Note: This piece was co-written with Ant, the player playing General Valckenburgh in the campaign, who told me what the general would say. I kept everything he wanted to say, but not necessarily in the same order!!!!
Remas, Palazzo Montini (Official Residence of the Arch-lector of Morr), Winter 2403-4
General Jan Valckenburgh had entered the audience chamber accompanied by only one companion, Captain Wallenstein of his cuirassiers. Several of the arch-lector’s palace guards were stationed about the room’s periphery – at least two of them accompanied him at all times – but the only other person present was his holiness Bernado Ugolini himself. The absence of clerks, priests or advisers was intended to give the impression that the meeting was a private affair.
His holiness was seated upon a heavy and large chair, beside a long table. After greeting the two Marienburgers, he invited Valckenburgh to sit upon the only other chair. He made a fuss over ascertaining whether another chair ought to be brought for the captain, but Wallenstein said he preferred to stand.
It was late afternoon and sunlight poured almost horizontally through the windows to fashion a sedate shadow play from the halberdier guards, an effect engendered by the room’s stark and sparse decoration. Unlike most palazzos with their fantastical frescos and fine friezes, here the walls were plain, white-painted plaster. There were several hanging carpets of intricate designs placed at regular intervals, each woven with the exact same, geometric pattern. As such, they only added to the ambience of calm, meditative reflection.
All of this was deliberate. Upon election, the arch-lector had ordered the Palazzo Montini’s garish walls and ceilings painted over, and the removal of nearly every statue, golden candelabra, painting and rug. He wanted his palace both to reflect and magnify the thoughtful serenity he yearned to achieve. And he had much thinking to do!
“I am very pleased that at last we meet, good general,” began the arch-lector. “I know full well what you have achieved in the south, your army single-handedly defeating Khurnag’s several forces and so preventing their further cruel incursions. I also know the prejudice of so many Tileans, and the unwarranted suspicions they harbour concerning your presence. Yet here you are now, in answer to both mine and Lord Alessio’s calls, with no obvious reward beyond knowing you will serve with the living against our greatest enemy. And yes, I am aware that even upon your journey northwards you were subject to slanderous slurs and entirely false accusations of plunder and murder. Yet even then you were willing to put aside your righteous anger, forsaking the opportunity to attain entirely justifiable revenge, and continue your march.”
“Indeed, your holiness,” said the general. “Some duties lie above all others, above our personal wants and desires. You, as a man of cloth, know this well. My duties here in Tilea rise above the slanders of petty burghers, and so we move past them.”
Referring to Duke Guidobaldo Gondi, princely ruler of one of the most important city states in Tilea, as a ‘petty burgher’, was an extraordinary slur which the arch-lector must surely have noticed. Yet he gave no hint of displeasure. Perhaps he understood the extreme bitterness the general rightly felt as a consequence of Guidobaldo’s actions, and so recognised the relatively impressive level of self-control required to limit the inevitable anger to such words alone?
“Although it may seem inappropriate for me to do so,” said Bernado, “for I am not the party who wronged you, nevertheless I wish to offer Tilea’s apology, being that of my own beloved flock, the followers of the three gods and the vast majority of the citizens and subjects of the realm. Duke Guidobaldo is but one man, howsoever many flaws he possesses, and I would not have you think badly of the entire realm because of his unforgiveable actions.”
The general nodded, graciously. “Thus I have discovered, your holiness. Many who dwell in this bountiful land have proved themselves most worthy and I sincerely hope to aid the nobles and the mother church restore peace and prosperity.”
“Your help is much appreciated, good general,” said the arch-lector. “I fully accept that there must be consequences for Duke Guidobaldo’s actions. Yet I see now that you can look beyond his crimes to the greater danger; that you recognise the need to deal with other, much more terrible threats than Guidobaldo’s dishonourable conduct. His actions will not be forgotten, nor forgiven – I do assure you. You have my word, General Valckenburgh, that when this war is won, I will consult with you concerning what procedures should be initiated and what recompense ought to be demanded of the duke.”
The general nodded, but it was the captain behind him who spoke.
“The army’s officers will be glad to hear that promise, your holiness. Knowing that past wrongs are to be righted will help them to concentrate upon that which must concern them now.”
“I should expect this promise will help all your soldiers in the battles to come,” offered the arch-lector. “I would not want them suspicious of their Tilean allies, especially when the lives of both hang in the balance.”
General Valckenburgh smiled. “You can put that worry from your mind, your holiness. We have many a Tilean in our army, from the lowliest sapper to the Lady Luccia la Fanciulla, the bearer of our Myrmidian standard, so we know Tileans can be honourable and brave. As for Duke Guidobaldo, I am satisfied with your suggestions. He can be suitably censured by the church when the great troubles are resolved, and until then it is a waste of all our efforts to pursue the matter. I would, however, hope your churchmen will use their influence to remind the more insular of their Pavonan flock that we are all allies against the terrible enemy.”
The arch-lector gave a wry smile. “I will instruct exactly that, but I would not get your hopes up concerning the sermonising of my Pavonan priests. They have certain schismatic tendencies, encouraged by the duke himself.”
“So, we’re not the only ones to be troubled by the duke’s games?” asked the captain.
“No, captain,” said the arch-lector. “Few who have had any dealings with Guidobaldo come away entirely unscathed. Yet … I know this can be no consolation to you, nor do I suggest it should, but I would at least have you know that his son, Lord Silvano, is cut from a very different cloth than that of his father. I believe him to be honourable to a fault. Indeed, such is his proper obedience, his lack of selfishness and guile, that I doubt he can even see his own father’s faults. Lord Silvano has faced many enemies, remaining steadfastly true to his word, and even when defeated and pursued from the field, he yet returns willingly to fight again. Even his own men hid their treachery from him when the ogres were attacked at Viadaza – presumably they knew he would order them to desist if he learned their intentions. I have supped and marched with him, witnessed his bravery in battle, and I believe I know him well. Let not the sins of the father be visited upon the son.”
The general sighed. “Lord Silvano has without doubt demonstrated his bravery,” he said, “and his loyalty to his family is without question. Yet, your holiness, I advise caution, for he could be more dangerous than his father. Cunning and bravery combined make for a great prince – one all others should be most wary of.”
“Cunning?” asked the arch-lector.
“What we see is what Lord Silvano wants us to see. How better to avoid all censure for a mutiny than to appear not only ignorant of it but also to have very convenient proof of one’s own absence while it occurred? And think how well it serves his father that he can gain grateful friends for the princely heir of Pavona even while his father continues heinous crimes?”
“You think his very character is mere pretence?” asked the arch-lector, a note of incredulity evident in his tone.
“I cannot know for certain, your holiness. But it has proven very convenient for his father. I spoke at length to Lord Silvano and found him far too eloquent to be considered a naive youth, and too keen to present his father’s numerous misdeeds in a good light to be entirely honest. His excuses and justifications were neatly crafted, like a lawyer’s speech before a judge. He appeared to be more of a skilful, even duplicitous diplomat than, as you suggest, a guileless youth.”
The arch-lector nodded slowly. “I shall keep your words in mind, good general, upon future occasions,” he said. Changing tack, he asked, “What do you know of the tyrant Boulderguts’ whereabouts?”
“Little that is certain, which troubles me. I have learned what is commonly said to be the case but have no way of knowing if it is true. It was this consideration that led me to follow my elected route of march, being farther east than I might otherwise have traveled, in the hope that I could intercept the ogres if they attempted to skirt Lord Alessio’s army. And although my army’s scouts are adequate to the task of supporting a marching column, I lack the numbers required to scour the entire eastern reaches of Tilea.”
The arch-lector nodded. “For brutes they have proved to be a surprisingly nimble foe, and slippery to boot. However, my advisers are unanimously of the opinion that Boulderguts has departed Tilea, making his way across the mountain passes to the Border Princes, whence he came. Reports from the vicinity of the Via Nano confirm this. Still, this does not mean he no longer presents a threat. We must not be careless, for he could return to seek plunder where he found so much before – a prospect that can only grow more likely as time passes and his haul of loot diminishes. At present, however, we must contend with new robbers. No doubt you have heard how the Sartosans have brutally raped Luccini? It is almost certain they have their eyes set upon more prizes, especially as every city state is either sapped of strength by the ongoing wars or unprotected because their armies have marched north. I heard that their commander, Volker, is a Marienburger? Is this true?”
“Of course, I’ve [i]heard[/i] of Volker,” answered the general. “And it does seem likely he hails from Marienburg. The VMC is a merchant company. As such, we make a point of learning what we can of all pirates, especially if they might prove detrimental to our enterprises. But I have never dealt personally with this particular one. As is so often the case, he was probably a mere sea artist or mate, rather than a captain or merchant, who mutinously turned to piracy. Not the sort of fellow I would know.”
“By your leave, general?” asked the captain.
“Speak your mind,” said Valckenburgh.
The captain turned to the arch-lector. “I do no doubt, your holiness, the Sartosans could be more than a mere thorn in our side, and that while Boulderguts lives he too remains a threat, but surely the vampire duchess presents the most immediate and greatest danger? No-one would happily turn their back on the Sartosans, but do we have a choice?”
“I do not believe we do,” said the arch-lector. “The pirates should be scattered for years to come by just one powerful blow, and in time that will be done I am sure. Much more than that is needed to rid Tilea of the undead. Despite defeating them several times, their evil only grows. For them, all our victories have proved to be nothing more than minor setbacks. They never want for soldiers and they know no fear, for they are blasphemy made flesh by foul conjurations.”
There was a moment’s silence as the arch-lector became lost in thought, a frown fixed upon his face, his eyes glazing as if he no longer saw the others in the room.
“Your holiness,” said the general. “My army can help to contain them, in the field or in their fastnesses, but only the church or colleges have the power to provide any lasting answer. Weight of numbers is sufficient merely to check their further advances, and that only for a time. We have need of holy intervention or arcane magics if we are truly to destroy them. Either that or the aid of great heroes of legend.”
“The latter I am afraid we lack, despite a crowd of great villains. Even an army of cultists, painfully dedicated in body and soul to Morr, failed against them. I not only pray for guidance daily, but have consulted the wisest maestros and wizards Remas has to offer. Only yesterday I met with Angelo da Leoni, who spoke concerning the manifestation and magnification of purifying flames to burn the vampires’ armies, their leaders amongst them, unto their very core, obliterating even the wicked spirits possessing their bodily frames, yet finally admitting his want of the necessary ingredients for such, and great doubt concerning whether such could ever be successfully and safely brought to bear.”
“An answer is needed, your holiness. Otherwise all our sacrifices might prove to be in vain. And this is not all we must contend with. Lord Alessio has sent word to me twice of Skaven sightings – armies, he said, although apparently small.”
The arch-lector nodded gravely. “It is true,” he said. “I have received the same intelligence from Captain Soldatovya, commanding the Remans who march with the Portomaggiorans. He himself saw one of the tunnel mouths and his own scouts saw one of the armies. Small, as you say. Perhaps nothing more than a raiding party? Or the ragged remnant of some faction fleeing a far-off civil war?”
“You have reason to think so?” asked the general.
“No, good general, I only have hope that it is so. If they are the vanguard for something bigger then their arrival could be the last straw for Tilea.”
“They are vile threat,” spat Valckenburgh, his particular hate for them being obvious. “Much worse than orcs, perhaps more so than the ogres and undead. They’re an insidious and infectious foe who must be purged in all instances.”
Perhaps the arch-lector was reminded of a certain predecessor’s infamous pact with the ratto uomo? If so, he hid it well, simply saying, “I have tasked several scholars with looking into how we beat them in ages past.”
The captain almost laughed.
“I wonder,” he asked, “Back then, were the Tileans fighting ogres, vampires and Sartosans as well as the ratmen?”