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Andronicus Valois, Leader of the Coalition, Savior of Europa, known to the people as The Storm King, rested his chin upon his folded arms, leaned against the chilly stone battlements of Sturmhalten Castle and allowed himself a moment of loathing.

He loathed this cold, miserable mountain air, as opposed to his beloved Provance.

He loathed this raw pile of rock he’d had to hastily erect as his base of operations. It was hard and sharp, so unlike The Palace of Enlightenment he’d built over the last eight years, with its magnificent gardens and its ten thousand windows.

He loathed the mud and the grime and the blood and the smoke he’d lived with for the last three years. At night he dreamed of the Grotto of Ruby Pools where he’d had his last decent bath before he rode out.

He loathed this… well, to be honest, he actually preferred the clothing. The simple linen shirt and leather pants were ever so much more comfortable than the traditional royal regalia, what with its starched collars and multiple layers of waistcoats. It had been a revelation the first time he’d been able to remove his trousers without having to start unbuttoning himself a half an hour previously.

He sighed. A trap of his own making, that. If he was to keep his courtiers and their pet monsters preoccupied with harmless trivialities like fashion, than he had to be willing to be the exemplar they tried to imitate.

He thought about it, and decided that on the whole, he’d wear the damned clothing in exchange for peace.

He would have to do something about those trouser buttons though.

On the eastern plain below, he could see the assembled forces of the Heterodyne. Now them, he could loath without reservation. In the dim, pre-dawn light, several thousand campfires sparkled off of armor, weapons and engines of war.

Suddenly, one of the Heterodyne’s great war mammoths shrieked, its call reverberating between the mountain peaks. That would probably set the rest of them off.

It was said that one of the Heterodyne’s allies was trying to breed the beasts down to the size where they could be ridden like horses. An intriguing thought.

Sure enough, several dozen of the brutes began screaming. Andronicus wondered if it was true that the things really were part rooster. Well, it’s not like anyone in either camp was sleeping.

Even now various units of the Heterodyne’s armies were performing some odd form of close order drill, and the great furnaces and alchemical pavilions were still roaring and sparking, sending up billows of sickeningly sour smoke.

Some would consider that a bad sign, since the two sides were supposed to formally sign a treaty declaring an end to the fighting this day. But, ever since the Thinkomancer Bludtharst Heterodyne and his army of monstrosities had boiled up out of the East, he had played a heavy-handed game, psychologically. He relied on fear and the stories of atrocities he’d visited upon those who had dared to defy him to weaken his enemy’s resolve. Often to good effect, although this time, he had overplayed his hand.

The ruined ground between the Heterodyne’s camp and the castle walls showed ample evidence of the last few years of fighting. Craters, torn earth, and the twisted remains of destroyed engines littered the ground. When the horns announced the dawn and twilight cessation of battle, clearing them had been deemed unimportant compared to removing the dead and the wounded.

Even that seemingly obvious courtesy had been hard fought for. The Coalition had learned the hard way that you didn’t allow The Heterodyne to collect your dead. Towards the end, the battlefields had been all but swept. Even so, Valois noted that there was evidently still sufficient material to draw the interest of a vast flock of ravens, which covered the battlefield like a dark blanket, feeding.

Without conscious effort, he again analyzed the all-too-familiar terrain as well as the size of the forces before him—until, with an impatient shake of his head, he dismissed the calculations. After today, he’d no longer need them.

He allowed himself a small smile. Oh, no doubt, there’d be…difficulties. There always were with alliance marriages, and the Heterodynes had been unchecked for centuries, rampaging over much of Eastern Europa. He suspected they would not knuckle under smoothly.

The problem had been he had been a bit too successful in his campaign to domesticate the Thinkomancers of Western Europa. As a result of his efforts, everyone had known that a relatively cushy position for them and their patrons could be easily found at the Palace of Enlightenment, and they had flocked to him.

It had even been easy finding ways to keep them busy. Building roads and ports, designing sanitation and communication systems sounded deadly dull, but when presented in the right spirit of competition, and lavishly rewarded for success, the results were amazing.

Of course there was the expected percentage of grotesque errors of judgment, but they were usually put to good use, just not as they were envisioned.

A good system. But it had never been designed for the Heterodyne. He didn’t want trinkets, respect, and a fancy title, he was already a ruler of his own empire.

He didn’t want to just conquer the neighboring village, he wanted to conquer everything, and then dance on the bones. He was bad for business.

But the Heterodynes had done too good a job of letting people know just how terrible they were. Once it was obvious that their armies were crossing the Carpathian Mountains en masse, it had been relatively easy to assemble forces to fight them. The trick had been convincing the fat merchants in Brussels and Amsterdam, who thought they had all of Western Europa to hide behind, that they were in more danger than they dreamed.

Tricky, but displaying a few of Bludtharst Heterodyne’s captured troops had been an exciting and effective visual aid, especially when they had “accidently” escaped, and torched a few warehouses before they were taken down.

After that, the governments, and even more importantly, the great financial houses of the West, had given their support. With their backing, he’d been able to gather almost every fighter between here and the Atlantic, as well as the madboys they controlled.

Thus, even the Heterodynes, after throwing everything they had for over two years against the fortress Andronicus had ordered built here in Balan’s Gap, had realized that they could not win.

It had taken another year of negotiation, punctuated with assorted treachery and attacks of opportunity of course, but those had been expected, and Sturmhalten had held firm. So had Valois, who had not risen to the bait and tried to counter-attack.

He snorted in amusement, certainly the final terms were ones he had never dreamed of when he had first sat across from the Heterodynes’ negotiators, but the enemy was not the only one to grasp an opportunity.

The particular opportunity he had in mind was Euphrosynia, the beautiful daughter of Clemethious Heterodyne, and Bludtharst’s own sister.

Andronicus had first seen her by accident at an early parlay meeting. He had been struck by her appearance and her obvious intelligence even before he had known who she was.

In the year since then, the two had carried on a covert correspondence, aided by discreet diplomats. As a result, when Valois had added the taking of Euphrosynia in marriage as the final part of the treaty, he had been confident that she would come willingly.

Oh, there had been screams of rage from her father, of course, accompanied by a brief rain of burning tar. Apparently the girl had been promised to one of the Heterodyne’s allies, and he didn’t have many to spare.

But eventually the Heterodynes had relented, old Clemethius gave his blessing, and the treaty was approved.

And today was the day of the wedding, at which the Treaty of Sturmhalten would be signed, formally ending the conflict, and everybody could go home in time for the spring planting.

This was why Andronicus was up this morning, after a sleepless night, watching and waiting.

He realized that he felt… jumpy. He’d felt more and more like that lately. Usually he was only nervous like this during the actual fighting.

Once oafs started running at each other screaming, they could take the most simple battle plan and make a hash of it within thirty seconds. But the whole point of it all was to make things so bloody, unpleasant and pointless that even a crazed despot would be willing to negotiate in order to make it stop.

That’s what he lived for. Strategy, diplomacy, negotiating. The delicious art of the back room deal. But lately, it had all felt… wrong somehow.

If this was what love did to one’s head…

A soft scraping sound behind him caused him to spin, his hand going to his sword—

He stopped short. He hadn’t even heard them arrive, and they had undoubtedly made the noise just to let him know they were present.

Arrayed before him were The Muses. It was unusual to see all nine of them in one place, in a motionless, glittering tableaux.

The King scowled. He’d been avoiding them for weeks. They stared back at him silently. A wind began to rise along with the sun, ruffling the great feathers of Otilia’s wings.

Damn van Rijn! Why hadn’t he built the blasted things with a way to shut them down that didn’t entail taking them apart? The old fool had made such a damned spectacle about it when he presented them, that now, whenever Valois opened his mouth, everyone looked to see if they agreed with him!

They were supposed to be these fabulous, mechanical advisors, but bugger him sideways if they made sense half the time. Granted, when they did, they were usually spot on, but all too often they just spun pointless stories, or played music, or showed him one of those devilish cards.

They’d been… clearer when there was fighting to be done. Orotine’s maps had made developing strategy seem like child’s play. But these days, when he was juggling a hundred and a half treaties and coalitions—if he spent too much time with them, his head just started to ache. Their latest pronouncements had been the final straw.

As if reading his thoughts—which he wouldn’t put past them—the non-twins, Mawu and Liza, stepped forward and spoke in perfect unison. “Storm King. You are about to make a great mistake. This marriage will not cement your alliance, but rather, will destroy it.” They then stood silent, their black and white robes fluttering in the breeze.

Andronicus blinked. What they had said was hardly a surprise, but the way they’d been hinting, and suggesting and being so damned subtle and oracular about it for so long—Andronicus was surprised that they could just come out and say it plain and simple.

Maybe he could talk to them like normal people. Clanks. Whatever. “You don’t know that. You’re just guessing.”

They all turned to the Muse, Prende, who had, as always, been examining the large, hypnotically intricate, gold wire sphere she carried. Andronicus sighed. Not another obtuse parable about courtly love—

With a smooth movement, the Muse brought her hands together, collapsing the sphere down to the size of an orange. “Euphrosynia Heterodyne is not in love with you, my King. She is working as her father’s cat’s-paw to sabotage the coalition.”

Andronicus felt like he was dreaming. These were the same blank porcelain faces staring back at him, but they were actually talking sense.

“What proof do you have?”

Prende paused, and glanced at the other Muses. “No physical proof, your Majesty.”

Valois slammed his hand down upon a parapet. “Then this is useless! I cannot refuse to marry her for no reason! Especially after I insisted I marry her in the first place! This marriage is the lynch-pin of the whole treaty!”

“Indeed it is,” said Artimo, closing her book with a thump, “And whose idea was that?”

Andronicus opened his mouth and then paused. The negotiations at that point had been delightfully complicated, but surely he had wanted…

All of a sudden he could understand things that had not been clear before… He had been manipulated. He could feel it.

Suddenly there was the moan of hundreds of horns and the pounding of the great saurian skull drums from the Heterodyne camp. Andronicus looked down and saw the wedding procession emerging from Bludtharst’s easily spotted tent.

He turned back to the Muses. “I can’t refuse the marriage. Even if you are correct. I can’t!”

Artimo nodded. “But at least you are now aware that caution is required.”

Andronicus snorted. “I’ll be bedding a Heterodyne. Caution goes without saying.” He sighed. “But I’ll take little enough enjoyment from it now.” He glared at the assembled clanks. “Damn you! Damn you all! Now you have to talk sensibly! If you’d explained this to me weeks—days ago—I might have been able to do something!”

“We could not!” Otilia said flatly. “We would have… damaged ourselves by speaking this plainly before now.”

“Otilia is correct,” Artimo agreed. “We were designed to teach you, to inspire you, to help you make the correct decisions. We cannot lead you. We cannot force you. We cannot rule you.”

Andronicus thought about this. “That’s… good to know, I suppose. So why tell me this now?”

Suddenly, there was a clattering upon the stairs and a squad of Storm Knights, led by Hugomont, his aide-de-camp, were there. The man shrugged apologetically. Valois waved it off, the old fellow had done wonders, Andronicus had easily had almost fifteen minutes to himself.

Hugomont spoke. “Your Majesty! The Heterodynes are approaching! You must prepare!”

The Storm King nodded, squared his shoulders and allowed himself to be led away to his destiny.

The Muses watched him leave, and then, as one, swiveled about to look down upon the approaching procession.

“Because, my King,” Artimo said softly, “It is too late to change anything.”

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