Gareth Theones glanced up from his writing as High Priest Aster stepped into his office. The Minister of the Treasury placed his quill on the table with a sigh and stretched briefly as Aster closed the door behind him. The tall, gangly, High Priest looked worn, his usually neatly trimmed grey beard unkept and his heavily embroidered robes hanging loosely. Gareth sat in his chair for some time, making eye contact with the older man in silence.
“Are you back from conversing with our Lord?” Gareth eventually asked Aster. “I heard that it had summoned you to the sky tower.”
“Yes,” Aster replied, exhaustion heavy in his voice. “The True Flame was as exuberant as always. It’s becoming more insistent that we call it ‘Al’ for some idiotic reason.”
Gareth winced. It wasn’t often that Al’Shazan called him personally to speak, that honor usually being reserved for the presiding high priest, but the last time he had entered Al’Shazan’s sanctum, it had insisted on referring to him as “Gary.” No one called him Gary, it wasn’t a nickname or a pet name, but when your living God and Emperor began calling you “Gary,” then that was your name. Having the ability to immolate you in an eyeblink or turn off the sun tended to enforce compliance in ones subjects. Of course, that hadn’t stopped Gareth from never speaking of the incident again. The inquisitors already made fun of him for his weight, he hardly needed to give them a nickname to toy with
“Well then, what did the God of All want Balthus?” Gareth questioned the other man.
“He wants to throw a party Gareth,” the priest responded massaging his temples as he sunk down into a spare chair. “A grand party complete with bards, jesters and an orgy to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of my ascension to the position of high priest.”
Gareth shook his head. The Empire was focusing its substantial economic might on the floodplains of Edra and the level of party that Al’Shazan would demand would substantially impact the reconstruction efforts. The plains had flooded, as floodplains are wont to do, and the cost of feeding and housing refugees while rebuilding the dykes holding in the Thaas river had been substantial. Unfortunately, the God of All simply would not settle for the bare minimum, as had been discovered by previous promptly deposed and tortured high priests. It would require barrels of the finest wine, cartloads of the best delicacies, and outfits designed Diyall’s greatest craftsmen. In short, one night of revelry could easily set the treasury back months.
“I suppose we can dip into the budget for the nightly festival of lights,” he began, grabbing the Empire’s master ledger from beneath his desk and flipping it open to the section detailing ongoing expenses.
“No,” Balthus interrupted, his voice even but his eyes burning. “Al’Shazan has a standing edict that the nightly festival continue at a certain level of splendor. You know the rules Gareth, we can bend his directives and interpret them inventively, but anyone who actually opposes an edict is burned at the stake. Even us.”
Gareth shuddered, his memory immediately turning to his predecessor. A kindly old man by the name of Hans, he had served the church his entire life until it was discovered that he had been setting aside some of his wealth for a mistress. Gareth was still perplexed by that decision, every member of the priesthood, including the Minister of the Treasury was a eunuch by divine decree. It just didn’t make sense to risk your life for a mistress when you didn’t have the required parts to benefit from that risk. Regardless, Hans had been burned, members of the angelic host holding him still with their inhuman clay arms while the eternal flame of Al’Shazan came down from the heavens and ignited the poor man. Hans had been a Father to him and then suddenly he was forced to watch the old man’s public execution. Hell of a way to get a promotion.
“Shit,” Gareth stated simply, Aster nodding in response. “If we can’t transfer funds from the festival, we’re going to need to raise new funding and that means calling a meeting of the triumvirate.”
“Yes.” The old priest’s reply was almost emotionless. “We’ll need to call Matthias in and quickly. I’ve been ordered to procure twenty virgins for the orgy as well. Who even knows where in the blazes I’ll find a virgin let alone twenty. The decadence of the festival of lights tends to cure anyone who comes of age of that malady in a matter of days. Also, apparently we are supposed to avoid including any ‘buzz kills’ such as ourselves from the guest list.”
“Wait, isn’t this your party?” Gareth questioned. Aster nodded, wordlessly. “And neither of us are invited?” He continued, Aster confirming his query with another nod.
“What an asshole.” Gareth stated, slumping back into his chair.
“I know,” Balthus replied listlessly. “I have to say, I’m not terribly excited for another meeting with Matthias. I’ve had enough of that wild eyed fanatic for a lifetime, and we both know that any funding is going to have to come from the Edra project because Matthias will refuse to deprive his precious Inquisitors of a single bent copper piece that they could be using to ‘stoke the flames of faith higher.’”
Gareth winced. Balthus wasn’t wrong. The Church and Empire, while nominally ruled by Al’Shazon, were more practically governed by the Triumvirate: the reigning high priest, the minister of the treasury, and the knight-commander of the inquisition. The high priest handled the actual management of the Empire and the Church while the minister of the treasury handled the receipt of taxes, tariffs and tithes and managed the budget generally. The knight-commander of the inquisition was in charge of the Church and Empire’s military forces, both internal and external. The inquisition existed to ensure that the Church did not grow corrupt or impious, while the crusaders fought to defend the Empire from the ravages of the deceiver’s demons as well as to bring barbarians to the light of the faith. Barbarians of course being anyone who believed in anything else but Al’Shazan’s greatness regardless of how cultured their civilization might be.
Unfortunately, dealing with Matthias, the Knight-Commander of the inquisition would be a chore. Most of the higher ranks of the Church had some idea of Al’Shazan’s… eccentric nature, but unfortunately Matthias was absolutely a true believer. For reasons unknown, the man was convinced that every action taken by Al’Shazan was part of some eternal plan to create a perfect world free of suffering or some other such nonsense despite repeated evidence, sometimes in the form of Al’Shazan’s own words, to the contrary.
Now, it wasn’t uncommon for the priests to preach about Al’Shazan’s benevolence and his love for all of his citizens, great or small. It would be terribly hard to rule an Empire that was aware that its rulers was a mercurial but omnipotent tyrant. Constant revolts and low morale from the laboring classes didn’t really do all that much in the long run except to annoy the fickle God, and that annoyance was usually rewarded liberally with with brimstone from the sky. It really was for their own good that the clergy wrapped the God of All in enough myths and stories that the average citizen saw it as an omnipresent and paternal entity. Every time something especially awful happened such as a flood, famine or barbarian invasion, a story was concocted to explain how it was actually in the people’s best interests. Maybe the barbarians were there to punish the Empire for a pocket of heresy, or there was a famine to weed out and expose corruption in the church. The Edra flood had been explained away as the God clearing the way for new improvement and construction.
Luckily, Al’Shazan found all of these stories hilarious to the point that Gareth suspected that they encouraged him to inflict more disasters on the Empire solely to see what fable Aster would spin to the masses. In general, the God found great amusement in the cynicism of the upper echelons of the Church. Well, at least to a point. Once a priest reached a certain level, a mentor would take them aside and relate the history of the three rebellions; attempts by the greatest heroes, priests and wizards of the land to overthrow Al’Shazan’s tyranny. None of them ended well. Gareth shuddered just remembering the oral histories. Al’Shazan may be fickle and an asshole, but it wasn’t joking about its power. The stories spoke of the God just laughing as the rebels greatest spells rebounded off of it before turning mountains into seas and unleashing the celestial host. Even the host was ridiculously powerful, spirits with the power of an archbishop or an archmagi powering tireless flying clay golems. Supposedly the noble but dead rebels of yore had managed to defeat a couple of the beings, but even defeating them just returned the spirit to Al’Shazan to await a newly forged clay body. In short, rebellion was an impossibility and a death sentence for the rebel as well as anyone within the near vicinity of them. Brimstone tended to be a bit indiscriminate.
Unfortunately, some members of the Church believed every word and explanation of the doctrine. Even more unfortunately, one of those members was Knight-Commander Matthias Samuels. A simple and pious man with a distressing tendency to resort to extreme violence and torture in the face of situations he didn’t understand. To whit, most of them. Over the past couple of years, the priesthood had really thinned out due to Matthias’ rather overzealous definition of heresy. Again, anything he didn’t understand.
Really the only place where Gareth and the Godking were in agreement was Matthias. According to High Priest Aster, Al’Shazan found the man to be intense and creepy. A fair assessment if Gareth had ever heard of one. The man spent money like it was water, and as far as Gareth could tell, over half of the people he had tortured for minor sins or murdered for heresy were flat out innocent. Keeping the budget balanced with him around was an absolute nightmare, at least partially because he kept having Gareth’s clerks beaten for the sin of ‘miserliness.’
“Are you going to summon him or do I have to?” Gareth finally replied. “My clerks are all terrified of him and it’s absolutely hell to find someone who will actually deliver a letter to his office ever since he had poor Carmichael beaten for the ‘sin of slovenliness.’”
“It’s fine,” Aster waved his hand absently. “He has to listen to me so he’s a lot less of an ass to my staff, but my real concern is how we’re going to put together the budget for the gala or whatever Al’Shazan is about to order me to call it.”
Gareth began paging through the ledger while absently fiddling with his pen. Thanks to the Edra disaster, things were tight this year. Most of the discretionary budget, usually money set aside to sate Al’Shazan’s mercurial whims, had already been spent on snow removal in the Lyles pass as well as disaster relief in the Edra region. It was possible that they could transfer the money from the Edra projects by just feeding and housing the refugees and not properly rebuilding the flood walls and cities, but the public story was still that the flood took place to clear the way for infrastructure improvements. A story that would hardly hold up if the Church never actually put in infrastructure improvements.
“We’re really low on options,” the treasurer stated simply as he closed the ledger. “All I can think of is skimping on the Edra project or bringing in new revenue from somewhere, but it’s still months from the harvest so I don’t know if a special tax will do the trick.”
“Taxes are probably a no go,” Aster leaned forward, stroking his beard idley, “but that’s not the only way of getting money. We need to keep Matthias occupied anyway or half of Diyall will be burned at the stake. Maybe we can aim him at the upper classes, have him collect ‘forfeitures’ as part of their punishment for sinfulness. He’s been annoying as the blaze lately with his focus on the sin of ‘miserliness’ every time we won’t allocate his crusaders money for something shiny and useless. Maybe if we direct him towards some of the more entrenched noble factions and let slip that ‘miserliness’ applies to accumulated wealth even more than it applies to earnings, he might actually make himself useful for once. I feel like we can sell Matthias on the idea so long as we let him keep a percentage of whatever he collects and, maybe if we’re really lucky, he’ll piss off someone powerful enough to have him assassinated.”
“That really could work,” Gareth replied nodding to himself. “I know that the Tybans, Rosewoods, and Stallswarths have been doing very well recently. I’m pretty sure they’ve been lying on their taxes and artificially raising prices on the materials we need for the Edra rebuild anyway. Maybe if we point Matthias in their direction he can scare them enough that they will actually start to toe the line.”
“There we go,” Aster responded with a smile. “I’m glad we can come to an agreement on the matter. I know the Edra reconstruction is important to you, and it’s good to be on the same page as the other free thinker on the triumvirate. Next time I swing by we really must have a match of tinall.”
Gareth waived the priest away from his office with a chuckle. The man was always suggesting that they play tinall, a board game focused on strategic thinking and deception, but he knew better. Aster was a bit of a cranky old shit, and he had an unpleasant tendency to only show up when trouble was brewing, but he had one of the finest minds in the Empire. Nobody beat him at tinall and the old bastard positively reveled in stomping other members of the clergy. Supposedly he had beaten Al’Shazan so badly at the game the one time they played it that he hadn’t been summoned to talk to the God for a full month. That month was the happiest he had ever seen the old man.