✵ The Cardinal ✵
It was the first day of 1015AE. The Platinum Gardens was blanketed beneath a layer of snow so thick that the guards patrolling between the mansions were sinking into it up to their ankles with every step. That pale frost turned the splendor of the noble's quarter, its green gardens and golden statues and shining marble, into the same stark uniform white as the rest of the city. It wrought a stillness, a peace, to the palaces of the aristocracy.
But inside, peace was the last thing anyone could think about.
They had been arriving all day, from all parts of the city, the attendant vassals of that Most Ancient and Noble House of Blackthorne. Orys Waynrite had arrived first, with his sons Axl and Jaxon in tow. Next came Briona Manford, dressed in the dark clothes of a widow's mourning. She was far from the only woman in attendance; in the stead of Kai Cogworth came his elder sister Quella, Shiera Karhall strode into the hall with her pipe leaving a trail of blue smoke behind her, and when Lord Siegfried Rookwood arrived with his bannerman Kavin Falmar, his mother Barbrey was next out of the carriage behind them. Sir Valus Thormund, now Lord Valus Thormund, sat as far away from the Rookwoods as the table would allow. Sir Jaegar Warthorne came in while sharing a bawdy jape with Llewys Monmoth; the latter's father Lord Yven came behind them, looking displeased. Sir Jacques came last of all.
"You're late." The Bloodhawk's cold gaze tracked his son's progression into the hall. Other Lords were pleased to take their councils on round tables, where every man was an equal. Not so for the Blackthornes. The manor's hall had been decorated with a long table of white marble, spacious enough to seat dozens of guests beneath the sinister criss-crossing patterns of the vaulted stone ceiling overhead, and there was only enough room for one man at the head of that table. Dominic's chair was fashioned like the wings of a soaring griffin and was so large that it cast a shadow over the entire table, even upon its occupant. It looked less a lord's seat, and more a throne.
"I came as soon as I could, father," Jacques sighed, pulling out the seat to the Bloodhawk's right side and slouching into it. He flung one leg over the armrests and lounged back, fishing his pipe out of his cloak. "Manford's peasants have a hard time settling in, it would seem."
"They have lived so far in castles and houses." Lady Briona spoke up suddenly, her eyes narrowed at her future liege-lord. "Now you expect them to squat in mud-huts."
Sir Jacques snorted. "They should be grateful that Uncle Daxter's men bothered erecting those huts for them."
"You made them a shanty-town. A slum."
"Did you bark this much at my uncle Roderic, bitch? No wonder he fed himself to the Drakken rather than listen to another second of your nattering." The heir to House Blackthorne lit his pipe with a flick of a wooden match. The reflection of the spark in his grey eyes made it seem like they had flashed with sudden malice. "And no wonder your peasants got so proud of their pathetic selves. When we showed them the huts they started raising a clamor. Not enough space, they said. Not enough food. Like they deserved a palace each, the fucking insects. I told them what I've told you, that they should take what space they could get or they'd get nothing at all. One of them threw a rock at me. Missed, of course, as if some crofter could ever throw straight...but its the thought that counts, eh?"
Briona's mouth had tightened, her green eyes wide, and for once it seemed she had nothing to say.
Jacques gave her a weaselly grin, showing sharp, even white teeth. "So I have my guards take him to task right in front of the whole refugee train. They pull this peasant out, he's got a little daughter clinging to his leg, they push her off and they start going at the father with their cudgels. You've seen the ones, the heavy oakwood? They break bones like they were pottery." He was laughing now, and his uncle Axl was laughing with him. The other lords averted their eyes and kept silent. "So bits of this lackwit rock-thrower peasant start spraying everywhere, and one of them hits the daughter in the face, and she starts screaming. You know the way that children scream, that fucking high-pitched shriek that goes right through your head? Well Uncle Daxter is irked by it as much as anyone else, so he gets his sword out and rides the little shit up the side of her head with it. Only thing is, her head splits open like an egg, and now there's bits of her everywhere. Now the other peasants, they're just watching this, staring at it like cattle in a field, and the rock-thrower's wife is there among them and she's been screeching the whole time. And Uncle Daxter just looks at the bitch and tells her to clean it up!"
Axl roared with laughter as if it was some great punchline. His brother Jaxon smiled wanly, eyes unfocused. Lord Orys managed a polite chuckle. Shiera Karhall puffed on her pipe and said nothing. But Yven Monmoth and Quella Cogworth both looked sick. and Kavin Falmar was gazing at his future liege-lord with overt hatred. Even the jovial Sir Jaegar had stopped smiling.
Briona's nails had left gauges in the gold filigree on the marble table, and she rose to her feet in a rage. "Be damned, Dominic! Is this the legacy of your house? First Corcoran, now my own people--how much will it take before you curtail this weasel you call your son?!"
There was a long, painful silence. Dominic's stormcloud eyes bored into the woman. Nobody dared to make a sound, or even move, for what felt like hours. And the longer it went on, the more Lady Manford's resolve visibly waned, her rage melting away into regret.
"Sit down, woman," the Bloodhawk said at last, his baritone rumbling through the hall like rolling thunder. "Sir Jacques has won a victory at Nchurdamz. You have given me only losses, burdens and mouths to feed. You are a vassal without a keep and you present no asset to me whatsoever at this time. I will hear no council on how to raise my son from the likes of you."
Briona held out for a long moment. But then she sat, ashen-faced, and spoke no more. Jacques gave her a smug wink.
"Before we were interrupted," Shiera Karhall reminded them in a dry tone, "We were trying to speak of the Ludlow situation."
"Indeed," Yven Monmoth agreed, seemingly eager to change the subject. "Who is this Umbridge of Westgate, and how is it he knows of what transpired with the Accord?"
"It does not matter how they all know it," Quella Cogworth argued. She was an older woman with iron-grey hair and a brusque manner; she had been wild in her youth, people whispered, and a tryst with a sailor had left her with a bastard son. Quintin Cogworth had married her to one of his household knights, Galleon, in order to save her virtue. That knight had died at the Riverford, but she wore no clothes of mourning. According to those same rumors, she was more comfortable in the bronze armor that the men of her house wore than the bronze gown she was currently sporting. "It matters what we do about it next."
"Talia knows something. The fat craven of Sabre's whore, the one he can't even summon the courage to fuck." Sir Jacques grinned nastily. "She has my prisoner as well, Preston's widow Aislinn Corcoran. Let me bring them in and question them both, father."
"Question them like you questioned the girl's father?" Llewys Monmoth growled. "Sir Barra Corcoran was an honorable man, and deserved better."
Jacques' smile curdled like sour milk. "She questioned my power. He had to die. I'm the heir to this House, mongrel, and I'll not be questioned by the likes of you. Or her."
"It is true that Barra's death allowed me to take charge of my family," Valus Thormund reminded them, scratching at his neckbeard. "Without the exchanged killing of those hostages, I would never have been able to--"
"Would have been better if the Knoxes had killed you as well, so your whole cursed line could end," Siegfried Rookwood snapped, ever eager to get a chance to insult his rival. When his mother muttered at him, Siegfried waved her off angrily. "Let me alone, mother, I can speak for myself. We should have eyes on that island, Lord Blackthorne, lest a child is born to Rivka that they mean to use against us."
"Lord Ludlow had many daughters, several of whom remain unengaged," Barbrey Rookwood spoke up, ignoring her lordly son's eye-roll. "We could offer a bannerman as a husband to the eldest, Claire. That would allow us to maintain a presence at Caybourne."
Yven nodded. "A prudent idea. I do not believe we need to involve Talia any further in this. My niece has suffered enough since her father's death, and without Druun she has little martial power, for the Sabres still refuse to lift what few swords they have. Leave her be and allow her to grieve. Let us solve this Ludlow matter through diplomacy, not violence."
"The Butterfly Lord, fluttering around prettily with his talk of peace but accomplishing nothing," Jacques sneered. "I'll not take any Ludlow to wife, father. Their sire was a peasant from the Halfmoon, did you know? Disgusting. Mud runs in their veins where blood ought to be."
Dominic regarded his son grimly for a moment. He had been listening to his vassals' council in silence, with his grey eyes flitting between each one over his steepled fingers. Only now did he speak. "The follies of my thrice-great-grandsire have seen our family dance far too close mixing with commoners already. I would not have it happen again, any more than I would permit incest."
"All of you have eligible candidates for marriage in your households," Quella Cogworth pointed out. "Lord Rookwood, Lord Thormund, you are both without a wife. Monmoth's son and Desmond Karhall as well. All are of high birth...and so not one of you would consent to this."
Shiera Karhall exhaled a cloud of blue smoke, and stroked her chin. "It would need to be the least of us. The most meager landowner with the least storied family accomplishments. The lowest of all the Western lords."
All at once, everyone sitting around the table turned to look at Kavin Falmar.
The young lord blinked. "Me? But--"
"--but you'd rather be fucking one of your sheep, is it?" Axl Waynrite grunted, provoking a cackle from his nephew Jacques.
"G'wan with yeh, laddie," Sir Jaegar Warthorne, who was Falmar's brother-in-law, crowed as he thumped the slighter man affectionately on the shoulder. "Past time yeh were wedded."
Kavin squirmed in his seat. "I would rather...I mean, Lord Jaster asked me to..."
"I hardly think it matters what that boy asked of you anymore, does it?" The Bloodhawk asked quietly. "It is past time the House of Falmar made itself useful, something it has conspicuously failed to do in the past."
"You're my son's bannerman, Falmar, and you'll do as he commands," Barbery told him imperiously, and Siegfried huffed.
"It is settled then," Dominic continued, ignoring Kavin's feeble protests. "I will arrange a suitable guard. A loyal force, but non-partisan, should be appropriate...we do not wish the Accord to be too alarmed, as they might be if they see a full Blackthorne regiment landing on their shores. You may take Sir Desmond Karhall with you as well, and a small detachment of his own men."
Shiera's long elfin ears pricked up. "My son is occupied with the Knoxes in the Marshlands. He is a knight of prodigious talent, my lord, but even he cannot exist in two places at once."
"He shall not be there for much longer." Dominic's tone was dismissive. "I mean to lead the next attack on the Knox fortification at Dimhollow Mire myself. Sir Dorian Knox holds their last army in that swamp, and once they go down, Three Towers will be defenseless. I care not for fighting a war on two fronts, and I believe the Demons pose a more tangible threat."
"You speak as if you could end the war in a single battle, my lord." Yven Monmoth looked suspicious. "It is no mean feat. Between the marshmen and the orc tribes, the Knoxes have acquired enough native allies to have a significant terrain advantage over our forces. We might throw ten thousand men at them, or a hundred thousand, but the result will be the same."
Orys Waynrite had only heard one part of what his son-in-law had said, and had hyperfocused upon it. "My Lord, if you are to leave the city, I think now would be a most prudent time to choose a Hand." He puffed himself up, stroking his ridiculous chin-beard. "I am father to your bride, and grandfather to your children, and have been ally to both yourself and your father before you. Choose me and--"
The Bloodhawk silenced the old fool with a look. "I have already chosen a Hand."
Surprised looks swept across the room astride the faces of the bannermen. None of them knew. I suppose it is time to introduce myself, the Cardinal thought, and it was then he chose to move from the shadows where he'd been standing alongside the spymaster Sixx.
Lady Manford was the first to understand. "The...the priest? Dominic, you can't be serious..."
"Do I strike you as the kind of man to play some amusing practical joke upon my vassals, Briona?" The Bloodhawk did not wait for an answer but looked to the others. "Some of you may have not met Cardinal Steerpike before. He has been a close ally of mine for some time, although I confess I have not known it until recently."
"How?" Llewys Monmoth had ridden with the Cardinal back to the city, and even he seemed baffled.
Steerpike did not speak, but instead turned and beckoned. Four cloaked shadows moved into the chamber behind him. The Harbingers arranged themselves in formation by their master, and it was then that Sixx stepped forward to join them. He was one of them. He had always been one of them.
"It will be my honor to serve you all," the priest said then, bowing obsequiously, "Just as I serve your liege-lord."
And how the lords muttered amongst themselves then, as if their thoughts mattered, as if they could change this. Too late, Steerpike thought, and he struggled to suppress a grin. Far too late. Did your tall stone houses and your expensive clothes let you think you were any different from the rest of the scum that clings to the skin of the realm, my lords and ladies? You are cattle now. You are insects. My masterstroke is done, and your minds will burn with the light of the One True God whose name is Mordaghast.
"Lord Blackthorne, this cannot be," Orys Waynrite protested weakly,dabbing at his forehead with a handkerchief. "This priest is an Outlander. The West holds to no faith. And those creatures...dare I say it...they are witchcraft."
Yven Monmoth was equally affronted. "We need governance, my lord. We need what is best for the realm, not--"
"What is best for the realm?" Dominic repeated, and when he spoke the room immediately went silent. "I have meditated on that often, and studied it as well, since I was a boy. All of my studies have yielded me an answer. The realm is sick, my lords. The realm is frightened, and weak, and above all unstable."
Outside, the sun had gone behind a cloud, and it seemed in that moment the whole world darkened. Shadows nestled in the recesses of the Bloodhawk's features, and in that second he seemed like something far from human.
"What the realm needs," said Dominic Blackthorne, "is a king."