The first replies to the messages Astolfo had sent out had come in, and they were quite promising. The Ancients of Talossa, the Twelve Worthies of Cornigla, the Venerable Masters of Cazlona--all three bodies promised support in the near future. Which from those old, and rather stodgy Republics was an exceedingly good sign.
Of course in the end, the Ancients and the Worthies and the Masters were nothing but merchants with pretensions. The true mark of success was the good wishes of his fellow peers, and this he had in abundance. From Serricana, from Orgagna, from Montfort, from battered Carrarra, even from swaying Bellamarina and dubious Druantuna the letters came--oaths of support and loyalty, promises of spears, and men. The Duke of Monleone had been adroitly isolated, and would be destroyed, following which the traitorous House of Lasliaz would be destroyed at Montalban.
“Sir,” came the wheedling voice of the Prince’s spy, that little creature Jernis as he loped into the tent. “Message from the pickets you sent out, sir.” Astolfo glanced up at the revolting little fellow, waiting for his big, blotchy companion to appear. And sure enough, he did--Razalic, all brute strength where his fellow was slyness and bestial cunning. A fox and a wolf, thought Astolfo to himself. What interesting pets the Prince keeps. Thoughts like that came easier when you weren’t around the Prince, but far from him, with your own men about you.
“Then tell it to me, if you know it,” said Astolfo bluntly, rising from his desk. Words like that also came easier, when the Prince was not around.
“He wouldn’t tell none but you, sir,” said Jernis smiling broadly, revealing those awful teeth of his. “Said it was for the commander’s ears only.”
Astolfo frowned and nodded. “Very well then. Take me to him.” The pair turned and sidled off, while Astolfo followed. He wondered, briefly if Razalic had offered to bring the commander’s ears to the picket himself in a bag this time. Having to constantly tell his men not to kill the Prince’s Men was proving quite irritating.
I will have to talk to the Nestors, after this campaign. He smiled slightly to himself. Perhaps get in touch with the Leonais… Prince Amfortas was a great man, but he was becoming… distracted. Mislead by those around him. Which meant he needed men around him of a better sort. And who better than the Peers of the Free Cities?
At least--the loyal ones.
The picket stood there by his horse, visibly sweating as Astolfo approached. While it might have been from exertion, Astolfo rather doubted that. It was after all very cold out. No, this was fear. “You have news for me?” Astolfo declared briskly.
The young man nodded swiftly. “Your Grace… I… You wanted me to keep an eye out for Duke Agrivain’s army…” He gulped. “Well… it’s… here, sir. It’s… here.” He gestured to the southeast.
Astolfo nodded and glanced at his grooms. “Saddle some horses. I wish to look at this army myself.” The men quickly got to work, and soon produced four steeds. It seemed to Astolfo that his was rather bony as he mounted--but then what could be expected when you fought in autumn. And when the army that proceeded you stripped the ground bare. Astolfo shook his head, and glanced at Jernis and Razalic clumsily getting on their own horses. Oh, yes, the Prince was definitely going to be encouraged to keep a better sort around himself.
They passed quickly through devastated, brown fields of trampled grass and ravaged wheat, until they reached the vantage point the picket had held. Sure enough, the army of Agrivain was there, the silver lion of Monleone in the air. But that was not the only banner.
Some were banners that Astolfo’s father had told him of, some from Uton’s memory, others from dim legend. The Cthoniques’ strange and terrible banner, the prisoner snapping his chains. The Wolf’s head banners of their horrible savage servants from the Waste. The grey eagle of the Mongrane--that one was a surprise. But not as surprising as the other banners he saw there.
The white ship of Bellamarina. The green serpent of Druantuna. The winged horse of Carrarra. The antlion of Orgagna. The seahorse of Serricana. The scales of Cazlona. The keys of Cornigla. The bells of Talossa. And even the great tower of Montfort.
“Seven help us,” he whispered. “We’re betrayed. Only Agrismont and Monteriano remain loyal. The rest of the Free Cities… have leagued with the Lands of Night.”