Nimue had cut through the commotion by ordering the duke of Caledor to be captured and interrogated. Afterwards she had invited both Neleh and the grand magus of Saphery to her office for a more private discussion. She was one of the few beings who had any idea about the reasons behind Neleh’s actions. She had heard about the impeding threat, and knew Neleh’s ultimate goal was to deal with that. Even then she had trouble following Neleh’s actions sometimes. She also knew Neleh would not want to harm the elven people, and she also knew that Neleh was aware of the polarized situation and unrest she was creating. Yet there must be some plan at play.
“Can you give me a better explanation about your actions?” Nimue asked the grand magus. She was more curious about the actions of Neleh, but she knew it would be better to get the grand magus out of the room first.
The grand magus was silent for a while, trying to gather his thoughts and to come up with the best way to explain. “We have known for a while that Jao’e’Tinukai, and more specifically Duchess Neleh are at the cutting edge of magical research currently. Not just the cutting edge either. Instead of the snail’s pace of improvement before her, after she appeared the whole of magical advancement has been done by her and those working with her. For a supposed haven of mages like Saphery, this is both very alluring and a complete disaster.
It’s exciting for us to see the boundaries of magic expanded, and Jao’e’Tinukai has certainly done that. We would also like to part of that. On the other hand, the focus of magic and the creation of magical equipment in Jao’e’Tinukai is a massive drain on our wealth, as they have taken our place as the biggest source of magic. This especially caused issues with our late duke, as he was more interested in prestige and wealth that we had lost than the advancement of magic. When Caledor made their move, our duke wanted to take advantage of the situation by joining forces with them, but we managed to stop that. We know our future lies with Jao’e’Tinukai, instead of fighting them, so we had to take action to facilitate that. Our old duke would’ve led us to ruin.” The grand magus explained their reasoning.
“Even if I will accept your decision of joining with Jao’e’Tinukai, there’s still the matter of slaying your liege lord, even if it was necessary. You do realize that there will be an investigation and punishment, right?” Nimue asked, already realizing what the result would most likely be.
“We know that, and will cooperate. However, we will stick to the decision we have made. Even if you assigned someone else as the duke and rejected our decision, that new duke would meet the same fate.” The grand magus said with a level voice.
“That sounds dangerously like a threat and rebellion.” Nimue said, narrowing her eyes.
“I’m simply stating the facts. We feel really strongly about this decision, and I’m informing you of the consequences of trampling on our conviction. Of course it is not something I would ever repeat in public.” The grand magus replied facing Nimue’s stare.
Nimue was quiet for a moment. “I’ll take your words into consideration. You can go now. I will have to discuss further with this trouble maker of a Chosen.” She finally said, giving a wave of dismissal to the grand magus, who sighed with relief when he left.
After he was gone, Nimue turned to Neleh with a wry grimace. “See the kind of trouble you keep causing me? Is this really how you should treat your old teacher?” She asked sarcastically.
“Oh come now, you hate being bored. I’m simply doing my best for your continued entertainment and good health. On the positive side, you have to admit there is a lot less people plotting against you, since they’re so busy plotting against me.” Neleh replied with a grin.
“Yeah, and instead I have to deal with an empire rapidly being divided into two camps. Being bored is really not a problem I’m in danger of facing. Enough of this charade, what are you planning? Are you really trying to form a fourth kingdom? I can make an educated guess as to the reason why, but I’d rather hear the proper explanation in your own words.” Nimue demanded rather forcefully.
Neleh thought for a small moment. “It’s not really a case of trying to create a kingdom, but that’s not entirely wrong either. I intend to forge the elves into a weapon to be used against the Enemy. We will need the other races, but I’m afraid we will be forced into doing the heavy lifting. I started with Jao’e’Tinukai, and now that I’ve got my duchy properly started on the path, I’m expanding my scope. The faster I get other areas started, the better the effects will be when the storm hits. I can’t fight a war with just one duchy.”
“I have a host of questions, and you aren’t going anywhere until I get some answers. Let’s start with the obvious, why elves? I’ve seen enough of you to know that you could try to form another race into a weapon. The dragons would most likely be a stronger option. The demons are also already a powerful and warlike race.” Nimue started her questioning.
“For two reasons, neither of which will probably make you too happy. Firstly, because I already have a position among the elves to use to my advantage. I could go to the demons, and use my strength to make a position for myself, but that would waste a lot of time, and time is something that we have only so much to waste. Secondly, because the elves fit my purposes. The dragons might be stronger, but they are less suited for the kind of changes I am making. Elves are already relatively strong, but more importantly they are most likely the race that has the most to gain from my ideas and plans. Elves are the race that will improve the most with my help. It’s not like there’s no benefit for the elves as a result of the changes, and I am an elf as well. I might not be the most patriotic elf around, but I still like to see my race succeed.” Neleh finished with a smile.
“Fair enough. We have talked about the other races before, and I remember about the naga and the promise you got from the celestials. What about the others? The last time we talked, you said you’re waiting for opportunities. Have any come up?” Nimue asked.
“That’s still a work in progress. There is one change though. I…have a reason to believe that we are about to…shall we say get some help. If that help has any relations with who I’m thinking about, then that help might solve our problems with the demons. We’ll have to take some steps to force a peace between the beastmen and humans soon though. Their continued war is becoming a problem.” Neleh sighed.
“That sounded really vague. I’m sensing that you’re really dancing around the subject.” Nimue said narrowing her eyes again.
“Ask Elune if you want to know more. She might tell you, she might not. Next question.” Neleh replied firmly.
“Have it your way. I will find out soon enough. As for the peace between the humans and beastmen, we might have more success if we invite several races to the negotiation table. With the support of naga and faeries, we should be able to force a solution. The celestials should also support anything that results in a truce.” Nimue mused out loud.
“We might as well try and make a round table like that a permanent thing, since negotiations like this will become more important in the future. I’m a little worried about the demons until the help I mentioned is ready to be used.” Neleh replied.
“I’ll see what we can manage. The celestials should jump at the idea if I present it to their ambassador. On to other things. If you’re not trying to create a fourth kingdom and you simply want to expand your reach, how far are you trying to expand? This situation is already problematic, and will become even more so if you keep this up.” Nimue asked gingerly.
“This will do for now. The little county we absorbed accepted our rule easily, but the two duchies will be a little more difficult, even if the mages of Saphery are all for it. I was a little worried about how the people of Caledor will take things, seeing as we just killed a lot of their family members. Even if we are going to make things a lot better for them, they would still resent us for those deaths. Luckily the duke made things easy for me. With his activities with the Pleasure Cults, I can throw all the responsibility on him. I can pretend to be the innocent victim of the ambitions of the mad duke. I’ll shed tears for their losses and pretend to be their savior that will lead them into a better future, regretful for the loss of ‘innocent’ lives thrown to waste by the evil duke. The purge of the cults should help the narrative.” Neleh mused, refining the planned narrative as she spoke.
Nimue gave a small shudder. As the empress, she had gotten all too familiar with the calculating nature of nobility, but something about the ease with which Neleh planned spin things to the public still surprised her. Neleh was seen among the populace as warm and caring, noble and fierce. The truth was a little different from reality, as it always was. The difference was simply especially stark in Neleh’s case. Deep down Nimue sensed that Neleh would be able to throw away their whole race to bring victory against the Enemy. The worst part was that she also knew that to be a necessary attitude. Neleh most likely knew that better than anyone, which is why she could take such a stance.
She quietly imagined Neleh as a soldier standing on a wall, as a bulwark against the hordes of enemies. Someone that the public would judge if the truth was known, but someone they all secretly needed and wanted on that wall. They might be forced into judging her later, when the storm had passed, but they would only be able to do so due to her actions. They would ask her to save them, and then judge her for the way she did it when the danger passed.
Yet she also realized that Neleh did improve the lives of those living under her immensely. She was a weird person, filled with conflicting characteristics that made her hard to define. Was she really cold and uncaring or not? A nature like that made Neleh hard to predict.
Neleh continued. “Saphery will be present us with a different challenge. They don’t have the negatives of Caledor, but they don’t have the positives either. The mages will welcome us, but the people might take longer.” She was quiet for a while. “It will take me time to integrate the changes in the new areas, and I won’t need or want more territory before that. There is one exception though. Halamshiral is something I will have to deal with sooner or later, and I’d rather get to it sooner. I also don’t have perfect control over the timing of event in that duchy.”
Nimue gave a small whistle. “Now there’s something that will cause a stir. Two of the richest duchies controlled by one faction? And one duchess controlling both the warrior and magic academies of the Eldarinwe? Yeah that will cause a stir alright. Are you aware that Saelethil, the headmaster of Rhi’a’non academy had already petitioned me for a permission to move the academy to Nan Yanoi? Apparently he feels similar to the grand magus of Saphery. According to him, there’s little point in having the most prestigious academy away from the center of magical development. That would bring three academies under your control.”
“I wasn’t aware he already mentioned it to you, but Maylin Rhys did mention he was planning it. I’m already constructing facilities near Nan Yanoi able to fit all three of the academies and much more. The facilities will be protected even more heavily than Nan Yanoi itself. I expect you will start hearing murmurs from the officer training school of the imperial army after they finish reviewing their scouting data from our battles with the Caledorians. Unlike others, the imperial army was the only party I allowed to see all the three battles we waged. Sooner or later they will realize that they need to train in tactics similar to ours, and that means coming to us to learn.” Neleh explained almost gleefully, her plans falling into place.
“You! You’re stealing our officer training as well? Ah but the army moves slowly in things like this so I still have time to spoil your carefully laid plans. What happens after Halamshiral? Surely you’ve got plans after?” Nimue asked dreading the answer.
“Nothing and everything. With Halamshiral we will have enough land and people to fulfill my purposes for a long time. I expect we will also get a lot of people moving in once they realize how much power will be centralized in our territory. After that we will have enough of a power base to prepare for the next step. You do realize that it is almost inevitable that I will become the empress after you, with the situation I envisioned? I mean I’m pretty sure that is what you agreed on with Elune to get back at me when I got you elected in the first place?” Neleh asked with a wide grin.
“So you knew?” Nimue asked back with a grin of her own. She had been pretty happy with herself, having a smaller revenge with Elune causing trouble with her appearance similar to Neleh. She had intended for Neleh to think that was the whole of her revenge, but apparently not.
“Of course I knew. If it makes you feel any better, that result was fairly inevitable even if you had not asked Elune to facilitate that. You only need to hold the fort down for ten more years or so. Then you can retire as you planned.” Neleh reassured with a small grin.
“I’ll try to hold this mess together that long. It really doesn’t help that you keep polarizing the empire around two leaders, but I suppose that will provide me with a good excuse to step down when the time comes. It was cruel enough to force me into taking the position in the first place. So what’s your plan? Both with Halamshiral and when dealing with the nobles afterwards? I’m pretty sure they will make things a mess for you.” Nimue asked with a relieved sigh. She always knew she would be a temporary empress to tide things over with the tumultuous end of the previous emperor, and until Neleh got older. Since Neleh had been young, Nimue had suspected that it was only a matter of time until the girls sharp mind would take her to the imperial throne. That suspicion had turned into certainty as time went on.
“Well, I’m planning on making the matter of Halamshiral into an inheritance dispute. The old duke will face a tragic end and his two sons and his daughter will go into a battle for the succession, I will make sure the three sides will keep a balance of sorts for a while, and then we will step in to protect the people from their familial struggles.” Neleh said, calmly confessing her plans to both facilitate murder and cause internal strife.
“That’s a little heavy handed. Won’t that deplete the wealth and people of the duchy? Not to mention all the dead people. Can’t forget all the dead people.” Nimue asked with a grimace.
“It’s not as bad as it sounds. The old duke is already sick and dying, I’ll only be hastening things up. The three kids are already drawing battle lines without any help from me. I’ll simply make sure there will be no obvious choice. My plan is to force a balance between the three in a way that will force a standoff. They can’t make move against one, out of the fear of being stabbed in the back by the other. The hardest part will be to maintain the balance.
As to the other nobles afterwards, it becomes all about politics. The fact will be though, that we will have too much power to oppose effectively. The Order will be too strong for a military solution, unless the rest of the elven race joins forces against us, and we will make sure they have no desire to do so. I have my friends, especially among the Moon Elves that really like it when another Moon Elf is ruling over large swathes of ostensibly Eldarinwe territory. It strengthens their position as well. I already have the support of the common people, and my plan is to keep increasing that support. There are already several bards going around spreading the legend of the ‘Golden Goddess of War’ that appeared in a battle against Caledor. They will also talk about how we liberated the people of Caledor from the tyrant duke.” Neleh finished with a grin.
Nimue gave a disgusted but also a little admiring grunt. “Pshaw! You’re paying storytellers. That’s a little vain.”
“Paying? My dear friend, those bards are part of the Order. They also double as spies and assassins should the situation require that. They just happen to be singing some songs and telling some tales while at it. Nothing wrong with a little propaganda. Another concept that I’m introducing that you’ll thank me for later.” Neleh said laughing openly.
“Bah! So what’s your plan when the others decide it’s time to stop playing the game of politics, and go to cloak and daggers?” Nimue asked.
“There’s a reason I’ve focused so much on ways to stop spies and assassins. Also, that’s a two way street. I have spent quite a bit of time and effort training my own cloak and dagger people. So far I’ve been careful with their application, but should they give a reason that’s a policy that can change. I’ve given ample warnings about that. That said, I would prefer it if you made a strong statement to the people that want to cause me trouble in your name. Some of them only want what’s best for you and what they think is best for the empire, and I’d rather not be forced into eliminating your people.” Neleh said making a small request.
“I’ll handle that. Speaking of succession problems, with you controlling such a large area, sooner or later it will become a problem if you have no children of your own to be your heir. It makes you and your family too much of a target.” Nimue said with small concern.
Neleh grimaced. “Let’s just say that there is some relief on that front in the future.”
“Wait, you’re pregnant? When did this happen?” Nimue asked a little shocked. She had simply wanted Neleh to make some effort to look like she was working towards an heir, like getting engaged. She hadn’t exactly expected Neleh to be that far ahead on that plan. Especially considering how little interest she had in guys.
“Not me, thank the goddess. I wasn’t completely wasting my time during the time I was gone. Elune took very good care of me.” Neleh tried hinting at the answer.
It took a moment for Nimue to understand. “Wait! You knocked boots with Elune!? I knew you two got along, but not to that extent!” The shocked voice of the former head priestess sounded, as she was grabbed by certain theological implications.