While we were fighting the Diedne, House Tytalus had seized its moment. Branugurix fell the day after the Battle at Durenmar. The Tytalus opened the Mercere Portal, and my family were invited through. Our mixture of necromancers and tricksters used the vis that had been won in the battle to make the covenant look as if it had not yet been attacked. We repaired the walls. We replanted the fields. We unpoisoned the river. We mind-wiped the mortals. We called up the ghosts of the covenfolk who had died in the battle, We stole their appearances and mannerisms for our assassins. We peeled their minds like fruit, to stage every detail, every point of routine, perfectly.
The Diedne remnants, limped home through the psilos-infested lands. They collapsed into their safe haven. Their casting tokens no longer worked. The friendly faces around them were masks. The sacred grove had been felled. and its wood hewn into a throne. Upon it sat Decimate of Tytalus, and above her towered one of the Cthonic horrors which had assisted in the siege, and eaten the gods of the Diedne. Before her was a great table, where she rendered the bodies of the druids for vis. She caught one of the leadership group, and deliberately spent his Corpus vis on an enormous block of human meat. It sat in the grove, defiling it, as it fed the rats and crows, and the dark giant that held her throne in five of its many, many hands. There are lurid stories of the Cthonic horrors that waged war here, but I saw none of them except this.
Decimate met me at the victory feast, and asked me to see her afterward. She was sitting on her throne.
“Have you puzzled it out?” she asked. She was almost incandescent with happiness. Her monstrous chair bearer rocked her slightly, as if she was a baby in a crib.
“No. Well, parts of it. I’d prefer not to claim to understand everything and then have you laugh at my presumption.”
“What parts do you need explained?”
“Did the War Council sanction the attack on Branugurix?”
“No. My House no longer answers to the War Council. We are, however, on cordial terms with them.”
“Are you the Prima of Tytalus now?”
“Perhaps. I’m not certain I want it for more than a few minutes.”
“I take it from your cryptic tone that you want me to ask, and so I will. What have you done that’s so clever?”
“That’s a very direct and slightly stupid question.” she frowned. Her thing swayed forward, so that she seemed to loom. It was a cheap trick, but slightly disconcerting nevertheless. My professional admiration centred my emotions.
“Pretend I’m Mycetias and you are Tytalus.” I offered.
She smiled. “Very well. This victory gives my House much of France and Germany. Mycetias and Flambeau have been weakened by the War far more than we. Our earlier disadvantage of numbers, due to the culling in the Corruption, is redressed.”
“And that was always the plan? Wait for us to exhaust ourselves and destroy the losing side?”
“So, you’d have been just as happy taking Val Negra?”
“It would have been harder, because of its mystical geography, but yes. We may yet have to, if the Flambeau force us.”
“Why would my House permit that?”
“You don’t have the strength to prevent it. You’ll acquiesce. You still need our assistance against the last of the druids, after all.”
“We could get that aid from the Flambeau.”
“And perhaps you will.” she shrugged. “I’m not saying a war with the Flambeau is inevitable. Their leadership is disgraced and their Mercurian magi are lost. It may be that an accommodation can be reached.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I like you.”
“Why, thank you, but that doesn’t explain anything.”
“You were a friend to my daughter.”
She laughed. “You forget that in this conversation, I’m Tytalus. I do not care which side was right or wrong, in a moral sense. I care that my design is complete. My war is mine. It is, as always, about me.”
“So, you need someone to tell the other Houses that they’ve been outplayed?”
“It will remove the opprobrium that the Flambeau feel toward you over the death of Incendia. It will shift their hatred to me. I am too formidable an opponent for many of them to face, and the few that would prove difficult are my enemies anyway, in this territorial dispute. It cost me nothing.”
“And gives you the joy of explaining to them that they were your puppets.”
“That wasn’t even a question.”
“No. It was not. Is there any other message you need me to take?”
“Oh, minor administrative matters. I’ll give you a packet of documents for the War Council. I know you don’t mind playing the redcap.”
“I give you joy of your victory, Decimata”.
“Joy of the victory, Mirarius.”
The next day, when I travelled to Durenmar to give the packet to the War Council, I asked for an audience with Callidus of Verditus.
“Young man!” he said “Joy of our victories!”
“And joy to you, great craftsman. May I ask an impertinent question?”
“No.” he said, looking shocked.
“Please? It does not reflect negatively on your honour. The reverse in fact. It concerns redressing a slight upon your name.”
Now he looked angry. “Well then clearly you must ask! Pray sit! Take wine!”
“Great Callidus, may I ask: why did the War Council value you less than Incendia?”
“Oh, politics, you know…”
“Truly? She was a powerful maga, of course, but surely she was not of greater value than you?”
“Well.” he said, and stopped. I could see the strain in him. The flaw of pride that burns in all who learn his style of magic was working in his soul. I could see it cutting him for his silence. I pressed on.
“Which Councillors think you worth less than a minor Flambeau maga?”
“I cannot speak of it!”
“Who told her she was next on the triage list?”
He broke. “I did. It was all my idea.” I later learned that the first part of this was true, and the second vanity. No matter.
“Thank you. Did she actually die, or was she swapped out?”
“No, she died. The Flambeau had to have an absolutely convincing reason to leave.”
“That wasn’t the plan though, was it?”
“It was my version of the plan.”
“Had I died, House Mycetias would have marched off, supposedly to Bohemia.”
“Yes, but I always hoped you’d win. You were right, you see? They were to blame for the lost battle.”
“I see. Did the War Council agree to this?”
“Yes. well, not the part with my talisman, that was all my own design. You did offer to commit suicide.”
“Offered to commit suicide? Not in so many words/ She was a warrior.”
“How was she chosen? Why her?”
“She’d insulted the wrong people.”
“As simple as that?”
“As simple as that. House Flambeau was given their choice.”
“Who chose me?”
“You chose you. You offered to commit suicide.”
“Was I chosen before or after Decimata healed me?”
“I don’t know. After, I think.”
“Did Decimata know?”
“So you gave her this idea? To heal me?”
“I might have done. I can’t speak of it.” Again, a lie, I later discovered.
“Thank you great crafter, for making me your tool in this. An excellent device, which served its purpose well. Joy of your victory!” Really, Verditus magi are so easy to get along with provided you don’t have any of the sort of arrogance so common among magi. They know you are buttering them up, and they love you for it.
“Joy of my victory indeed. Thank you, Mirarius.”
My family was having a small dinner, and it was relatively private, so I asked my father “Who is holding the strings, father? I don’t mind being a puppet as necessary, but my professional interest is piqued. I never saw the trick until it had been played.”
“Which trick, my son?” he asked.
“Who convinced Decimata to heal me, so that I’d fight a surplus Flambeau maga?”
“I’m certain I don’t understand what you mean.” he answered.
“Mirarius.” said my sister, “You’re looking for someone who isn’t there.”
“How do you mean?”
“There isn’t a great trickster. You want there to be a single person pulling the strings because you find intricacy sublime. You are seeing connections that aren’t there, because a single vast deception would be beautiful.”
I laughed “That’s true.”
My father frowned “Hundreds of magi are dead. Anyone who had a hand in this, regardless of their intent, will scarce survive the end of the war.”
I nodded to him, to acknowledge his point, but queried my sister. “How do you know there’s no grand trickster?’
“I was the one who convinced Decimata to heal you. It didn’t take a lot of effort. She had a soft spot for you, and, as we now know, it suited her other plans.”
“So, you had her heal me. Then Callidus had the idea of having either Incendia or I die, and the losing House heading off…”
My father interrupted. “Callidus? No. I presume he took responsibility himself?”
“Yes. Do you accept this?”
“Obedience is the highest virtue. So, after that it all follows quite simply.”
“Yes.” my sister answered “Decimata, Callidus and the two Primi may all claim that they planned this from the beginning, but I know they didn’t. There was no plan. There’s no trick. There’s no reveal. There really is just one thing happening after another.”
I slouched a little and she laughed at me “By the wolf, you’re disappointed!”
I smiled “A little. I’d have liked to shake the hand that pulled the strings.”
She offered hers “I am the closest you’ll find, my brother.”
“Joy of your victory, Scipa.”
“Joy of the victory, Mirarius.”
The next day, I took ship for Stonehenge. Small Diedne covenants were being destroyed throughout Europe. There was a single place of power left to them, on Anglesey.