.”

“Pliable is something a lord wants in a vassal,” Hanno said. “I am not one, nor he the other. All I need of him is reason and a willing ear, neither of which he’s ever failed to offer.”

Our little chat was interrupted by armoured boots on stone as the Mirror Knight, in full armour and with the Severance at his hip, briskly began to make his way down the stairs. Looking rather uncomfortable and noticeably unarmed, the Blade of Mercy followed behind him. Christophe de Pavanie’s green gaze was distinctly unfriendly as he took in my presence, though it stopped short of a glare and he began to pointedly ignore my presence. The boy at his side looked away from me when I glanced.

“White Knight,” the Mirror Knight began the moment his boots reached the bottom of the stairs. “Your presence gladdens me.”

A long moment of silence followed when Hanno did not reply. The White Knight eventually cocked his head to the side.

“I had assumed,” Hanno slowly said, “that you were not done in your greetings. Was I incorrect?”

Huh. I threw him an appreciative glance for that even as Christophe’s cheeks reddened.

“Wouldn’t be the first lack of manners from him,” I idly said. “I doubt it’ll be the last. We’ll speak later, White Knight.”

“Until later then, Queen Catherine,” Hanno replied with a slight bow.

I began to limp away, without further ado, and though the Mirror Knight began to say something that might have been a belated greeting I did not turn to hear it or bother to lend an ear. I was almost hoping he tried to pull something of the sort in front of Proceran diplomats, who’d be genuinely appalled at the sight. They were known to be polite to even people they despised, after all. Archer was awaiting at the top of the stairs, leaning against a wall. She’d kept the room below in sight the whole time, taking her duty of watching my back just as seriously in this place as she had in the tunnels of the Everdark. Different dangers here, perhaps, but barely fewer.

“So?” I asked as she pushed off.

“They were hurrying,” Indrani said. “So they weren’t just coming to greet Shiny Boots, I’d bet.”

That soured the pleasant mood the night’s exertions had left me in, even after this little interlude. They’d hurried because they’d heard I myself was there to receive Hanno, then. For them to have been forewarned, it meant they had more friends in the Arsenal than I’d hoped they would have. Not necessarily Named, as the Mirror Knight’s slaying of no less than seven demons had earned him a great deal of admiration with soldiers and mages from the rank and file, but I wouldn’t dismiss the notion outright either.

“With Hasenbach joining us tonight the number of soldiers in here will swell,” I said. “We’ll be able to spare some for more private duties. Reach out to Lieutenant Inger, Archer. I require some eyes.”

With the First Prince’s arrival, I finally had a pretext to meddle with the garrison without raising an eyebrow – given that Hasenbach would have a soldier escort of her own, it’d raise no eyebrows if I arranged one for myself out of garrison troops. I didn’t intend to use mine guarding doors, though. I wanted to know who the Mirror Knight would speak with, and when. It would be imprudent to begin acting on anything before making sure how much support he had, exactly.

“I’ll take care of it,” Indrani said, pushing off the wall. “While you were down there a messenger came by for you, though. I took the message for you.”

She fished out of her coat a small folded parchment, handing it over.

“And what’s inside?” I asked.

Neither of us bothered to pretend she wouldn’t have opened that without the slightest hint of hesitation.

“The First Prince of Procer is inviting you to dinner,” Indrani said, waggling her eyebrows lasciviously.

Considering I could no longer claim to have never slept with Proceran royalty, answering that insinuation with even mock indignation would have, uh, weaker foundation than I might be used to.

“Well,” I said, “I suppose I’m about due to have an exquisite meal spoiled by politics.”

Chapter 30: Quarters

“Admittedly, it was my fault for not specifying the flying fortress had to be able to fly in directions other than up. Oh, it can fly down as well? Splendid. Guards, drag the Lord Warlock beneath my fortress. It’d be a shame not to use it at least once.”
– Dread Emperor Inimical, the Miser

“Walk me through it,” I said, then added, “metaphorically speaking.”

Masego’s mouth snapped shut. His quarters were larger than I’d expected, but I was rather familiar with the way it got filled from our years together. It was unusual, by Wasteland standards. Given how sorcery tended to come with some degree of wealth and influence, at least in Praes, the rooms of most mages I’d seen tended to be tasteful and well-furnished. Many even had a corner set aside to receive guests and a few impressive-looking magical trinkets to impress the uninitiated. Research or actual practice of sorcery would take place not there but in workshops and mage towers, behind heavy wards and away from the prying eyes of rivals. Masego, on the other hand, had never seen sorcery as something he practiced. He was a mage first and foremost, even without his magic, so in his mind there was nothing to separate his living quarters from a workshop. Our surroundings made that exceedingly clear.

Where my own quarters in the Arsenal had a parlour to entertain guests, he instead had a neat and well-organized library whose shelves went from floor to ceiling. A comfortable scribing desk – I’d actually seen cushions like this one’s on Alcazar furniture and the red didn’t match the wood, so Indrani had probably stolen it – with enough leg room for him to sit reading without feeling cramped was the only concession to this being somewhere actually lived in. The same couldn’t be said of the larger room deeper in, where I found the mixture of lazy chaos and almost rigid orderliness to be a nostalgic sight: like his tents out on campaign, or his rooms in Laure.  While dirty clothes, plates with half-eaten meals on them and the blade cleaning kit Hakram had gifted Indrani a few years back had been strewn around without a care, it actually only served to contrast with the parts Zeze did care to keep clean.

Like a long table with half a dozen leather-bound manuscripts, the sole open one revealing Masego’s finicky calligraphy in ink, also boasting several reference books I dimly recognized from my continuing lessons on sorcery with Akua. All were laden with bookmarks, though none more so than the heavy tome titled Metaphysics of Realms from some ancient Warlock by the name of Olowe. Stacked scrolls and carefully folded parchments along with a nice leather armchair told me this was likely where Zeze sat to work, and there was not a single crumb or speck of dust on that table to be found. Another nook looked like a small alchemy lab, another like an enchanting table and yet another was covered in glass domes constraining pulsing luminous mushrooms. Experiments, I rather hoped. Around those islands of order even the wood shavings from the wooden carvings Indrani had carelessly sown around everywhere else seemed reluctant to enter.

I wouldn’t but it above Masego to have warded them.

The large bed in the corner, which evidently neither he nor Indrani had bothered to make, seemed to have been placed there almost like an afterthought – fitted in there after the important stuff had been, half-heartedly wedged in where there was still room. My suspicions that he might have forgot to put actual furniture in there at first were deepened by the way the dressers were on opposite sides of the room and the closet was awkwardly close to a cupboard opening the opposite way. It went from suspicion to standing assumption when I noticed that the small table where they ate meals – by the amount of dirty plates – was clearly Archer’s work by the look of the carvings. Zeze was not particularly fond of tapestries, so I assumed the few hung on the walls were there at Indrani’s addition, but the sheer amount of magelights and candles was all him. Beautiful and elaborate carpets clearly from the Wasteland – no one wove those quite like the Taghreb – added a splash of colour that livened up the room into a place where it might actually be pleasant to live.

Yet it was a small room behind all this where we stood, though, behind a steel door warded tightly so none of the influences from the other parts of his quarters could drift in and contaminate the workings. Here the walls were bare stone and even the tables and chairs polished granite, with only his work on the Quartered Seasons breaking up the stony monotony. Half a dozen copper boxes with glass lids and water held in crystal spheres – an improvement on the traditional scrying bowl, though significantly more fragile – revealed shifting colourful shapes from places beyond Creation, while on the left wall a great slate covered in markings and formulas depicting the secrets that the Hierophant had successfully teased out of the Pattern. I’d been invited so sit on one of the granite chairs but instead elected to stand at his side, looking at the slate.

I gestured for Hierophant to begin, and with sharp nod he moved closer to the slate. He found a corner of it without writing, then paused and turned towards me. With his full body not, just his eyes, which got my attention.

“I will begin by noting that the Hunted Magician’s information was the definitive factor in this success,” Masego said.

My brow rose. I’d suspected that it’d be useful stuff, but this was much stronger praise than I’d anticipated. Hierophant was in no way shy about claiming intellectual successes when he believed himself their author, and to this day still utterly disinterested with politics, so if he was talking up the Magician then every word spoken was true.

“I hear he’s come across some trouble under the Terms?” Masego continued.

“He worked with the Bard, among other things,” I said. “I’m not eager to press for an execution, given his uses, but letting him off with a slap on the wrist isn’t in the cards.”

“I’ve little interest in those matters,” Masego admitted. “But since you told me he gave what he knew as part of an arrangement for leniency, I’ll specify that his information saved me possibly literal years of work. I was looking in entirely the wrong places.”

That’d weigh on the scales, though less than Zeze might expect. The way I saw it, the Hunted Magician couldn’t be allowed to buy his way out of consequences no matter what he offered up. All that he floated us and ended up panning out, though, should be put together as a case for why certain punishments should be sought instead of others.

“I’ll pass that along to his tribunal,” I said. “And I might need you to put it in writing at some point.”

He nodded.

“Duly noted.”

From the look on his face, he was already tossing the entire matter into the pile of things he felt no particular need to remember. To my eye it was still an improvement that he’d bothered to speak to the subject at all instead of simply assuming I’d handle it, so if anything I was rather pleased.

“The crux of the matter is a question that concerns one of the few commendable books on sorcery to come out of the Principate, Madeline de Jolicoeur’s work ‘Essences of the Fey’,” Masego said, charmingly taken by his subject.

He drew a small circle on the slate, his long fingers deft. It was always heartwarming to see him genuinely in his element. I frowned a heartbeat later, though.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that name before,” I told him.

Where? Obviously it was from Proceran history, but my studies of that had been rather skewed. I’d focused on the major wars and turning points, along with Cordelia Hasenbach’s rise and reign. Considering the sheer size of the Principate, even though the state hadn’t even existed for half the time Callow had that still meant a staggering number of things would have slipped through the cracks of my learning.

“I believe she was also known by her contemporaries as the Fey Enchantress,” Masego said.

Ah, her. Leave it to Zeze to primarily remember the villainess that’d taken over most of Cantal and Iserre only to fail at toppling Salia and the Highest Assembly for her apparently impressive magical research.

“Lady Madeline was part fae herself, and familiar with the Courts of Arcadia, which eventually led her to ask the question of what happens when fae are killed,” Masego said. “Her work was the first to suggest that fae cannot truly die, and that the changing of the seasons is the mechanism through which the Courts renew themselves.”

“So fae don’t die,” I said. “You told me that several times in the past, and I’ve seen the proof of it myself. What’s useful about this?”

“When the physical body of a fae is slain, they are not destroyed,” Masego said. “We know their essence continues to exist, as it will be spun anew into another fae come the changing of seasons. Where, then, does that essence go?”

Huh. I’d not considered that, actually. Fairies didn’t have souls, so it wasn’t like they’d pass into beyond and then be resurrected when they were needed by their endless cycle again.

“It could lapse back to the crown of their respective court,” I eventually said. “Some fae are dukes one cycle and princes another, so we know there’s a variance in power to some extent. It might be the ‘crown’ is a system for apportioning that power into different fae.”

Masego turned burning eyes towards me, noticeable even under the eyecloth.

“Akua has been very good for you,” he seriously said.

Words to make half of Callow faint in rage, but I decided to let him finish his thought before settling on a reaction.

“You’ve always been clever,” Zeze continued, “but now your instincts are grounded in knowledge. I am glad she has been tutoring you, even if your closeness makes Vivienne unhappy.”

“More than just Vivienne,” I reminded him, and left it at that.

He shrugged, unconcerned with the broader ramifications. Most days I wished I could be as well, given how much simpler it’d make my life.

“A return to the crown was my first theory as well,” Hierophant told me. “Which led to the creation of the copper eyes. Through a process you are not educated enough to understand even if I explain, I created power that would behave similarly to Spring or Autumn and released it in different places with the aim of tracing it back to the crowns.”

This part I’d known about, though not the reasoning behind it. The ‘copper eyes’, the scrying boxes in the room with us, were meant to follow the power he was releasing into the wilds and so find the location of the crowns. They were linked to measuring devices that’d been put out in different layers of Creation and adjoining realms, with great difficulty, but for all the trouble last I’d heard that avenue had proved to be something of a dead end.

“It didn’t work, though,” I said.

“It worked perfectly,” Masego contradicted. “It simply found nothing. My theory when facing those results was that I was simply not releasing the power in the correct places, which was not improbable given the size of Arcadia alone – much less the full spectrum of the search.”

“So what changed?” I asked.

“To understand that, first consider a more recent theory introduced by my own father,” Masego said, drawing a second circle on the slate. “Namely, that all of Arcadia – even the fae themselves – are of the same fundamental matter, with the differences between a stone and a duchess being essentially cosmetic. Father suggested that fae cannot truly die not because of an effective immortality of essence, but instead because they are not truly alive.”

He spoke of Warlock with a tinge of wistfulness, but the grief had visibly faded. I wasn’t too surprised. When the Dead King wasn’t riding in the back of his head, Masego actually tended deal with his emotions better than most of the Woe. I set that aside and considered his actual words instead, the theory the Sovereign of the Red Skies had put forward. I wasn’t quite sure I bought it, not after some of the things I’d seen.

“If the fae were entirely self-contained in their story cycles, I’d agree with that,” I noted. “But that theory doesn’t explain Larat.”

Who had walked away from kingship Twilight and become something else. If fae were not more thinking than a trebuchet or a water wheel, merely more complex, how could his actions be explained?

“A fascinating contradiction,” Masego warmly agreed. “Are Larat and your former Wild Hunt then the first fae to have ever lived, or by virtue of living do they cease being fae at all?”

“Which links to Quartered Seasons how?” I asked.

“It doesn’t,” Hierophant replied without missing a beat. “I simply find it a gripping mystery.”

I, uh, should have seen that coming. Honestly it was a sign of how engaged he was with this subject that he’d only ended up going down a side path the once.

“Returning to the theoretical framework,” Masego happily said, “if we believe both Lady Madeline and Father we are led to a particular state of affairs. Fae are not destroyed when their body is slain, return cyclically, and are not fundamentally distinguishable from the rest of Arcadia.”

My eyes narrowed.

“A return to the earth,” I said. “That’s what you’re getting at. Like Arcadia itself is a pool of water, and when they ‘die’ the water just returns to the pool.”

Precisely,” Hierophant grinned. “From there I draw not on the work of others but on my own, if you’ll forgive the intellectual vanity.”

“I’ll magnanimously deign to do so,” I replied.

He eyed me sideways, knowing there’d been sarcasm in that sentence but with little interest in deciphering where and why. He still drew a third circle, below and in between the first two.

“My own Quartered Seasons theory was built on the back of the two older theories I’ve introduced you to,” Masego said. “Madeline de Jolicoeur suggested that the changing of seasons was a way for the courts to renew themselves, but I would venture to go further. The existence of the seasons themselves is a mechanism for that very purpose, allowing a set of two seasons to be active while the other two become ambient and begin condensing into their coming shape. Your own vision, Catherine, made it clear that the transitions between seasons were not instantaneous. Given Arcadia’s otherwise loose accord with creational laws, there must be a mechanical reason for this to be so.”

“You’re losing me,” I admitted. “I thought that your theory was about the separation between a court’s ‘crown’ and its ‘power’.”

“It is,” Masego said. “Think of Arcadia as the pool of water you mentioned.”

He drew a large circle in the centre of the space.

“Each Court is, for lack of a better term, a smaller pond that will be filled through a canal at regular intervals.”

His hand moved again, depicting four lines leading out of the large circle and leading into four smaller circles.

“All power is limited,” Hierophant stated, idly filling in the large circle with ‘water’. “I believe that, for reasons of stability and coherence, only two ponds can ever be safely filled from the pool’s water. That leaves two ponds’ worth of power returned to ambient Arcadia, slowly shaping themselves into the coming seasons. If all four ponds are filled…”

“The pool would be empty,” I frowned. “And so Arcadia would grow thin. That seems dangerous.”

“It would be, which is why I believe a deeper mechanism ensures that only two ponds can be full at a time,” Masego said. “The decay in victory of Winter or Summer until they become Spring and Autumn, which you saw in vision, would be the visible part of that mechanism in action.”

“So the water is the power, that I get,” I said. “That still leaves out the crowns.”

He nodded, pleased, and methodically drew little crowns above each of the four smaller circles, the ‘ponds’.

“The crowns are, in effect, simply the shape of the pond the water is poured into,” Masego said. “Given the cosmic scope of these ‘waters’, however, this had still made them godheads in every meaningful sense.”

I watched the slate board, fingers clenching an unclenching. He’d not kept talking, which meant he’d given me the rules of this as he knew them. It also meant that I might be able to figure it out, at least in part. It was a sloppy habit to have all this explained to me all the time, one that might come back to bite me in the future, so I forced myself to think.

“When the King of Winter and the Queen of Summer wed,” I said, “neither of them lost their crown. They didn’t stop being royalty, just became the royalty of something new.”

“Correct,” Masego said.

He drew a line through two of the found crowns. On opposite ends of the pool, as Hierophant was nothing if not precise even in his doodles.

“But I know they didn’t get to keep the power of Winter, because I got my hands on it,” I said. “And then Sve Noc ate it, to stabilize the Night into something that won’t destroy their entire species if it collapses.”

He drew a line through one of ponds already bereft of a crown.

“I am still uncertain whether the lack of corresponding crown to go with the power you inherited is what kept you largely sane or was instead the very reason for your troubles with principle alienation,” Masego admitted. “Regardless, it is undoubtedly why you were only ever able to command but the barest fraction of that power.”

“If your ‘deeper mechanism’ was working right, when the newborn Court of Arcadia Resplendent was formed there would have been two ponds back in the pool,” I slowly said. “The power of Spring and Autumn.”

His lips quirked. I’d underestimated how much and how long he’d been wanting to talk to someone about this, I thought. The secrecy meant neither of us had brought in even the Woe fully, though Hakram knew some things and no doubt Indrani had gone looking through everybody’s papers as was her wont. Masego drew lines through two ponds, the same who still had their crowns.

“Given that in this state their very purpose is to be shaped anew for a coming cycle, it would explain the ease by which this unprecedented Court of Arcadia Resplendent was formed,” Masego agreed. “And we look at two crowns’ worth of control for two ponds’ worth of power, which would lead to a highly stable arrangement explaining why we’ve not heard of collapse in Arcadia since.”

“Winter’s power went into Night,” I said. “Which means it has to be Summer that went into Twilight, it’s the only pond of power that was still free. Except we had no call on that power, Zeze.”

“We did not,” Hierophant agreed. “Yet you struck a bargain with the Prince of Nightfall, who did.”

What I’d promised him was seven mortal crowns and one, though, and while we’d undeniably both been at war with Summer at the time neither of us had held a right to its power. Although hadn’t the imprisoned Princess of High Noon gone spare when I’d told her about the bargain with Larat? She must have seen something looming on the horizon even that far back.

“I can’t see how we got our hands on it, even then,” I admitted.

“Though I cannot be certain, I believe it to have been a matter of blind mechanics having worked to our advantaged,” Masego said. “Larat was fae, and so his ritualized apotheosis called to power of a fae nature. It made the water go down the canal, so speak, and there was only one pond’s worth of water left to flow.”

“And the seven crowns and one?” I asked.

“When trying to force such a powerful mechanism to work, some manner of power must be spent,” Hierophant suggested. “It is telling that the same fae who escaped the foundation of united Arcadia asked for this specific bounty, among all those that could be asked.”

That many crowns would have a weight to them, undeniably. Was that what the Princess of High Noon had seen and panicked about? Not necessarily that Larat would eventually use up the very stuff of Summer, I doubted even fae could be that farsighted, but that he was aiming to make a Court of his own. It fit, I had to admit. If there was a recipe to make a Court, it made sense that royalty on both sides of the fence would be at least vaguely aware of it.

“So that leaves the crowns of Spring and Autumn up for grabs, like we thought,” I said. “Where were they, that the Hunted Magician was able to help you – wait, actually, what about the fae we fought here in the Arsenal?”

My brow knotted. I’d almost forgotten those, but they were a stick in the wheel of what had been explained to me so far.

“They were Autumn,” I said. “There shouldn’t be an Autumn left, Masego, by your theory.”

“The answer to this was obtained by Roland, though unknowingly on his part,” Hierophant said. “He captured alive one of the fae, whose physical body it turns out we’ve destroyed before. The Duke of Green Orchards, who was slain in Dormer, though he now goes by Count of Green Apples.”

So I’d not been wrong, I thought, when I’d noticed an eerie similarity.

“I saw him,” I admitted. “Noticed his face. So you’re saying all those fae that attacked the Arsenal are, what, salvaged corpses?”

“Those entities whose bodies were slain can never be made anew with a new Winter or Summer, as there will never again be either of these,” Masego said. “That leaves them existing, yet purposeless. Some must have bound themselves to the crown of Autumn to acquire that purpose. There will be some of other natures, kept into existence by outside ties like contracts or debts, but I imagine much of the roster will be those killed in the Arcadian Campaign. For all those that anchored themselves to Autumn or Spring, I expect ten times as many went wild and are now partaking of sundry powers on Creation or elsewhere to sustain their existence.”

The Prince of Falling Leaves, then would have continued existing because of the Hunted Magician’s unpaid debt. That had a sharp little irony to it I could not help but find amusing – that man really was prone to shooting himself in the foot, wasn’t he? Actually, now that I was considering this, was my pact for the crowns with the Prince of Nightfall what’d allowed him not to become one of the subject princes of Arcadia in the first place? Larat, I thought with reluctant admiration. You cleverest of foxes.

“So fae fell through the cracks of our mess and now suckle at whatever they can find, including Autumn,” I summarized.

That sounded like it’d be an issue in the long term, fae loose in the world and grown hungry, but right now we had more pressing cats to skin. And it was now occurring to me that if the dead fae from my old campaign were excluded from the newborn Court that’d followed it, then most of Winter and Summer’s royalty had been removed. The very same kind of entities that might be rivals for whoever sat the newborn thrones.

Somewhere, I suspected, the creature that had once been the King of Winter was smiling.

“More or less,” Masego agreed. “And to answer the question you never finished asking, what the Hunted Magician provided was not exactly a location. There is, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, no buried treasure to unearth. That was what he clarified for me, that I could not find a crown because in a very real sense it does not currently exist. What he gave us is a set of circumstances that will coalesce the crown of Autumn into being. More specifically, a ritual to be used in a particular place and alignment.”

“So when you said you found the crown of Autumn,” I leadingly said.

“An artistic flourish,” Masego proudly said. “I have merely confirmed the ritual will function and located an appropriate ritual site and date.”

I let out a noise of appreciation.

“Well done,” I said. “What kind of a timeline are we looking at?”

Considering how much about the fae had to do with seasons, I’d guess somewhere around a year. Maybe the autumn solstice or something else along those lines.

“Thirty-one days,” Hierophant said.

I blinked in surprise, lapsing into a stunned silence.

“I could make the attempt tomorrow,” Masego said, misinterpreting the reason for my quiet, “but to both travel and prepare for the ritual over so small a span would significantly increase the chances of failure.”

“That…” I began, almost at a loss for words. “That changes things. The location, the resources you need, it’s all set?”

“I’ll have to significantly empty the Arsenal reserves of gems and precious metals as well as require of the services of at least two hundred mages – three hundred would be more comfortable, it would allow for replacements and adjustments – but in principle all needed is at hand,” Masego said.

Noticing my surprise, he smiled.

“You have helped create one of the grandest magical sites of learning and magic on Calernia, Catherine,” he said. “Do not then be surprised that it serves that purpose with distinction.”

I coughed, slightly embarrassed.

“The ritual site itself will be familiar to you, as the Princes’ Graveyard was fought near it,” he continued.

“The Mavian prayers on the hill?” I asked.

“Indeed,” Masego said. “There are other locations with perhaps more precise alignments, but this one benefits from being the seat of a permanent Twilight gate. The logistical benefits are obvious.”

I could definitely believe that tumulus would work as a ritual site, at least. I still remembered walking the tall raised stones and feeling the echoes of long-faded might, the call they’d made to the last wisps of fae power in me.

“The ritual could fail,” I said.

“All rituals can fail,” Masego pointed out.

“Allow me to rephrase that,” I said. “If the ritual fails, what are the consequences?”

“The ritual site will be obliterated, a significant portion of the mages involved will die or go mad, the fabric of Creation on a regional scale will be weakened for several centuries,” Hierophant calmly listed.

My fingers clenched. That was not negligible losses.

“The Twilight gate?” I made myself ask.

“Three in five odds of withstanding the damages and keeping full functionality,” Masego said. “No chance of destruction, or that partial functionality will not remain. We did not craft a fragile artefact, Catherine.”

Considering the sheer amount of Night we’d wielded that day and the way he’d come into an aspect halfway through, I was not inclined to doubt him.

“Odds of success?” I pressed.

“Tomorrow, perhaps one in five,” Hierophant mused. “Likely a little less. By my suggested timeline, I’d say somewhere between seven and eight in ten. Closer to eight, by my calculations.”

“If we wait longer can you bump that up?” I asked.

He frowned, staying silent for a long moment.

“With another two months, perhaps a little over eight,” Masego finally said. “With a full contingent of Wasteland mages and a month to teach them we could near nine in ten, though I believe that Dread Empress Malicia might be disinclined to lend us these.”

By the tone of his voice, that was very petty of her. I suppressed a smile. Indeed, how dare international politics and all these wars get in the way of one of the great magical feats of the century?

“I’m currently inclined to wait the three months and get all the sureties we can,” I said. “But I’ll discuss it with our allies, since Quartered Seasons is starting to become a genuine war asset.”

If nothing else, having this kind of a tool in our pocket would greatly strengthen the case of those commanders among the Grand Alliance who favoured the defensive strategy to this war. Princess Rozala and Prince Otto Reitzenberg had been arguing from the start that so long as we held our defensible borders, time would be on our side – either because of the amount of Named we’d accrue, or because the Arsenal would eventually produce a weapon capable of turning around the war on a strategic scale. The crown of Autumn might just qualify, since while it had no real use against field armies it could potentially allow us to deal with Neshamah himself. Not destroy him, mind you, that’d been what the Severance was for, but neutering him as a threat was more important than outright destruction.

“Assuming you successfully coalesce the crown,” I said, “will it be a physical artefact?”

Masego nodded.

“One not unlike the crown of Twilight when it was formed,” he said. “Though the strength of the godhead is in the concept and not the material.”

“And once we have the physical artefact,” I said, “you can begin shaping it.”

“I’ve had the appropriate workshop for the work built in the Arsenal for some time, though it is currently sealed,” Hierophant said. “It is difficult to estimate how long it would take me to shape the godhead, as even the Dead King’s work in Keter bears only passing similarities for me to draw on. It is safe to assume at least several months.”

I hummed. We wouldn’t need the crown to take back Hainaut, anyhow, which in my opinion was a prerequisite to taking a swing at Keter itself. We simply couldn’t afford to thin land defences against his armies the way we’d need to in order to make a serious crack at the Crown of the Dead, the risk of collapse was too high. Pushing Keter back beyond the lakes would allow us to dig in, though, and muster the armies properly for an assault on the Hidden Horror’s capital next spring or summer.

“We can afford that,” I said. “Especially if it wins us the war, which it will if we can make him lose control over the undead.”

That was, after all, what lay at the very heart of Quartered Seasons. Something like the Severance, an offensive artefact, it could be resisted. Which was why we wouldn’t be attacking the Dead King, we’d be giving him the crown – not in a way he could refuse, but still as a gift of godhead. That’d slip right through the overwhelming majority of his defences, by Masego’s reckoning, and Hierophant had spent most of the year with Neshamah riding in the back of his head. He knew the Dead King, understood him in ways most of us could only dimly grasp. The trick was that we wouldn’t just be tossing him the crown of Autumn, Hierophant would be shaping it first. It had to remain powerful, or it’d wiggle out of the groove of being a gift, but we’d get to choose what power was given. And what strictures accompanied it, of course, because the mantle of godhood could hardly come without costs.

I was more than comfortable making the Dead King physically indestructible if that power came at the expense of, say, his ability to command the dead.

I jolted myself out of my thoughts, since there still remained a question I’d forgotten to ask.

“Spring’s crown will still be out there,” I said. “That strikes me as a dangerous thing to leave simply lying around.”

Not the highest priority, but given my personal role in shattering the old order of Arcadia it’d be irresponsible to simply hide my head in the sand when it came to Spring.

“I agree,” Hierophant calmly said. “And since me might not have need of it for the war efforts, I’ve been considering how else it might be used.”

My lips thinned. I knew where that was headed. It wasn’t like Masego had ever made it a secret that he still intended on apotheosis, though he’d set those pursuits aside temporarily in deference to the horrors currently trying to sweep over the continent.

“I’m not sure I have the pull to allow you to get your hands on that,” I admitted. “Not after that mess in Iserre before the peace. I’ve been having trouble with heroes as well, so to be frank your pursuing godhood might end up the proverbial match in the munitions warehouse.”

“I believe that power is even less in your hands that you know, Catherine,” Hierophant said. “I attempted to narrow down possible ritual locations for Spring’s crown, so that I might test them for essence resonance, but out of the five locations I scried three repelled my spell.”

I breathed in sharply. While Masego might not currently have direct access to the Observatory, arguably the finest scrying facility in existence bar none, he was still one of the finest living practitioners of that art and sitting on a treasure trove of resources. There weren’t a lot of people, of defences, that could just repel him.

“The Dead King?” I asked, tone gone grim.

If Neshamah got his hands on a godhead, he’d make anything we might make out of one look like child’s play.

“No,” Masego sad, shaking his head. “On the third attempt I was ready for the opposition and salvaged a glimpse before my scrying sphere was shattered. I’ll show you.”

Walking over to one of the granite tables, as I watched he opened a compartment and took out what appeared to be a small sphere of silver glittering with sorcery. His aspect pulsed and he wrested it out, weaving for my eyes an illusion. The background was unclear, though I thought a tall streak of grey might be stone and the muddled green perhaps a field, but the forefront was crisp. A tall, slender and inhuman shape turned and watched with too-large eyes. It did not move, but the spell broke less that a heartbeat later. Silence held the room for a moment before I let out a long sigh.

That, unfortunately, had been an elf.

Chapter 29: Conviction

“The advantage of fair laws is not inherent but rather in the people’s appreciation of them. It is therefore just as useful to offer only the perception of fair laws, and easier to attain.”
– Extract from the treatise “On Rule”, author unknown (widely believed to be Prince Bastien of Arans)

I’d avoided going to speak with the Red Axe.

I’d actually even gone further than that, avoiding sending anyone I trusted to speak with her in my stead. She was in a heavily warded cell, where she would benefit from the finest care the Arsenal could offer as a full contingent of armed soldiers guarded the door day and night with orders to let no one inside. It wasn’t that I was afraid of speaking with the woman, though I suspected I’d come out of that conversation feeling like the monster that these days I so often was.

It was to prevent accusations, more or less. If she did something… strange during the trial and I’d been alone in a room with her at some point, odds were it’d end up blamed on me. One of the Woe or even just a Named I was on good terms with were likely to end up facing the same sort of accusation if they went in my stead, so I’d been cautious and ensured she was isolated instead. Aside for meals and healing, the Red Axe saw no one.

Of course, the identity of the man now accompanying me meant that I’d be able to afford taking this risk. Frederic Goethal was both one of Above’s and a prince of the blood, both things which would silence the Mirror Knight if he tried to kick up a fuss. If anything, the political inconvenience that was Prince Frederic refusing to ask for the Red Axe’s head on a pike would only lend him greater moral credence should he vouch I’d been up to nothing. Why would the Prince of Brus enable by plot what he might have easily obtained by law and patience?

In truth I could probably have arranged an interrogation earlier, but it would likely have come at the price of Christophe de Pavanie or one of his still sparse following sitting in attendance of the talk. No so great a cost, on the surface, but the opposite on closer look. It’d be implying the that Mirror Knight and his crew had the right to oversee my activities as a high officer of the Truce and Terms.

I had no intention whatsoever of making that concession, not even in so unspoken a manner.

Over the last few days, in between bouts of thinking that some viperous tongues insisted might be brooding, I’d come to wonder if the trial ahead of the Red Axe was not just another avenue for the Intercessor to damage the Truce and Terms. I couldn’t know how closely the heroine was aligned with the Bard, or even what she was truly after, but it did not take knowing either of those things to understand that the Rex Axe would be put in a room with some of the most powerful people in the Grand Alliance and allowed to speak her piece. I knew better than most how dangerous words could be if they were the right ones, spoken into the right ears. On the other hand, what else could I do but let this proceed?

If I’d let the Sinister Physician quietly dispose of her the risk would have been avoided, true, but only at the price of another, arguably worse risk. Gods, but I hated fighting the Bard. It had all the manners of unpleasantness of fighting Kairos and Akua to it, and then some nastiness all her own. I needed more information, in the end, and I now had a good opportunity to get it.

The Prince of Brus had sent for a coat before we headed out in the small nameless section where the prison cells of the Arsenal stood, conversation between us sparse as we moved. The intensity there’d been between us, down there in the sands, had cooled the further we got from them. I was not certain whether or not to be pleased by that, but the conversation I knew lay ahead of me put out any remaining embers there might have been anyway.

I was not unaware that yet another reason I’d had to avoid the Red Axe was that I’d known the necessary would become harder once I had a face and a story to match the Name. It should not be, I knew. I’d killed, both in cold blood and in the heat of battle, and this heroine was nothing to me. No one. But while the orphan girl who’d played in the streets of Laure had grown into someone else, I’d not forgotten her.

Or that she’d taken her first steps down this road slitting open the throat of a rapist, something I was now going to hang another woman for.

“It is my understanding that she travelled with Lady Archer for some time, before coming to the Arsenal,” Prince Frederic quietly said as we walked.

“Archer was the one to find her, or close enough,” I confirmed. “Her intention was to drop her off here at the Arsenal, where her talents could be tested until the White Knight could decide on which front she might best assist the war effort.”

I’d have been consulted as well before decisions were made, at which point the Wicked Enchanter would have come up and we’d have ensured those two would be as physically far from each other as possible. Distance and well-informed officers had served us well in this regard so far, and would have again if the pieces hadn’t ended up aligning in just the precise way to foster a disaster.

“Then you will be aware that there were… circumstances,” the Prince of Brus delicately said.

“I knew what the Wicked Enchanter was when he was brought into the Truce,” I replied. “Disgusting as his actions were, they were granted amnesty.”

Didn’t mean I didn’t have him marked in the back of my head for when the Truce and Terms ended, though. Under the Accords I owed the man nothing, and if heroes wanted to bury him in steel and Light the moment he resumed his old habits I would have raised a damned toast to the kill.

“I do not envy your office under the Terms,” the fair-haired man admitted. “I am glad it is held, as I’ve seen what villains can bring to bear for our side of the war, but I envy it not in the slightest. It seems like a duty that would wear away at one’s soul.”

My lips thinned. That’d cut a little too close to home for comfort.

“That’s the thing about being taught by Praesi,” I blandly said. “You learn that, for all the preaching, souls are just another commodity to bargain with.”

That killed the conversation the rest of the way to the cell.

The Red Axe – I did not know her real name, leaving me only this to refer to her by even in my own mind – was looking rather healthy, for a woman who’d been shot by almost two dozen crossbow bolts. Fired by my legionaries looking to kill, too, not by sloppy amateurs. There were so many bandages wrapped around her torso that even through her dull brown prisoner’s shift I could see them peek out. Though she was hardly in a state to walk around and I’d been told she still spent most of her days asleep, the heroine was not visibly feverish. There was a certain sickly pallor to her otherwise tan skin though, I judged, and her breathing was laboured. A heroic constitution and a swarm of priests had seen to an impressive recovery, though and when we entered her pale brown eyes were wide awake and unclouded.

“I’d get up if I could,” the Red Axe greeted us in accented Chantant, “but my legs will not allow.”

Even if they had, she was still shackled at her ankles. Cleverly done work with a loose enough chain she’d be able to move around some but not walk. A similar set was around her wrists, to be loosened only when she was helped to bathe once a day. She had still had the muscles arms I remembered from seeing her fresh to the infirmary, but they’d grown thinner. Even healing with Light had costs, and she’d needed a great deal of healing to pull through.

“Lady Red,” the Kingfisher Prince greeted her, offering the slightest of bows.

“Prince,” the heroine replied, grimacing.

“If I might introduce-” Prince Frederic began, but she interrupted him with a tired gesture.

“That cloak speaks,” the Red Axe said. “Well met, Black Queen.”

I did not let my frown touch my face. I’d been studying her as she spoke, but when she’d looked at me I’d not found any hostility. Was she a natural talent at obscuring her thoughts? Given that she’d come from the middle of nowhere, it seemed unlikely she would have been taught. Not impossible, though. It seemed unlike the Intercessor to linger around teaching anyone, but then I still knew depressingly little about her methods when out of my sight. There was a simpler explanation, too, but it struck me as unlikely.

“You’re looking healthy,” I said.

“Enough for the noose?” the Red Axe chuckled.

Blunt, but then when you were down in the pit there was rarely a point in pretending otherwise.

“The block’s a lot more likely,” I replied. “But there’s to be a trial first.”

“A trial,” the brown-haired heroine said, her distaste clear. “Just get it over with, would you?”

“You have rights, Lady Red,” the Prince of Brus reminded her.

“I also cut open your neck, Prince,” the Red Axe said, tone calm. “Don’t come in here pretending that’s all forgotten. I won’t have any of that.”

“I have not forgot a moment of it, I assure you,” the Kingfisher Prince replied, tone cool.

I noticed his hand twitch, on the side of his pale neck where the scar could be seen.

“But it does not change that you have rights and protections under Terms,” Prince Frederic said.

Measuredly, the Red Axe turned to me.

“Can I renounce those, Black Queen?” she asked.

“I’m not your representative under the Terms,” I said. “That’s the White Knight, who’ll be here soon enough.”

“I remember the Archer’s speeches,” the heroine dismissed. “You did not answer my question.”

I breathed out, studying her. She did not look angry or afraid, although there was something to her expression… Impatient, I decided. She’s impatient. Yet I found none of the despair and hopelessness I would have expected of someone actively trying to hurry along their own death.

“No,” I said. “Or I suppose it’s more accurate to say that you could, but it’d hardly matter. You agreed to the Terms before coming here and committed breaches while a signatory. What follows will not change whether or not you renounce anything.”

In principle an argument could be made that if I she signed a renunciation of her own free will before witnesses I could follow up by snapping her neck in the moment that followed without breaking the Terms, but in practice that’d just be throwing oil on an already crackling fire.

“The cogs of your bureaucracy are soaked in blood, Black Queen,” the Red Axe said, offering a hard smile.

And in her eyes then, for the first time, I found something like hate. Not for me, which had been the part that tripped me up, but for the rest. I’d done her a disservice, I thought, in thinking that she could not hate the tower without also hating its architect. Something of that must have shown on my face, as the brown-haired prisoner let out a bitter chuckle.

“Sharp,” the heroine said. “Sharp enough to cut yourself, Black Queen. Or everybody else.”

There was pain there, I thought, and hurt. But it didn’t own her, it didn’t drive her. Whatever horror it was her Named had been forged out of, it had made her hate a cold and measured thing.

“You didn’t kill the Wicked Enchanter in a red rage,” I stated. “This was deliberate, and you know exactly what it is you’re doing.”

Thinking of her as a victim or an accomplice had been dead ends from the start, I was beginning to realize. It is all objects in motion, the Intercessor had told me. This wasn’t the plot of an eldritch abomination in a woman’s shape, not really. The Red Axe hadn’t been manipulated into this. She’d wanted this, perhaps before the ever saw the Bard – if she’d ever seen her at all.

“I don’t think you’re a monster, Black Queen,” the Red Axe told me. “A bad woman, maybe, but those aren’t rare. I’ve seen a real monster, the bleakness at the heart of him, and I don’t see it in you. I don’t think the Archer could love you like she does, either, if you were like that.”

“It’s the Terms that are your enemy,” I quietly said.

“I don’t think you’re a monster,” the heroine repeated. “But your Truce and Terms? They’re the most monstrous thing I ever saw. You took in every scrap of filth this world has to offer, knowing what they were, and you’re protecting them.”

“Without the Damned, we would not be alive to have this conversation,” the Prince of Brus said.

I started, having almost forgotten his presence, and saw that same surprise on the prisoner’s face. Frederic Goethal’s silken coat had been pulled close around him as he leaned against the wall, the only overt sign of what I suspected to be discomfort.

“What was done to you…” the prince began, voice trailing off. “There is no excusing that. But the Truce and Terms are not responsible for that evil, and they are responsible for a great many saved lives.”

“What was done to me,” the Red Axe snorted. “Do you know, Black Queen? What it is he’s tiptoeing around?”

“No,” I admitted.

I had suspicions, though. Rape and torture highest among them. What sparse details we’d found of how the Wicked Enchanter had lived on the lawless outskirts of Procer had been a sickening read. The dark-eyed heroine glanced at me.

“Would it change anything, if you did?” the Red Axe asked.

I could have lied. But I was going to see her killed, one way or another, and so part of me felt like I owed her the truth.

“No,” I repeated.

To my surprise, she smiled. As if obscurely proud or pleased.

“You’re a cold hand, aren’t you?” the heroine said. “The kind ones, like Prince here, they go all soft-touched the moment rape’s even hinted at.”

“You are a tragedy, Red Axe,” I honestly said, “but hundreds of those come across my desk every day. Even a bleeding heart eventually bleeds dry.”

And, truth be told, I’d started with a lot less blood in mine than most. The jury was still out on whether or not that’d been for the best, in the greater scheme of things.

“The Wicked Enchanter was a monster,” the heroine said. “The details of it don’t matter, save that what he got he deserved a hundred times over.”

“If you’d decided to kill him the heartbeat the Truce was over, I would have looked away and covered my ears,” I said, meaning every word. “But you didn’t wait, and you took a swing at more than just the Enchanter.”

“I’m not a child, Black Queen,” the Red Axe said. “You don’t need to take me by the hand and lead me down the path to where this is headed. I knew before I ever raised my blade how this was all going to end.”

“This wasn’t justice,” Prince Frederic quietly said. “It was just blood, and many more lives might be lost because of it.”

“You’re guiltier than she is,” the Red Axe said. “She’s not supposed to be better than this, Kingfisher Prince. You are.”

“And you?” the Prince of Brus replied. “Are you not supposed to be better than this as well, Chosen?”

“I give my life for what I believe,” the heroine said. “What more is there left to squeeze out of me? I am not the one baring steel in the defense of the indefensible.”

“It is defensible,” I said. “Just not to you.”

I was not bitter of that. How could I be? No, instead some part of me wondered if this was what the Grey Pilgrim had felt like, that day he’d looked at me and called me the culmination of old sins come back to haunt Calernia. If I was the punishment of the apathy and pettiness of the west when Callow fell, then was this woman not my own for the practical brutality lying behind the ideals of the Truce and Terms? I could not be angry or bitter, no, not when this was richly deserved.

“Don’t-” she began.

“I won’t take you by the hand, like you insisted, so forgive my bluntness,” I calmly interrupted. “If we don’t extend the amnesty part of the Truce to animals like the Wicked Enchanter, we lose Named. Those who have skeletons in their closet, who’ll wonder if maybe their sins will be enough to get them the noose instead of the Truce should they come out of the woodworks. And most of those will be of mine, but there’ll be some of your end of the Book too – those on the fringe, who learned to love striking at evil just a little too much. And even more costly than the lost champions, it’d mean the reliable Named would be up north, fighting the dead, while the radicals would be down south with no one left to handle them.”

I breathed out and began to resist the urge to spit to the side before quelling that reflex and going through with it. It was not a pretty habit, but then nothing about this was pretty. It was blood on cogs, exactly like she’d accused.

“It’s an ugly truth, and bare of morality, but in the end getting you a semblance of justice would have simply cost the war effort too much,” I said. “I’d apologize, but I knew there would be people like you when I began to head down this road. I did it anyway.”

I couldn’t fix the world, in the end. Even if I had the power to shape it as I willed, I knew my own limitations well enough to be aware I’d likely do as much harm as good. Yet the Truce and Terms, for all their occasional dip into brutality, they worked. We’d gathered nearly seventy Named now, heroes and villains and those circumstance could cast as either. Near seventy Named, pointed at the great enemy to the north. Not even the First Crusade, when all of Calernia had risen to topple Triumphant, had fielded so many of our kind. It had not been painless or bloodless and certainly not without sweat, and neither I would not pretend that the system was without flaws, but Merciless Gods it worked. If these were kinder times, I hoped I would have been kinder as well, that what I’d built would not have been so harsh.

But there were not kind times, and I could not be more than I was. It was either the Truce and Terms or rolling the dice on the annihilation of life on Calernia.

“I don’t want an apology,” the Red Axe said. “I want all these swords and oaths to be defending something worth defending. You spawned a monster that cares nothing for the past and looks hungrily at the future, Black Queen. Maybe it was the best you could, for all your famous cleverness.”

She laughed, the sound of it bleak to my ear.

“So think of me as the voice Creation uses to say that this is not good enough,” the prisoner said. “Your Truce and Terms will break, and you’ll either do better or be cast aside.”

Just another hero, lighting a torch and declaring it wasn’t enough without ever offering another way. There was an echo of so many I’d faced in that voice, in that castigation. The Lone Swordsman, willing to make our home a wasteland so land as it was our own banner flying above it. The Grey Pilgrim, willing to choose war over peace because it wasn’t the peace he’d wanted. The Saint of Swords, eyes hard as she decided to risk the death of all Iserre rather than compromise. I’d heard this refrain before, sung by different voices or with different words.

I’d won against this many a time, and I would again.

“We’re not that special, you know,” I said. “Named. In the right place at the right time we’re able to do things that no one else could do, it’s true, but we don’t matter as much as we like to think.”

The Prince of Brus breathed out sharply. He was Alamans, and well-taught, so he grasped my meaning before the other.

“The Truce will hold,” I said. “The Terms will hold. If they were hated, if we were facing anyone else, it might be that enough wounds would kill them. But that’s not the world we live in, Red Axe. They’ll hold, if only because there are simply too many people that want them to.”

And I believed that, I genuinely did. Something fragile, without a proper foundation or results to point at? A mess like the one ahead would break it, sure as dawn, even if everyone was trying to keep things together. But I had bartered away kindness for sturdiness, and so my creation would withstand the storm. Some dangers were born of the same strength that allowed you to beat them back, weren’t they? Creation’s sense of humour had not grown any less vicious as I aged.

“You will try,” the Red Axe said, and the calm certainty in her eyes was troubling. “You will fail.”

I met her eyes, for a moment, and wondered what to say. I would give no apology, for any I might offer would be meaningless.

“It’ll be quick,” I said. “That much, at least, I can promise.”

I left, after, sensing that neither of us had anything left to say.

The Prince of Brus stayed in the cell after my departure and I was not in a mood to wait for him. My leg was starting to pain me again, an unhappy turn, so I ambled off towards the Alcazar and counted on my slow gait being enough to ensure he’d catch up to me if he wanted to. He did so, though after long enough I’d come to believe we would be parting ways. I half-heartedly went through the usual courtesies after he joined me.

“There was little change after your departure,” the Kingfisher Prince told me. “She tired of speaking to me quickly.”

I grunted, noncommittal.

“It is a useful conversation to have had,” I said. “I thank you for the opportunity.”

“I can take pleasure in having provided that, if not the outcome of the journey,” the fair-haired man said. “Have the Red Axe’s words informed your opinion on other matters?”

A very polite way to ask if I was more open to taking Cordelia’s offer of pushing through the Accords in exchange for ceding jurisdiction over this particular Named. Which actually seemed halfway possible, now, considering the Red Axe had tried to renounce any rights she might have under the Terms in front of a credible witness. It was a more than decent excuse to throw her at Procer, were I so inclined, though I suspected Hanno would see it otherwise. Which was why Hasenbach wanted me on her side in the first place, when it came down to it. Officially there were three crowned heads in the Grand Alliance: the First Prince of Procer, the Holy Seljun of Levant and the Queen of Callow. If she got me in on her side, not only was she securing Below’s side of the Terms but also ensuring that whoever ended up speaking for the Dominion in this would be very reluctant to side against two thirds of the alliance.

“It has,” I simply said.

He left it at that, as I’d thought he would. It’d be uncouth to try to press me for a quick answer on so delicate a matter.

“So what part of that was it that you wanted me to see, in specific?” I idly asked.

He did not look surprised, and though he did not deny what I’d said neither did he look abashed.

“It might be argued, given her enmity to the Truce and Terms, that she was never really a signatory,” the Kingfisher Prince simply said.

Ah, clever man. If she’d been an enemy from the start, then she was not under anyone’s protection. Procer would be free to have at her. It was still a relatively shaky excuse, to my eye, but before I’d met with the Red Axe I probably would have dismissed it outright. He’d read that correctly.

“To my knowledge, you never spoke with her in depth,” I said.

I’d sent him to ensure her safety during the assault on the Arsenal but fleeing clandestinely through corridors was not the time for the sort of conversation that would have allowed him a solid read on her. I’d not been made aware of any visit to her since, either, and considering my orders to the guards I would have known within a quarter hour of such an attempt at most.

“I had much time to think, while recuperating,” Prince Frederic said. “If she were Damned, I would have noticed. I have seen enough Named I am certain of this. Yet she was not, and still attacked me. There was a likely reason for that, given what I know of her past.”

Meaning he’d deduced her antipathy was towards the Terms before we ever set foot in that room. Competence was attractive, I reluctantly admitted to myself. Especially so in attractive people. My eyes narrowed as I fit another set of details together.

“That’s why you don’t want to press charges under the Terms,” I slowly said. “You don’t believe she was actually trying to kill you.”

“In a sense,” the prince said. “Regardless of whether my death was meant or not, or perhaps even hers, it was not Frederic Goethal she struck. It might have been a signatory of the Terms or a prince of the blood, but for all that she has she my blood I cannot truly consider her an enemy.”

“All three of those people you mentioned happen to live in the same body,” I drily pointed out. “I suppose they are all of a forgiving temperament.”

“I am not a saint, Queen Catherine,” Prince Frederic quietly said. “I am not pleased to have been attacked by someone I was risking life and limb to save. Yet, knowing what I know of why this came to pass, I cannot in good conscience seek her death for it. I am not blind to the nature of some of those who have been protected by the Truce and Terms, or the injustice matching the expedience of enlisting their service.”

“You’re not an officer of the Terms,” I said. “Or one of their architects. You bear no responsibility there.”

“I have chosen to uphold the Terms, to participate in them, and so bear a personal responsibility,” the prince replied, shaking his head.

It was torturous chain of logic, as far as I was concerned, but not entirely senseless. A little to labyrinthine, though, for the amount of passion he’d been speaking with all this time. I suspected that under all the talk of conscience and responsibility, the truth was that Frederic Goethal’s heroic hindbrain believed the Red Axe was at least a little right bout all this. That would make it an utterly repulsive notion to him to ask for her death, even when it might be convenient. Perhaps even more because it’d be convenient, I mused. Where he’d be standing, it was that sort of liberties taken with justice that would have started this mess in the first place.

“I’ve already given my opinion of this,” I said. “I doubt you’ve forgotten it.”

“It would not dare, Your Majesty,” the blue-eyed man said, a tad ruefully.

We’d gotten into the Alcazar as we talked without my even noticing, nearer to the heart of the section than my rooms but not all that far. That sudden realization had me closing my mouth, eyeing the pretty prince from the side. It wouldn’t even be particularly suspect, I thought, to invite him into my rooms. Which were warded. Private. The kind of place where I’d be able to take my time peeling him out of those clothes and get at the much more interesting body beneath them. I’d not said anything, but the Prince of Brus caught the corner of my gaze and his steps stuttered for the barest fraction of a moment. Without a word being spoken either side, my blood quickened again. It wasn’t a very good idea, I reminded myself

It might turn out to be a thoroughly enjoyable idea, though.

I glanced at his face and found a conflict I suspected might not be too different in nature from mine. There were quite a few temptations I considered myself apt in dealing with, more than most at least, but this sort of thing wasn’t one of them. I saw movement form the corner of my eye, dark robes and a long stride, and to my relief and dismay – more dismay than relief, honesty compelled me to admit – I found Hierophant headed towards us with intent too obvious to be mistaken.

“It appears I have other claims on my time,” I said.

“I can only look forward to our next meeting then, my queen,” Prince Frederic replied.

Without my being entirely sure how it happened, I found my hand being kissed as smoldering blue eyes looked up at me. Fuck, I thought even as he retreated. All right, so I was probably going to end up sleeping with Frederic Goethal. I just needed to be smart in going about it, and maybe not do it too much. I could probably handle that. I wasn’t looking for anything serious and he was headed back to Twilight’s Pass before long anyway, so really you might even say I was being responsible about this.

“Catherine?” Masego said, interrupting my thoughts.

“Zeze?” I replied.

“Is there a particular reason you are looking at this man?”

I pondered that for a moment.

“None you’d enjoy hearing about,” I honestly replied. “I take it you’re looking for me?”

It was only then I took a longer look at him, and noticed how visibly exhausted he was. Physically, anyway. There was a fervour burning in him I’d long learned to recognize as him reaching a particularly interesting stretch if his research.

“I was,” Masego said, then lowered his voice. “I did it, Catherine.”

I cocked an eyebrow.

“Did what?”

“I found the crown of Autumn,” Hierophant grinned.

Chapter 28: Contend

“Diplomacy is not an art of peace or a higher calling, it is the act of nations bartering what they disdain for what they desire.”
– Magister Haides Katopodis the Elder of Stygia

The sword came forward in swift thrust that I let come close, as Prince Frederic’s footing told me it was just a feint.

“My people don’t have a great opinion of royalty west of the Whitecaps, as a rule,” I said.

Or east of the Wasiliti, south of the Hwaerte and north of Daoine. Callowans were less than fond of foreign crowns in general, was the point, though it would be impolitic to belabour it.

“Not without reason,” the Prince of Brus replied.

I limped to the side, baiting an attack with an opening that was seized without hesitation – an opportunist, this one, man after my own heart – and the Kingfisher Prince’s sword came swiftly from the side. I spun, putting my weight on my good leg, and swept him back with a swing he easily avoided but set him up for a longer thrust with the tip of my staff. Leaning backwards and edging his head to the side by half an inch, he narrowly avoided the second blow. It ruffled his blond locks some, and I only partly managed to catch his own blow with the crossguard of my practice sword. He was better than Ishaq with a blade, I decided, but not as physically strong. That last catch with my crossguard would have broken my wrist if I’d tried it with the Barrow Sword. The Kingfisher Prince was quicker on his feet, though, and that was a lot trickier for me to handle given my limp.

“I like to think so,” I said. “Which means when even I say that I have doubts Gaspard Langevin of Cleves, whose lands are on the frontline of a war with Keter, would be enough of a fool to try something? A claim like yours begs an elaboration.”

Of course, he probably hadn’t meant a civil war that’d begin tomorrow. Even princes who despised Cordelia – and there were more of those than I’d once thought – wouldn’t try to start one in the Principate when it was under siege from the Dead King and swarming with foreign armies it currently required to continue existing. But if this was headed where I thought it was headed, then Cordelia Hasenbach’s envoy was going to make her position and intentions clear as spring water. And her offer as well, I thought, because if I knew anything about the First Prince it was that she always had one of those up her sleeves.

“Such a war would yet be on the horizon,” the fair-haired prince agreed. “Yet it looms tall there. Before I elaborate, if you might permit an insolence? It has been suggested by advisers to Her Most Serene Grace that you have become aware of what stirs in Cleves.”

He came in close, this time. Dropped under the swing of my staff, a half-step took him right out of the way of my sword’s sideways swipe and he aimed his own blow perfectly. Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t in the habit of playing fair: fingers abandoning my staff to stand perfectly still, I withdrew my hand and just in front of his face snapped my fingers. Eyes widening, he hastily withdrew with swiftness that was too smooth and sudden to have been entirely natural. I took back my staff, beginning to circle him again as absolutely nothing happened. I’d known for a while that the Pilgrim had given a pretty good accounting of my skills with Night, so I was not surprised in the least that the assessment had made it to the Principate’s sole royal hero.

“A bluff,” the Kingfisher Prince grinned.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, keeping down a smile, “was it?”

I was, against my better judgement, enjoying myself. I’d always had a weakness for the pretty ones, especially if they could handle themselves.

“The Augur or the Thorns?” I asked.

“The Circle of Thorns,” the Prince of Brus said, “noticed a sudden rise in the antipathy of certain sigils in Cleves towards Cleven forces.”

The strength and weaknesses of the Firstborn in a sentence, that: skilled enough to spy on a hero, sloppy enough people who couldn’t even speak their tongue could read them. The Everdark had forged them into one of those blades of obsidian they so loved: remarkably sharp in some ways, remarkably brittle in others. Neither of us commented on the fact that we’d both been spying on allies, which was for the best considering neither of us had any intention of stopping. Gods, but what I wouldn’t do for spies as good as the Circle of Thorns.

The Jacks were, in truth, better than such a young and haphazard organization had any right to be. That they could operate outside Callow at all was damned impressive, all things considered, much less with the amount of success they’d had. But the Thorns were still several notches above even the best of what the Jacks could do. Imagining the kind of access their long-standing rivals, the Eyes of the Empire, must have back in Callow had caused many a worried night. Even after several purges and Scribe outing part of the network to me as appeasement back in Salia, I doubted we’d flushed all of them out.

Black and Malicia had spent two decades digging them in, it’d likely take just as long to dig them out.

“I got wind of Gaspard’s ambitions to expand the boundaries of the Principate,” I acknowledged. “And of how his daughter’s been spending some of her evenings.”

“The First Prince passes along her appreciation of how measured your response has been,” the blue-eyed man told me.

I went on the offensive, this time. Came in low, sweeping with the sword so he’d have to parry, and then struck with the staff. In an impressive display of skill, at the last moment he angled his parry so that my sword would get in the way of my staff, then without missing a beat tried to trip my bad leg. I managed to pivot on myself, Mantle of Woe fluttering and hiding away my body as he withdrew his blade and tried a downwards cut. I slapped it aside with the staff and gave ground, which he graciously enough allowed.

“Don’t thank me yet,” I said. “Sve Noc were livid, and I have visions to share of the kind of casualties the Empire Ever Dark has taking up north to drive home exactly what kind of an ally your man in Cleves is tempting to walk away.”

“Given the unpopularity of the current levies and taxes with the people, ordering Prince Gaspard’s arrest might result in the current riots turning into uprisings,” the Kingfisher Prince said. “I assure you, it is not apathy to the bad faith on display that has stayed the First Prince’s hand.”

“You know,” I mused, “I even believe that. Mostly. But here’s the deeper issue behind all this, Frederic of Brus.”

I touched my arm with Night and struck out, viper-quick: when the prince parried he found me significantly stronger than before, and in the misaligned surprise of his parry the tip of my staff hit his shoulder once and sharply.

“A Proceran prince is scheming, which threatens the war against Keter,” I flatly said. “Proceran politics prevent anyone from doing anything about it, which threatens the war against Keter.”

I struck out again, even as he gave ground, and when with Name-strength he turned aside my sword and staff I abandoned the latter and spun about. When I snapped my fingers he thought of it as a bluff, at least until dark light bloomed. A closer look at the purely decorative effect gave me the barest of openings to slug him in the stomach, though he rolled with the blow and so it was barely more than a caress to a martial Named like him.

“A Proceran heroine tries to kill Proceran royalty, which threatens the war against Keter,” I continued. “And then another Proceran hero snatches up a unique artefact forged through the efforts of several Named to kill the Dead King and begins making demands, which once again threatens the war against Keter.”

I ceased moving, even as he got back his footing and raised his guard.

“Do you perhaps begin to divine a pattern to our troubles, Prince Frederic?” I bluntly asked.

I wasn’t blind to the fact that the Dominion was having some growing pains of its own when it came to the Truce and Terms. It would have been hard to when I’d been forced to look those very troubles in the eyes through the Barrow Sword. Yet neither Ishaq nor the Blood were allowing their arguments to become a growing international crisis, so the way that Procer kept foisting its internal troubles onto everybody else was really starting to be a trial on my patience.

“That is the price to fighting this war on our lands instead of yours,” the Prince of Brus bluntly replied.

He’d begun to take me halfway seriously, so instead of the almost teasing spar before I got a glimpse of what he looked like on a proper field of war: with dexterity he struck, baiting my parries into overextending and then stinging like a wasp. Even with two weapons I found myself hard-pressed and forced to give ground.

“The Principate is crumbling,” the Kingfisher Prince said as he kept advancing. “What few of our youths are not needed in fields and mines are sent north to die in dwarven armour we went into debt to buy. Royalty are now forced to confiscate the necessary goods they cannot pay for, while no grain has been set aside in two years because massive armies must be fed. Horses in the fields go without horseshoes because the blacksmiths were conscripted; fish is taken from the hands of fishermen as far south as Salamans so it can be salted and put in barrels headed north.”

With a flashy snap of his wrist, he batted aside my parry and cut downwards at my wrist. I didn’t drop my blade, but it was a near thing and I was sure to get a bruise. If the sword had not been dulled, I’d be seeing bone. I chased him away with a swing of my staff, though he retreated at his leisure and without giving openings.

“What you condemn as our fecklessness is in truth the death rattle of a nation of millions,” Prince Frederic said. “And while I confess I know little of your people, Queen Catherine, I doubt they would fare any better under this strangling grasp than we have.”

“I won’t deny that Procer has been taking the harshest losses in a lot of ways, or pretend that our sending coin and soldiers and grain is a true replacement for what was lost,” I said. “But neither can you deny that your royalty has not been a constant thorn in the Grand Alliance’s aside at a time where we can ill afford that sort of foolishness.”

“I do not deny it,” the fair-haired man frankly said, “for it is the truth. Yet you have a reputation as a pragmatic woman, and so I expect you can recognize that regardless of what is deserved having Gaspard Langevin arrested is not a solution. It is a way to precipitate the collapse of the realm standing between Callow and the Dead King.”

That was a solid retort, I had to give him that. And all of it true, if not necessarily answering my grievance.

“I didn’t ask for Prince Gaspard in chains, or in a grave,” I said. “What I am asking for is for the First Prince to get her people in order, before my own hands become tied and I have to act on this.”

“Then the First Prince requests that you add your voice to the Red Axe standing trial before a tribunal of the Principate,” Prince Frederic reluctantly asked. “As it would send a stark warning to the House of Langevin, as well see justice done.”

Ah, and there we were. The reluctance told me this was more Cordelia than him, but nothing I’d heard about the Kingfisher Prince had let me to think he was a spineless lackey: if he was willing to pass along the request, then he at least saw the sense in it.

“So you approach me instead of the White Knight,” I said, “since I’m more likely to be willing to deal.”

It wouldn’t be impossible to sell to my side of the fence that I’d simply traded the Red Axe’s neck to Procer in exchange for concessions, if I could then distribute those concessions. And if she was still executed, then I genuinely shouldn’t get too much trouble over this. Hanno, though? Hanno wouldn’t bend the neck over this. He might be more inclined to consider if Procer goes to him with my signature already on the parchment, though, I thought, which explained with Cordelia Hasenbach was going to Below’s side of the Terms first. Unfortunately, she’d misread me on this. The Truce and Terms were to be the foundation the Liesse Accords were built on, so my bottom line wasn’t anywhere as flexible as she might have imagined.

“The White Knight has not ruled,” the Prince of Brus said. “I admire his principles a great deal, but it does everyone a disservice to pretend that his political judgement is infallible.”

“I don’t disagree with him,” I bluntly replied. “If the Red Axe doesn’t stand trial as a Named but as a criminal under Proceran law, it erodes the foundation of the Terms.”

“If Named are judged only by Named, then are two laws of the land,” Frederic Goethal said.

I took a swift step forward and struck out with the blade, pressing down on his parry when he caught it.

“Oh, don’t give me that shit,” I said. “You’re a prince of the blood, we both know that maybe in principle you get the same justice a peasant does but that’s not how the world actually works.”

“Yes,” the Kingfisher Prince agreed, to my surprise, “which is why I am wary of enshrining near as unfair a distinction into law.”

I was pushed back but slapped away his thrust with the side of my staff, losing no ground as we began circling each other again.

“You can’t regulate Named like you would other people,” I said. “It’s not like making laws about magic or dealing with fae, you’re basically dealing with wild horses – if you make the pen too small, they’ll burst out. That’s why the rules stay limited, not because more wouldn’t be a positive change. The point is to establish a foundation, a baseline that future generations can build on.”

“If Named do not answer to the same laws as even princes, not even in principle,” Prince Frederic said, “then they are by objective measure set above even royalty. That would birth an age of warlords, Queen Catherine. I do not believe Christophe de Pavanie is the kind of man who would use his strength to make himself a crown, but by would other Chosen and Damned not be tempted to seize power if they are above the laws of other men? You would make Named a kind of royalty standing above all the crowns of Calernia.”

“If I’d written that in the Accords, you’d be right,” I said. “But it isn’t there. You can hang heroes and villains alike should they break Proceran laws – so long as the law doesn’t simply outlaw being a villain. It’s the Truce and Terms that extend these protections, and those last only until the Dead King is dealt with.”

A feint with my staff, then I tried to whip at his wrist with the blade much as he’d done with me – instead he caught it with his crossguard and tried to flip my blade out of my fingers, though I withdrew before he could.

“The Terms are the predecessor to the Accords, it is openly known,” the Prince of Brus retorted. “What becomes common practice now is likely to remain regardless of what is put to ink. If Chosen and Damned refuse to enforce the parts of those treaties they mislike, those that go against what they have become used to, how are we to make them obey?”

“Force, if need be,” I said. “Even the most powerful of our kind can’t take on armies alone, much less armies backed by those Named who will respect the Accords as written.”

“What you describe is likely to lead to a civil war that would finish breaking apart Procer even should we defeat the Dead King,” Prince Frederic said. “The schemes of the Tower set our principalities tearing at themselves for decades, and now the weight of the war against Keter teaches us fresh ways to despise each other. We will not survive a third conflict, Queen Catherine, not as a single nation.”

He’d advanced and struck quickly, and at an angle where it was hard to drive him back, but I joined my staff to my sword and that forced him back a step.

“It’s a convincing speech you made,” I said, “but we both know that ultimately half of it is guesswork and predictions. If the Augur had predicted it, you’d have led with that. So we’re left to choose behind the danger I see looming, Named seeing the Terms and later the Accords as a tool for nobles to control them and so walking away, or the one you’ve described. One I can only see as avertable even should it come to pass.”

“Your reluctance is not unforeseen,” the Prince of Brus admitted. “Which is why I was asked to tell you that the First Prince is willing to sign the Liesse Accords as they currently stand should you concede in this.”

I’d been angling towards his side with my sword raised, but at his words I drew back with a start of surprise.

“Lady Dartwick left me under the impression that there were still months of negotiations left to be had,” I cautiously said.

“Yes,” Frederic Goethal said, “and on all currently contested issues, the First Prince will concede.”

Mhm. She couldn’t speak for the Dominion, though, so while this was a significant concession it didn’t end the negotiations outright. It’d still be a massive boon and one that put a lot of pressure on Levant to sign on as the terms were, or at least with minimal quibbling. And even should Hasenbach go to them in private to try to use them as proxy to continue negotiating – which I doubted, it’d be too starkly in bad faith – they were unlikely to champion points that favoured Procer without also helping them. It was damned tempting offer, which was nothing less than I should have expected coming from a diplomat of the First Prince’s skill.

“Something to consider,” I eventually replied.

There could be no serious expectation of my agreeing to this in the middle of spar, much less when I’d not spoken with Vivienne or had a recent look at the articles of the Accords still in dispute. But it was classic Hasenbach to use someone beholden to her yet on good terms with me to present her offer early, preparing the grounds before negotiations truly began – and well in advance of any rivals. Cordelia did like to win before the battles were had, when she could. I did not disapprove. Even her sort of battles could be messy and chancy things when started, no matter how well you might think the situation was in hand.

“A lot of this could be made simpler if you went out and asked for the Red Axe’s head,” I said. “Her attack could stand trial as both a breach of the Terms and Proceran laws, so we’d sidestep at least part of the troubles.”

The fair-haired prince studied me closely.

“The two of you are more similar than either cares to admit,” Prince Frederic said.

Ah. He’d gotten that speech from the other side as well, then. If Hasenbach hadn’t managed to sway him, I very much doubted I’d be the one to manage it instead.

“I’ll choose to that take that as a compliment,” I said.

“It was,” he said. “And other things as well. It is a matter a conscience, Queen Catherine. I will not ask for a death I do not believe deserved.”

His sword rose and I matched it with mine. Circling began again, my eyes lingering on his footing as he tested my defences with quick flicks. Looking for an opening to score a decisive blow and end this, I’d wager.

“That’s an interesting stand to take, considering what you’ve just said about the White Knight,” I said.

A deeper lunge, but I was low on my feet and in a swirl of my cloak obscuring my movements I pivoted and let him pass by me – though I wasn’t quick enough to catch his back as he passed. We were face to face once more before I could even mount a proper attack.

“On matters of politics, I can and will compromise,” the Kingfisher Prince calmly said. “But not on matters of integrity.”

And the thing was, I respected that. Admired it, even. But when principle got in the way of itself, a closer look usually gave away that the whole affair was really about pride. I tested his guard with a flick of my staff, found it slow and pressed on. It’d been a trap, and he tried to slide under my guard in the beat where I began to move and my bad leg slowed me, but I’d been waiting for it. Finesse wasn’t going to get me anywhere, so instead I bludgeoned at him as hard and quick a I could. It took him by surprise, enough that I drew back the staff and began to press him with both arms.

“I’ve lived most my life in the shadow of people that would use that rope to hang you twice over,” I told him, ending the sentence with a flourish of the wrist.

The strike I’d thought would bruise his shoulder was instead caught with the very end of his own blade, Name-strength compensating for the poor angle I’d forced him to parry in.

“That a principle can be used against you does not invalidate it,” Frederic Goethal fiercely said, “and decency is not made worthless for the use the indecent would make of it.”

Even with a touch of Night, the difference in strength allowed him to first force away my sword and then rip it out of my grasp. He did not get to take the opening that give him, though, as I spun around his back and elbowed him harshly. He gave ground just in time to avoid the strike of my staff, and before he could turn on me I’d retreated – bending to snatch my blade up from the sand as I did.

“If the exercise of a virtue is put to the service of evil,” I replied. “It is an accomplice to it, regardless of what else it might be.”

The fair-haired prince had begun to use his Name more liberally, though he was keeping aspects out of this much like I was refraining from using workings of Night, so I’d have to adjust. I wouldn’t be able to force my way through his guard anymore, even using both arms. Bait and flank, I decided. My staff was too long, it’d get in the way, but there were ways around that. Better wait for him to close in on me, though: my leg was beginning to throb so now was not the time to dart about.

“To put evil means in the service of good ends is still putting out evil in the world,” the Kingfisher Prince replied. “We can quibble of lesser or greater evils as we wish, but averting harm is not the same as acting morally.”

I’d turned this on him once or twice, so he came in careful. I took it as a mark of respect, coming from a swordsman of his calibre. A quick half-step forward, baiting out a strike of my staff that I gave him – he flowed into a high parry as he used his backfoot to quickly shoot forward, already trying to turn the first movement of his blade into the beginning of a strike at the side of my neck. I abandoned the staff, spinning to the side, but I’d used that on him twice now and he’d been waiting for it. A sharp strike of his elbow into my flank pushed me aside, putting me back into the trajectory of his swing if he finished the full arc. I dropped low and instead of pivoting anchored myself at a steady angle, ramming by shoulder into his chest even as he barrelled into me. He was light on his feet, though, impossibly so. Like he’d somehow turned into mist as he reversed his momentum, my shoulder hit nothing at all and I was instead forced into a damned awkward parry to cover my neck.

“Not the same at all,” I agreed. “We just disagree on which is more important.”

I saw the muscles in the prince’s arm tightening as he put his back into the clash of blades and knew that in the heartbeat that followed my guard would give. So I gave with it, using the moment where he thought he’d gotten me to finally pivot around him like I’d already tried twice. I deftly flipped my grip and thrust under my armpit, though just before the tip of my practice sword could touch the ridge of his spine I found the edge of his own against my throat, ready to slit it. He must have begun reversing his swing the moment I began moving, to match my timing, and it was with a degree of admiration I realized that meant he’d read my movements without even seeing them.

“Draw?” Prince Frederic lightly offered.

“Draws are for suckers,” I replied, and tried to trip him.

He let out a startled laugh and turned around as I tried to tackle him down into the sand, dropping his sword to try to wrestle mine out of my grasp. We dropped down in a tangle of limbs, and perhaps I did not struggle quite as much as I could have to prevent Frederic Goethal ending up on top of me, holding down one of my wrists. His blond locks were a mess, he smelled lightly of sweat and not even those puffy sleeves were enough to take away from my enjoyment of the muscles under them. It would be bad politics to fuck a prince of the blood, I reminded myself as I looked into very blue eyes, and besides we were on sand.

I couldn’t even be sure that he was interested, besides, although… I wiggled my hips under the thin pretence of struggling and got confirmation I might not be the only one finding our position startingly arousing, swallowing a pleased gasp. That knowledge did nothing to curb the temptation, especially not when I could feel his broad chest against mine and his face was so close I’d barely have to lean up to nip at his lip.

“You could have just declined to put forward charges,” I said.

The tone came out more flirtatious than I’d intended, but I wasn’t exactly biting my nails over it.

“It wouldn’t have been as interesting,” Prince Frederic replied, voice gone slightly husky.

All right, I could at least be honest enough with myself to admit that if we weren’t out in the open – or at least not in sand – I’d be flipping him over and undoing his belt right now. Shit. This, uh, might end up being something of a problem.

“Maybe I’ll take that draw, after all,” I made myself say.

Best to make this about politics again, I decide, since I didn’t usually wonder about how politics would feel between my legs. Although he was a prince, so if I wanted to get technical about it…

“Of course,” the Prince of Brus agreed.

The fair-haired man released my wrist and then the rest of me, rising to his feet and gallantly offering his hand to help me up. I took it, still much too flustered and aroused for my own good.

“I get the feeling you’re no exactly enthusiastic at the First Prince’s method of solving this,” I made myself say.

He offered me my sword by the handle, having picked the blades up while I adjusted my cloak on my shoulders. Nonchalantly, he tugged his shirt back into a semblance of order. It still fit him very nicely, I tried not to notice and promptly failed. I reined in my gaze before it could get me into any more trouble.

“I recognize the dangers she speaks of,” the Prince of Brus admitted. “But while the necessity of staying them might be clear, it does not sit well with me that we have made a woman’s life into a rag doll for half the world to pull at.”

She’s Named, I thought. We’re all rag dolls for Creation to pull at, until enough gives we’re only fit to be thrown away. The lucky ones among us got to accomplish a few things. The rest died remembered only as their killer’s stepping stone.

“So what is it you’d do instead?” I asked.

The man was an idealist, but he wasn’t a fool. He’d know that mouthing regrets at a course without offering another was just wind. The Prince of Brus considered me silently, seemingly sobered by the seriousness of the question I’d asked.

“I would begin,” Frederic Goethal finally said, “by speaking with the Red Axe.”

I clenched my fingers then unclenched them.

Well, I supposed it’d make a change from all this talking about her instead.