“He did what?” Gareth slowly questioned his assistant, massaging his temples. The least she could have done was to wait until after lunch to give him bad news. After years of service to the Church in a rather austere and mirthless role, his one true joy was eating. Being interrupted in the middle of a positively divine pheasant roast really should have been made a crime long ago.

“Knight-Commander Samuelson initiated a daytime raid on the Tyban, Rosewood, and Stallswarth estates,” she replied, seemingly unperturbed by the gravity of her news and its timing. “The Tyban and Stallswarth families resisted openly and over one hundred crusaders died in addition to most of the individuals resided at the Tyban and Stallswarth estates. The surviving individuals are in custody on suspicion of heresy. The Rosewoods outwardly complied with the raid, but only branch members of the family were arrested and only a quarter of their projected treasury was seized. It is strongly suspected that the rest of the family has gone outlaw, but we don’t know where they are or how much of their fighting force escaped.”

Gareth sighed and put down his fork. That fucking idiot Matthias had finally done it. The plan had always been to simply arrest the heads of the families, find some useful scapegoats, torture them and seize a portion of the families’ assets to fund the budget shortfall. He had explained everything to the dimwit’s assistant, Paul, but then he had arrested and tortured the poor man. Before Aster could intervene to fix the situation, Samuels struck out violently against the Church’s most vocal critics. There was a very real chance that his actions had instigated an open rebellion against the Church. Hopefully the entire matter could be dealt with before Al’Shazan caught wind of it. The God only knew how to respond to disloyalty with blood and fire. Fairly indiscriminately. The Ember Palace would probably survive the beings rage, but Diyall would certainly be burned to the ground. Again.

“I don’t suppose the Knight-Commander has done anything by way of damage control?” he asked his oblivious assistant as evenly as possible.

“The Knight-Commander issued a proclamation stating that the Tyban and Sallswarth’s resistance was proof of their guilt,” she replied as Gareth sank back into his chair, groaning openly. “He went further and announced that he would be performing an audit of the finances in every noble house, and any whose finances he didn’t understand would be arrested en masse on suspicion of the sin of miserliness.”

“But he can’t read!” Gareth shouted, slamming his hands on the table. “He won’t understand any of their finances because he literally thinks that accounting and economics are branches of Witchcraft. This isn’t an exaggeration. I asked him and he told me that to my face.”

“Surely it can’t be that bad Ser,” she began, “the Knight-Commander’s investigative acumen is well known across Diyall. As everyone says, only the guilty need fear the inquisition.”

“Lily,” Gareth said slowly, trying to calm himself while gritting his teeth. “First, please let High Priest Aster know that I need to see him immediately. Surely you realize that everyone that enters the Chamber of Truth confesses, guilty or not. The Knight-Commander is about to start an absolute bloodbath.”

“But Ser,” Lily cocked her head at Gareth, confused by his response. “He only arrests those who are guilty, all of bards say that. My favorite two songs about him are ‘The Greatest Investigator What Ever Lived’ and the ‘Ice Blue Eyes of Justice.’ When we’re off duty all of the girls talk about how intense he is. It’s just a shame he’s so devoted to his job or he’d be mobbed every time he left the palace..”

“What?” Gareth simply stared at her in disbelief. She was so terribly earnest. Even now, she was trying to meet his eyes with an eager smile. If he didn’t know any better, Gareth would have to believe that she was trying to cheer him up by complimenting Matthias.

“The Knight-Commander always gets his man Minister,” she nodded enthusiastically. “I’ve watched every play and puppet show based upon his career. He’s so handsome. Did you know that every single person he’s arrested has confessed? My friends and I think that he’s blessed by the One True God itself to only pursue and arrest the guilty. It’s the only explanation we could come up with.”

“Second,” Gareth interrupted, staring at his pheasant roast, appetite forgotten. “Please process the paperwork to fire yourself for gross incompetence. I pay those bards. You’ve seen the ledgers. It costs a lot of money to keep those idiotic rumors running.”

She stared at him blankly for a second before her eyes moistened and she ran out of Gareth’s office. A shame really, she was quite pretty in a wholesome sort of way. It was just a pity that she irredeemably stupid.

He stood up after Lily left, glancing forlornly at the pheasant roast. She had only been his assistant for the last couple of months after Matthias had the last one tortured, but he still thought she was more sensible than to believe the idiotic rumors he had planted about the Knight-Commander. Frankly, the only person of importance dumb enough to believe the bards stories should have been Matthias himself.

As much as it galled him, Gareth knew that the peasants couldn’t know how bloodthirsty and utterly senseless the inquisition had become. For some reason, the huddled masses didn’t take kindly to finding out that the world was an unfair, petty and ultimately brutal place. No, in the end the Church would have to tell lies and he would have to finance them. They needed to know that Al’Shazan was a knowledgeable and benevolent entity watching over the Empire rather than a hedonistic and impulsive simpleton, so he made sure of it. They needed to know that the inquisition was a tool of justice, smiting corruption and protecting the common man, so he made sure of it.

Really, the entire thing was more of Balthus’ bag. The old priest reveled in tricking everyone. From dawn to dusk Blathus would play games of shadows and lies to try and confuse people into doing what was best for the Empire out of their pride or self interest. The entire thing just tired Gareth. Really, he wanted to be left to his ledgers and a nice quiet dinner, but everyone seemed intent on causing problems. The nobles wanted more power, the peasants wanted more food, the barbarians wanted more land, and the crusaders wanted some grand war against the demons of the deceiver.

It was all so minor and petty. The nobles were afforded some power by the Church, but really, how much power could they even have in an autocratic theocracy devoted to a revealed and very active God? The peasants wanted more land cleared to farm, but the minute they were given excess food they just kept having children and before long the Empire was at capacity again. One bad crop later, and the entire lower class would be embroiled in a famine, blaming the deceiver for the problems wrought by their inability to control their lust. At least the barbarians and the crusaders could be pit against each other. Just give the soldiers some money and they worked out their bloodlust by killing off a bunch of nomads.

He exited his office at a slow walk. When he was younger and thinner, Gareth might have traversed the hallways of the Ember Palace briskly and with a sense of purpose, but after a certain amount of time a kind of lethargy set in. He was heavier both physically and emotionally now. Years ago, every problem seemed so urgent. They needed to be solved now or the entire Empire would collapse around him. He had thought himself a hero, one of only a handful of people who could hold the line against the chaos and poor budgetary practices of an Empire gone mad. Now, he realized that nothing could get solved overnight. Any extra effort on his part would be erased by some lower level functionaries taking their time in processing the necessary paperwork. There was no emergency, and he would get where he was going in due time. Preferably without the indignity of being soaked with sweat and heaving for breath.

Finally, he arrived at his destination, the Imperial Endowment for Art and Music. The Endowment was one of his favorite creations. Not because of a love for sculpture, painting, theater or the opera. As far as Gareth was concerned, they were all just frivolous expenses. No, it was because artisans were everywhere. A noble that had three taste testers devoted to every bite of food and a dozen guards searching every vagrant and merchant that came within a hundred yards of their estate would let a renowned painter into her home once a day for a month to paint a portrait. Bards filled every inn across the Empire, dirtying the air with their pipes, lutes, and accordions. Even puppet shows, begging clipped coppers from common children in dirty villages, everything was funded by the endowment. At this point, their artistic endeavors were a distant second to Imperial artists’ true purpose. They were in the perfect vehicle to gather a cross section of information across the Empire.

The theater and opera on the other hand, were an amazing tool to change public opinion. The peasant paying a handful of copper to see a play about noble knights and priests would be influenced just as surely as a noble paying a full gold to sit through an opera about star-crossed lovers tragically abandoning their love out of duty to the Empire. The best however, were the bards. Put together a catchy tune and pay enough vagabonds with instruments to sing them in taverns and you could construct an epic tale out of whole cloth.

Over the years, the endowment had evolved from a small hobby project of Gareth’s predecessor into the pre-eminent information gathering and control organ in the Empire. Technically the inquisition had its spies and the priesthood had whatever nefarious collection of bribed and blackmailed informants Balthus kept cobbled together at the center of his web of power, but none of them even approached the scale of the endowment. Across the Empire, almost every artist received money from the endowment, and all of them met with their ‘grant agents’ at least once a month. The ‘grant agents’ gathered information from the wide ranging network and fed it back to the Ember Palace while also disseminating endowment sponsored songs, operas, and plays.

At some point, Balthus had started coming to Gareth for information or to spread a salacious rumor. At first, it had made Gareth proud, to be in the thick of the deep workings of government. These days, it just seemed like yet another chore and he couldn’t help but consider the possibility that Balthus had manipulated him into setting up the network just so that the cagey priest wouldn’t have to deal with the day to day headache of managing it himself. That would be like Balthus. The man was a true leader, frustratingly adept at making others do his dirty work.

Gareth opened the door and nodded to the receptionist. The man simply nodded back, studiously not taking note of Gareth’s presence as was appropriate Gareth wasn’t here after all. He was still in his office enjoying a mouth-watering lunch of pheasant. Everyone but Lily knew not to interrupt him during lunch, so there was little chance that any of the Church’s many spies would know where exactly he had gone. Gareth sighed again. He really missed that pheasant.

Passing through the bustling office, he opened the ornate cherry wood door to the director’s chambers. The director herself, Anne Bosteel, was engrossed in some paperwork, probably a grant application or report from an agent. It really was a shame that he had to give up his balls to join the Church because she was absolutely gorgeous. At one point, Anne had been the star soprano of the Diyall Royal Opera and men had come from far and wide to woo her. Her looks had diminished slightly with age since she retired from singing, but even in her late forties, she was still incredibly alluring. He was unsure if she dyed her hair to keep it the same blue-lack as her eyes, but natural or chemical, the look was quite impressive.

Of course, her appearance was window dressing on a mind as sharp as a razor and per palace rumors, served to distract would be suitors from a collection of much more mundane and practical razors. Gareth knew for a fact that she was personally responsible for at least six high profile assassinations and she was suspected of masterminding or being involved in at least another two dozen more. Even in her opera days, a handful of would be suitors had gotten too fresh with her and had ended up in Gareth’s predicament. Forever a window shopper, able to appreciate her transcendent beauty but forevermore unable to act upon it.

“Minister Theones,” she said looking up. “I presume you have come to discuss the Knight-Commander’s recent actions. He has certainly agitated the nobles if that was his goal.”

“Goal?” Gareth asked with a snort as he plopped his heavy frame into an overstuffed velvet chair. “Does an earthquake have a goal? What about a tsunami? The man is a narcissistic natural disaster. He serves no real purpose but to plague the rest of us as we try to actually accomplish things.”

“But didn’t High Priest Aster just give a speech about the grand purpose behind the flooding of the Edra valley?” Anne asked him in return, her face studiously blank as a grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. “I seem to recall dispersing agents on your orders to convince skeptical refugees that every recent disaster was all part of some great divine plan.”

“Oh shut up Anne,” he replied tiredly. “Just don’t tell me that I have a civil war on my hands after that idiot’s stunt today.”

The silence dragged on.

“Is someone actually thinking of” Gareth began, only to be interrupted by Anne.

“You told me not to tell if there was going to be a civil war,” she responded smugly.

“Who?” Gareth closed his eyes, trying to will away the oncoming headache.

“Well the Rosewoods for one,” Anne replied quickly and professionally. “Samuels didn’t actually get any of them and for some reason he didn’t really follow up on it. They know that they are on his list for the sin of ‘fleeing justice’ so they really don’t have a whole lot to lose. They brought their chamber quartet with them into exile, Lady Rosewood couldn’t live without them apparently, so we know where they are hiding. It’s an estate in the Dushmeer Mountains. Already they’ve sent out at least fifteen couriers, likely to try to marshal support.”

Gareth grunted and didn’t open his eyes. Lady Evelyn Rosewood was a wiley fox. It took him years of going through her finances to find any hints of financial impropriety, and she wouldn’t take Matthias’ blustering laying down. The noble houses of the Empire were each allowed to maintain a house guard, but none of them were truly strong militarily. Instead, their influence was the real problem. Over their centuries of existence, the houses had built up substantial treasuries and webs of favors and blackmail information. Probably every fifth priest was either taking money or being extorted by some family. The simple fact of the matter was that the Church was almost completely corrupt, and despite Matthias’ rabid hunt for sin he was simply barking at shadows rather than confronting the very real problems facing the Empire.

Conflict amongst the nobles could happen openly as they all had personal guards of comparable sizes, but revolt against the Empire itself would have to take a different form. Due to the omnipresent corruption and political power of the noble families, it was still very possible for them to undermine things from the inside to the point that operations ground to a halt. It had never been a terribly complicated matter to ensure that orders got sent to the wrong location or that reports ‘accidentally’ missed essential details. Both Anne and Gareth were responsible for political sabotage on that level more times than he could tally, and Gareth was quite good at counting. Of course, it was also possible that some members of Matthias’ personal guard might ‘forget’ to post guards on a specific night and the odious man might end up dying of natural causes. After all, it is perfectly natural to die after being decapitated.

That would be a delicious irony though. Matthias finally brought down by the rampant corruption that he was too stupid to fight. Unfortunately, if things got that far, there was a very real chance that Church operations would break down to the point that Al’Shazan would notice. Gareth shuddered. He vastly preferred living in a city not made of smoking cinders. The impulsive God had a nasty tendency to take rebellion personally and his responses were invariably very flashy and fatal.

“It sounds like the Dushmaas, Fehl, Broadwine, and Sweetstar houses are likely to throw in with them,” Anne continued clinically. “Obviously the remains of the Tybans and the Stallwarths have already sworn revenge. In short, every major house is just short of open revolt and from what I’m hearing, the only reason the minor houses haven’t joined them is that they honestly don’t think that Matthias realizes that they exist.”

“They’re probably right,” Gareth replied, finally opening his eyes. “Is there any chance we can sway public opinion on this? Make it sound like a righteous purge of the unjust and corrupt? Maybe spread some of the usual high drama rumors of young lords ravishing unattended peasant women?”

“Ravishing?” she quirked an eyebrow at him. “What is it with the masses and and ravishing? Every story you have me tell the general public is about some sort of pure maiden being set upon by a misshapen powerful man. Usually with a distressing amount of detail paid to the appearance of the woman. I still don’t know what ‘breasts firm but supple, beautiful like clouds’ are actually supposed to be and by my count you’ve written that phrase into at least four plays and somehow, despite its lack of flow or rhyme, two songs. I’m beginning to suspect that you have some sort of complex. Should I be worried for the virtue of my secretarial pool?”

“My dear, if I were twenty years younger,” he shook his head wistfully.

“And if you had your balls,” she helpfully supplied.

“And yes, if I had my balls,” Gareth continued cheerfully. “There’s nothing like purple prose and the despoiling of virtuous maidens to arise the interests of young men. The stories work them into a lather and then they all go off to war where they die and I don’t have to pay for their food anymore. It’s all terribly romantic.”

“Even if you had your balls, you really aren’t my type,” Anne squinted slightly as she sized him up. “About four inches too short and another four too wide.”

“Anne, you do realize that I’m your boss right?” Gareth asked with a sigh. “I mean, I do employ you and authorize your budget. I am joking around with you right now, but you don’t have to be so mean to me about it. I could have you fired for insubordination or heresy or something of that nature.”

“We’ve been over this,” she continued tonelessly. “You don’t have the balls for it.”

Gareth opened his mouth to reply and then just stopped. After Matthias ruined a perfectly good lunch by starting a civil war, he just didn’t have the energy for Anne’s one woman comedy routine anymore. She was beyond competent as a spymaster, or he would have had her disposed of long ago for her awful sense of humor. Well, he would have tried at least. There’s a very good chance that anyone sent to remove her would simply disappear and she would still be in the same office doing the same job on the following day while pretending that nothing had happened.

“Very good Anne,” he replied, “now tell me what we can do about the situation with the nobles. Is there anything we can do to ameliorate it or at the very minimum try to keep the masses unaware of it? If we have to wage some sort of shadow war with the noble houses, that isn’t great but it isn’t the end of the world, but if things boil over into an open confrontation it might end up being the end of the world in a distressingly literal sense.”

“I think we’re in trouble,” she said emotionlessly while shrugging. “Most of the noble houses invest heavily in philanthropy. They have their names plastered all over any number of public works and the average peasant loves them. At this point, every third orphanage, free clinic and food pantry loudly proclaims its noble sponsorship. They may not be as good as us, but they’ve been waging a public relations campaign to maintain their reputation for decades. We can try to stir up some ire or suspicion against them, but we’ve spent years trying to prop them up through the endowment after the Ester March peasant revolt.”

Gareth winced. The Ester March incident had been a nasty affair. The Empire had just acquired the March after a prolonged battle with a nomadic barbarian tribe, and some Duchess or the other had dispatched her pampered son to set up a branch estate there. After only a year, he had committed a laundry list of minor atrocities and the formerly pacified peasants burned down the estate and murdered the young lord before marching on a nearby territory to ‘free it from the clutches of the greedy nobles.’ They had to send the crusaders back in and make an example of the public in a rather nauseating display of savagery and butchery. The endowment was forced to spend a considerable amount of resources ‘creatively reassessing’ the facts of the campaign to highlight the bravery of the soldiers to prevent the unrest from spreading any further.

“I think it’s all too little too late,” Anne continued, “The only real good news is that the noble houses don’t actually want to revolt, they’re just justifiably scared of the Knight-Commander. He’s backed them into a corner and they don’t know what they can do to get out of it. If we can give them a way out, I think everyone but the Tybans and the Stallswarths will jump at the chance, and we can crush what remains of the Tybans and the Sallswarths if necessary”

“Do we at least have some spies in the inquisition?” Gareth questioned with a bone deep sigh. “I know that Matthias is as impulsive as a teenager, drunk for the first time, but I would at least like to have some forewarning before he pulls some kind of stupid stunt like this.”

“His assistant Paul was our last one,” Anne shuffled through her files, frowning slightly. “Anyone smart enough to be a proper agent gets accused of some sin, usually ‘proper diction’ or something equally inane. We tried sending in incompetent spies thinking they would blend in better, but that didn’t work either. Our last one actually got caught writing a report on the Knight-Commander’s activities before getting tortured.”

“Wait,” the blood drained from Gareth’s face, “that psychopath knows that we’re spying on him? You do realize that he’ll find some excuse to kill both of us, right?”

“Relax Gareth,” she finally set down her files before giving him a rakish grin. “The Knight-Commander himself caught the agent. He couldn’t even read the report, he just found the illustrations and the quantity of writing ‘sinful.’ It appears that he had the report wrapped around the agents face and burned without anyone actually bothering to read it. A fairly standard punishment by the inquisition for those who indulge in the written word.”

“I really need to talk to Balthus,” he replied, gagging slightly. “Matthias has always been out of control, but this is just getting ridiculous. This Empire has stood for hundreds of years since the last time that Al’Shazan burned it down, and I really would prefer if my legacy was something other than inviting the God of All’s flames.”

“Suit yourself,” Anne answered with an indifferent shrug. “I’ve seen what goes on outside of the palace. All consuming flames seem like a pretty measured response to me.”


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About the author

Cocop (Cale Plamann)

Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night

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