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The Chalice Inverted

Chapter Text

The Senate of the Empire meets in a building of wood and canvas, raised scant inches above the Anvil soil. The room is plain and almost featureless, save for the little nook at the entrance where the scribe prepares the motions, and the silent presence of the Throne upon the dais, a seat of smooth bare wood carven with Imperial horses. The banners of the nations hang upon the Senate walls, and beneath the Throne, on the Senate floor, the business of ruling an empire is done.

The public gallery on this hot summer evening is almost empty. The Emperor is not present, leaving the harassed Speaker to pace the dais and keep the Senate in order. She is a lanky Dawnish yeowoman named Marianne, whose purple sash of office clashes badly with her yellow-gold livery, and she looks to Isaella's eyes as though she would dearly like a drink or, failing that, a large stick with which to corral the Senators.

Isaella found her way to Anvil almost by accident. Her second tour with the Black Thorns in newly won Segura is up, and she is undecided on whether to sign for a third; her chitty of service is enough to purchase a grove of ambergelt in her native Miaren, and her saved wages enough to pay someone else to manage it. Her feet are drawn to walk the Trods again. And so she kept walking, after she reached home, and fetched up here at the solstice, almost the breadth of the Empire away from the western border. She has been to Anvil before, but only during the quiet of the seasons, when there is nothing to be seen but the empty Senate and the ancient stones of the monuments. This tent city is new to her.

The Senate is as fabled in legend as the dusty fields of Anvil that surround it, but just now Isaella cannot see why. The Senators are reputedly the finest political minds of the Empire. At least two of them are drinking already and most of the rest more concerned with greeting old friends than the business set before them. Perhaps they are more solemn when the Emperor sits among them, but Isaella wonders. She watches comfortably from the viewing gallery, leaning over the banister to eavesdrop upon the polite disagreements of the senate over the question of military funding and keep an eye on her own Senator, who is apparently up for re-election tomorrow.

Footsteps ring loud on the suspended floorboards of the Senate. Isaella turns to see who's joined her in the public gallery, and her hand leaps to her knife.

He is young, his shoulders unbowed by age or care. His skin is winter-pale, in defiance of the season, and made paler by his ivory robes, the sash of burgundy silk around his waist. He is half-smiling, the expression lingering on his face from the moment before their eyes met. His right hand is lifted, cocked over the magician's rod at his belt.

For a breathless moment, neither of them moves. The thread between them draws tight.

Then he raises his hand, with his weapon still undrawn. His eyes flicker towards the Senators, oblivious in their chamber, as if to say we can't fight here. Isaella's knife hums eagerly under her fingers.

She releases it. She spreads her hand, to show that it is empty, and lets it drop to her side. The heat fades from the air, the pounding beat of danger.

Virtues, but he's beautiful.

He steps closer, though still out of arm's reach, and bows. “Nicovar,” he says.

Isaella ducks her head in answer, aware of how inelegantly she bows, and knowing better than to think he will shake her hand. “Isaella Thornborn.”

Nicovar half-turns, to lean against the railing and give at least the appearance of watching the Senate business. Isaella echoes him, keeping her hands pointedly relaxed. “This is interesting,” she says, almost daring him to name what just happened.

“Yes. You're important, clearly. I don't understand why yet. But you felt it too; what would the Navarri call it?”

Isaella's pulse quickens. Clever, as well as beautiful, and all the more dangerous for it. “The Great Dance,” she says, “the meeting of souls that know each other.”

“What kind of knowledge is this, then?” Nicovar looks at her sidelong, from under his dark eyelashes, his gaze flickering down to her shoulders, her hands, a breach in his Urizeni reserve. She shrugs, letting her muscles flex more than is strictly necessary.

“That remains to be seen,” she says, while the Senate divides down the middle, voting nay on her side, aye on his. “But I look forward to finding out.”

He is the loveliest viper she's ever seen.

***

There was a plan for this evening, but Nicovar suspects it has just gone out of the window. There is a creature of deadly grace standing next to him, resting her arms upon the railing as though her whole posture did not shout her readiness to fight. He can see it in the line of her back, the bend of her knees, as she can no doubt see it in him.

She is glorious. He is no stranger to the charms of warriors, knows his weakness for the physical arts. But though he has bedded sentinels, he has never seen anyone like this. She is not dressed in robes and sashes; she is barely dressed, by conservative standards. She is bare up to the shoulders, her loose linen tunic belted in at the waist, and her trousers are distractingly tight. A deep red tattoo, the colour of fresh blood, loops down her brow and onto the curve of her high cheekbone, framing her eye in a coiling twist of vines. A long knife is sheathed at her back, where her hand snapped when he came in, when their eyes met.

Virtues guard him, she's dangerous.

The scholarly description of – this – might be a spontaneous manifestation of the Web. Things are connected. Something has flamed into existence between them, and if Nicovar thinks she might kill him if he touches her – if he might kill her, if she tried – whatever the shape of it, the shock of recognition cannot be denied. Isaella is important.

The Senate is not so interesting, but now is not the time to lose himself in mysteries of the soul. He understands the apparatus of the Empire, on paper; if he is to achieve anything, he must see how to pull their strings, and here before him is a lesson. He tries to pay attention.

Isaella is a flame beside him, blazing in the corner of his eye.

She leaves first, when the Senate have moved on to wrangling over the precise funding of a new fortification in Spiral. Nicovar finds himself turning as she goes past, keeping his back turned away from her knife. Isaella half-smiles, but she does the same, stepping backwards away from him. “I'll see you around,” she says, and it's not a question. He can think of nothing more eloquent to do than bow.

***

The Imperial Conclave does not meet until even the late summer sunset has faded from the sky. It's almost full dark before Nicovar steps up to the black stones of the regio and invokes the Lock and Key.

The air ripples around him as he steps forward. There are snatches of voices, his fellow magicians, around him on this path through a place that may only theoretically exist, flashes of colour and light. Then there is a steady golden glow, and the chatter of a crowd so dense he stops in his tracks.

He knew, of course he knew, that the Hall of Worlds would contain many magicians when the Conclave met. He did not expect it to be empty.

He only expected it to be larger.

There must be a hundred magicians here. At least. And the room is large enough for a fifth that number. There's no way to move around without brushing into someone. He can hear more people pressing in behind him, voices energetically loud, and Nicovar thinks lowlanders in a vicious wave of disgust, before he catches himself. The lowlanders may be comfortable in this crowd, but they are not responsible for the size of the room, and there is a space in that corner where he may be able to breathe.

He is not the only Urizeni retreating to the back. They fold their arms carefully, tuck their hands into their sleeves, trying to take up less of the scarce space and avoid unintentional contact with what must be near-strangers. Nicovar finds his hand drifting towards his weapon, and forces himself to stop. To draw wand or blade in this room would trigger a bloodbath. Instead he takes himself to the very edge of the space and sets his back to the gently glowing wall.

He wishes he'd come into the Hall of Worlds before. But he wanted to see it like this first, being used for its proper purpose – antechamber to the Realms it may be, but that is only nature. Humanity has made it more than that. It's a shame humanity could not furnish it with better acoustics, or a floor not carpeted in moss, or more space. The Orders are all intermingled, until Ruth of Necropolis, the Conclave's chief civil servant, rings a piercingly loud bell and demands that the Grandmasters present her with their headcounts, now, please. Then there is a chaos that he really can't describe as organised, as the magicians try to finish their conversations and find their Orders and divide into groups in a space much too small for them. Nicovar discovers his place by the simple expedient of waiting until he can pick out someone shouting “Arch! Celestial Arch, over here,” and then taking a steadying breath and pushing his way through the massed bodies.

The Grandmaster of the Celestial Arch is a tall woman with tightly curled horns, grandmotherly in her red Varushkan wool. She sighs at Nicovar when he raises his hand to be counted. “You. Are you in the Arch? Have you got the arcane mark?”

“Yes,” he say, truthfully, “I got the mark from Artemius – he hasn't attended recently-”

“Fine. Nice to meet you, glad you could make it, try not to speak out of turn. Anyone else new?”

When the numbers are called, the Celestial Arch is the smallest order present, at eleven members, and stood towards the back. It seems a sad state for the party of ambition to be in. The Grandmaster muscles her way to the front, at the edge of the clear circle around the sandtimers, and without fanfare, the Conclave begins.

The rules of the Conclave are strict, for all they are enforced only by common consent. Nicovar cannot speak on any matter unless he is nominated by a Grandmaster, and it quickly becomes evident that the Celestial Arch is accustomed to letting themselves be spoken for. It chafes. He wants to take up the loose threads of arguments and worry at them until the whole thing falls apart – bring down the proud edifice of the Unfettered Mind grandmaster who declaims on the importance of creating rituals to enhance the new Imperial fleet, and receives a profound lack of enthusiasm from her own order. But he isn't given the chance to unravel her arguments with polite interest in why she can't enthuse an order of research magicians enough to have some actual rituals to present, because his Grandmaster barely glances back at the order. Most of them aren't paying attention anyway.

The Warmage stands with an unfolding of long limbs and a broad smile. “Good evenin', boys an' girls,” he says, “I'll keep this short, we've all got more exciting things to be doing. Would you like to know how the wars are going? We've taken back Segura.” He waves away the muttering with one lazy hand. “Yes yes, I know, darlings, we took it two seasons ago. Now we've finished the job. That leaves us with four armies that need resupply and a nasty little Thule problem up in Skarsind. We'll be needing a Summer coven with the courage to disturb Cathan Canea's rest and get us a fortress up there, and I know there's at least two of them so don't you give me that look, Anton, it doesn't have to be you. I'll be fighting there tomorrow and I'll let you know how it goes when we get back – any questions? Yes, Maggie?”

“Us and who else in Skarsind tomorrow, James?”

The Warmage pulls an exaggerated face of dismay, as if he'd been caught out not remembering. “Marchers, Varushka, Wintermark and Urizen tomorrow. That leaves Dawn, Highguard, Navarr, the League and the Brass Coast going to Spiral to kick some Grendel in the face, they're getting a bit antsy again. Grendel have got a resupply caravan we want to knock over, Thule tomorrow is just a good honest ruck-”

“One minute!”

He spreads his hands and shrugs. Ruth is trying to manage the sandtimers as well as the agenda, and probably let him run a bit over, but the one-minute rule is as sacred as the majority vote. “Any comments from the orders?” Ruth asks, and adds “for mana,” when half a dozen hands go up. They all drop again, except for one man who beckons to James instead and starts picking his way around the room to speak privately.

Conclave, Nicovar concludes, needs shaking up. It's complacent, in danger of becoming a grandmasters' circle-jerk. It needs to be reminded that it constitutes the magical might of an Empire, and should take pride in it.

He's going to rule this chamber, and they won't even see it coming.

***

Isaella finds an Imperial summit to be strangely slow.

There's bustle all around her, but she has very little to do with it. The bodies of the Empire meet in their separate chambers, but the only one she can enter is the Senate, and then only to watch in silence. She does, to get an idea of her senator Rhonwen's style, which is direct and short. She's plainly an intelligent woman, but she seems to grasp the problems more clearly than the diplomacy needed to solve them; the Senate listens, but doesn't like her. Still, by election time, Isaella is content to keep her.

Besides that one vote, she has nothing to do. It's almost a relief to learn around the campfire, between drunken and increasingly filthy songs, that Navarr will be fighting tomorrow. She has to ask around to be sure what that actually means.

It means that an hour before noon on a blazing midsummer morning, Isaella and sixty of her compatriots are armed and armoured, standing before the Sentinel Gate.

The Gate is an imposing edifice, far older then the Empire, brought down from the mountains when there were still horses to lend their likenesses to the stones. It is wide enough for six to march abreast, thick enough to shelter beneath it from the rain. No moss grows on the rough granite, no rust on the heavy chains that brace it upright. Isaella watches the Egregores open it, the spirits of five nations working their will in turn, and with every opening the air around it grows stranger. The Gate fills with roiling white smoke, reaching out to entangle the waiting troops, until at last the portal gapes wide and through it they can see the high slopes of the mountains, with snow still clinging to their peaks.

She has fought alongside other nations before, the skirmishers of the Brass Coast and the massed ranks of Highborn in the long conquest of Segura. But then she stood amongst five thousand of her own people, and the others were distant rumours, landmarks to be navigated around. This is nothing like an army. This is four hundred assorted Imperials without uniforms or officers, waiting to pass through a gate four out of five of them can't open for themselves. The Dawnish are the brightest, in velvet and silk and steel polished mirror-bright, gaudy even next to the fashionable Leaguers in their slashed doublets. The Freeborn are nearly as bad, but she has spent four years in the Brass Coast and their clashing colours are familiar now. Even the Highborn stand out from the landscape - there's not much in nature that comes in stark black-and-white. They march ahead like a parade, and the Navarri follow them, to guard their flanks, a rabble in brown and forest green.

Isaella's spear sits easily in her hand, her knife sheathed at her back. She wears the lightest of chainmail, steel-and-mithril worked into rings as slender as wire. It flows like cloth over her shoulders, a souvenir from a wealthy enemy, now thoroughly deceased. She does not know how to operate a portal, but she is not afraid to pass through one, when her nation goes to war. The Gate tingles against her skin as she passes like a thousand tiny sparks, and then she is in Spiral and there is a battle to fight.

She catches a glimpse, on her return, of pale gold robes and a red sash, a young magician waiting to see the fighters return, and she smiles.

Chapter Text

The orcs of the Lasambrian hills are not entirely resigned to losing Segura. After a season of wasp-sting raiding across the new border, the Imperial generals have had enough. They can't – or won't – spare the armies to reopen the western front, not with the Grendel and the Thule both gearing up for war. They need breathing space, time to replace their fallen soldiers and train the new recruits. Armies moving to the west is out of the question.

But the heroes of Anvil are not an army. The heroes of Anvil are a chaotic, joyous mob, and they relish the chance to spend a morning in Segura's warm autumn and give the Lasambrians a bruising. Isaella's spear is glossy with blood.

The Sentinel Gate opened with magnificent precision, fifty feet from a loose column of orcs. The Dawnish led the charge, hammering into the side of the enemy hard enough to break the column in two, making space for the Marcher bill-blocks to press in and lever the orcs apart. The Highborn are holding the Gate and the Navarr are freed to fight at their flanks and keep the Imperial forces from being separated.

The Lasambrians are reforming around the solid knot of the Marchers, trying to surround them and push them back towards the Gate, when the Dawnish succumb to the excitement. Dawnish soldiers are more disciplined, trained to stick to the plans they are given, but this is a mob of knights and they are out for glory. They hurl themselves out into the orcs, bloodied shields smashing into them again, but they have been fighting for an hour and the surprise that carried them through their first charge has long faded. The Lasambrians are ready; the Dawnish are swallowed, carried along by their own momentum, exposed to the blades suddenly stabbing at their backs.

Isaella grabs the nearest body and shoves her forward, pointing her towards the mounting disaster. She does the same with the next and the next and then she's running herself amongst two dozen Navarri, trying to pierce that mass of orcs and drag the Dawnish back to the line. The Marchers are doing the same, a wedge of their more mobile fighters pushing out while the bill blocks hold and hold and hold. Isaella sinks her spear into the back of a thigh, drags it out and stabs over a shield into the throat behind. There is a Marcher threatening to trip her, rolling underfoot to avoid a Lasambrian sword and she reaches down and heaves on his wrist, “Get up, you lanky git.”

He bounces to his feet, using her to keep his balance. “Cheers, love.”

That's about it for the pleasantries; half the Dawnish are on the ground bleeding and there's work to be done. They step forward together.

The battle is, broadly speaking, a success, but they carry back through the Gate two Navarri, a Highborn, four Dawnish knights and the bloodied circlet of Earl Perivell, clutched by her weeping sister.

Isaella's new Marcher friend has taken a nasty wound to the gut, a pair of Grendel getting past his applewood staff. She has to half-carry him from the battle, letting him sling a long arm around her shoulders and stagger along that way. They crowd through the Gate, trusting to the Highborn to hold the rear, the shout of “Step! Step! Step!” keeping the shield-wall together. Isaella feels exhaustion set it the moment the Gate passes overhead. She almost buckles under the weight before someone rushes in to prop the Marcher up from the other side and they all three stumble across the grass. Isaella concentrates on keeping them upright and out of the way of the retreat, until she can lower her burden to a low bench for a physick to cluck over. She drops to the ground next to him.

“That was quite a fight,” she starts, and only then notices the figure who helped them here, the pale gold robes splashed with mud. The dark red sash. Her hands flex around her spear.

Isaella doesn't make it all the way to her feet before there's a broad hand around her wrist. “Stay put, darling, they can look you over after they've sewn me up.”

“I'm fine,” she says automatically, “cuts and bruises, nothing serious,” but he doesn't let go.

“I'd do as the Warmage suggests,” Nicovar says, and she stares. “You mean you didn't know?”

He looks amused, his mouth curving into a smirk, perfect eyebrows arching in feigned surprise, until a lump of mud hits him in the chest. It leaves a smudge on his elegant embroidery. His eyes narrow, just a little. Reserved. Careful.

“Be polite, boy-o,” the Warmage says, “I didn't see you out there saving my life today. At least three times as I remember. Now this Thorn and I – you are a Thorn, love? - we're going to stay here and let the physicks do their thing and you are going to bugger off and if you like you can make yourself useful at the Gate, I'm sure.”

Nicovar's jaw tenses, but he goes. Isaella yields to the tug on her wrist and sits on the floor, puts her back to the bench and rests her spear across her legs. The Warmage's hand settles on her shoulder. “I'm James,” he says warmly. “Was a pleasure fighting beside you today.”

“Isaella.”

“What's that youngster to you, then?”

“I don't know,” she says, and James' hand tightens on her shoulder.

“Don't moon after him. You can do better.”

 

**

 

Conclave does not become shorter, or less crowded. It drags endlessly, while Nicovar feels every body in the place like sandpaper against his skin. There is not enough air in the room. Their breathing runs together to make a noise as vast as the sea.

The question at hand is a declaration that the Conclave regards a particular variety of innovative magic as potentially sorcerous. They've been round all of the orders for comment twice already, wrangling over the precise details of what sorcery is and whether they'd better interdict the thing and it seems half the speakers do not in fact know the powers of the Conclave, and Nicovar has had enough. He steels himself to the physical contact and picks his way through the massed magicians, to tap Grandmaster Vesna on the shoulder and whisper, “May I speak?” before she can nominate herself again and say nothing of substance – again.

Mercifully, she waves him forward.

“Honourable colleagues, the question of what this declaration should be is a distraction. We can address only what is actually on the agenda before us and that is a declaration of Concord. We cannot alter the wording. It relates to research magic, spontaneous magic, and we cannot Interdict something that has never been formalised. I remind the Conclave that we are free to declare any magician a sorcerer for any reason, and that a declaration of Concord cannot bind future Conclaves. This Declaration can only be advisory, it has no legal force, and it is futile to spend our time discussing what else we should do instead. We must consider the declaration as it has been presented.”

There's a flurry of whispers around the room. Nicovar feels obscurely proud of himself; evidently the Conclave did not know these simple legal facts. He holds back a grin. He feels giddy, his first speech before Conclave and he did it without notes or planning or, virtues defend, stammering, but this is not the time or place to exhibit delight. Instead he steps back, clearing the floor for the next speaker, and keeps his posture straight. Vesna looks almost embarrased by him, but the Warmage is watching him with interest. Perhaps he's made up for his blunder of this afternoon. Nicovar stands a little taller, and waits for the voting to finally roll around.

Chapter Text

The Hall of Worlds follows the seasons of Anvil. It's a little more pleasant – it never seems to actually rain, and the moss underfoot doesn't get worse than soggy – but it's cold. Nicovar's fingers are stiff with it, even tucked into his sleeves. He's wearing three layers of robes, but the hems are all soaked with mud to the knees. This is one of the warmest places he could be. It's still bad.

The Conclave is filled with bad tempers and Nicovar is one of them. He doesn't care about the complex negotiations the Archmage of Autumn is conducting with Estavus. He'll grant that the Autumn realm is important, and a ritual to trade unwanted magical items for mana is potentially useful, but it seems that just agreeing to a trade is far too simple. Someone in the Golden Pyramid is angling to be the next Archmage. Someone in the Unfettered Mind is angling to stop them. All of them need to stop posturing and close the deal before Estavus gets bored.

On reflection, Autumn eternals probably don't get bored of mortals using negotiations with them to enact conflict amongst themselves. They're a tiresome breed.

The Navarri who heads up the Rod and Shield has been nominating the Archmage – a kindness to allow her to keep speaking, though at her own expense – but after four rounds of petty bickering the Grandmaster has had enough. She pointedly turns her back. Her Order snigger; someone shouts “Vote!” and half the Conclave loudly agrees. The other Grandmasters share a look and refuse to nominate their argumentative colleagues.

Ruth wearily recites the substance of the declaration – an agreement to hold Estavus in neutrality, reiterating the legal position that already exists, pointless except as some arcane favour. The voting is perilously close. Ruth buries her face in her hands. “We'll have to count.”

The Conclave groans, those who were braving the wet ground dragging themselves to their feet. The Autumn-mage cringes. Her position must be feeling very shaky, Nicovar thinks to himself, and serve her right for failing to manage her underlings.

Her declaration fails to pass by three votes.

**

The Navarr camp tonight is raucous. They've lit the huge fire-pit, six feet across, in the clear space beside the road, smoke spiralling up the clear sky. It's a bitterly cold night, even close to the fire. The mud froze when the sun went down, which only made it easier to walk on. Under the trees the leaves are growing frosted lace.

Isaella knows why they're celebrating. The battle this morning was hard, and they did well, and no Navarri died. The Thule incursion into Karsk has been definitively repulsed. But the other nations did not come off so lightly. The Marchers lost several, from a household already hit hard last summit, and their camp is quiet with sorrow. Isaella has been by, to pull James down into a hug and tell him how sorry she is. “They were good friends,” he'd said, “solid folk, we'll miss 'em.” The Highborn and the Leaguers are both celebrating their death festivals. It makes for a melancholy evening.

When the drunken singing starts up, Isaella retreats to the darkness between the sparse trees. She watches the gathering with a soldier's eye, picking out the threads of tension. The Senator for Hercynia is beleaguered by – now isn't that interesting – two Navarri Guides and a Highborn with his hood up. Something religious, perhaps, or some interest the Synod is taking in his activities. She'll have to look over the Senate motions tomorrow and see if he's doing anything interesting. Bryn Fastfade is flitting busily about, trying to amass the funds for his latest benevolent project, but he doesn't seem to be getting many takers. There's a group of merry Dawnish applauding the songs, who might turn boisterous but aren't looking for trouble. Picking his way through, looking searchingly at the crowd, is – ah.

Isaella steps eighteen inches to the left and lets the firelight fall on her.

Nicovar's winter overrobe is the same deep burgundy as his sash. It sets off the ivory of his sleeves, the delicate gold embroidery at his cuffs. Shadowed eyes meet hers for a moment. He turns on his heel.

He turns back.

She lets him come to her, weaving his way between the crowded bodies, careful never to brush against them. His face is calm, but he keeps glancing towards her, keeping track of her position. Isaella steps back into the shadows as he approaches. He doesn't hesitate to follow.

Nicovar stops just outside arm's reach – comfortable conversational distance, for an Urizeni. He's not carrying his magician's rod, no more than Isaella has her spear to hand, but no doubt he has a knife somewhere. That's fine. So does she. They're within earshot of the fire, in view of anyone who troubles to peer between the trees. It's not a good place for a murder.

“How was Conclave?”

Nicovar's lips twitch into a slight smile. “Tiresome. If the Archmage of Autumn loses her staff, she will deserve it. She ought to have had the grandmasters on board before she started. How was the Senate?”

She stands a little straighter at that. At the casual assumption that she was there, that she will know.

“Brief. The Emperor was there, to see the funding for the fleet go through. I think he's worried. There's not enough weirwood to go around.”

“Did they fund it?”

“They did – but all four Leaguers stood aside.”

His eyes widen, lovely deep brown eyes. “Interesting.”

“I thought so.” Isaella steps closer to him, closer than Navarri stand to talk. He's almost exactly of a height with her. She watches his lips part. His hand comes up to pluck uncertainly at her sleeve.

He kisses hard and sudden, the way she thinks he would fight. Isaella kisses back and keeps kissing, even as she shoves him backwards, pins him against the nearest tree. He wraps his arms around her and presses his mouth to her neck, hurried and hungry, until he bites at her skin and she tangles a hand in his loose hair and yanks his head away. She wants to feel the warmth of him under her hands, but through his winter layers all she feels is cloth. He rolls his hips forward, shameless.

Her voice is steady. “This is a bad idea.”

Nicovar bares his teeth. He tries to kiss her again. She's still got a hand in his hair. He fights it. “Which is of course why you've stopped,” he says fiercely, and she lets him kiss her then, lets him turn them both and push her back against the tree, shoves him off again to fist her hands in his robes. It's unwise. It's good.

**

There is a beast on the battlefield, a hulking monstrosity built of frost and claws. It mows through the front line before the Imperials realise what they're dealing with. They stave it off with pole-arms and magic but the damage is already done; Nicovar finds himself staggering back through the Sentinel Gate before the battle is half over, with a semi-conscious General leaning heavily on him. Her right arm is ruined.

The Anvil side of the Gate is almost deserted. The fighters aren't expected back for an hour yet. But there are always some physicks nearby, always some priests, someone who thinks it worth their while to be ready for those too injured to continue. Nicovar hands off his burden into the arms of a pair of identically dressed Leaguers and turns to go back to the field before he remembers – the gate doesn't stay open. He can't go back out.

“Don't worry about it,” one of the Leaguers says, “you did your best. Let the rest of them do the mopping up. Have you met my sister Cressida?” She gestures at the woman kneeling over the General, poking with professional interest at the deep slashes in her muscles, and Nicovar notices for the first time that they're twins. They have slender, ridged horns curving back from their temples, ending just above their ears, holding wispy dark hair out of their eyes. The one speaking to him is wearing a mask, or he would have noticed the resemblance sooner.

“This one's for you, Lucy,” the bare-faced twin says calmly, and wipes her bloody hands on the grass. “Hush, General, you'll be fine, you just need magical healing for that limb. Hello, darling, I see you've met my sister Lucrezia?”

She holds out her hand, and Nicovar hesitates.

“Oh, of course, Urizeni. Silly of me, really. We're the d'Holberg twins, I'd tell you what we do but you wouldn't believe me. Did I see you at the Celestial Arch election yesterday?”

Nicovar smiles. “I don't know whether you saw me. I was there.”

“Not much of an election, really. Uncontested. Seems odd, for the Arch – You should have run.”

“Why me?”

“People will always vote for a pretty face.”

Nicovar doesn't have any illusions about his appearance. He's nicely formed, his figure is well suited to robes, and his features are unremarkable. He would be rather more attractive if not for his lineage – Draughir sallowness does not appeal to most people. At this precise moment, he has a disgusting combination of blood and sticky clay in his hair and blood all down his sleeve.

“I might do that one day,” he says anyway.

Chapter Text

Isaella has known General Gwyneth for years, but never seen her before. In her time in the Black Thorns she grew used to reading letters from the General at least once a season, keeping the army briefed on the progress of the war and the objectives they were pursuing. Her handwriting is large and spiky and she has a particularly straightforward way of phrasing things, which now makes perfect sense - somehow Isaella had never picked up that Gwyneth was a merrow, but the pale blue scales striping her neck extend well above the scarf protecting her gills from the bitter wind. She stands with a stiffness in her left hip that says marching can’t be easy for her, and speaks as plainly as she writes.

“Senators, you called me here to be your expert witness on the funding requirements for the northern campaign. So, listen to me. If you choose not to grant the General’s Council what we have requested that is your right. But the Black Thorns and the Hounds of Glory are both in dire need of resupply and we are unanimously agreed that they will be resupplied this season. You may either give us the coin to do it quickly, or we will return to our home nations for as long as it takes. There is no third option where we move to the northern front without resupply. If you give us everything we’ve asked for, both Highborn armies will be able to recruit from the religious wave in Casinea. Or you may give us nothing, and watch the Empire crumble. It is your call to make, Senators. Select an outcome and work for it!”

It’s interesting, Isaella thinks, to watch how the Senators react to that. Most are somewhere between bored and irritated - they understand what Gwyneth is saying and they’re not pleased about being lectured on it - but two of the Leaguers and one Marcher are standing very near the door and looking as though they’d rather escape through it than vote. The empty Throne stands over them, Emperor Barabbas conspicuous by his absence, leaving this routine work to go on without him.

Footsteps shake the wooden floor of the gallery as Segura raises her hand to speak, and James the Warmage says, “Hello, love.”

Isaella looks up over her shoulder to smile in greeting.

“What’s happening?”

“Funding vote for the Generals.”

James breathes in sharply through his nose, his gaze snapping out across the Senate floor.

“What?”

“I’ll tell you later,” he says softly. “You think they’ll pass it?”

Isaella considers it. “The whole ask? It’s a big ask.”

“I know. It had to be, because - Later.”

It’s not like James to be so conspiratorial. She’ll let him keep his peace for now, but - “Later had better come soon, friend,” she tells him, and James nods, his attention already fixed on the Senate.

The funding passes with enough to resupply the armies they’d otherwise have to rotate out, but narrowly fails on the extra for the Highborn recruitment. James doesn’t let go of the balcony railing until the last count is in, leaving dents where his nails pressed into the wood.

Isaella turns away from the senators still milling before the next motion gets underway, and rests her elbows on the railing behind her. “So, what was that about?”

James runs a hand through his springy curls. “Politics.”

“Yes, obviously, but details?”

“Let’s walk and talk.”

The spring sun is fiercely bright, but the air is still cold, and the wet wind rakes Isaella’s bare arms like pushing through thorns. She widens her stride to keep up with James, glad for the warmth of movement. “So, talk.”

“What did you see?”

“No, I’m not a pupil, don’t give me the runaround.”

“Power play between the generals and the Emperor.”

Isaella looks up to see him frown. “The Emperor wasn’t there.”

“No, and it might not have made much difference - The point is, the level of funding they’ve just approved doesn’t leave enough in the kitty for the navy this season.”

She whistles. “That’s deliberate? That’s exciting. They’ll have to put the shipbuilding on hold, and by their own argument that it’s about military strength they can’t object to restoring the strength of the actual military - Why don’t the Generals’ Council want the navy to be finished?”

“They don’t want an admiral commanding it without being required to cooperate with them. The theory right now is that the admiral will be independent of the generals because she won’t be fighting on the same fronts.”

“That’s a terrible theory. Who came up with that? Did they just forget about the Grendel? That the Jotun raid Wintermark from the sea?”

“Well, exactly. So they’re pushing for the Admiral to be counted as a General, and when they get that promise they’ll start considering the needs of the navy as if it was another army and miraculously the funding will all work out.”

“Sneaky,” Isaella says, approvingly. “And much tidier than having a public fight about it. Though of course it will delay the construction, unless some private citizens have very deep pockets, and the willing have already pitched in to buy the weirwood. It worries you, though.”

Jame grimaces. “I don’t like how they’re going about it. The Navy’s not of strategic importance yet, but if we do open another front against the Grendel, I don’t want our harbours being destroyed because we played politics with the shipbuilding. It’s already been approved by the Senate. We should let them build it.”

“Nobody forced them to vote. If they can’t do sums enough to know what they’re sacrificing perhaps they shouldn’t be senators.”

“Perhaps.”

They’ve reached the looming black stones of the Regio, their carvings slick with mist. James blows out his cheeks. “I have to get back to work.”

“Go,” Isaella says cheerfully, and watches his hands dance in the air, and his body ripple into invisible elsewhere.

 

**

 

Nicovar is starting to think that the field marshal did not entirely think this plan through. Worse, he’s starting to wonder whether the field marshal had a plan at all. The gate opened on a steep grassy slope, the edge of an almost-circular valley with a lake nestled in the basin, and a fortress of slate and magic perched malignantly on the far slopes. The Thule had not been expecting them, not in the specific, but - the Empire has had the Sentinel Gate for a very long time, and their enemies are familiar with the chance that Imperial warriors will pop out of the air on the solstices. They go armed. They keep close to their walls.

The Highborn general leading the battle gambled on reaching the fortress before the Thule could seal the entrance. But the distance was further than she’d hoped, and the slope much steeper. Climbing up to the fort was slow even for those not in heavy armour. By the time they got around the lake the Thule had swung the gate shut and were shooting at them from the walls.

They tried to regroup, but there were not enough shields between them to keep the arrows off, and then the Thule came out again.

They pinned the bulk of the Imperial forces against the lake, and cut them off from the last banners coming through and the safe haven of the portal back to Anvil. The archers on the walls kept shooting, whittling down the Highborn lines and the mostly shieldless Varushkans. The last and largest Marcher bill block is still trying to push forward to join them, but the Thule have the run of the valley and it’s a slow hedgehog-creep, billhooks grinding against rough steel on all sides.

Nicovar is holding the portal. He wishes that were not necessary - knows that ordinarily it isn’t - but while the barbarians can’t get through it to Anvil they can put their bodies in the way and make the Imperials bleed trying to retreat. They have to hold this beachhead or everything is lost.

Someone taps him on the shoulder. Even braced as he is for combat, he flinches at the contact. The Warmage pulls him back from his post between two swordswomen. “New plan. We’re taking down the fortress. I need your mana.”

Nicovar stares for a moment, his mind spinning like wheels in the mud, useless. Then he digs into his pouches even as James repeats himself, “Mana, everything you’ve got. I’ll pay you back if we survive.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nicovar says, and holds out a handful of crystal. “Eight, I have eight. How much more do you need?”

“That might be - Hang on.”

He spins away, fitting himself between the crowded bodies and for a moment Nicovar has a lurching sense of dislocation, the way James moves as if he’s in Conclave and this is just one more piece of politics, and then it all snaps back and Nicovar takes a deeper breath than he’s managed since he stepped through the portal and saw the state of things.

This is a game board. This is a puzzle. He can do puzzles. The Warmage needs mana to take the fortress down and that means his coven is here and they’ll be casting - Winter, he’s heard that somewhere, that the Warmage is in a Winter coven - and they won’t need to cast near the gate but they do need to get to it before the ritual unravels and the backlash goes straight through their doomsayer. They’ll never get to it in time going across the valley.

Nicovar turns to stare at the ridge above them. They’re going to go around.

When the coven have finished, the cold thrum of Winter magic shaped by cadences he can’t follow, drawn from traditions Nicovar doesn’t share, they clap each other on the shoulders and start inching back towards the portal. “We’ll hold here,” a woman says, her dark hair plaited tightly to her head. “Keep it open for you. Just get it done, Jimmy, and get your arse back over here.”

James kisses her forehead and turns away. Some of the Marchers - those not bracing pikes and billhooks - break off to follow him, and Nicovar makes a lightning decision to join the Urizen doing the same. He speaks to the sentinels in the line around him, quick and low, “The Warmage needs an escort to bring the walls down,” and they glance at each other and come to wordless agreement over who will go and who stay. The ragged little knot of them all assembles a little above the portal.

James rolls his staff between his palms. “Nine minutes. Get me to the walls, alive and talking. Anything else is gravy. Questions? Short ones?”

“Round the top?” a Marcher with a crossbow asks, fitting a bolt to her string in punctuation, and James nods grimly.

“You got it. Eight and forty. Let’s get moving.”

They take off at a run, one man tripping on a jagged rock on the steep slope and rolling down several feet before he can scramble up. He sprints flat out to catch up with them, his stride uneven. Nicovar presses in close to the back and concentrates on his breathing. The board is shifting down in the valley, the Thule pushing until the Imperials are ankle-deep in the lake, but none of them have realised yet that the queen is moving. They’re halfway around before the archers on the walls notice them.

Nicovar hears the arrows zip past them with a detached interest - ah, so we’re in range now. They’re committed to the strategy. They’re shifting too far down the slope, gravity betraying them, and Nicovar summons enough air to shout “Keep left! Keep level!” and feels the bodies reorient with him, his legs burning as he tries to run up that deadly hill. If they stop they’ll die. A sentinel drops under his feet and Nicovar skins his palms on the ground and staggers forward again. The Thule coming the other way collide and break around James’s staff, the crossbow taking one straight through the neck, the sentinel with the shield in front. Nicovar frantically blocks their swords, strikes at their heads where he can, their elbows, their fingers. How much time do they have left? How much?

James doesn’t stop running. He hits the black slate wall with a howl of grief. The woman with the crossbow is spitted on a Thule spear behind him. “I call doom upon you!” he shrieks to the stone, “Fall, you fucking arsepit of shitweasels! Get down!”

Nicovar sees the first spiderweb cracks spreading out from where James landed. This was as far as the plan went. Time for a new one.

When they finally stagger back through the gate, exhausted from battle and the final grinding push uphill to the portal, they leave far too many dead Imperials behind. Most of the Thule will survive. They brought the fortress down so the armies can move past it. Nothing else. No Thule generals slain, no secrets captured. Just blood and ruined stone.

Nicovar can’t make himself go to the Marcher camp.

He writes a letter instead.

Chapter Text

The hardened clay drums under Nicovar’s heels, dust scuffing up in his wake. Anvil ruins his clothes whatever the weather, powdered soil clinging to the cloth as stubbornly as the mud. He is beginning to understand why the Navarri wear mainly earth tones.

The Highborn camp is even more crowded than usual, squeezed into the space between the Dawnish and the hedge. Nicovar tries three different gaps before he finds a path between the tents not blocked off by guy ropes. He’s here looking for Ruth, while he still has a chance of finding her in daylight. Grandmaster Vesna’s family are here, but when he went to the Varushkan camp to find her, she was missing. She’s dealing with an emergency. He couldn’t get a clear answer about what kind of emergency, except that it involved ghosts. Vesna won’t be here until tomorrow, if she arrives at all, and Nicovar needs to know exactly how inconvenient that’s going to be.

He finds Ruth sitting on a bench with her papers spread out on the peeling wood. Kneeling beside her, so tall that he’s barely below her eye level, is the Warmage, and the sight brings a shivery tension into Nicovar’s chest. He has a sudden vivid memory of James’s fingers splayed on fortress stone, and the measured nod of approval he once gave Nicovar in Conclave, and lets himself smile for a moment. So. That’s not something he was expecting.

James sees him coming and murmurs his thanks to Ruth, passing her a mana crystal as he stands. He claps her on the shoulder in friendly goodbye and Nicovar can see the exact moment he remembers Nicovar is Urizeni and stops, with his hand already raised to greet him.

“Good to see you,” Nicovar says, and looks up through his eyelashes, and touches James very briefly on the arm.

James rubs the back of his own head, blinking. “Hi.”

“Thanks for the advice in your letter. It clarified some things.”

“Any time,” James says, still looking off balance, but he smiles shyly as he steps away. He was very warm through his thin summer shirt. Nicovar’s heart thumps pleasantly.

“She hasn’t nominated a proxy,” Ruth says loudly, pulling his attention away from James’s long legs.

“Sorry? Oh, Vesna, yes, I was going to ask - she hasn’t named one. Right. Where does that leave us?”

Ruth shuffles her papers theatrically. “It means you’re fucked. You can’t get into your vaults and you can’t speak unless the other orders help you. Two people have asked so far and I’m giving you the same answer I gave them: you can’t elect a proxy and since Vesna is still alive, she still holds the title and you can’t replace her until election time.”

A spark of anger lights him up at how stupid that is, but Nicovar just bows his head a fraction. “I understand. While I’m here, I’d like to raise a declaration, please.”

“What kind and one mana,” Ruth says, and Nicovar digs in his pouches for a crystal.

 

**

 

Conclave is poorly attended. There are no elections tonight, nothing to encourage the gossipers out of their camps. Ruth scowls at Nicovar when he comes to offer the attendance numbers for the Celestial Arch.

“You’re not the proxy,” she says irritably.

“No, and I haven’t claimed to be.”

“This is the Grandmaster’s job.”

“Ruth, the Grandmaster isn’t here. We don’t have a proxy. That’s bad enough without losing our share of the mana. Will you please note down our attendance? There are four of us, you can count us yourself if you like. Please?”

Ruth stares at him for a moment. Nicovar gives her his best polite hopefulness. “Alright. Four. I’ll record it for splitting the font, but that’s as much as I can do. No Grandmaster, no gambits, no nominations.”

“Alright. That’s fair. Thank you.”

He threads his way back through the press to his tiny Order, Tom Pollard the Marcher and Artemia of Canterspire, her hands folded into her robes and her slitted eyes already half-lidded. She hisses out her question, “Did she say yes?” and Nicovar nods.

“Reluctantly, but she did.”

“Sorry about that,” Lucrezia says brightly. “I annoyed her earlier and she hasn’t forgiven us yet.”

“What did you do?”

“I told her I was proxy.”

“Are you?”

“No, of course not. I don’t have a letter. But we’d be much better off now if she’d believed me, wouldn’t we? I took a gamble. I'd do a fine job if she'd let me.”

“Alright,” Nicovar says, surprising himself. “Alright, be proxy. Ruth won’t accept it but I’ll vote for you. Artemia? Thomas?”

Artemia tilts her head. “Impress us.”

Tom looks between them and shrugs.

“Okay then,” Lucrezia says, and her smile is wicked. “We can’t do much without a legal appointment. That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. We need to stay visible, look like we still matter, even if there’s only four of us. So what I’m saying - as your proxy Grandmaster - is that we need to vote as a block. That will make them take notice. And we need to stand at the front .”

Lucrezia, elegant in her doublet and mask, may not be legally the proxy but she looks the part. She stands right behind Ruth, her arms folded, chin raised, and before every vote she turns to the little knot of the Arch gathered behind her and whispers her vote for their agreement. The fourth declaration is another complicated Autumn deal, and Lucrezia wants to vote for, but when her three order-mates all disagree she narrows her eyes and mutters, “Fine,” and raises her hand against with the rest of them.

By the time Nicovar steps forward to make his proposal, the Conclave is paying more attention to the Celestial Arch than they have in a year. Ruth is unwittingly helping, pointing out with every call for comments that the Arch have no Grandmaster and can’t nominate speakers, and by now the Grandmaster of the Unfettered Mind is openly offering Lucrezia the chance to choose before she uses her nomination.

Nicovar’s declaration is a nothing motion, almost a private matter. He steps out into the centre and raises his voice to be heard above the general muttering. “My spire have asked me to bring this. We have a contract with the Great Library that we purchased last season at auction. It allows one ritual text to be retrieved from the library but the choice of ritual has to be approved by Conclave. The ritual we’re proposing is Focus of the Stars, which we believe allows a location to be temporarily added to the Heliopticon. That would be helpful for battlefields, among other things. There is no cost to the Conclave, you’d just be ratifying our choice of ritual.”

“Questions,” Ruth says. “The Celestial Arch cannot nominate. Unfettered Mind?”

“Lucrezia, anything to say? Right. Question for the proposer - how is this ritual different to Winged Messenger, which we already have?”

“Winged Messenger is one message in one direction. A Heliopticon node allows two-way conversation. We’re not sure of the exact cost of Focus of the Stars but it will probably be more expensive to cast.”

“Which Realm?”

“Autumn.”

Someone at the back says, “Can Ankarien even cast Autumn?” and Ruth is already shushing them - “no nomination, no questions, please” - but Nicovar says “Some of us,” anyway and that seems to be it for questions. There’s some muttering in the Golden Pyramid ranks about whether it’s the best ritual to choose, but the Grandmaster says “They own the contract” and doesn’t nominate the complainer to speak. Nicovar stays where he is until the vote passes.

The Celestial Arch vote in favour as a block.

 

**

 

When Saturday evening rolls around, after the Senate elections and a brutally straightforward battle in which three hundred Grendel and two Imperials died, Isaella goes looking for a good time. She starts off in Navarr, but she’s heard all these songs before. The night is warm and the stars are too beautiful to spend it under the trees. Anvil is calling to her.

She has some idea of going around all the nation camps, but in the end she doesn’t get further than the League, a little way down the hill. Cressida is holding court outside a trade house, her dark eyes flashing in the firelight, and Cressida feels like a fast friend already, having patched Isaella back together twice after battles. Isaella could probably squeeze onto the benches, but the ground is dry; she drops to the grass instead and stretches her feet out toward the fire, enjoying the chance to take the weight off them.

Cressida’s hand lands on her shoulder once she’s finished her story. “Hello, darling.”

Isaella tilts her head back. “Hi. You seemed to be having fun so I thought I’d come and join in.” She fumbles in her thigh pouch and for a moment thinks she’s lost it, but then smooth glass meets her fingertips. She brandishes her prize. “I brought rum!”

“Ah-ha.” Cress claims the bottle at once. “You can stay. Marcella has been drinking my cherry wine all evening and she didn’t even bring a song to pay for it.”

“I sing like a dying crow,” Isaella says.

“Really? We should find a crow and check. That’s an interesting anatomical problem.”

“I know a song about a dying crow!”

“Sing it then, Marcella!”

Marcella opens her mouth. Closes it again. From the way she's leaning sideways, she's much too drunk to pull it off. She shrugs apologetically. “No, no, I actually don’t, but give me ten minutes, I’ll think of something.”

“Looks like it’s on you, Isaella. You don’t get your rum back unless you sing.”

“Dying crow, I told you. Will a story do?”

“Of course it will, love.”

“I need cherry wine to wet my throat.”

“You sneaky cheat!” Cressida says, delighted, and while the gathering laughs and shouts “Navarr!” at her she passes down an almost empty bottle. Isaella shifts positions to free up her hands for drinking and talking, and ends up with her back braced against Cressida’s legs. Cress strokes her hair.

“Alright,” Isaella says. “Have you heard the one about the ox, the boat and the waterfall?”

Chapter Text

The Navarri are the news-bringers of the Empire. They are the messengers, the couriers, the rumour-mongers and gossip-sharers. Very little happens within the borders that some Navarri, somewhere, does not know.

As the golden summer of 197 turns to a windblown autumn, the news runs striding-swift through the Empire: Jotun in Western Scout. After forty years of almost peace, the barbarians have come back in force. The Mourn was too difficult for them a generation ago, the Marchers driving them back into mutual raiding, wasp stings across an uneasy border. Now the enemy is marching again.

The people of Western Scout are a fierce breed, toughened by constant skirmishing and the looming Vallorn at their backs. Those who settle there keep their spears close. But there is no army standing guard in Liathaven to support them and when the nation gather at Anvil, in the swift dusk under the trees, they already know the score. The border has been breached in Liathaven. The Jotun have come back to make war.

General Gwyneth stands on a bench, her feet spread wide to brace herself. The crowd around her is hot with fury.

“Liathaven is under attack,” she says bluntly. “The Black Thorns have been resupplying in Miaren. We’re marching to the border now. If anyone has a personal force that can reach them faster, First Light steading needs help getting their research out of harm’s way, speak to Bren about that. I don’t have a casualty report on the civilians but I know we lost less than we could have if some of you hadn’t stepped in. One person you know we did lose. Si Greenfall died at Stonecamp three weeks ago. He is gone, but we will see him again. That’s all.”

Gwyneth steps down, ignoring the shouted questions and chatter around her. The Senators stand forward to keep the Standing going - there are newcomers to be welcomed, elections to be announced, all the work of Anvil that goes on whatever the wars may do. Isaella threads her way through the crowd to Gwyneth’s side.

“General,” she says, under the noise of the Standing, and waits for Gwyneth’s dark eyes to flick to her. “Isaella Thornborn. I knew Si. He was a good soldier.”

Gwyneth nods. “He was. We’ll miss him.”

The polite apology for bluntness is on the tip of her tongue, but Isaella looks at the General she almost knows and swallows the words back. They’re not wanted here. “He was your Adjunct. Have you chosen a new one yet?”

“Not yet.” Gwyneth turns towards her, reading her face. “You have someone in mind?”

“Me.”

Old habit makes Isaella straighten up under the General’s scrutiny, and square her weight a little better over her feet. Gwyneth’s lips quirk in amusement. “Military experience?”

“Four years in the Black Thorns. I retired a year ago. I’ve a good head for figures and maps and I know how to hold my tongue in a meeting.”

“Where did you learn that?”

“Senate public gallery.”

Gwyneth laughs. “Expanding your portfolio? Alright. No, I’m sure loyalty is in there too. I appreciate someone who knows her way around Anvil. Yes, for now - it’s not an official position and I can change my mind any time I want, but you can come to the General’s Council and we’ll see how it goes. Don’t be late.”

The silence hangs expectantly between them, but Isaella knows a trap when she hears it and she knows what time the meeting starts and where. “I’ll be there,” is all she says, and waits for Gwyneth’s nod before she turns away.

 

The Senate rejoices in the luxury of a building for its meetings, a real building with windproof walls and a solid floor. The General’s Council has no such pleasure. The tent over Isaella’s head is sagging alarmingly under the weight of evening rain.

In the dim lantern light even the eerie precision of ushabti-script is difficult to read. Isaella squints over Gwyneth’s shoulder at her briefs. Three choices, and two battles; something will fall by the wayside. The map table is seven foot wide, painstakingly inscribed with details of territories, boundaries, terrain, and littered with the coloured markers of armies.

Laid out like this, the problem is obvious. Three Jotun armies sit at the edge of Liathaven, crowded into Western Scout in a tight little point, and the border north and south is only lightly defended. The soldiers will have to be brought across the Empire if they are not to invite attack elsewhere. The Black Thorns are marching west from Miaren, four hundred miles away, and they are only one army. They will need help.

The two conversations flow at once. Which battles will be fought tomorrow, and which armies will be moved in the coming season. The questions interlock like gears. Weaken an army here to send a defending army there; provoke retaliation here to keep the enemy in close. Gwyneth seem to be able to keep a dozen possible strategies clear in her mind at once. Isaella watches her work and keeps silent.

One battle, a rescue mission for some Liathaven stridings caught up in the attack, is finally set aside. Isaella feels it coil icy in her stomach. Those people will die. The generals have left them to die. But for that price, a supply caravan in distant Skarsind can be taken out along with the mithril the Thule desperately need to resupply their faltering troops, and thus keep the pressure off the northern front and thus the Fire of the South can march for Liathaven.

The line fighters and skirmishers will go north. The more mobile heavy troops will go east to the eternal struggle over the Barrens, to winkle a Druj general out of her stronghold before she can prepare to invade.

“The Marchers can bring the fortress down, of course,” someone says, and the whole room goes quiet for a moment. They look at the Warmage. James rubs his hand against his beard.

“We have the magical strength,” he says at last. “We don’t have the heart.”

“That tower has to come down,” insists the first speaker, a Highborn Isaella doesn’t recognise with a flaming sword embroidered on her tunic. “Are you saying you won’t do it?”

Jenny of the Bounders pushes herself up to standing. She speaks slowly, picking each word like steps over uncertain ground. “James is right. The Marchers are heartsick. Right or wrong they feel they have sacrificed more than most. The Warmage isn’t saying but the only reason they can hit a fortress is two fifteen-year-old girls who wouldn’t be citizens yet if we didn’t need magicians so badly. We need another way.”

“Then we’ll do it,” says the Towerjack general who led the charge against the Grendel, in the summer. Isaella liked him then as she likes him now.

Jenny says “How?”

“Well, I don’t mean to step on Marcher toes, but we’ve got enough Spring magicians in Holberg to raise the dead. I’ll knock their heads together and get them under a mercenary banner for tomorrow.”

“Will they want paying?”

“We’ll cover it. Or if my carta won’t, I’ll pay for it myself. We’ve got the mana. Leave it with me, I’ll kick their anthill over. You just bring along some billhooks for the ants.”

James nods at him across the map table, “Thanks, Giuseppe,” and gets a careless salute in reply.

 

**

 

Nicovar is hungover.

He’s not badly hungover. He didn’t drink that much last night, or stay up that late. He’s stayed up until dawn discussing theory before, and he’s pretty sure he had at least four hours sleep. But all the same, he is slightly hungover, and grateful for the misty breeze cooling his face.

The Urizen, as a matter of national pride, always pitch their camp closest to the regio, which makes it easy to sit under the Ankarien awning picking at a bowl of raisins until the general they’re meant to enchant shows up. His morning coffee is down to the dregs and he’s considering another, for all he’ll probably regret it later, when a little cluster of Navarri moves towards the stones and his spire-mates start picking up their staves. It’s General Gwyneth, again, and there was some muttering about her spending too much time under the Master Strategist effect, but she’s had half a year without it and doesn’t seem to be losing her grip, so they agreed to put it on her again. Nicovar thinks it’s overcautious - people stay under enchantments for years on end and it’s not like this one is experimental - but there’s a conservative faction in the spire who like to worry.

He doesn’t notice Isaella until they’ve started the ritual. Perhaps he’s more hungover than he’d thought. She’s standing beside one of the regio stones, carefully not leaning against it, with that odd squeamishness so many Navarri have about magic. Her biceps swell against her tunic. Nicovar can’t afford to think about that, or her, while he’s working, and he turns his thoughts back to the ritual with all the strength he can find. Clarity, clarity, pure rational thought. The General’s dark eyes, and not Isaella’s brown ones.

He steps over to her when they’re done. “Come to watch the rituals?”

“I’m with the General,” Isaella says, turning a little towards him, wary. “She lost her adjunct in Liathaven.”

“My sympathies,” Nicovar says automatically. “So you’ve stepped up? Congratulations. I look forward to watching your career advance.”

“Oh, really? And how is yours doing? Shall we race?”

That stings. Nicovar keeps his face pleasantly neutral. “My career in the Conclave is doing quite well, thank you. It takes time to build a reputation. You know that. And last I checked, Adjunct was still an informal position.”

Isaella smiles. There are knives in it. “So we are racing. Won’t that be interesting?” Gwyneth has finished her conversation with the spire and Isaella takes half a step away, preparing to follow her. She hesitates for a moment. “If you’re friendly with the Warmage, will you write to him? He’s lost people every summit this year. I think he could use a distraction.”

“I have been,” Nicovar says. “I will again. Thank you.”

She nods at him, and strides away into the mist. Nicovar tucks his hands into his sash and allows himself a very private grin.

Chapter Text

Isaella’s fingers are numb around her spear. The dreary grey sky presses down on the world, sullenly bleeding snow. Everyone has cold feet. The Marchers are singing their most rousing war song - you’re going home in a Marcher grow-bag, make the crops grow higher - to keep the shivers away. It’s rare for it to be this cold in Anvil even at midwinter. The soothsayers grumble about bad omens and keep their eyes on the stars.

They are going to Liathaven, to embattled Western Scout, to hunt a Jotun general. She’s been a formidable opponent, her skills honed in border skirmishes with the Faraden, outside of the Empire’s watchful control. The beachhead in Liathaven is solidly established. Western Scout is lost - the Navarri cling on to hope, to the few scattered Steadings still defending their homes, but the General’s Council were all in agreement last night. There is no way to drive those armies away except by re-conquering their own land. They could have tried to hit the forward edge of the invasion force, to take out the scouting bands and raiding parties before they disperse into the Liathaven woods and become useful to the enemy, but the generals prefer to strike at the head.

Giuseppe of the Towerjacks is playing with the field marshal’s rod, tossing it up in the air and nearly always catching it again. Isaella shifts her weight between her feet, trying to keep herself limber despite the cold. This waiting must be over soon.

When at last the Egregores have all opened the gate and the four nations assigned to this battle can pass through, the weather in Liathaven is almost a relief. The wind is high there, shaking the treetops to rain dead leaves onto their heads, but the low grey cloud of Anvil gives way to bright white skies, a knife-edge border over the Sentinel Gate, changing around them like the turning of a page. The expedition force pours through into the woods.

Liathaven is densely wooded even in its tamer parts. Here, on the isolated western edge cut of from Imperial territory by the ravenous Vallorn, the forest is carved up by sharp ridges. From their knife-edge tops you can see the gullies to either side, but no further.

Isaella stalks warily through the trees. There’s no hope of silence here, with two hundred Imperials mostly unused to woodland, and every dry twig underfoot to announce their presence. The League and the Marchers try to keep their heavy blocks together but the terrain forces them into columns, spreading out amongst the ridges. So it is that when the expedition force reaches the Trod, they are already scattered wide.

The trees give way suddenly, and the ridges beneath them, to a wide bare road. The earth has been flattened by thousands of feet, but not recently. The clouds make a white ribbon above their heads. Looking along the Trod Isaella can see General Giuseppe, the light gleaming off his bald head as he confers with the scouts. They have all straggled to a halt, waiting for directions, here on the welcoming road.

There is a moment, before any trap springs, when the prey knows it has been caught. Isaella knows in the split second before the arrow strikes Giuseppe in the chest, leaping out from the trees like a scarlet bird. The volley that follows is caught by shields and plate armour and undefended flesh, and then the orcs come out from the trees.

The Imperials have straggled wide along the Trod, little clusters of fighters spread out along the open ground. The orcs come at them in three solid points to split them further apart. Isaella loses sight of the command group almost at once behind the swarming enemy. She blocks a mace swung at her head automatically. The freezing shock breaks.

Isaella backs up towards the treeline. The Trod whispers underfoot, tempting her to stay on the clear earth, telling her that safety is here and danger in the trees, but that is part of the trap. She shouts “Get off the road! Get off the road!” over and over until it sinks in to the fighters around her and their ragged knot, cut off from the rest of the force and losing ground fast, turns its retreat towards the shadowed trees.

The orcs are cautious. On the road, spread out, they have the advantage of greater numbers and a solid line. They follow into the forest only slowly, keeping together. Isaella is surrounded by panic, by wide-eyed fighters and a tiny briar with a longbow slung across his body, bandaging wounds and bullying the injured into chewing packets of herbs. Isaella keeps her eyes and her spear on the enemy in front and lets the physick do his work behind her.

They step raggedly backwards along the narrow gully. There’s a stream down the bottom, threatening to trip them and soaking their ankles when they break through the thin ice. The orcs have decided to treat the little valley as a road, as if its walls could not be climbed, and formed themselves into a five-strong shield line. The Navarri take out three or four with their bows, climbing the steep slopes to get over the blocking shields, but when the trees thicken they are forced down to the valley bottom again. They’re vulnerable enough without getting further separated.

There’s a crashing through the trees on their left like a herd of charging elks. Isaella and half her companions turn to guard their flank, arrows trained toward the ridge. Her heart sinks at the scale of the noise. Their little group can’t defend on two fronts.

The figures pushing through the undergrowth wear long pale robes, some blue, some cream, stained to the knees with mud and grass.

Isaella grins. She shouts “Enemy down the valley!” to get the Urizeni back on their guards. Lightly armoured they may be, but a phalanx or magicians was never unwelcome in close fighting.

The newcomers trickle down into the group. Isaella finds herself next to Nicovar, his beautiful red overrobe stained black from a roll in the mud. He says grimly, “We need to push on to the gate.”

Isaella doesn’t turn to stare at him, but only because she needs her eyes for the orcs. “The gate is back behind you.”

No, it isn’t.”

It is. We bore right across the ridges when we came through and down towards the Trod. That’s the direction you came from.”

There’s a Trod?”

She stabs her spear toward an advancing orc’s thigh, who catches it on her shield and keeps plodding stubbornly forwards. “The big road. The big road , in the middle of a forest , what the hell else would it be? Didn’t you feel it?”

Nicovar’s voice is very calm. “Evidently I need to become more familiar with trods. I will work on that. Later. We reached the road but the main force had already been driven off it. We were looking for them when we found you.”

There’s no chance of finding them now, not in this terrain. We wouldn’t know if they were in the next valley over. We have to get home.”

For more than an hour, thirty Navarr and Urizeni argue over the points of the compass, tell each other not to panic, and stumble through undergrowth that rises sometimes higher than their heads. Isaella kills two orcs who try to put steel into Nicovar; he paralyses one on the point of skewering her. Their physick with the longbow runs out of arrows, and then out of herbs. Isaella concentrates on defence and tries to ignore the creeping dread along her spine.

In the end, they come at the gate from behind. They are spread out along a ridge too narrow for a crowd, with two orc scouts in the valley at their feet, trying to shoot them down before they can bring more forces to bear. They can’t take another battering from the heavy troops, and Isaella knows they’re too widely spaced on this ridge, but she can’t bunch them back up without raising her voice and alerting the enemy. She is searching for a clear path down the slope when she finally sees the Sentinel Gate, standing proud on a ridge, dark grey against the dull winter trees. They came past it in the confusion and need to almost retrace their steps, but they’ve found it. She grabs Nicovar’s arm to point the way.

Her stomach heaves when she passes back under the Gate’s stone archway. Her vision blurs. Gateshock, they call it, the backlash of magic against those who stay too long on the other side. Anvil wraps around her like a grey blanket, snow crowding down amongst the tents. She staggers wearily away from the gate. It’s habit, to get herself out of the way of the massed troops behind her, even when a ragged band of twenty-six is all she has brought home. Nicovar is still at her side.

They are swept apart by a flurry of physicks. Cressida takes Isaella’s spear and sighs at her. “Really, Sal? The same collar-bone again? You’re going to be aching for weeks. At least break the other one for a change.” Isaella tries to shrug and immediately regrets it; she sits down on the bench she’s pointed at and lets Cress work.

Where’s Lucrezia?” she asks, when her stomach has calmed down enough for conversation. “She’s usually here, isn’t she?”

She’s doing politics, darling.”

Really? Conclave?”

Mm. She’s going to be Grandmaster by tonight. Don’t shout it around too loudly, it’s not strictly definite yet, but your friend Nicovar is on her side and the whole order only has about ten voters present, so it’s a sure thing.”

Isaella looks at her smiling face suspiciously. She can’t prove anything, but Cressida carries on her belt an identical mask to the one Lucrezia is never seen without, and sometimes they hide in dark shadows together, and Cressida’s memory is oddly patchy - “Congratulations. I haven’t heard they’ve done much recently. Lucrezia can shake them up a bit. And anyway, he’s not my friend.”

Isn’t he? I’m going to lift this arm up so I can get your armour off. Brace yourself.”

Isaella takes a deep breath, and watches the silent Gate for survivors.

Chapter Text

By the spring equinox, Liathaven is well and truly lost. The Vallorn holds the centre, as dark and hungry as ever. The Jotun have overrun the rest. The fighting still grinds on in Liath’s Ring and the Glen, but there is no real hope there. The Imperial armies will have to dig in their heels and wait for reinforcements.

Isaella is bitterly familiar with the state of the war. She spent her season on the front, carrying General Gwyneth’s messages from one barely-held point to another. The Black Thorns were her own army, not two years ago, and too many of the dead are her friends. They lay the bodies in the corpse glades, reclaim their armour, and march on.

She sits with James on the edge of the Senate dais, after a grim Military Council meeting that dragged on into the night. Guiseppe was grey by the time they finished, the arrow wound not quite healed, but he brought them no brilliant solutions. The generals will make no advance in Liathaven. The Jotun offer a compromise, a peaceful border on the north provided the Imperials move no armies there, make no preparations to defend themselves. They may yet step into that trap. The Marchers of Bregasland are sharpening their bills.

James passes her a flask. She sips from it, incautious, expecting apple brandy; the taste of strong ginger shocks her upright. The burn in her throat owes nothing to alcohol.

“What is this?”

“Ginger cordial.” James takes the flask back and drinks slowly, letting it linger on his tongue. “Bess makes it. With, I think it’s turmeric root, and common vervain. Good for the aches.”

“You know common vervain doesn’t work like the real stuff, don’t you?”

James shrugs, handing her the flask again. “Then it tastes like it’s good for the aches, which is close enough.” He leans back on his hands, face tilting up to the canvas ceiling, and sighs heavily. “Where’s your home, Sal?”

“The Black Thorns, mainly. I grew up in Miaren, got a bit of forest there, but I pay a forester to manage it. I spent four years in the army. Now I’m back again. What about you, you’re a Mournwold lad, aren’t you?”

“Mm. Far west, we’ve got family in Bregasland, but it’s the Mourn for me. Too close to the Jotun, nowadays.”

“Aren’t we all?” Isaella looks at him sideways, the line of his body and his long legs stretched out, and leans backwards to match him. Their shoulders bump together.

James glances at her, his lips quirking. “Thought you were carrying a flame for young Nicovar?”

“Him?” Isaella shakes her head. “He’s very pretty. And rude. And a little up himself, if we’re being honest.”

James laughs out loud, his eyes crinkling up. “He’s ambitious.”

“Why are we talking about Nicovar?” Isaella nudges James with her knee and takes another sip of his ginger cordial. “You know, this stuff is growing on me. You don’t drink?”

“I don’t drink at summits,” James corrects her. “Too much else to do.”

“Very wise.”

James raises a finger. “Prudent. Cautious, even. But wisdom lies in action, and should never be confused with... sensible restraint.” His eyes are very dark in the lantern light, before he leans over and kisses her.

His kiss is gentle, undemanding, inviting her to respond, and Isaella answers it willingly. His beard prickles against her skin. She is shifting her weight to reach for him when James ducks his head and dissolves into laughter.

“What?” Isaella sits up to stare at him.

“I’m sorry, I can’t.” James shakes his head, laughter making him breathless. “I feel like the throne is watching me.”

Isaella cackles. “Should we invite Barrabas? An Imperial witness? Maybe he’d want to join in.”

“Could you really? With an Emperor?”

“Well,” Isaella says, pretending to consider it, “maybe not with Barrabas.”

James runs his hands through his hair. It springs back wilder than before. “Definitely not with Barrabas.”

“And not here.”

“Not here.”

Isaella rolls onto her feet, her tired back twinging in complaint. James sprawls on his back. He looks very foreign in his Marcher shirt with his face unmarked by ink. She smiles. “There’s always a fire in Navarr, this time of night. Singing. It’s a nice way to spend the evening.”

“There’s not much evening left.” James looks up at her, considering, and reaches for her outstretched hand. “But I’ll spend some time in Navarr.”

His hands are very warm in the cool spring night, and he tastes of ginger.

 

The Ankarien tent is filled with refugees.

Nicovar sits outside it, in the sunshine, basking. It was a bitter winter among the lofty spires of Urizen and the naga in the delegation are all outside with him, moving as the light moves and pretending they have good business to keep them out here in the sunbeams. Yesterday Archimedes brought out his huge cushion and lay on it reading stories to the children and tanning the back of his neck. He had no shame at all, and so neither will Nicovar.

At least, he has no shame in enjoying the sun. The tent full of refugees gives him a sour feeling in the pit of his stomach. It’s foolish to feel guilty. He has spent his life on the far side of the Empire from Liathaven and its sudden wretched collapse. Urizen has done its share of fighting, is fighting now, twenty sentinels gone to shore up the defence of the Barrens, and unlikely to bring all twenty back again. Why should Nicovar feel ashamed that he is not hurt?

He does all the same.

Archimedes has not been their Arbiter for long, but he did not earn the position by being stupid. He cracks one slitted eye and says “Do something about it, if it upsets you.”

“It doesn’t upset me,” Nicovar says, “it offends my sense of justice.”

Archimedes hisses out a laugh. “Yes, you’re still young enough to have one of those. Who told you there was justice in war? It wasn’t me. I taught you that when you can’t win, you find a different weapon. So far you’ve tried moping - how’s that strategy working for you?”

“Lend me a mana crystal,” Nicovar says.

Archimedes opens the other eye. He glares at Nicovar for a moment, then digs in the folds of his sash, serene again. He tosses a sharp-cornered crystal over, flashing glassy-bright in the sun. “Don’t spend it all at once.”

The Ankarien spire has several awnings, but the Liathaven refugees are gathered in the big meeting tent. It has nice clear boundaries, smooth white canvas drawn right down to the floor, with only the rolled-up flap of the doorway breaking the perimeter, and Nicovar can walk all the way around it with his stave touching the cloth. Perfect, in other words, for an enchantment.

The ritual isn’t strictly one he knows. He’s read scripts for it, of course, and he understands enough magical theory to know how it’s put together, but he hasn’t memorised the invisible mechanics. He’s juggling pieces in his mind as he walks and hums, twisting the stars into place as he goes. Archimedes listened with his head cocked and nods approvingly, lifting his feet out of the way with his eyes still comfortably closed. Nicovar can feel how inefficiently he’s using the crystals, his own and what he borrowed, but it’s doing the trick. The magic coils into place around the tent.

The voices inside drop lower. The edge of panic eases away from them, fraying tempers soothed by the balm of magic, cool dawn light overtaking the fires. A simple ritual, practically a spell, and Nicovar’s own nerves are so much easier with the hubbub inside the tent gentling down that he might learn it properly, to cast more easily the next time.

Nicovar looks in through the open flap. He meets the eyes of an exhausted refugee, her toddler sleeping on her lap and an ugly brand on her cheekbone, still fresh. He nods to her respectfully. It must have taken courage, to step up in the face of disaster. Lucia sits among them like a dove among sparrows, tall and upright in her fine ivory robes, unmarked by road dirt or grass.

The Brand glances at someone beside the door, half her attention still on the difficult conversation about resettling them near the Spire’s timber plantation, and the someone turns out to be a young woman barely out of her teens. She carries a wicked knife at her hip. Nicovar moves back a little to make room for her as she steps across the threshold and back inside, her head raised as if listening while she passes into enchantment and out again. Old stories may speak of magicians with silver marks on their skin, but this is the clearest sign of a practitioner Nicovar can think of.

“Solace of Chimes?”

Nicovar nods. “Yes. I thought it might help.”

“It won’t make anyone feel better,” the woman says bluntly. “Magic never does.”

“Perhaps not, but I personally prefer to be unhappy and calm, if I can manage it. Wouldn’t you rather have the choice?”

She sniffs. “Urizeni. We’re not like you, magician. We don’t shame people for having hearts.”

Nicovar is still searching for a response when she scowls and ducks back into the shaded tent, to rejoin her people.

Chapter Text

Kimus is a creature of crystal and blinding light. Its chambers are filled with eyes, some hollow as glass or shimmering like soap bubbles, some polished quartz, three flickering balls of bluish fire. They spin about an invisible centre, their orbits unfathomable to any mortal mind.

There is a figure, in amongst the dancing eyes, but it does not move. It is draped in yellow veils, their ends waving in a breeze no other being feels, and its eye sockets are bare empty skin. The light comes from behind it, painfully white, no matter where you stand to look from. It does not move or speak.

Nicovar thinks it isn’t alive.

Alive is a slippery concept, here in the Realms. Even in the mortal world it blurs around the edges, the not-yet-living and the almost-dead. Here it is worse, for not everything that moves has a spark of its own. Magic can move a body as easily as it calls a storm, and this body with no sight that stands between the Thousand Eyes, although it breathes, although it smiles, seems only a statue that magic built.

The Eternal herself - itself - is scattered amongst the floating eyes, and they are always watching.

The hairs on Nicovar’s neck began prickling the moment he walked into this chamber, and they have not stopped yet. One of the smaller globes came to inspect him, flying around his head and exploring the openings of his sleeves, before a voice from everywhere said “I have come. The Archmage has not come to greet me. That is impolite.”

It was impolite. It was completely contrary to protocol. But, as many Eternals did, Kimus had at some time in the last century left a minor magical artefact in the world, as a way of attracting interesting conversationalists. Lucrezia had won the black marble ball (perfectly round, of course) in a wager on a Dawnish tourney, from a shipbuilder who knew what it was but had no real use for it. It only did two things - it could be burned like mana to power a particular scrying ritual or, much more usefully, sent back to the Eternal in exchange for an audience.

They ought to have invited the Archmage along, but they hadn’t.

The eyes spin around them, uncomfortably chaotic in their movements. “You have names,” Kimus says, serene.

“Yes, we do,” Lucrezia agrees. “Would you like to know what they are?”

A globe of solid crystal floats in front of her face. “Masks are for concealment. The League use them to assume roles and, by choosing how they are observed, shape themselves. The Urizen control their expressions for the same purpose.” Nicovar tries not to step back as the globe flies over to him, staring into one eye and then the other. “I would like to know your names.”

“I am Nicovar, of the great Library of Ankarien,” he answers, keeping his tone level. “This is Lucrezia D’Holberg, Grandmaster of the Celestial Arch, my friend and head of my Order.”

“It is a long time since any dignitary of the Empire sought audience with Kimus.”

Well,” Lucrezia says, grinning under her mask, “that’s why we thought we’d pay a visit.”

 

The presence of the Emperor in the Military Council should in principle, have made no difference. Barabbas might not have been a General before he was appointed to the throne, but he had attended many times since then and should have known how the meetings went.

Isaella, watching silently from her place behind Gwyneth’s shoulder, thought that perhaps he just didn’t care.

“I understand about Liathaven,” the Emperor said impatiently. “I understand about the threat to the Marches. I also understand that the Jotun have granted us a ceasefire and they always honour their treaties. All you have to do to protect the Marches is keep the raiding from getting out of hand. New armies and fortifications - you can’t move the army into Bregasland even if you could equip it.”

“Do not be so light about Liathaven, Barrabas.”

“I am not light about it, Giselle. If you have a plan to retake it with the Jotun as strong as they are, please, tell me! But I don’t believe you do. I don’t believe any of you do. I know how the Military Council feels about the Navy. I also know that the treaty with the Jotun forbids us from moving our armies into place. But it says nothing about naval forces and we must weaken them somehow or the Marches will be lost and who knows how much more? I am not here to give orders. Virtues guide, I’ve learned my lesson about that.” Some of the assembled Generals only wince at his levity, but there’s a scattering of honest laughter. “I’ve come to suggest a compromise. Will you hear it?”

The generals glance at each other, wary. Isaella can almost hear the thought forming: what harm could it do to listen? Papers are set down on the map table, a pointed reminder that while they are listening they are not doing the work they came here for, and finally Miriam of the Silent Tide hands over the field-marshal’s rod, surrendering her authority to Barrabas.

He sets his hands on the map table, framing himself in the lantern light. “Thank you. My council, my generals, I know we have not agreed on how the Empire’s navy should be run. I know what you have done to slow it down and I have not fought with you on that. I have not taken the money, as the Throne can, to build what my generals wish I should not. But the time is over for politics. Liathaven lies under the yoke. The Marches are threatened. We must let them play on our borders, or else be forsworn. And so I ask you this: dig deep. Find your courage. Let me finish the fleet, and I give you my word, not as your Emperor, but as an Imperial, that until we agree how the admiral is to be governed, I will not let an admiral be appointed. I will take the fleet myself. I will submit tot he guidance of this council on where that fleet should sail and what it should dot here, until we are ready to return it to the nations. I can’t force you to do this - I won’t force you to do this. If you refuse to fund the fleet, it will not be built. But if it is not, then Bregasland will fall, and Liathaven will be lost for a generation. We have not always been friends. But we are all Imperials, and if we cannot work together, we will fall apart.”

Barrabas lets the moment stretch. He straightens slowly, fixing the generals in turn with his stare. The lantern flickers in the silence, until at last he offers Miriam her rod, and sweeps out into the dusk.

 

Saturday’s Conclave is always a mess. Nicovar has learned this since he first came to Anvil. Friday may pass quickly, as people give their speeches and make their bids for mana supplies, but Saturday is both the first session since they have had a chance to do something and the last session at which they can do anything, and the combination makes for chaos. The agenda fluctuates through the day, as people raise their motions and remove them again, trying to push private deals through with the threat of public attention. Nicovar just put his on the list when he came out of his audience with Kimus, and went to find his dinner.

His spire don’t exactly welcome him as a hero when Conclave is over. Half of them were at the session anyway, and not all of them voted in his favour. Archimedes rose from his cushion to stand pointedly with the abstentions. Nicovar endures the quiet disapproval from his spire-mates while they discuss the other business of the day, the scrying they’ll need to do tomorrow for the warmage and the complex arrangements being made with the Thrice-Cursed Court to keep them at each other’s throats and inclined to give boons to the Empire for helping them quarrel.

“I suppose you’re not sorry?” Archimedes says at last, looking at him, and Nicovar sits up a little straighter.

“I’m not at all sorry,” he says. “I was within my rights to meet with Kimus and within my rights to propose a declaration. The Conclave approved it. I have nothing to be ashamed of.”

“It was rude,” Lucia says, very calm. “Julia is an ally. You should not have used it to ambush her. You could have had all the credit you deserve without embarrassing the Daymage.”

“The Celestial Arch has found its ambition again. I hope that Ankarien will do likewise.”

Archimedes sighs. “So, you’re going for the Archmageship. As you so eloquently put it, you’re within your rights. But it’s a rough hand you’re using. You should have told us, Nicovar, your spire, and we would have supported you. We know you have potential. We would be delighted to bring the archmage home again. But you have to trust us. You went off to this audience alone, with only a Leaguer for company, and she’s an autumn mage - do you really think she won’t turn on you?”

“Lucrezia is a sound ally,” Nicovar says, stung.

“At the moment.” Lucia folds her hands over her sash. “We won’t stop you from standing. But if you want us to campaign for you, you will need to give us some trust in return. We are your spire-mates, and you are young. You cannot do everything on your own.”

“If nothing else, you’ll need our help in casting,” Archimedes says, and Nicovar has to smile at that. Archimedes can’t sound mercenary even when he’s trying. He’s been bargained with more effectively by toddlers.

“Very well,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “I apologise for keeping you in the dark. Where would you like to start?”

Chapter Text

Isaella wakes early, by long habit. Years in the army, and then again with the army she’s no longer part of, have ground a rhythm into her bones. Here in the gathering autumn she wakes almost exactly with the sun’s rise, and curls a little deeper into her blankets, watching the grey light creep under the canvas. There is a breeze coming through along with it, promising a bright day and hands reddened by the cold. She needn’t get up yet, not at a summit, not with a breathing warmth against her back, and Isaella closes her eyes again and sleeps.

She is woken the second time by a pathetic groaning. She rolls over in her cocoon of bedding to see James lying on his back, his hair springing wide as a halo, with his hand over his eyes.

“Good morning,” she says brightly.

“No,” James says. “No. I disagree.”

“You can’t possibly be hung over. You barely drank anything.”

“Make the light go away,” James says plaintively. “It’s bad. Why is it so bright?”

“You’re in a tent, lover.” Isaella eases herself out of her blankets, leaving them ready to creep into again tonight. “Light comes into tents. Do Marcher houses not have windows?”

James rubs his face. “I live in a cave. I have a burrow. I’m a potato that got up and walked around.”

“Very long-legged potato. Sit up, dear, you can’t have breakfast until you put your trousers on.”

He peeps at her through his fingers. “Coffee? Coffee, Sal?”

“Trousers first.”

“You drive a hard bargain.”

James doesn’t have the trick of slipping snake-like out of his blankets without tangling them. He pushes the layers off himself and lies there a moment, apparently dazed by the exertion. He raises his head when Isaella straddles his thighs, but she’s only climbing over him to find herself a clean tunic. “If we all go home and sleep instead, do you think the Empire will notice?”

“We need to fund the armies first. They will definitely notice if they stop getting paid. And we should probably let Barrabas have his fleet to play with. But that’s just budgets. First Senate session is at eight, they can pass the budget and we can all go home by what, ten o’clock this evening?”

“Sounds good. I can poke the Conclave with my poking-stick to adjourn until winter.”

“Ah yes, the official Warmage poking-stick for recalcitrant magicians.”

“It’s not official,” James says mournfully. “I have to supply my own poking-stick. These are hard times, Sal, hard hungry times.”

“Would porridge make them easier?”

“Significantly.”

“Good. There’s a Striding in the woods does porridge and coffee for a ring. You can get me some as well.”

James makes a show of how creaky his back is trying to get his trousers on whilst lying down, and goes to fetch breakfast.

 

Nicovar is not used to being nervous when he goes to Conclave. This should all be routine by now, the agenda as familiar as the banners on the walls, a tamed and docile thing. He should not be tempted to tuck his hands into his sash to hide the sweat of his palms. He should not feel his heart pressing against the cage of his ribs. He should be calm.

He feels unready. That’s the difference here, against his other speeches and declarations. He knows what he’s going to say,he knows his arguments, but it doesn’t feel like enough. The Conclave does not like timewasters, or arrogant upstarts who lose elections - if he doesn’t take the crown this time it will be years before he can reasonably try again.

Julia rolls over to him, looking very stern in her belt and chain of office, the staff strapped to the back of her chair like a flag. “Good evening, Nicovar.”

“Good evening, Archmage.”

“I thought you might try this, after that little victory with Kimus.”

Nicovar bows politely. “The Empire is well served by friendship with Kimus. I was honoured by your support.”

“Once you raised the declaration, I could hardly speak against it. I’m saddened that we can’t work together, Nicovar. You’re a very bright young man. Your ambition does you credit. But have you considered the effect on the Conclave?”

“I hope it will be enlivened by the change.”

“It will be fractured by the debate.” Julia turns to sit beside him, looking out over the Conclave together. “They are factional. Small grudges become magnified in this chamber. A major disagreement now will damage our ability to act for seasons to come. We are too slow to respond to crisis now. Are you willing to hinder us further?”

Nicovar admires the strategy even as he counters it. “Stagnation will not help us. If we are factional, perhaps we need someone new to unite behind.”

Julia looks at him sideways, and shakes her head.

 

“You know me,” Nicovar says to the assembled Conclave. “You know that I brokered an alliance with Kimus the All-Seeing, after decades of silence that profited our enemies. You know that I have negotiated with Phaleron and played chess with the heralds of Zakalwe. I will not speak against Archmage Julia. I respect her wisdom. Even more than that, I respect her expertise. But change must come. A new Archmage forces our Eternal allies to reconsider how much they give us. It shakes them out of complacency. We have been well served by Julia’s leadership but this Conclave has stood still for too long. We are fossilising. We must change.”

Julia, as the incumbent, has the right of defence. Nicovar would normally step back to let the Archmage speak - he takes a small pleasure in holding his position as an equal. “You know Nicovar,” she starts. “You also know me. I have served as your Archmage for four years. I have overseen the scrying of our borders, every battlefield, every season. Nicovar speaks of change but change is not good in itself. I have given you stability. When this election is over, I will continue that work. Amity with Kimus is a valuable thing and I do not deny Nicovar’s achievement. But it is not enough to build an Archmageship upon. I will take questions.”

The factions form just as Julia said they would. They reveal themselves by their questions, who they ask, what they imply. One calls Julia “Archmage” and pointedly asks her to expand on her achievements; one asks Nicovar if he won his chess match; Daniel of Rachel’s Guard is very polite to the honourable archmage, has nothing but respect for her leadership, but has been doing most of the scrying coordination for two years and would be happy to continue doing it for whoever carries the staff. Lucrezia throws Nicovar a bone, asking about the most flattering details of the Kimus meeting. Archimedes speaks up from his cushion to suggest that Nicovar’s spire is bigger, more able to cast major rituals on short notice. Julia’s spiremates jump in to make some counterpoint about practice and only manage to reinforce the point.

The show of hands is very tight. Ruth nods and says “We’ll count. Julia, move to the left, please, Nicovar to the right. All Imperial magicians present have the right to vote. If you’re part of the Faraden delegation, please stand at the back, and any abstentions can join them there. Everyone who is voting, form up on the side of your chosen candidate in lines of five. Thank you.”

It comes close. It comes unbearably close. The Conclave takes a long time to settle, shuffling between one side of the Hall of Worlds and the other, lining themselves up, speaking with their allies to make their choices together. Nicovar counts the lines as they form and feels the knot tightening in his chest. Julia was right. Factions. Fractures forming under their hands.

Julia turns to face him.

“I concede.”

The Conclave, still shuffling into place, does not hear her. She raises her voice. “I concede to the challenger. I support Nicovar for Archmage. Please do not vote for me. I concede.”

Nicovar stands stunned, while the magicians crossing the hall break around him, a flowing tide. He can almost taste the salt in the waves.

There ought to be a moment to breathe. There ought to be stillness, between the battle and the weary onward march, a silence after the great tree comes down. Nicovar holds himself stiff, keeping his composure while magicians shake his hand or pause to bow in congratulation. The agenda picks up again, the river rolling onward, before he can thread his way through the back of the crowd to find Julia.

She raises her chin. Nicovar bows.

“I am humbled by your character, Archmage.”

“No longer Archmage.” Julia reaches over her shoulder to snap the buckle holding her staff in place. She draws it into her lap, seven foot of wood and craft.

“Legally speaking, the honour is yours until the Conclave adjourns tonight.”

Julia’s eyes narrow. “Do not presume to teach me. Under the circumstances, you’ll understand if I prefer to return to my camp. I have been suddenly struck by weariness.”

“Quite understandable,” Nicovar agrees. “I meant what I said, about valuing your-”

“Don’t. Have some manners, Nicovar. Give me a season before you start fishing for my pearls.”

She slips a ornate chain of silver and white enamel over her head. “The Chain of Aesh. And the Belt of Stars. The chain has been used, the belt has not.”

Nicovar puts on the chain, takes the belt that resembles armour more than anything, pale stiff leather inscribed with the symbols of his Realm. He looks at the staff resting on Julia’s knees.

She sighs and holds it up, balanced in her strong hands. “This is not my staff. It belongs to the Empire.”

Nicovar reaches for it. He is stopped by Julia's glare.

“This is not your staff. It belongs to the Empire. Use it well, and give it up, when the time comes.”

He bows low, in respect for the lesson, before he takes the staff of his new office and turns to the business of his Conclave.

Chapter Text

The first sign of something wrong was when the messages failed.

The news flashed around the heliopticon in frantic shards of light: the Winged Messengers will not bear the messages, we have no word, the Emperor’s fleet does not respond. Barrabas is silent. Barrabas is lost.

There is a peculiar delicacy around the word “dead”. The scholars of Ankarien, good citizens of the Empire, talk around the Emperor’s death as they might step around a crack in the floor. They say “If he is truly gone,” as if they could not read the signs. Messages from outside Urizen are always slower to travel, but not by much, with the Navarri messengers running every hour of the day. They know there has been no word, that across the League merchants have fled home on the breath of a storm, and the whole Empire waits. And waits, three more weeks, until the keel of a warship washes up in the Brass Coast, at the mouth of the great bay, a wooden breastbone snapped clean of every rib.


Even before the summit starts, magicians are gathering around the regio. Tomorrow is the solstice, and neither sunset nor the Emperor’s shade will wait for them. By the time Nicovar has strapped on his regalia and made his way to the stones, they are already glowing red with power. The circle is filled with Marchers, the Warmage’s coven, their faces eerie in the magelight. Twin girls hold the centre, barely more than teenagers, their staves braced against each other, perpetually pushing apart. The duality of life and death, from which they will draw forth the fallen soul; Nicovar admires the metaphor even as the mist coils in to hide the working. This is one of the great rituals, the kind magicians dream of performing, and like all such magic it is dangerous. They have set their lure for Barrabas. Other things may still take the bait.

There is a noise like thunder, or cracking stone - Nicovar dodges away from the nearest pillar before he realises it isn’t falling. The circle is half-filled with mist, with smoke from the torches, with moving bodies, but in snatched glimpses he sees the feet of the girls are sliding over the grass, their staves pushed apart by a darkness, blacker than the dusky sky, and moving. It holds the eyes. The darkness twists and contracts, building itself a body, and for a moment every hand is tensed upon a weapon, until it speaks.

Where am I?”

The teenagers look panicked, but they keep their hands on their staves. One of them turns her head, her mouth opening to speak, before the coven leader raises one hand and steps forward. “Do you know my voice?” she demands, and the shadow figure flinches.

I don’t know you. Who are you? Where are we?”

She steps forward, the torchlight gleaming on her braided hair. The shadow is taller and yet she looms over it. “Do you know my face , spirit?”

Somewhere in the darkness, eyes focus on her.

I do not know you,” it says at last, in the voice of the dead Emperor. “I have forgotten. It has been so long.”

Do you know your name?”

I have forgotten. There have been so many. I forget them all. Who are you asking me to be?”

Annie looks down for a moment, fumbling to fit her wand back into its sheath. She looks weary, her eyes tired - Nicovar realises with a start that she has been weeping. “Were you once the Emperor Barrabas, who was my friend.”

I do not know,” the shadow says earnestly. “I might have been once. I will try to be, if you like.”

Barrabas was last heard of aboard the Basilisk’s Daughter at the head of the First Fleet. Do you remember what happened to the fleet?”

The figure looks from side to side, perhaps trying to think. There are hints of a face under its shifting cowl. “I don’t recall. Are you sure it’s happened? Might it still be to come?”

Annie’s shoulders sag.

She keeps questioning the figure as long as it stays, through the whole span the ritual can give her, but the shadow never gives her anything of worth.


Isaella, out of habit, heads for the Senate when the summit begins, but she doesn’t make it down the hill. Anvil looks like a kicked anthill, everyone out and mingling regardless of the deepening mud. She can almost see the gossip flowing along the road.

Senator,” someone calls from behind her, “Senator! A moment, please?”

She squints through the dusk at a pair of Navarri brokers. “I’m not the Senator - I was her proxy, last time, though. What do you need?”

Is it true about Barrabas?”

That depends what you’ve heard. It’s true he’s missing. The whole fleet is missing, we’ve had no word for seven weeks. What else are they saying?”

That the Grendel ambushed him and wiped them out.”

I hope that part’s not true,” Isaella says honestly, “but I can’t know for sure until there’s been some scrying done. We should know more by tomorrow. Tonight, if the Warmage moves fast.”

I heard the Warmage was trying to bring him back.

Isaella recognises the fascinated horror of high magic. She wore the same expression this morning when James explain what he was going to do. “It’s called Whispers through the Black Gate. It’s not meant to bring anyone back. It’s just meant to let them talk to him. I know, it’s - risky, but we definitely won’t have Barrabas wandering around when he should be dead. Apparently they might bleed from the eyes if he’s not actually dead yet. They’re magicians and the risk is to themselves.”

But they’re not vates,a new voice mutters, and Isaella turns to re-affirm that while Navarri magicians should be vates, Marcher magicians are beholden to other rules, and pushes down the instinctive twist in her own stomach at the thought of meddling with magic unprotected.

The conversation draws others, and more rumours to dispel, until Isaella shouts for someone to bring her a box and starts over with what she knows. She is finally interrupted by a Highborn racing past them, her boots threatening to slide out from under her, shouting “Barabbas is dead! The Emperor is dead!”

The crowd turns in stages, trying to find the Highborn in the dark. Isaella stops trying to speak over her and points instead. “You, in the white hood! What have you heard?”

The Marchers talked to him! At the Regio!” The highborn skids to a halt and leans on her knees to cough. She waves away the flask hastily offered from the crowd. “I’m a scholar. I know that ritual. He’s gone. The whole fleet’s gone.”


The summit passes like a dream. Isaella keeps waiting for the world to shatter, like a bowl dropped from wet hands, frozen in the moment before it falls. The Throne is dead, unexpectedly and before his time. The fleet is missing. The sailors may all be lost. And yet - and yet - the summit goes on. The Senate holds its votes. The generals meet in council. Nothing has changed at all.

She finds Nicovar without meaning to, digging mechanically into a bowl of mushy rice, stained yellow with turmeric and dry smoked fish. Isaella sets her plate down and sits beside him.

Bean stew?”

It looked better than the rice.”

He huffs out something almost a laugh. “I’ve eaten worse, though not willingly. Next time I’ll stick to beans. How’s your summit been?”

Isaella pokes at her stew, trying to decide if that’s swede or just a very yellow potato. “Long. And short. And strange.”

The Throne is dead.”

Yes, he is. I was not expecting that, this time in autumn.”

And yet here we are.”

The stew is still uncomfortably hot. Isaella nibbles at her spoonful, watching Nicovar’s careful way of eating, keeping his wide sleeves out of his bowl.”How has your summit been?”

In two halves,” he says, thoughtful. “One, here, in Anvil, where Barrabas is dead, and we mourn a great disaster. And one in the Hall of Worlds, where it is just a change in the tides. They watch, but they do not care.”

Do you mean the Conclave or the Eternals?”

Nicovar frowns at his rice.

So now what? Do we - I know what we do, I’ve read the Constitution, I understand how this works - but do we just go on? Pretend as if nothing is changing?”

Of course we’ve changed.” Nicovar turns towards her, his bowl abandoned. “The stars are moving above us. Everything will change. But you see it yourself, the shape of the Empire holds back the chaos. We don’t have to drown here. We can harness the tide.”

"To where?" Isaella looks at him, eye to eye, and for a moment her fingers itch for the dagger at her belt. “To take us where, Nicovar? You have one title. Are we still racing for another?”

The Throne cannot stand empty forever,” Nicovar says, and his smile is fierce and secretive, like the fire in his eyes.

Chapter Text

The Sentinel Gate spits them out into a blaze of morning light, glittering across the ocean’s face.

The Imperials stream through the Gate in their separate sections; the Highborn first, spreading out into a solid mass of shields, to hold against the enemy, and behind them the roaring mass of Wintermark. Navarr and Urizen take the rear and the flanks, to pick off stragglers. They have the wide empty hills of Urizen on their left, and the sea on their left beats against the crumbling cliffs. The narrow cliffside path pokes bare rock through the grass and guides them, onwards and down, towards the harbour and the Grendel ships.

There are five ships sheltering in the little bay, leaning over as their bottoms sink into the mud, stranded by the tide. Navarri and Highborn archers, all in brown leather with only tattoos to tell them apart, cluster behind the shield-wall, waiting for their moment. A leggy Changeling youngster carries the keg of fire tar, its wood swollen from soaking in water all night, and two full quivers of arrows on her hips. Isaella paces the archery group from her place on the cliff edge. Not yet, not yet. Not time to light that barrel of tar. Not close enough to the ships.

A shrill whistle sounds from the path ahead and a Grendel pops out from the rocks, the deep shadows hiding her until she was almost underfoot. She races ahead of them unencumbered by shield or comrades. A Navarri arrow takes her in the thigh, its fletching dyed in red stripes, and a sober black Highborn bolt follows it into her side. The orc howls. She vanishes under the boots of the army. But ahead, orcs are appearing on the decks of the five ships, and pulling on their armour.

The army bunches together as the cliffside narrows, pinched between the sea and a steep dip on the inland side, the bones of an old quarry softened in the spring grass. They do not see the orc encampment in the green valley until the enemy is already flanking them, far too late to swing around and meet them head on. The orcs hammer into the side of their line.

Order vanishes. This is the warfare Isaella is used to, friend and foe wildly intermingled, choosing her targets based on how their swords swing towards her, the glimpse of a sharp grey eartip. She drives her spear into the masses and keeps her eyes open for a charge from the harbour. Here would be the perfect place to pin them down, if the shipboard orcs can climb the hill in time.

A clump of Urizen breaks in front of her, giving way before the spiked clubs of the Grendel. Isaella fits her dance to theirs, stepping alongside them to let the orcs spend their strength on empty air, until one elegant rolling dodge takes a fighter straight over the cliff.

She recognises Nicovar in the instant that he falls.

The Grendel have to be dealt with first, or the club swinging at her will bury iron in her skull. Isaella takes a deep breath and knocks the orc's feet from under him with the butt of her spear. The Urizen are on him like wasps. Another orc, another stab to the stomach and block to save her knees, and she can let the new line close ahead of her and take the three steps to the place where the grass ends.

She drops to her knees and crawls to the edge, her spear clutched in one hand. The sea is not quite below her, hissing around the rocks in a slope of crumbled stone. Nicovar is halfway down, lying on his stomach on a broken corner of stone. His sash flutters beneath him like a ribbon of dark blood.

Isaella travels light, especially in battle. A wandering Thorn may fight with her whole life strapped on her back, but a soldier has the luxury of pack-oxen. She reaches into her shirt for the only tool she has for this moment, and blows an alarm on her army whistle.

Three Winterfolk are the first to answer. They drop to the grass beside her.

“He’s dead.”

“He might be. I still want him back. Are you carrying rope?”

“Why would we carry rope?”

“Move it, girls.” A Navarri scout braces herself on Isaella’s back to look over. “Yeah, I can handle his weight if you can climb for yourself.”

“Oh,” says the Wintermark woman who doesn’t carry rope, “well, I can help lift you both if you’re going down for him,” so Isaella turns on her knees and lets herself down over the cliff.

The slope is vertical for the first ten feet. She clings on with her fingertips, digging the toes of her boots into crevices in the soft rock. Sand crumbles away under her hands.

Nicovar is a pale bundle of cloth in the corner of her eye. Isaella can’t spare him a glance, even when she hears him start to groan. She moves carefully sideways, avoiding a place where rainwater has eaten the stone away to crumbs, a miniature valley of treacherous ground. A crevice between two large boulders gives her something like a path, another few feet down the slope, closer to where Nicovar is struggling to his knees. If he rolls, he will fall, and perhaps take the whole cliffside with him. The Winterfolk are shouting from above. Isaella ignores them and waves at the Navarri woman, who sits up on her heels and throws down the end of the rope, knotted around a stone for the weight.

Isaella wraps it around her wrist and takes a deep breath. She looks up, once, to check that the Wintermarker has caught up with events and is bracing her from above, and then she shimmies backward on her stomach until the boulder curves away and lets her drop to the next precarious perch.

Two more boulders and the climb back is looking very high, when Nicovar’s hand closes on her ankle. He pulls too hard, throwing her off balance, but her foot lands on a solid notch and the rocks hold firm. Isaella lets him guide her to the next foothold, and the next, and then she is standing beside him on a fragile ledge of sandstone, thirty foot from the cliff’s edge, and forty more from the waves.

“I can’t go up,” Nicovar says. He is on his knees, one arm crooked across his body. His voice doesn’t shake.

“That’s what the rope is for,” Isaella tells him, “and if you argue I will push you off this cliff and then I will be Archmage of Day.”

“That’s - not how it works.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think my elbow is broken.”

Isaella gnaws her lip. “Do your legs work?”

He shrugs, with only the undamaged side. “I think so. Breathing hurts a lot.”

She eyes him up. The Archmage’s belt is probably bracing his ribs enough to be worth making him less flexible - she favours climbing unarmoured whenever possible, but needs must - “Take off your sash.”

Nicovar is calm, but evidently in too much pain to be rude. He only squints at her for a moment and says “I’ll flap in the wind.”

“You need it for a sling - no, okay, you’re right. Can you move that arm at all?”

“If I take it slowly. I can’t grip anything.”

“Brace yourself, then.”

Balanced on the rock, she helps him pull his overrobe off his shoulders, first the easy side and then the careful, painful second. It hangs down over the sash, fine cream wool, flecked with red drops of glass. Nicovar pulls his arm back against his stomach, blankly stoic. Isaella lifts the Archmage’s chain over his head.

He opens his mouth as she wraps it loosely around his bad wrist. “Isaella. What...?”

“If that flaps into the rocks you’ll choke yourself,” she says briskly. One problem at a time. She can think about the drop under her feet later. “Hold still, I’m going to get this shoulder back into the robe, and then you can put your arm through the other side.”

It’s a poor sling, even held snug by his sash. Isaella feeds the rope under his armpit and around his chest. Three loops and she ties it off to the main length, watching her fingers intently, thinking about the knot instead of who will fall if it gives way.

“Don’t kill yourself climbing,” Nicovar says suddenly. “We can throw the rope back down to you.”

“Why, Nicky, darling, I didn’t know you cared.”

“Yes, you did.”

She meets his dark eyes. “Yes, I did. You’re going to have to do some of the work to get back up, but there are physicks at the top for your arm.”

“And my ribs,” Nicovar reminds her. “My breathing’s getting worse. Has the fighting moved downhill?”

For a moment Isaella’s instincts tell her to lean out, to get a better look along the cliff. She stops herself in time and listens instead. “I think so.”

“Then we’d better start climbing.”

Nicovar is putting a brave face on it, but he isn’t capable of much. His feet slip on the rocks, threatening to tip Isaella into the sea, if he falls while she’s steadying him. His good arm can keep him balanced but there’s too much damage to his ribs to pull himself up. Isaella steels herself and pushes him up little by little, sacrificing her own hand-holds to keep Nicovar moving. The Navarri holding the rope keeps reeling it in, until finally it pulls clear and taut between them, freed from the sloping boulders.

Isaella puts a hand over Nicovar’s. “Let go of the rock.”

“That seems - No,” he says, shivering with shock and fear, dark veins peeping through the pale skin on his cheeks. “No, that’s bad.”

“You have to hold the rope,” Isaella tells him gently, “I’m right here, you won’t fall. You have to hold the rope instead. See, it’s safe, it can take your weight, but you have to hold it and not let go. That’s it. Like that, that’s it. Hold on tight and don’t let go. They’re going to pull you up. Just hold on tight.”

Where one Navarri could have braced him, three Wintermark helpers can lift him bodily. He kicks at the rock, loose grit showering down into Isaella’s face. She presses herself against the cliff and spits out sand. The way is easier without Nicovar to lift as well, but she’s bleeding under her fingernails by the time she reaches that last sheer wall of rock. Her Wintermark helpers lean over the edge to pull her up.

The battle has moved down the hill, towards the sea. Dead orcs lie around them, outnumbering the few Imperial corpses. Isaella rolls onto her back just as one of the burning ships collapses in on itself.

She grins at the sky.

 

Chapter Text

Nicovar pokes his head into the Military Council’s tent and finally finds James, squinting down at the map, with his scribbled scrying notes spread out across the countryside. He glances up at Nicovar. “Be with you in a minute.”

His eyes take a moment to adjust to the gloom of the tent. James must have been in here for a while, or Nicovar would have found him in his determined circuits of the camp. It’s so pleasant to be out of the dust and wind that Nicovar can perfectly understand why. He thinks he might move in permanently.

James gathers up his notes and sighs heavily. “If you had three more scrying covens in your back pocket, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?”

“I wish I did. Ankarien can step in, if you’re desperate -”

James snorts. “And lose my strategic rituals? We’re counting on that Clarity to get into Liathaven without kicking over the wasp’s nest. I hope I’m never that desperate.” He moves one of the tokens on the board, little carved figures like playing-pieces. “Look at this. Three Jotun armies in Liathaven and another nosing around the borders of Bregasland, but we can’t get a lens on it. We know it’s there. The folk on the boundary are seeing the scouts come through. Meanwhile we’re massed in the Mourn but we can’t get a step closer until tomorrow or we’ll be buried in Jotun shit. So, you’re right. This is a bad time to have an empty Throne.”

Nicovar hides his surprise. He inclines his head and smiles a little.

“Sal told me.” James fiddles with the Jotun pieces. “She - It’s not that she doesn’t trust you. It’s that she doesn’t think she ought to. You’re a hard man to read.”

“I’m Urizeni,” Nicovar agrees. “You’ll do better by asking.”

“Alright, then. I’ll ask. What are you trying to achieve? And don’t give me the good-of-the-Empire sales pitch.”

“I’m still working on that pitch,” Nicovar admits. “No. It’s not just that. I want the Empire’s good, yes. But so do a ten thousand citizens who never come to Anvil. You did, and I did, because we want something more. I look at the Empire and I see an unfinished sculpture. When the First Empress took up her chisel, she knew she would not finish. I know I will not finish. But I want to be a part of the work. I want to make the Empire greater and more beautiful. I want to look at it and say, I myself had a hand in this, and be proud of what I have done.”

James clicks his jaw, considering. “Ambition is a virtue.”

“It is. But you and I both know that the most virtue does not always mean the best outcome.”

“We do know that.”

Nicovar steps forward, too close for an Urizeni, comfortable for a Marcher listener. “The Senate can give the Throne to any citizen they choose. Do you think they will, if no-one steps forward? Do you think anyone who steps forward will lack ambition?”

The answer takes a while in coming. It’s an uncomfortable sort of honour, to be weighed up so intently by someone so dedicated to his own path. James sets down the last map token before he speaks again. “I wouldn’t trust myself to make this decision alone. But if you can persuade two-thirds of the Senate, I won’t be making it alone. You’re right that we need a Throne. And the qualifications for that...” He meets Nicovar’s eyes. “I’m not pledging eternal loyalty to you. If I change my mind, I’ll say so, publicly. You need to keep persuading me, because I’m not quite convinced you’re the man for the job. But I’ll help you try.”

 

The Ankarien camp has been rearranged. For as long as Nicovar has been coming to Anvil, the Spire’s delegation has had a single communal tent for all their meals and meetings, along with its awning in good weather, and the smaller tents were all private. Now the long table with its benches is under a new canvas with open sides, open to the breeze, and the main tent has been split in half: this side of the curtain for Spire life, that side for politics. The Arbiter’s cushion dominates the new meeting room.

Ever the mediator, he had insisted that above all the room should be pleasant . Nicovar wouldn’t have thought of it himself, but now he understands the strategy. They are holding court, as much as any Eternal sitting in state. They need to appear capable of the task they have set themselves. And besides that, there’s the emotional effect, playing under the surface: here is a good place, you are welcome here, stay and be part of this. For the same reason, there’s no enchantment on the room to clear the mind or refresh the spirit. Electing an Empress is an emotional business.

When Nicovar comes home to his spire after the first Conclave session, the meeting room is warm with lantern-light. Archimedes is sprawled on his cushion with a palm full of almonds to snack on as he talks. Isaella is already here, with a Leaguer Nicovar recognises as a general - Giuseppe, who took an arrow the day they were ambushed on the road. Nicovar slips into his place at the back, in the centre of things. Cressida hops down from the bench to sit beside him.

“This is very exciting,” she whispers loudly. “Are we sure it’s legal?”

“Not in the least. This is absolutely illegal and we’re all going to be arrested at any moment.”

“Oh good. That always brightens my evening. Ah, here’s Lucrezia. Lucy, darling, come sit with us. We’re plotting against the magistrates.”

“I will turn you both in,” Archimedes grumbles. “Come in, Grandmaster, have a seat, have a drink. Warmage, you too. Is this everyone?”

“For now,” Nicovar says.

“Then you’d better introduce us.”

Nicovar sits up, letting Cressida steal his second cushion. “We all know James the Warmage, I think. Isaella is the customary proxy for Miaren and adjunct to General Gwyneth Giuseppe is the general for - sorry, Giuseppe, remind me?”

“Towerjacks.”

“Thank you. I am Nicovar, Archmage of Day, and this is Cressida and her sister Lucrezia of the Celestial Arch, and Archimedes, the Arbiter of my spire. We all know by now what happened to Barrabas, and we all see that for stability’s sake, we need to fill his shoes. We are here to elect a Throne.”

“Ooh,” says Cressida, “are we a shadowy cabal? I love shadowy cabals.”

Giuseppe looks around. “We don’t have any senators.”

“We do,” Archimedes says.

“Who?”

Archimedes inclines his head.

“Ah. Congratulations, Senator. Well, that’s one vote. It is Nicovar we’re electing, I assume?”

“Of course it is,” says Lucrezia. “Unless you want the job, General?”

Giuseppe huffs out a laugh. “No, I don’t want it. You should know, though. Miriam does. General of the Silent Tide, one of our field-marshals. There’s a lot of Highborn who’d like to see her elected. They think she’d bring - stability, as you said.”

“But you don’t support her?”

“She wants to fix the borders, as the Peacemaker did. I don’t agree with that. I think taking Segura was the best thing the Empire has done in a generation and we shouldn’t stop there.”

James sets his staff behind him, settling in. “You want to conquer Faraden?”

“Not as much as I want to conquer the Barrens. And that will help you get the Dawnish on side - Miriam would abandon the Barrens, the Dawnish won’t like that. But Nicovar - Isaella tells me you threw yourself off a cliff last season. Are you planning on doing the same with the Empire? What’s your ambition?”

Nicovar smiles. “I want to build, Giuseppe. More than that, I want to polish. The Empire is the greatest civilisation in the world but we all know it could be more. We know we have roads, schools, harbours that need upkeep. All those resources, diverted to build the Barrabine Fleet, we can use them here at home. I don’t think we should stop expanding and I don’t think we need to. We need let the armies do their jobs, strengthen our infrastructure here at home, and give you the support you need to keep pushing forward. Miriam would fix the borders? Say we’re done, this is enough now, we aren’t capable of better? Then she would abandon every human outside to a life without Virtue, with no hope of transcendence. I won’t accept that.”

Giuseppe nods approvingly. “I can appreciate that philosophy. What will you do when they say you have no military experience?”

“That’s why you’re here, Giuseppe,” Cressida says, leaning around Nicovar to be seen. “Barabbas thought he could learn it all himself and look how that went. Nobody can do it all. Nicovar is surrounding himself with good advisers from the beginning.”

“What are you here to advise on?”

Cress throws her hands joyously into the air. “Jollity and mirth! And finances. Nicovar can’t calculate anything more complicated than mana costs.”

“Which is what you’re here for,” Nicovar agrees. “Isaella is military and pays more attention to the Senate than anyone I know.”

“More than some Senators,” Isaella says. “I can tell you they’re not comfortable having an empty Throne. Barrabas ruled for a long time and they got used to having him there. They’re willing to be wooed.”

Archimedes clucks thoughtfully. “From what I’ve seen of my colleagues so far, I agree. None of them so far seems willing to step up and I think I can persuade them that they shouldn’t. They’re feeling isolated. I think there’s obvious merit in looking for a Throne with closer ties to the other parts of our government.”

“That’ll be good for you, Nic.”

“But also for Miriam. It reduces rivals, puts us in a stronger position - I agree. It’s a sound argument.”

Lucrezia lifts her mask a moment to scratch the bridge of her nose. Cressida looks unaccountably tense until she puts it back on. “I’m not sure the Conclave can do much here.”

“Not directly,” Nicovar says, “but you have influence. The Celestial Arch attracts people with connections and you’re their Grandmaster. It helps to extend our Net. We have Archimedes, that’s one vote, and my Spire stands with me, that will help get Urizen on board. There are four Freeborn senators who will need to be bought, not necessarily with money. What does the Brass Coast want?”

“To keep Segura,” Giuseppe says. “It’s not really secure yet. The Lasambrians still want it back. Promising to aggressively defend it might be a start.”

“What about Navarr?”

Isaella looks stung. “We’re not for sale. We gave our loyalty to the Empire a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned - “ She shakes her head. “Broceliande isn’t part of the Empire. It should be. It will be. It’s part of Navarr. But it’s mostly held by the Vallorn and it has no Senator, so it’s technically outside Imperial borders. Broceliande was our greatest city once. No Navarr will vote for anyone who wants to abandon it.”

The conference goes on long into the night. Cressida stretches across the tent with her feet propped up on Archimedes’ cushion, pretending to be asleep between bouts of mathematics. Lucrezia somehow ends up with her head in Giuseppe’s lap. He looks mildly alarmed whenever she shakes her head, her horns poking him in tender places. James passes around something stingingly ginger that Nicovar can’t bear after the first cautious sip, though everyone else seems happy to partake. The delegation’s oldest child pokes her head into the tent three times to listen before her father finally takes her off to bed.

Nicovar can almost feel the stones of his foundation dropping into place.

Chapter Text

They say that the weather in Anvil reflects the constellations. When the Sentinel Gate is aligned to the north, Anvil freezes; when the stars turn it south, Anvil bakes. The dry leaves skirl across dry ground, hollow-drum solid underfoot from its summer baking, but the breeze is wet with oncoming rains. Autumn in Liathaven comes late and sudden.

The Jotun were ready for them. That was always a given. They have been fighting the Empire for generations and know how it goes. If the Empire keeps its word at all, it will not stretch an inch further than it must. Attack was inevitable the moment the ceasefire ended.

Isaella has a suspicion they don't really want to hold Liathaven. The land on a map seems good, rich timber forests with a sound climate, hills but no impassable mountains. But the Vallorn squatting over the ruined city makes navigation impossible, unless you take the long winding road around the edge, and devours what comes into its reach. Half the territory is unusable for any mortal purpose. The Jotun forests to its west are far more forgiving. Perhaps the orcs only wanted it as a beachhead for Bregasland.

And Bregasland has suffered this season. As inevitably as the Empire reaching for Liathaven, the Jotun have invaded there. The Marchers have dug in over the seasons of waiting, refusing to abandon an inch of their land. When the Jotun came past the boundary stones, the Marcher yeofolk fought them, and died. There would be no evacuation of Bregasland. The Marchers would not leave.

In the face of all that, Anvil summits are the simplest times in Isaella’s life. She force-marched to get here, eight hundred miles in two weeks along the grass-rivers of the Trods, spring magic impossibly quickening her steps. The night before the summit she pitches her tent under the eaves of the oak trees and goes hunting through the darkness for Marcher accents, to find James and twine their bodies in companionable sleep. Tomorrow will be soon enough to start work.

 

The summit won’t officially start until sunset. Isaella takes advantage of the extra time to have her first leisurely breakfast in months, dark bread and butter and stewed Marcher apples, sweet with the new crop. James drags a bench into a sunbeam and sprawls on it, his long legs overhanging the edge. Isaella makes him sit up to take his bowl and sits down before he can reclaim his space. He glares at her over his breakfast. She smiles very sweetly and hands him a spoon.

“What’s on the plan for today, Sal?”

Isaella finishes her mouthful of bread-and-apple before she answers, “Move my registration to Liathaven, I think.”

James looks startled. “I thought you’d done that already? You’ve hardly been anywhere else all year.”

“Exactly. So I should put that on the books. And there are plenty of displaced Navarri who’d rather form a fighting band than resettle. But I have a forest in Miaren I haven’t sold back yet, and - well. Liathaven is going to need a Senator very soon and the candidates will have to be registered there ahead of time. There’s more than one reason to do it.”

James taps their bowls together, a makeshift toast. “Here’s to good planning. You’ll be raiding for real, of course.”

“Obviously.”

 

The Military Council is more in agreement than Isaella has ever seen them. They argue about trade-offs and practical concerns, which armies should hold and which advance, but the priorities are all the same. The western front is the only place of interest. They leave two armies in Spiral to hold the border, they keep a scattering around elsewhere, but the Empire’s focus is on Liathaven and the Marches.

Isaella watches Miriam’s attempts to direct the conversation. She’s subtle, but the effort is there. Giuseppe and James do their part to undercut her leadership, and the field-marshal’s rod for Saturday goes unexpectedly to the Bounders general, on the theory that she knows the terrain best. Miriam's chance to command this summit has just been lost; Highguard will go to Bregasland tomorrow, with Dawn and the Marchers to help them make a wall, and Navarr to shoot over their heads. The Urizeni will go too, but everyone knows they only have thirty fighters present. It’s a question of numbers. Urizen tomorrow, Brass Coast on Sunday, to avoid weakening either force too much by putting the smallest nations together, and Wintermark will lead Varushka and the League to make a more mobile force and chase a Jotun general through Liathaven woods.

It’s a point of national pride to Isaella that the Marchers can’t be asked to fight away from their own threatened lands, while Navarr is trusted to understand the strategy. Not that there isn’t some anger, back at the fire-pit in the woods, but they all show up in the morning dressed for battle.

The Sentinel Gate opens in a shimmer like heat-haze. In Anvil it hasn’t rained for days, the tents bone-dry and browning with kicked-up dust. Isaella knows when she’s passed through by the splashing underfoot. Southern Bregasland is in the middle of its autumn flood and there’s no dry ground in sight.

They march out into open terrain, with nothing but a few bedraggled trees for cover. It’s hard to listen over the noise of hundreds of boots on flooded grassland, but scanning the horizon Isaella sees a grey-black line, dark against the white clouds. The enemy are here.

The Imperials push forward, muttering imprecations against Marcher mud and the rapid soaking their feet are getting. They change places as they move, the narrow column widening into a mass, with the shields towards the outside and the polearms in front. Their goal is a hidden depression in the landscape, where the reeds grow a little thicker and the water a little deeper, ringed by knee-high stones. It is a regio, and buried in its centre is a fallen star. The orcs are close enough to see their faces when the magicians take up their mana and step inside.

Isaella has no time to watch the ritual. She knows more-or-less what it’s about, how it’s supposed to turn the marshes against the invaders, make them into hostile ground for anyone not of Marcher stock, but Spring magic still makes her skin crawl, and there are six hundred Jotun bearing down on them.

They are rapidly surrounded, when the Jotun crash into the shield wall and find it doesn’t break. The Imperials make a ring around the magicians, shields and billhooks and pikes to the outside, archers and mages and physicks within, and one hard core of Highborn in the centre, blocking arrows from the magicians with their own plate-armoured bodies. Isaella keeps to the second line when she can, stabbing between shields with her spear. Jotun toes make excellent targets, if you can trust the Highborn in front to guard your head.

The ritual goes off - it must have done, surely, or the magicians would not be snatching up their weapons again - and the prickly mass of Imperials starts inching through the flooded meadow towards the Gate. The Jotun press hard at their retreating edge, trying to push them into running and exposing their backs to the sword. The defence grows ragged. Isaella sees Nicovar go down, tripped by a broken pike, and twists through the line to reach him and pull him behind the wall again. She takes a club to the shoulder and another to the back before she’s safe and pushing Nicovar into the arms of a baffled Marcher physick. She waves away his attentions. They’re only a hundred yards from the Gate. Her hurts can wait.

James comes to find her while she’s sitting on a field hospital bench, straddling it so she can lean forward on her arms when she turns dizzy. She looks up at him from under her eyelashes. He’s very tall from this angle, his lip bitten with worry.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

Isaella sits up to make room for him. “What part?”

“That’s the second time you’ve done something reckless to fetch Nicovar back.”

“He keeps falling over.” Isaella tries to shrug and regrets it. James squeezes her arm.

“Your collar-bone again?”

“No, it’s a rib this time.”

“You can’t keep doing this.”

Isaella meets his eyes and takes a deep, painful breath. “I’m a warrior.”

“So am I.” James doesn't look away. “We need you alive.”

“Not as much as you need an Empress.”

“There are other - Empress Miriam would not be a disaster. Empress Inga. We can find other candidates, we don’t have to choose between you and him. Did you even stop to choose? Before you threw yourself under the swords for him? Why does he matter so much?”

Isaella searches for answers. She’s never told James about that first meeting, the moment of shock like tripping on a root. He is a Marcher, he doesn’t understand the Great Dance, it would sound like foolish superstition. He watches her, his eyes dark and very serious.

In the end, it’s James who speaks first. He half-shrugs, half-smiles. “Okay.”

“I never promised you anything. But if I had, I’d have kept it. I’m not involved with Nicovar.” The words burst out of her all wrong, too much like a confession.

“I know that.” James says quietly. “He’s just the most important thing to you. He always has been.”

“James.”

He shakes his head. “It’s not just you. I believe what I'm saying to you now but if you hadn’t gone over the cliff for him - if you’d come back alone - I wouldn’t have forgiven you.”

“So why is there a problem?”

“We both deserve better than second best.” His voice is almost a whisper, soft with unhappiness. James presses his forehead to hers, a long and wordless farewell. When he straightens up his hair almost brushes the canvas. Isaella longs to run her fingers through it again. She grips her knees instead, curls forward around her broken rib.

“You rest,” James says. “I’ll move your things to the Navarr camp.”

 

Chapter Text

The war in Liathaven is short and brutal. The Jotun have had enough of the Vallorn, forcing them to creep around the edges of the forest, and the timber trade does not delight them. They want farms. The orcs stream north into Bregasland and die in their hundreds. The waters of the Marches are awake and every ditch a barrier. The Imperial armies sweep through Liathaven, and retake it.

Nicovar follows the war from the library of Ankarien. The Heliopticon has not been still al winter, the specialised ushabti who watch the lights taking down endless messages in their precise, uninflected script, and making the mirrors dance to send them onwards. With practice, a human can read the flashes just as well as the ushabti can, and call out the words as they come in. Nicovar lacks the skill. He sifts through the little slips of paper instead, to glean the meaning of the days.

Overhead, the Wanderer burns red among the icy stars.

He travels to Anvil with more than habitual care. His spire have spent the season conspiring and they bring with them a new tent, the canvas dyed a painstakingly even burgundy, to stand out against the plain white of their camp, for a meeting room. They leave behind one of the children who has grown big enough to be exhausting with his toddling, and persuade a army-bound sixteen-year-old to come and be messenger for them, bribing her with the promise she’ll meet the egregore. They have new socks, and new warm under-robes, fluffy wool hiding beneath their silks. Ankarien is going prepared.

They reach Anvil in the chilly mid-morning. Setting up camp takes most of the day, the sleeping tents and the meeting tent and the big Spire tent for the mess table and the smaller storage one and the fire-pit with its awning. Nicovar finally changes into his Archmage regalia at sunset, and climbs the hill to Navarr.

At first the camp seems deserted. Nicovar roams around and finds the Stridings he expects to see, but scarcely any people, until a massed cheer from the woods enlightens him. He picks his way along the woodland paths, avoiding the trees by lantern-light and glowstone, but he’s not used to navigating through woods and the crowd breaks up and flows around him before he finds the clearing. He turns instead and follows them back to the open field. Isaella is bound to return to her tent soon.

He finds her already there, crouching down to pass hot soup to someone huddled in the blankets inside. They speak softly, Isaella’s clear voice and an unfamiliar woman with the accent of Liathaven, weary and resigned.

Nicovar watches the candlelight blossom over her face, sleek as an otter, the sprig of red leaves tattooed on her temple, and thinks she looks nothing like the Warmage.

Isaella doesn’t stand to acknowledge him until she’s good and ready. “She has a headache,” she says, defensive.

“It’s none of my business,” Nicovar says, shrugging a little. He works on keeping his face politely blank.

Isaella steps in close. Her hand is tense upon her knife. “What do you want?”

The familiar tension thrums between them. Nicovar knows she could kill him, almost wants to kill him, and his heart pounds with excitement. He is not carrying a weapon. A taut burn scar gleams on her left cheek, its edges sharp as a blade.

“We’re allies,” he says quietly. “Remember?”

Isaella relaxes just a fraction.

“What do you want?”

“We’re having a meeting. Late, I’m afraid - there’s no time between Senate and Conclave. It’ll be midnight by the time we can start. But we need to plan. When’s your election?”

“Tomorrow. Six in the evening. We have some time to work for that. I might not get it.”

“You have rivals?”

“Of course. I’m the best qualified but they can appeal to Liathaven heritage, I’m Serenese by birth. We can discuss this at the meeting - what do you need me to do now?”

“Come to the meeting. We need to discuss military strategy. And I was going to ask if you knew where James was camped, but now I think you probably don’t.”

Isaella hisses through bared teeth, almost a snarl. “Fuck off.”

Nicovar bows to her and sets off down the hill again.

 

The new meeting tent glows warm with lightstones, but there’s a frost coming on. Nicovar is abjectly grateful for his new socks, after a Conclave meeting that dragged on for hours, over sorcery accusations in Varushka and possible deals with the City of Locks and an attempt to overthrow the Dean of the Lyceum which involved two mediocre research magicians being extremely pedantic about the principle of dominion for fifteen minutes until finally one of them ran out of mana and everyone stopped asking questions in the hope the other would finally stop talking. Nicovar has been standing on cold ground all evening and he’s anxious to rest his legs.

James beats him to the Ankarien camp by half a step. There’s only one bench free in the meeting room and they sit down cautiously at opposite ends of it, politely distant, until Cressida saunters in and says “Scooch over,” so there’s nothing to be done but sit with their legs almost touching. James looks uncertainly at Nicovar, and then at his own feet, and finally he pulls a blanket from the pile of cushions beside him and spreads it over their knees, with Cressida under one end for courtesy’s sake. Nicovar thinks about kicking off his boots, but that seems a little too pushy. He tucks the blanket around his legs instead and whispers, “I feel warmer already. Did you bring any of the ginger stuff?”

“You hate the ginger stuff,” James whispers back, “I brought licorice cordial,” and hands Nicovar a hip-flask, slightly heated by his body. It doesn’t burn like the ginger, but that’s the best Nicovar can say for it. He takes a second sip anyway.

“Lucrezia can’t make it,” Cress says once she’s settled. “There are Heralds on the field looking for autumn mages and she has to go and impress them.”

“Alright, then we won’t wait,” says Archimedes. “I have two items of business, then we’ll go round the circle. If that’s okay with you, Nicovar? Alright. First, the empire retook Liathaven, but the fighting is very close in Bregasland and the Grendel have stepped up their raiding against Urizen. There’s a proposal before the Senate to rebuild the Barrabine Fleet. I’m against, but I want our collective wisdom on it. Second, Isaella is standing for the Senate tomorrow. Who has Navarri contacts?”

 

Navarri elections are simplicity refined to art. Nicovar watches from the edge of the clearing and recognises with a swell of admiration how the shape of Conclave elections and Senate votes have been drawn from this ancient practice. He had never realised that something so straightforward had any origin but itself.

The candidates stand in front of their electorate. Observers cluster at the sides, keeping themselves separate by the native magic of the Navarri, reading patterns in how everyone steps. There are no questions, no debates. They give their brief speeches, and the people move. Everything in the open, everyone known.

Isaella’s primary opponent is a fierce changeling woman missing an antler tip. She speaks passionately of her love for Liathaven, how she has fought for it all her life. After her comes a grey librarian, who says only that he stands aside in favour of Isaella. A third is brash and ignorant and she insults the crowd with every word she speaks; their distaste is plain on their faces. Isaella goes last and Nicovar can’t help wondering if that was strategy, to leave her words freshest in the mind. Her speech is short but thorough: she knows the Senate and the Senators well enough to work with them from the start; she has fought in Liathaven since the invasion began; Liathaven has been retaken and what it needs now is roads, resettlement, and resources to rebuild the beacon towers.

When the voters line up before their candidates, Isaella wins thirty-five to twenty.

She comes to Nicovar in the shadow of the trees, grinning. “Hello, Archmage.”

Nicovar bows. “Senator.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Congratulations. May your career be long and fruitful.”

“Oh, I intend that it shall.”

Nicovar says, very solemnly, “And may I count on your vote, Senator?”

“Not if you’re a little shit like you were yesterday, no.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I am. It’s just I’m so happy for you I can’t help smiling.”

Isaella grins wider, and then huffs. “You’re Urizeni. You can always help smiling, you’re not sorry, and you owe me a drink.”

“So I do. Now?”

“That sounds - no, I have to go to work now. And then to the Senate, and then you have Conclave. I’ll see Archimedes in the Senate, I know. Will you make sure Cress and Lucrezia know?”

“Of course.” Nicovar bows again, before offering his hand to shake. “I really am happy for you.”

Isaella takes his hand in both of hers. “I know. Go to work, Archmage. I’ll see you later.”

Chapter Text

The arithmetic of Throne elections is simple. At least two-thirds of the whole Senate must vote for the candidate; at least one-third of the whole Synod must decline to veto the result. The Synod won't veto Nicovar, not unless he does something astonishingly stupid between now and then. He's a virtuous citizen and an Archmage. They only need to persuade twenty Senators and the throne will be theirs.

They have five.

Archimedes was the first. Isaella makes a second. The twins and General Giuseppe have brought them Johanna of Holberg, while Isaac of Necropolis would vote for anyone to keep Miriam out of the office. Military strategy has become the popular distinction between them and Tessa will be theirs if they can only hang onto Bregasland long enough to have an election.

Cressida has started keeping a list. These will vote for Nicovar, those others for Miriam, two of the Varushkans for the Varushkan with no real chance. Most, undecided.

“I've been working on the Dawnish,” she says as Isaella settles in for the Friday meeting. “Two at least are leaning towards you, but they won't commit until you publicly announce your candidacy.”

Nicovar cocks his head. “I already did that,” he points out mildly. “That's what we're doing here.”

“Well, I suppose, in a sense, but you weren't very dramatic about it.”

“Ah. You mean in the tournament square.”

“A declaration could move us along,” Isaella says, leaning forward on her knees. “We've been working on the Senators, but we don't have to do it all ourselves. The nations will push their own Senators to vote one way or the other, as soon as they know there's a contest underway. People don't like not having a Throne.”

“Alright. I don't see a downside. It'll draw Miriam out of the woodwork, but I don't think it'll be any surprise to the Senate, will it?”

Isaella shakes her head. “The Senate in general? No. One or two of the newer Senators might be out of touch, but you two are the only serious candidates under discussion. Sofia Kovach wants to appoint her sister, but no-one else does.”

“Can we switch her over?”

“I doubt it. She'll be voting for Silviya no matter how hopeless.”

“Then we won't worry about her. Concentrate on Dawn and the Brass Coast for now. We need to get some momentum going – if we can pull in those two, we'll have a significant following.”

Giuseppe looks around from his quiet conversation with Johanna. “The Freeborn? Let me have a word with them. I've negotiated with Freeborn before, I'm used to how they write contracts.”

“Take a Senator to introduce you,” Cressida says. “Archimedes, if he's willing. No offence, Johanna, but I'm working on a cross-national presentation.”

Johanna waves a heavily ringed hand and turns her shoulders a little further towards Giuseppe. Cressida shrugs.

“So, that leaves you working on the Dawnish, Nic. How are you going to impress them?”


The answer turns out to be with warfare. Nicovar stands up in the tournament square on Saturday afternoon, while the knights are resting after a quest to the Barrens, and speaks in his clearest voice. He's not wearing his Archmage regalia, because he is not here as the Archmage. The sleeves of his robe are bound close to his arms with gleaming leather mage armour, a deep and bloody red. His rod hangs ready at his hip. Isaella watches, ready to mingle when he's done talking and nudge he friends she has here towards his candidacy, and understands the warrior-king he is showing them.

The speech is short and direct. She has a feeling he's written it like a Conclave speech, like the one-minute proposals she used to hear James rehearsing when he couldn't sleep. Nicovar doesn't hedge his words.

“People of Dawn! I am Nicovar of Urizen! I have no noble house, yet I have proven my worth. I have risen to become Archmage and led the Empire's magicians in the Conclave. Now I set myself against the highest challenge in the Empire, to lead it as Empress. I seek the Throne. I do not ask for your support, for I have not proven myself to you. Urizen will fight with Dawn in battle tomorrow. Let me fight with you, and I will show you who I am.”

A half-armoured knight beats sword against shield, her silver blazon gleaming in the sunlight, eagle wings outstretched. “It is a bold quest! I have no Senate vote, but I will fight with you!” She grins across the grassy square, caught up in the moment. “Come and show us your courage!”

Isaella rubs her bruised elbow, swollen and stiff from a badly caught Jotun club that morning, and silently promises vengeance if the Dawnish don't bring Nicovar home alive.


A Navarri senator has certain responsibilities, to her nation and her people. In the springtime, these responsibilities include judging a baking contest (first prize went to the cider carrot cake, with the honey biscuits coming in second and and honourable mention for the apple pie presented by the two six-year-olds) and bringing enthusiasm to the noisy sunset parade around the camps. Between the cake and the parade, however, Isaella is required to hunt for magicians.

The Hunt changes every year, rotating through the patchwork traditions of each territory. Last year Isaella spent the afternoon with a pocket full of ribbons, pinning them onto passing Vates as sneakily as she could. The most decorated magician at parade time was slung beneath a pole and carried in the parade like a slaughtered deer. This year, the theme is greyhounds.

Six Vates have volunteered to be the prey. They are gathered under the eaves of the wood, tossing their heads to make the ears of their masks shake. From the absence of several faces in the crowd, Isaella guesses that other magicians are waiting around Anvil to take over as the hares. They are armed with daggers and light wooden bucklers, and whatever turn of speed they can find.

Isaella is armed with her spear. She turns it in her hands, feeling her elbow protest the movement. The Vate hunt in her childhood steading was always done with sword-length wooden rods and the magicians had an hour's head start to reach Lookout Hill and fortify it with brushwood. But the sun is bright and the trees make a dappled green shade, and she can leap a guy-line as well as any magician on the run.

She hops up onto a wide log, scraped clean of bark for use as a bench. The hunters ignore her until she blows on the ridiculous outsized whistle one of the Vates handed her earlier. With effort and a mental squint, she can hear the resemblance to a shrill canine howl.

“Remember the rules!” she shouts to the turning crowd. “Anyone not wearing a hare mask is out of bounds! This year we're using real weapons, but that does not mean you can kill each other! No hitting anyone while they're down, this is play not warfare, and when you stab someone you get them a physick! Your goal is to collect the hare masks. Anyone who makes it back here with a stolen mask gets – what do they get, Bryn? Fame and glory, okay. You get fame, glory, and a bottle of cherry wine if you can present Bryn with a hare mask before sunset. After six o'clock, the Vates get the wine! Let's hunt!”

She blows the whistle again. The Vates dash out across the field, splitting up to make the chase harder. Isaella grins as she races after them. Spring has come to the Empire.


In the dusty morning, with a pounding hangover, she waits by the Sentinel Gate. The distant sounds of battle filter through, and the chatter of a stream that doesn't run through Anvil. On this side of the gate there is quiet, a handful of physicks who have been waiting since the fighters left to patch up the wounded who straggle back early, a game of catch going on in the open space where the armies muster, almost the only space in Anvil big enough to throw a ball.

A heavy sigh heralds James's arrival, settling in to lean against the same gatepost Isaella has chosen. She peers up at him through her headache. “Morning.”

“Morning, Sal.”

“How was Conclave?”

James groans.

Nothing more seems to be forthcoming. Isaella gives it a minute and says “So…?”

“Don't ask. Really, don't, it's stupid and annoying and technical. The Conclave loves its procedural arguments. Nicovar had a great time,” he adds, at just the right moment to make Isaella dissolve into giggles. “How was the Senate?”

We approved the Faraden trade embassy.”

Really? But they're heretics, I thought that was a sure failure.”

Everyone we can possibly trade with is a heretic. I don't regard it as a meaningful argument. If they decide they want to reciprocate we've – not agreed, not exactly, yet, but the general feeling is we'll offer them a spot in one of the Highguard ports. There's no shortage of good religion there.”

Well, that's true,” James says, looking uncomfortable, “but I wouldn't want my householders – Here they come.”

The returning army is soaked in blood. Isaella's heart thumps uncomfortably at the mud-smeared bandages half of them seem to be sporting. It was a rough battle, then. Varushka piles through the gate into a tangle of exhausted fighters and wounded propped up between their friends. Isaella doesn't see any bodies, only dozens of injuries. Perhaps only rough, and some of that blood is from orcish veins.

The Dawnish stagger home like drunks from a brawl, still grinning. The knight with the eagle blazon is hopping with one arm around her sister's shoulder, keeping all the weight off that leg. Isaella lets her get clear of the press before she feels for James's hand and goes over.

You look in a mess,” she says. “Did we win?”

Thoroughly,” the knight says in deep satisfaction, still balanced on one foot. “There are two Druj generals dead in that valley. You're Nicky's friend, aren't you?”

James snorts helplessly.

I don't think he calls himself that,” Isaella says, “but please, carry on, he'll hate it. Have you seen him recently?”

He's around here somewhere. He did pretty good. Dodged an arrow in the first five minutes and kept it up from there.”

Isaella presses her hands together in solemn prayer. “Thank you so much. I've been trying to teach him to duck for years.”

Chapter Text

The Senate has its building, walled in stone and floored in good flat timber. The Conclave has the Hall of Worlds, eternally shifting with the moods of the Realms. The Synod has a tent.

It's a large tent, but that's about all that can be said for it. It's poorly lit, a few lightstones hung from the central pole struggling to chase away the gloom, and the grass underfoot must be an icy morass in the winter. In today's summer warmth it's easy to find relief in the cave-like Synod hall. Or it would be, if Nicovar wasn't here for one of the least0used of the Synod powers.

He strolls over to General Miriam, here waiting just as he is. She nods at him stiffly, her hand twitching in the way that means a Lowlander suppressing the habit of shaking hands. Nicovar bows nearly as shallowly.

“Pleasure to see you here, General.”

“Archmage,” Miriam echoes. “Did you know this was coming?”

“I'm as surprised as you are. Do you know, the civil servant couldn't tell me the last time they called for an inquisition?”

Miriam raises a grey eyebrow. “You asked?”

“I'm curious about these things. The Constitution implies some things about the Synod that the Empire in practice doesn't reflect.”

“The synod is a secondary body,” Miriam says dismissively. “It's not intended to rule us. It only functions as a restraint.”

Nicovar tilts his head, carefully puzzled. “Are you a constitutional scholar?”

“I'm a General. A very successful one. And you, I hear, are a moderately competent mage with a Navarri babysitter.”

“I'll tell her you said that. She'll be tickled.”

“You see? You can't stand on your own feet. Stop this nonsense, magician, you must know you're not fit to wear the crown.”

“I don't know that,” Nicovar says calmly. “I don't think you believe that either. It's a very obvious tactic, General, trying to damage your opponent's morale when you don't have the strength to defeat them. I'm not going to give up and go home. You're going to have to fight me, Miriam. Out in the open, in front of the Senate. How many votes do you have so far?”

(She has eight. Nicovar has eleven. It could go either way, if they voted tomorrow.)

Miriam stares flatly at him. She's very good at this, projecting her personal strength. Nicovar acknowledges to himself that she is older than him, and more experienced, and taller. He breathes deeply through his nose.

“Did you know,” he says slowly, “that the Synod only calls an Inquisition when they think their target won't talk to them otherwise? I know I would have come on a friendly invitation. I'm shocked that a Highborn would refuse.”

“They didn't ask. No doubt they expected a magician to wriggle out of it.”

“Oh,” Nicovar says, “this is a Lineage thing, isn't it. You don't want a draughir emperor.”

“This isn't a campaign against you. Don't flatter yourself. I'm running because I would make a better Empress than anyone else available. Not to stop you. You never figured in my calculations.”

“I hope I do now.”

It's disappointing that a tent doesn't have any doors. Nicovar would rather like a door to creak open and put a clean end to the conversation. Instead, he holds Miriam's gaze for a few seconds, and then bows to her again and turns away.

Eventually, ten minutes after the inquisition was legally supposed to start, Nicovar spots a little circle of people lurking outside the tent, apparently trying to organise themselves. He interrupts them, as cheerfully as he can. “Good evening, friends. Are you here to inquisit me?”

“I -” The Varushkan woman in front looks flustered, turning to look at her companions for help. “Are you Archmage Nicovar?”

“I am. It's an honour to be here. You're… Cardinal Duscha?”

“Gatekeeper.”

“Gatekeeper. Of Pride.”

“Well done, you know who we are,” the Marcher behind her mutters.

Nicovar squints at him, as through the sun were in his eyes. “No, sorry, Tom, no idea who you are, and I've never been rascally drunk on your cider.”

Tom grins. “Alright. Yeah, Duscha and Joshua are here for you, and me and Annette will talk to Miriam.”

“Is it time yet?” Duscha asks anxiously.

“We're a little late.”

“Then let's get started,” Tom says, and points Nicovar back into the dim Synod tent.


He sits cross-legged on the grass, his hands resting on his knees. Duscha has brought a cushion, but even so Nicovar winces in sympathy, looking at how she shifts to ease her hips. Joshua, younger than either of them, just drops down to a sprawl.

“Try not to listen to the other conversation,” he says. “We wanted to do this in private but the Synod tent is really the proper place for it. Now, this is an Inquisition, which means you have to be here, but I'm supposed to remind you that you don't technically have to talk to us or tell us the truth, you just legally have to be here for an hour.”

“Please don't lie to us,” Duscha adds. “The Synod has the right to veto any vote for an Empress. We're not afraid to use it.”

Nicovar smiles. “I would hope not. No Imperial body should be afraid to use its own powers.”

“Well – exactly. I'm glad you understand.” Duscha folds her hands over her lap. “Now. Nicovar. Please tell us why you wish to be Emperor?”

He meets her eyes. “I want to help build the Empire. It's not finished yet, you see. It was founded on a great ambition, to bring all the humans of the world under its wings. To give them a virtuous Way to follow, like Tian bringing fire to the nations. We've grown since we were founded but the orcs on our borders keep human slaves, the Faraden are heretics, the Jarmish and Axou are out there just waiting to be called inside. We have a fight to get there, but we are not done yet. I want to be a part of that work. Archmage is an honour and I am grateful to the Conclave for giving me its trust. But I know I can do more, so I am asking the whole Empire to trust me the same way, and together, we can build to greater heights.”

Joshua leans forward. “You wouldn't fix the borders? Miriam talks about – oh. Sorry. One candidate at a time. But you think we should have an expansionist policy.”

“Absolutely.” Nicovar tilts forward to echo him. “Would you abandon Bregasland, because it's been invaded? What about the Barrens? Should we ask the Navarr to abandon Liathaven, just because the work isn't done? That's the whole point. The work isn't done. If we fix the borders, we are giving up our reason to exist. We might as well be separate nations again.”

They look properly horrified at that. It's a ridiculous exaggeration, but it gets the emotions going, so Nicovar refuses to feel guilty, though the shade of his logic tutor is shaking her head from the mountains.


He steps out an hour later into a dusty sunlight. James is somehow leaning on the tent, twining himself around a guy-rope to stay upright. There's an empty coffee cup in his hand. Nicovar retrieves it, letting their fingers brush together. He tips it upside down and pulls a face. James watches him through half-lidded eyes.

“It's too hot for inquisitions,” he says. “I vote we blow it off and stick our heads in a barrel of water.”

“That's a wonderful idea,” Nicovar agrees.

“Isn't it technically illegal?”

“Not even technically. It's a religious crime to skip an inquisition. Although – you know, I don't think the law says anything about taking a bucket of water to an inquisition and sticking your head in it?”

That's it, then. I'm doing that.”

Alright,” Nicovar says. “I'll fetch the bucket.”

James groans. It takes him a minute to untangle himself from the rope and get his feet back under him. Nicovar watches how he moves and how the skin gleams where his shirt isn't laced quite closed at the neck, and says, “Don't sleep alone tonight.”

James stares. He blows out a startled breath. “Are – are you – with you?”

Yes.” Nicovar grins. “I don't mean, find someone random to spend it with. I mean the other thing.”

Huh.” James blinks. “I have to do an inquisition. How am I meant to concentrate on that?”

You're the Warmage. I have faith that you can handle one meeting.”

Your faith is entirely misplaced,” James says dolefully. “Please fetch me an even larger bucket. I need to drown my urges before they ask me questions.”

Nicovar waves the empty cup at him instead. “Need another of these? That much I can probably manage, if they don't call you in too fast.”

No, any more and I'll be twitchy.” James stretches, tipping his face towards the sky. “Oh – you need to go and find Giuseppe, he's worked out a deal with the Freeborn but I've no idea what the terms are. It's got conditional clauses for if you don't stand, or if you want to break the deal, or if they do – I don't remember any of it, ask Giuseppe.”

Nicovar salutes him with the coffee cup. “Yes, sir, at once, sir.”

He can see, as he spins on his heels, James wearing an expression like an startled goldfish. Nicovar grins to himself, and goes to further his campaign.

Chapter Text

Isaella finds out half an hour after the summit starts, when she stops by the Senate to check the evening's business.

Motion: To elect a Throne

Proposed by: Hahnmark

Seconded by: Casinea

Her stomach knots. Shit, they're not ready for this. They have fourteen votes so far, and they need twenty to win. Miriam will -

Miriam needs twenty votes just as they do, and she can't get them if all of Nicovar's supporters hold true.

Her boots churn up the Anvil mud as she hurried to the Urizen camp. The Ankarien camp is only half built, their luggage still out in the open, heaped in an unsteady pile on the groundsheet of a tent they haven't raised yet. Archimedes is in a huddle with one of his spire-mates, their robes embroidered with matching white scrollwork. The shorter man turns to Isaella as she approaches the camp and nods respectfully. “Senator.”

“Lucius, good to see you. You've heard?”

“We have,” Archimedes agrees. “Nicovar is talking to the Civil Service to confirm his candidacy. You'll second him if we need a formal nomination?”

“Yes, of course. Do you have the prediction list to hand?”

Archimedes shakes his head, gesturing at the pile of baggage. “The board is over there, somewhere. I haven't made the time to dig it out. I don't believe we have the votes to succeed but all we need to do is hold the line. Will your Navarri colleagues vote with you?”

“I'm not sure.” Isaella chews a dry spot on her lip. “Blodwen is of the opinion we don't need an Empress at all, yet. Possibly ever. She's – I don't know. She thinks the Empress is a figurehead and it would be – dishonest, to vote for one who didn't light her up with emotion”

Lucius shakes his head. “You won't change that in an hour.”

“Go to Dawn,” Archimedes says, “work on Roland. You won't change his vote but if you can get him preaching to Isolt, she'll turn our way just to spite him.”

“I'm going. I'll see you at eight.”

 

Sir Isolt is in the tournament square, teaching two youngsters in her House livery to use their shields against a greatsword. The shields are too large for them, sitting awkwardly on adolescent arms, their straps not buckled properly. Sir Roland is leaning on one of the wooden posts that hold up the perimeter string, watching them.

“Good evening, Sir Roland,” Isaella calls to him. “How was your season?”

He takes a moment to look her way, pretending to be surprised to see her. “Senator Isaella! Always a pleasure to have you gracing our camp. My season was very successful, thank you. We raided the Barrens and killed a score of sneaking Druj.”

Navarri fight like the Druj, Isaella doesn't say. She inclines her head instead. “Well fought, sir knight. We have an election this evening, did you see?”

“A motion to elect a Throne,” Roland recites solemnly. “The greatest of our duties. And you've come to argue for Nicovar, again.”

“I think he's the best candidate.”

“You're bedding him, Isaella. Or – well – perhaps not bedding, I don't know how you people manage – marriage, and – but you look sweetly at him. It clouds your judgement.”

“Surely I am not hearing a Dawnish knight argue against love as a guiding force?”

“Of course not! Never said any such thing. But is it love that moves you? Or only baser urges?”

“My people don't consider them base,” Isaella says, stung. “Apart from who I look sweetly on, what's your argument? Make your case against him and I'll hear it.”

“I don't need a case against him. He's obviously unfit. Between an Urizeni scholar who's never seen battle and an experienced General, there can't be any contest.”

Isolt looks like a fox whose ears are pricking. She says something to her young students and they turn to whacking at each other's shields, wooden swords bouncing off the painted covers. Her stance behind Roland speaks volumes, the greatsword still balanced on her shoulder, as though she would like to swing at him. “That's not entirely fair, Roland.”

“Oh, not you too, sister?”

“I haven't been your sister for eight years,” Isolt says, acid edging her voice. “I'm only saying, Nicovar has seen combat.”

Roland waves a hand. “Skirmishes out of Anvil. Not real warfare. We need an Empress who knows how to lead.”

Isolt moves her sword an inch forward, an inch back. She huffs in annoyance. “He's Archmage, Roland. How is that not leadership?”

“Well, would you trust a magician with an army? It's all very well to have him heading up the Conclave, but it doesn't translate. All he knows is how to count mana crystals. No, we'll have a Highborn Empress by midnight, you mark my words.”

“Throne-elect,” Isolt mutters. “Excuse me, Isaella, but I promised to teach my cousins how to guard their heads. I'll see you in the Senate.”

“Of course. Sir Roland, a pleasure as always.”

 

In the narrow lanes of the League camp, it takes Isaella long minutes to find the d'Holberg carta. She ducks into the dark tent and smacks her head on an unlit lantern. “Sorry!”

“Three,” one of the twins says from a pile of sheepskin rugs. Isaella squints through the gloom to see the coppery filigree of a mask. Lucrezia, then. “If you're looking for Cressy, she's gone down to the Brass Coast. One of their Senators wants to argue over whether his contract obligations apply tonight. They do, but it does us no good to get the breach payment afterwards if he doesn't vote right.”

Isaella drops to a crouch beside her. “You sound worried. Are we going to lose?”

“Probably,” Lucrezia says, “at least, we'll hold enough votes to stop Miriam, so we can try again. It's not that. I'm not worried about that. It's the stupid Conclave. Someone's running for Archmage of Day, tonight.”

“I didn't think it was due?”

“It's an Archmage election, they happen whenever someone gets up the courage to stand. Ordinarily I'd say Nicky wasn't in any danger, but – ugh. Vultures. He's going to have to defend straight from the Throne election and we aren't prepared.”

“What can I do?”

“Concentrate on the Senate,” Lucrezia says without hesitation. “We can actually afford to lose Archmage, because I can throw Grandmaster over and keep him in an Imperial post. We can't afford to let Miriam win. Don't get distracted. I'm distracted but let me do the Conclave work. Who've you spoken to?”

“Archimedes, briefly, and then I caught Roland and Isolt both and got him at his most boorish, so with luck she'll be one of ours.”

“Good. That's one for each of us. Virtues, I hate doing this in a hurry.”

“We'll be fine,” Isaella tells her. “We'll keep the Throne empty for another season and you'll finesse the Conclave. Stop panicking. I'm going to lurk around the Senate until it goes into session and catch people as they come in.” She kisses the top of Lucrezia's head, between her horns, and barely dodges the lantern as she straightens up.

 

The Senate is crowded at eight o'clock sharp. By the time the bell rings, all the Senators but one are on the floor, and she's ten miles out of Anvil with a broken cart-wheel.

Speaker Marianne is standing in front of the throne, which has been pushed right to the back of the dais to make room. Her voice hardly sounds about the chattering crowd in the public gallery, until Tessa of Bregasland takes an empty tankard from one of the onlookers and bangs it against the railing.

“Thank you, Bregasland. Listen, please, citizens, I know we're all excited about the election, but we're having it last, because we have regular business to attend to. Anyone causing a disturbance will be asked to leave the gallery. If you're bored, please just go. Alright. Senators, thank your for arriving so promptly. Let's get started.”

The regular business passes quickly. After that election motion went up on the wall, few Senators were interested in raising anything else. They work their way through the administrative motions without serious debate, and then the Conscience stands forth to speak on the only subject that really matters.

“Senators, Citizens. It is my duty and privilege to be the voice of the Way of Virtue in this assembly. I do not often urge the Senate to make its choice one way or another, but only bring its attention to the teachings of the Way, as each new season demands. Today I am breaking that habit. We have a motion before us to elect an Empress. The Imperial Throne has stood empty since Barrabas and his fleet were lost. We have gone on without an Empress and you may say we have got on well enough. The Empire was built that way. The Constitution gives us time to deliberate on who shall lead us. But an Empire must, in the end, have an Empress. We must choose someone. Now is not the time to resign ourselves to an interregnum. We have had two years to deliberate, and now, two candidates stand before us -”

“Three,” someone says loudly from the crowd, no doubt a Varushkan taking the insult they've been offered, but the Conscience half-smiles and goes on with his speech.

“Two candidates stand before us who have held Imperial titles, who have served the Empire as their positions demand, and each of them is a sound candidate. You may vote for either of them without folly. I will not tell you which to choose, Senators, but I will say this: you should choose one of them.”

Marianne clears her throat. “Thank you, Conscience, for your guidance. I have reviewed the Senate rules, and there is no provision for nominees to the Throne to address the Senate. Since the Senate has made no invitation to those citizens, they will not be called upon to speak. The motion before us is to elect a Throne, and I will allow debate on the merits of that motion now. Hahnmark.”

The senator for Hahnmark is a thin, nervous-looking man, with a pink scar running through his beard. “Fellow Senators, we have been debating this motion in one form or another for two years, mainly outside this chamber. We have, as the Conscience reminds us, two very convincing candidates, and a third with the courage to present herself. I, as most of you know, favour Miriam of Highguard, I believe she would make a fine Empress and her plan to shore up our borders before we expand again is wise. I will be retiring from the Senate tomorrow. I would like my last act here to be the election of a strong Throne.”

“Necropolis,” Marianne says, choosing from the Senators with hands raised to speak.

“It must not be Miriam,” Isaac says at once. “I agree that we should have a Throne. But this is not the only chance we will have to elect one! Vote for Nicovar – vote for Silviya, if you like – but vote against the motion before you give Miriam any power.”

“Please confine your comments to the motion itself, and not the merits of the candidates, Senators,” and so the debate goes on, with arguments for this side and that, unconvincingly disguised as discussion of whether the throne itself should remain empty.

Marianne lets the Senate talk for twenty minutes, and then holds off on nominating the next speaker, until the hands go down and the Senators watch her in tense silence.

“Three candidates have presented themselves to me in respect of this motion.” A little satisfied mutter runs through the gallery, where some Varushkans are taking it as a victory that the Speaker is acknowledging their nominee. “Those candidates are Silviya of Varushka, Nicovar of Urizen and Miriam of Highguard. I invite the candidates to cross the Senate floor.”

Isaella's heart beats painfully at the sight of them, all straight-backed and serious, though Silviya's face is pale with shock – it can't have been easy, to have heard herself dismissed over and over, and realise she never had a chance. But she crosses to the dais with the others and stands with her arms folded, her chin raised in defiance of fate.

Marianne points them towards places at the edge of the dais. Silviya on the right, nearest to the crowded gallery, Nicovar on the left, and Miriam proud in the centre, her hood raised.

“As there are three candidates, we will do this Navarri-fashion,” Marianne says to the assembled Senate. “Senators will form a line before their chosen candidates. I will announce the totals, at which time any Senator who chooses may change their vote. We will continue with this until no Senator wishes to move, or until one candidate reaches twenty votes. Arturo, please stand to the side.”

The Conscience smiles and steps clear, up the corner of the dais, where he can't be mistaken for a vote. Marianne watches him, letting the moment draw out before she starts the voting. When the crowd in the gallery are finally silent, barely breathing through the tension in the air, Marianne speaks.

“Senators, the motion before you is to elect a Throne. Votes for No will stand on the far left, by the wall. Votes for Yes will divide amongst the candidates. Senators, make your votes.”

Isaella is not the first in Nicovar's line. That honour goes to Johanna, and then Isolt strides up, with a sour glance over her shoulder at Roland, smiling happily in Miriam's line. Two senators from the Marches. Isaella joins the line, counting in her head. Three for Silviya, all Varushkans. Thirteen for Miriam. Twelve for Nicovar.

Marianne tallies them off aloud. Before she can tell them to move again, the senators for Karsk and Meikarova are crossing the floor to Nicovar's line. Isaella hides a smile. No great love for Silviya, then, except from her sister, glaring at her compatriots from her stubborn line of one.

One. Thirteen. Fourteen. Something untwists in Isaella's belly. They won't lose this tonight.

The remaining Marcher chews on her lip and crosses to Nicovar's line. Isaac is whispering urgently to the senator for Bastion, who is barely looking at him past the edge of her hood. Marianne counts again.

One, twelve, fifteen.

“Oh, fuck it,” Hahnmark says. “Sorry, Miriam.”

He crosses into Nicovar's line. Bastion follows him, and Sarvos and Temeschwar together, and Isaella is counting bodies faster than Marianne can speak, and then Therunin says quietly “Follow the river,” and comes over with Hercynia on her heels.

“Would anyone else like to change their vote?” Marianne gives them a chance, a few seconds, before she speaks again. “The votes stand at one for Silviya of Varushka. Six, for Miriam of Highguard, and twenty-one for Nicovar of Urizen. The motion passes.”

“I intend to seek the veto!” shouts a Navarri from the gallery, jagged warpaint streaked across her face.

“Thank you,” Marianne says, nodding to her, unperturbed. “The Synod will require time to deliberate the motion to veto. If the veto is not upheld, we will have a coronation. Until that time, we remain in interregnum. Nicovar of Urizen is the Throne-Elect as chosen by the Senate. That concludes tonight's business. Thank you.”

The silence hangs for a moment, as senate and gallery work out what just happened, and then the cheering begins. Isaella threads through the suddenly-crowded floor to find James, leaning on the gallery railing, and drag him down into a hug.

He looks dazed. “Did we just win?”

“We just won,” Isaella says. “We just won!

Chapter Text

Nicovar's first meeting with the Assembly of Nine takes place in a questionably waterproof Synod tent, its roof sagging alarmingly under the weight of rain. The wind has been blowing steadily for three days and by now there is a sad little heap of rope and broken wood beside the entrance, the remains of deceased guy-lines too sodden to burn. Nicovar picks up one of the snapped pegs and pries a clump of mud and wet straw from the sole of his boot.

“There's no point,” someone says in a thick Marcher accent. Cardinal Tom Brewer, sweating under a waxed hood. “You'll only grow new ones as soon as you step outside.”

“At present I'm an inch taller than I belong,” Nicovar answers, balancing on his newly lightened foot to work on the other. “I prefer not to start my reign by lying about my height.”

“Very wise,” Tom agrees. Nicovar doesn't miss the warning – wise, from a Cardinal, is not a synonym for clever, or even prudent, and arguably doesn't apply to the cleaning of boots at all. Lying, however, is certainly a concern of that virtue, and not to be done lightly. He drops his broken tent-peg back on the pile and sighs at the smears of mud on his hands.

“I understand why the Constitution forbids us to build on Anvil. And as Throne, I am of course bound to uphold that stricture. But I do wish our founders had left us some way to have a decent pavement around here.”

“There's a sentiment that unites us all.” Rosalind is somehow undamaged by the weather, wearing the raindrops in her hair like jewels, her fine green cloak as striking as any armour. “We'd best not try it just yet, Emperor. Constitutional changes need a firm foundation.”

“And a lack of a firm foundation is exactly the problem,” Nicovar agrees. “Do we sit on the grass, or stand?”

“Stand usually,” Tom says. “Annalies has a folding chair she brings. Oh, here she is – here, Anna, let me set that up for you. Who else are we expecting?”

“Markus never comes,” Annalies says breathily, settling her walking stick between her knees. “And Katja is still queuing up for the Civil Service, there's been some problem with her raiding party not being properly registered. I just spoke to her in line and she thinks it'll be an hour yet.”

“I'm here, I'm here,” someone says from the entrance, trying to shake the mud off her boots, “am I late? Oh, Nicovar, I'm sorry, I don't think we've met, I was only elected last summit – I'm Kesia of Samson's Guard, Cardinal of Courage.” She grabs Nicovar's hand and shakes it.

“A pleasure to meet you,” Nicovar says, putting his hands firmly behind his back against any further attempts to make contact. Kesia's eyes are a vivid green, and her collar is laced snugly all the way to her throat – she's a Briar, and trying to hide it. “But you're not late. I don't think we're all here yet, are we?”

“We are now,” Tom says, and Nicovar turns to see a Navarri and another Highborn, both with their hoods up, talking in whispers as they come in. “Evening, Cara, and Solomon. It's bloody cold so let's get started – that is, if the Emperor agrees?”

“Let's not start that,” Nicovar says. “You've been chairing during the Interregnum? Then keep chairing now. I only have one vote here just like the rest of you.”

“At least you're not wearing the silly hat,” Cara says, putting her hood back carefully over her antlers. “Alright, we're here. Let's get this over with before the whole tent comes down.”

 

Being the Emperor seems mainly to mean going to meetings. Nicovar misses the start of Senate, from being occupied with the Assembly of Nine, which means he's late for the Military Council as well. He steps into the tent to the turning of every head. Most of the stares are hostile.

“I haven't come to take over,” he says calmly, warming his fingers on the cup of coffee he stole a moment to buy. “There's a whole line of citizens at Ankarien camp who want a word with me. But I'll need a military briefing and my usual advisor isn't here this summit. Could someone stand in for Giuseppe tomorrow and give me the summary?”

Long silence follows, and then “I'll be here all morning if you want to see the map,” says Gwyneth, Isaella's old general, her joints too stiff to join the fighting nowadays. Nicovar bows to her.

“Then I'll see you here after the fighters go through the gate. Good evening, Generals.”

 

Lucius meets him at the camp entrance. “Don't go in there,” he says hurriedly, “there's a dozen of them waiting for you. Archimedes is handling it. We need to build some barriers around you or you'll never get anything done.”

“I need an office,” Nicovar agrees, “and someone to manage my appointments and send people away if it's not my problem to solve.”

“Are you going to Conclave tonight?”

Nicovar shakes his head, scattering drops of rain from his hood. “No, they don't need me, and I was there all Saturday session last time sorting out the Archmage thing. I plan to leave them alone this time to get used to the idea of a Throne again – James will pass on anything urgent.”

“Good. Because I think you should go to the League camp. The d'Holberg twins are holding court and I think you should remind their hangers-on that they're not actually the Empress.”

“You don't like them.”

“When have I? They're skilled at what they do. If you put yourself back in their web they'll be forced to acknowledge you, that's all. Have you spoken to James yet?”

“Not yet. He's around somewhere. Probably doing Conclave work.”

Lucius looks at him strangely. “You should talk to him, Nicovar. You wrote six times this season.”

“And I wrote to Isaella three, and Cressida four – what's your point?”

He doesn't get an answer to that. Only Lucius staring at him a moment longer, and saying, “Have you eaten? There's a delegation from Faraden waiting and you shouldn't face them on an empty stomach.”

 

It's nearly two in the morning before Nicovar can seek out his bed. The Faraden wanted to preach heresy to him, in the hopes that he would build them a church in Sarvos – impossible, but they might get an embassy in Highguard, which is exactly what they don't want, too many priests around to disagree with them – but the reminder that Sarvos is mainly navigated by boat gave them pause. Apparently their horror of the sea extends to saltwater canals. And then after the Faraden came a pair of generals, very urgently concerned that he would appear at the Sentinel Gate to see the fighters off, who needed more reassurance than the “Yes, of course,” and a bow he was hoping to give them. And then a half-religious dispute about sorcery and land holdings in the Marches – Nicovar never made it to the League camp.

The makeshift streets of Anvil are almost empty by the time he steps out of the Synod tent at last, into the damp wind. His robes flap about his shins as he walks. Nicovar's mind is spinning with a half dozen difficult problems, and he knows better than to lie down like this, his feet cold and his head too full to sleep. He turns the other way instead, and walks up the hill, as briskly as the mud will allow.

Most of Anvil is asleep, or laced snugly into tents, with only the soft sound of laughter and the glow beneath the canvas to give them away. Nicovar nods to the people he passes, an exhausted civil servant mopping out the privies, a pair of drunken Navarri who shout “Emperor!” and then hush themselves, remembering that people are sleeping. His feet take him through Dawn and the silent Varushkan camp, every tent closed against strangers. The fire is still burning outside the Marcher tavern and he stops there, to warm his hands, and recognises the lanky figure standing opposite.

“Nic,” James says, softly, and stops. He turns his hands over above the fire. “We didn't see you tonight.”

Nicovar stops the question that leaps to his tongue, the easy deflection into Conclave business. He says instead, “I know. I'm sorry.”

James lifts one shoulder. “Probably not your fault.”

“I missed you,” Nicovar says, surprising himself. “Today. Tonight. All season.”

“Well. You're too busy, now.”

He reaches for James's hands, across the fire. Looks down at their twined fingers. “That's not true. Or – if it is, then I need you more. Not less.”

“What can an Emperor need with me?”

“Don't,” Nicovar says. “Don't do that. It's me, James. It's not some stranger. Don't leave me missing you, when we're both right here.”

James makes a noise, not quite a laugh. “It's a lot to get used to, is all. You know they're already calling me the Emperor's man.”

“Are you?”

“Of course I am. Have been for years.”

Nicovar meets his dark eyes, solemn in the dim firelight. He bends a little, to kiss James's hand, and hears his soft intake of breath.

“Come to bed, dear heart,” he says. “I'm sorry I left you waiting. Come inside and get warm.”

James takes a deep breath. “Yes,” he says. “Alright. Yes.”

Chapter Text

Cara is the Cardinal of the Way, and Isaella likes her. They sit together on a hill outside Anvil, half a mile from the camp, on the eastward side where the traffic is lighter. They walked out here this morning, at an easy stroll so as not to spill the tea in their mugs, and finally found a rock to sit on and look out at the horizon.

“But you like him,” Cara says, continuing a conversation from ten minutes ago.

“I don't know.” Isaella taps her heel against the stone, thinking. “I don't dislike him. He's arrogant and presumptuous and he – he doesn't gossip, exactly, but he makes fun. Half the time I want to hug him and half I want to stab him and sometimes they're the same half.”

“If you were ten years younger, I'd diagnose you with a crush,” Cara observes dryly. “But you campaigned for him. That looks like more than attraction.”

“It is more. I just don't know what kind of more. I do truly believe that he is meant to be where he is. And that I am meant somehow to be involved with that. It's like, every time I haven't seen him in a while, I get this little kick from the universe. Look, here's someone dangerous, you should help them!”

“You know what I'm going to tell you.”

“I know. Follow the river.”

I can't tell you what he was to you before. Or will be in the next life. I can only tell you that right now, he is the Throne, and you are one of the people who put him there. The Dance does not run backwards. You must take the step that is in front of you. But you know, that's always the way. It's only more obvious to you now, because of the titles you both have. It would be just the same if you were ox farmers in Hercynia.”

Isaella snorts. “Not such high stakes on which oxen to breed, are there?”

But the same Dance, nonetheless. You have met the people you are meant to meet. What you do next is always up to you.”

“I wish I knew whether we really were ox herders.”

“You might find out tonight.”

“Virtues, I hope not,” Isaella says hastily, seizing the chance to change the subject. “Imagine someone coming back and saying they'd seen you, and you were up to your elbows in a cow.”


There are certain rights and privileges due to the Throne, and amongst them is the first dose of True Liao to be prepared each season. This is no small thing: of all the liao produced in the Empire in three months, only five or six doses will mature into the most potent form. The ordinary liao will be drunk by priests in their thousands, to dedicate citizens or give testimonies or consecrate their churches. The precious few vials of the real thing will be brought to Anvil, for the granting of visions.

Isaella knows how the visions work. That, really, is the problem – too many late-night conversations with Cara, when she was serving as the guiding priest for Sir Isolt's vision last year. The True Liao doesn't, strictly speaking, cause visions. Strictly speaking, it kills you. The whole structure of the ceremony, the most sacred rite in the Imperial faith, is to anchor your soul in the present moment, so that after the liao has flung it into the Labyrinth, and sent it to relive the choices it made in other lives, it will come back to the body it left. Without that ritual, it merely kills you. With it, the dying is temporary.

Nicovar is doing what any Throne is expected to do, if they haven't already had a vision as a candidate. He is using his dose on himself. Isaella agrees, and wouldn't dream of talking him out of it. She's excited, even, to hear what he brings back, who he used to be – secretly, to hear whether her own past life can be recognised among his memories.

She only wishes it wasn't going to kill him in the process.

His vision is first on the schedule, drawn up by the Civil service with due concern for his status. There's hardly time for anything, between Isaella's responsibilities to attend the Standing and Nicovar's collection by a solemn Varushkan draughir even paler than he is, but Isaella finds a moment to stop in the Synod tent somehow.

“You're worried about me,” Nicovar says.

“Of course I am.”

“They haven't lost anyone in decades. You don't need to worry about me.”

“No, but I'm going to. Anything could happen. You could come back cursed. You could lose your veil and get your face melted off. You could turn out to have been a traitor.”

Nicovar blinks. “You're putting those three on the same level of consequence? I thought you liked my face.”

“You don't think it would be a problem, for the Emperor to come back and say he'd betrayed the Empire?”

“I just think it would be easier to manage than having my face melted off. Which is also extremely unlikely. The Civil Service are good at this, Sal. And besides, if they lose me I think James will tie a rope to his ankle and dive in after me, and it would be very embarrassing to lose the Warmage as well, so they'll take good care of me. I have Tom to make sure I get home safe.”

“He's stealing my job,” Isaella says darkly, “I could have been your Guide.”

“You'd need to be a priest.”

“I know. But I don't have to like it. Oh, damn, that's the Senate bell, I have to go – if you die I will come with James, only I will be there to kick your ass, understand?”

“Yes, Senator,” Nicovar says, almost convincing in his meekness, and clasps her hand before he lets her go.


Senate always runs short, this first session of the summit; Isaella is back in the Synod tent long before Nicovar returns. She finds James there, too tall for the enclosed space, restlessly rolling his staff in his hands. He looks at her, silent and tense-jawed.

“He's not back yet?”

James shakes his head. “You ever done it?”

“Never,” Isaella says. “I heard Rhonwen talk about it – my old senator. But that was years ago. I wasn't involved. And Cara, but she can't tell me what she saw.”

“What if he doesn't come back?”

“He will.”

“You don't know that.” James stabs the end of his staff into the grass. “Nobody knows that. He doesn't know it. He's just running in headlong, the way he does.”

“It got him this far.” Isaella rubs her arms. James's fear is infectious. She thinks of telling him that if Nicovar does die, they've all had practice at handling an interregnum lately, but it doesn't seem very comforting. Better to hold her tongue and watch James twisting grass up by its roots.

There's always noise in Anvil, along the main street by the Senate where the meeting tents and the food sellers are all set up. Isaella only notices it getting louder when she hears Tom Brewer saying, “Not now, for pity's sake, he's just back from a vision, give him a minute before you start hassling him. Nothing's on fire, it can wait. No, you're not coming in here, piss off.”

He shepherds Nicovar into the tent, his broad shoulders hunched. Nicovar is as calm and elegant as ever, except for the red flush high on his cheeks. He says quietly, “I'm fine, Tom, really,” but he makes no argument when Tom closes the tent flap behind them to shut out the curious onlookers.

“You're back,” James says, pressing his forehead to the tip of his staff, the only thing holding him up in his relief. “Welcome back.”

“Of course I came back.” Nicovar turns to put his back against the central pole and closes his eyes.

“What happened?”

“I died,” he says, acidly. “And Tom died. And then a lot of other people died, and then I came back.”

“He was a general of some kind.” Tom has sat himself down, heedless of the damp grass beneath his trousers. “Or a battle captain, maybe, but I think a general. On a raid into Varushka.”

“The cultists wouldn't give in,” Nicovar says, without opening his eyes. “My troops were telling me we didn't have time to argue with them, that we had to get back before the gate closed, but if they didn't come with us something terrible – I don't know what would have happened. We just needed them to not be where they were, and they wouldn't go. I had a magician with me, she was very clear that if they didn't leave it would be a great help to our enemies.”

“How do you know they were cultists?” James puts a hand on Nicovar's shoulder. Isaella can see how he wants to hold him, how only deference to Nicovar's nation – it would be like public nudity, to an Urizeni – is restraining him.

“They kept talking about a Sovereign,” Tom answers for him. “Anyway Nic's troops were hanging back nervous and didn't want to fight them – civilians, you see – and everyone was running around in a panic scared the Gate was going to close and leave them stranded. So he had to choose, then. They weren't going to go on their own, so...”

“So I had them all killed,” Nicovar says, his voice flat. “It was a strategic decision. I couldn't leave them to empower their sovereign and they denied being Imperial citizens. I told my troops to kill them all, and lay the blame on me.”

“And then we woke up.” Tom tips his head back to look at the blank canvas above him, speckled with old mud. “Back in Anvil. Back in today. Make a moral out of that.”

Chapter Text

Cardinal Katja taps her fingernails against the head of her axe. “But what do you think is the problem, Nicovar?”

Nicovar puts his hand on the back of his neck, squeezing the tired muscles.

He wants us to do things, Katja.” Kesia has – Nicovar immediately regrets thinking it – blossomed since her election, her enthusiasm sharpening into decisiveness. “At the moment we're not doing anything. We just let the Senate get on with it.”

“What we do we do well,” Katja grumbles. “You haven't been here long enough to understand.”

I understand that we have powers we haven't used in decades. Until the Throne campaigns the Synod hadn't used Inquisition for more than twenty years. I checked! It's in the Constitution for a reason. We are supposed to use it – That's what you're saying, isn't it?”

“Exactly, Cardinal. And not just Inquisition. I drew up a list of the Synod's powers and nearly half of them are out of use. When was the last time you revoked anyone?”

“Last year,” Tom Brewer says. “We revoked Molly of Upwold.”

Nicovar gestures his recognition. “You did. Almost unanimously, the Marcher assembly voted to revoke the Senator for Upwold. And why did you do that, Tom?”

“Age and infirmity, the usual reason. She wanted to retire.”

“And that is my point. Our founders did not give the Synod the power to help Senators retire on their own schedule. It's all we ever use it for but it's not why we have it. It exists to remove the unvirtuous. Even if they're capable.”

Rosalind leans back onto her hands, her cloth-of-gold tunic brilliant against the long grass. “Who is it you want us to revoke, then? Miriam?”

He doesn't want us to revoke anyone,” Kesia says, exasperated. “He doesn't even want us to revoke someone. He just wants us to remember that we can. Half of our powers are about chastising the unvirtuous and we don't use any of them. We don't inquisit, we don't condemn, we don't excommunicate. We barely even veto and that's the one thing everyone agrees we should do!”

“We raised a veto for the Throne election,” Katja argues.

Yes, but it didn't pass. I mean – think about the arguments over the fleet. We stayed out of that. I know I was only young but I was here and I saw how much people needed Synod guidance and we didn't give it to them. We left the Empire not knowing what the path of virtue even was. Even if we disagreed we should have made the arguments. We should have said, in public, here is the Courageous argument against, and, here is the Wise argument for, and - been more than just a vestigial government committee that hands out virtue funds and – and builds churches. A Cardinal is the equal of a Senator. Out only superior is the Throne and he is telling us, step up and do something.” Kesia looks around the tent and turns suddenly embarrassed. “Okay, I'm done.”

Katja frowns. “Solomon? You're here for Loyalty – these are condemnatory powers. Is it Loyal to use them?”

“You know I can't answer that,” Solomon says, and rubs irritably at his eyes, swollen with pollen. “Should I condemn someone? It depends who they are. Should you? Who are you loyal to? The Empire is only the highest good if you believe it is. And this is a dangerously unitarian question. What does your Pride lead you to do?”

Silence falls for a moment after that pronouncement, until Annalies taps her walking stick against the grass. “Entertaining as it might be,” she says, “to raise a Statement of Principle that the Synod should raise more Statements of Principle, there is not much use arguing about it. It will never be good to use our powers simply for the sake of using them. It will always go case by case. The Emperor says, let us be a little more forthcoming with our interventions. I take his point, but there is exactly nothing we can do about it here and now. Can we move on? There is the unrest in Faraden to consider.”

Nicovar bows to her, a little awkwardly, from his seat on the grass. “I rest the question. Tom, remind us what's going on with the embassy?”

There is no easy solution to a religious dispute with a nation of heretics. Kesia and Annalies are arguing fervently over whether the recently built outpost in Faraden should be defended to the death or should yield, paving the way for conversions in the long term, when Isaella pokes her head through the flap of the tent.

She quirks an eyebrow in amusement, seeing most of them on the ground like children. “Forgive me, Cardinals, but I've come to kidnap Nicovar.”

“Please, take him!” Kesia waves her arms, ushering Nicovar towards the exit. “He's all yours!”

“Not like that,” Nicovar grumbles, but he stands up a little awkwardly, trying to avoid using the tent itself as leverage and risk pulling it down on top of them. He brushes the grass off his robes before he follows Isaella outside.

“Is there anything I should know about?”

Isaella shakes her head, her braids bouncing. “Nothing out of the ordinary. There may some difficulty over the Faraden embassy in Highguard, but you know about that.”

“I do. I was planning on supporting a suspension of the work until our embassy in Faraden is no longer threatened – does that hold up?”

“That's good. You'll get easy votes for that. There's talk about accepting the Faraden workers as citizens if they want to convert, but no agreement on which nation should take them, so it will only be a handful if it happens at all.”

“Could the Navarri take them?”

She chews the corner of her lip. “We could, but only on the same terms as we take Imperials. Easy to absorb them for a few seasons while they find out where they're going. They're foreigners, they have that going for them. Give them some kind of halfway status and I could find Stridings to take a couple of dozen wanderers. But I can't promise they'd be Navarri in the end.”

“True. Well, it's a good option for the first few seasons, if we do get a rush. Good grief, are we that early?”

“No,” Isaella says, “there's just nobody here.” She slips away from his side to speak to someone in the public gallery, leaving Nicovar to claim his seat upon the throne.


Conclave is as crowded as ever, filled with magicians energised by the chance to have a meeting where their feet do not go numb. Nicovar has seen more than one bottle being passed around. He makes his way over to the Arch as usual, letting Lucrezia crow and slap his arm, delighted to have the Throne in her Order. The new Archmage of Day is present, wearing her belt of office slung low on her hips, her head cocked to listen to Daniel of Rachel's Guard as he presses her urgently about scrying coordination. It is always scrying, with Daniel.

The first address after the counting is from the Dean of the Lyceum, soliciting for new rituals to be codified. Nicovar is listening to the suggestions with a smile he lets himself show, pleased by how successful the experimental magicians have been while he wasn't paying attention to them, when there's a shuffling by the door. He thinks nothing of it until the whispering crests around him like a wave.

“Emperor,” someone says across the room, “Nicovar, you're needed at the gate. It's the Warmage.”

He breaks all etiquette in in haste, crossing the circle to reach the door faster.

The Sentinel Gate is smoking and pulsing a deep purple light. Nicovar arrives at a run, his robes flapping behind him as he follows his guide between the crowded tents. The knot of people opens up to meet him.

He drops to his knees beside the bleeding figure on the ground, a physic wrist-deep in her belly.

“Annie,” he says, “Annie, what happened? Where's James?”

“We fucked up,” Annie says. Her eyes are closed, the words rasping out, a broken whisper. “We fucked up bad. He's still there. He was fighting.”

“No,” Nicovar says. “No.” He's on his feet, somehow, his hands raised to press against the Gate he knows will not yield for him. “James! James, it's closing, get back here!”

The smoke roils. A figure stumbles through, coughing, but it's one of the twins with a broken quarterstaff jagged in her hands, not James, and Nicovar peers through the shimmering portal, trying to find him. There is a twist in his guts like a gripping hand. He can't see. There is something screaming in the grey mist beyond the Gate.

A space opens through the smoke and for a moment James is there, clear against the horizon, twisting to sink a knife into the chest of something too clawed to be human. His staff is gone, lost among the bodies at his feet. He turns at Nicovar's desperate shout, taking half a step towards him, and falls beneath a leaping weight, its wolf-teeth bared. He's lost against the dark ground, the bodies all around him. There is a snarling like the end of the world, and the smoke billows up.

“Please,” Nicovar says, to James, to the closing portal, he doesn't know. “Please.” His fingers twitch against the air, the symbols of constellations that cannot help him, drawn upon nothingness as solid as ice.

Howling in pain, James rolls through the smoke at Nicovar's feet. He shines in the gate-light, soaked in his own fresh blood.

Nicovar doesn't notice the portal finally closing, or the sobbing grief of the Marchers who count their dead. He is on his knees, clinging to James's hand, telling him to look at me, say something, please, until he looks past the bleeding wounds and realises that James can't breathe.

There's a physic kneeling beside him, somehow, already unrolling her tools. “Get his head,” she says. “This will take surgery – Someone get me a light! You, hold his head. Tip his head back, like this, good, and keep his mouth open. If he coughs anything up, pull it out. Lantern over here! I'm going to drain his lungs, be ready for him to bite, okay?”

Nicovar cradles his head in one hand and lets James bite on the other, keeping his mouth open while he struggles for air. His eyes are wide in the darkness, the lantern lighting nothing but the blood on his skin. Somehow he raises one arm and clings to Nicovar's shoulder, as the chirurgeon 's knife dips into him . His fingers tighten.

You're here,” Nicovar says. “I'm here. You made it back. Just hold on. Hold on another minute.” He curls forward, to press their foreheads together. “Breathe, love. I'm here. Just breathe.”

Chapter Text

The old forge is loud with the hammering of rain. Isaella absently touches her fingers to the rusty horse-shoe hanging by the door, to honour the builders of Anvil, and peers around. James is easy to see, as tall as he is, but it takes her a moment to spot Nicovar, hiding in the passageway by the back door.

She threads her way through the crowd to him. “You look nervous. Are you nervous, Emperor?”

“Of course I'm nervous.” His voice cracks a little. “I have to do it shirtless. Did you know I have to do it shirtless?”

“You - “ Isaella frowns at him. “Nic.”

“There's a reason I'm not a sentinel!” Nicovar hisses. “Have you seen – you have seen James without his clothes on, I can't compete with that. OK, you're right, I know, it's not a competition, but this part is – almost a competition. I'm supposed to be very calm and in control and I'm not sure I can do that topless.”

I saella takes him by the shoulders. “ Take a deep breath, Nicovar . First thing, you're performing for the Marchers. They will like it if you're not as poised as usual. It makes you seem more human to them. And second thing, put your overrobe back on over your skin, you dummy.”

His eyes widen. “Can I do that?”

“Well, you're the Empress, I doubt they're going to pull you down from the barrel to strip you. Come on, friend. Take it off. You can't be late to get married.”

 

James might not have warned Nicovar about the details, but he must have mentioned the barrel – Nicovar wore trousers this morning. He climbs quite comfortably onto the up-ended oak cask and stands there, his hands clasped loosely behind his back, black veins showing on his arms where his overrobe leaves them bare. Isaella has his sash folded through her belt for safekeeping.

Opposite him, on top of a second barrel, James is trying to find his balance. The floor isn't completely level and every time he moves the barrel tips a little, like a wobbly-legged table. He straightens up carefully, bracing his feet against the rim. There's a livid red scar on each side of his chest, between his bottom ribs, and a vicious ripping bite mark in his shoulder. Isaella notices the new scattering of white hairs on his belly with a flash of the old desire.

James is the head of his household, so the honour of starting the match falls to his coven leader. Annie climbs the rickety stairs towards the ruined second storey and leans out, shouting over the chatter of the crowd and the rain.

Listen up, folks! We are here to witness James of Mournwold and Nicovar of – well, of the Empire, nowadays. Jimmy and Nic think that they'd like to be married, so we've come to give them a proper chance to change their minds. You won't have all been to Mournwold so I'll tell you how we do things there. Those are two good barrels of Marcher cider under heir feet, and they're going to stand up there and speak the truth until they've got no more to say. Big or small, new or old, anything that stands in the way of loving, that's the truth you owe each other, so get talking, boys. James, you can go first. What's the matter with Nicovar?”

“I have to bend down to kiss him,” James says seriously.

Nicovar raises an eyebrow. “His face is very scratchy in the mornings.”

All his good clothes are white.” James spreads his hands, theatrically baffled, prompting Nicovar to point at him accusingly.

“He didn't tell me I would have to do this shirtless.”

“He's not actually doing this shirtless.”

That gets the first real laugh from the onlookers. Someone calls from the bar, “You want we should fix that?” and James says, “No,” firmly enough to quell them into giggles.

“He keeps getting nearly killed,” Nicovar says, serious again.

“Every time he goes to battle, he needs rescuing.”

“He doesn't take politics seriously.”

“He thinks about nothing else.”

“He gets up at three o'clock every morning to piss.”

“He is constantly sarcastic.”

Nicovar looks genuinely hurt by that one, and Isaella worries. They must have talked about this in advance, surely?

“He treats me like I'm a child.”

James straightens his spine. “He thinks he's the smartest person in every conversation.”

“He thinks being Emperor makes a difference to whether I care for him.”

“He skips Conclave meetings.”

“He puts things into the Conclave agenda and doesn't tell me.”

“He turns single incidents into a pattern.”

“I only did that the once!”

The laughter of the crowd is infectious. Isaella is struggling to contain her giggles, listening to them bicker. James is wobbling on his barrel.

“He gave me the taller perch and I can't stand heights,” he says, holding his arms wide for balance.

He blames me for the vagaries of fate,” Nicovar retorts, “I mean, what does he think I am? In charge or something?”

James doubles over laughing. Between wheezes he gets out, “He is trying to kill me and none of you buggers is helping!”

“Disallowed!” Annie shouts merrily, “off topic!”

Nicovar clasps his hands, looking serene. “He is blaming me for his own decision to stand on a barrel.”

“He flirts with me when I'm going into meetings on purpose to distract me.”

“He confuses nerves for mockery,” Nicovar says ruefully.

James shrugs. “He expects me to read his mind.”

“He tracks mud into the blankets.”

“Alright!” Annie interrupts, “alright! You're not going to solve this by yourselves. Make a space there, you rabble. Marriage is a community business. We're going to help them decide. Clear the floor between them! Time to take sides! No shoving, no interrupting, and change ends when you feel like.” She ticks off the rules on her fingers as the crowd churns, citizens trying to make room for the game while keeping a good view for themselves. Isaella breaks the first rule at once, muscling her way to the front.

James folds his arms, squaring up. “He won't eat fruit if it's just a little bit bruised.”

A loose knot of bodies immediately forms around his barrel, staring Nicovar down, mock-fierce.

“He puts salt in porridge,” Nicovar answers, and gets his own little band of supporters. Isaella weighs up the charges and steps over to James. Nicovar's eyes flick over to her for a moment, betrayed.

James hums. “He's never once wondered if he was overreaching.”

More people move over to him, though the Marchers in the crowd are holding other back now, trying to keep enough space for the players.

“He's underestimated me for years,” Nicovar says. A muscled Marcher barks a laugh and changes sides, putting herself clearly in Nicovar's camp.

“He flirts so much in letters he forgets why he was writing them.”

“He makes sad eyes at me instead of saying what he needs.”

“He snores,” James says simply, winning back everybody who changed sides and then some in a hail of delighted laughter.

“He's so handsome, and I'm not, and I worry he's just being nice.” Nicovar's voice doesn't quite crack, but Isaella can hear the wobble starting. The crowd coos in sympathy.

James stares across their heads. “I'm marrying you, right now, and that's not enough proof for you?”

“Well, it's evidence,” Nicovar concedes. Isaella is changing sides every time by now, following the rhythm of the Marchers in the game. “You do the most dangerous rituals on the books.”

“You pretend to like my ginger cordial, but you don't pretend very well.”

“You can't use chopsticks without getting food down your front.”

“You once threw yourself off a cliff.” That story must have spread wide; the crowd erupts in laughter again, and Isaella is slapped on the back by more than one hand, for her part in the rescue.

“Alright,” Annie shouts over the merriment, “alright! There's only one way to settle this! Get them down off those pedestals!”

The players reach up to lift James and Nicovar down. James squeaks at the movement, wobbling on his feet. Nicovar somehow manages to look calm even as he's tilted off his barrel.

“We've heard all your grievances, boys, and there ain't no way to choose between you. So you'll just have to kiss, and make up.”

James stumbles forward, taller than Nicovar and faster across the floor. Nicovar rests his hands on James's bare waist. He's blushing under his natural pallor.

James murmurs to him, “Are you nervous, lover?”

“No,” Nicovar says, shaking his head a little. “You're all exhibitionists.”

“OK,” James agrees, and leans down to kiss him.

The sound of cheering drowns out anything else they might say. Isaella applauds with the rest, applauds until her palms hurt, while James and Nicovar hold each other, shining with happiness.

“Alright,” Annie says at last, and the couple turn in their embrace. “If you haven't changed your minds yet, I guess you must be married. Put your clothes on, boys, and let's tap those kegs.”

Nicovar's robe and James's shirt are resting on the bar, waiting for this moment, Many hands pass them forward. James swings easily into the ivory robe, made specially for this moment but even so a little narrow over the chest. He lets it hang open and reaches to hold Nicovar's overrobe for him, while he struggles into the unfamiliar shirt. James usually wears green, but this shirt is a rich brown, and Isaella loves him fierce and sharp, for thinking about it, what would look better on Nicovar and match his clothes best. The golden embroidery at the collar is all of apples and bees. James shakes out the overrobe solemnly, helps his husband back into it.

Isaella doesn't drink much that night, but she cries a little into Cara's shoulder, and lies awake in the morning watching the steady rain, claiming a headache.

Chapter Text

Nicovar hasn't been a regular at Conclave since his coronation last year, but he recognises the rhythm of the meetings. There's always a busy time at the start, before the conclave has officially started business, when the magicians are chasing down their contacts and firming up their plans, working the Net of the Heavens. Then the counting, the awkward shuffling of bodies as the Orders convene, all six of them trying to claim one of the four corners for their territory, the Grandmasters taking a census of the moving heads. It never starts exactly on time, but Nicovar manages to be their promptly, though he's still working on his dinner even at nine o'clock, a bowl of long-cooled rice and curry balanced on his palm, cheap wooden chopsticks rough between his fingers.

“Empress!” Lucrezia throws her arms wide, theatrically delighted. “You came!”

Nicovar smiles back. “And I've missed you, Grandmaster. How does the Order stand?”

“We've picked up a half-dozen new members since you were last here. It turns out there's some advantages to being the Emperor’s order. You do still have your Arcane Mark, don't you?”

Of course.”

Oh, good! That gives us one more one the precedence count. We're not always bottom nowadays.”

We're not? Who did we overtake?”

The Sevenfold Path. When Myra's Lance stopped attending they lost a lot of people. So, to catch you up, we're making a push on block voting at the moment, throwing our weight around to get ourselves noticed, but as you're the Throne I suppose you're an exception to that, if you don't make too much noise about it. Not that I can control how you vote, but it'll mess with our strategy if you make yourself an Arch member splitting from the Order and not the Throne doing their own thing, if you follow me?”

Of course,” Nicovar says, bemused. “I've always agreed broadly with your voting choices before, Lucrezia, I'm sure I will tonight as well.”

We'll see,” she says, cheerful behind the glittering glass chips in her mask. “Don't be afraid to use your own speaking nomination, is what I'm saying. If I nominate you you're an Arch member, if you speak for yourself you're the Throne. Deal?”

Yes, deal.”

Lovely. I'll tell Ruth our numbers. Be good.”

Ruth has new boots, stern and plain and lined with white rabbit fur. Nicovar envies them a little. The ground is dry, but the cold is seeping up through his soles.

Good evening, citizens,” she says, “let's not waste time. I know we'd all rather be around our campfires. Before we start, a reminder that we have the Throne with us tonight, and the Throne is counted as an order for the purposes of nominating speakers, and takes precedent. He does however only have one vote in any Declaration. Any questions on procedure?”

Heads are shaken around the hall.

Then we'll start with addresses as usual.”

Business ticks through quickly, whether from Ruth's encouragement or the cold it's difficult to say. Nicovar gives half his attention to the addresses, the usual round of updates on Realm politics and the research work at the Lyceum, and the rest to watching the crowd. He's dangerously out of touch; can feel the currents moving but not quite track them, too many unfamiliar faces and alliances he can't see. He can't regret it, the Senate and the synod need all the time he can give them, but the loss of his Conclave stings.

On to the declarations,” Ruth says. “First nominee from every order and the Throne is free for declarations, subsequent nominations and time must be paid for. Our first declaration is from Daniel of Highguard, “This Conclave agrees that a fund of mana for strategic scrying should be formed from the Conclave vaults for immediate access by ritual magicians working for the Imperial good.”

Daniel is a fidgety, balding man, who probably has a personality when he's at home and not focused on his magic, but Nicovar has never seen it. He speaks in a hoarse half-shout. “Friends of the Conclave, I come to you every season through the Archmagi to ask for mana for strategic scrying and it wastes time. We could be working on Friday evenings but we can only do that if we can front the mana ourselves and not all of our scrying covens have that kind of bank. I propose to set up a fund of mana to be drawn in advance and routinely supplied by the Conclave in a single efficient payout. We have been working diligently for the Empire for years and we should not be asked to take the risk of not being repaid for our mana.

Nicovar hides his wince. Up until then, the argument was fairly sound, if no more than half likely to pass. But the Conclave has this argument every year, about whether the mana in a magician's pockets belongs to her or to the Empire, and whether Imperial work should be refunded from Conclave funds, or counted as a donation – the principles shift back and forth, but the truth is that the Conclave can't afford to pay for every scry and empowerment, and the magicians who hold out for pay are always undercut by the ones willing to donate. Raising that argument here and now will kill Daniel's scrying fund stone dead.

I'll take questions,” Daniel says. “Yes, you there.”

Who's going to hold this fund?” asks one of the Golden Pyramid, focused immediately on the prospect of Daniel trying to enrich himself.

Whoever the Conclave selects to be custodian.” Daniel puffs his chest slightly, proud of his obvious trustworthiness. “Next question. Yes, You there, in the hat -”

One minute,” Ruth says.

Oh. Well, I – never mind, let's go to the Orders, I suppose.”

Nicovar, does the Throne wish to speak?”

Nicovar looks around. “I'll nominate the Dawnish in the hat who didn't get to ask her question.”

It's a safe move, using his power to nominate to prove he isn't scared to participate, staying out of the discussion himself to avoid the bad blood the argument always ends with. He might have been bolder, chosen to use his power to sway that argument, but Nicovar is acutely aware of his uncertain footing. Better to make sure he comes out of tonight undamaged.

The Dawnish asks her sensible question, about how much mana this scrying fund would require, and gets her sensible answer that anything less than twenty mana would probably not save any time or effort, but the more the better, and Daniel has figures for scrying expenditure stretching back eight years for anyone who wants to see, although he is missing autumn and winter 195, due to an injury, for which he apologises.

But the second speaker seizes on his point about the risk magicians take of not being refunded and shakes it like a terrier with a rat. Magicians should donate their time and their mana, just as the warriors who go through the Sentinel Gate donate their time; they don't risk their lives the way the Imperial heroes do, so they should accept the risk to their finances; she makes her case well, but it's a familiar exchange, and sure enough Lucrezia nominates herself and makes the usual answering point that the Conclave magicians risk their lives in performing magic and dealing with Eternals, and their mana should not be taxed, when they already pay their rings to the coffers of the Senate.

Nicovar takes the chance to finish his cold dinner while the argument rages around him, and declines to nominate a second time.

The next declaration is the reason Nicovar came tonight. James nods to him across the open circle and unfolds himself from the floor, leaving his damp cloak on the grass.

Evening, everyone,” he says quietly.

There is a challenger for the post of Warmage. She is a Leaguish mercenary, wearing a velvet wolf mask pushed high on her forehead, carrying a steel-banded magician's rod at her hip. James has at least ten years on her, and the polish on his staff is from heavy use.

It's time we had a change,” the challenger begins bluntly. “You all know me, I'm Felicia of Sarvos, and I've been responsible for battlefield buffs for a three seasons now. I'm well connected, but I'm also independent, and we all know we can't say that about James anymore, much as we all love him. It's time for our good Warmage to retire, after long service that no-one denies has been – very dedicated. But the Military Council is in danger of forgetting that the Conclave is more than just James and Nicovar.” She bares her teeth. “Vote for me, and I'll remind them”

James shrugs. “I won't claim to be independent of my husband, no. I will say that the independence of the Conclave is not in doubt. The task of the Warmage is to guide and advise the Generals on strategic magic, not just the small rituals of the battlefield. The Generals will take more than we can give them, every time. I know them, and they know me, and so they trust me when I say what we can or can't give. It's because they know me that you don't get Generals knocking on your tents at midnight demanding rituals you don't have the mana to give them. They come through me. They know I'll tell them the truth about what can happen and what can't. That trust will have to be rebuilt. I'm sure you could do it, but we're at war. It's not the time to start over.”

Nicovar can't speak on this – he knew he wouldn't be able to, not without strengthening Felicia's case. He says only, “I'm here to vote for James, but I won't preach to you about why. This is a decision for the Conclave. The Throne does not appoint the Warmage.”

Felicia smiles fiercely, as if he'd just endorsed her candidacy. The Sevenfold Path grandmaster asks the usual useless question, about whether James's coven will still be willing to work major Winter rituals if James loses his position, to which James can't say anything but yes, and then it's Lucrezia's turn.

I stand with Felicia,” she announces, and the ground falls silently away from Nicovar's feet. “We need a change of guard. James has been the Warmage for ten years. How long does the average Archmage last? The Throne himself, when he stood for Archmage, said we are in danger of stagnating. I agree with him. I know James will always do his best to represent the Conclave but the Generals will see him as an extension of the Throne and we deserve better than to be Nicovar's pet committee. No offence.”

Some taken,” Nicovar says, acid eating his words.

So I'm not saying James has ever done badly by us. But it's time for a change, and he can't be an independent voice in the council. The Celestial Arch supports Felicia.”

L ater, Nicovar will sit with James by a campfire in Navarr, their legs pressed close beneath Nicovar's cloak, sharing a cup of honeyed tea to soothe their wounded feelings. But for now, James has to stand hear himself dismissed, and Nicovar can only watch, and know before the vote is called that this time they won't win. James loses the challenge twenty votes to thirty-five, three abstaining. Nicovar is the only one of the Arch to vote for him.

He looks over at Lucrezia in her sparkling filigree mask, and seethes.

Chapter Text

The Sentinel Gate slides over Isaella's skin like the brush of feathered wings.

Anvil, as ever in the spring, is soft with mud. The ground beneath her feet hardly changes as she steps through into the Marcher borders, wet clay piled into ridges by the plough. The Navarr are the second to go through, after the Highborn shield-wall whose task is to hold the gate against all comers, and they can see at once this is good ground for them. The open fields are cut with ditches, nettle-filled traps for unwary enemies to be forced down into, and stretches of dark woodland where the Marchers harvest their timber. The scouts spread out into the countryside.

In the village, half a mile away over turnip greens and dark earth, the Marcher yeofolk are under the orcish whip. The Jotun take slaves just as the Empire does, and just as Imperials they need to eat. The village has become a staging post as well as a supply depot and the Imperials are here to destroy its use to them, by conquest or by flame.

That is why the Marchers of Anvil will fight tomorrow instead, in the perpetually threatened hills of Segura, against orc banditry with barely a leader worth the name. Pest control. Better to let them vent their feelings on petty raiders than to send them here to fight their kin. The Highborn are here instead, unforgiving of treason even under duress, and the Navarri, more sympathetic, no less ruthless when the moment comes.

The fighters are almost silent. The sky is empty above them, the pale sunlight bright and bleaching, swallowing the sound of footsteps and jingling chainmail. A chapter of Highborn drum swords against their shields, three short thudding beats, and go still again.

As the Varushkans filter through the Gate and take up their places, a loose band of fighters around the back of the Gate, a stronger anchor on each flank of the Highborn core, the first shouts go up in the village. Isaella feels her shoulders settle lower, relaxing into the familiar patterns of battle. Her spear is light and eager in her hands.

She hears the cheer from Anvil as if through glass, dimmed by the barrier of the Gate. The Throne has come, with his guard of Urizeni sentinels, to be joined at once by the Highborn, the Navarri, the Varushkans – no nation would give up the honour of defending the Throne when it marches to battle. They will advance forward soon, flattening the wet soil into roads by the weight of their boots, to hunt orcs across the greening fields. But first comes a little band of ragged refugees, hurrying with their heads down, as if the sky could hide them from sight. They run towards the bristling army with the weariness of long hunger. The Imperial line reaches out and swallows them.

Most are children, thin and dirty, the babies carried in teenage arms. Isaella reaches out to squeeze the shoulder of one girl who clenches her fists around empty air, looking back at her home, her need for a weapon obvious in the set of her jaw. She is young, growing with the spring, bare ankles showing between her socks and the unpicked hem of her trousers. She steps back reluctantly when Isaella pulls.

“You'll come back,” Isaella tells her, quiet as the children themselves. “You will. Leave it to me for now. Go with the others.”

The girls eyes are flat with anger. She shrugs Isaella's hand away. On her other side, Cara holds out a short axe.

She reaches for it and stops, not breathing. Cara waits.

“I promised my mam,” she mutters at last, and turns towards the gate, where the Emperor bends to comfort the children, ghostly pale amongst the shadowed trees.

Cara pats Isaella on the shoulder, her axe already back in its loop. “Eyes on the ball, Sal.”

At the edge of the village, beneath a wavering line of apple trees, orcs have begun to gather. They are still putting on their armour, still tightening the laces on their boots. Like a wolf pricking up its ears the Imperials watch, and whisper, and move.

The Jotun were not expecting to be attacked today. It's unusual for the Gate to open on a place like this, neither a fortress nor an army, no general in sight to take command. The equinox should have made no difference to the safety f this place. But here the Imperials are, streaming towards them across the unguarded fields, and the Jotun are not ready. When Isaella reaches the apple trees the orcs are scattered underfoot, spitted on Varushkan swords.

They turn along the edge of the village, aiming for the rough wooden barracks at the top of the main street, where the Jotun quarter their troops. Those are the main target, along with the bridge to the north, deeper into enemy territory. Most of Urizen has gone that way, with scouts and Varushkan heavies, expecting to find the bridge defended. Isaella stays with the main force and jabs her spear into a twitching orc as she passes. The Marchers peer out of their doors or close their shutters, closed-off and sullen. An Anvil rescue is too late and much too little, unable to take the Marchers back with them, except for the children, and with no occupying force to leave behind in place of the Jotun they will kill. The villagers expect to be re-conquered within the month. Isaella can't blame them for their anger.

They meet the first real resistance just before the village opens out at the top. The orcs in the barracks had enough warning to arm up and prepare – nothing like a real fortification, but enough to bottle the Imperials up in the street, instead of facing them on open ground. The Varushkans roll into the enemy shield-wall with a shout.

The street is too narrow. Isaella can hear the weapons biting into armour, can smell the blood they spill, but she's trapped behind a dozen other fighters, far away from the fighting. There are more orcs pouring out of the barracks, ready to defend their position in the village. In the back of her mind an hourglass is running. They've been here too long already. If the Jotun can hold them here for another forty minutes, they'll have to retreat back to the Gate, or be caught here in the borderlands.

Others have made the same realisation. Gerwyn the archer is kneeling on the slope of a nearby roof with barely room to draw his bow, steadily cursing as he drives arrows into flesh. Isaella pushes over to him, leaping to catch a precarious grip on the thatch and pull herself up.

“We have to clear them out,” she says.

Gerwyn lets another arrow fly. “Obviously.” His quiver is half empty already.

“Can we flank them?”

“I – Good question.”

They climb towards the ridge, matted straw slippery under their boots. Gerwyn flattens himself to peer over the top. “Too many damn hedges. They're all hawthorn, you'll never get through.”

“Wait,” Isaella says, “there, through the orchard. There's a gate.”

He looks at her sidelong. “Just don't burn the orchard.”

“Obviously,” she agrees, and slips back down on her belly to collect the nearest fighters and get them moving.

It's not that the orcs see them coming. That's not the problem. The problem is that they have the high ground, and the ground around their barracks is trodden flat and toughened with straw, while Isaella's makeshift band have to slog through tangled orchard grass untouched since the pigs were slaughtered. They can't move fast enough to reach the battle before the orcs redeploy their forces. Some Jotun commander will be getting a promotion out of this; she marshals her troops as efficiently as any general, and the gate they thought was theirs spills grey-skinned enemies into the orchard to hunt them in return.

It's a fearsome mess. Isaella tries but she can't keep her fighters together, inexperienced as they are. They split up into twos and threes, trying to chase down the Jotun, exposing their backs to every passing orc. Isaella puts her whistle in her mouth and keeps blowing, even as her hands are busy with her spear, keeping Jotun swords away. A hammer blow to the hip almost cripples her. She staggers into a tree and stays there, bracing her back against the trunk. Her whistle falls from her lips. The orc with the hammer is still coming at her, beating down hard enough to smash her skull if she doesn't deflect every blow. Fates have mercy, let the spear hold up. She's using it like a staff now, purely defensive. There's someone coming up behind the tree. Isaella braces for the knife in the back.

A slender figure in pale robes darts past her and under the Jotun's guard. The orc freezes instantly, his chest barely moving with his breath. Isaella flips her spear around and drives it into his throat.

Hot blood spatters her face, staining Nicovar's robes with a spray of red. He catches her as she wobbles, his arm around her waist.

“Hi,” she says, absurdly.

“Hello.” Nicovar pulls her in and hugs her. “Six hells, Isaella, don't die on me.”

“I didn't.”

Somewhere nearby there's shouting. A knot of Varushkans, fresh from killing their own targets, are whooping at Nicovar. He draws away, looking sheepish, one arm still supporting her. “Can you walk?”

Isaella tries it, and flinches. “No, but I can limp.”

“Gate,” Nicovar says firmly.

“Can you leave? What about the battle?”

“The battle already went to shit. We're retreating. I'm taking you back to the Gate.”

He lets somone take the burden of her spear, and Gerwyn scowl and feed her a bitter twist of herbs to ease the pain, but when she finally staggers back through the Sentinel Gate it's to the ringing of sheers, her arm still flung over the Emperor's shoulders, bringing her safely home.

Chapter Text

The Carta's tent is one of the finest on the fields of Anvil. It stands a little apart from its neighbours, its guy lines daintily unentangled with theirs, leaving it framed in narrow paths of trodden-down earth. There is a silk curtain billowing across the open entrance. The torches outside are clasped in a month's worth of woodcarving.

Nicovar stands beneath the bunting, extravagantly cut from satin and brocade, his feet planted in the grass. The urge to smooth down his robes stirs in his bones, awakened by the splendour of the tent. He ignores it. To his right, Cardinal Rosalind drums her fingers against her belt.

“Are you sure about this, Nicovar?”

Nicovar smiles at her. “Come on.”

In the dim warmth of the Carta's audience chamber, Rosalind's rich embroidery seems at home. Nicovar has robes that would have suited the room, all deep burgundy and walnut brown. He has worn instead his old Ankarien clothes, pale ivory, the better to foreground himself. He has come, like Rosalind, bare-faced.

There is a large table stretched across the tent, its polished surface almost bare. Lanterns hang from the rafters, unlit and unneeded in the sunlight filtering through the canvas. It gleams from fluted glasses and the curving Cambion horns of the d'Holberg twins. Cressida sits, upright in a heavy chair that clamours to be called a throne, comfortable in her skin. Lucrezia stands a little behind her, masked and gloved in black, resting one hand on her sister's shoulder.

Nicovar admires the scene intensely.

“Welcome, Emperor,” Cressida says brightly. “We are honoured by your visit.”

Nicovar bows his greeting. “It has been too long, Cressida, Grandmaster.”

“What's a title between friends?” Lucrezia gestures at the table. “Please, sit. Let's have a drink together.”

“Let's,” Rosalind agrees. She pulls a pale bottle of wine from some invisible pocket, as only a Dawnish can. Nicovar smiles and steps over the low bench on his side of the table.

“This is better chilled, but it's been cooling in a bath all morning.” Rosalind picks up a corkscrew from the table and pops the cork from the bottle. It hisses with the promise of bubbles. The wine she pours is as pink and bright as quartz.

Nicovar sips from his delicate glass, letting the others follow his lead. “This is very good, Rosalind.”

“Of course it is, it's from Grovesyard. They've grown the best grapes since before there was an Empire.” Rosalind swings her legs over the bench and plants her elbows on the table. “Right then. You're here, he's here, we've all got a drink. Sort this out.”

Cressida smiles over her glass. “I don't think I know what you mean.”

“Really? Well, I'm not stupid, and you are feuding.” She waves at them all, Nicovar and the twins and back. “Only, you're doing it wrong.”

Lucrezia spins one of the empty chairs and drops into it, straddling the back. “Are you here as a Cardinal?”

I'm always a Cardinal,” Rosalind says dismissively. “And you must admit you are letting a danger go unmet, avoiding each other like this. But more importantly you're just being dreadfully boring.”

Cressida splutters with laughter. Lucrezia grins. “We've never been called that before. You should spend more evenings here, Rosalind.”

“Why? Will you start talking to each other again if I do? Oh, I know I'm supposed to scold you for lack of virtue, but I really can't be bothered with it. No matter which side you take it makes for a very dull story, the two sides refusing to meet. How am I meant to turn this nonsense into a song?”

“You put her up to this,” Cressida says, looking pointedly towards Nicovar instead of her accuser.

Nicovar spreads his hands. “A Dawnish Cardinal? You think I could tell her what to say?”

“And you've been unvigilant too, Nicovar.”

His wince is deliberate, but honest. “Yes. Rosalind talked me into this meeting as well. You'd have enjoyed that conversation.”

“Did you bleed?” Lucrezia taps her wineglass with the curve of a silver ring, making it chime. “Anyway, do we have an agenda, or are we just here to kiss and make up?”

Rosalind lifts her glass in a toast. “Lucrezia, darling, we all have agendas.”

When the laughter subsides, Nicovar reaches into his robe for a parchment scroll, its surface opalescently white. “I had this, from a very silent herald, a week before the summit started. It's addressed to both of us.”

Lucrezia leans forward to take it. “What kind of herald?”

“A merrow with golden scales.”

“Kimus?” Lucrezia looks sharply up at him, the scroll half unrolled. She sets it down on the table to flatten it out. “We haven't heard from them in ages.”

They want to speak to us – you read it.”

“Honoured Imperator of the Empire of the Way, Bearer of the Legacy of the Unnamed Empress, He Who Wear The Crown; Grandmaster of the Path Celestial, Conductor of the Dancing Heavens, She Who Wear The Mask; Kimus, the Ever-Burning, the Flame with a Thousand Tongues, bids you greeting.”

Rosalind pours herself more wine, to recover from the volley of titles. “What was wrong with your names?”

“It pleases Kimus to hold audience once more with the magi of the Empire, to enquire upon their understanding of that which is. The door will be opened at dusk on the day of the year's turning-”

“Midsummer,” Cressida translates, exasperated.

The year's turning, and those who are admitted shall be the chosen companions of the Crown and the Mask, whose thoughts are most pleasing to them. Seven magi shall be permitted into the hall of Kimus, besides the worthy persons here addressed, and in addition two mortals may take the mantle of servitor, to pass amongst the gathering as do the Radiant Eyes – I'm going to throw sand in those eyes, Nicovar. What in hells does that all mean that couldn't be said as “Come to tea, bring some friends”? Ridiculous creature.”

“It has no friends,” Nicovar says mildly. “It loves only philosophy. Philosophy and spying.”

“So is that seven or nine people going?”

“I think it's eleven. Two of us, nine magi, two other magicians who only get to watch.”

“Rough deal for those two.”

Cressida leans back in her chair. “For an audience with an Eternal? You could auction it off.”

Lucrezia flaps a hand at her, pulling ink and paper from a drawer beneath the table. “So, we want interesting mysticists, from groups worth courting -” She bangs the inkpot down and glares across the table at Rosalind. “Damn you.”

Rosalind smiles. “I told you you were bad at feuding.”


The chamber in which they first met Kimus was small and bare, too cramped for three to meet in by Nicovar's standards. This time it is an expanse of clouded glass, ringing like marble underfoot, its walls fading into distant mist. The expressionless figure of the eternal stands in what might be the centre, or might not be, its yellow veils rising in an unfelt winds. Marbled glass spheres circle it, the thousand eyes of legend. Perhaps the lights overhead are eyes as well, moving in the same gentle tide, glowing in every colour of the sky.

The passage from the Hall of Worlds hardly ripples Nicovar's robes. He steps forward at once, to clear the way for the others following. Beside him, Lucrezia lifts her head to look at the moving stones. The yellow silk ribbons looped between her horns look grey and artificial in the Realm-light.

The mages lucky enough to be invited filter into the chamber behind them. Last of all comes a wordless merrow, her face shaped by the highest of lineage, patches of pale yellow mottling her skin. She made eye contact with each one of them, counting them, before she ushered them in to this half-real place.

The floating eyes still in their orbits, and rush towards their visitors.

Nicovar does not flinch. He remembers these oddly menacing orbs from the first time. Lucrezia does too, raising a hand as if inviting the eyes to land upon her palm. But the others gasp, or duck, or take a full step backwards in the case of poor nervous Daniel. One eye follows him like a glassy wasp, until Julia snags his sleeve and murmurs advice.

Nicovar pitches his voice to carry through the open space. “The Empire of the Way greets Kimus of the Thousand Eyes.”

“You are welcome to my chamber, Nicovar, and you also, Lucrezia, Grandmaster of the Celestial Arch, and your companions. This chamber has been created for our use, to speak upon the nature of creation. Come, let us understand. In whom does Existence reside?”

Nicovar catches Julia's gentle sigh, and the start of a quiet lesson to the younger magicians on what Kimus, the arch-solipsist, is asking them. Daniel says, “No. No, that's not the right question, at all,” and is immediately mobbed by three flying spheres, their voices sharp and shivery, demanding to know what he means.

Nicovar bows to the statue-still central figure, out of courtesy, though the first resonant voice seemed to come from everywhere. Lucrezia elbows him.

“You should be right at home here, Nic, they're wearing robes like mountain people.”

“Very old-fashioned robes,” Nicovar disagrees.

“Ah yes, whereas you are at the cutting edge of fashion.”

“I am, actually.”

Well – yes, but only because you're the Throne, and that's cheating.”

“I'll bear that in mind. Come on, let's be interesting. If one of us is fake, which one is it?”

They argue unseriously for a while, bringing in parentage and age and which of them sounds more like a fairy-tale, before a large eye approaches them, its glass marbled through with pale blue streaks. “Emperor.”

It feels absurd to bow to a little flying ball. Nicovar compromises on inclining his head.

“Grandmaster.”

“Hi,” Lucrezia says brightly. “Are you a Herald or a bit of an Eternal?”

The eye rotates on the spot. “That is an interesting question, Grandmaster. I am a part of Creation. All creation is a part of Kimus. Therefore, it is the only logical answer that I am a part of an Eternal. If all things partake of the Eternals dream, how shall we speak of Heralds and mortals as other than their wellspring?”

Lucrezia blinks behind her velvet mask. Her mouth opens. “But then – I don't think I'm a part of Kimus.”

“All things that are, are part of Kimus. All things that are not, but are conceived of, are dreamed by part of Kimus and part of Kimus themselves. All things that are not, are part of the great nothingness, which is conceived of, which is part of Kimus. Why should your thoughts prove it otherwise?”

“Forgive me, but that line of reasoning is utterly insane.”

“Insanity is part of Kimus also.” The glass ball sounds distinctly smug. “Do you not perceive yourself as part of a greater whole? Do you stand apart from your dreams?”

But I still have edges. I stand apart from Nicovar.”

“Far apart, lately.”

“Shush, you. There are things that I am part of, but they don't subsume me. It's not like drops of water. It's metaphorical.”

The ball begins to spin the other way. “Then you, Imperial Grandmaster, are not part of the Empire? You will stand beside the Emperor and reject your part in that whole?”


Later, long after darkness has fallen in the world outside, Nicovar stands alone between two circling specks of light. He is watching Daniel lying on the floor, his hands over his eyes. “Why is he so upset?”

“We asked him if Paragons had become perfect and ceased to exist, like a fire that has burned out. He did not like the perfection of fire being called its end. He was quite insistent. He drank of the waters of Day for refreshment. He is seeing many things.”

“I'd appreciate it if you didn't drug my subjects.”

“Then you may instruct them not to drink.”

“I cannot be everywhere at once. Unlike you, I only have two eyes.”

“That is unfortunate. What would you do with more?”

“I suspect I would become very confused.”

“Yes. That is a mortal limitation. You cannot bear to know too much.”

“I like to know as much as I can. Not as much as Daniel, perhaps. Will he be alright?”

“The visions will fade. Beyond that, I cannot say.”

Nicovar clasps his hands behind his back. He would like to walk with the Eternals, but the floor of this chamber curves, and those who wander are turned around like drunkards. “How is your project progressing, to understand Creation?”

“I am questioning the apparent existence of Time.”

Nicovar nods solemnly. “Of course. It would be silly to take it for granted.”

“It is spoken of as a thing that passes, like the water in a river. But – if it is real at all, if it is causative, if the mind of that which is perceives it outside of the dreams of its smallest parts – what is the shape of the river? To what sea is it running down?”

“Argument from metaphor,” Nicovar says, “there needn't be a sea at all.”

“Perhaps you are climbing a ladder. Perhaps you are a leaf in the river and what passes is the bank of true reality. Would it make a difference? What are the contours of the riverbed?”

“Maybe it doesn't flow at all,” Nicovar says, picking up the theme. “Maybe it's a rope pulling us up. Or it's a circle, or it's a spiral. How could we test that?”

“What happens to humans when they die?”

There is always some reason behind an Eternal's question, even one that seems to change the subject. Nicovar obligingly follows the thread, positing that the souls of the dead are moving outside of time, and their virtue determines their direction. “And then, the wider the angle, the less time appears to pass for those on the circle before they reappear, until finally their direction is outside the circle entirely, and they transcend.”

“You should think on this, Emperor,” the orb says. “You should think upon the nature of Time. You are the steersman for an Empire. How will you guide it, if you do not understand the river?”

Nicovar smiles. “Thank you, Kimus. I will consider these questions. Do you imply that our time together, whatever Time may be, is at an end?”

The ball bobs in the air. “It is midnight. The year is turning. You must return now to the mortal realm, or else remain.”

“We'll go, thank you. Will you open the door for us?”

“You have only to walk away from me, and you will find it.”

Daniel, it turns out, is capable of walking if he keeps one hand on the back of Julia's chair. She glares at the ever-silent merrow who shepherds them towards the gate. Nicovar submits to Lucrezia's slap between his shoulder-blades.

“I thought that went pretty well!”

“I need coffee,” Nicovar says. “Lots of coffee. That creature makes my head spin.”

Chapter Text

Isaella draws her legs up under her, trying to sit comfortably without getting her boots on the fluffy sheepskin rug. Senator Isolt is playing with a child's toy, a magician’s rod in miniature, spinning in it back and forth in her hands. “Damn this mud,” she says, nodding towards the sodden tournament square. “One fall and you're soaked to the bone.”

Isaella nods. “The only firm ground in Navarr is in the wood and that won't hold up for long, not with all the traffic it gets. Did you see the motion Temeschwar put up this morning?”

“A proposal to lay roads and drainage around the Imperial Capital of Anvil, as befits a great Power,” Isolt recites. “Honestly. As if nobody had ever thought of that before.”

“She does have a point.”

“But no follow-through. We can propose anything we like. The constitutional scholars will never let it through. If roads didn't count as buildings we'd have had them years ago.”

“Maybe Trod magic would work,” Isaella speculates. “Make the place re-green faster.”

“You want to infuse Anvil with experimental Spring magic?”

“Mm, no. Let's not do that.”

“What about the fleet? How are you going to vote on that?”

“I don't know.”

Isolt raises both eyebrows. “You don't think we need a fleet?”

“I do think we need one. But it took us so long to build the first one, it took so much resource – we're only just getting the armies to where they could have been if we'd spent the budge on them instead. We have proposals for fortifications we can't support if we divert weirwood back towards the docks. And can any of the seafaring nations promise five thousand sailors? I know the Brass Coast will refuse to take it on.”

“And the League won't have it either.” Isolt sets the end of her stick against a fold in the rug and rolls it between her fingers, twisting first one way then the other. “It would have to go to Highguard. They're the only ones who could sustain another army. But I think they could be persuaded. Of course, they might make Miriam the Admiral.”

“I don't have Miriam. I don't,” Isaella insists, seeing that Isolt is about to disagree. “Just because she dislikes me doesn't mean I have to reciprocate. She's a fine General and I'm glad we can depend on her. If the Highborn senators think she's the best choice – I'm about to sound like a hypocrite.”

“Why?”

“General Argent.”

“Oh. Him.” Isolt's lips twist in distaste. “What do we do about him?”

“You persuade your priests to pass the revocation.”

Isolt hesitates.

“What?”

“It's not that,” she says reluctantly. “The revocation is being handled. It's my dear once-upon-a-time brother.”

“Roland?”

“Him. He's… He's got hold of a proxy note for Semmerholm. I've seen it, it's genuine.”

“You don't sound convinced.”

“It's pay-to-bearer. They've had such a mess with the floods up there, Earl Perille wasn't sure who she could send. I strongly doubt it was ever meant for Roland, but he's carrying it now and the Civil Service have accepted his claim. He's outraged that mere priests would dare to revoke an Earl.”

“You're saying he'll try to re-select Argent.”

Isolt nods. “And Maisie has to go along with it. You can't blame her, Argent is her head of house. She doesn't like him.”

“But if he calls on house loyalty, Maisie will have to follow.” Isaella leans back on her hands. “Okay. You're going to be overruled on Argent. What can we do about that?”

“I'm working on it.” Isolt starts spinning her stick again. “But in the meantime, the fleet. How would you vote if the Highborn volunteered to handle recruitment?”


The wooden floor of the Senate does not drum under Isaella's boots, caked as they are with an inch of mud. The liquefied muck outside is dotted with plates of compacted earth, left by Senators scraping their soles on the ramp. Even Nicovar looks grubby, perched upon his throne like a bird on a rain-soaked nest. The air is heavy with mist.

Isaella makes her rounds quickly. She arrived only minutes ahead of the bell, having made herself stop and eat before the session. Ten years ago she could skip meals with equanimity; nowadays she must have food and sleep or her wits will fray. Isolt nods to her across the room. Roland pointedly ignores her. Isaella spends her precious time with the Varushkans instead, trying to allay their fears that the second fleet will leave their defences too thin.

Miriam, damp but not bedraggled, thumps her staff against the floor. “The senate will come to order. No citizens on the Senate floor, please. That means you, Gatekeeper.”

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Anya says as she shuffles down the ramp.

“Thank you. The business of senate today begins with a proposal by Temeschwar, seconded by Segura, to pave the roads of Anvil and lay drains. I will remind you that motions like this are routinely rejected by the Constitutional Court and cannot go into effect. As such, I am using my privilege as Speaker to bypass debate upon the matter and we will proceed directly to the vote. Ayes to the left, nays to the right. Senators, please cast your votes now. Thank you. The motion is not carried. The next motion is a proposal by Reikos, seconded by Astolat, to create a new army in Highguard, said army to be a Fleet, after the pattern of the Barrabine Fleet.” Miriam holds up a hand to stem the muttering. “This would require construction of the fleet itself, and significant improvements to at least one port and as before supplies of weirwood and white granite would need to be found. The proposers have therefore put this forward as a non-budgeted item seeking Senate approval but no funding at this time. However, if this motion is carried, recruitment will begin and Highguard will not be able to establish any further armies until the fleet is either completed or disbanded. We will now hear debate on the motion.”

Isolt, for Astolat, is the first to speak. She talks of the obvious Virtue of reclaiming forgotten ambitions, the loss of Imperial stature in abandoning the project. Isaella admires the call to arms, but she is more convinced by Isaac of Necropolis and his arguments about defence. The Grendel come at the Empire from the sea, but so do corsairs and raiding bands of Jotun. As the Empire expands on land, it must also consider the sea as a vulnerable border.

The debate flows back and forth, heated but polite. These are well-established arguments. They have been having them since Barrabas was lost. Isaella takes her turn, giving cautious support to the motion to rebuild. She has spoken to her brokers about the figures, and the docks could be improved without risking the northern forts, if the Bourse owners would give up their hoarding. She stands to the left when the vote is called. A majority of her colleagues stand with her.

Marianne's staff sounds against the floorboards. “Motion carried.”

“Vetoed,” Nicovar says, his voice cutting through the room. “The Barrabine Fleet will not be rebuilt. I do not permit it.” He sits upright in his throne, a blade drawn from its sheath. “My duty is to govern this Empire. My duty is to overrule this Senate, when it makes poor decisions. The fleet will not be rebuilt. It is a luxury we cannot afford. We face one maritime threat. That is the Grendel, and they are the least of all our enemies. Even Barrabas planned to sail north and come upon the Jotun from the sea. We have made that gamble once and lost. We will not throw more lives into the sea.”

The speech hangs in the air, Nicovar's flat denial echoed by the stillness in his face. He waits, a pale spider alone in his web, to be sure no voice will rise against him.

And since the Senate cannot be trusted to steward the Empire's armies, I will take one more step. By my right as the Throne, I hereby remove General Argent from his post. I will personally command the Hounds of Glory until such time as the Dawnish can select a more suitable candidate – one who does not sell the armour from his soldier's backs. Speaker Marianne. Please proceed with today's business.”

Nicovar leans back. The spell and the silence break. Isaella pushes through the commotion to the public gallery, where James is leaning against the railing, folded over with his head on his arms.

Isaella reaches for his hand.

I worked so hard for that,” he says, muffled into his sleeve. “That fucking fleet. I spent years making that happen and he just -” James snaps his fingers. “Just like that. Half my career. Worthless.”

I know,” Isaella says, remembering long hours in the Military Council, planning out whole campaigns that can't be fought without a navy. “I could punch him.”

James groans. “Don't. Treason, probably.”

Did he warn you?”

Did he warn me. Has Nicky ever warned anyone? He didn't need me for his strategy. I thought it was happening.”

Marianne’s staff is pounding against the wood. “Order, please! The Senate will come to order! Quiet in the gallery!”

I'm going,” James says, lifting his face at last. His cheeks are flushed dark with anger.

Wait-”

Leave it, Sal.”

He takes a step back and is gone, out of the gallery and into the grey mist beyond. Isaella longs to follow him. On the dais, Nicovar sits silent and steady on the carven throne, and Marianne reads out the next motion. The Senate is resuming its business.

She does her duty. She stays.

Chapter Text

Miracle of miracles, the ground is solid underfoot. A wet autumn and a dry winter have produced a flourishing of grass, and some zealous Civil Service groundskeeper has stopped all traffic at the boundary. Even Trader's Row is substantially walkable.

Nicovar bounces on his heels in the Military Council tent. "Good evening, Senator."

Isolt half bows to him. "Good evening, Empress. How is the eastern front?"

"Not much changed. The Barrens is still caught up in Druj infighting. There aren't organised enough to bring more than raids against us."

"Give it a month and that might change." Isolt hesitates. "Nicovar, I've had a lot of letters from the Hounds."

"They want their General back."

"Not - not exactly that. Most of them are glad to be rid or Argent and his profiteering. But they want a Dawnish leader for Dawnish swords. I'm sorry, but they do."

"And can you, their Senator, give them one?"

Isolt stiffens. "I'm working on it."

"I know. But until you have an answer someone has to command the Hounds, and constitutionally, it has to be me. I'm not doing this for fun."

"Can you give me your word that whatever candidate we choose, you will surrender the army to them?"

"No," Nicovar says, slowly, "no, I can't promise that. You are still balanced against Roland, and he is still a fool."

"I'm not going to choose another Argent, Nicovar."

"You're not."

Isolt stares at him for a long moment, but Nicovar is resolute. Her cloak scrapes the tent flap on the way out and sets the canvas flapping in the breeze, a hollow mimicry of applause.

Nicovar struggles with the generals' meeting. Military tactics do not come naturally do him and he is lacking the easy familiarity with the map board that even the newer generals show. He is uncomfortable aware of his borrowed glory.

Miriam stands opposite him, furious and bereft. She has not forgiven him, not for the fleet and not for the Throne. The strength of her anger breaks over Nicovar like the wind, heavy in its promise of thunder. She rules this room, with her plain woollen hood for a crown.

"Don't advance yet, Erik," she is saying to the general of the Green Shield. "Give it another season. It will take another army to invade Bregasland and win. Wait for the Wolves of War to reach you and do the whole job at once."

Erik rubs his stubbly beard. "We could establish a beachhead, for the League to shore up in the summer. The Jotun have been squatting in Western Scout too long already."

"If you hurry you'll be surrounded and cut all to pieces."

"Who by? They're all in the Marches."

"Liathaven is ours ," Raelyn says, her emphatic sibilance a habit caught from her naga wife, with Gwyneth grey and glowering at her back for contrast. "It isn't Jotun territory. It is home. We deserve to have it reclaimed, not leave our greenest gardens to rot under orcish boots. And the same for the Marchers."

Miriam is dismissive. "I'm not suggesting we should abandon Western Scout. Only that we should think twice before we invade a Vallorn."

"Invade a Vallorn?" Erik's hand drops from his face, stopped mid-fidget in his surprise. "We're not going to do that. There's plenty of room between the border and the Vallorn's heart. We know the Jotun are using it for resupply. Why should we let them?"

"Drive for the beachhead, Erik."

Erik's eyes widen. He looks between them, Nicovar's cool mask and Miriam's glare. "Oh," he says. "Oh. Didn't expect that to happen." He chews his lip for a moment. "Alright then, Emperor, I'll - well, I'm glad you agree with me. We'll strike west at once."

Miriam is too careful to snarl in public. "Then the Wolves of War had better move quickly to reach you. Yes, Benvolio? Good. Let's talk about the Thule."

 

When the council has finally agreed on its tactics on each of their several fronts and Gate expeditions, the sky is beginning to clear. Nicovar looks up at the patchy starts with displeasure. Beautiful they may be but the view is much better from Ankarien spire, and clear skies promise a cold night. The grass is a chilly dampness clinging around his ankles.

Senate has long since started without him. Nicovar passes it with barely a glance at the crowd massed below his throne. He heads for Ankarien's camp, which has grown a shell since his Archmage days, the symbolic fence of sticks and bunting replaced with woven willow panels, well braced against the press of leaning bodies, with noisemaking bells hung on the inside edge in case it ever does go over. Visitors are more welcome than ever, but they must pass through the gatehouse tent first, to give their Throne a chance to breathe.

Nicovar drops onto a cushioned bench beside his long-legged husband. James pats him on the leg, wordlessly, and passes him a bowl of no longer steaming rice.

"I love you," Nicovar says involuntarily.

"How was Council? Did you give away the farm?"

Nicovar shakes his head, hunting in his robe for his chopsticks. "I upset Miriam very much but I mostly stayed out of it. I told Erik to advance instead of hold on the Liathaven lines, but he wanted to do that anyway. It bought me some goodwill."

"Erik?"

"Tall, gingery, scrawny with a short beard-"

"Oh, him." James stretches his legs out in front of the bench. "Yeah, he needs more confidence in his convictions. It always took a nudge for him to disagree with Miriam."

"They don't like her, do they?"

"Of course not. She lost the Throne campaign and now she acts like she's Queen of the Armies. They take her advice, usually, but they resent her for it. There's no such thing as a Chief General. She's been told that to her face more than once."

"Oh, I'm sure that went down well."

"You should set up an Assembly of Nine meeting. The army power isn't used much. I know Katja is worried about precedent."

"I'm not planning on using it willy-nilly."

"Well, Katja doesn't know that. She thinks you're after personal fame and that's why you vetoed the new fleet."

Nicovar leans sideways, bumping James with his shoulder. They've talked about thus, in long dark hours and heartfelt letters. He still owes James some grovelling.

"Alright. I'll arrange something. What's the time? Shouldn't you be at Conclave?"

"Fuck Conclave. I don't care. Nobody's going to notice if I'm gone."

"No, I think you should go. We both should. Otherwise Lucrezia will set up more dominoes to knock down without us."

"Remember when Conclave used to be fun?"

"I remember. You were already Warmage by then, old man."

"And you were thinner. Okay then, come on. We'll have missed the counting as it is. We should go if we're going."

 

Inside the Hall of Worlds they are shielded from the sinking temperatures by the simple press of bodies. Nicovar's instinct to seek space has been dulled by years of Conclave meetings, crowded in like this on all sides. He stands a row or two back from the front, present, but not dominating the room. He watches Ruth, the civil servant, riding herd on them. She looks pinched with the cold, or else not well.

The rasp in her voice confirms his suspicions. "Alright, alright. That's the last of the addresses. No, citizen, you cannot add to the agenda now. Conclave is already in session. Bring it to me tomorrow. Declaration of Principle from Jo Shepherd, "This Conclave agrees that the position of Warmage is intended to provide the Military Council with sound magical advice, not to act as a mouthpiece for that body in the Conclave." The proposer will have one minute to speak."

Shepherd is unusually willowy for a Marcher, her long straight her drawn into a Navarr-style plait. She stands hand on hip, filling out the space her shoulders don't take up.

"Yes, it's political," she says to a grumbler on a straw-stuffed cushion, "of course it's political. If y'don't like politics go back t'your campfire. Friends, we all remember why James lost his position, but Warmage Felicia isn't doing any good. Whatever the generals want, she tells them they can have. The magical defence of the Empire is our watch. What do the generals know about scrying magnitudes? What do they know about mana funds? Felicia is telling them they can have everything in our vaults. Well, we need that mana. If we burn it all on the war there's nothing left for research, nothing for the economy, nothing for dealing with Eternals. The Warmage is failing. She should be our messenger to the generals and they think she's the commander of us."

"That's not true." The Warmage stamps forward, faintly absurd in her gilt-scrolled armour, the only one here in such warlike finery. "That's not true."

But this is contrary to protocol, and the Conclave which has no legal rules of order clings ferociously to its principles; Felicia is drowned by scores of voices calling for her mana, or demanding a nomination before they will hear her, and she retreats in dismay.

Nicovar has the right of first nomination. He uses it on himself.

"Jo is right," he says bluntly. "We can argue about whether the Warmage is doing her job. I can tell you she isn't. I can tell you she did not attend council today, and she takes her orders from the handful of generals who own her loyalty. But when I was Archmage, I would have directed you back to the wording of the Declaration, and I will do the same now. It is the duty of the Warmage to advise the Military Council. It is not their role to carry orders to the Conclave, which is senior in constitutional standing. The Conclave makes law. The Generals do not. Any Warmage who presumes to command the Conclave is out of bounds, and that is all the Declaration says. If Felicia objects, she condemns herself."

For the second time tonight, the weight of his still-new office sways a room. Nicovar watches in secret delight as the Orders, one by one, concede his argument. Only Lucrezia tries to hold out, arguing that to condemn their Warmage will weaken them in the eyes of the Empire. She has nothing but indignant denial when asked if that forms a confession. Jo has been too clever in her wording.

There are more abstentions than usual. Nicovar takes note of it, that limitation on how far he can carry them along. The declaration still passes handily, and Jo Shepherd nods to him across the circle, confident of her new standing in his court.

James leans down to mutter in his ear, "I don't want the job back. I did my time."

"That's fine," Nicovar whispers back, "we'll give it to Jo and you can be a Grandmaster."

His husband grumbles and straightens up, looking politely towards the next speaker. Nicovar smiles to himself. The Conclave is a living thing, and it is answering again to his hand upon the reins.

Chapter Text

Isaella is less tired than she has been in years. Liathaven was under an enchantment this season, magic running through every river and rainstorm, enlivening the Empire's soldiers as they rooted out the Jotun from their last hiding places. It helped the Jotun too, of course, and turned the green spring into a deadly hide-and-seek between the trees. The trods surged with life.

She travels back to Anvil with a merry heart. She could walk this route blindfold, the long trade road across the width of the empire, curving down around the great bay to Casinea and little unlovely Anvil, the two stone monuments and one ruined forge, with the tents billowing white along makeshift lanes.

She trots up the ramp into the Senate building, the floorboards swept clear of their seasonal load of leaf litter, the sheep chased away from the sheltering walls and the familiar canvas roof stretched over the space. Senate will not be in session for another hour yet. The children know it and take advantage of the chance to play, before they are ordered out again. A pair of toddlers are sitting in the throne.

Isaella bows to them. "Good evening, Citizens."

"We're not citizens yet," the girl says scornfully. Isaella looks again and corrects her estimate of their ages; she's tiny, her limbs are short, but she has elaborate embroidery on the yoke of her blouse of a kind nobody bothers with for a fast-growing four-year-old, and sharply pointed eyeliner.

"How long do you have to go?"

"Two years," the boy says, his broad nose a perfect match for his sister's.

"One and a half ," she corrects him sternly, and to Isaella, "Mama won't let me take the tests early. She says I'll get myself killed."

"Are you going to be a warrior?"

"Not all the time. I'm going to be a fur trader like my aunt. But if anything comes to my vale I'm going to cut it and stab it until it's dead . I'm very hard to hit."

Isaella grins. "I used to be a soldier with the Black Thorns."

The girls jumps to her feet. "You're a Navarri, aren't you? Can you show me a knife trick?"

By the time Marianne arrives, Isaella has a nasty bruise on her thigh, from Sveta's wooden knife stabbing at her femoral artery. Marianne has had a new livery tunic made to better fit the gradual middle-aged widening of her waist. It clashes with her Imperial sash just as badly as her old one.

"This is the Emperor's throne," she says reprovingly, "you shouldn't play in it."

The boy sticks out his tongue and jumps down, running noisily across the floor with Sveta in swift pursuit, her knife and her voice both raised.

Marianne shakes her head. "I never behaved like that when I was a child."

"No grown-up ever did." Isaella pats the arm of the throne. "They haven't hurt it. The Empire will survive."

"Hm. Don't encourage them, Liathaven."

 

Senate is over with quickly. Nicovar misses it again, busy with the Military Council; Isaella makes a mental note to mention it to him. There will be new Senators tomorrow and they will feel slighted if he doesn't attend at least once this summit For now she needs to track down Cora and ask about the rumours of a Peace cult springing up in Therunin.

"It's not exactly a cult," Cora tells her, "because it doesn't seem to have a leader. The converts we've been seeing are all claiming to have had spontaneous revelations."

"But of a false virtue. That's a cult."

"Are we sure it's false? I'm sorry, I shouldn't say that to you - that's a Synod thought experiment. No, really, don't look at me like that - I've just come from an Assembly of the Way meeting and it was all we talked about. There are no Paragons of Peace, so Peace is not a real virtue, that's what it boils down to."

"Don't frighten me like that, Cora."

"Sorry. Anyway! My accidentally sounding like a heretic aside, we do have a Peace problem in Therunin. We can do some good there with a Synod motion, to get some orthodox preaching into the region, but we think there's a malign spiritual presence there as well. Want to join the exorcism party?"

 

The relevant alignment of the Sentinel Gate doesn't roll around until Saturday afternoon, after half of Anvil has marched upon the overbold Thule rebuilding their broken fortress and come back daubed in orcish blood. The Navarri expedition is constrained by the lesser strength of the conjunction to eight souls, and it makes a mercy of the wait - they'd never have agreed on the guest list otherwise. Isaella goes, with her senatorial authority backed up with a barbed spear, and Cora for the religious weight of a Cardinal. Cora can't perform an exorcism, though, so along with two fighters - just in case - they have a cadre of Vigilance guides, their faces blazing with matching red warpaint.

Under other circumstances, the Weedkiller vigilance sect would be an obviously bad choice of diplomat. They are the most abrasive group of priests on the Anvil field, spending their liao recklessly to pull down magical auras, even well-known enchantments that generations of vates have rules as harmless. Nobody is more likely to spoil a pleasant conversation. But they have twice the exorcism strength of any other Navarri group, and the congenial Highguard exorcist team can't come on this expedition; the gate won't let anyone through except Navarr.

Cerys opens the portal without fuss, her gestures wide and confident, framing runes with her blood-smeared fingertips. Under her touch the Gate is calm, yielding to distance with barely a ripple. She waves at the gathered party and goes off whistling to find some shade.

Cora steps through first. Therunin is the home of her childhood and her gait shifts too fluidly to be conscious, adjusting to the ground conditions as she passes the Gate. The green pasture of Anvil looks dull next to the wetland moss.

Isaella follows her and immediately goes ankle-deep in a sinkhole.

Cora laughs at the splash. "Who went in? Watch your feet, everyone! Duck-weed isn't for walking on!"

Isaella shakes off her boot and tries to step where Cora does after that.

At first, they're lost. They could find their way back to the Gate easily enough, and in long-inhabited Therunin they are not scared of getting trapped; the walk back to Anvil would be long, but follow any trod in this territory and they'd find a wayhouse by midnight. But getting home is not their only concern, and the Weedkillers are muttering about vates leading them wrong when a gigantic dragonfly zips between the trees.

Isaella smiles at the youngest exorcist's flinch. She's seen bigger bugs than this, bred in these swamps and trained to return to the wrist like hawks, shipped to Seren for flying displays, along with crates of fist-sized flies for them to hunt. Others are bred to be message carriers, or especially aggressive, for those steadings plagued by stinging wasps. But this arm-long creature is one of the common green kind kept as pets, hardly changed from its wild cousins.

They follow their accidental guide along the bank of a tiny stream, no different to any other in this wet forest, until it opens into a clearing. The water pools in the mossy floor and disappears. Tents and hammocks dot the treeline. Above the seep, balanced on stilts, is the makeshift Temple of Peace.

From outside, nothing is obvious. There's an echo of a presence, like the last high lingering of a bell when the note has died away. It's only when Isaella climbs inside that the full effect reaches her, and settles over her shoulders like a heavy shawl. It is the feeling of leaning back into a padded chair, the feeling three breaths before sleep. It seduces.

The noise of voices beneath her reminds Isaella to move away from the ladder. It is set into a corner pillar, continuing up to the woven roof to let the climber step off it on the level. Easier on the joints than suspending it from an open hole, and this whole room is built for ease. It may be tied together with vines, and those vines may be sprouting new green leaves from their knots, but the floor has been tiled with thick cotton mats and the circled benches have been given sturdy backs, more comfortable than anything in poor overworked Anvil.

Someone is sleeping in an untidy heap in the far corner, their limbs tangled into the folds of a soft blanket. They don't stir until Cora, stepping nimbly backwards off the ladder, says "Hey! Hey, Grandma, wake up!"

The face that emerges from the pile doesn't quite justify the greeting. Her hair is pale enough not to give away, in the dim light filtering through the straw ceiling, how much is blonde and how much grey. Her tattoos still have a sharpness that speaks more of forty years than sixty. She yawns slow and wide, showing her teeth like a waking cat. "Are you pilgrims to the shrine?"

"We're visitors," Cora says. "Are you the Guide here?"

"I'm one of them. Sit down, friends, it's a place for resting."

One of the Weedkillers hisses over his tongue. "Did you make it?"

The guide tilts her head. "It's not the work of human hands. It is a sign of virtue. A miracle."

"It is a false virtue," he snaps, stepping forward with his hand upon his knife, until Cora's arm swings up across his chest."

"That's enough, Gerwyn. Why don't you and yours go back downstairs? There's work to be done."

He bares his teeth at her before he leaves.

"Your friend seems very angry," the Peace follower observes placidly.

"I don't think he likes your shrine. I don't like it much, either."

"She does. You ought to be more like her. Ready to hear what the universe is saying."

"She - Isaella! Isaella, you plank, snap out of it. You've gone all gooey-eyed."

Isaella sighs wistfully. The blanket this place offers is so nice. Should could sink into it and take the weight off her feet, like going barefoot into the stream-soaked moss below. But Cora is right, and she came here to work, so Isaella takes a breath and concentrates and feels the relaxing pressure snap away from her mind the moment she conceives it as a restraint.

"We should introduce ourselves," she says. "I'm Isaella, I'm a Senator, and this is Cora Tarrylong, Cardinal of the Way."

Their host wrinkles her nose. "I'm Dana Heartease. We didn't ask for any Cardinals."

Cheerful as ever, Cora says, "that's alright. I'm interested in your Virtue. We were discussing it all day yesterday, how we could prove that you were right."

"Your friends outside are trying to desecrate the shrine. But maybe they're not your friends? Sit, don't worry. They won't be able to destroy the miracle. Let's take some time. Sit, sit."

Isaella recalls, from moments ago, the feeling that no argument could be worth the effort it took, compared to a restful acceptance of what was. She sits beside the guide, to keep her in her soothing shrine, and helps Cora wring her dry of secrets.

Chapter Text

Midsummer dawns bright and sticky-hot, untouched by breezes. Nicovar thinks longingly of his study in Ankarien, with its granite flagstone floors, covered with rugs in the cold mountain winters but in weather like this unhidden and allowed to cool bare feet and draw down the heat from the air. Here in Anvil, the only shade is inside airless tents that trap the warmth under canvas. The children lie down in the narrow shadows, knife-sharp against the grass, and whisper gossip from camp to camp.

The Senate is not much cooler than anywhere else, but it feels easier to breathe in here, the space airier than a tent and out of the sun. Nicovar is holding court. Lucius has taken over his throne - with permission - and he is hunched over to use one broad arm as a desk. Nicovar sits on the edge of the dais next to him. There is not exactly a queue, but those who want to speak to him take turns, and politely point out when someone else has been waiting longer.

"Emperor," a sunburnt Marcher says. Lucius looks up at him and points silently down at the step. "I - oh. Oh, sorry, I thought - Emperor." He addresses Nicovar this time, scrubbing his sweaty palms on his shirt. Nicovar takes pity on his nerves and reaches up to shake his hand.

"Speak, citizen. What’s troubling you?”

“It’s Bregasland, Emperor. It’s been under Jotun rule for too long now. My youngest girl hasn’t ever seen it. It’s not right. It’s not right for Marcher blood. It might do for other nations, I can’t say, but we’re people of the land and it’s not right for us to live anywhere else. So what I’ve come to ask is, how much longer before we can go home?”

Nicovar nods. “You’re right. It’s been longer than anyone would have wanted. We’re doing our best, citizen, and I know that’s small enough comfort when you’re waiting to go home. The Green Shield have crossed the border and established a foothold this last season and we have three other armies backing them up. I can’t promise you it’ll be this season or next, but Bregasland is the most important fight now. In the meantime – there’s a project being set up by the Oak and Staff, you’ll find them in the Marcher camp, to bring apple seeds and Marcher soil to the refugees in the League. The Senate will be approving funding for it this evening. Speak to them. Tell them your youngest needs to plant an apple tree.”

The Marcher hesitates, unsatisfied by what Nicovar knows is an inadequate answer to a soul’s yearning to go home, but he nods and says “I’ll do that,” so it will have to do.

Next is a group of new citizens, fresh from their adulthood tests, who want to see the Senate and didn’t expect to find the Emperor there; they stare in silent awe until the quickest of them puts up her grey hood and bows to him, suddenly a formal Highborn adult instead of a nervous teenager, and says, “If you need our services, you have only to call for us.”

“Thank you,” Nicovar says. “You’re the Beacon Guard chapter, on the Reikos border?”

“That’s right, Seiur. We patrol the edge of the Forest of Peytaht.”

“I remember a magician from Beacon Guard, when I first came to Anvil. She was a very strong speechmaker.”

“Kasha. I’ll tell her you remembered her, Sieur. She’ll be very proud. Thank you for your time, Sieur.”

Lucius watches them go. “She’ll do well, once she loses the verbal tics.”

“She’s sixteen. Give her time, my friend. What time is it? Oh, Isaella, welcome – is that a bacon sandwich? Are you giving me a bacon sandwich? Did you just bring me lunch?”

“She’s right on time,” Lucius says, smug. “Eat your sandwich, Emperor. Thank you, Sal.”

“I serve the Empire,” Isaella says, straight-faced, and goes to sit on the gallery railing and chat with the strays at the edge of the court, who have no real business but are happy to find a Senator at a loose end. Nicovar tries not to get grease on his robe.

There’s a steady trickle of visitors all afternoon. Lucius changes which arm he’s leaning on, trying to avoid cramp. “We should formalise this,” he says in a lull between supplicants. “It works better than doing it in Ankarien.”

“It does,” Nicovar agrees, “but have you noticed how many we’ve been referring to the Civil Service?”

Lucius looks at the ceiling, counting in his head. “At least a third,” he says eventually, “and most of those were routine queries, or agenda items. We’ve had five issues for Ruth of Highguard alone.”

“And she’s always a nightmare to find in the mornings. We could invite the key civil servants to join us here, do you think?”

“It might make it very crowded, if we have their queues as well as ours.”

“But we already do, only they’re queuing up for – Felicia!” Nicovar interrupts himself, startled. “Warmage, good to see you.”

She ducks her head. “Empress. Can we talk?”

“Of course.”

“Privately?”

Nicovar tries not to frown. He’d have been cautious about a request like that, from a known enemy, long before he was crowned. “It’s honestly harder to eavesdrop on us here than in a tent. Why don’t you sit, Felicia? What’s troubling you?”

She looks around, perhaps trying to catch someone’s eye for moral support, but Lucius is quietly ignoring her. He does that, when he disapproves of someone. So Felicia has no-one to defend her, and rather than argue she sinks to the floor, awkwardly cross-legged. She’d be more comfortable on the edge of the step, on the level with Nicovar. He takes note of that gesture.

“I wanted to talk to you about the Military Council.”

“Of course, Warmage.”

“Well, not exactly the Council – I’m sorry, I know I insulted you when I stood for election but Lucrezia said it would be the best way to get votes and -” She takes a deep breath, her eyes closing. When they open again her face is calm. “There’s a reckoning coming. That’s what I wanted to tell you. There are too many people who’ve lost because you won.”

“Who are you working for, Felicia?”

“The Empire, of course.”

“It’s not Lucrezia. She got you the job, but that was a slap at me. She’s not invested in your career.”

Felicia nods, wry. “She told me that at the time. It was the Conclave election she was interested in. Since then I’ve been on my own. Except for the Generals, but I tell them what they can’t have, I really do, and they just keep asking for it. And it’s – I’ve been – I think I owe James an apology.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I came, and I saw him getting things done, and I thought, well, that doesn’t look so hard. I could do that. But it’s like acting, isn’t it? It only looks easy when you’re good at it.” Bitterness creeps into her voice, a prickly edge to every word.

Nicovar looks at her. “Warmage.”

“Yes, Empress?”

Warmage.” He leans forward. “No-one’s taken the title off you yet.”

Felicia breathes in deep. “I think,” she says, “I think that’s because the eyes of the mighty have been turned elsewhere.”

Doesn’t matter.” Nicovar sits back, shrugging. “You’re the Warmage. You hold a high Imperial office. You are one of the mighty.”

So – what do I do with it?”

You said a reckoning is coming?”

It is.”

He smiles. “So, pick a side.”

You’re not serious.”

Aren’t I?” Nicovar looks past her, at James and Isaella sitting with their backs to the wall, legs sticking out in front of them, poring over Isaella’s budget figures. He tries to frame his thoughts. “How can I put this? When I sought the throne, I did it because I thought I could make the Empire better. And what makes the Empire better is that we should strive. We make war on every border, to make ourselves greater. We challenge the edges of knowledge. We dig up the weapons of the past, and if they cut us, we will learn to master them. If I took the throne, and every Senator and General fell in line behind me, I would have made the Empire less. We are the sum of all our citizens. We compete amongst ourselves, and whoever wins, we are all the greater. So take up your mantle, Warmage. Make some bright youngster at the back of the Conclave think your title is worth the work.”

I don’t know how.” Felicia is grim with frustration.

Warmage, you are in too deep to tell me you cannot swim.”

She looks at him through her eyelashes, terribly young suddenly, and her head bowed with responsibility. “You’re not exactly helping, Empress. I was trying to warn you about something.”

And you did. You told me that Miriam is planning something. It is Miriam, isn’t it?”

I – I didn’t say that. I am speaking only of – general concerns.”

Nicovar smiles. “See? You do know how to swim.”

Chapter Text

Isaella rubs her forehead. “Sorry, say that again. Taking down the Peace aura is illegal?”

“Yep.” Cora lifts her hands in an exaggerated shrug. “Don’t blame me, I don’t make the laws.”

“I know, I know.”

“That’s your job.”

Isaella stares at her, while Cora’s grin widens.

“Sorry. It’s not one of yours, actually, it’s a Barrabas-era law. Imperial citizens are forbidden from removing any miraculous spiritual effects upon places or objects.”

“Why not people?”

“I suppose the Senate thought if you didn’t want the whatever on your soul that was up to you. But I checked with the civil service and in the opinion of the magistrates, miraculous is the same as spontaneous and the law makes no distinction between true and false virtues – so exorcising that aura in Therunin is illegal, since our friends in Highguard so helpfully proved it was natural when they went to visit. If they’d just knocked it down we’d never have known they shouldn’t.”

“That is bullshit. Cora, come on. It’s sitting there turning our citizens into potatoes and we can’t remove it? I’ll talk to Marianne. If there isn’t a loophole she can help be draft a repeal motion.”

“You’ll need True Liao to pull it down anyway-”

“I can get that. That’s not a problem. What’s the punishment if we don’t get the law changed first? A fine? We could just do it and pay up-”

“Legal excommunication,”Cora snaps. “Which someone is sure to follow through. You have enemies, Sal. You can’t just run around breaking laws.”

“I make the laws,” Isaella grumbles, but she settles back onto the bench and picks up her tea. “Alright, alright. So give me the gossip. Did Isolt find the courage to approach her yet?”

 

Autumn has started hot all over the Empire. Isaella walked here mainly in short trousers, letting her knees get tanned on the broad clear roads, with her tough nettle-kickers rolled up on top of her pack in case of need. The war has moved on from Liathaven, into the fens of Bregasland, with a civilian army of Marchers following close behind, re-occupying their land as fast as the soldiers can take it. Isaella has been a peacetime Senator for once, and spent her time on fortification supplies and the little social disputes any nation gives rise to. She has it easier than her peers that way – no Marcher would accept a judgement that the feuding families should pack up their lives and walk in opposite directions. For the Navarri, it’s dramatic, but at least it’s on the table.

She drenches her tunic on Saturday morning and wears it wet to the Gate. The assembled crowd is smaller than usual and there’s a pang of guilt in that thought, for the armour she isn’t wearing and the spear that sleeps in her tent. But her often-broken collarbone has been troubling her lately and her hopeful visit to the field hospital last night only confirmed the diagnosis of her own physick: no fighting and gentle exercises, for another season at least, if she wants to hold a weapon in five years.

So the fighters gather without her, and Isaella is only here to see them off. The early morning mist has already burned away. Even the trees are still rustling green around the Gate, not yet surrendering to autumn. There will finally be an attempt to select a Dawnish general this afternoon, now that Roland has been trapped in a gambling debt and his surrender called in as payment. But for now, the Throne still commands one Dawnish army, and so Nicovar is out amongst the fighters. The soldiers of the Hounds of Glory still resent him, but the Dawnish who come to Anvil have learned to take a kind of perverse pride in the situation – their Senators and General may be disgraced, but Dawn has a claim to the Empress no other nation can boast. He has become one of theirs. They have begun to love him for it.

Isaella smiles at him through the crowd, the familiar colours reversed, a red robe with an ivory sash, and steps into the muddle of her own people. Here it is all brown and green and leather, tattoos on bare arms and brands on faces. She taps fists with the archer Gerwyn, whose bow and scowl have grown heavier every year. She hugs Cora and ruffles her hair, cut short in frustration from the hot weather and fluffy as a baby chick. Cora mock-growls and wriggles free.

“Don’t die,” Isaella teases.

“Sal, honey. When have I ever died yet?”

Isaella looks at her until she laughs and flaps her hand. “True Liao or it didn’t happen. We’ll be back by lunchtime, Mother. Get the water hot.”

“Kill some Jotun for me.”

 

After the battle, they count their dead. They carry Navarri bodies to the corpse glade, Dawnish to the carts to be taken home. Nicovar holds his court through the afternoon, his sallow face made even paler by a smear of orcish blood. James spends a strangely long time in conversation with Isolt, before the senatorial tournament where he cheers every victory with diplomatic equality, the Consort nearly as good a witness as the Throne. Isaella is on her feet most of the day trying to drum up votes for her repeal motion. The Senate is concerned about flip-flopping on the laws, and blighted with the usual ahistorical perspective, as if a law passed before they came to Anvil was as ancient as the Empire. The motion they end up with is so convoluted Isaella has to refer it to the civil service to check if it’s even sound. She has meetings and arguments and adulthood tests to observe, until at last in the velvety midnight she hears voices from the Senate floor.

She turns up the ramp into the familiar tented room, its floorboards warmed by the light of glowstones. There are often people in here late at night, taking advantage of the dry space. Nicovar is usually in his own camp by now, making time for his husband, but tonight James is sprawled sideways on the throne and Nicovar is squaring up with a Dawnish noble, hefting a borrowed sword.

Isaella finds an empty patch of wall to lean against and settles in to watch.

“Now, remember,” Nicovar is saying, “no killing me.”

The noble grins. “But killing blows, right, Empress? This is a real fight? We’ve got physicks waiting all ready for you.”

Nicovar looks around for an answer. The Dawnish who form most of his audience smirk back.

“Alright,” he says, “we’ll do this your way. No holds barred. On three?”

“Three,” his opponent answers, lifting her own sword. “Two. One!”

They meet in a ringing of steel. Nicovar is no great swordsman, his movements betraying his preference for a magician’s rod. He can defend, but in attacking he forgets to use the point. Isaella critiques his style even as her heart is pounding. People die in Dawnish duels. James is twisted at the waist, watching the fight intently with his legs still hooked over the arm of the throne.

Nicovar backs away. The Dawnish follows, still grinning. Her blade flashes towards his head, a wide distracting flourish to occupy Nicovar's sword, while her fist swings into his ribs. He staggers. She lets him open the distance, her eyes on his chest. They are not armoured for this and any twitch might telegraph his next attack.

He steps sideways, turning as he goes. On this smooth floor neither of them needs to watch their feet. The Dawnish, impatient, cuts towards his legs, a heavy blow he barely deflects. She tries to repeat it but Nicovar dodges and his blade slides across her forearm as she moves. The blood drips from her skin.

She bares her teeth. Nicovar is driven back by her answering flurry, her sword moving almost too quick to follow and Nicovar struggling just to guard himself. Even wounded, she is stronger, and he’s tiring fast. Isaella’s hand itches for her knife. Navarri do not care for honourable duels.

Nicovar has spotted a weakness at last, an opening on the noble’s off-hand where she is used to a shield to block with. He is trying to jab into that gap but the Dawnish attack doesn’t let up. They are moving in a circle, Nicovar always backing up, on the defensive. She leaps at him, sword swinging down towards his head, and the blades scream when they meet, grinding down towards Nicovar’s face.

He grins, very suddenly. He move sideways, slippery as a fish, his sword sliding out of contact, and driving into her thigh.

The Dawnish falls to her knees. Nicovar dances away at once, his body a long sleek line, drawing down to the blood on his point. Isaella’s stomach kicks.

“Citizen?” Nicovar is holding his position, waiting for the Dawnish to rise on a leg he has plainly crippled.

She tosses her head, flyaway hairs clinging to the sweat on her face. “I yield, Empress. Well fought! You sneaky fuck!”

He joins with the laughter from her companions. “Then as the victor of this fight, I claim the right to determine who shall command the Hounds of Glory, and it’s you. You can have the job. I give it to you with all the troubles it may bring.”

“That’s fair,” she says. “I can’t argue with that. Can I get this leg stitched up now?”

Nicovar hands his sword back to one of the watching crowd and helps his opponent stagger to a physick. Isaella has seen wounds like that before – has taken them before – and she’s sure the new General will be fine. She’ll ache for months, but she won’t be limping next summit, if the physick knows their herbs.

She pushes off the wall. James is tipped back so far now his head is almost upside down.

“And I thought Urizeni were mad,” he says cheerfully.

“Oh, they are. All of them. The Dawnish are just more boisterous about it.”

“You should fight him,” James says, peering up at her. “He’s used up his enchantment now. I promise you’ll win.”

The Dawnish and her friends are trooping noisily down the ramp, one on each side to support her. The room seems darker without them, more welcoming.

“You can’t promise that,” Isaella says, reasonably. “Not unless you plan to help.”

James sits up. He looks at her, at the muscles of her arms. He looks at Nicovar.

“Hey, Nic,” he says, and stands. His staff is leaning against the back of the chair. It lifts easily into his hands. “Nicky. Think fast.”

Nicovar turns towards them. His eyes narrow. He pulls the rod from his belt.

Isaella draws her knife.

They are silent at first, caught up in the tension. James holds his staff in balance, striking out with each end to pin Nicovar against the wall. Isaella darts into the space he makes. She keeps her strikes to taps, the flat of her blade against his arm, his belly. Nicovar’s rod smacks her forearm without half his strength behind it. She lets the blow turn her anyway. He blocks James’s next swing and Isaella sets her knife to his throat.

Nicovar lifts his chin. He’s panting, his eyes crinkled in a smile. His gaze flicks to James.

Isaella follows his glance. James has pulled back to turn the staff in his hands. He frowns slightly.

“Sal,” he says, “think fast.”

The two of them together, against her single knife, drive her easily across the room. She manages to tap James on the knuckles and he hisses, aware of how that would end if she had used the edge. But the room is only so large, and her reach is less than theirs, and seconds later she is pressed against the gallery railing, her knife hand trapped and the staff tapping lightly against her shins.

She looks at Nicovar. He looks at James. For a moment they are still fighting, ready to switch again and drive James into surrender together, but instead Nicovar leans in close, and kisses her.

Isaella lets her eyes close, just for a moment. Nicovar is not so brash as he once was, not so insistent. He tilts his head to fit their mouths together. His weapon lifts away from her arm.

“Hey,” James says, his voice rumbling. “Hey, Nic. Don’t be greedy. Share.”

His broad hand cups Isaella’s cheek as Nicovar lets her go. She smiles up at him, at the heat in his dark eyes. She kisses him too.

Chapter Text

For the first time in a year, Nicovar spent his season at Ankarien spire, and not on the road with an army of rowdy Dawnish. He feels better for it. Rested. No wonder the army power hasn’t often been used. He is home for the harvest festival, which they hold privately, nobody invited but Ankarien and a handful of Urizeni friends who aren’t there to see the Throne. A month later, before the storms turn against them, they host a religious meeting, for all those who are interested to discuss the Peace problems. Isaella comes to defend Navarri piety and share his bed. He knows, when he reaches Anvil, he’ll find his husband in her tent. His spire-mates know it too, and crinkle their eyes at him in laughter.

Even the mud of Anvil doesn’t spoil his mood. He has good boots well broken in and a robe cut short for the weather. Unliving ushabti servants packed their baggage, but here on the lowlands human hands must do the work, and Nicovar spends an hour with fencing stakes and a mallet before someone tracks him down to start talking politics. Lucius, bringing over the woven panels, takes the mallet off him.

“Alright,” Nicovar says, resigned, “I’m all yours, Kesia. What’s the problem?”

“Can we walk and talk, Nic?”

“Yes, of course.” Nicovar lets her lead the way. Her hood isn’t up, but there’s a hoods-up kind of feeling in the air, a sense that this conversation is business. Kesia is on duty.

“It’s Miriam,” she says bluntly. “You know there’s a problem with Miriam, right?”

“I know she doesn’t like me very much.”

“Then you’re much stupider than I thought you were. Miriam hates you, Nicovar. With an almost religious fervour. It’s become a point of principle with her to hate you.”

He looks at her sideways. “I was being diplomatic. Yes, I know how Miriam feels about me. I think the whole Hounds of Glory thing made it worse.”

Much worse. She could try to ignore you when you were in the Senate. The Military Council was hers and the rest was yours and Miriam could almost be content with that, and then you walked in and she couldn’t do anything about it. You know if they don’t like a general, they can shut them out or stop them getting re-selected or hell, even come to the national assembly and start agitating but you can’t revoke a Throne and you can’t take the army off them either. It was clumsy, taking it on yourself. You should have used a Favour.”

Nicovar stops mid-stride. He stares at her.

“What?”

“You’re right. I should have used a Favour.”

Kesia hastily backtracks. “Oh, don’t get me wrong. I mean, it was a great way to point out that actually you are the Throne and people had better take you into account. It did that really well. It’s just the Miriam thing – And really it’s not even her Council. She just clung to it because she’d lost the bigger prize.”

“There’s no such thing as a Head General.”

Exactly, exactly. So you didn’t actually do wrong. Just that now we have a bigger Miriam problem. And it is a problem, and you need to stop ignoring it.”

“What do you suggest? As far as I can see, she hasn’t done anything illegal, ever. She hasn’t misused her office. She doesn’t seem to be unvirtuous – I know there’s always the loyalty debate but the virtue doesn’t require her to be loyal to me. If she’s loyal to what she’s loyal to, that’s the virtue. She has ambition, she has bundles of pride, she’s not unvigilant or foolish or a spendthrift – I really don’t think there’s grounds to revoke her.”

Kesia nods, her head bobbing. “And you really can’t take her army away. That would make it a lot worse.”

“Right. So, I agree, I have a Miriam problem, because one of my most influential generals hates me and I can’t direct military strategy without her fighting me. But it’s not a problem I can solve with legal powers.”

Are you suggesting illegal ones, Empress?” Kesia grins and hops onto a bedraggled clump of grass, avoiding a puddle. “I’m joking. Please don’t do illegal things. I would hate having to condemn you for them. I’m just saying. Put it top of your list. Do some strategising. And then do something. I will mock you for cowardice if I have to.”



The main business of the Senate that evening, besides budgets and approving new statues, is a proposal to amend the law on destruction of miracles. Isaella is the proposer, and Nicovar has to work harder than before to keep his face calm while she’s speaking.

“Friends, colleagues, this proposal won’t be news to most of you. I’ve been working on it for a couple of seasons and I know I’ve had conversations with a lot of you to try and formulate something we can agree on. The impetus here is that we have a spontaneous and very powerful Peace aura in Therunin. It’s been there for a very long time but only now has a church been built around it and too many of our citizens are being led astray. I’m not a priest, but I know there are seven Virtues, and I know a false virtue shouldn’t be left where it is to corrupt our people. We would have taken it down already but there’s a law requiring miracles to be preserved.

I’m not asking you to just repeal that law. I understand there are reasons to protect miraculous effects. But this one needs to go, so the law isn’t perfect. What we’re proposing today has safeguards. It allows miraculous effects to be dispelled only with the agreement of the nation’s senators, and only if they’re aligned to a false virtue. If you pass this, we can get rid of that effect in Therunin by the end of the summit and the Synod can root out the heresy.”

The Senate is politely silent through Isaella’s speech. There’s muttering when she finishes, from the public gallery and from the floor. Nicovar takes note of the stubborn set of some faces, the senators who will be committed No votes. There’s only a handful of them.

“I support this proposal,” the senator from Segura says first. “Get in there and take the aura down. We’ve fucked about for long enough.”

“Agreed,” chimes in Necropolis, before Marianne can shush him.

“Question for the proposer,” Sarvos says, once he’s been properly invited to speak, “will you actually be able to take this effect down?”

“I have a team of exorcists just raring to go,” Isaella answers.

“But – forgive me, I’m sure you’ve considered this – I’ve seen the scrying results from the Highborn who went to look at it and it won’t be as easy as that. This is a very entrenched effect. I’m sure your exorcists are very enthusiastic, but you’re not going to succeed unless you go armed with True Liao. No offence to the senator from Liathaven, of course, but I didn’t see your name on the Gatekeepers’ list? Can you afford to buy one at auction?”

Anger curls in Nicovar’s chest. He keeps still. Isaella, on the floor beneath his throne, puts her hands on her hips.

“What a good question, Sarvos. Thank you so much for bringing it up.” She turns away from him. “Nicovar. Can I have some True Liao?”

The twist in his ribs opens out into startled, delighted pride. Nicovar reaches into his robes and pulls out the little glass vial the Civil Service hands him, every season, to use as he sees fit. He tosses it to Isaella. She plucks it neatly from the air.

“Thank you. Sarvos, any more objections?”

He splutters and retreats. The proposal passes easily. Nicovar waits until he’s back in Ankarien to laugh.


Isaella doesn’t come back from the Sentinel Gate until nearly midnight. She fought that morning alongside Navarr, and spent most of the afternoon pulling together another expedition team and a political delegation, a diplomatic group to visit the Faraden embassy they didn’t know they needed until a letter came that morning. The Faraden are finally willing to consider allowing trods on their territory. Nobody in the Empire would speak against it, but it has to be the Navarr who persuade their foreign allies that it’s safe. Faraden has refused so far, worried that the trod network would let the Sentinel Gate reach into their land, and that the enchantment was a precursor to invasion. It’s taken years of peaceful embassy building for them to even consider it. So it’s no surprise if Isaella didn’t stop to rest after the battle.

She trudges into Ankarien’s camp and falls onto a bench. “I’m not here,” she says. “If anyone asks, I’m not here. You never saw me. I’m a ghost.”

“Okay,” Nicovar agrees. “Are you cold?”

“I am wet to the knees and I hate it.”

James wordlessly reaches down for the kettle and sets it back on the fire. He rubs Isaella’s back, between her shoulder-blades, when she leans to warm her hands above the coals. “Did you take the aura down?”

“We kicked ass. Not literally, they’re Peace cultists, kicking ass isn’t really their thing. But we gave them a good hard desecration. It is so creepy doing that while they’re just staring at you. I was expecting shouting.”

“Didn’t they react when the exorcism went off?”

Isaella straightens up. “Sort of? They’d been soaking in it a long time. But no, they didn’t want to fight. I guess they’re sincere. Sincere cultists. Somehow that’s worse than rabble-rousers.”

“I am not a theologian,” Nicovar says, “but I’m pretty sure we did the right thing.”

“Yeah. Yeah, we did, though. Thanks for the liao.”

Here, around a campfire with the two of them, he lets himself grin. “That was smooth, Sal. That was a very smart gamble.”

“Asking you for things is not a gamble, Nic.”

The three of them stay up much too late talking. They get up late as well. The good people of Ankarien do not say a word.

Chapter Text

Isaella is drifting in a warm haze of cherry brandy. The food has been collected for Welcoming tomorrow, the battle for Navarr won’t be until Sunday, and she can afford to court a considerable hangover. The d’Holberg tent has been fixed up with a brazier and the smouldering coals make the place as cosy as her own cabin. It doesn’t hurt that the twins can afford layers of rugs, or that they keep the good alcohol coming around.

“The point – wait, let me sit up, I can’t see you – the point, Isolt, is that you have to decide something. You can’t just wait for it to go away.”

“But it might go away.”

“She’s not just going to stop being a Leaguer, though.”

Isolt turns an empty bottle on the table. “And I’m not going to stop being Dawnish. So what do I do?”

“You could stop being Dawnish.”

“I just said I can’t.”

“No, but I mean, it’s an option you have. That you could consider. And she could become Dawnish, right? Anyone can do a Test of Mettle?”

“The First Empress did,” Cressida chimes in. “On a horse. So if she was a horse-”

“Right, she did! So Felicia could just test into Dawn and then you could marry her.”

Isolt looks glum. “Test of Mettle. And then Test of Ardour. And she’d have to give up her old family – it’s just it’s a lot to ask of her, you know?”

“But if she loves you-”

“I don’t know if she does though! How do you tell with foreigners?”

“She’s not a foreigner,” Isaella says pedantically, “she’s a - a - an Imperial cross-national. Like the Throne and the Consort. They’re not the same-”

“And you,” Cressida says, “let’s not forget you in that example -”

“Shut up, Cress, that’s not even the point – what was that?”

“Don’t change the subject -”

Isolt sits up straight. “No, I heard it too. Is someone having a duel?”

“It’s very late if they are. What was it? I didn’t hear it. Is it swords?”

“No,” Isaella says, “it was – I don't know, maybe it was just someone coughing.”

“That was not a cough,” Isolt says, very definite. “We should go and check.”

Isaella needs Cressida’s hand to get back to her feet. She fumbles with the tent flap, trying not to trip over the guy lines. Isolt is ahead of them, a little way up the hill, searching for the source of the noise.

Isaella spots the shape in the grass just as Isolt drops to a crouch beside it. She shakes the figure, rolls them partway over.

“No!”

Isolt is back on her feet. She draws her sword. It shakes in her hand, the moonlight shattering along the blade. “Show yourself! Coward! I will find you, I will fucking find you, stand and face me! Where are you? Who did this?

Isaella staggers up to her. The body in the grass, dark blood gleaming on his chest, unnaturally still, is Sir Roland. Isaella draws a deep breath and shouts for a physick.

Cressida is already there and reaching for her surgeons tools. “Go look after Isolt,” she says brusquely. “You can’t help me here. Go on.”

In the darkness, through the fog of alcohol, Isaella can’t find see her. The quiet camp is overturning, roused by Isolt's screaming. She finds her in the black shadow of a tent, sword up, her teeth bared.

“I’ll kill them,” she says. “I’ll fucking kill them.”

“Isolt-”

“If anyone was going to kill him it was going to be me. He was my brother, Isaella! Don’t tell me to be calm! He was my brother and he’s been murdered.”

There are feet already pounding up the hill. Isaella recognises the tabards of the Anvil Watch, the lanky figure of Sally the magistrate alongside them. They break around the scene like water, looking past the death for any sign of fugitives. Behind them, hurrying to catch up, comes Sveta, embroidery blood-dark on the collar of her white blouse.

“I saw them,” she says, panting. “Isaella. Isaella, listen to me, I saw them.”

 

Still unbalanced and half-sick with drink, Isaella sits Sveta down beneath the bright lights of a trader’s stall. She buys a coffee for herself, and a bacon roll. Sveta devours it, teenager-hungry.

“It wasn’t a fight,” she says with her mouth full. “I mean obviously it was a fight eventually but that’s not how it started. There were two of them besides Roland and I think one was Highborn. She didn’t have her hood up but her ears were all ragged at the top.”

“Unveiled,” Isaella says.

“Yeah. Like her ear-tips were cut off. Which is creepy, I just want to say. Who cuts off their ears? It’s too weird.”

“The fight, Sveta?”

“Sorry. Yeah. They were just talking. I wasn’t listening because I didn’t think anything was wrong. I was just going home.”

Isaella swallows a mouthful of coffee. It fights her, feeling sharp and solid in her throat. “Why were you out so late?”

“I was watching the new play! It’s really good. You should go see it. It’s really romantic.” Sveta rips another huge bite from her roll. “I was on my way back from that, so I was in the League camp, and I was just passing the alley where those people and the knight were. What’s his name?”

“Roland,” Isaella says, the reminder sobering her up as much as the coffee. “His name was Sir Roland.”

“Roland. He was talking to those people and he didn’t look interested? I mean, he looked worried. It looked like they were trying to get him to do something and he didn’t want to. And he didn’t have his sword on but his hand was doing that thing where he was feeling for it anyway, and then he turned to walk away from them, and that’s when the other one stabbed him.”

“The other one? You mean not the Highborn?”

“The Highborn didn’t stab him. She just stepped back and then she ran off towards the trees. The one with the knife went between the tents. I tried to follow but I couldn’t see where they went so I went running for the Watch. I knew Sally would be outside the tavern. She’s always there in the evenings.”

“It was a good thought. Did you stop to check on Roland?”

Sveta stops with the roll halfway to her mouth. Her eyes go wide. “I didn’t – I’m so sorry! I didn’t think – is he okay? He’s a knight, he can handle it, right?”

Isaella puts an arm around her. “Sveta. Honey, listen to me. This is important, alright? I need you to listen. Roland is not going to be okay. Roland died from the knife wound. And it’s really important that you know that isn’t your fault. It’s not, at all, and I need you to understand that.”

“I didn’t stop for him,” Sveta says, shock drawing pale across her face. “I should have called a physick.”

“Next time you’ll do that. But we heard the fight and we were there within a minute and Roland had already gone. So I think that the knife was poisoned, and even if you had stood and shouted for a physick, he would still have died.”

Sveta nods. She puts the rest of her bacon roll on the table and rubs her hands together. “I think it was a little bit my fault,” she says, her voice small. “Because I didn’t do that. And you might have been on time, if I’d shouted.”

“Or you might have died as well.” Isaella hugs her closer. “You didn’t stab him, sweetheart. You didn’t poison him. We’re lucky you were there at all, or we wouldn’t know what happened. You didn’t do the absolute perfect thing, but you ran for the Watch. That was a smart reaction.”

“Okay.” Sveta leans into her. “It was a really good play, though. Before that happened.”

Isaella rubs her arm. “We should get you home to your parents. I think.”

“It’s just Mama,” Sveta says. “And Auntie. But she only comes sometimes. Not this time. She wasn’t feeling well.”

“Alright, then let’s get you back to Mama and let her know you’re safe. It’s been a while since the play ended and I don’t want her to be worried.”

 

Isaella walks Sveta home to the Varushkan camp. It’s well past midnight and no surprise that the Varushkans don’t invite her in; she hands Sveta over to be fussed at by her relieved family and walks back up to the League alone. Isolt is still there, weeping into Cressida’s shoulder. The body has been taken away.

“There were two of them,” Isaella says, too exhausted for preambles. “One Highborn changeling with severed ear-tips and another that Sveta couldn’t identify. They tried to talk him into something, he refused, they reacted.”

Isolt snuffles. She lifts her head away from Cressida’s cloak, arms still wrapped around her. “I want to kill them. I don’t want to wait for the magistrates. I want to kill them.”

“And I woudn’t turn you in for it. But we have to find them first. And we have to find out what they wanted from Roland. We have to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”